After a short hiatus, I am back to chip away at the remaining Rock Hall Prospects, the presently-eligible artists who are up for consideration for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. There are two previous nominees on this list, and although I didn’t plan it this way, as a group, this set is heavily focused on solo artists. In fact, fully seven of these are individuals, and only three are groups. This list is especially rich in innovators and influencers, and is relatively (but not entirely) light on big hitmakers. Do you think I made the right call with this collection of Rock Hall prospects? Let me know in the comments below.
40. Afrika Bambaataa: Bambaataa is hip-hop’s Patient Zero. Rather than using funk tracks as a background, Afrika Bambaataa dug deep and came up with Kraftwerk: the most incongruous choice imaginable, but one that became the gold standard of much of the hip-hop that came after, using its synthetic rhythm as a cornerstone. He brought rap to the dance floor and party scene in ways that hadn’t been done before. And he did this by embracing an ethos of self-awareness derived from his pan-African identity (Afrika Bambaataa, after all, is a Zulu-inspired title.) Bambaataa was sharp, innovative, and like Grandmaster Flash before him, established the blueprints for many of the various rap dynasties that followed. As Rolling Stone magazine put it, “Planet Rock launched hip-hop beyond two turntables and and party jams and created a space for Avant-Dance and Rap artists to work in harmony, presaging today’s anything-goes musical landscape.” He was no dummy, either; Cornell University appointed him as a visiting professor a handful of years ago.
39. Gram Parsons: “The Father of Country Rock.” That distinction slights the very real contributions of Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson, Gary Stewart, Pure Prairie League, Poco, Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, and others. The difference, of course, is that Parsons is widely seen as cooler than many of these choices. This is partly by virtue of his untimely death (he didn’t even make it to the age of 27, when rockers usually go). And this may be partly by virtue of the even more untimely immolation of his corpse by a bunch of his friends who kidnapped his body to honor his wish of laying to rest at the Joshua Tree in southern California. (I say “untimely immolation” as if such a thing as a timely immolation existed.) Parsons has been nominated thrice before, during the height of the alt-country boom at the beginning of the 21st century. This is for good reason: Parsons’s work to merge country and rock into a synthesis seemed seamless, organic, and the most natural thing in the world. He knew country masterfully- what makes it swing, what makes it twang, what made it hit resonant notes in the soul that rock and roll hadn’t quite managed to achieve in his time. It was more than just taking pedal steel to a rock track- his work was some of the most emotionally intelligent committed to record. While I think his overall importance has been overblown by obscurantist rock critics, I can’t disagree with Parson’s worthiness. I’d love to see him get in, if only for the inevitable Beck/Emmylou Harris duet at the ceremony.
38. Pat Benatar: Partly on the “strength” of her performance with Nirvana, Joan Jett, Benatar’s chief rival, was inducted handily last year. (I put “strength” in quotation marks because if you replay the footage from the ’14 ceremony, Jett is clearly looking at a monitor for the lyrics to “Smells Like Teen Spirit” for the duration of the song. If you don’t know the words to that song, it shouldn’t enhance your chances of getting in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.) Jett may have been more ~culturally~ important in terms of setting the table for riot grrrls, and her classic black leather look weathered the decades better than Pat’s blue eye shadow and spandex which place her unmistakably in the early 80s. But the fundamentals always favored Benatar to me. Pat has more hits, a better voice, advanced guitar skills, and a superior edge as a songwriter (although for both women, many of their hits were covers). For a handful of years, she was the most important woman in Top 40 rock, wracking up a number of masterfully crafted songs, many of which were foundational to the video culture that accrued from the early years of MTV: “Love is a Battlefield,” “We Belong,” “Hit Me With Your Best Shot,” and “Heartbreaker.” Given that the Rock Hall is rightly criticized for including fewer women and fewer 80s artists than it ought, a Benatar induction would help set this to rights.
37. Dead Kennedys: With Dead Kennedys, punk music took a decidedly political turn, and by politics in this case, I mean world politics, geo-politics, not the lower-middle class ranting that typified the Sex Pistols. Their frontman satirized the banality of American consumer culture with a deadly civil war in Nigeria to create the alter ego Jello Biafra. Coming out of 1970s San Francisco, the group raged against all that was shallow, self-absorbed and superficial, taking particular glee in trashing New Age hippie-dippy lifestyles they saw around them, the “Suede/denim secret police,” as they called them in “California Uber Alles.” Biafra boldly spoke out against skinheads and other violent types that had infiltrated the California punk movement, and even argued with Tipper Gore on the Oprah Winfrey Show about musical censorship. They even got into a famous lawsuit for including a poster of “Penis Landscape” as an…um…insert into their Frankenchrist album. The Dead Kennedys were an impactful cultural marker, and a solid representation of punk’s evolution.
36. Pixies: If we are going by declarations of influence, the Pixies stand out among late 80s and early 90s artists. The sheer volume of alternative artists looking up to them is formidable, and not the least of their students was a young Kurt Cobain. The excellent website Not in the Hall of Fame puts it this way: they “followed the rules of rock and roll construction and yet broke them at the same time.” Their jerky rhythms, their build up from a lethargic verse to a visceral chorus, the female bass player before female bass players were cool–in every way you can measure, the Pixies were ahead of their time. And unlike many bands whose Rock Hall merits are based on influence, the Pixies actually delivered the goods in terms of their catalog. “Monkey Gone to Heaven” highlighted their trademark absurdity, while “Here Comes Your Man” showed an abiding respect for 1960s pop. And, of course, several of their albums deserve consideration as among the best of their era, particularly Sub Rosa and Doolittle. Given that the Rock Hall has nominated artists in the Pixies’ basic dojo–the Replacements, the Smiths–one can hold out hope that they will make it onto the ballot in the not too distant future.
35. Depeche Mode: Depeche Mode’s sound was the product of Kraftwerk’s electronic experiments into a top 40 context, originally with hints of new wave pop (note the nod to Devo in the nonchalant background vocals of “Just Can’t Get Enough.”) and even traces of Velvet Underground and David Bowie artiness. Depeche Mode took all these influences, combined them into a format that was synthetic but never less than fully authentic, and ended up selling 100 million records. The band hit the scene in the 1980s, and got progressively darker, less pop, and unexpectedly, even more popular. They submitted a classic for the ages in “Personal Jesus,” and a genuine benchmark in electronic pop, “Enjoy the Silence.” To this effect, they filled stadiums in ways that few electronic acts had done before. There’s a chance they might well be the most popular electronic band of all time, and one of the most impactful, with artists as eclectic as Marilyn Manson and Kanye West citing them as an influence, to say nothing of more obvious candidates like The Killers, Coldplay, and Arcade Fire. They even snuck onto VH1’s 100 Greatest Artists of All Time. It should raise some flags that they got on the list, and say, Simon and Garfunkel didn’t. But when the Hall starts addressing the 80s more seriously (are you noticing this is a recurring theme?) Depeche Mode will be an important part of the conversation.
34. Whitney Houston: Soul divas belong in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Deal with it. And Whitney stands out among them. She was almost certainly R&B’s biggest name from the mid-1980s into the early 90s, wracking up multiple #1 hits, multiple #1 albums, and setting a new standard for soul vocalists with flawless technique. On top of that, she lived an archetypical rock and roll life, with widely publicized battles with drugs, tumultuous love affairs, and a tragic and premature death. For several years, she had the honor of the longest-charted #1 hit, “I Will Always Love You,” an underrated candidate for the best Prom song of all time. But as we see, chart success alone doesn’t a Rock Hall prospect make. Lots of chart-busters aren’t on my list; good luck finding Conway Twitty, Olivia Newton-John, Cher, Huey Lewis and others on here. They didn’t make the list and weren’t seriously considered. Whitney was something different, someone the gods had clearly blessed with abundant talent, but not necessarily the self-possession to handle superstardom. Journalist Tris McCall makes a case for her longstanding importance. Vocalists- not just from pop music, but alternative and experimental alike- “nick her cadences, her inflection, her lightning-quick upper register, her sudden earthy growls, her carefully controlled melisma.” One problem that stands out baldly is production values. Houston’s overproduced and gaudy backing tracks have just not aged well except as nostalgia pieces; listen to that delicate but cringe-inducing electric piano part on “Greatest Love of All.” If you put a mid-90s Mariah song on the radio today, it would more or less hold up. Houston, for better or worse, belongs to ages past.
33. Brian Eno: Few have changed the sonic boundaries of the rock and roll universe in quite the way Brian Eno has. With a pedigree that began with a turn as Roxy Music’s synth player, Eno charted a course that began in glam and art rock and led him to challenge the purpose of not just rock, but music itself. While his early work had a certain spontaneity which informed Here Comes the Warm Jets, his very best contributions were immaculately and intricately arranged to evoke feeling. First with Discreet Music and later with Music for Airports, his work strived to reconceptualize music as part of its environment, making sonic landscapes that fit into a natural setting in ways that paralleled Frank Lloyd Wright’s approach to architecture. It didn’t create atmosphere so much as it complemented atmosphere to make its listening experience more contextual and fulfilling. Since Eno’s ambient albums were the soundtrack for dozens of grading sessions for moribund undergraduate essays, I feel like I owe him one. As someone who has used oblique strategies as a problem-solving tool, I feel like I owe him doubly. While some might make a case for Eno has a Musical Excellence guy or non-performer, owing to his production work for U2, David Bowie, Coldplay and others, Eno’s record as a performer and artist eclipse all of these considerations.
32. Nina Simone: Simone was a study in contradiction. She learned her craft at a conservatory and was one of the most gifted pianists in popular music in her day, but cleaved to a jazzy nightclub style that infused most of her catalog. She showed up to play at the Selma marches, but disagreed with the pacifism that imbued the civil rights movement. Simone wanted to violently smash Jim Crow out of existence, and by the mid-60s, was hanging out with the Malcolm X crowd. At the peak of her career, she absconded to Africa partly to escape an abusive husband and partly to escape the toxic atmosphere that engulfed so much of America by the late 60s. Her work had channeled the deep suffering of the black American experience perhaps more than any other musician of her era in ways that can only be described as haunting and evocative. There’s the revenge of a life well-lived in “Feeling Good,” the prophetic condemnation of “Mississippi Goddamn”, and the finger-pointing of “Backlash Blues” that challenged white Americans bitching about quotas and busing. Simone had experienced real suffering and true inequality, and she wasn’t afraid to tell you. In all this, she conversed easily with more mainstream rock and roll, covering songs like “Don’t Let Me Be Understood” and “To Love Somebody,” while bequeathing songs like “See Line Woman” and “Young, Gifted, and Black” to the rock oeuvre. Moody, enigmatic, and dangerous, Simone was one of the great performers of the 20th century. She was so rock and roll that even most rock and rollers didn’t know what to make of her.
31. Dick Dale: If we are going to discuss overlooked rock and roll guitar heroes, the conversation has to include Dick Dale. He was foundational to the creation of the evocative surf rock sound, capturing the motions of waves by achieving a rumbling vibrato from his guitar. Rock and roll had plenty of really good guitarists before him, but Dale was the first one who seemed to come from another planet, the first one who could claim to be a true virtuoso. “Miserlou” was a bolt out of the blue, taking a traditional Mediterranean melody, adding rock backing, and essentially creating a whole new genre- all decades before rock stars got cute by cribbing influences from world music. The most amazing part of all of this is that Dick Dale never really went away. He performed with Stevie Ray Vaughan, toured consistently, and received an unexpected career boost in the 1990s courtesy of Pulp Fiction. Even seemingly small decisions he made- using heavier strings or more powerful amps- triggered a series of events that are still playing out in popular music today. At 78, he’s still out there, heedless of the diabetes and cancer he’s struggled with, sometimes performing with a catheter attached to his side. This is one choice the Rock Hall really can’t screw up: get Dick Dale in the Hall of Fame while he’s still among the living.