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!

Artists That SHOULD Be in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame: The 1970s

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The current crop of artists and bands vying for entry into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame is a very impressive lists. Cutting across all genres, including rap, pop, rock, metal and alternative music (it is arguable that folk isn’t included, but that’s a rarity instead of the norm), the potential inductees in 2020 will have many more shots at the brass ring. But who from the past may be running out of chances at getting into the Rock Hall?

There are 221 artists and/or groups in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, and many might say that the truly immortal have already been enshrined. It is tough to nitpick this fact but, in this first part of a series of essays on this subject, I was able to come up with five artists from the 1950s who have yet to be inducted for their influences on the world of rock music. In the second part of a multi-part essay series, the 1960s were covered with a selection of artists that covered genres that have contributed to the world of rock music. Now, it’s time for one of the most difficult decades to critique – the 1970s.

Before you think that all the greats from the 70s have been nominated, you’ve got to remember some that I’ve advocated for and for many years. In another article, I talked about artists such as Warren Zevon and Jimmy Buffett, who have never even been nominated. There’s also a corps of solid 70s rock bands – Boston, Styx and Kansas leading the way – that haven’t even been nominated. These artists and groups are a given, so let’s delve a little deeper and take a look at some artists who might not be on the top of the list but should be in the Rock Hall for their contributions to the genre (not saying those mentioned haven’t, but they’ve got their longtime advocates!). As a reminder, we’re not including those that have been nominated this year. And this by no means is a comprehensive list of those who should be inducted – they are arguably the most notable oversights, however.

New York Dolls

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While they may sound like they are a women’s professional football team, the New York Dolls were actually the genesis for several formats of rock in the States of America. Led by David Johansen (who would go on to arguably greater success as a character he created, “Buster Poindexter”) and backed by guitarists Johnny Thunders and Sylvain Sylvain, the group came out around the same time as 2020 Rock Hall nominee T. Rex. Much like T. Rex did in England, the Dolls embraced the glam style of rock and opened up some minds while expanding the musical landscape.

The Dolls are credited with having an influence on punk rock, glam rock, and even metal to a degree, while their style of androgynous dress – dressing like the opposite sex to the point where you couldn’t determine if they were women or men – became a staple of bands from the 70s through today. Their music impacted such diverse bands as the Sex Pistols, Guns ‘N’ Roses and the Smiths, with their lead singer Morrissey a proclaimed acolyte of the band.

What works against the New York Dolls is something that works against many bright, shining lights that burn out on the battleground of rock music – they weren’t around very long. Founded in 1971, by 1976 the band had broken up (by the time the band broke up, Thunders had quit the group and Blackie Lawless, who would go on to front his own band W.A.S.P., was doing the axe work for the group). As previously mentioned, Johansen would go on to do “Hot! Hot! Hot!” and front a full orchestra called “The Banshees of Blue,” which was a FAR cry from what he did during his days with the Dolls. The group would reunite in the 2000s, but the magic was gone. A fitting end for the New York Dolls would be to reach the ultimate goal – the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.

KC and the Sunshine Band

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Although many don’t like to mention it, the disco era was a part of rock and roll. Many top rock acts of the day, including KISS (“I Was Made for Loving You”), The Rolling Stones (“Miss You”), Rod Stewart (“Da Ya Think I’m Sexy”), The Kinks (“Superman”) and many others all did a “disco” song, partially so that they would remain relevant during the disco era. As such, the Rock Hall should recognize the era and induct the best from that genre, starting with KC and the Sunshine Band.

Founded in 1973, the band would quickly find success in the discotheques of the U. S., first with “Get Down Tonight” in 1975 and followed by a litany of hit songs like “That’s The Way (I Like It),” “I’m Your Boogie Man” (covered by White Zombie is a genre mashup for the ages), and “(Shake, Shake, Shake) Shake Your Booty.” Of their six Top Ten singles, five of those went to #1 and the other went to #2…a pretty good track record.

There are many out there who would say that Chic, featuring the late drummer Tony Thompson and vocalist/producer/songwriter Nile Rodgers, would be a better choice, but why limit it to just one? Chic has been nominated on a few occasions and, honestly, should have already been inducted (Rodgers was inducted in 2017 via the “Award for Musical Excellence”). There’s no reason why both groups can’t be inducted, and it would bring the crème of the disco world into the Rock Hall.

War

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This was one that I had to really research before I came down for inducting the group. War was a groundbreaking funk act that not only pushed musical boundaries but also pushed the norms of the era. A multicultural ensemble, they were fronted for a time by Eric Burdon, who would ride with the group until he decided to go solo in the mid-70s. Whether with Burdon or without him, the group would put together a string of solid music.

Originally formed in 1969, War seemed to tap into the militancy of the time, when organizations and political elements felt they had to take stronger stances to make their points known. Beyond being multi-race, the music of War blended several different styles of music – Latin, jazz, blues and R&B – into a fusion that became a very recognizable sound. “Spill the Wine,” “Why Can’t We Be Friends,” and the classic “Low Rider” were the recognizable tunes from the band, only a sampling of the 14 songs that hit the Billboard Hot 100.

There might be others with a better chart history, but War delivered outside of simply the musical realm. They were groundbreakers in musical styling, they were groundbreakers in getting the best musicians for the band, regardless of race (much like 2020 Rock Hall nominee The Doobie Brothers), and they were able to maintain an excellence even after losing what many thought was the only thing driving them to success (Burdon). For these things, they do deserve induction.

Carole King and Gordon Lightfoot

As stated previously, I’ve been a longtime proponent of both Warren Zevon and Jimmy Buffett being inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. They have both been at the forefront of their genres – Zevon in the creation of the “California sound” of country rock (along with another potential nominee, Gram Parsons) and Buffett in the creation of “trop rock.” But there’s a couple of other singer/songwriters that should also be inducted.

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Carole King’s contributions to the rock world are nearly too numerous to mention. Teaming up with Gerry Goffin in 1958, she would write 118 songs that hit the Billboard Hot 100, including such tunes as “Up on the Roof” (The Drifters), “One Fine Day” (The Chiffons), “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” (Aretha Franklin) and many others. When she finally got around to doing her own material, King only came up with Tapestry, considered one of the greatest albums not only of the 1970s but of all time. She’s technically in the Rock Hall as a “contributor” with Goffin, but she deserves her own place in the building as a performer and songwriter.

Lightfoot is one of those artists that many say, “he’s not in there already?” The Canadian is one of the people who helped move folk music into the mainstream with such tunes as “If You Could Read My Mind’ and “Sundown.” It is his epic tour de force on “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” that most people remember him for, however. He’s been covered by such diverse artists as Johnny Cash, Herb Alpert, The Tragically Hip and Paul Weller.

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None other than Billy Joel has said that he intentionally wrote songs to “sound” like Lightfoot, all the way down to the vocals. This can be heard in Joel’s classic album The Stranger, with the song “She’s Always a Woman” being perhaps the best example of the Lightfoot influence. Lightfoot continues to perform, and strongly it must be added (usually when you see an 81-year old onstage, it isn’t their best work – Lightfoot is the exception); it would be fitting for the man to receive recognition for his life’s work.

Nick Lowe and Dave Edmunds

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This is arguably one of the more controversial choices because many people would say “who?” when these names are mentioned. But both men have been a key linchpin in the evolution of the British music scene, even today.

Lowe got his start in the early 70s with Brinsley Schwartz, a country and blues-based group, but his quirky approach and songwriting style didn’t lend itself to the staider sound that the band wanted. But it also allowed Lowe to pen songs that the band didn’t use that became staples of the rock world later on, songs such as “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding” (a massive hit for Hall of Famer Elvis Costello) and the song that would become his biggest solo hit “Cruel To Be Kind.”

Lowe’s greatest contribution in stride with his songwriting was his producing. Not only did he produce Costello for many years, Lowe would be at the production board for the eclectic lot of Carlene Carter (his now ex-wife), The Damned, Paul Carrack, The Pretenders, John Hiatt, the Fabulous Thunderbirds and even the late Johnny Cash. His nickname ‘Basher’ came about because of his “bash it out” style in the studio, simply playing the songs and waiting until getting in the editing room to sweeten any sounds.

Edmunds followed a very similar path to Lowe. Playing the bar scene around the U. K., Edmunds demonstrated his virtuosity on the guitar, mostly concentrating on the blues and rockabilly. One of his big hits was in 1970 with a version of “I Hear You Knocking” that became a huge success. In the 80s, he would have some dabbling success as he tried to ride the MTV wave with “Slipping Away,” but he would be most remembered for his partnership with Lowe.

The Lowe/Edmunds duo partnered on arguably one of the iconic albums of the early 80s with their group Rockpile. Seconds of Pleasure was the only “official” Rockpile album (with Edmunds and Lowe sharing vocals alongside guitarist Billy Bremner and drummer Terry Williams), but the lineup basically served as the band for albums from Edmunds (Repeat When Necessary), Lowe (Labour of Lust) and Carter (Musical Shapes and Blue Nun). The Rockpile Years were the fusion of their love for the past in rock history while trying to move it forward in their own way.

While their chart legacy isn’t anything remarkable, the Edmunds/Lowe combination was one that brought the British music scene from the rockabilly sounds of the 1950s to the Beatles to the New Wave of the early 80s and onto this century. Their partnership, while fraught with infighting and disagreements, arguably brought out the best creatively between the duo. Like Lennon and McCartney or Jagger and Richards, the duo of Edmunds and Lowe (and there would probably be complaints from Lowe that it should be Lowe and Edmunds) need to be recognized for their contributions.

Next up is a decade that is going to provide even more arguments between rock aficionados. The 1980s are going to start the blurring of the lines between what traditionalists call “rock & roll” and what some call “pop” or other genres that aren’t as readily recognizable as “rock.” As I’ve stated before, it’s a big umbrella when you’re talking about “rock & roll” and there’s going to be some artists in our next part of this series that aren’t going to be your traditional “rock & roll” artists or groups. But we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it…in the next part of this series!