As a devoted hobbyist, the lead up to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame nominees’ announcement is my favorite time of year. I fully participated in that season for the first time last year, and enjoyed reading predictions from all over the internet, but especially Future Rock Legends, Tom Lane’s Music Blog, and the Rock Hall Monitors, all of whom post their own lists. Here’s the first draft of my thoughts. I’ll probably post my final predictions in August, but I can’t imagine they will deviate too much from this list.
Here’s the situation: the Rock Hall is quickly reaching demographic Armageddon. This is the last year for a while that doesn’t have a no-doubt-about-it, no-brainer first-year inductee. In fact, I don’t have any first-year eligible acts. Next year, Pearl Jam becomes eligible, a band that I can almost guarantee will not only be nominated but also inducted. (2pac and PJ Harvey also become available that year, but their nominations are less certain.) The year after, you have a veritable explosion of important acts who pass the “25 years since your first record” threshold, including Beck, Radiohead, and Rage Against the Machine, any or all of whom could be nominated. And there’s still a backlog of acts that became eligible the last couple years, but got overshadowed by Green Day and Nirvana: Soundgarden, Pavement, Melissa Etheridge, Queen Latifah, and De La Soul fit this bill, among others. This means that the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame really needs to get its act together and stop screwing around. If there are pet projects they want to induct, this is the year to do it, because the next few years are going to be dominated by acts that first rose to prominence in the 90s. For this reason, I project 9 acts to be returning nominees, while only 6 will have been chosen for the first time.
Another trend that appears to be surfacing is an odd year/even year gap. The ballots for the last two odd-numbered years (Classes of 2013, 2015) were strikingly similar, with a heavier R&B flavor and berths for The Spinners, The Marvelettes, and the decidedly un-R&B Kraftwerk and Joan Jett. I can’t help but wonder if the 2016 ballot will more strongly resemble the very excellent ballot for the class of 2014, with a sturdier focus on classic rock.
1. Nine Inch Nails: NIN made it on the ballot during their first year of eligibility. Lots of people thought they would get in, and they even placed second in the Rock Hall’s online fan ballot. And yet, they didn’t make it; interestingly, out of the five winners on the fan ballot, they were the only ones who fell short among the actual voting committee. It is likely that they will make a return appearance.
2. Deep Purple: Maybe the single most troubling element of last year’s ballot was the complete absence of 70s Classic Rock acts. It gave all of the Rock Hall’s manifold critics ever more opportunity to rain down complaints that the Hall was privileging “critic’s pets” over “the people’s favorites” even though most of the best artists in this genre were inducted years ago. Still, we’ve arrived at a point where Deep Purple needs to get into Cleveland pronto. The “Not in the Hall of Fame” site lists them as the single biggest Rock Hall snub, and there is an immense backlog of hard rock acts like Iron Maiden and Judas Priest that probably won’t have a realistic shot until Deep Purple is in. If they are on the ballot, expect plenty of drama and acrimony over which members will show up and which members will be inducted, repeating the most unseemly elements of KISS from two years ago.
3. Yes: So, my theory last year that they had actually gotten voted in for the Class of 2014 but could not attend because of touring commitments was probably spectacularly wrong. But that doesn’t make Yes any less deserving. The sad diagnosis of bassist (and sole remaining original member) Chris Squire with leukemia may only add to the urgency of including Yes in a Rock Hall with most of the big prog rock acts still missing.
4. The Meters: This funky New Orleans outfit is unknown to much of the public, but their respect in the music industry is resolute and enduring. They have appeared on the ballot four times before, including twice in the last three years. Clearly, some influential folks are pulling strings for the Neville brothers and their cohorts. Out of all the picks, this is the one I’m most iffy about- this spot could just as easily have gone to War or the Spinners. But R&B and/or funk will be represented. You can count on it.
5. Sonic Youth: The Rock Hall has really been struggling with an amorphous category that one might call post-punk or proto-alternative acts. Someone from that world shows up on just about every ballot, but ends up falling short. This year, it was The Smiths. The year before The Replacements, and a couple years earlier The Cure. My own opinion is that The Cure are best qualified to take this spot, but my guess is that the Nom Com will finally settle on Sonic Youth. Sonic Youth was only slightly less significant, and was the hip 15-year-old babysitter to a lot of alternative acts when they were little kids, if that metaphor makes sense. The Hall will be under (well-warranted) pressure to induct more women, and Kim Gordon’s presence will parry this criticism. Gordon’s recent book, Girl In A Band, will also generate some chatter that will help them.
6. Warren Zevon: Come on now, we know this routine. There’s a singer-songwriter every year, and on his or her merits, it seems like their case for induction is shaky. But they always make it in the end somehow. (I’m sure you’ve met the last several models: Bill Withers, Cat Stevens, Randy Newman, Donovan, Tom Waits, Laura Nyro…) While I’d like to see Carole King get this spot, Zevon has a strong chance this year. Retiring late night host David Letterman has expressed his wish to see one of his favorite guests in the Hall, and where Letterman goes, Paul Shaffer is never far behind.
7. NWA: It’s clear that Toure and Questlove are committed to getting NWA in. Last year, a lot of folks- including myself- thought they would pull it off, but it was not to be. With a biopic of the group out in the theatres, and the ceremony in 2016 held in L.A. (within drive-by shooting distance of Compton), it is tough to see how NWA doesn’t make it back onto the ballot. I am not a fan of their violence and misogyny (two social problems that are by no means limited to rap music; go listen to Nugent sometime if you doubt me.) But with continuing police violence and discrimination against the black community dominating the news daily, “F— The Police” will keep resonating with the public.
8. Chic: I feel so bad for Chic. They have now been nominated nine times for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, more than any other artist except for soul legend Solomon Burke. Nile Rodgers’ battle with cancer couldn’t muster enough sympathy to take them over the edge, nor could the spectacular success of Rodgers-produced “Get Lucky.” Chic- or rather, Rodgers and assorted friends- have some new music out this year, but whether this will be enough remains anybody’s guess. Chic is also a band more well loved by music historians than the general public: they earned less than 2% of the votes in the Hall’s official online fan ballot.
9. J. Geils Band: It took four tries, but Jann Werner finally shoe-horned the Paul Butterfield Blues Band into the Hall of Fame last year. I don’t wish PBBB ill, but I think they leapfrogged over a lot of more deserving and widely respected acts. Someone once called them “your favorite band’s favorite band,” and that’s fair; they just didn’t jive much with the public, despite some fine live albums and some atypical hits like “Centerfold” that were as far from the band’s raison d’être as “You’re the Inspiration” was from Chicago Transit Authority. My guess is that PBBB’s successful induction will only encourage the Nom Com’s bad habits, and they will pick another Werner-sanctioned blues outfit filled with white boys. The fact that Peter Wolf inducted PBBB this year is a pretty straightforward signal that we could see J. Geils Band return to the ballot for the fourth time after a few years’ absence.
10. Big Star: Big Star is often considered to have a “cult following” despite a conspicuously bad chart performance. Their fingerprints are all over the 80s and 90s artists like REM, Gin Blossoms, and the Replacements giving them credit; one of their songs was even used as the theme for “That ’70s Show.” Holly George-Warren published a well-received new book on their tragic frontman, Alex Chilton, and George-Warren has a knack for getting more obscure artists onto the ballot and into the Hall. She was probably responsible for Laura Nyro’s nominations several years ago. And Big Star seems like a band that could pick up a lot of traction and generate a lot of buzz: rock critics love them, but so do lots of more pedestrian music fans whose interests run wide and deep. Big Star is like a secret handshake for people who know their shit, musically, and acts like that have a way of showing up when nominees are announced.
11. Wille Nelson: On the Dan Patrick Show, Rock Hall president Greg Harris was asked which uninducted artists deserved to be in the Hall. Harris demured at first and dodged around the question, but the hosts kept badgering him. The closest Harris got to an answer was an offhand mention of Willie Nelson. Nelson has been racking up the accolades this year, with a heavy presence at the Grammys and a well-received autobiography. There is precedent for the Hall putting in country artists who were often duet partners and collaborators with rock and rollers; just look at Johnny Cash and Bonnie Raitt. And temperamentally, the Red Haired Stranger’s outlaw persona, Farm Aid activism, and egregious use of pot make him a good fit with the qualities the Rock Hall values; he has always been a figure more at home in Woodstock than the Opry. There will be pressure to induct the 81-year-old singer while he is still among the living, and he’s never had a better chance to make the Rock Hall than this year.
12. Ben E. King: Although #2, #8, #10, and #14 all have prominent members who are deceased (and #6 is also gone), most of them have enough living bandmates to show up, collect the award, and put on a show. If one recent emigrant to Rock and Roll Heaven is going to make it onto the ballot, I have a pretty good feeling that it will be Ben E. King. I hate to be so callous, but dying is a mixed bag for predicting one’s fortunes in the Rock Hall: it worked for Lou Reed and Donna Summer, but did nothing for Whitney Houston or Davy Jones of the Monkees. Originally, I had Joe Cocker, a great interpretative singer and strong live act, on this list, but I ultimately think Ben E. King will supplant him if we allot one spot to “recently deceased legend.” “Stand By Me” is one of the timeless songs of the 20th century, and is only rivaled in my opinion by “Will You Love Me Tomorrow” as the best song of the early 60s. The older guys on the Nom Com will remember his career fondly, and the younger folks will still be familiar enough with his catalog to give some sympathy votes. And between Lou Reed, Peter Gabriel, all four Beatles, and all four members of CSNY among many others, heaven knows that the Rock Hall loves having new members into its so-called Clyde McPhatter Club of multiple inductees. (Like McPhatter, King is already inducted as a member of the Drifters.)
13. MC5: The path to nomination for MC5, a short-lived group without much mainstream success, lies through Tom Morello. MC5 was a proto-punk band clamoring for revolution in “Kick Out the Jams,” in terms that strongly anticipate Rage Against the Machine. I think Future Rock Legends was on the right track by predicting his nomination last year, and they were already on the ballot back in 2003.
14. Peter, Paul & Mary: And now, finally, we come to- quite appropriately- my “Hail Mary” prediction, the most far-fetched selection on my list. When Bob Dylan gave a speech at Musi-cares on his career, he singled out the trio for characteristically back-handed praise: “I didn’t usually think of myself as writing songs for others to sing, but it was starting to happen. And it couldn’t have happened with a better group. They took a song of mine that I’d recorded before that was buried on one of my early records (‘Blowin’ in the Wind’), and they turned it into a hit song. Not the way I would have done it — they straightened it out. But since then hundreds of people have recorded it. I don’t think that would have happened if it wasn’t for them. They definitely started something for me.” Tom Morello was a performer at the event, so hopefully, he was paying attention to Dylan’s sage words. But more than this, PP&M have been getting some high-profile attention lately. In 2014, a two-years-behind-schedule retrospective for their 50th anniversary was published, with no less a figure than Secretary of State John Kerry writing the foreword. What’s more, the Rock Hall summer film series is showing Festival!, a documentary on the great folk festivals of the 1960s, and the description of the film gives special attention to Peter, Paul & Mary, as well as Joan Baez (who might conceivably take this slot away from the trio). To continue the momentum in their favor, the recent series of 50th anniversaries from the Freedom Struggle reminds us all of the courage and commitment the three of them showed, having performed at the March on Washington, and later speaking out against Vietnam and Apartheid. And for most Rock Hall voters, left-wing activism never hurt anyone’s chances. If I am reading these tea leaves correctly, all this amounts to the clearest chance a pure 60s folk act has had in a long time.
15. Janet Jackson: So far, we are missing one thing: a showstopper, a headliner. No Rock Hall induction ceremony is complete without one, especially now that there is an expensive contract with HBO to honor. It’s got to be Janet’s year. My friends over at the Induct Janet social media campaign have continued to fight the good fight. They have made sound arguments and politely but persistently lobbying musical critics and Nom Com members to recognize Miss Jackson’s contributions to 80s and 90s R&B and dance music. Given how most online campaigns to induct certain artists are angry, barely literate screeds about the Nom Com’s bias and ignorance, their tact and dignity stand out. Jackson’s chances are given a boost by her recent announcement that a new album and tour are in the works; this will be no nostalgia nomination, but a pick for an active, working artist. She’s influential, she has a boatload of hits, and she dominated her era in popular music history. Janet deserves to be in, and at any rate, it is really weird that Tito Jackson is in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and Janet is not.
— Here are some of the tougher cuts from this list, and possible acts that might usurp a spot when I post the final predictions: Joe Cocker (the death rule), L.L. Cool J. (he got the most votes from the Nom Com one year, yet he didn’t even make the ballot last year. What’s up with that? Did support for him cool, or are they still clearing the board for NWA?) Joan Baez (the folk emphasis, in lieu of PP&M), Kate Bush (in my opinion, the most logical female artist to be inducted next after Janet, but the Hall is slightly biased against English acts that didn’t make it that big in America), The Cure, War, and The Spinners. Because I think this will be viewed as a ‘last chance before the mid-90s groups come of age’ ballot, I do not include any acts that are newly eligible this year. And that was a tough choice, because out of those artists, Mariah Carey will certainly make it some day, and maybe Alice In Chains, while Smashing Pumpkins were my last cut from the list. Ultimately, I think the Nom Com will want a clearer path of victory for Nine Inch Nails, and most will conclude Sonic Youth, a key SP influence, provides enough competition as it is.
So, there’s my 15 picks. This covers most of the bases, in terms of sub-genres of rock and roll, different eras, and racial representation. Given this excellent infographic on how few women are in the Rock Hall and Jett’s entreaties to induct more women, my list includes three key women in rock history (as well as the Chic singers): Janet Jackson, Mary Travers, and Kim Gordon. And each thrived in different ways: Jackson as a songwriter, dancer, trendsetter, and producer; Travers for her political activism and inability to suffer fools; and Gordon’s long-term influence and instrumental proficiency.
Let me know your thoughts in the comments section! I’d be curious to know: which 5 artists would you vote for if this was the actual ballot? If it were me, I’d say: Janet Jackson; Peter Paul & Mary; Deep Purple; Chic; and either Yes or Ben E. King for that fifth spot. Eh, probably Yes, if only to pave the way for the Moody Blues or Jethro Tull next year.
**Disclaimer: these are, again, simply the artists who I predict the Nominating Committee will select. If I had my wish, these fifteen artists- chosen from an array of different genres and eras in rock’s history- would be picked: Chicago, Carole King, Dire Straits, The Zombies, Indigo Girls, Weird Al Yankovic, Peter, Paul & Mary, Kraftwerk, The Spinners, De La Soul, Mariah Carey, Dead Kennedys, Jethro Tull, Pixies, and Chic.