Ranking the Nominees for the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame: It’s a BIG Tent…

After a year like we’ve never seen, the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame is trying to get back to business…somewhat. The COVID pandemic that wreaked havoc on last year’s system is beginning to subside, which allows the Rock Hall to move forward with its activities. Along with those changes, however, the Rock Hall is showing that they’re spreading a BIG tent to cover their activities.

First, those changes. In 2019, the Class of 2020 was named and they would have been inducted in ceremonies in April of that year. Because of the pandemic, however, their induction was delayed until November, when it became a virtual party held on HBO. The Rock Hall used this delay to finally get all activities for a given year under a “calendar year” setting – nominations in February, name the class in May, induct in November – that should help in the future.

The changes aren’t just in the timing of certain mileposts on the way to naming the Class of 2021, either. This will be the first year that John Sykes, the former founder of MTV and current executive at iHeart Radio, will serve as the chairman of the Rock Hall. The original chairman and founder of the Rock Hall, Jann Wenner of Rolling Stone fame, resigned from the lead of the organization in January of last year. So, it is now Sykes’ ship to sail and, if the list of nominees for 2021 is any indication, he’s already putting his mark on the building.

For 2021, there are 16 nominees under consideration by the 1000-member strong Voting Committee, made up of the living members of the Rock Hall and a contingent of knowledgeable music veterans – musicians, label executives, historians, journalists, DJs, managers and the Fan Vote, who adds in one vote with the Top Five vote getters from their polling. These votes will be tabulated and, in May, the Rock Hall will announce five or six of these artists as the Class of 2021. They will also probably add at least one more inductee from their non-voting wings of the Rock Hall – the Ahmet Ertegun Award for non-musical industry influencers, the Award for Musical Excellence (formerly the Sidemen category) and the Early Influencers. The AME hasn’t been awarded since 2017, so it is probably due for an inductee.

Without further ado, I present my ranking of the nominees for this year’s honors, but I do have a caveat. My personal feeling on the artist DOES NOT impact whether they will get in or not. In some cases, they will probably get in despite my personal thoughts!

Let’s begin, from the bottom to the top!

16. Dionne Warwick – For the life of me, I’ve been trying to figure out how and why Warwick merited nomination to the Rock Hall. Yes, she’s had an excellent career that dates to the 60s. Yes, she’s recorded a couple of nice songs. But NONE of what she did was what you might call “groundbreaking” or “innovative.” She has a pleasant but not outstanding voice…hell, she doesn’t even have the best voice in her family (that honor would go to her cousin, Whitney Houston). And her best work was in collaborations and rarely on her own talent. This just reeks of “industry insider” BS, and that is not a reason to put someone in the Rock Hall.

15. Fela Kuti – To be brutally honest, I actually said “Who?” when he was announced, then zipped over to Wikipedia to learn more about him. He is a truly amazing individual who took on human rights and political abuses in Nigeria and created his own style of music – Afrobeat. If he is inducted, he would be the first African inductee into the Rock Hall.

With this said, I don’t see it. He had some influence on Talking Heads and Peter Gabriel, among others, but to say he was a seminal part of rock history would be an incredible stretch. Once again, with this said, he is probably going to be inducted. The Roots’ ?uestlove, who is on the Nomination Committee, has long been an advocate for Fela to be honored. Someone with the power of ?uestlove does not use his power to get you nominated unless he is going to use that same power to get you inducted.

14. Mary J. Blige – Definitely one of the preeminent female vocalists in R&B, but I tried to think of one song that she did that just blew me away. I came up with blanks. If they had used this nomination on Queen Latifah, then it would be much higher on the list. Blige seems like a “OK, she got a nomination – that’s enough” selection.

13. Chaka Khan – There have been several attempts to get Khan in with the band she was a part of, Rufus, and those efforts to this point have failed. This is wrong because the band, including Khan, deserves induction. Taken by itself, Khan’s solo career isn’t filled with material that stops you in your tracks.

12. Devo – The Rock Hall has an exceedingly difficult time with several genres. Funk, hard rock/metal and singer/songwriters are a few, but another would be electronic music. To this day, Kraftwerk is still waiting for the call to join in the Rock Hall (outside of Rick Wakeman and maybe Keith Emerson, has anyone used keyboards better?), and I do not expect there to be more love for Devo’s approach. The recently retired Daft Punk is sitting in the shadows watching this one.

11. Carole King – I personally think this is a more sentimental choice by the Rock Hall than a quality one. King’s masterful work, Tapestry, is celebrating its 50th anniversary in 2021 and King is therefore getting more attention. But what did King do outside of Tapestry that made her a monumental figure in the history of rock? She’s already in the Rock Hall, a recipient of the Ahmet Ertegun Award with her songwriting partner Gerry Goffin, some would say that should be the extent of her recognition. Alas, don’t be surprised if she is voted in as a performer come May.

10. Tina Turner – If Turner wasn’t already in the Rock Hall with Ike, then I would be wholeheartedly behind this and it would be ranked much higher. But the tumultuous relationship between Ike and Tina is one that she would probably like to forget, and the Rock Hall would not be at all upset to get away from. Her 80s stylings were a complete departure from her previous heyday, so perhaps a second induction is appropriate for Turner.

9. LL Cool J – Someone who should have been in a lot sooner than this. The man known as James Smith has got another issue that he is going to have to deal with, however. There’s another rapper on the list who is all but a shoo-in to be inducted (more on that in a moment). But LL Cool J is being considered before a whole host of influential rappers that arguably should have been chosen first, including Eric B. & Rakim, Afrika Bambaataa, DJ Kool Herc and Coke La Rock. That’s going to hurt his chances too.

8. Todd Rundgren – There’s a reason that Rundgren is this low on the totem pole. In recent interviews, the multimedia wizard has basically given The Bird to the Rock Hall, stating that it meant nothing to him to be inducted. The Rock Hall has absolutely no problem in abiding by the wishes of those that it is looking to honor – several years ago, Chubby Checker put a full-page ad in many trade magazines, talking about how the Rock Hall “wouldn’t define him.” They’ve never nominated the originator of “The Twist” (although the song was one of the first included in the Singles category at the Rock Hall) and Rundgren faces the same fate if this is truly his sentiment.

7. Iron Maiden – Much like LL Cool J, Iron Maiden is getting the nom over a litany of people who should have already been inducted – Judas Priest, Thin Lizzy, and Motorhead, among others. They have also been quite loud in their distaste for the Rock Hall, so this may be a “one and done” nomination either way – either they’ll get in or they will be cast to the scrapheap because of their protestations. It’s too bad because they are more than deserving to be inducted.

6. Kate Bush – If the Rock Hall were in London, this would have been a no-brainer induction probably 15 years ago. Bush is arguably the most creative force in music from the 70s and 80s and has contributed heavily to the musical culture. Tori Amos, Fiona Apple and Jewel owe her a debt of gratitude for blazing the trail.

5. The Go-Go’s – Flat out, this is the easiest bio to argue of these nominees. The Go-Go’s were the first female band to write their music, play their instruments and go to #1 on the charts with their first album, Beauty and the Beat. They also served as a link between the punk rock of the late 70s to the more “pop” version that was found in The Bangles. A more solid inductee would be hard to find.

4. New York Dolls – Along with 2020 Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inductees Marc Bolan and T. Rex, the New York Dolls carried the banner for glam rock in the early 70s. They have been cited as influential in U. S. punk rock and its hard rock/metal movement. Guns N’ Roses owes a huge debt to the groundbreaking that the Dolls did on the scene.

3. Rage Against the Machine – Merging the worlds of rap, hard rock and political activism together, Rage Against the Machine did more in four albums than most bands do in a lifetime of work. They took the lead from bands like Mr. Bungle and Faith No More and put their political edge to work, bringing a great deal of attention to several causes. Their influence can also be seen in bands in the 21st century, including Papa Roach, Hollywood Undead, and Fever 333.

2. Jay-Z – If there is a reason that LL Cool J will not get inducted in 2021, it would be Mr. Shawn Carter. Jay-Z had an astronomical amount of success and influence in the rap world (my personal favorites are “99 Problems” and “Empire State of Mind” with Alicia Keys), but that wasn’t enough. He became a billionaire through his business acumen. Either one of those would be enough to get him inducted but, when you add in the factor of him performing at the Rock Hall Induction Ceremonies with special guest Beyonce (his wife), the Rock Hall is salivating at the possibilities.

1. Foo Fighters – If there has been any rock band that has carried the genre over the past 25 years, it would be Foo Fighters. Dave Grohl and Company have compiled a resume that hasn’t been equaled, although you can sometimes say that they play it way too safe. Grohl himself could have packed it in after Kurt Cobain’s death and Nirvana’s induction into the Rock Hall, but he chose to blaze his own path further into rock history. If he is inducted with Foos, Grohl would become the 24th person to earn double inductions (to this date, only Eric Clapton has been inducted three times, for his work with The Yardbirds, Cream and his solo career).

Who Is Going to Be Inducted?

The Rock Hall is looking to diversify their membership. That was something that Sykes stated when he took over the chairmanship of the Rock Hall last year. It isn’t an indictment of the Rock Hall’s previous work, but it is time that more women and more minorities were recognized for their contributions to rock history. That is going to be reflected by who is inducted this year.

If you listened to my show at Greater Manchester Rock Radio, I already laid out the list of who I believe will be inducted (and not my rankings above). Jay-Z and Foo Fighters are guaranteed inductees and, if there were two near-locks on the list, I would say that Carole King and Tina Turner will be joining the Rock Hall again. That leaves two more to consider (we will go with six inductees). The Go-Go’s will probably earn one of those two slots. Their history in the industry is just too influential to overlook – but that never stopped the Rock Hall from doing that! For the final slot, and just because I’d love to see what the band would do, I think that Iron Maiden will earn induction. But I wouldn’t at all be shocked if Fela Kuti wound up in somehow for the reasons I presented above.

Who will get in? If it is those artists who have trashed the Rock Hall previously, will they show up? Would it be another farce, such as Steve Miller’s induction in 2016? It would provide a spark to what is the 25th anniversary (the first induction ceremony was 1986) of inductions into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2021!

Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Is Moving Closer to Parody than Relevance

RRHallofFame

Let’s start this with a disclaimer.

From my youth, I’ve loved music. I can remember saving up my money when my age was yet in single digits to buy records to play at home. As I got into high school, me and my best friend DJ (his real name was Dennis, but DJ was the ONLY name he went by) would go on field trips to nearby Champaign and religiously make a pilgrimage to the University of Illinois’ campus record store, Mabel’s (yes, back then it was a record store and had a small performance area). We’d emerge after hours of scanning over the racks with armfuls of albums, with my stack normally leaning towards things like the Bus Boys, Elvis Costello and the Motels, among literally hundreds of others.

After high school, I delved into the world of music even more. While in college I started working as a radio DJ, something that would be a career over the next 20-plus years of my life. From that small college station until I was a Music Director at an AOR (Album Oriented Rock) station in a Top 75 market (and even afterwards when I went into news/talk), music – and rock music in particular – was a staple in my life. As I have gotten older, music still resonates with me and, with age, I’ve expanded my listening interests into many diverse styles of music including two that I previously despised, rap and country.

Thus, it pains me when I say the following:  After looking at the list of the nominees for induction into the Class of 2017 for the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, which was released a couple of weeks ago, I’ve now come to the realization that enshrinement in this group is moving closer to a parody along the lines of This is Spinal Tap than being the venerable Valhalla of rock music that it should be.

spinaltap

Yes, there’s been these rumblings before. None were louder, perhaps, than the commentary from one of last year inductees, Steve Miller, regarding what the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame has become. In various areas, Miller railed over pretty much every aspect of the Hall (“I think it’s time for the people running this to turn it over to new people…you don’t need to insult every artist that comes along,” was one of his calmer comments), signifying his displeasure with the outfit. “You tell me what the hell is the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, and what does it do besides talk about itself and sell postcards?” he asked.

Miller was the embodiment of what many had said of late regarding the Hall. Thought of originally as the pinnacle of rock music royalty, of late the Hall has been inducting what many would consider “non-rock” artists and bands, stating that their contributions “to rock music history and music overall” warranted their induction into rock music’s biggest honor. I’ve always contended that, in 9.9 of 10 of those cases where the artist wasn’t “rock” (a very wide ranging scope, to be honest), then their contribution to the actual evolution of rock was pertinent (this is why I don’t have a problem with Johnny Cash being in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame).

johnnycash

In looking at the crop of nominees for the 2017 Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, there are some very qualified candidates on the list. One of the “first time” nominees for the hall is Pearl Jam and they should be a virtual lock for entry because of their contributions to the “Seattle sound” that was pioneered by Nirvana and their group. Another first-time nominee – and this one surprised me quite a bit – was Electric Light Orchestra, who should also find their way into the Hall for their innovative usage of electronics, keyboards and production (all in the masterful hands of Jeff Lynne) and their contributions to the music.

Whereas in year’s past I didn’t get bugged by some of the “non-rock” nominees – hell, I agree that rap acts like the Beastie Boys, Run DMC and N.W.A. and other “non-rock” acts like Donna Summer, Darlene Love and Bob Marley SHOULD be in the Hall – this year’s list of nominees left me wondering why they were being nominated when they shouldn’t have even been considered. Besides Pearl Jam and ELO, here’s the list of other nominations (asterisk means it is a first-time nomination):

Kraftwerk
Yes
The Cars
The Zombies
Joe Tex
J. Geils Band
The MC5
Bad Brains*
Depeche Mode*
Jane’s Addiction*
Joan Baez*
Journey*
Steppenwolf*
Janet Jackson
Chaka Khan
Chic
Tupac Shakur*

Now, you could give me viable reasons for any of the artists down to Steppenwolf being nominated for the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. Personally, why Journey and Steppenwolf have never been considered previously is gross misconduct by Hall voters. Over the remainder of the list, I personally would question the inclusion of Joe Tex (yes, a hard-working individual who overcame a great deal of adversity to become a rival of Hall of Famer James Brown), the J. Geils Band (solid group, not “Hall of Fame” outstanding) and Bad Brains and maybe Jane’s Addiction (reasoning ditto to J. Geils’ nomination). Where it goes off the rails for me – repeat, for the first time ever – is in some of the “non-rock” nominations.

Chic has been nominated several times and, on first view, they would be a viable contender. The real drivers of that group, however, were Nile Rodgers, the late Bernard Edwards and the late drummer Tony Thompson. Inducting a “group” requires that all the members were great and that’s where Chic falls short. I can see nominating and even inducting Rodgers and Thompson (I remember his powerful work with Robert Palmer and The Power Station – outstanding music), but to put every person in Chic (usually featuring a rotating cast of female vocalists that joined Rodgers and Edwards) isn’t Hall worthy.

Jackson and Khan, while fine vocalists who were charting gold during their careers, didn’t exactly do anything that would have separated them away and make them Hall worthy, either. Being the sister of the members of the Jackson 5 isn’t an immediate pass (and, really, what did she do that was notable?). Khan, if you include her time with Rufus, has a bit more credibility as to Hall-worthiness, but there’s not enough of it on the resume to push her over the top.

My biggest criticism would be with Shakur, however. Yes, Tupac was one of the first voices for “gangsta rap,” but we’ve already inducted the originator of that field in N.W.A. Additionally, if you induct Shakur, why aren’t you inducting Biggie Smalls (just as powerful a performer and rapper) or Sean “Puff Daddy/P-Diddy (or whatever the hell he calls himself these days)” Combs for their work? Shakur is one of those performers that, in many people’s eyes, an early (and violent) death made them a musical martyr. As such, he must be revered in their opinion…reverence because of near-deification is not what I would call Hall worthy.

When it comes to “non-rock” entities, you’ve got to have blown the doors off things to be considered for entry inside the gates. A Madonna, a Johnny Cash, a Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five…THESE are the types of performers who, by their music and by their styles, personified the “rock attitude” despite the fact they weren’t performing traditional “rock” music. Every one of the persons or bands nominated this year don’t fit that category for enshrinement.

Of course, I couldn’t end this without my own “WHY AREN’T THESE GUYS NOMINATED” choices, and this is just a sample of those that should have already been in the Hall. Pat Benatar, Warren Zevon, Jimmy Buffett, Dolly Parton (one hell of a songwriter who has had an impact on music overall, what the Hall is supposed to venerate), Kate Bush, Roxy Music, Iron Maiden, Dead Kennedys, Black Flag, X, Duran Duran and Kool and the Gang (all never nominated) and the New York Dolls, the Wailers and Afrika Bambaataa all should be in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame RIGHT NOW as they have arguably done more for “rock” music than those under consideration for 2017.

But I digress, at least for now. We’ve got the list of nominees and, for this year, we’ll have to deal with them. But if the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame doesn’t want to continue down that road of becoming a joke of itself, a parody of what it is supposed to represent, it would behoove them to start considering the actual ROCK artists (and those “non-rock” performers who truly had an impact) that they are bypassing.