Let me begin the proverbial final countdown by saying how grateful I am for all the feedback people have sent me. My last post, covering picks #20-11 was a milestone in the history of the Northumbrian Countdown. It broke two records: one for most views in a single day (433) and most comments on one post (presently at 38, including my own.) At last, we arrive at the ten highest picks. (Or, if you want to view it differently, the acts that I think would make the strongest two upcoming Rock Hall classes, alongside not-quite-eligible-yet Pearl Jam and Radiohead.) Here my picks for the top ten Rock Hall prospects. The Hall and I are in agreement, at least to some extent: six of the ten have been nominated before.
10. Yes: Progressive rock fans are not demure in their attitudes toward the Rock Hall. Most of their favorites are not in the Hall, and no act’s omission gets their goat like that of Yes. I’m not exactly a prog guy, but their unhappiness is duly noted and not misplaced. Yes was nominated twice, and unfortunately for the two most competitive ballots in recent memory: the Class of 2014 and 2016. It’s a shame, because while Yes is a definitional “love ’em or hate ’em” band, their insistence on musicianship and craftsmanship is perhaps the greatest in the rock canon. From the meticulous bass work of the late Chris Squire, Rick Wakeman’s octopusinal (yes, I just made that word up) keyboard chops, Steve Howe’s folk-tinged guitar work, this was a band that fundamentally knew the nuts and bolts of how music was composed, and took rock and roll in ambitious new directions, with multi-part suites, time signatures changes, and ethereal harmonies. They made a song a journey to be savored rather than a brief, encapsulated moment in time. (Howe is ultimately responsible for one of my favorite guitar solos, but it’s on a Queen record, “Innuendo”, not a Yes record.) They helped lay the groundwork for progressive rock along King Crimson, Genesis, and others, and even, by virtue of their complexity, helped inspire punk as a counterrevolutionary response to their grandiose approach. The cliche is that you can’t dance to a Yes record, and some of their tracks sound more like they want to impress the listener rather than move her, and that’s probably true. But rock and roll was rarely more ornate or majestic than when Yes was at the helm.
9. Dire Straits: Out of all 100 snubs on this list, the Dire Straits’ absence makes the least sense to me. It seems as though they have every quality one would like in an inductee. In Mark Knopfler, they had one of the great guitarists. And one of the most original vocalists too- it’s hard to forget his retching singing style. They did well as a singles band. And an albums band too- Brothers in Arms has to at least factor into the discussion when you talk about the best ones to come out of the 1980s. Their video for “Money for Nothing” pioneered the use of computer imagery in videos while musing on the significance of MTV itself. They were a critical band at a critical impasse (they were the first, for example, to sell a million copies of an album on CD.) But for me, their greatest strength was their singular songwriting (usually Knopfler) and song-crafting (usually the whole band) skill. So many of their tracks were like tiny epics in a self-contained world of their own, bringing out the drama and the tension of the ordinary. You have an updated love story in “Romeo and Juliet,” a meditation on a struggling jazz band in “Sultans of Swing,” and a requiem for a dying town in “Telegraph Road.” Their overall quality- no, their overall excellence– stands out, even in a list as competitive as this top ten.
8. The Spinners: There aren’t many working relationships in the history of rock and roll that yielded better fruit than The Spinners and producer Thom Bell. In the 1970s, they collaborated on a small armada of the very best R&B hits of their time, and epitomized the genre of Philly Soul: lush, heavily orchestrated, emotive records with an unmistakable rhythm. Their canon creates, in a very real way, a soundtrack for the 70s, equally accepted within the black community while achieving great success among white listeners as well. No single act captured the time and place that was “Soul Train” more than The Spinners. There’s the urgent “I’ll Be Around,” the sweet “Could It Be I’m Falling in Love,” the perfectly-arranged duet with Dionne Warwick “Then Came You,” a cover of “Working My Way Back to You” that had Frankie Valli fleeing back across the Hudson, and a song I request at every single wedding reception I attend, “Rubberband Man.” They even had some great deep tracks from albums nobody listens to anymore like “Sadie,” a sweet and sincere essay on the inner-city family. The Hall has usually tried to be cognizant of R&B’s contributions to the rock and roll story, but voters seem stubbornly committed to keeping the Spinners out. It’s a strange thing. The O’Jays, in my own opinion, a cooler but ultimately less indispensable band, got in on only their second nomination way back in 2005. But on three ballots that, at least in theory, were less competitive, The Spinners floundered. On the last three ballots, we had exactly one black R&B artist let in: Bill Withers. That nonsense needs to end now. 70s R&B remains criminally underrepresented, and the Nom Com needs to keep at it and where down voters’ resistance. (Rescinding Eddie Trunk’s voting privileges would also be a good start.)
7. Peter, Paul & Mary: This is probably the choice in my top 10 that will generate the most controversy. At the very least, I hope you’ll hear out my reasons for putting a largely acoustic folk trio in my top ten. Maybe their most instructive song was the Noel Stookey-penned “I Dig Rock and Roll Music”- as Tom Lane once reminded us, they weren’t professing their love for rock and roll! Instead they were, well, digging into it, needling it. The song called out rock and roll’s tendency to obfuscate, and comment on the pressing concerns of the Sixties only furtively and indirectly. “But if I really say it, the radio won’t play it, unless I lay it between the lines,” as they sang. They challenged rock and roll to do better, from the perspective of folk, one of it’s great ancestor genres. And PP&M practiced what they preached. With a deep Greenwich Village pedigree, they helped rescue folk from the sort of twee, banal folk music for College Republicans that the Kingston Trio was then riding to great success. PP&M are ranked this highly for bringing a social conscience and a willingness to engage in the great struggles of their time. They essentially opened for Martin Luther King at the March on Washington in 1963. They played at Selma, risking a beating from George Wallace’s thugs. Even when they reunited, it was usually motivated by a hope to change the world for the better, like a non-proliferation rally, or an anti-Apartheid concert, or George McGovern’s presidential campaign. They brought Bob Dylan’s social vision into the mainstream with their cover of “Blowin’ in the Wind”- certainly not the best cover version of all time, but for all intents and purposes, perhaps the most significant. Maybe Dylan would have become a huge success if PP&M didn’t usher his material into the mainstream and pluck him out of near-obscurity, but we’ll never know. Ultimately, other rockers took up the challenge Peter, Paul & Mary set forth with their freedom songs. From the Concert for Bangladesh to Live Aid to “Ain’t Gonna Play Sun City,” Peter, Paul & Mary started the ball rolling and made rock and roll more than teenage dance music, but a force to be reckoned with in the unfolding of history.
6. The Smiths: Jillian Mapes said it best: The Smiths remain “shorthand for ‘I was a teenage outcast.'” As one of the most important founders of alternative rock, they drew more clearly than anyone else the differences that set this world apart from mainstream top 40 rock. The Smiths have been nominated twice- the last two ballots, in fact. They will (and should) get in, and if they do, it will likely be a tense reunion- especially between morose frontman Morrissey and underappreciated guitarist Johnny Marr. Still, together, for a few precious years, they were one of the most important voices of the 1980s. They captured the feeling of emptiness that accompanied prosperity and deprivation alike, the loss of connectedness, and meditations on life moving on without you- so similar, in some respects, to Lady Murasaki’s Tale of the Genji nearly one millennium earlier. At the same time, they weren’t afraid of embracing the political, even naming one of their albums after the hardcore vegetarian mantra, Meat is Murder. They took unhappiness and longing and made it beautiful. I’m not a fan of “How Soon is Now,” perhaps their most famous song, but “There Is a Light that Never Goes Out” is one of the most affecting tracks I’ve ever heard. There aren’t many people on my list who meant more to their fans than The Smiths. If you experienced alienation or disappointment, they were the soundtrack of your sorrow in the 80s. A comet that burned brightly and briefly, the Smiths not only galvanized the softer, mellower side of alternative, but also inspired hundreds of indie bands to pick up their instruments and voice their private frustrations.
5. Judas Priest: While I don’t think every proficient metal band should be in the Rock Hall, Judas Priest has probably more reason to be aggrieved than any of their contemporaries. Rob Halford has repeatedly said that he’d love to be inducted, “it’s a validation.” It’s altogether a refreshing and professional change from the “screw you for ignoring us” approach of many snubbed artists. Out of all the metal bands that aren’t in yet (which is basically every metal band that ever existed with four or five exceptions), Priest made a canon of consistently excellent, memorable, and suitably hard-rocking songs that didn’t feel the need to be unnecessarily thoughtful, and were rarely overblown. In an age of Sauvignon Blanc-swilling yacht-rockers and punks who couldn’t play proficiently, Judas Priest restored the rightful balance of competence and edge. If nothing else, they established the template that most metal bands after them followed: the crunching guitars, the black leather, the theatricality, the thumping vocal delivery best seen in “Hell Bent for Leather.” Virtually every metal band that came after attempted to be a louder, more outrageous, or more offensive version of Judas Priest. And none of them succeeded. As someone who had to sit through VHS tapes about the satanism of 80s rock at my evangelical college, it gives me great pleasure to put Judas Priest in my top 5 Rock Hall prospects.
4. Carole King: King was nominated once in the Rock Hall’s early years and inducted as a non-performer with her songwriter-ex-husband Gerry Goffin. From all appearances, the Rock Hall thinks this enough, but I hope they reconsider. As King’s recent enshrinement at the Kennedy Center shows, her significance goes beyond the Brill Building repertoire she helped establish, important though that was. Like many women of her time, her hard work and ingenuity took place behind the scenes and out of the public eye. It was only when she found the courage to sit on a piano bench, get behind a microphone, and take her show on the road that she achieved her greatest significance. Tapestry and its follow-ups are landmarks of the singer-songwriter movement. Along with her friend James Taylor, she influenced more than anyone else the trend in the 1970s toward mellow, personal, revelatory, and deeply introspective material. It was as if both Laurel Canyon artists and the wider public looked back on the wreckage of Altamont, and wondered if the answer was not so much in great festivals and gatherings, but in the truth each of us contained and interpreted inside of ourselves. (Tapestry, by the way, also won a Grammy, sold 25 million copies, and was on the charts for a Dark Side of the Moon-esque six years) I can’t tell you the number of times someone who was there at the time told me something like, “Tapestry told me what it meant to be a young woman in the 70s” She showed that a woman could succeed as a performer and in the more intellectual capacity as a writer. In doing this, King influenced almost every female singer-songwriter that came after her, as a kind of role model for confident artists who didn’t have to create a bold, brassy public persona to get a message out. Watching her perform with Sara Bareilles a couple years ago at the Grammys reminded me that PJ Harvey, Tori Amos, Amy Winehouse, Kate Bush, Sarah McLaughlan, Carly Simon, and basically every Lilith Fair artist out there owes Carole King big time. The excellence of her example made it all the more easier for them to be, well, natural women, in the unforgiving environs of rock and roll.
3. Janet Jackson: Janet’s case comes down to success and impact. Given the moribund state of R&B during the 1980s, Janet Jackson helped give the genre a greater credibility and, for the first time in a while, a real sense of energy and dynamism. She did so, I might add, by leaving an indelible mark on the charts. 26 top ten hits, including tracks that serve as significant epoch-markers of the late 80s and early 90s: “Control,” “Black Cat,” and “Rhythm Nation.” She brought a more urban feel and a hard-edge feminism to her genre, and was a better performer than either Whitney or Mariah, two of her more important contemporaries. Jackson just kept going, putting out significant albums deep into the 1990s with The Velvet Rope, and even her latest album and tour is generating no shortage of positive buzz. It’s a shame, really, that her career was put on the skids by the Super Bowl incident. (You know, the one where the guy actually at fault, Justin Timberlake, continued to be a major chartbuster afterward, even as he ungallantly blamed a “wardrobe malfunction” for the nationally televised undressing.) There’s a dissertation waiting to be written on what this said about gender politics, the female body, and pop culture. Despite all of this, the Janet story is hardly over. Her influence continues to play out, and her impact can be found in everyone from Missy Elliot to Pink to Robyn to Rihanna to Beyonce. She established a very different kind of template for female artists than #4: one that refused to act demure, suffered no fools, and ruthlessly turned out R&B-infused dance pop hit after dance pop hit. Remember- rock and roll started out as music that inspired you to get up and shake your ass on the dance floor. Janet both preserved and expanded that legacy.
2. Kraftwerk: Influence, influence, influence. A legion of music writers have suggested that Kraftwerk is second only to The Beatles in terms of overall influence on the direction of rock and roll music as a whole. It’s an exaggeration, of course, but it isn’t as much of a whopper as you might think. It’s hard to know what to say about them that hasn’t become hackneyed by now. They inaugurated the regularization of electronica in popular music. While Moog synthesizers and elaborate keyboards were mainstays long before they came along, their culture of arty arrangement made this technology not the window dressing of Abbey Road, but the building blocks of something wholly new. Philosophically, their work was nuanced, meditating on Beach Boys-style freedom of movement (“Autobahn”) to the grim futurism of “The Robots.” In the process, their inventive use of electronic instruments paved the way for new wave, gave new vitality to older careers such as David Bowie’s, and inspired synth-pop bands from Depeche Mode to Wham!, and electronica dance acts such as LCD Soundsystem and Daft Punk. They even unwittingly assisted the development of hip-hop, as we explored in Afrika Bambaataa’s section. Ultimately, Kraftwerk helped musicians from every corner of the globe realize that they could use technology and electronic equipment as a tool to better express themselves. Sometimes that means using lush electronic soundscapes as a canvas, sometimes it means putting electronic instruments out in front as a hook, sometimes it means manipulating these sounds to create a pulsing rhythm to get your audience onto the dance floor. You can say that Kraftwerk is synthetic and alarmingly inorganic, and you won’t entirely be wrong. But I perceive a humanism and an artistry that somewhat paradoxically constitutes their greatest importance. The Nom Com did the right thing by Kraftwerk: with three nominations, they’ve had a chance to get in. But it’s up to voters to brush up on their history, reconsider their Teutophobia and get Kraftwerk in.
1. The Moody Blues: At the very top of our countdown, we have none other than The Moody Blues! A couple of years ago, I asked a bunch of fellow Rock Hall followers to list out which 200 or so artists they felt ~should~ be in the Hall of Fame- whether they were already in or not. One act that wasn’t already in got a vote from every single participant- this one. That didn’t affect my decision, but it does suggest the degree to which Moody Blues are a no-brainer. After hanging out among the lower ranks of the British Invasion band, the Moodys hit their stride in 1967, when they recorded Days of Future Passed. It was a landmark record: one of the very first concept albums, one of the first to use symphonic backing to make a fuller, more encompassing canvas of sound. And they took it on the road. My dad isn’t and wasn’t a big concert-goer, but forty years later, he still speaks with a certain sense of awe when remembering seeing The Moody Blues perform live- they actually dared to recreate their multi-layered, elaborate tracks on stage just a couple of years after The Beatles essentially said, “screw it, the songs on Revolver are too tough to try and replicate on stage.” I put The Moody Blues at #1 because they showed, in some ways, greater ambition, and did more to make rock music beautiful, ornate, and sophisticated than almost anyone- inside the Hall or out. “Nights in White Satin,” obviously, is a case study: deeply resonant without being mawkish, and yet complex and stately without being pretentious. They found a way to combine the rock and roll’s earnestness and present-mindedness with the the gravitas of the Western classical music tradition. For a track that’s seven and a half minutes long, “Nights” is disarmingly simple: an alienated youth is in love with someone. Isn’t that the story of rock and roll right there? With the Moodys, the elements of rock and roll had been transubstantiated into fine art.
So, there we are! We’ve made it through my 100 choices for the most deserving candidates for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame out of those presently eligible. Now that you know who made the list, it becomes clear who did not. If you are wondering, “where’s Joy Division/Captain Beefheart/The Marvelettes/Def Leppard/Harry Nilsson/Connie Francis?” those are all legitimate questions. I hope, in the next week or so, to do a post wrapping things up, reflecting on the list now that it is finished, and explaining some of my choices along the way. I’ll also reveal 15 runners-up who I considered for this ranking, but who ultimately fell at the last hurdle. Thank you for your kind attention! This series was a blast to do, and I hope that, in some small way, it contributes to our collective understanding of our rock and roll heritage.