Monday, November 21, 2016

Music To My Ears: The Ballot For 2017

We've looked at the (hopefully) objective measure of merits for each of the nominees.  But that's really only half the story.  Most voters tend to let their personal tastes influence how they vote.  Right or wrong, it's a matter of fact, and considering that "Unquestionable musical excellence" was long the official metric that the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame itself used to determine the worth of a candidate, it's a fair practice to be self-aware of one's own personal biases.  Well, I can't speak for anyone but myself, so I guess it's time to ramble on the narcissistic side and talk about whether or not I enjoy listening to the music of this year's candidates.  Spoiler alert: some yes, some no; last year, one nominee was both of those!  We'll average them out with my merit ranks too, and see how things measure up.

1. Electric Light Orchestra
I had never heard of them until I was in my teens and working in a restaurant, and the cooks there exposed me to them.  Not a band I've taken to collecting though, but I love their overall general sound.
Favorite song: "Hold On Tight"
Merit rank: 6
Average of ranks: 3.5

2. Steppenwolf
They're a great blues-rock outfit with a lot of songs that are really good.  The homogenization of radio ownership and the digitization of music for radio station libraries (so that CDs and vinyl are not kept handy to spin) have a lot to do with why nobody knows them beyond two songs though.  And with apologies to AlexVoltaire at the Northumbian Countdown, I'm not gonna bother with his album challenge.  I think of musicians in terms of their songs, not their albums.  I love a lot of the acts that focused on releasing singles and not on albums.  I think his challenge to name a good album is founded on a false presupposition.
Favorite song: "Straight Shootin' Woman"
Merit rank: 14
Average of ranks: 8

3. Joan Baez
Joan Baez just has the quintessential folk songstress voice.  Judy Collins, Mary Travers, Judith Durham... all sing so much like her.  It peals through clearly and magnificently.  Great arrangements on her songs make her a pleasure to listen to.
Favorite song: "Blue Sky"
Merit rank: 8
Average of ranks: 5.5

4. Journey
Shut up!  I hate myself too, but catchy harmonies and good hooks on their good songs make up for their schmaltzy junk later on.
Favorite song: "Separate Ways (Worlds Apart)"
Merit rank: 16
Average of ranks: 10

5. 2Pac
The man had some good samples and lyrics that flowed well, which makes it only logical that I'd like the Vulcan rapper T'Pac.
Favorite song: "Unconditional Love"
Merit rank: 2
Average of ranks: 3.5

6. The Cars
They had something for most everybody, and that includes me.
Favorite song: "Tonight She Comes"
Merit rank: 4
Average of ranks: 5

7. The Zombies
They set an ominous table with their organ-driven sound, but it was something to latch onto and listen to several times.
Favorite song: "Tell Her No"
Merit rank: 18
Average of ranks: 12.5

8. Janet Jackson
For my money, there are more entertaining R&B artists from the '80s, but I still enjoy a number of her songs.
Favorite song: "Black Cat"
Merit rank: 5
Average of ranks: 6.5

9. Chaka Khan
This is about her solo career.  I prefer her Rufus work, but there's still plenty of excellent material in her solo catalog.
Favorite song: "I'm Every Woman"
Merit rank: 10
Average of ranks: 9.5

10. Chic
Some funky grooves, though lyrically not the most impressive out there.  Overall fun.
Favorite song: "I Want Your Love"
Merit rank: 11
Average of ranks: 10.5

11. Joe Tex
Like a lot of soul singers not yet in, his '70's stuff is stronger than his '60's songs, even though I hate his two biggest hits from the '70's.
Favorite song: "Hold On To What You've Got"
Merit rank: 12
Average of ranks: 11.5

12. Depeche Mode
Heavy-synth music is the part of the '80's music scene that I loathe most, but Depeche Mode was one of the better acts of that style.
Favorite song: "Just Can't Get Enough"
Merit rank: 7
Average of ranks: 9.5

13. The J. Geils Band
I actually enjoy most of their songs, but they don't really grab me the way that some of the other artists on the ballot do.  Maybe they really do put on a great show, but if the records don't grab me, there's really no reason to go to the show, right?
Favorite song: "Flamethrower"
Merit rank: 19
Average of ranks: 16

14. Kraftwerk
Last time they appeared on the ballot, they also ranked fourteenth in personal preference.  This time however, slot number fourteen isn't second-last.  I appreciate their art, and can enjoy it to a degree for that reason, but it's not as easy as a listener to immerse myself in it.  I like music with emotions, and much of Kraftwerk's Modus Operandi eschewed that idea.
Favorite song: "Neonlichten"
Merit rank: 1
Average of ranks: 7.5

15. Yes
Last time they appeared on the ballot, they also ranked fifteenth in personal preference.  This time however, fifteenth is not dead last.  Don't care for prog.  I like classical, and I like rock and roll, but prog-rock was and is a combination of the two that doesn't work for me.  Songs like "Classical Gas" by Mason Williams and revamped versions of classical melodies such as "Joy" by Apollo 100 and several arrangements from B. Bumble And The Stingers do it better for me.  Still, Yes shows great originality in what they do, I'll admit that.
Favorite song: "Your Move (I've Seen All Good People)"
Merit rank: 9
Average of ranks: 12

16. Bad Brains
Not a fan of cacophony, and their vocals sound like caterwauling on their slower numbers, but at least they're short and punchy, true to punk.
Favorite song: "I Against I"
Merit rank: 17
Average of ranks: 16.5

17. The MC5
I'm all about honoring my fellow Michiganders, but as innovative as the use of distortion was for the records, sometimes it overshadowed the melody and even the rhythm, so it makes audiating their songs all the more difficult.
Favorite song: "Kick Out The Jams"
Merit rank: 15
Average of ranks: 16.

18. Pearl Jam
Hello, Mr. Vedder?  Got someone I'd like you to meet, a military sort of person, I think.  Goes by "Major Tonality."  Okay, I know, that kind of undermines the whole ethos of grunge, but I cannot buy into their agony like this all the time.  Their dispassion ruined "Last Kiss" for me, and I wasn't a big fan of the original by J. Frank Wilson And The Cavaliers, either.
Favorite song: "Even Flow"
Merit rank: 3
Average of ranks: 10.5

19. Jane's Addiction
Pretty much everything I wrote about Pearl Jam, but add a nasally high lead singer's voice, and I'm done.  The fact that my favorite song from them is a semi-faithful cover of the Grateful Dead should say all that needs to be said for me.
Favorite song: "Ripple"
Merit rank: 13
Average of ranks: 16

Looking at the combination of taste and merits, it would stand to reason that my vote on the fan ballot would be the five highest averages.  In this case, my vote should theoretically be for Electric Light Orchestra, Joan Baez, 2Pac, the Cars, and Janet Jackson.  The reality of it is, though, that this list of five with the best averages is only sixty percent accurate for how I've been voting.  Electric Light Orchestra, Janet Jackson, and the Cars have all been getting my vote.  However, instead of Joan Baez and 2Pac, I've been voting for Steppenwolf and Chic.  None of this however is indicative of whom I believe will be enshrined next year.  That prediction though, will be coming soon.

Saturday, November 5, 2016

Merit evaluation 2016-2017

With some time elapsed since the announcement of the nominees, the time has come to look at the nominees from the perspective of their merits.  Already there have been plenty of murmurings of who belongs and who doesn't.  Some have said that Janet Jackson doesn't deserve induction, at least one opinion lists Steppenwolf as unworthy, and still others have said that Journey or Joe Tex don't belong.  Everyone has their metrics by which they measure a nominee's worth for enshrinement.  

For Rock Hall Monitors, the metric is fourfold: Innovation, Influence, Impact, and Intangibles. Where did they break new ground, who followed their lead, how much and how hard did they resonate with the listening public, and what else is there that completes the picture?  An attempt is made to give conceptually equal weight to all four categories--that is, the effort is made to view all four categories as potentially capable of tipping the scales in favor of an artist. Once again, as a reminder, please remember the bigger picture: the last act on this list of nineteen is most likely still among the top one hundred or two hundred deserving acts for the Hall out of all the eligible acts out there.  There isn't an act on this ballot that would be an outrage if they were inducted.  With that in mind, what are the merits for this year's slate and in what order?

Innovation: As a prog group, they pioneered what is now known as electronica.
Influence: Again, electronica artists that have come since all tip their hat to Kraftwerk, particularly those from the European scene.
Impact: How big they were in Europe has not been fully measured yet.  In North America, their heyday was strongest in the disco/dance music scene, as odd as that may seem, given what the artists of that scene during that time were putting out.  Overall, they have two songs that are quasi-known by the general public: "Autobahn" and "Trans-Europe Express."
Intangibles: Only in the recent years has electronica music been getting taken seriously as an art form, at least in terms of coverage from the trade publications, and most point to Kraftwerk as a major point of genesis.

2. 2PAC
Influence: He's a widely cited rapper; many artists in the rap community are claiming him as an influence.
Impact: One of the first solo rap superstars, particularly gangsta rap, that broke the glass ceiling of the Pop community and charts, racking up several hits both before and after his death.
Innovation: Rap as an art form had much of its DNA solidly in place by the time 2Pac came around, so not too much here.
Intangibles: His murder both brought the territorial war in the rap community to the forefront of public consciousness, and along with the death of the Notorious B.I.G., helped put an end to it.  Having died a martyr of and for his art is considered huge.  Or maybe he didn't really die, and went back home to Vulcan to continue his life as T'Pac?  Yes folks, that's gonna permeate this season's posts here.  Deal with it.

Impact: Having carried the torch after the death of Kurt Cobain, they have become the preeminent and best selling grunge act of the past thirty years.  As of 2006, they ranked third among this year's nominees in Joel Whitburn's rankings of artists in the Top 200 Album Chart's history, but in the past ten years, they could easily have moved up to first or second.
Influence: As one of the biggest names of grunge, they have proven extremely influential to myriads of rock bands that have come along in the past fifteen to twenty-five years.
Innovation: While they were not the first grunge act, they are considered one of the major three bands that helped solidify its sound as the public knows it today.
Intangibles: They are regarded, along with Nirvana and Green Day, as part of the triumvirate that helped pushed alternative to the forefront and shapes what's now marketed as "alternative" today.

Innovation: One of the front runners of new wave music, they helped define an entire movement in the music world.
Influence: Again, one of the front runners of new wave.  They influenced a lot of the new wave and even synth-pop and synth-rock acts of the '80's.
Impact: A very commercially successful group with a string of Top 40 hits, and a respectable run of charted albums.
Intangibles: This was a band that seemed to have something for everyone, including critics, who also had a lot of good things to say about them.

Impact: The biggest singles artists on the ballot, and one of the biggest of the whole rock era.  Still going strong with a recently released album.
Influence: One of the most influential female singers of the past 30 years, paving the way for a lot of starlets of R&B and dance music.
Innovation: Not her strongest suit, admittedly, though between her and her producers, her sound became something of a template for 80's and early 90's dance-R&B.
Intangibles: It really does say something to her talent, ethic, and overall credit that in a family of nine kids, all of whom vied for success as solo artists, she's only one of two that can rightfully claim the label of "superstar."  Additionally, had a bigger hand in the creation of her music than she is often remembered for.

Impact: Impressive run of hits through the '70s and early '80s, many of which are still well-known and loved, plus a string of hit albums.  Big enough that when one says, "ELO," there's no ambiguity as to whom it refers, and (hopefully) no confusion that it's a acronym used in text messages and online discussion.
Innovation: An act where they may not have pioneered any one particular element of their sound, but the proportions and overall finesse, not unlike a culinary recipe, is as unique and instantly identifiable as Colonel Sanders'.
Influence: Between the popularity of Electric Light Orchestra and the continuation and success of Jeff Lynne as a producer, it's not a huge stretch to say they had some influence over a lot of acts that came after and on latter-day efforts of established artists.
Intangibles: It can be nothing but an asset to their merit to remember that John Lennon himself said that had the Beatles not broken up, they probably would have sounded like Electric Light Orchestra.  Additionally, Jeff Lynne's extraneous work as a producer, and possibly even as a member of the Traveling Wilburys, adds to the overall weight of ELO's worth and presence on the ballot.

Influence: As one of biggest names of that synth-driven style that could be known by any number of names, they fit in as an influence to many acts that came after in the decade or two that followed.
Impact: A noticeable string of charted hits and songs non-charted classics, as well as hit albums to note.  They were big in both the Album and Modern Rock Tracks charts, as well as the Dance charts.
Innovation: Not super innovative, but the fact that they were all-synthesized may speak a word or two in this category.
Intangibles: This is a group that even the most hardcore of rockists wouldn't complain too much about if they got inducted, which is not inconsequential.

Influence: After Bob Dylan, there's no solid conclusion for who was the most influential folk/folk-rock artist.  That said, Bob Dylan is one of many, many artists who claim to influenced by Baez at some point in their career.
Impact: Though she had less than a dozen hit singles, she's ranked (again, as of 2006) as the highest-ranking Albums Charts artist among this year's group of nominees, just edging out Journey.
Innovation: Come on, folk is one of the most simplistic forms of music we know of and that is still widely recorded today.  Even political infusion is nothing novel.  Sorry Joan.
Intangibles: Her continued political activity and the way it permeates her music to this day is part of what makes her so influential, but in a way, it's kind of its own point of which to take note.

9. YES
Influence: One of the most respected names in the entire sub-genre of prog-rock.  A lot of prog bands took cues from this group.
Innovation: Among the first to really successfully and continuously infuse classical elements into the world of rock music.
Impact: One of the very few prog bands to also have a #1 hit on the Hot 100.  They’re much bigger in the album charts than the singles, but even their singles chart history is pretty respectable, especially compared to many other names on this ballot.
Intangibles: Semi-noteworthy solo careers of some of its members give them some additional credibility as it allows for closer inspection of the individual pieces of their machine, and the sense of synergy as a whole. 

Influence: After Donna Summer, possibly the biggest diva to emerge from the '70's, and influenced a lot of women who followed.
Impact: A modest amount of commercial success as a solo artist, including two very well known songs: "I Feel For You," and "I'm Every Woman."
Innovation: Not a whole lot, but her work with a wide variety of artists has helped bring about some different fused sounds.
Intangibles: Has rubbed elbows with some big names in the music industry, plus her legacy as the front lady of Rufus bolsters her credibility a little too.

11. CHIC
Impact: The impact of “Good Times” upon hip-hop is huge.  Also, respectable runs of hits in the disco, R&B, and pop charts, plus a good run of charted albums.  Nile Rodgers’ producer credit of the Grammy winning Daft Punk jam “Get Lucky” is also a factor here.
Influence: Again, on the world of hip-hop, having a heavily sampled record does say a lot.  Plus, the influence on funk and dance music is sizeable.
Innovation: Not entirely devoid here, as the techniques of Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards have proven different and difficult to duplicate.
Intangibles: Having a crackerjack production team in-house is always a plus factor.

Impact: For a male soul artist in the mid-to-late '60s and through the '70s whose name wasn't "James Brown" and who didn't record for Motown or Stax/Volt, Joe Tex actually held his own quite respectably with many R&B hits that crossed over reasonably well to Pop audiences.
Innovation: NomComm member Dave Marsh cites Joe Tex as one of the artists whose rhythmically-driven recitative style of vocal delivery really gave shape to what became known as the emcee's style of rapping.
Influence: Again, his name wasn't "James Brown" and he wasn't on Motown, so that probably limits, though doesn't entirely eliminate, his status as an influential soul artist.
Intangibles: One of the trademark characteristics of many Joe Tex songs was that he was equal opportunity, simultaneously critiquing and challenging both men and women about their parts and roles in a well-functioning society. 

Influence: Theirs is a name that will regularly appear in conversations about the most influential alternative and hard-rock bands of the past twenty-five to thirty years.
Innovation: Hard to gauge, but they were inventive in their own sound to some degree.
Impact: They have a visible presence in the history of the Modern Rock Tracks charts, and even a modicum of crossing over to the mainstream awareness.  A couple hit albums as well.  Most of all, despite comparatively limited chart presence, they're a band that people have at least heard of.
Intangibles: The names of Perry Farrell and Dave Navarro are well-regarded.  Additionally, if rock'n'roll really is more of an "attitude" than a "musical style," this might be the act on the ballot that most handily exemplifies that attitude of being "rock'n'roll" on and offstage.  The fact that no one with two or more functioning brain cells would say their music is not rock also helps.  Lastly, the efforts of members post-Jane's Addiction keeps their name and legacy enduring.

Impact: Most artists would be grateful to have just one song be considered an anthem.  Steppenwolf had two, which is pretty impressive.  Sure, it took inclusion in a movie to help elevate "Born To Be Wild" to that status, but the same thing is true of "(We're Gonna) Rock Around The Clock," which flopped when it was first released.  On top of that, they have a dozen or so additional hit singles and several charted albums.
Innovation: Their blues-infused hard rock has been argued by some to be proto-metal.  
Influence: Unknown, but it would be unsurprising to learn theirs was anywhere from "practically nil" to "fairly so."
Intangibles: If not Jane's Addiction, this is the act that would most readily symbolize rock'n'roll as being as much an attitude as a style of music.  Again, that may be because of Easy Rider, but it's still am image that bears out through their music and performance.

15. THE MC5
Innovation: Possibly the first to intentionally and regularly use distortion as a key component of their sound, they are also credited as one of the pioneers of punk rock.
Influence: Tremendously so, again, especially in the worlds of punk and hard rock.
Impact: One hit single, two charted albums, both of which at one point were on Rolling Stone's list of most important albums of all time.
Intangibles: If they had been more popular and maybe lasted a bit longer, they'd be a strong contender for that "Example Of Attitude" title discussed in the above two artists.  On top of that, given the breadth of artists, including Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame Inductees that have come out of the Great Lake State, simply the fact that they came from Michigan, especially from Detroit, almost kind of adds an extra layer of credibility to them, much as being British in the '60s might also be considered a bonus.

Impact: This is simply too large to rank them any lower in merits.  Anyone who lists them lower than this likely considers popularity and hit making as liabilities, rather than assets.  That aside, they are the third highest-ranking among this year's nominees in Pop singles charts presence, and either second or third in Albums Charts presence, literally just behind Joan Baez, so between the two, they are most popular overall.  Many hit singles and hit albums.  On top of which, their resurgence in popularity in the past decade or so has created almost a kind of mythos around them that finally penetrated the inner circles of the Nominating Committee.
Influence: Hard to say if they were leaders or followers, but most of the arena-rock bands of this era most likely fed off each other, so there's probably some there.
Innovation: Um...
Intangibles: Whether they were leaders or followers, or a little of both, Journey was, for the better part of a ten-year run, a solid barometric index for where rock'n'roll was in general.  Never fringe, not cutting edge, but a solid benchmark to use.  Additionally, because of their resurgence in popularity, particularly that of "Don't Stop Believin'," they've kind of become the act to name as that which epitomizes Americana as a concept for the past few decades.  Whether that's good or bad, it's significant.

Influence: Widely influential.  Folks ranging from Dave Grohl and Tom Morello to the Beastie Boys have cited Bad Brains as an influence.
Innovation: Not the first hardcore punk act, as many have moaned that they got nominated instead of Dead Kennedys or Black Flag, among others, but there is some uniqueness to their sound that is worth noting.
Impact: They're nominated, so... someone knows who they are!
Intangibles: Because they're so little known, it's hard to think of much here.  Perhaps the fact that they were Black and playing hard guitar music is something to consider.

Impact: Despite only having seven hits on the pop charts (including the Bubbling Under), their big three are really well remembered, and so powerfully symbolic of the ‘60s that it overshadows the short-lived life of the group.  Also, with an album in Rolling Stone’s upper fifth of Top 500 albums of all-time, it’s a critical respect thing, too.
Innovation: When you first hear them, it’s almost indescribable.  It’s moody and haunting, but not really blues, or even jazz, though there may be elements of those styles in there.  But it’s unique, and infectious.
Influence: Somewhat limited, perhaps due to their short-lived run as a group, but every now and then, some hint of their style creeps up, the most well-known of which might be the Guess Who’s “Undun.”
Intangibles: Being a 60’s British Invasion group always means something, not just because of the way the British Invasion collectively shook up the musical landscape, but also because of the music itself of each outfit.  The Zombies have a high general populace approval overall.

Impact: A noticeable run of both hit albums and hit singles.
Influence: Not a whole lot of citation, but their style of blues-rock likely created some ripples.
Innovation: Not much here either, though perhaps a uniqueness and diversity of sound could be argued.
Intangibles: An electrifying live act.  Considering how many acts sound great on record but are duds on tour, or those whose tours are the true and sole reason to be excited about an act, the fact that they're a band that has great stage presence and that most people like at least one studio recording by them is not something to overlook entirely.

This completes the attempted objective analysis of this year's nominees by merits.  There is always some disagreement, and likely even more factual errors than hoped for.  Nevertheless, it's a good exercise for discussing why an artist belongs in the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame.  Feel free to keep exercising in the Comments section below.