The 2012 Juno Awards: Ho Ho Humbug
Critical success and commercial success are rarely in tune in the music business, which is why the 2012 Junos should be applauded for its harmony. For every Hedley or Down with Webster nomination, there seemed to be equal attention paid to lesser-known, high-calibre talents like Braids, Jenn Grant and Hey Rosetta! Only one note was off-key: Album of the Year.
Not to take away from Michael Buble's obvious talent, but his holiday album, Christmas, was a far cry from last year's winner, Arcade Fire's The Suburbs. Covering I'll Be Home for Christmas does not an Album of the Year make.
Buble's competition was: another Christmas album, Under the Mistletoe, by Justin Bieber; Goodbye Lullabye, a sub-par effort from punk princess Avril Lavigne; Here and Now, a predictable Nickelback outing (hey, at least Chad Kroeger didn't write a Christmas album); and Take Care, Drake's juggernaut hip-hop affair. With the notable exception of Take Care, this pack was inferior to dozens of albums nominated in other categories.
But that's the catch for Album of the Year. It's all about the money. The nominees are the top five Canadian bestsellers (out of those albums submitted).
Related: Check out Juno's best and worst moments, rate the fashions and see the winners.
To be fair, only nine of 41 Juno categories have any basis in sales (most are selected by jury and/or members of the Canadian Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences). And that's good news for those in favour of honouring artistic merit.
And the Junos do deserve high praise on that account this year. Wins by the likes of The Sheepdogs (New Group of the Year, Rock Album) and Vancouver singer-songwriter Dan Mangan (Alternative Album, New Artist of the Year), truly honoured the best and brightest in the country.
But the genre-album nominees and winners - from alternative to electronic - also make a music fan wonder what might have been. Arguably, any number of them is more deserving of the title "best album" than Buble's holiday-tune collection. Beyond The Sheepdogs and Mangan's releases, nominees such as Sloan, Ron Sexsmith or Blue Rodeo's Jim Cuddy all would have made deserving nominees for the top award. And Feist's Metals (winner for Adult Alternative Album) would have been a shoo-in contender for top dog without the sales requisite. (Speaking of, how does a system that also awarded Feist Artist of the Year, without a nod for best overall album, truly make sense?)
Very rarely do commerce and art intersect as well as they did in 2011, in which Arcade Fire won both the Juno for best album and the Polaris Prize, the annual Canadian honour for top album based solely on quality.
So what's the remedy?
One potential solution would be to create a new award - Chart Topper of the Year, or the Billboard Album of the Year, perhaps? - that recognizes the undeniable success of the Canadian artist with the highest sales. That, of course, would allow for the Album of the Year race to be blown wide open to any challenger.
Such a move wouldn't suddenly make the category a rich man's Polaris Prize, chock full of largely indie artists many Canadians haven't heard of. If such a system were in place, Drake's album would likely still have been a contender this year. The same goes for your average non-holiday-themed Buble album. And for all the criticism and mockery often thrown young Mr. Bieber's way, he is clearly very talented. He has the skills to transform into a Justin Timberlake in his post-teen career. (Bieber's own Justified-esque album is likely coming in the next decade and certainly won't need sales to justify a nod.)
Awarding Album of the Year solely on merit would legitimize the honour. Conversely, it might even increase the profile of the Polaris Prize, making it akin to early film critics' awards, or the Golden Globes, which can often influence Oscar's best-picture race.
In other pop-culture realms, artistic merit is at least given its due in the top category. Oscar winners like The Artist and The Hurt Locker would be dead in the water if there were a Top 5 ticket-sales requirement; in the TV world, a ratings-driven formula would likely mean a grand total of zero awards for critically acclaimed, small-audience shows like Mad Men, Breaking Bad and 30 Rock.
In a year in which so many Juno genre winners also deserved the title Album of the Year, it would have made for a fascinating, opinionated race.
In 2013, Leonard Cohen's Old Ideas is probably the early favourite for Album of Year (it would likely qualify, whether judged through sales or artistic merit). But it would be nice to give him some real competition. Imagine seeing the Ladies' Man himself go up against some early, superb 2012 releases, such as albums from Montreal's Plants and Animals, The Weakerthans, electro-pop sensation Grimes, and singer-songwriter Kathleen Edwards.
The Junos had 99 first-time nominees this year, so it's clearly doing something very right. A more authentic Album of the Year category would simply be the cherry on top.
Oh, and while we're at it, maybe we also need a Christmas album category. I don't want to take away from the many who'd like to meet Mr. Bieber Under the Mistletoe, or bring Buble home for Christmas.