Wednesday, April 28, 2021

Battle Royale for the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame: It's All About the Music, Man

 This is going to be my last entry in this series evaluating the candidates for the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, but it may be the most significant one: How good was their music? This is necessarily a personal assessment, but I’m also going to take into account the opinions of people I respect. There are a lot of lovers of popular music who have better taste than me.

Believe me, you don’t want me making the final decision on who should be in the Hall of Fame, because nobody wants Alan O’Day to be inducted. (As an aside, Robert Christgau’s continuing affection for the forgettable DeBarge album In a Special Way, which he voted for in the latest Rolling Stone Greatest Albums of All Time poll, emboldens all of us who have that one idiosyncratic album we love that nobody else even bothers to have an opinion about. You wanna love Head East or Teena Marie? Christgau gives you his blessing.) 

On the other hand, the Hall of Fame has, for some reason, entrusted me with this decision, so I may as well take my shot. My taste is as valid as anyone's, right? My final ballot will be posted shortly: 

1. Carole King Anyone familiar with my writing knows that early 1970s pop is my sweet spot for music, and Carole defined that genre. A composer first and a performer second, her songs were as well-crafted as anything you heard on the radio then, or anything you’ve heard since.

2. The Go-Go’s Those records still sound incredible, poppy and fun with a punk undertone, and Gina Schock’s surf-rock rhythms buoying the whole thing. I just wish they had held it together for a little while longer.

3. Dionne Warwick She’s had a LOT of hits, and that Bacharach/David 1960s material is about as good as pop music gets. I probably listen to Dionne as much as any artist here.

4. New York Dolls Their Bowie-in-a-garage-band stuff is totally hot, isn’t it? If they had just had a left-field pop hit, like Lou Reed and T. Rex did, they’d be in already, but for some reason “Personality Crisis” didn't make the charts. Thanks also to Todd Rundgren, about whom more shortly.

5. LL Cool J The ultimate radio star among the first wave of crossover rappers, he sure knew how to make a hit, from the silky “Going Back to Cali” to the powerhouse “Mama Said Knock You Out.” I love the fact that a Irish folkie (Luka Bloom) covered “I Need Love,” demonstrating just how versatile and universal this music was.

6. Todd Rundgren Like Carole King, he turned out effortless pop classics in the 1970s, songs that manage to sound of their time but still feel fresh today.

7. Chaka Khan A tremendous vocalist and spell-binding presence, and the hits still sound good. But I can’t help noticing she was reliant on talents like Stevie Wonder and Prince for her most indelible work.

Jay-Z Jay’s type of music has never been my bag, and I’m willing to accept that that’s the fault of my limited tastes. But in good conscience, I can’t rate him very highly on this scale.

9. Fela Kuti Sister Rosetta Tharpe was on the ballot a few years ago. She of course fell short in the traditional voting, since hardly anyone knows who she is, but the Hall of Fame inducted her anyway in some sort of pioneers category. I suspect the same fate may await Fela. His music is great (the little I’ve heard of it), but how am I supposed to compare him to Dionne Warwick or the Foo Fighters?

10. Tina Turner Once again I am reminding you that we are judging Tina here solely on her solo work, which for my money isn’t nearly as exciting as the Ike and Tina stuff. Tina agrees with me; she thought “What’s Love Got to Do With It” was unexciting and didn’t want to record it at first, thinking “I Can’t Stand the Rain” would be the hit from her comeback album. Don’t get me wrong, it’s good stuff, but there’s stiff competition here.

11. Rage Against the Machine Rap-rock ultimately didn’t have much of a shelf life, but they certainly did it better than anyone, with an ever-innovative Tom Morello on guitar and Zach de la Rocha trying to be the postmodern Joe Strummer, and occasionally succeeding.  

12. Devo A fun but ultimately limited band, I always felt like their weakness was their songwriting. My favorite song of theirs was their deconstruction of “Satisfaction,” but there’s only so many times you can pull that trick.

13. Kate Bush I am a sucker for this type of gossamer pop, but Bush takes it to an extreme, often eschewing rhythms altogether. And she can be awfully pretentious. In the end, I end up respecting her work more than enjoying it.

14. Mary J. Blige The female R&B singer category is very crowded this year, and I’m afraid Mary comes in at the bottom of it for me. It’s a tough crowd.

15. Foo Fighters The kind of chugging, well-crafted rock that’s always welcome on the radio, but you tend to forget as soon as the next song comes on. Dave Grohl’s already in, you know.

16. Iron Maiden Ugh.


  1. Great blog. I completely agree with your ranking of Carole King.

  2. DEVO - the first album is terrific. After that, they're hit or miss, and increasingly miss. I'm inclined to say that churning out several forgettable albums later in the career is irrelevant to a HOF case, but even as a fan I have to admit it's not a long peak. Still, Girl U Want may be the best record not by Prince with "U" in the title, and shouldn't that count for something?