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!

The Highwomen Deliver Emotional Effort, Sheryl Crow Going Out with a Bang

One of the things that the world of music has gotten hammered on over the past few years is the paucity of female performers, both on the radios and satellites of listeners and in the awards process (Grammys, CMAs, etc.). It is a fair argument too; in country music currently, you have to go down to #11 on the Billboard Country Singles chart to find the first female entry (Carrie Underwood) and, on the Billboard Hot 100, although the first three slots are occupied by women or male/female combos (Lizzo’s “Truth Hurts,” Shawn Mendes & Camilla Caballo with “Senorita” and Billie Eilish’s mopey “Bad Guy”), there are only two other female contributors in the Top 20 (the Ariana Grande/Miley Cyrus/Lana Del Rey collaboration for the reboot of Charlie’s Angels entitled “Don’t Call Me Angel” and Ariana Grande with Social House). With two new releases out from top female artists, you might think that this situation would change, but you’d be surprised.

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First up is the rather ostentatiously named The Highwomen, who have come out with their eponymous CD Highwomen. The quartet, consisting of Grammy winners Maren Morris, Brandi Carlile and Amanda Shires along with Grammy nominated songwriter Natalie Hemby, are all very accomplished performers and songwriters in their own rights. Coming together for this record, however, they put their egos at the door and come up with an emotional effort that delivers across the board for their purposes as a female country supergroup.

Let’s get one thing out of the way first, however: they probably should have called themselves something other than “The Highwomen.” That name harkens back to the 80s when four of the titans of country music – the late Johnny Cash and Waylon Jennings, Kris Kristofferson and Willie Nelson – joined forces as “The Highwaymen,” a country supergroup that brought each man commercial and critical success. By branding themselves as “The Highwomen,” it seems that Morris, Carlile and Company are equivocating themselves as equal to the legendary male artists who made the name famous (plus they’re putting a HUGE target on themselves). Even Dolly Parton, Emmylou Harris and Linda Ronstadt – the closest thing there was to a female “Highwaymen” previously – didn’t have the audacity to call themselves “The Highwomen.”

If you can get by the quartet calling themselves “The Highwomen,” you’re going to find a very solid outing from the artists involved. Of course, they have to start off the album with their version of The Highwaymen’s “Highwayman,” and it is naturally called “Highwomen.” It follows the pattern that was set by Cash, Nelson, et. al., with a call-and-response song about repressed women in history. A woman subjected to and executed during the Salem Witch Trials; a Freedom Rider murdered in the South; and (poignantly starting the song) a refugee from Honduras who took the long walk to try to seek asylum with her family in the U. S before dying on the trek. It is an excellent update from the male oriented original and starts a very emotional trek that runs through the album.

“We are the Highwomen,
Singing stories still untold.
We carry the sons you can only hold.
We are the daughters of the silent generation,
You send our hearts to die alone in foreign nations,
And they return to us as tiny drops of rain
But we will still remain…”

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Going deeper in the album there are some jewels for the listeners. Perhaps for the first time ever, there is a lesbian “kiss off” song called “If She Ever Leaves Me” that tries to subtly tell a cowboy that the woman he’s looking at picking up – Carlile’s secret lesbian lover – “thinks your cologne’s too strong, she’s into perfume” and that he has absolutely no shot. Another song that is noteworthy is “My Only Child,” a song from a mother to her child about why she didn’t have any more children for her child to play with.

The songs aren’t long on Highwomen, roughly three minutes in length for the 12 songs on the record, but each one packs an emotional punch that doesn’t get displayed often in music. If you’re a fan of the women in the group – or you just want to hear some damn good country (or maybe “Americana”) music – you’d be well advised to pick up the record.

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In her over 30-year career, Sheryl Crow has pretty much done it all. Originally a music teacher, Crow would in 1987 become a backup singer for Michael Jackson on his Bad tour. She would eventually find success as a solo artist through her debut album Tuesday Night Music Club in 1994. Now, more than 25 years later (Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, are you listening?), it looks as though Crow is calling it a close for her album recording career with her CD Threads.

Why does it seem like the Missouri songbird is ending her recording career? Because it seems that she brought everyone and their brother out to play with her on the album! Both Morris and Carlile from The Highwomen make appearances with Crow and they rank as the MINOR players on the record. Artists such as Stevie Nicks, Bonnie Raitt, Mavis Staples, Eric Clapton, Gary Clark, Jr., Keith Richards, Willie Nelson, Joe Walsh, St. Vincent, James Taylor and Emmylou Harris all add their prodigious talents to the record, making it for a stellar outing. Let’s put it this way: if this is the way that Crow wants to bid adieu to her recording career, she’s done a hell of a job.

SherylCrowThreads

There are several highlights on the record. “Prove You Wrong” with Crow harmonizing with Nicks and Morris, starts the record with a bang that sets the ever-increasing standard for the rest of the record. “Beware of Darkness” is an ode about falling too far down “the rabbit hole” and letting everyday news bring us down, brought to life by the guitar work of Clapton and the vocals of Sting and Carlile.

It is a couple of collaborations you don’t expect that seem to steal the record, though. First is a stunning “Redemption Day,” a duet with the late Johnny Cash. The collaboration took a version of her song that Cash recorded before he passed away and mixed it with her voice, delivering a performance for the ages. From Crow’s lilting voice to the gravely rumble of “The Man in Black,” the song that Crow wrote about the U. S. involvement in Bosnia gains new life in these times. Crow comments in the liner notes that “online trolls say ‘shut up and sing…’ I’d think no one would have the gall to tell Johnny Cash to shut up and sing…he’d probably respond with the famous photo Jim Marshall took of him at San Quentin, the shot taken ‘just for the warden.’”

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The other collaboration is surprising in the mixing of genres that comes together. Crow teams up with Public Enemy’s Chuck D, soul singer Andra Day and guitar wizard Clark on “The Story of Everything,” a song that, according to Crow, “was born out of the feeling of frustration with the state of affairs in America…so much hope accompanied our first black President into office, but that hope turned into fear and division.” The foursome power through the song, calling out those who continue to push the divisiveness in the nation today, and they aren’t shy about laying it at a certain politician’s door. Musically the song is evocative, lyrically it is a protest from the people…and a warning that the people better pull their heads out of their asses.

The record could have been called “Sheryl Crow and Friends” because, without the ample assistance from Crow’s pals, the record wouldn’t have been as impactful as it is. Crow’s steady, beautiful mezzo-soprano is accented by each and every performer and she’s smart enough to know when to get out of the way and let her guests do their thing. If it is goodbye to recording for Crow, this is one hell of a way to exit the stage.

Alas, it appears nobody is listening to these artists. The Highwomen are currently ranked #53 on the Billboard Album charts after peaking at #10 two weeks ago, while Crow’s record reached #30 on the Albums chart and #2 on the Country Albums chart before plunging off in a mere two weeks. This is a sad statement on the music industry today, but it is something that REAL music fans will appreciate by supporting these women.