We only have three installments left, and this one will bring us up to the cusp of our top 20. Although some of these artists are among our strongest contenders, amazingly only 3 have been nominated before. This batch of artists is, as every batch of ten has been, an eclectic group: R&B, alternative, folk, the British Invasion, and classic rock are all represented.
30. Ben E. King: How much should one or two sublime songs transform someone into a contender? That’s the question attendant to any discussion on Ben E. King. “Spanish Harlem” is still remembered fondly, and he had a string of R&B hits that extended well into the 1970s. But at the end of the day, his credentials come down to three words: “Stand By Me.” It is rightly one of the most well-loved songs of its time, and it’s been covered by so many artists I wouldn’t dream of even beginning to list them. The song was inducted into the Library of Congress registry, and according to BMI, was the fourth-most played song of the 20th century. There’s precedence for cases like King’s where a couple songs overshadowed a long and eclectic career. Ultimately, both the Nom Com and the voters thought Bill Withers deserved to be in, and his case rested essentially on the nostalgic value of “Lean On Me” and “Ain’t No Sunshine.” If King at #30 seems too high, consider this: there probably isn’t a rock and roll song as important as “Stand By Me” whose (eligible) singer isn’t in the Hall of Fame. Unfortunately, since his death in the spring of 2015, the Nom Com had a great chance to nominate him last November and decided not to do so. Although he was nominated once during the Rock Hall’s early years, he appears to be one more victim of the unspoken consensus to move beyond the 1950s and early 60s.
29. Joan Baez: In the beginning, there was Baez. She played the guitar acceptably, and didn’t usually write her own music, but in the best folk tradition tinkered with songs, deconstructed them, rearranged them, and made them her own. Of course, one man looms over her career, her former boyfriend Bob Dylan, whom Baez quietly encouraged and ushered into the Greenwich Village scene and into greatness. Dylan more or less quit the social activism as soon as people started to, you know, look up to him for it. He almost immediately shot back with tracks like “Ballad of a Thin Man” and “Maggie’s Farm” which blithely told the seekers of the Sixties to look elsewhere. It wasn’t him, babe. Baez, though, stayed with it- playing Woodstock, visiting Vietnam with a peace delegation, and supporting LGBT rights before it was cool. Baez was even banned from playing in several South American countries in the 80s, for fear that she would inspire revolution and reform if she challenged the iron-fisted juntas that ruled at the time. She was a voice of deep conscience connecting folk with what would eventually become known as soft rock. Play her debut album from 1960, and you’ll find that it’s a near-masterpiece. The pacing, the depth, nuance, and control make it something far from the wan Kingston Trio tracks of the same era. What came after was even more special, from “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” to “Diamonds and Rust” and “Sweet Sir Galahad.” As one of popular music’s singular voices and a lynchpin of rock and roll’s engagement in the great questions of its era, Baez is one of the most important figures not yet inducted.
28. Willie Nelson: He has become such a cultural icon that we forget just how good the music actually is. Often low-key, plaintive, and the very soul of expression, Willie Nelson never needed artifice to communicate with the public, just a song, a headband, and his faithful guitar, Trigger. Nelson’s career, spanning well over 50 years, has been a touchstone in the close relationship shared between country and rock and roll. The red-haired stranger has spent that time not only been building bridges between these two genres, but also speeding over that bridge in pimped-out tour bus smoking a $3,000 doobie. His time in Austin in the late 60s could not have been more fortuitous, putting him in a Southern city with a burgeoning hippie scene. It was the perfect place for him to cultivate the authentic and yet carefully crafted public persona that made him a household name. Pick whichever Nelson you prefer: the early 60s Opry hand, the 1970s outlaw, the Farm Aid activist, or the 90s evergreen running afoul of the IRS but remaining a can’t-miss live act well into his old age. When you look at his body of work, and how important that was for country-rock, his resume basically writes itself: “Always on my Mind,” “Mothers Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to be Cowboys” “Whiskey River,” “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain,” “On the Road Again.” If you think Willie Nelson isn’t rock and roll enough to be in the Hall of Fame, all I have to say is that I’m amazed you found my blog, Mr. Simmons.
27. Sonic Youth: The last two times I tried to guess the Rock Hall’s annual ballot, I predicted a Sonic Youth nomination and was proven wrong both times. But I remain unchanged in my belief that Sonic Youth could- and should- get nominated any year now, especially as those who came of age in the 80s gain a greater toehold on the nominating process. Sonic Youth were kind of like the cool babysitters to lots of alternative, grunge, and other underground types when they were kids, if that makes sense. Kim Gordon, Thurston Moore and company recorded a legendarium that defied easy categorization, with tracks like “Teenage Riot” and “Schizophrenia” that definitely weren’t pop, clearly weren’t metal, but were harder than most of what passed for alternative in those days. They picked up where Velvet Underground and eventually Patti Smith left off, cribbed a bit of Big Star along the way, and developed their own deliberate, intense, and ultimately enveloping style that avoided easy hooks in favor of the experiential. Jason Woodbury of the Phoenix New Times describes them this way: “Sonic Youth asserted their importance in introducing a whole generation of slacker kids to outsider music by using Spin and Rolling Stone as a pulpit for preaching the gospel of white noise, hardcore history, and experimental music.” Sonic Youth created a form of music that was too cool for mainstream radio and content to be darlings of the underground. Whatever indie was, and whatever it became, Sonic Youth helped make that happen.
26. Tina Turner: The question of including Tina Turner was a great philosophical puzzle for me. She was inducted once already as Tina Turner, alongside Ike in the early 90s. I thought, “does she deserve another induction as Tina Turner?” It’s one thing if Croz, for example, gets in once as a Byrd and again thru CSN, but what about getting inducted twice under one’s own name? And then I remembered the precedent where Paul Simon got inducted twice under a similar aegis, once via Simon & Garfunkel and again through his solo work. So, that settles it, at least for me. It’s time to induct Tina Turner for her own solo career. Let’s get her an induction where her name isn’t resting beside an egotistical and sullen bully like Ike who beat her and bruised her and tormented her, even as they made some of the great records of the 1960s and 70s together. Tina Turner was one of the very greatest rock and roll performers, with a commanding stage presence that suffered no fools nor any second-raters. She pulled off the greatest mid-life renaissance by any artist I’ve seen- male or female- with a string of 1980s hits that included “Private Dancer,” “The Best,” and the immortal “What’s Love Got to Do With It.” Turner’s career is so lauded and so decorated that there’s a wikipedia page devoted to the awards she’s received. Among them are seven Grammy Awards since her breakup with Ike, and placement in Rolling Stone‘s very competitive 100 Immortals list.
25. The Zombies: Let’s do the British Invasion right by getting in the last band from that era whose place is the Hall is beyond reasonable dispute: the Zombies. These Hempstead boys learned all the requisite tricks from The Beatles and The Animals but added their own distinctive flavor that made them stand out by a head among most of their other rivals. Namely, the electric piano of Rod Argent and their tendency to write songs in darker, more melancholic minor keys, which showed a sophistication utterly foreign to, say, Gerry & the Pacemakers or Billy J. Kramer & the Dakotas. While their early hits like “She’s Not There” showed a great deal of promise, their pinnacle turned out to be their swansong. Odessey and Oracle was one of the very finest albums to come out of the 1960s. You probably know its evocative psychedelic hit “Time of the Season” but if you aren’t already familiar with them, give the celebratory post-incarceration “Care of Cell 44” a listen. Or else the music-hall flavored “This Will Be Our Year” or the achingly beautiful “Changes.” Recorded at virtually the same time as Sgt. Pepper, it showed how rock and roll could be ethereal, symphonic, and transcendent in ways that had not been charted before. Like the fictional monsters from which they derived their name, The Zombies don’t seem to die; they were on tour last year and their influence on low-key, moody indie artists stand out as one of their chief legacies.
24. Nine Inch Nails: Like Eno at #33, Nine Inch Nails have challenged the sonic landscape of rock and roll. The late David Bowie said this about them: “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.” As some have pointed out to me before, Nine Inch Nails didn’t invent industrial–artists like Throbbing Gristle and Cabaret Voltaire have that distinction. But Nine Inch Nails took the genre further, made it more popular without losing anything that made it great. Annie Zalesky wrote that “more than any band, NIN is determined to haul rock ‘n’ roll into the modern age,” with impeccable theming and atmosphere buttressing often dark and nihilistic lyrics. NIN passes the “excellence” test, and convincingly used industrial pioneers’ sound with elements of metal, soul, alternative, and funk that resulted in “Hurt” and “Closer.” Few took more time than Reznor in giving his music the right “atmosphere,” a process that some have called “sound collages” that set the mood even better than his pain-wracked lyrics. Resting comfortably within Rolling Stone magazine’s 100 Immortals, it’s clear that the right people like Nine Inch Nails. So far, they’ve been eligible for two years, and have been nominated in each of those two years. And since not just critics but also some rockers favor their candidacy (including Eddie Trunk), it’s quite likely that the voters will honor them more decisively in the near future. Assuming that the ceremony is in Cleveland next year, Reznor might be in for quite the homecoming in 2017.
23. Jethro Tull: Classic rock is already well represented in the Hall, which makes me feel fine about not including every single act in the genre on my list. Most of its big names are already in. But Jethro Tull’s omission continues to puzzle. They have not one, but two of the all-time great albums from rock and roll’s most competitive era in the early 70s: Aqualung and Thick as a Brick. You have a concept album about a lecher that doubles as a reflection on the nature of religion and God, as the confessional and the gutter are never far apart. The other is a self-aware parody of the ostentatious concept album, purporting to be about a literary wunderkind. Ian Anderson and crew brought the naturalism of English folk and the ambitious scope of prog on a collision course. Sometimes the results were uneven, but they were always distinctive. There was that flute. There were lots of classic rock bands I considered for this list but ultimately rejected because they didn’t have a signature style, nor a particular calling card that made them stand out from their contemporaries. With Jethro Tull, that was never the issue: there were acoustic guitars that gave way to electric as the song caught fire, long suites without breaks except to turn the record over, and Anderson’s flute as almost a recurring character in their music. If anything, Tull’s longevity killed their chances. They endured when, say, Parsons or the frontman of #22 died out. And instead they just kept running on that Locomotive Breath, creating astonishingly decent new music and winning Grammy Awards they probably shouldn’t have. In other words, it’s remained easy for some rock critics (are you reading as well, Mr. Marsh?) to maintain grudges. Hopefully, that, too, will change.
22. T. Rex: The fact that T. Rex hasn’t even been nominated for the Rock Hall seems like a Euclidian proof that the institution views rock and roll from a deeply American set of lenses. What is quickly forgotten in this light is the sensation that this group created as glam music hit its apex, alongside such contemporaries as David Bowie and early Queen. This hysteria was called “T. Rextasy” and enveloped the United Kingdom with glittering UK Top 5 songs: “Telegram Sam,” “Metal Guru,” “Children of the Revolution.” There was nothing like Marc Bolan and this troupe. They were sensual (how easy we forget lines like “you’ve got the teeth of the hydra upon you” in “Bang a Gong.”) They made rock and roll more visually engaging. And Bolan was able to cast a wide net with his audience. Bob Stanley writes: “He should have taken America by storm: he wrote melodic riff-born rock songs that could charm bikers and birds.” For a handful of years, he was Great Britain’s biggest rock star, bar none. But eventually, Bolan sputtered. He put on weight, succumbed to drugs and died in a car crash at age 29, and we subsequently misremember that his contemporary and rival Bowie was the only person doing arty space-rock in those years. That’s a shame, because in the same way #21 won her long war against Whitney Houston, Bowie won the long war against T. Rex, though they were surely worthy adversaries, even in defeat. If T Rex ever gets in, their induction speech is likely to be short; the only living member from its primary lineup is drummer Bill Legend.
21. Mariah Carey: I can hear the comments now: “too high! too high!” Is she? The only thing that’s too high is Mariah’s 5-octave range. As I’ve said before, chart success is a factor, but not a totalizing factor. Still, it’s hard to find fault with 27 top ten hits (that’s the fifth highest total ever, by the way.) Or the 18 Billboard #1 hits (second only to The Beatles, incidentally.) In fact, even if she existed primarily as a songwriter and never sang a note, she would have written more #1 hits than any songwriter of the rock and roll era not named Lennon or McCartney. But the story is so much more than the statistics. Just like Idina Menzel was doing on Broadway at roughly the same time, Carey moved the female voice in popular music into the direction of belting, going for power, force, and vibrato without losing its control or emotional range. She successfully navigated her MOR origins in order to push R&B into a more energetic, thoughtful, and in some ways, biographical mode as her work became more self-revelatory as she found her voice as a writer. And Carey was the only artist I can think of who could thrive on BET and still have her music played in an orthodontist’s office. She easily collaborated with rappers, and fostered the “hip-pop” trend of the 90s. I could go on with accomplishments like this for a while: she sang virtually the only Christmas staple to come out of the 90s, and two of the three longest-tenured #1 hits are hers: “One Sweet Day” and “We Belong Together.” As an artist, Carey was about as versatile as it got, capable of dance remixes, urban R&B, and legendary ballads, often all on the same album. Trini Trent puts it this way: “with her incredible sense of pitch, she draws on the precision timing of Ella Fitzgerald, the styling of Sarah Vaughan, the range of Minnie Ripperton, and the grit of Aretha Franklin.” Indeed. What should have been a no-brainer first-year-eligible nomination last October is likely to be a long wait until Janet and Whitney get in first.