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Music writer Sarah Liss on the Polaris Heritage Prize winners that blazed our musical landscape’s trail

It’s not always easy to identify a trailblazer – at least, it’s not always easy to do so at the precise moment that they’re blazing a trail. In music, the chief innovators are rarely, if ever, the characters who play the loudest or chart the highest. Being a pop pioneer has a lot to do with serendipity, with circumstance, and with a somewhat magical confluence of factors that result in certain work coming to stand as an enduring statement from a particular era. And talent, of course. To be a true trailblazer, talent should seep from your pores and surround you like an aura.

Take Canada’s aural landscape: Over the years, it’s been exquisitely, irrevocably shaped by a prairie-bred painter who found her voice in an iron lung while recovering from polio; a cabal of siblings (and their close pal) who concocted a crystalline fusion of country, blues and slow-burning soul; some shaggy Haligonians whose offbeat sensibility and chiming guitars kickstarted an indie explosion; and a fierce, fearless provocateur who found salvation in unabashedly raunchy electro-punk.

There are others, too, but these four iconic acts – Joni Mitchell, Cowboy Junkies, Sloan and Peaches – are responsible for the four iconic albums – Blue, The Trinity Session, Twice Removed and The Teaches of Peaches – that have been chosen as the inaugural winners of The Slaight Family Polaris Heritage Prize. The precedent-setting award was decided by a public vote based on a long list determined by a jury of critics, historians and music experts. Each of these releases has been selected as the most remarkable recording from its respective era, based solely on its artistic merit.

This is a bold – dare we say, trailblazing – honour, one that recognizes the eclectic and envelope-pushing albums that reinvented our conception of Canadian music over the decades. Taken together, the first batch of The Slaight Family Polaris Heritage Prize winners represent the breadth and depth of what our national anthems could – and should – be.