First of all, I just wanted to say that my last post on possible Hillary running mates was my 200th post on the Countdown.

For all that I blog about the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, there is still one more institution in popular music that is regarded with still greater cynicism, whose decision-makers operate in still greater secrecy, and whose choices are even more marked by shades of elitism and contempt for the average listener.

I am speaking, of course, of the Grammys.  Although watching the Grammys makes for fun television, there’s a reason why the awards ceremony is taken far less seriously than its counterparts among the Emmys and the Oscars.  Awards given are almost correlated to which artists perform or turn up for the ceremony, which questions the authenticity.  During breakout years in rock and roll, they’ve given the best record to “The Girl from Ipanema.”  They gave the first Heavy Metal Grammy to Jethro Tull.  In ’67 they gave the Best Record award to “Winchester Cathedral” by the New Vaudeville Band over “Eleanor Rigby” and “Good Vibrations.”  And they never gave a non-lifetime achievement award to Led Zeppelin, The Beach Boys, Chuck Berry, The Doors, Jimi Hendrix, The Who, or Bob Marley.

But maybe their most egregious category, the one that most demonstrates their inability to gauge success or merit, is the Best New Artist award.  It’s fraught with difficulties in that the boundaries of what is “new” are somewhat arbitrary.  Green Day, for example, won the Best New Artist award on their third record, and six or seven years after they had started out.  So, I thought I might revisit the Best New Artist award with the benefit of hindsight, to see which years the Grammys correctly predicted  the future of popular music milieu, and which years they gave away the game to one-hit wonders who were never seen or heard from again.  In each case, I’ll stick with the Grammys slate of nominees, and work from there.  This first segment will go from the first such award in 1960 to 1978.

1960: Winner: Bobby Darin.  Nominees: Edd Byrnes, Johnny Restivo, Mark Murphy, Mavis Walters

Alex’s take: Good call.  Darin ended up with a career that was sadly cut short by congenital health problems, but in the time he had made some fun rock record and matured into a classy, somewhat retro style in the vein of “Beyond the Sea.”  Murphy and Walters, I might add, might be obscure today, but were first-rate jazz vocalists in their time.

1961: Winner: Bob Newhart.  Nominees: Joanie Summers, Leontyne Price, Miriam Makeba, The Brothers Four.

Alex’s take: I like the idea that a good comedian can be nominated for- and win- the Best New Artist award.  But Leontyne Price was one of the first great African-American opera singers.  Miriam Makeba became a proud anti-Apartheid activist, and I think one of the most important African entertainers of the 20th century.  Newhart revolutionized comedy in the 1960s with his button-down observations, but Makeba edges him out.

1962: Winner: Peter Nero.  Nominees: Ann-Margaret, Dick Gregory, The Lettermen, Timi Yuro.

Alex’s take: Hmmm..1962 might not have been the most inspiring year.  Dick Gregory was one of the first black comedians to break out of the minstrel stereotype with acute social observations.  The Lettermen were exactly the kind of group that would be extinct by 1964, Ann-Margaret was hot but of limited musical talent, and Yuri was a cool contralto.  By the way, I love the social conscience the early Grammys showed in their choices.  For all that, Peter Nero was still the right choice; a phenomenal piano player with a long career.

1963: Winner: Robert Goulet.  Nominees: Peter, Paul & Mary, Allan Sherman, The Four Seasons, New Christy Minstrels, Vaughn Meader.

Alex’s take: It’s a shame Dylan isn’t here, but given what we have, I can see why Goulet was such a compelling choice as a Broadway legend.  Allan Sherman was probably America’s most important comic of the early 60s, and The Four Seasons had a boatload of falsetto-driven hits.  (Vaughn Meader was an unfortunate choice as a Kennedy impressionist whose career lost its single gimmick after the president’s assassination.)  Peter Paul & Mary win hands down, though.  They revitalized folk music, brought it back from the brink of agreeable and apolitical Kingston Trio nonentities, infused it once again with social conscience, and brought Dylan to the masses.

1964: Winner: The Swingles.  Nominees: John Gary, Trini Lopez, The J’s with Jamie, Vikki Carr.

Alex’s take: What a terrible group of nominees- the J’s with Jamie don’t even have a wikipedia page!  Carr enjoyed an interesting career in jazz, and Trini Lopez was expected to be the future of folk before his career imploded.  The Swingles, the actual winner, did some cool vocal renditions on classical music, but nothing remotely worthy of a major industry award.  Verdict?  A pox on all of your houses.

1965: Winner: The Beatles.  Nominees: Antonio Carlos Jobim, Astrud Gilberto, Morgana King, Petula Clark.

Alex’s take: The Beatles.  No comment necessary.

1966: Winner: Tom Jones.  Nominees: Sonny & Cher, Glenn Yarborough, Herman’s Hermits, The Byrds, Marilyn Maye, Horst Jankowski.

Alex’s take: This is roughly the moment where the Grammys stop being revolutionary and started getting twee.  Yarborough was the musician on The Hobbit animated film, incidentally.  Jones is much too Vegas, and not innovative enough.  Sonny & Cher and Herman’s Hermits had negligible levels of musicianship, so that leaves the twangy, trippy Byrds as the best choice.

1967: Winner: No Award (??)

1968: Winner: Bobby Gentry.  Nominees: Harpers Bizarre, Jefferson Airplane, Lana Cantrell, the 5th Dimension.

Alex’s take: What the hell?  Harpers Bizarre- the guys who did a bad cover of “Feelin’ Groovy”?  (Speaking of which, why weren’t Simon and Garfunkel ever nominated for this award?  Socially conscious folk-rock is clearly in the Grammys’ wheelhouse!)  This is a bad lot of candidates, but Jefferson Airplane ended up being the most impactful of them in the long run.

1969: Winner: Jose Feliciano.  Nominees: Jeannie C. Riley, O. C. Smith, Cream, Gary Puckett & the Union Gap.

Alex’s take: Hmm. Riley lit up the charts with “Harper Valley PTA,” Puckett had three hits that all sounded exactly the same, and Smith’s career wasn’t very substantial.  Here’s the thing- this award isn’t for rock and roll, it is for popular music.  On that ground, I agree that Feliciano matters more, in the end, than short-lived but very talented Cream.

1970: Winner: Crosby, Stills & Nash.  Nominees: Chicago, Led Zeppelin, Oliver, Neon Philharmonic.

Alex’s take: Chicago is my third favorite music artist of all time.  CSN is my fourth favorite music artist of all time.  Led Zeppelin still deserved to win.

1971: Winner: The Carpenters.  Nominees: Anne Murray, Melba Moore, The Patridge Family, Elton John.

Alex’s take: The Carpenters are a quintessential Grammy-oriented group, but it is hard to deny my second-favorite artist, Elton John.  40 top 40 hits, and dozens of songs to the Western canon?  One of the easiest choices on this list.

1972: Winner: Carly Simon.  Nominees: Bill Withers; Emerson, Lake & Palmer; Chase; Hamilton, Joe Frank & Reynolds.

Alex’s take: Wait…seriously?  Hamilton, Joe Frank & Reynolds– don’t pull your love– was nominated for a Grammy?  I love the MST3K sketch where the crew can’t figure out how many people are actually in the group.  Geez.  EL&P is a surprising choice; the Grammys are most definitely not prog friendly.  Simon wasn’t a bad choice, but I’d go with Bill Withers.  He was a late bloomer, but as his recent Rock Hall induction shows, “Lean On Me” and “Ain’t No Sunshine” ultimately mattered more than “You’re so Vain.”

1973: Winner: America.  Nominees: Eagles, Harry Chapin, John Prine, Loggins and Messina.

Alex’s take: I love the soft rock group America.  One of my favorite guilty pleasures.  Chapin and Prine are intriguing choices, but it is hard to deny The Eagles.

1974: Winner: Bette Midler.  Nominees: Barry White, Maureen McGovern, Eumir Deodato, Marie Osmond.

Alex’s take: This is one instance where I’ll definitely not be voting for McGovern.  It’s a strange group of nominees from a really good year in popular music.  White was one of the sexiest singers who ever lived.  Bette Midler, though, was the rightful winner– for longevity in popular music and versatility; she was still scoring monster hits in 1991 that I’ve been hearing performed at talent shows ever since.

1975: Winner: Marvin Hamlisch.  Nominees: Phoebe Snow, Johnny Bristol, Graham Central Station, David Essex, Bad Company.

Alex’s take: Geez.  Bristol, Graham Central Station, and Essex were all flashes in the pan.  Bad Company?  I refuse to reward mediocrity in any form.  I considered Snow, but ultimately I thought back to seeing Hamlisch perform in Saratoga several years before his death and being bowled over by his personality.  He reinvented, in many ways, the role of the conductor and composer into a jovial and more interactive light.  Out of a suspect group of candidates, he’s probably the best.

1976: Winner: Natalie Cole.  Nominees: Amazing Rhythm Aces, Brecker Brothers, Morris Albert, and KC and the Sunshine Band.

Alex’s take: For the third year in a row, the Grammys picked a terrible slate of candidates, but nevertheless picked the best artist out of this group.  Cole, like her father, was a vocalist whose expression and articulation was of the very first rate.

1977: Winner: Starland Vocal Band.  Nominees: Boston, Dr. Buzzard’s Original Savannah Band, The Brothers Johnson, Wild Cherry.

Alex’s take: Good God!  Seriously, Grammys, you’re killing me.  Starland Vocal Band is one of the worst choices made by any major award in any year.  Dr. Buzzard’s group is actually a very interesting interpretation on Latin music, but Boston‘s stellar, near-flawless debut album makes them the winner for me.

1978: Winner: Debby Boone.  Nominees: Andy Gibb, Stephen Bishop, Shaun Cassidy, Foreigner.

Alex’s take: Debby Boone is automatically disqualified for being Debby Boone.  Gibbs had lots of hits, but a career cut short tragically.  As a loyal Rochesterian, I need to give props to Lou Gramm and Foreigner.


So, what do you think?  It looks like the Grammys were right only 7 out of 18 time so far.  Stay tuned when we will take this project into the mid-to-late 90s.

Way back in March of 2014, I posted on who I thought nominee-presumptive Hillary Clinton’s best running mates might be.  Here we are more than 18 months later, exactly one year away from the presidential election, and maybe 8 or 9 months away from Hillary having to make this decision for herself.  As a recap, back then I suggested:

  1. Mark Warner (former senator from and governor of Virginia)
  2. Evan Bayh (former senator from and governor of Indiana)
  3. Julian Castro (mayor of San Antonio)
  4. Brian Schweitzer (former governor of Montana)
  5. Martin Heinrich (senator from New Mexico)
  6. Tim Kaine (former senator from and governor of Virginia)
  7. Michael Bennet (senator from Colorado)
  8. John Lynch (former governor of New Hampshire)
  9. Sherrod Brown (senator from Ohio)
  10. Tim Roemer (former congressman from Indiana)

What a difference 18 months can make in the world of politics.  Some choices were weak ones to begin with (Roemer, Lynch).  Some prospects have compromised their chances in some way (Schweitzer gave a truly bizarre interview where he implied that Eric Cantor was gay.)  And some new figures have emerged on the scene.

Here are a few considerations that altered my thinking between now and then:

  • The unexpected grassroots momentum of Bernie Sanders.  I knew Hillary would face some competition for the nomination, but I was genuinely surprised at how robust Sanders’ campaign turned out to be.  The hashtag-generating, email-circulating, borderline-trollish behavior of the “Berniebro” notwithstanding, Sanders has successfully pushed Clinton to the left, and demonstrated that democratic socialism was no longer a fringe belief system, but a viable perspective that deserves a seat at the table.  In terms of the veepstakes, that means Clinton cannot pick a “Blue Dog” Democrat as her husband once did with Al Gore.
  • The disastrous 2014 and 2015 elections.  They wiped out the party nationally, particularly in places that might not vote for Democrats on a presidential level, but remained viable on a state or local level.  West Virginia, Kentucky, Arkansas- dirt poor states which had high numbers of registered Democrats as recently as 2008- just keep getting redder and redder.  This should focus Hillary’s meta-strategy on not just winning but creating a strong ticket nationally, one that can replenish the bench.  Her party will, 10 years from now, need congressmen and state assemblymen, and state attorneys general in 2016 if it wishes to offer compelling candidates in the future.
  • Sit down for this one, ’cause imma blow your mind.  I think it is possible that Hillary might pick a female running mate.  That’s right.  If we pick apart her aforementioned problem about seeming too safe, too much of a known quantity, unable to really inspire people, the prospect of the first all-female ticket on a major party would shatter that preconception.  Some people might think that America isn’t ready for that, or some nonsense.  Since women gained the right to vote nationally, there have been…let’s see here…24 presidential elections, and with two major parties, that’s 48 presidential tickets.  46 of them have been all male.  2 of them had one woman in the less prestigious vice-presidential spot.  There are now dozens of qualified female candidates, more than ever before in American history.  Don’t give me any of this nonsense about America being “ready” for an all-female ticket.
  • Secretary of State Clinton also has to navigate the directions her opponents have gone.  The sideshow that the Republican nomination has become, where at one point the leading three candidates had never held elective office before, means that the Democrats have to not just generate excitement but run on professionalism and competence.  Anecdotally, I remember an old co-worker of my dad’s who hated liberals, but just felt he had to vote for Obama in 2008 because of Sarah Palin’s manifest incompetence and birdbath-deep knowledge of the issues.  That kind of “better the devil you know” thinking can actually help wrack up not only wins but majorities. Even if someone saner like Rubio or Bush is nominated, Clinton’s ticket has to accentuate the “do you really what to put these guys in charge?” mentality.  So, there are no true “Hail Marys,” no generals, no career businessmen, and nobody who is a novice to the art of governing.
  • If at all possible, insofar as Hillary is looking for senators, she will probably prefer those who serve in states with Democratic governors, and thus will be replaced- at least temporarily- with Democrats.
  • Other than that, the basic calculus is in place: avoid oldsters and avoid north-easterners.
  1.  Sherrod Brown: Brown has made a career for himself as a scrappy populist with disheveled hair, traits that should recommend himself to Bernie fans.  Although Brown recently endorsed Hillary, picking him telegraphs to the Bernie Bro that their concerns have been heeded, and views such as theirs will have a voice in a Clinton pt. II administration.  As a known opponent of monied interests and having a strong blue-collar background, he has the anti-establishment chops that Hillary may need to generate extra enthusiasm.  Running for re-election in 2012, Brown ran significantly ahead of Obama in Ohio, which may very well recommend him as a avenue to win the mother of all swing states.  The only real drawback is that John Kasich (who is himself a strong vice-presidential contender for the Republicans) would get to pick his successor.
  2.  Michael Bennet: As disastrous news swept the Democratic party from nearly all corners on Election Night, 2014, John Hickenlooper’s narrow re-election as governor of Colorado made me think: “this is great for Michael Bennet.”  Although Bennet is running for re-election in 2016, if he is somehow picked and somehow wins both the presidential race and his Senate race, a Democratic governor would choose his replacement.  Anyway, Bennet is young, from an important swing state, and has a key trait that assisted the Clinton-Gore ’96 campaign: soccer moms.  That is, Bennet’s stock in trade is in education, having once been the Denver Superintendent of Schools.  Michael Bennet is a figure made to appeal to suburbanites who might favor Republicans on fiscal issues, but are appalled by the global warming denialism and conspiratorial mindset.
  3.  Mark Warner: A Warner vice-presidency will stick a sock into the mouth of those who argue that Democrats are bad for business.  The former cellular executive proves that left-leaning politics and financial success don’t contradict, and his experience as a governor and senator of a major swing state complete what looks like a great resume on paper.  His story could provide a compelling counter-narrative if someone like Bush or Rubio picks someone like Carly Fiorina as a running mate.  On the other hand, Warner dropped the ball a bit as the keynote speaker at the 2008 DNC, and ended up having a surprising glass jaw in his re-election in 2014.  He was expected to win handily even in a terrible year for Democrats, and ended up prevailing by less than a percentage point.  To be sure, 2014 had terrible turnout, but it has turned Warner into something less than the surefire winner he was a short time ago.
  4.  Amy Klobuchar: She’s won two commanding victories in a state Republicans want to win badly.  She consistently receives stellar approval ratings in an age of widespread dislike of government.  And she now has a book out, The Senator Next Door, that has been very well received, and is viewed in some quarters as a clarion call for humbler, more responsive government officials.  She’s made remarkably few enemies and is part of the refreshing culture of teamwork that thrives among women in the Senate.  And senators from Minnesota have made some great vice presidents in the past, as Hubert Humphrey and Walter Mondale would agree.   Ironically, if a man was the presidential candidate, Klobuchar would be an odds-on favorite to join the ticket, but she won’t get the nod if Clinton dismisses out of hand the idea of a female running mate.
  5.  Gary Locke: Making his first appearance on my veepstakes list is Gary Locke, a man with a splendid resume who accentuates competence.  He won’t take any swing states off the map for Hillary, but has proven himself capable many times over as governor of Washington, Secretary of Commerce, and most recently as Ambassador to China.  His apparent dutifulness and even dullness show sparks of life, such as when he allowed Chinese dissident Chen Guangcheng to seek refuge at the American embassy in Beijing, and flying economy class on his flights.  He would also make history as the first Asian-American on a major party ticket.
  6. Julian Castro: If you want a new face that can change the political calculus, this one is it.  He was mayor of San Antonio, he gave the keynote address at the 2012 convention, and is currently getting some federal experience as Secretary of Housing and Urban Development.  He has youth, he has charisma to burn, and now has both executive and federal experience.  Moreover, he could be a long-term investment on making Texas and Arizona, with large numbers of Hispanic youths, purple states down the line, although this may not happen in the 2016 election.  The only problem- and his reason for dropping since the last ranking- is my realization that the San Antonio mayoralty is somewhat symbolic, and involves relatively little day-to-day governing.  In other words, Castro’s readiness to serve as president may come into question–but we’ll see how he does at HUD.
  7. Tammy Baldwin: Talk about a slam dunk for winning leftist enthusiasm.  Baldwin, the junior senator from Wisconsin, is one of the more progressive members of the Senate, where she will have served for four years as of 2016, after several years in the House beforehand.  She would also be the first LGBTQ person on a presidential ticket (well, openly anyway, depending on your conclusions about James Buchanan.)  If you want to make cynical young people in cities care enough to vote, this would be a strong pick.  And having an opponent of same-sex marriage- a near-certainty no matter who the Republicans pick- have to look Baldwin in the eye during the vice-presidential debate could make for some compelling television.  Although Baldwin’s ascendency to the vice-presidency would mean the onerous Scott Walker appointing her replacement, perhaps Hillary will think the risks are worth the rewards, and that Baldwin’s seat won’t determine control of the Senate.
  8. Ron Kind: If we are looking at Wisconsin anyway, let’s turn to the House.  Kind has consistently won in the blue-collarish, mostly rural 3rd district of Wisconsin covering LaCross and Eau Claire- the kind of wavering Democratic voters Hillary must be eager to shore up.  His work as a football player and an ally of William Proxmire, the senator from Wisconsin who famously gave out Golden Fleece Awards for excessive government spending, could make him an appealing candidate.  And he still has more experience in Congress than fellow Wisconsinite Paul Ryan had in 2012.
  9. Evan Bayh: All right, fine.  Bayh breaks most of the rules I set out, including no dorky-looking Blue Dogs and the obvious rule against two dynasties on one ticket.  But it is hard to find fault with his talent for winning landslide elections in a red state; even Bill Clinton said that one day he looked forward to voting for Bayh on a presidential ticket.  And the poor guy has had his heart broken by Gore, Kerry, AND Obama, according to some accounts the second-or-third choice each time.  He lacks charisma, but if you are Hillary, a flair for avoiding controversy and unwanted attention is probably more desirable.  Nevertheless, this will not excite the grassroots; Bayh went directly to the Fox News Analyst circuit after retiring from the Senate in 2010, and his wife is a corporate lobbyist.  Still, for heartland wholesomeness, Bayh is hard to beat, and since he isn’t a senator anymore, you don’t have to risk forfeiting a seat.  (His father, Birch Bayh, is also one of my heroes, and is the only surviving senator who voted for the 1964 Civil Rights Act.)
  10. Jack Reed: Another guy who violates my rules: he is relatively old (almost 70) and is from New England.  What makes Reed different is his military service: the man was a West Point cadet, and has reportedly been asked to serve as Secretary of Defense for the last two vacancies and may have been on Obama’s shortlist for the vice-presidency at one point.  Reed is a no-nonsense, constituency-oriented man who would make mincemeat out of a careless Republican opponent in the vice-presidential debate.

And Tim Kaine, Martin Heinrich, and Jeff Merkley just narrowly miss out.  What do you think?  Am I off my rocker, or have I forgotten someone important?  Let me know in the comments below- and I hope to do another one of these for the Republican nominee— once we have a better idea who that nominee is!

A few weeks ago, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame released the slate of nominees for their Class of 2016.  The list surprised many longtime hall watchers, including myself, with a number of classic rock favorites receiving their first nomination after years of being passed over.  As I reckon it, this ballot’s biggest story is the tense competition between these six vintage classic rock acts: Deep Purple, Yes, Chicago, Steve Miller, Cheap Trick, and The Cars, all unconscionable snubs to many rock fans.  Yet, this remains a diverse ballot, with rap, R&B, industrial, post-punk/alternative, funk, and even a fascinating Tex-Mex rock ensemble in the form of Los Lobos.  Similar to my approach last year, I’d like to do a run-down on the nominees.  In a slight modification of the method used at Rock Hall Monitors, I’ll conduct three rankings: 1) my personal preferences among the nominees (loosely defined as ‘if I had to listen to a half hour of music by one artist, which of these guys would I pick first’) 2) a hopefully objective ranking of their worthiness for the Rock Hall.  Considerations I will explore are artistic skill, innovation, influence, zeitgeist (e.g. were any of these artists indispensable to a particular time and place) and having a strong canon of memorable songs that made the soundtrack of our lives.  3) I will finally explore what I believe to be the likelihood of these 15 being inducted as artists.

The “Worthiness” part was especially hard to rank: the top nine are all preeminent artists in their genre, whether it is soft rock, disco, hard rock, or dance pop.

Chaka Khan (Personal Rank: 12; Worthiness: 13; Likelihood of Induction: 9):  So the Nominating Committee ditched Rufus.  That’s okay, because so did Chaka Khan.  This year, solo Chaka has an uphill battle: R&B diva competition from Janet Jackson, and disco competition from Chic.  (How many Rock Hall voters will vote for two artists affiliated with disco?  I mean, I know that Chaka Khan’s career is much more than that, but disco has a habit of dominating historical memory.  Its sort of like how if you wore a “Members Only” jacket in the 1980s, nobody will ever let you forget it.)  Still, industry respect counts for a great deal, and Chaka Khan has that in droves.  She is also the best singer on this ballot by any fair measure, which can’t hurt.  Besides, part of me would like to see Janet Jackson and Chaka Khan get in during the same year.  Here’s why: when was the last time the Rock Hall inducted two different artists that included women of color in the same year?  One would have to go back fully twenty years; it was 1996, when The Shirelles and Gladys Knight & the Pips were enshrined on the same night.   So far, Questlove has shown a knack for getting his favorite R&B acts not only nominated but inducted, as Hall & Oates and Bill Withers can attest.  We’ll see if the trend holds.  At the same time, remember this: it took the death of Khan’s contemporary, Donna Summer, to trigger her induction.  I’m not sure I like Chaka Khan’s chances absent a similar calamity.

Cheap Trick (Personal Rank: 9; Worthiness: 11; Likelihood of Induction: 4):  Many observers thought Stevie Van Zandt would throw his weight behind the J. Geils Band, whose praises he has sung from the twitter-sphere many times.  And maybe he did, but the Van Zandt project that actually bore fruit this year was Cheap Trick.  The imminent power-pop combo is often discussed in reverential tones, and is one of the only artists on this list who successfully toggles between popular acclaim and critical respect.  As one recent article put it, “The band’s music is poppy without being lightweight, aggressive without being overly indebted to hard rock, dangerous yet not threatening. Above all, their songs are empathetic, as they epitomize the universal teenage roller coaster of lust, longing, restlessness, disaffection and skepticism.”  I see that point, but I’m not sure I agree.  They are hardly my favorites on this list, and I’m not totally convinced that they aren’t just a more successful version of The Romantics.  But regardless of what I think, “Live at Budokan” is among the most fondly remembered live albums in the rock pantheon.  In terms of influence, they cast a wide net from Green Day to Nirvana to Guns N Roses.  I ultimately think that these qualities make Cheap Trick the likeliest of the six classic rock ensembles to actually make it through.

Chic (Personal Rank: 11; Worthiness: 4; Likelihood of Induction: 6): It’s a dubious distinction for sure, but Chic is now on its 10th nomination.  The Nom Com spent years pitting Chic and Donna Summer against one another, each dooming the other’s chances (lots of people might vote for one disco act.  Few would vote for two.)  This year, they are up against Chaka Khan– that’s less formidable competition, but if they couldn’t get in during the competitive but R&B-light Class of 2014 ballot, at a time when a Nile Rodgers song was riding high on the charts, what makes this scenario any different?  It’s possible that pity for Chic, or a desire to no longer see them on the ballot each year, might factor in.  The Rock Hall might throw in the towel and give Nile Rodgers a Musical Excellence Award.  Who knows?  But I seriously doubt that Chic would be nominated over and over again if they were perennially tanking in actual votes.  I’m putting their chances at #6, fully cognizant that it is very risky to place their chances this high.  As my Geometry teacher once told me, “if you always do what you always did, you’ll always get what you always got.”  If you keep nominating Chic, they’ll keep getting shot down.  But clearly, the Nom Com disagrees with this Euclidian truism, and thinks that Chic can make it this year, despite being rejected nine times before.  And the only other person who has been nominated as often as Chic, soul legend Solomon Burke, got in on his tenth try.   We’ll see who is right.

Chicago (Personal Rank: 1; Worthiness: 1; Likelihood of Induction: 7): This is the point where my objectivity might fail me.  It was a rewarding moment to see that Chicago was nominated for the first time.  Personally, I think they should have been inducted 15 years ago.  I’ve written on my blog before about how Chicago is more than a soft rock outfit.  Their first six studio albums (four of which were double albums) were filled with bold and commercially successful experiments in free-form jazz, classical-influenced suites, and Terry Kath’s prodigious guitar chops.  If you dismiss Chicago as dentist’s office music, go read a post I wrote on this blog a few years ago recommending Chicago songs for people who hate Chicago, and listen to the tracks I’ve selected.  However, I need to say something that might shock the systems of other Chicago fans reading this: Chicago’s. Induction. This. Year. Isn’t. Inevitable.  Their trajectory has precedents for and against their induction.  Let’s look at other famous, chart-busting Rock Hall snubs who were nominated years behind schedule.  Hall & Oates and Neil Diamond got in the first time around.  KISS and Bon Jovi didn’t.  Which track will they take?  On one hand, Chicago falls rather short on one major criterion, that of influence; aside from a few latter-day soundalike records like “Vehicle” and “Brandy, You’re A Fine Girl,” nobody really emulated their sound in the long term.  Very few people who have made a career out of writing about music like them, with Rolling Stone magazine being a particularly free-flowing fountain of enmity.  In short, as self-evident as their induction seems to me, I am not convinced that the votes are there.  Nevertheless, one thing in their favor is that they simply have more songs known by the general public than anybody else on this list–  by a country mile, in fact.  “Saturday in the Park,” “25 or 6 to 4,” “Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is”, “If You Leave Me Now,” etc, etc.  They are, by some measures, the second best selling American rock group ever, and have charted almost forty Top 40 hits.  Moreover, a possible reunion with Peter Cetera- who hasn’t performed with Chicago in over thirty years- is exactly the kind of scenario whoever is planning the HBO special wants to see, and I’m sure some people vote with this in mind.  I have them pegged as the 7th most likely to get in– the Rock Hall’s biggest snub will probably continue to be snubbed, but I hope to be proven wrong.

Deep Purple (Personal Rank: 7; Worthiness: 9; Likelihood of Induction: 8):  While nobody knows for sure, I think it’s a pretty safe bet that if Deep Purple were nominated last year, they would have gotten in easily, with no real hard rock competition.  Instead, they seem to only be on the ballot when facing off against compelling alternatives: they were up against Heart for the Class of 2013, and KISS in 2014.  Nevertheless, many people consider Deep Purple to be one of the great snubs of Rock Hall lore; in fact, Notinhalloffame.com and Northumbrian Countdown friend Donnie Durham both list Deep Purple as their #1 Rock Hall prospect.  And Deep Purple seems to be the hard rock choice the Nom Com is “stuck” on.  That is, we may not see Judas Priest or Iron Maiden get their shot until Ian Gillan & Co. get in.  Still, history is against them.  If it took Black Sabbath 8 tries and it took Lynyrd Skynyrd 7 tries, will it really take Deep Purple only 3?  Moreover, Deep Purple’s personnel conflicts and cantankerous relationship with the Rock Hall may work against them.  Still, while facing off against many classic rock artists, they are still the only hard rock act on the list this time.  We’ll see if that’s enough.

Janet Jackson (Personal Rank: 8; Worthiness: 2; Likelihood of Induction: 2):  It might surprise you that for all my advocacy of a Janet nomination, I am actually not that big a fan of her music.  For better or worse, Jackson peaked during one of my least favorite eras of Top 40 music, the turn from the late 80s to the early 90s when she shared air time with the New Kids on the Block and Tiffany.  However, I do know a worthy cause when I see one, and on the merits, there is no denying that Janet Jackson is Rock and Roll Hall of Fame material.  After intense lobbying from the Induct Janet team, Ms. Jackson is one of the nominees, after almost a decade of eligibility.  She has lots of the qualities that ultimately make for successful inductees: influence, relevance, name recognition, and a canon of hits.  Rock and roll purists will turn up their noses at Jackson, but very few of these individuals have access to a ballot.  The Rock Hall has a way of making sure that the Voting Committee is committed to an ecumenical and diverse understanding of rock and roll.  I think we can rest in confidence that one nomination will be enough for Janet.  And if she gets in, she really should pay for #InductJanet founder Mike Litherland to sit at the table with her; she probably owes her induction to him.

Los Lobos (Personal Rank: 6; Worthiness: 14; Likelihood of Induction: 12): Los Lobos was a surprise for many Rock Hall Watchers this year.  The more I explore their catalog, though, the more respect I have for them.  They did plenty of interesting work combining rock and roll with Chicano influences, and it would be a grave mistake to think that their catalog was limited to Richie Valens covers for the La Bamba soundtrack.  They have my respect, even though they wouldn’t necessarily have my vote.  It is easy to look at the nominees, and see Los Lobos and the JBs as the two whose candidacies are the most far-fetched.  I urge you not to make that mistake!  The Voting Committee loves artists who flit between genres, and who have contributed to the world music oeuvre in some way, and Los Lobos fits that profile quite nicely.  I don’t expect them to get in, but I would not be bowled over in surprise if it were to happen.  They are definitely the sleeper pick that every wise Rock Hall Watcher should keep a sharp eye on.

Nine Inch Nails (Personal Rank: 14; Worthiness: 7; Likelihood of Induction: 3): The Nom Com gave Nine Inch Nails an almost ideal ballot.  They stand out like a sommelier in Utah amidst this collection of radio-friendly, top 40 nostalgia hitmakers.  Last year, they were up against first-year-eligible Green Day, which may have hurt their chances.  This year, they will probably inherit much of Green Day’s coalition of voters.  They are the only purely post-1990 act on the ballot, and face no 90s alternative competition from Smashing Pumpkins or Soundgarden or any of their contemporaries.   Rock critics and Rolling Stone magazine folk love them; they are among the very few of the magazine’s “100 Immortals” who are not in the Hall yet.  While the classic rock vote is balkanized six ways, Nine Inch Nails probably has enough respect from admiring musicians and sharp critics wary of commercial success.  Consider David Bowie’s sage words: “Trent [Reznor’]s music, built as it is on the history of industrial and mechanical sound experiments, contains a beauty that attracts and repels in equal measure: Nietzsche’s “God is dead” to a nightclubbing beat. And always lifted, at the most needy moment, by a tantalizing melody.” They experimented with sound as few artists have done, helping to create the genre of industrial.  (By the way, although NIN broke out during my early teenage years, alternative and industrial just weren’t my scene.  In fact, the first time I heard NIN, Green Day, or Smashing Pumpkins songs were through “The Alternative Polka” on Weird Al’s Bad Hair Day.)

N.W.A. (Personal Rank: 15; Worthiness: 3; Likelihood of Induction: 1): I’m not saying the vote is rigged or anything, but I have a feeling that the Rock Hall will find a way to get N.W.A. in this year.  With the Straight Outta Compton film becoming an unlikely summer blockbuster, and with #BlackLivesMatter still keeping on, N.W.A. has proven prescient and relevant.  And with Tupac becoming eligible next year, they need to address their backlog of rap acts.  It’s a shame that the ceremony was unexpectedly moved from Los Angeles to New York; it would have been fitting for N.W.A. to be enshrined so close to Compton.  N.W.A. more or less invented gangsta rap and all that entails.  They still fall under my broad definition of rock and roll’s family tree, and in terms of genre, they deserve to be in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as much as anybody on this list.  What makes them stand out is their influence on rap in the 1990s, and giving popular music a long dormant edge that made it seem truly menacing and revolutionary.  On a purely intellectual level, of course they deserve to be in the Hall.  But in terms of structural justice, I can’t support them and wouldn’t vote for them if I could.  While they are absolutely right in identifying the systemic problem of law enforcement’s assumption of black guilt, I have a difficult time squaring this aspect of their work with their routine violence against women, and for that matter, their routine violence against anyone they didn’t like.  There’s a world of difference between the harmless braggadocio of L.L. Cool J’s “Mama Said Knock You Out” and the N.W.A. canon.  This toxic worldview isn’t unique to gangsta rap, of course, and too many people criticize violent black artists while giving violent white artists (Ted Nugent?) a pass, but for all their importance to the rock and roll milieu, I can’t get very excited about their fourth nomination.  But what I think ultimately doesn’t matter.  Out of all the acts on here, I am by far the most certain about N.W.A.’s chances.

Steve Miller (Personal Rank: 2; Worthiness: 12; Likelihood of Induction: 14): The Steve Miller Band is my second favorite artist on this list, if we are using personal preference as our metric.  There’s no accounting for taste, and frankly, Miller is almost a guilty pleasure, not far removed from my love of America and Jimmy Buffett.  I dig his dreamy and bluesy psychedelic soundscapes, and “Swingtown” and “The Joker” are two of my favorite songs from the 1970s.  At the same time, I acknowledge the cretin-like quality of some of his music, from inventing the word “pompatus” to rhyming “he won’t let those two escape justice” with “he makes his living off other people’s taxes.”  Of the six classic rock outfits on the ballot, Steve Miller appears to be the longest shot.  He just doesn’t stand out as a snub like the others from that genre, and isn’t as commercially successful as Chicago or the Spinners, nor as critically revered as Cheap Trick, nor as influential as Deep Purple or The Cars.  Miller is stuck behind the 8-ball like War was last year, amidst more distinctive R&B acts.  The only possible route to success is his understated blues pedigree; he’s the closest thing this ballot has to a bluesman this year, and the Voting Committee saw fit to induct two artists in that genre last year: Paul Butterfield Blues Band and Stevie Ray Vaughan + Double Trouble.

The Cars (Personal Rank: 4; Worthiness: 10; Likelihood of Induction: 10):  Remember the 2008 Democratic primary, where Chris Dodd and Joe Biden, two men with long senatorial careers and distinguished public records, both ran and essentially cancelled each other out amidst a field of younger, more exciting candidates?  That’s basically what happened here with Cheap Trick and The Cars.  They were near-contemporaries who both peaked around 1980, even as they belonged to slightly different genres: Cheap Trick to power pop, and The Cars to more synthesizer-heavy new-wave pop.  (Kind of like how Biden was the foreign policy guy and Dodd was the finance guy.)  In short, either of these two bands would have a much clearer shot if the other wasn’t on the same ballot.  And ultimately, this works against The Cars more than Cheap Trick.  The Cars might have more hits that are well-remembered today, but they don’t quite match Cheap Trick’s reputation among other musicians and music experts.  I wouldn’t count them out, but if my hunch that 2- maybe 3- of the classic rock bands will get in is correct, I don’t think The Cars will be one of them.

The JBs (Personal Rank: 10; Worthiness: 15; Likelihood of Induction: 15): Although the Nominating Committee had apparently considered them before, The JBs were the one pick that absolutely nobody saw coming.  In fact, I had to quickly google them when the nominees were announced.  I can see a kind of logic behind the pick.  They were, after all, James Brown’s backing band at the time he transitioned from the godfather of soul to the Prometheus of funk, delivering a dangerous fire to the likes of us mere mortals.  Still, I wonder if their chances are doomed because nobody expects them to realistically win.  Or to be more specific, most experts think they will be inducted in a roundabout fashion as a Musical Excellence Award winner.  Call it the Wanda Jackson Precedent, if you will: in 2009, Jackson was nominated, failed to get enough votes on the ballot, and was awarded a dubious Early Influence award instead.  (Dubious because she was a contemporary of Elvis and other first-generation rockers.)  It happened to Freddie King two years later, and expectations that a Early Influence award was in the cards anyway may have sunk poor Link Wray’s nomination for the Class of 2014.  (Unfortunately, Wray didn’t even get the Early Influence consolation prize.)  Occasionally, there is an exception: Albert King was unexpectedly inducted after his first nomination for the Class of 2013.  Anyway, now that the JBs are on the Nom Com’s radar, they will get in the Hall one way or another eventually.  Although talented, funky, and influential, they don’t have Albert King’s renown, so expect them to be inducted for Musical Excellence or a resuscitated Sideman award.

The Smiths (Personal Rank: 13; Worthiness: 6; Likelihood of Induction: 11): The Hall has not been kind to alternative acts from the 1980s.  Aside from a super-headliner like R.E.M., acts from this time and place flounder, whether its The Cure, The Replacements, or in the case of last year, The Smiths.  I don’t quite see how their prospects have changed any.  This ballot is less 80 and 90s-heavy than last year, but the Voting Committee just hasn’t shown the interest or gumption in this particular corner of rock and roll’s legacy.  But make no mistake: they are as important to their genre as Yes is to prog, as Deep Purple is to hard rock, and as Chic is to disco.  I will say, though, that they have grown on me a bit more since last year (when they were my 14th favorite act of 15!) and they probably meant more to their fans than anyone else on this list.  To disillusioned Gen X’ers trying to find their way in the world without losing their soul or their social conscience, The Smiths were stalwart companions on the journey.  If they do manage to get in this year, it will be interesting to see if a reunion with Morrissey and his fellows is a love-fest or full of Guns N Roses-style acrimony.

The Spinners (Personal Rank: 3; Worthiness: 8; Likelihood of Induction: 13): Philly soul was an essential part of the 1970s sound, and although the Spinners hailed from Detroit, their records, particularly under Thom Bell’s production, are some of the best examples of that genre.  They earned a small armada of hits after evolving from a somewhat generic 60s soul outfit into an exciting, entertaining, heavily-orchestrated ensemble that was ideal for the Soul Train era.  I love them, too; in fact, I will probably request “Rubberband Man” at every wedding reception I attend for the rest of my life.  Aside from Chicago and maybe Janet, they were the most bankable hitmakers on this list.  “Could It Be I’m Falling In Love?”  “Then Came You”?  “I’ll Be Around”?  Entertainers more than artists, they should still be no-brainers for the Rock Hall.  But with so many long-awaited first-timers, and the historic problems that 70s R&B artists have had in the last few years, they’ll probably have to keep waiting.  It just doesn’t make sense to me.  The O’Jays, with a similar resume, had a fairly painless induction process.  And I just don’t see how The Faces and Laura Nyro- two of the Rock Hall’s worst choices ever- got more votes than The Spinners did when they were first nominated for the Class of 2012.  Curiouser and curiouser.

Yes (Personal Rank: 5; Worthiness: 5; Likelihood of Induction: 5): Yes was first nominated for the Class of 2014, a ridiculously stacked group that included Nirvana, Deep Purple, KISS, Peter Gabriel, Joan Jett, Link Wray, and other heavy hitters.  Allegedly, they came within 20 votes or so of induction.  (Although with recent rumors that only 200-300 ballots are generally returned, this number seems less impressive than it once did.)  Prog rockers have generally done well once the Nom Com deigned to put their names forward, and Rush and Genesis got in with no real problems.  Yes- with a less rabid fan base than Rush and fewer memorable hits than Genesis- might be a trickier nut to crack.  The death of bassist Chris Squire reminded many people that Yes should have gotten in years ago.  Yes deserves it; their ambitious songwriting and their musical proficiency is rarely matched anywhere else in rock’s pantheon.  Like Deep Purple, they are also at the front of a very long backlog of acts in their genre.  It seems like Yes may need to get in for the Moody Blues or Jethro Tull to have much of a prayer.  And a reunion of the surviving members of classic Yes could be ratings magic, even as Paul Shaffer begs the band not to play any 12-minute suites with 4-minute synth solos.

A few random thoughts to wrap things up:

  • This is, again, a very, very strong ballot.  Assuming the JBs are in there as a stalking horse for a Sideman or Musical Excellence Award, any other combination of artists would constitute one of the strongest induction classes of the new millennium.  Even the artists I don’t especially like, such as Nine Inch Nails and N.W.A., are worthy candidates in terms of importance in the rock pantheon.
  • No matter who gets in- I can’t tell what song they would play for the final jam.  Last year’s class had lots of potential candidates for a feel-good or poignant finale: “Lean On Me,” “With A Little Help From My Friends,” “I Love Rock and Roll,” even “Good Riddance (Time of Your Life.)”  While “Smoke on the Water,” or “25 or 6 to 4,” or “I Want You To Want Me” are all good songs, they lack that kind of wallop.

So, if rumors are correct that only 5 artists are nominated, I predict N.W.A., Janet Jackson, Nine Inch Nails, Cheap Trick and Yes.  If a sixth artist gets in, add Chic.  If seven artists are enshrined against all hope, then you can include Chicago.  Right now, the online fan poll at rockhall.com is a mess, overtaken by classic rock-loving robots, without any security measures to protect the integrity of the vote.  But if I could vote, I would go with Chicago, Yes, Janet Jackson, and The Spinners consistently, alternating the fifth vote between beleaguered Chic, the stalwart Cars, and guilty pleasure Steve Miller.

What do you think?  Who will get in?  Who deserves to get in? Let me know in the comments below.

On Thursday, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame announced its fifteen nominees for induction in the Class of 2016.  Artists previously nominated include: Deep Purple, Yes, The Spinners, NWA, Chic, The Smiths, and Nine Inch Nails.   There are plenty of first-timers, too: Chicago, Cheap Trick, Janet Jackson, The Cars, Steve Miller Band, Los Lobos, and The JBs.  In a category of her own is Chaka Khan, who was nominated once before alongside Rufus, but is listed on her own this time around.

What are my thoughts?  Well, you know that phrase, “be careful what you wish for?”  If you have been clamoring for the Rock Hall to address the backlog of well-loved classic rock bands, this is your year.  The problem is that there are so many of them that some will invariably cancel each other out.  One thing I can guarantee is that we will ~not~ get an Induction class of Deep Purple, Yes, Chicago, Steve Miller, Cheap Trick and The Cars.  Not gonna happen; the Hall’s voting and modus operandi are rightly considered with generational, racial, and gender diversity.  Recently, Tom Lane listed some longtime snubs that would almost certainly be inducted the first time they were nominated.  Cheap Trick, Chicago, Steve Miller, The Cars, and Janet are all listed; and I’m not picking on Tom.  Under normal circumstances he would be absolutely right.  (Any of those acts would have easily got inducted had they been picked for last year’s much less competitive class.) But nobody saw this kind of fan-service ballot coming.  Invariably, some of these worthy acts will have to await a second nomination to get into Cleveland.

Which brings me to how our predictions went.  I got 7 right (the same 7 as Mr. Lane, incidentally): Deep Purple, Yes, Janet Jackson, The Spinners, NWA, Chic, and Nine Inch Nails.  E-rockracy got 8: good for you, man!

And Chicago got a nomination!!!!!  This is a great moment for me- I’ve advocated for this since the late 90s.  They are my favorite American band, and have long been, in my opinion, the most conspicuous Rock Hall snub.  I really hope that this is the year that the band ultimately gets in- and that Peter Cetera and Danny Seraphine can reunite with the band, even if it is just for a few songs.

In my last post, I suggested that the process of nomination was volatile.  An artist who everyone expected to be nominated might not make it: that definitely happened, via J. Geils Band.  It looks like Stevie Van Zandt used his pull to help Cheap Trick instead.  I also suggested that some artists who nobody picked might surface.  The JBs took everybody by surprise.  KING pulled off a very lucky guess with Los Lobos.  And very few indeed anticipated The Cars or Steve Miller.

Essentially, the process made Rock Hall watchers look like fools.  If you paid attention to the induction ceremony earlier this year, it yielded zero useful clues: Tommy James and Peter Wolf’s appearances were red herrings.  Nor were the Grammys helpful.  ELO and Annie Lennox put on masterful performances that did not result in nominations.  Instead, the biggest tip-off was one that many people overlooked or misinterpreted: the dismissal of one third of the Nominating Committee.  Most people thought that the change would either have a minimal impact, or at most, result in a ballot heavy in post-1980s acts.  Instead, we have a version of the 2013 ballot for the Class of 2014: very 70s-centric with plenty of longtime snubs, and lots for classic rock enthusiasts to be happy about.

Except they aren’t happy.  Go anywhere on the internet from Eddie Trunk to every two-bit music writer in every small city with its own newspaper, and complaints abound.  Most of them amount to little more than racially tinged hatred of R&B and rap, questioning its place in the rock and roll pantheon, or else they amount to little more than “my three favorite bands weren’t nominated this year.”  That’s the tragedy of the Rock Hall.  They’ve taken some solid steps to include some long-overlooked artists in the last five or six years: Rush, Genesis, Heart, Alice Cooper, Peter Gabriel, KISS, Hall & Oates, and Stevie Ray all made it.  But its never enough, and nobody acknowledges these positive steps forward.  Eventually, complaining about Chicago and Cheap Trick being left out will simply give way to the next tier: complaining about Moody Blues, Jethro Tull, and Todd Rundgren.  None of this is to excuse some of the bone-headed decisions the Rock Hall made in years past, but its enough to almost make a guy feel sorry for Jann Werner, Dave Marsh, and crew.  Almost.

Anyway, I’ll do a formal assessment of the nominees in a few weeks, following my pattern of last year: evaluating 1) how much I like each artist 2) how worthy they are of an induction irrespective of my opinions, and 3) how likely they actually are to get in this year.   I’ll end with a few stray observations:

  • No pure singer-songwriter this year.  Lots of people thought Warren Zevon, Harry Nilsson, or Sting would have a shot, but the correct answer was: none of them!
  • Similarly, no blues guys.  That’s not a bad thing, necessarily: Albert King, Stevie Ray, and Paul Butterfield all got in during the last three ceremonies, so its time to look at some other genres.
  • Warm congratulations to #InductJanet.  Mike Litherland wrote the book on how to run a strong, persuasive, and effective grassroots campaign.  Haranguing the Rock Hall for being stupid and biased will never, ever, ever result in a nomination.  You’ve got to play the long game, and you’ve got to play the classy game.
  • The Hall paved a great path for NWA (no other rap acts) and Nine Inch Nails (no other 90s alt acts, particularly first-year eligible Smashing Pumpkins) this year.
  • This list of nominees officially consigns Mariah Carey, Alice in Chains, A Tribe Called Quest, Moby, and the aforementioned Smashing Pumpkins into Rock Hall snubs.
  • For all the acclaim this ballot is getting as a classic rocker’s dream, the R&B branch of the rock and roll family tree is still well represented, and there’s plenty of racial diversity.  Six African-American artists are on the list this year: Janet, NWA, Chic, JBs, Chaka Khan, and The Spinners, and one Hispanic-American group, Los Lobos.
  • Yet, there are still very few women: just Janet Jackson, Chaka Khan, and the somewhat anonymous and interchangeable singers in Chic.  Strangely, there are no white women on the ballot this year.
  • Backing bands are conspicuously absent.  Steve Miller has seldom released music without his eponymous band, yet on the ballot, its just Steve.  Chaka Khan is without Rufus.  Nine Inch Nails might be reduced to just Trent Reznor.  This is weird, but I think there are two reasons why this is happening, both of which are semi-understandable.  1) Quality control over the voting body.  The last thing you want to do is to give something as valuable as a vote in this process to provincial sidemen. 2) Remember how long the last two induction ceremonies went?  Last year’s passed the five hour mark.  There are many reasons for this, but you can put plenty of blame on long-winded speeches from random Blackhearts and short-tenured E-Street Band members.  I understand how one might feel as a fan and not seeing your favorite Steve Miller Band member inducted.  Personally, I’d want Bill Champlin and Jason Scheff inducted with Chicago, but I know that’s never going to happen.  If the band gets in, they already have Robert Lamm, Lee Loughnane, Jimmy Pankow, Walt Parazaider, Danny Seraphine, Peter Cetera, and Terry Kath’s widow taking turns at the podium.  Consider for a moment how the hundreds of staff at the venue must feel as the ceremony moves into the early morning hours well beyond its scheduled running time and they have kids with babysitters at home.  The gallant thing to do is to cap the ceremony at a reasonable length for everybody’s consideration.

Every year, I enjoy watching various Rock Hall watchers make their predictions for the next slate of nominees.  Predicting for this year has been a bit of a tentative enterprise.  This year, we have a thinned-out Nominating Committee, whose attention is likely divided between orders from on high to get more recent acts on the ballot, a nostalgic love for old 60s and 70s classics, and impending 1st-ballot nominees that will probably dominate the next few years.  (Pearl Jam and Tupac, for example, both become eligible next year.)  We have previous ballots, stray comments from Nom Com members, and music industry buzz to guide us, but that’s about it.  So, it is worthwhile to look at some slates of predictions aside from my own.  Although lots of knowledgable people have made lists, I’m going to limit my focus on six guys, each with their own blog or message board: Philip over at Rock Hall Monitors, Tom Lane, Charles Crossley, Jr., Future Rock Legends, E-Rockracy, and myself.  (And “guys” is about right: I wonder why there are so few women who are interested in this hobby.  We could use some more diverse perspectives!)

Let’s lay things out.  To recap, my list is:

  1. Ben E. King
  2. Chic
  3. Deep Purple
  4. J. Geils Band
  5. Janet Jackson
  6. Nine Inch Nails
  7. N.W.A.
  8. Peter, Paul & Mary
  9. Smashing Pumpkins
  10. Sonic Youth
  11. The Meters
  12. The Spinners
  13. Warren Zevon
  14. Willie Nelson
  15. Yes

E-rockracy’s runs thusly:

  1. Ben E. King
  2. Chic
  3. Deep Purple
  4. Electric Light Orchestra
  5. J. Geils Band
  6. Janet Jackson
  7. Kraftwerk
  8. Nine Inch Nails
  9. N.W.A.
  10. Smashing Pumpkins
  11. The Marvelettes
  12. The Smiths
  13. The Spinners
  14. Warren Zevon
  15. Yes

Philip came up with:

  1. Chaka Khan
  2. Chic
  3. Deep Purple
  4. Eurythmics
  5. Gil Scott-Heron
  6. J. Geils Band
  7. Joe Cocker
  8. Nine Inch Nails
  9. N.W.A.
  10. Pixies
  11. Smashing Pumpkins
  12. Sonic Youth
  13. Tommy James & the Shondells
  14. War
  15. Yes

Tom Lane puts forth a well-reasoned slate consisting of:

  1. Bon Jovi
  2. Chic
  3. Deep Purple
  4. Electric Light Orchestra
  5. J. Geils Band
  6. Janet Jackson
  7. Joe Cocker
  8. Nine Inch Nails
  9. N.W.A.
  10. Sonic Youth
  11. Sting
  12. The Marvelettes
  13. The Spinners
  14. War
  15. Yes

Charles Crossley selected:

  1. A Tribe Called Quest
  2. Chic
  3. Electric Light Orchestra
  4. Eurythmics
  5. Janet Jackson
  6. J. Geils Band
  7. Joe Cocker
  8. Kraftwerk
  9. L.L. Cool J.
  10. Nine Inch Nails
  11. N.W.A.
  12. Smashing Pumpkins
  13. The Commodores
  14. The Meters
  15. The Spinners

And Future Rock Legends, revealed their picks over the Labor Day weekend:

  1. Chaka Khan/Rufus
  2. Chic
  3. Dick Dale
  4. Harry Nilsson
  5. J. Geils Band
  6. L.L. Cool J
  7. Nina Simone
  8. Nine Inch Nails
  9. N.W.A.
  10. Phish
  11. Pixies
  12. Procol Harum
  13. Sonic Youth
  14. Sting
  15. The Smiths

Let’s parse this out.  We agreed unanimously on four artists: N.W.A., Nine Inch Nails, Chic, and J. Geils Band.  We are clearly banking on N.W.A.’s astoundingly impactful biofilm, NIN’s strong performance on the fan ballot last year, Chic’s perennial appearance, and…the J. Geils Band?  Well, the Nom Com makes some damned foolish choices every year, and this is strongly in that tradition.  Other artists who appeared on at least half of our projected ballots included: Deep Purple, Janet Jackson, Yes, The Spinners, Joe Cocker, Smashing Pumpkins, ELO, and Sonic Youth.

Now, none of this means anything yet.  Artists who appeared on all of our lists may not make the ballot, and the Nom Com will probably opt for some who appear on none of our lists.  It wouldn’t be very hard at all to imagine The Zombies, or Link Wray, or The Replacements coming back– or a surprise appearance from a longtime snub like Chicago, Moody Blues, or T. Rex.  Conceivably, someone in a position of power could be scheming for Whitney Houston, putting Janet’s prospects in jeopardy.  Maybe with N.W.A.’s inclusion a near-certainty, Questlove and Toure can sneak in a hip-hop act like De La Soul.  We just don’t know.

A few things stand out as common trends, though.  In keeping with the Rock Hall’s dismissal of several nominators, including some who were on the Early Rock subcommittee, no pure 1950s acts appear on any of our lists.  At this point, I think they’d probably get shoe-horned in as Early Influences anyway, the way Wanda Jackson, Freddie King, and now The Five Royales were.  We also moved our ballot’s emphasis forward in time to the 1980s.  FRL, especially, has 8 or 9 artists who peaked artistically after 1980, depending on your feelings about the J. Geils Band.  And we disagree on who will fill certain categories: whether your ‘recently deceased legend’ spot is met by Joe Cocker or Ben E. King, whether your singer-songwriter is Nilsson, Zevon, or Sting, or which 70s R&B legends will make it: War?  Spinners?  Meters?  Or as Mr. Crossley suggests, the Commodores?

But I think there are some really cool and insightful choices that some of my colleagues made.  I love Philip’s pick of Gil Scott-Heron, who recently surfaced on FRL’s master list of “previously considered” choices.  The soul poet would be a great choice that would make Eddie Trunk’s crowd furrow their protruding brows.  Pixies, selected by both Philip and FRL, could be an unexpected choice, given the seeming randomness of the post-punk/alternative spots on the ballot.  FRL also may have struck gold with Nina Simone, a choice similar to Miles Davis several years ago: outside some boundaries of rock, but so well-respected within the music industry that she might gain some traction.  ELO would be a fine selection, a longtime snub that got some great attention at the Grammys, as did the Eurythmics.  Chaka Khan seems to have been a last minute choice by Philip and FRL, given Questlove’s recent tweets of adoration, although I’m skeptical they’d put her on the ballot with Chic, who they probably want to finally get in this year.  And as Tom Lane reminds us, Sting isn’t going to go away. Many of us were surprised when he made the ballot last year, and even more surprised when he didn’t get voted in.  He’ll be back, it’s just a question of when.  Tommy James & the Shondells also have their strongest chance yet.  James surfaced during Joan Jett’s segment during this year’s induction ceremony, and the sheer number of 80s acts that covered his material (Jett, Billy Idol, Tiffany) might make them viable.  I’m surprised I was the only one to suggest Willie Nelson.  Some people think he’ll just be given a Musical Excellence Award, but traditionally, these have been given to artists who wouldn’t have a prayer on a fair ballot.  Nelson, to the contrary, would be a formidable contender.

Well, there’s no bad prediction until the ballot for the Class of 2016 is released sometime in the first half of October.  I’m not switching any of my picks officially, but if I had to do it over, I might have reconsidered Deep Purple (their ornery attitude toward induction probably isn’t winning them any fans on a committee that seems to nominate them only begrudgingly), and replaced them with Eurythmics, a solid choice given Annie Lennox’s kickass appearance at the Grammys, the move toward the 80s, and the visible need for more Rock Hall women.  And I might have switched out Ben E. King for Joe Cocker, a figure who was more of a contemporary of some of the current power players in the music industry.  King, while a fine singer, never had a cultural breakthrough moment on the level of Joe Cocker at Woodstock.  I’d also be tempted to exchange admitted longshot Peter, Paul & Mary for someone like Nina Simone (both artists are prophetic civil rights advocates but PP&M have a damaging reputation for being anti-rock).  Oh well.  Too late now.  There’s nothing left to do but argue amongst ourselves and wait to see who got picked.

It has been a long time since I have tackled the 2016 election, and I do so with a certain degree of reluctance.  Talking about modern politics in public is something I don’t do very easily unless I am with a very small, very trusted group of friends, usually of similar temperament.  Sometimes, contemporary political situations made me very anxious, trigger my recurring problem of nervous tics, cost me sleep, or compel me to become more withdrawn and avoid social situations where talk of the election might come up.  I am a historian of politics and religion who hates talking about politics and religion.  It’s a paradox, but that’s my life.

So it is with this reluctance and hesitance that I find myself in a rare situation: not knowing which candidate to support.  I know which ones I won’t be supporting.  I won’t be supporting any of the Republicans, for example.  If their party still had leaders of character and perception like Mark Hatfield or Charles Percy I’d give it some careful consideration, but that ship sailed a long time ago.  And I know which Democrats I won’t be supporting.  Jim Webb has devolved from a cagey Iraq War dissident to an angry misogynist defending the honor of the Confederate flag.  No thank you.  Martin O’Malley inaugurated some solid reforms in Maryland, including necessary gun-control measures, but Baltimore’s slow smoldering into a racially charged pressure cooker, and O’Malley’s inability to detect that this was even a problem during his eight years as governor, disqualify him from serious consideration.  Lincoln Chafee?  I like him a lot, and his memoir Against the Tide was one of my favorite senatorial autobiographies, but let’s get real.

This leaves us with two candidates who are running, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, and one who ~might~ run, Joe Biden.  As I consider my choices, I find myself weighing a complex mixture of qualifications, temperament, character, chance of success, and the long-term consequences their candidacy might have on the fortunes of American progressivism.

Every online test I’ve taken that shows which candidate you are most in agreement with generated one consistent result: my views on the issues are closest to Bernie Sanders.  We share a similar long-term hope for the United States: we want to see it become a social democratic state more aligned with the Scandinavian countries.  We both interpret the major problem of the last generation or so of American life is a massive maldistribution of wealth in favor of higher earners, and a deterioration of the average American’s spending power and social safety net.  He envisions an America where health care, education, and a clean environment are rights, rather than carefully hoarded privileges.  So do I.

In many respects, he reminds me of George McGovern (that’s a good thing, by the way), a man I have spent nearly 10 years studying.  Like McGovern, he is seen as far too left-wing, even for rank-and-file Democrats, with a fierce antiwar streak, and a finger-pointing, no-holds-barred approach that reminds one of an Old Testament prophet haranguing a wayward people.  Their supporters share plenty of similarities, too.  Both had a strong contingent of mobilized grassroots supporters using innovative new methods to reach voters, but are distrusted by party leadership.  And each of them faced an establishment nominee-in-waiting: McGovern had Ed Muskie, Sanders has Clinton.

You might think all of this would mean Sanders is a slam-dunk choice for me, but he isn’t.  One lesson I learned from McGovern is that someone can have the same position as yourself on every major issue and still not be the best candidate.  As much as I admire McGovern’s visceral hatred of the Vietnam War and the carnage it caused, I am not yet completely convinced he would have made a very good president.  Performing this challenging job successfully requires more than avowing the correct position.  George had virtually no executive ability; he refused to deal with administrative details during the two years he was in charge of the Food for Peace program in the Kennedy presidency, and in his retirement, he managed a Connecticut hotel so poorly that it folded in a couple of years.  McGovern couldn’t run anything with visible competence. While his passion and his advocacy and his moral vision made him an exceptional senator, I doubt very much that he would have been an effective president.  If I could change one presidential outcome of the 20th century, I’d probably take Hubert Humphrey in 1968 or Walter Mondale in 1984– both are less purely progressive, but both were significantly better managers who could have shepherded their agenda through a skeptical Congress.  Frankly, I am not convinced how well Bernie Sanders would do once he had to stop campaigning and start governing.  Watching President Obama these last seven years reminded me that executive experience is not unimportant, and Sanders hasn’t run anything more than the city of Burlington, a small and in many ways deeply idiosyncratic city that might be called the Wasilla of the northeast.  And, of course, like McGovern, he would start the general election as the heavy underdog; and all the vision in the world can’t help if you are unable to win.  It might be best for Sanders to remain the “conscience of the Senate” and advocate from that office, rather than the presidency.

So what about Hillary, then?  In 2008, I watched every debate from both major parties, and while I started out quite anti-Hillary, she slowly wore me down.  Her performances at almost every debate were careful, insightful, and knowledgable.  She was clearly competent, and while she stayed in the race long after it stopped being possible for her to win, she was ultimately gracious in defeat, and gave an outstanding convention speech for Obama.  She might also be the most broadly qualified candidate in recent memory.  She gained a knowledge of how the White House works as the most politically engaged First Lady in American history.  Although I considered her a carpetbagger when she became my senator in 2001, Hillary did a surprisingly great job, spending plenty of time doing constituent outreach, even in hostile Fulton and Hamilton counties.  And finally, she has the foreign relations chops from 4 years as Secretary of State, brokering the opening-up of Myanmar, facilitating trade agreements, and working as a roving ambassador for women’s and children’s rights.

The rap against Hillary has always been in her persona, and how she carries herself.  She often comes across as shrill, imperious, and calculating in a country that generally wants warmer, affable candidates with a self-depricating sense of humor and a natural flair with the common touch.  She’ll never have her husband’s charisma, but she does have a focus  and an internal discipline that always eluded the first President Clinton.  And of course, there is the ongoing, unfolding email scandal.  In the grand scheme of things, I am not convinced that this is much more than a cooked-up faux scandal.  It’s the kind of thing where you have to be told it’s a scandal in order to perceive it as such.  Let’s be honest, how many of us would have thought before all this broke that it would be that troubling for a cabinet member to receive and send emails on her own terms?  If you are a Republican and someone told you Condi Rice used a private email server under analogous circumstances, would you have been that upset?  Given the rules that existed at the time, the private email server issue was, at worst, an injudicious choice out of step with the Obama administration’s “best practices” policies.  But there is not very much that I find unethical, and certainly nothing illegal, about it.  Here’s the thing: you can’t serve in politics without making mistakes, even big mistakes.  But you learn from them; you cannot be an effective leader without them.  What scares me is that the latest polls show Donald Trump, Ben Carson, and Carly Fiorina collectively polling about 54% of the Republican vote.  To put this differently, over half of Republicans’ first choice for president has never served in a political office before.  Yikes.

But maybe my biggest reason for looking more closely at Clinton comes from a spiritual and ethical place, as strange as this might see at first.  In my own spirituality, I am a proud, social-gospel progressive Christian.  I see the gospels as not only pointing the way toward greater communion with God, but also a greater sense of interpersonal responsibility toward each other.  The Christ I encounter in the New Testament said not a single word about abortion or same-sex marriage or illegal immigration, but weighed in heavily against the larger social sins of poverty, neglect, and hunger.  As she told one crowd recently, “”I have always cherished the Methodist Church because it gave us the great gift of personal salvation but also the great obligation of social gospel…and I took that very seriously and have tried, tried to be guided in my own life ever since as an advocate for children and families, for women and men around the world who are oppressed and persecuted, denied their human rights and human dignity.” Sanders, while Jewish in background, is in some ways the most secular presidential candidate in living memory.  As much as Sanders is upset about plutocratic politics in the U.S., it comes almost wholly from economic determinism and class politics, divorced from any real ethical or spiritual concern.

However, Clinton is also decidedly hawkish.  She voted to authorize the Iraq War, which Sanders opposed from the very beginning.  While supportive of the recent accords with Iran, her language is decidedly more bellicose than President Obama’s.   I cherish peace and abhor unnecessary war.  But I remember that even McGovern voted for the Gulf of Tonkin resolution that inaugurated the Vietnam War.  Again, people make mistakes, the question is what they take away from them, and how it transforms them.

Finally, we arrive at the man who waits in the wings, Joe Biden.  I actually supported Joe Biden during his run for the Democratic nomination in 2008.  If you go back to my college newspaper archives, you might even find a guest editorial I wrote called “Don’t You Be Shy Then: Vote for Joe Biden.”   During the Democratic debates during that primary season, Biden was always the most collected, the most knowledgable, and self-controlled candidate in a way that belied his reputation for gaffes.  It’s actually comical to look back and watch every other candidate say “I agree with what Joe said,” and “Joe has the right idea.”  But then-Senator Biden didn’t win.  With little cash and coming from a small state, he just couldn’t match the expensive, high-octane campaigns run by Clinton and Obama.

Since then, Biden has continued to impress me.  While he still does foolish things like put his arm around dignitaries’ wives in public, I think he exceeded most peoples’ expectations.  And given his G.O.P. opponents, Biden’s foot-in-mouth disease is much less of a liability.  Biden’s gaffes tend to unintentionally show respect for people.  When he said, “you can’t walk into a 7-11 without an Indian guy running the place,” it was an inartful way of showing the work-ethic and entrepreneurship of the South Asian community in America.  Compare that to mean-spirited and patently dishonest comments by Trump about Mexico sending rapists over the border, or Jeb Bush talking about anchor babies as “frankly more related to Asian people.”  He’s been an excellent vice-president; in fact, I think he was one of the three best in American history, alongside Walter Mondale and, believe it or not, Eisenhower-era Nixon.  Biden has enjoyed a warm and collaborative relationship with Congress where Obama’s has been distance, cold and combative.  Even moreso, he has decades of experience that we dismiss at our peril: 36 years as a senator (including time as the chair of the Foreign Relations committee) and eight as vice-president.

More than that, Biden has an ideal temperament for the office.  He is a reluctant candidate right now: ambitious, but not craving power.  In a Lincolnesque way, his life is defined by working through tragedy, via the loss of his wife and daughter as a young senator-elect, and the recent loss of his son.  While Hillary comes across as distant from everyday Americans’ concerns (having not, for example, driven her own car in decades), Biden is still very much the working-class Irish guy who commuted home to Delaware on Amtrak.  He communicates in a way that ordinary Americans resonate with, and his University of Delaware/Syracuse University education is a refreshing change from the obnoxious Ivy League dominance enjoyed by the upper echelons of American power for decades.  While President Biden would be 74 on Inauguration Day, 2017, the oldest ever sworn into office, I have been, in the last few years, constantly gobsmacked at the amazing things older people can do.  I am reminded of my dear friend Neil, who taught marketing classes in Singapore and even visited North Korea (!) in his early 80s with more stamina and vigor than I had at 30.  With a clean bill of health, there is nothing to suggest Biden couldn’t serve as ably as anyone.

Moreover, Biden can help the Democrats with their single biggest electoral problem: the hemorrhaging of working-class white voters from their ranks.  As a scrappy Scranton kid who still speaks that language and still understands that perspective, Biden could stem the tide with that demographic while continuing to improve strong performances with female, Hispanic, and Asian-American voters that will be the bedrock of any successful Democratic coalition.  I’ve seen cases where my brother walked by while I watched Biden on Meet the Press and say something like, “that’s the first time I’ve seen a politician explain that in a way that makes sense.”

All this is to say: I’m still of a divided mind, especially if Joe Biden gets in the race.  With that in mind, I hope that any reader will reconsider if they think the two major parties are just the same: they’re not.  One party has candidates that stand for an increase in the minimum wage, an acceptance of global warming, greater college affordability, and a robust health care system that doesn’t leave the poorest and the sickest behind.  The other does not.  So, if you are cynical toward the political system as it stands today, you’ve every right to feel that way, but I hope that your cynicism drives you toward a greater engagement and a greater motivation to get involved personally in facilitating a change and demanding a government responsive to your needs, rather than withdrawing in disgust.  While I have trouble choosing between canny but surprisingly spiritual Clinton, the social democratic ethos of Sanders, and the authentic, affable, and overqualified everyman of Biden, I look forward to making a sound decision that I can stand behind in the months ahead.

This has been a very productive month here at the Northumbrian Countdown.  To those of you have just begun your visit to this online monastery of historical and pop cultural thought, we finished the president ranking project just a couple of weeks ago, and today, another project, the ranking of Walt Disney World attractions, draws to a close.  If you wish to see earlier entries, just click the #ranktherides hashtag on the bottom; it should take you there.

These final five attractions are, in my judgment, the pinnacle of Imagineering and theme park presentation.  Each of these is a testament to how an attraction can do far more than amuse or entertain: it can instill wonder, it can inspire optimism, and it can give us important perspectives or insights into the human condition.  Given this lofty criteria, is it any wonder that 4 of these top 5 are Epcot attractions?

5.  Soarin’ (Epcot, 2004-present):  Imported from Disneyland, Soarin’ debuted in The Land, suddenly turning one of the quainter pavilions known mostly for its restaurants into the home of Epcot’s most popular attraction.  In doing so, this ride might be a bit incongruous: The Land has, traditionally, been a clearinghouse for the topics of agriculture, nutrition, and environmentalism, rather than physical or human geography.  On the whole, though, I think it works.  With a mechanical design inspired by one imagineer’s Erector set, riders feel the sensation of gently flying above a number of key Golden State monuments and natural settings.  The result is an experience that is not precisely a thrill ride, but is thrilling nevertheless.  It provides a sense of immersion from the IMAX-style screen, coordinated smells such as when you glide over orange groves, and probably the best soundtrack of any Disney attraction, thanks to Jerry Goldsmith’s breezy orchestration.  A pleasant tone is also set by an excellent safety video starring a droll Patrick Warburton. The result leaves one feeling refreshed and elevated, a delightful and more wholesome change from the adrenaline rush that comes from most thrill rides that wreck havoc upon the body for the remainder of the day.  As a quick postscript, at the D23 convention, it was announced that Soarin’ will soon become Soarin’ Around the World with a third theatre and footage from a wider array of vistas from across the globe.  I can’t wait to see it.

4.  Space Mountain (Magic Kingdom, 1975-present):  What exactly is a space mountain anyway?  The concept seems baffling if viewed literally: mountains cannot exist in the vacuum of space, they are bound to planetary geography and the shifting of tectonic plates.  Instead, I think it is best to view Space Mountain as a piece of historical futurism, the stuff from which ambient 1970s planetariums and ethereal “space music” are made.  If someone let Brian Eno design a roller coaster, it might look like this.  The ride itself is great fun- a dark (though not as dark as it was before) jaunt on a wild-mouse style coaster that disorients the senses.  For me, though–and maybe I am a bit odd here–the queue was always the real attraction, and one great disappointment of the Fastpass line is having to walk through it so quickly.  Along the way, you get cool lighting with the ride’s sanitary white color scheme interacting with vibrant, pulsing blue neons that suggest that you are descending into a very different place as you descend out of visual contact with the rest of Tomorrowland.  You get to see cool holograms, and now, even get to play some interesting games, while the tension for the ride begins to build up.  Finally, you make it past the control booth, and you can hear the screams in the distance- along with projections of meteors, and the eerie synthesizer tones evocative of the ponderous vacuum of space. For me, it has never been a space mountain, but a space station whose existence, whose purpose, is never explained, leaving your imagination to fill in the gaps.  It is a hopeful vision of the future tied to 1970s aesthetics; we may never get a clean, optimistic interpretation of space travel like that again.

3.  Spaceship Earth (Epcot, 1982-present):  This is the highest ranking ride still in existence in a more or less recognizable form; #1 closed up shop long ago, and #2 became a travesty of its original greatness.  Spaceship Earth occupies the greatest real estate in Walt Disney World- it greets you immediately as you enter Epcot, it looms over a futuristic and welcoming landscape, and you can see it virtually anywhere in the park.  A ride situated thusly, a sphere boldly resting thirty feet above ground, its silver-grey isosceles triangles reflecting the Florida sun, had better be good.  And boy, was it ever.  As you may have noticed, the ability of attractions to immerse, inspire, and instill wonder are crucial factors in my rankings.  Spaceship Earth did this every step of the way, with a great deal of gravitas, to tell the greatest story in the annals of humankind: our never-ending quest to communicate with one another.  Cleverly, the ride ascends and ascends up the robust sphere, suggesting a teleological upward trajectory for mankind: an ascent from ground level to Cro-Magnon man, to Rome burning with ashen embers, to the Renaissance, and into a “bold new era” of fiber-optics where physical distance is no longer a barrier to communication.  Along the way, the attention to detail is immaculate, lessons carried over from Pirates of the Caribbean and Haunted Mansion; the Greeks recite Oedipus Rex, and authentic period-specific Bibles are used during the monastery scene.  And then, finally, my single favorite moment in any Disney park: we see a starfield, and Earth from the distance of the moon; we see our common humanity and our mutual interdependence on one another.  To this day, when I ride, I involuntarily take off my hat at the ride’s climax in a show of respect, and I might or might not wipe a tear away.  It feels like a holy moment in a holy place.

One final note: Spaceship Earth has undergone four distinct incarnations: Vic Perrin (1982-86), Walter Cronkite (1986-94). Jeremy Irons (1994-2007), and Dame Judi Dench (2007-present).    I think the Cronkite and Irons versions are tied for the best.  I love Irons’ moody narration rather than Cronkite’s somewhat telegraphic style, but on the other hand, the “Tomorrow’s Child” finale during the Cronkite years was a better conclusion.  They need to get rid of the silly Jetsons-style cartoons from the end of the present ride which doesn’t fit tonally with the ride and merely disguises the fact that there are just black drapes on the descent covering what were once functional sets.

2.  Journey Into Imagination (Epcot, 1983-1998): When I was younger, and my family called Lake Buena Vista to make reservations for our trip- often several months in advance- it began a season of patience and anticipation.  I would wait for the clock to run down as we hit the six month mark, the one-month mark, the one-week mark, and the single thing I most looked forward to in my youth was another round on Journey Into Imagination.  It was the most stimulating and evocative aspect of an always stimulating and evocative trip to Disney World.  I couldn’t wait to hear the theme song, to smell the rose petal fragrance in the entrance, and tool around the Image Works exhibits afterward.  Unlike its later incarnations, the ride praised imagination by showing us what it looked like: from the fanciful machine the Dreamfinder used to capture ideas that inspire, to tableaux showing the power of the visual arts, to representations of mild horror in thriller novels.  It was riddled with groundbreaking special effects and rewarded multiple viewings more than any other Disney attraction.  Even today, I still find new elements in the ride I’ve never noticed before when I indulge nostalgia and view it on youtube.  If Spaceship Earth is about the triumph of civilization, Journey Into Imagination is a tribute to the process of interior thought and the intangible qualities human creativity can evoke.  Three qualities to list before we move onto #1 in explaining the attraction’s appeal.  1) the innovative use of a turntable for a two-minute scene which appears stationary but actually moves along with us.  It sets up the ride’s narrative very brilliantly, 2) a cheerful song by the Sherman brothers, and recorded with pure 80s futuristic cheese.  3) the voice acting is really lovely, just the right balance of heartfelt and cartoonish, with Chuck McCann as the Dreamfinder, and the late Billy Barty as Figment.

For years, it was the second most popular attraction in Epcot after Spaceship Earth, but an expiring contract with Kodak, the popularity of neighboring Honey, I Shrunk the Audience and the need for some refurbishment ended up gutting the ride, and replacing it “Journey Into Your Imagination,” a sad, uninspired attraction with a minuscule budget, an absence of Figment, and, alas, almost no imagination.

1. Horizons (Epcot, 1983-1999):  So, let’s rehash our top three: Spaceship Earth is about the accomplishments of human civilization and a reminder that we stand on great shoulders, while Journey Into Imagination is about the untapped potential of the human mind.  Horizons completes this trifecta as a testament to hope for the future.  It is, therefore, the Epcot attraction most in line with its governing philosophy, even moreso than marquee ride Spaceship Earth.  While much of Epcot is corporate and technical, Horizons won me over with its warmth and its humanity, and especially, its cooperative spirit.  The narration emphasizes ‘us’ and ‘we’: “we’re just around the corner from…”,  “we’ve found lots of good things in our oceans,” especially in its mantra, “if we can dream it, we can do it.”  That emphasis of participation is embedded into the very ride sequence itself.  Years before “interactivity” became Disney Imagineering’s watchword, guests could choose which future vista they wished to see, and enjoy a jaunt in sea, space, or the desert.  Horizons showed us the future, not in cold or condescending or sterile forms, but in warm, relatable, and deeply humanistic tones.  We see a family (a very heteronormative family, but still…) enjoying the blessings of new technologies that allow for fulfilling job opportunities, a food supply that meets all humanity’s needs, new forms of leisure.   And above all, these technologies allow the family to remain closer; a video conference call is one of the last scenes of the attraction, where disparate relatives come together to sing “Happy Birthday” to little Davey.

It was a glorious mishmash that could never be duplicated again: a number of scenes from a very different ride about how people in the past viewed the future, an IMAX presentation on new technologies, a cool ride system that had us looking forward and allowed for more detailed scenery from our angle.  The ride had its budget slashed multiple times during its conception and construction, and the people who built it kept throwing new and better solutions at the problems it faced in development hell.  New imagineers like Tom Fitzgerald took bold risks and gave audiences a slow, but immensely satisfying experience.  Horizons elevated the mind, stimulated the spirit, and made me want to participate in a better future and help unlock humanity’s potential.  Not bad for a 14-minute ride in a central Florida vacation destination.

This concludes our countdown of the greatest Walt Disney World attractions of all time.  I hope this has been a useful read for Disney vacationers and the many hardcore Disney fans out there.  Please remember: I only ranked attractions I personally experienced, so some inevitably fell outside the bounds of this project due to their closing before I was born or simply my lack of interest in seeing them.  These include (but are not limited to): Flight to the Moon, Magic Carpet ‘Round the World, Swan Boats, Tom Sawyer Island, Triceratops Spin, Superstar Television, Mickey Mouse Revue, Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, Toy Story Mania, Mike Fink Keelboats, If You Had Wings, Magic Carpets of Aladdin, Magic Journeys, and Legend of the Lion King.  My definition of “attractions” also eliminated corporate exhibitions (Innoventions, Transcenter), playgrounds (Honey, I Shrunk the Audience, Image Works), walk-throughs (Maharajah Jungle Trek), and arcades (Frontierland Shooting Gallery, Penny Arcade).

And finally, always remember: “if we can dream it, we can do it.  And that’s the most exciting part.”


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