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 1980s

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We’re only a few days from the announcement of the latest artists and groups that will be named to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame for 2020. For those that don’t make it in this year, they might be soothed by the idea that they should 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?

Many might say that the truly immortal have already been enshrined and it is tough to nitpick this fact. Over the span of several essays, however, beginning with the 1950s and continuing in examining the 1960s and the 1970s, I’ve pointed out some artists and groups that have been overlooked for the honor of being inducted into the Rock Hall. In this, the final segment of our journey (we’d go on into the 90s, but only artists from 1990-1995 are currently eligible, so we don’t have a full decade to choose from), we’re going to take on a time when the music industry arguably made its biggest changes – the 1980s.

With the death of disco, the rise of New Wave, the “New Wave of British Heavy Metal,” the “popification” of country music and a little thing called Music Television (or MTV), the 80s would arguably be the most artistic time in the history of music (sorry, 70s fans). This decade also challenges what exactly is “rock & roll.” In the past, it could be said that it was defined as a hard guitar and three chords; with the advent of the 1980s, there were so many mashups of genres and different sounds being employed that the lines between genres began to blur. It is part of the reason that there are potentially so many candidates from the decade – and perhaps so many disappointments for fans.

I literally put together a list of artists and groups that, while great, I couldn’t decide whether they should be inducted or not. What do you do with Culture Club? How about X or Siouxsie and The Banshees? Living Colour? The Smithereens? I once again make the statement – this by NO means is a comprehensive list of those who have at the minimum an argument for being inducted. And this doesn’t consider those that have been nominated this year for induction, such as Nine Inch Nails and Depeche Mode. This is a look at arguably the most notable oversights by the Rock Hall to date – and they’ve got some time to change it, but not much.

Duran Duran

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Any list of 1980s artists or groups that should be inducted into the Rock Hall that doesn’t have Duran Duran somewhere near the top should be immediately ignored. The band exemplified the “New Wave” sound that echoed across the ocean from Europe, incorporating the dancier, synthesized “rock” that was becoming very popular at the start of the 80s. Along with other groups like Depeche Mode (nominated the last two years for induction), they were the backbone of the playlist on the burgeoning MTV through the 80s.

They would suffer a bit of a lull as the Grunge Era took over in the early 90s, but Duran Duran – named after a character from the Jane Fonda sci-fi film Barbarella – would reinvent themselves and come back better than ever. A career resurgence in the 90s and early Aughts saw them return as balladeers, with such songs as “Ordinary World” and “Come Undone” showing that the group was willing to change their sound with the times.

While they have been a darling of the fans over the years, the critics have been the shortcoming that possibly keeps Duran Duran out of the Rock Hall. 100 million albums sold in a career should say something, not to mention 21 Billboard Hot 100 hits over a 40-year timespan. But, perhaps showing the power that critical acclaim holds, the group has NEVER been nominated for the Rock Hall – perhaps it is time that fact was changed.

Iron Maiden

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For all the acclaim that Judas Priest has gotten as one of the members of the “New Wave of British Heavy Metal,” and for all the clamor to induct Def Leppard (who weren’t even the BEST example of the NWOBHM roster) last year, there is another band that has been greatly ignored from the discussion. Iron Maiden has arguably been just as influential (if not more so) than Def Leppard and right on the heels of the Priest (who were lumped in with the NWOBHM despite coming out a decade before the term existed) as to the power of their influence. Despite this fact, Iron Maiden has never even sniffed the nomination list for the Rock Hall, and that’s a travesty.

Prior to 1980, hard rock/metal was stuck in a sludge-like monotony and bands like Metallica (inducted LONG ago) and Iron Maiden took a decidedly different direction from their predecessors. Instead of miring in the muck, Iron Maiden picked up the speed and added a virtuosity that wasn’t always evident in hard rock/metal music. With their mascot “Eddie” dominating their album covers and, usually, their stage performances, the Maiden have dominated hard rock/metal for nearly 40 years.

In addition to that touring, Maiden has also shown their power with their fandom. Sixteen studio albums and twelve live albums have sold more than 100 million albums and critics have adored the band, especially most of their early work. The potential downside is that Iron Maiden has never been very “radio friendly” and, thusly, hasn’t achieved a great deal of chart success. This isn’t indicative of how great the band is and why it should be in and arguably should have been inducted long ago.

(On a final note here, this is the time when there is a true test of whether the Rock Hall is going to ever give hard rock/heavy metal its due. Judas Priest and Motörhead have been nominated in 2020 and are fighting to get in. Only ONE of the “Big Four” of the 80s metal scene – Metallica, Megadeth, Anthrax and Slayer – is inducted into the Rock Hall and the odds of the other three getting in are slim and none, with slim heading for the door. Could inductions of some of these artists indicate that the Rock Hall still cares about “rock?”)

The Smiths

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This was one that I had to debate for quite some time. I’ve never been a huge fan of the mopey, “goth” sound, simply because it is so morose, depressing and utterly void of an emotion outside “woe is me.” While I can understand where such writing comes from, that doesn’t necessarily mean that I want to wallow around in it. Thus, I really had to give The Smiths a hard look, especially since there are many others who swear by their work.

They’ve always been a critical darling and, for many fans, The Smiths’ spoke to something inside of them. That is one of the things that rock music is supposed to do – reach in and touch something inside of you. In the case of fans of The Smiths, it helped them through difficult times, told them that someone was experiencing the same issues that they were, and helped them avoid worse outcomes than if they hadn’t heard the band’s music. And honestly, in what universe does The Cure exist in the Rock Hall without their brethren in The Smiths?

Now, Morrissey may not have helped the band’s case with some of the statements he’s made in the past. And it is quite true that someone’s political and personal beliefs and/or actions have kept some nominees out (hi there, Ted Nugent!) or held up their nomination or election. In a perfect world, we’d separate those things away from the artistic side of the equation. In the case of The Smiths, it would be necessary to do to see them get the honor that they do deserve – even though I still don’t care for their music!

Kate Bush

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Before there was Lady Gaga, before there was Sarah McLachlan, before there was Tori Amos or Enya and even before an ingenue by the name of Madonna was making some noise, there was the ethereal voice of Kate Bush. Beginning in the mid-70s, Bush would provide voice work for Peter Gabriel before striking out on her own. Bush would break through with the angelic “Running Up That Hill” and “Wuthering Heights,” one of the rare instances of classic literature influencing someone’s rock musical stylings (a theme throughout Bush’s catalog). But Bush would also prove to be a groundbreaker in other areas, including synthesizer usage and, well, her being a female voice in a very male dominated business (it could be argued that she is the British equivalent of Pat Benatar, an artist who refused to let the record industry “sex up” her image to sell records).

Highly praised critically, Bush languished on the charts in the States, however. Other than the two songs mentioned previously, Bush had a hard time cracking the Billboard rankings. Still, Bush had huge success in Britain and Europe and continues to be a successful artist to this day. She was nominated for the Rock Hall in 2018 but, as with several other artists that earned only one nomination before being ignored, it seems that the membership of the Rock Hall are more interested in moving on to other more “accessible” artists and groups rather than honor eclectic and creative work from the past in Bush and other artists and groups.

The Go-Go’s/The Bangles

Let’s get beyond the fact that The Runaways should have been inducted and get right to the 80s, shall we?

Women were coming to the fore in the 80s, taking control of their own careers and playing the instruments instead of allowing the men to have all the fun (Ann and Nancy Wilson of Heart have to be added in that category, too, but I digress). And there were two acts that definitely rate getting into the Rock Hall. But if you could have only one of them, which one would it be?

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In my opinion, that would have to be the no-brainer induction of The Go-Go’s. Although their career was relatively short (only five years) and their catalog relatively limited (only four records, three of which were actually impactful), The Go-Go’s were groundbreakers in putting all-female bands into the musical discussion. They were very good musicians, especially guitarist Charlotte Caffey and drummer Gina Schock (what a drummer name!) and, powered by the force of nature that was vocalist Belinda Carlisle, the group was destined for greatness. If they would have stayed together longer (they already had the creative, influential and critical boxes check marked), they arguably would have already been inducted into the Rock Hall.

If you don’t like The Go-Go’s, there’s always The Bangles. From out of the gate with their initial releases of “Hero Takes A Fall” and “Going Down to Liverpool” in 1981, the melodic harmonies and tight musicianship masked a creative and critically successful group of women who were self-assured and didn’t rely on their sexuality to get across. Having said that, they did have singer/guitarist Susanna Hoffs on the mic, which didn’t hurt in getting them attention either. If you were going to have a downside for the group, it would be that they didn’t write their biggest hit “Manic Monday” (a song penned by the then-named “Christopher,” who turned out to be huge Bangles fan Prince).

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Looking back at the first three decades (roughly) of the history of rock and those still wrongly on the outside looking in, it is obvious that the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame has gotten it right more often than not. But, as more artists from the 90s and, in only five years, the Aughts start coming eligible, it is going to be tougher and tougher for those in the pre-50s to 80s eras to earn their seat in the Rock Hall. Furthermore, it is going to be tougher and tougher to discern just what is “rock & roll” as the genre lines blur even further. Then again, there is that argument that it is the Hall of FAME and not the Hall of PRETTY GOOD…and perhaps those from those earlier eras fall into the category of “pretty good” rather than the truly immortal.