Last week, I gave a cursory overview of our slate of nominees for next year’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction. There was a lot of ground to cover, especially with nineteen nominees, the most since the Rock Hall’s infancy, and a lot of my thoughts were simple reactions to some startling choices made by the Nom Com. This time around, I hope to examine the nominees in some greater depth. Before we dive in, lots of other Rock Hall monitors have written great takes worth a look, including Philip, Michelle, Donnie, Eric, and Tom.
For me, I’m listing the 19 nominees alphabetically, with three rankings: 1) their Worthiness of being inducted into the Rock Hall on the grounds of influence, excellence, and role in rock’s unfolding history, 2) their Likelihood of actually being inducted, and 3) how they measure in the purely subjective measure of Preference, or how much I like them.
Bad Brains (Worthiness: 16, Likelihood: 18, Preference: 19): For many, this was the biggest surprise on the ballot, given the Hall’s reticence toward punk. In some ways, nominating this hardcore D.C. area band, whose influence in straight-edge culture is very palpable, almost seems like a warning shot to naysayers demanding greater populism and the HBO executives demanding marketable acts. The low marks in all three categories might mistakenly give the impression that I don’t like Bad Brains. Honestly? If and when I revisit my top 100 Rock Hall prospects, it’s more likely than not that Bad Brains will have earned a berth. It’s a solid nomination with ties to a number of Cleveland-neglected genres, and it sends a message.
The Cars (Worthiness: 8, Likelihood: 7, Preference: 3): The Cars are back after a surprise nomination last year. While their fellow classic rockers on last year’s ballot beat them to the punch, The Cars look like they are in pretty good shape. They straddle the line between commercial success and critical acclaim as well as anybody on this list, and what’s more, my appreciation for them has only grown in the last year. At the time of this writing, they are seated comfortably at #3 on the fan ballot. While that counts for very little, it does signal a clamoring for The Cars among the wider public. They are among my top 20 biggest snubs, and I’d love to see them get in. Unfortunately, with classic rock having been overdone last time, a couple populist favorites on the list, and a couple no-brainer first-time nominees, The Cars may find themselves stuck in neutral this year.
Chaka Khan (Worthiness: 15, Likelihood: 13, Preference: 13): Last year, Khan earned a solo nomination, and once again, she’s up against two competitors with whom she does not compare favorably: Chic from her Rufus days and Janet Jackson from her 80s solo career. When you add her troubles with drug addiction that sent her to rehab this spring, the prospects aren’t looking good for Chaka Khan. She’s a singer of singular talent, but if it took Donna Summer five nominations and an untimely death, there’s little chance that Chaka Khan is going to make it on her third try.
Chic (Worthiness: 6, Likelihood: 11, Preference: 9): At this point, we’ve run out of metaphors and cliches to describe Chic’s predicament- seriously, at this point, Susan Lucci should start demanding royalties every time a music writer weighs in on them. If Chic couldn’t get in during the Class of 2014 with Niles Rodgers-produced “Get Lucky” riding high in the charts, there’s very little this year that makes their “plausible but unlikely” chances any better. Hope springs eternal, and it’s unlikely that the Nom Com would keep nominating if they kept tanking in votes every year. Yet there’s no reason to think this year’s outcome will be different from any other.
Depeche Mode (Worthiness: 11, Likelihood: 15, Preference: 15): It was a pleasant surprise to see Depeche Mode show up, given the Nom Com’s reluctance to give the late 80s/early 90s B-list their due, while chipping away at the 1960s and 1970s C-list. It’s unfortunate that they are up against Kraftwerk; Depeche Mode took many of their ideas and made them palatable to the general public. When facing one another, it becomes a tricky choice between influence and success. This is a worthy selection, and an interesting substitute for Nine Inch Nails this year, but their prospects are still unlikely.
Electric Light Orchestra (Worthiness: 12, Likelihood: 3, Preference: 5): Reflective of the Rock Hall’s populist turn these last few years, ELO fits in with the current zeitgeist. Vintage 1970s bands have done very well the last few years, between KISS, Chicago, Hall & Oates, Cheap Trick, Steve Miller (Band) and others. ELO enjoys the added bonus of having frontman Jeff Lynne work with many inductees over the years, so if Tom Petty, Duane Eddy, Paul & Ringo, and any number of other artists still fill out their ballots, there’s a good chance that they can find room for the Electric Light Orchestra. Rabid fans of their classical-infused rock music have got to be pleased about their chances- in some ways, they are this year’s Chicago.
J. Geils Band (Worthiness: 18, Likelihood: 12, Preference: 14): Kind of like Los Lobos last year, J. Geils Band is one of those outfits that has my respect, but isn’t quite Rock Hall-worthy. Their live stuff is pretty fun, and their proficiency in the blues during the 1970s is quite impressive, if at odds with “Freeze Frame” and “Centerfold.” Clearly, some people on the Nom Com love them, and they have returned for their fourth nomination. While they are among the least deserving, in my opinion, I’m hesitant to write off their chances. Blues acts have had lots of luck in the last five years, with Albert King, Stevie Ray, and Paul Butterfield Blues Band all getting in. Even Steve Miller arguably got a boost from being the closest thing to a blues artist on last year’s ballot. While I don’t think J. Geils Band will have similar luck, especially if the Hall keeps their promise of five nominees, I wouldn’t count them out.
Jane’s Addiction (Worthiness: 13, Likelihood: 14, Preference: 10): And here we have our 1980s/1990s early alternative slot given to these Lollapalooza legends who ranked an even #50 on my list of Rock Hall prospects. I’d love to see more bands like this get in, but it’s a little ridiculous that they might outpace The Smiths, The Cure, The Replacements, and Sonic Youth in doing so. Nevertheless, it would be a real public relations coup to get that crowd to harbor a less cynical attitude toward the Hall. But unless Cleveland bestowed voting rights to a critical mass of Gen X’ers, expect Jane’s Addiction to have a lengthy wait.
Janet Jackson (Worthiness: 3, Likelihood: 6, Preference: 8): It was downright shocking that Janet didn’t get in last year. Even with a stacked ballot of other long-neglected acts, I expected her to sail right through. With a bit of classic rock fatigue from last year, though, Janet’s chances are still very good- although I’m not taking anything for granted. If she does get in, expect a monumental comeback performance after what I hope will be the delivery of a healthy baby. A Janet induction would be a triumph, and then maybe we can move toward Whitney Houston, Mary J. Blige, and a pet project of mine, TLC.
Joan Baez (Worthiness: 10, Likelihood: 5, Preference: 2): In hindsight, a Baez induction should have been obvious. With an entire exhibit on rock and politics on display in Cleveland during the RNC, someone like Joan was hiding in plain sight. Although she is important on her own merits, the recent attention given to Bob Dylan with his Nobel Laureate can’t hurt. Moreover, the Hall loves singer-songwriters and they usually cruise right in: Bill Withers, Cat Stevens, Donovan, and I suppose Steve Miller all had fairly painless induction processes. And none of those can match the historicity of Baez, someone who actually opened for Martin Luther King at the March on Washington. (I hasten to add, though, that Baez didn’t always write her own songs. She came from an age where folk singers appropriated, re-arranged, and re-wrote existing songs, or “messing with tradition” as Dan Berggren puts it.) I’m sure of only two things for Rock Hall 2017: Pearl Jam is getting in, and there will be at least one female performer after last year’s sausage-fest fiasco. Whether that’s Janet or Joan- hopefully both- remains to be seen.
Joe Tex (Worthiness: 17, Likelihood: 17, Preference: 16): Now here was a surprise. Most Rock Hall watchers thought Joe Tex’s days on the ballot were over, and that he had been passed by in favor of more marquee names like Withers, The Spinners, or even the yet-to-be nominated Commodores. Well, someone on the committee thought otherwise, and this year’s 60s’ soul and 70’s funk slot goes to Tex for nomination #5. Tom Lane likes him, but I don’t quite share the love- while a good artist, Tex just didn’t excel at any one thing, always seeming to be outpaced by someone like James Brown or the Isley Brothers. He’s one of the least likely to get in- if The Spinners couldn’t do it on a weaker ballot, Tex doesn’t have a prayer. But for those who hope the Rock Hall will push the casual music listener against his instincts and force him to learn his history, the Joe Tex nomination is encouraging.
Journey (Worthiness: 7, Likelihood: 4, Preference: 6): And right on schedule, here’s our uber-populist pick this year. Right now, Journey is running away with the fan poll, with a potent combination of classic rock fans and a demographic I like to call “50-year-old women named Tammy.” And I don’t begrudge them that success; they have a boatload of Top 20 hits, the most downloaded song of all time in “Don’t Stop Believing,” and for ordinary Americans, Journey is a key part of their milieu. If you wonder how they will pick off a key section of actual Rock Hall voters, remember: three years ago, we weren’t aware of a single person who disclosed their ballot that was voting for KISS, a band with similar, even greater, critical hatred. KISS still got in, and so will Journey unless I miss my guess.
Kraftwerk (Worthiness: 2, Likelihood: 16, Preference: 7): It’s great to see Kraftwerk back. They are the highest-ranked artist from my 100 Rock Hall Prospects (and were only edged in worthiness by newcomer Pearl Jam.) Unfortunately, a German band that made 10-minute long electronic tracks is a tall order in any year, let alone a 19-act ballot this strong. I love you, Kraftwerk, but with another electronic act in Depeche Mode, and another nominally cerebral act in Yes, you don’t have a prayer.
MC5 (Worthiness: 14, Likelihood: 19, Preference: 17): Speaking of politics and rock, MC5 is back, probably at Tom Morello’s behest. While Baez preached a nonviolent message palatable to 60s peacefests, MC5 was a radical New Left group that wanted an honest to god revolution. Despite their lack of chart success, they were important to the development of punk in articulating their dissent with mainstream society. Their surviving members are still somewhat high-profile, if eccentric, but they won’t be getting that call to play in Cleveland. Again, history is instructive: if it took The Stooges, an act on Rolling Stone‘s list of 100 immortals, 8 tries to get in, MC5 isn’t going to make it on their second nomination.
Pearl Jam (Worthiness: 1, Likelihood: 1, Preference: 11): For years, 2017 has been blocked out as “the year Pearl Jam gets in.” Well, it’s finally here, and like everyone expected, they got nominated. They were one of the most important acts from the 1990s, almost as innovative as Nirvana but with longevity, and virtually every male rock singer for the rest of that decade tried to sound like Eddie Vedder. Their only danger is that too many people will think they are a sure thing, and spread their votes elsewhere.
Steppenwolf (Worthiness: 19, Likelihood: 10, Preference: 12): It is a credit to the Nom Com that this is their only truly indefensible pick this year. This isn’t going to be popular with some of my readers, but– seriously, Steppenwolf? Somewhere in Manitoba, Randy Bachman is sullen and disgusted, and is cracking open yet another Labatt Blue. They had two big hits that are well remembered, and while hardcore record collectors insist on “The Pusher” and other later-day tracks as genius, I don’t buy it. They failed to produce a single good album, and yet as classic rockers from the right era, they have as good a chance as anyone. Every year, an act I either detest or think is wholly undeserving gets in (NWA, KISS, Lou Reed, Rush), and I’m afraid that this year, it may be Steppenwolf.
Tupac Shakur (Worthiness: 4, Likelihood: 2, Preference: 18): Tupac is loved by all the right people. Rolling Stone, which is probably the single biggest institutional influence on the voting committee, helped make 2Pac a modern-day legend, the object of reverence and devotion like an inner-city semiotic cross between Bob Marley and Che Guevara. He’s every bit as relevant and revolutionary as NWA, but somehow never caught the stigma of violence and misogyny that followed them to ignominy (although his own personal life was also problematic in those regards.) Anyway, I’m calling it- Tupac is getting in, and as the most important eligible rapper, I have no objections, despite my mixed feelings toward the genre.
Yes (Worthiness: 5, Likelihood: 8, Preference: 4): Poor Yes- prog rockers have been clamoring for their induction for years, and even on some strong ballots, it seemed like Yes had a good shot. Last year, they had to watch on HBO as fellow classic rockers Cheap Trick, Chicago, Deep Purple, and Steve Miller took to the podium in the Barclays Center. If Yes didn’t have what it took last year, it’s hard to see a different outcome this time, although one could have said the same thing about Deep Purple last year. Oh well. Should Yes get inducted, proggers can then commence complaining about King Crimson and ELP.
The Zombies (Worthiness: 9, Likelihood: 9, Preference: 1): I. Love. The Zombies. Rod Argent is probably my favorite rock keyboard player. Odessey and Oracle is in my top five favorite albums- all time. I am completely and totally in the tank for them. And yet, I’m still worried about their chances- I thought they would pull through when they were first nominated for the Class of 2014, but were somehow eclipsed by the likes of KISS and Hall & Oates. Well, one meaningless trend will help them this year- my favorite act on the ballot has made it in the last three years (Linda Ronstadt, Bill Withers, and Chicago, in case you were wondering). More seriously, I can see them pulling together an upset with a winning coalition. Surviving Dave Clark Fivers and other British Invasion vets will probably have their backs, and as one of the most soulful acts in that genre, it’s hard to see the odd Miracle or Vandella denying them a vote. If you add their sterling reputation in Indie circles, it’s not that hard to see The Zombies pull this off. I sure hope they do.
And there we stand. After last year, I think the Rock Hall will do anything in its power to get a more diverse class than last time- even if it involves some Class of 2007-style “creative arithmetic.” Expect at least one woman- probably Janet Jackson or Joan Baez- possibly both. If we go by likelihood, that means a class of Pearl Jam, Tupac, ELO, Journey, and Joan Baez if they stick with five, adding Janet Jackson if they go for six (they should), and The Cars if we get a supersized class of seven.
Who will I vote for in the Rock Hall’s fan ballot? Well, as I said before, Pearl Jam is massively influential and successful; although I don’t especially care for them, I have to vote for them. Because of her very real merits and my abiding respect for #InductJanet, Janet Jackson gets my vote too. They won’t get in, but as my 2nd most worthy Rock Hall prospect, Kraftwerk deserves it. We’re still seeing their massive influence play out today. I love The Zombies so much that I’ll overlook their somewhat brief heyday. And my inner McGovernite and my love of good folk music makes me pick Joan Baez to round out the list. But good lord! It’s kind of crazy that the Rock Hall cooked up a ballot so strong that I don’t have room for Yes, The Cars, Journey, ELO, 2Pac, or luckless Chic.
So- what do you think? Remember, these rankings are just one guy’s (hopefully informed) opinion. I’d love to hear who you think deserves induction in the comments below.