After an extended period of time, it is now time for me to attempt to rank the nominees on the ballot for the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame's Class Of 2021 by merits. It is an attempt to be objective, although it can never be completely. The values attached to those which we call merits are themselves subjective, let alone the weighted importance of criteria, or the choice to weigh them equally. So why bother doing it at all? The question itself has been raised, and truth be told, given that my litmus test is a basic pass/fail, and that I apparently have a much lower bar than several others in the hobbyist community, it seems almost ludicrous for me to try--and none of that even taking into account that few of these nominees are in any way within that which could be called my wheelhouse. That almost gives me an advantage, as I have less emotional attachment, or decided detachment, regarding these artists. But it also means that I have the most catching up to do; so it still seems odd for me of all people to try. Nevertheless I do try for two reasons: one, because the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame makes a point to keep a narrow gate, it creates an artificial narrative demanding only the most deserving artists are inducted (though I'm happy if all inductees pass my standards); two, I have a compettive nature, conflictist at times, to use the term I learned in high school sociology. Makling ranked lists is just part of my personality. I even once ranked the twenty tracks of my Four Preps Greatest Hits CD in order of how I liked them. So ranking will commence.
It's no small task this year either. To use the jargon of Joe and Kristen, there are almost as many lanes as there are nominees. They are so different this year, that saying any two occupy the same space borders on the ridiculous. There are a couple places where it can possibly be said. It almost requires a judgment call between the worth of subgenres, though I've tried to avoid that. The other major reason it was so difficult for me this time is the nomination of Fela Kuti. Whereas one can usually either extrapolate or ignore global significance of a nominee because their strongest sphere is either in the United States, the United Kingdom, or both; that is simply not the case with Kuti, and trying to account for the importance on a thoroughly different culture requires a lot of adjustment in the way we approach this task. Hopefully I didn't louse it up too badly though.
As always, I'm using my I-5 system: Innovation, Influence, Impact, Intangibles, and Issues. Four positive categories, one negative. Because of the stark differences between so many of the nominees, the Intangibles category has an increased importance this year. Three last things to keep in mind, too. First, just as in a dash race, the difference between first and last place can be one or two seconds, so to the difference between first and sixteenth can be razor thin. Second, when I talk about the Innovation and Influence categories, I refer to direct musical innovation and influence. "Changing the game" is not included in either of the categories, unless it's the music itself that changed the game. Otherwise, I generally file those things under Intangibles. The last important pre-game note is that most, if not all, of the reservations regarding nominations mentioned in the Issues category do not reflect my own personal feelings regarding the nominee's selection. It's just a potential problem that someone either could raise or has already raised. In fact, I already know my rebuttal to most of those reservations, but fleshing the issues themselves out in the written word gives a more well-rounded evaluation of an artist. Let's begin.
1. LL COOL J
Innovation: In addtion to obsolescing the DJ from rap music, he helped make it a solo braggodocio show, replacing rap outfits. Additionally, he's also widely recognized for making rap more accessible via shorter songs, which help increase radio airplay, and for creating the bridge of R&B stylings between rap and non-rap R&B.
Influence: As an early successful solo emcee, he was a massive influence on rappers that followed.
Impact: He had a steady stream of hit R&B singles and several albums that sold quite well. Additionally, his name recognition factor is quite high.
Intangibles: It wasn't just his music that was influential, but also his image.
Issues: The current social climate makes some of his older lyrics a little cringeworthy, if they weren't already. Additionally, the longer he remains outside the Hall, the more his legacy looks like a torch that has already been passed.
2. FELA KUTI
Innovation: His fusion of soul and funk with the music of his homeland Nigeria resulted in a musical and cultural explosion.
Influence: Because he is credited with Afrobeat's creation, and its continued existence and relevance in the musical world, his influence is both massive and consequential.
Impact: Though his sales in colonial cultures aren't nearly as impressive, his sales and name recognition in Nigeria and in fact all of Africa makes this a stronger category than some would expect.
Intangibles: In addition to being a musical and political revolutionary, his songwriting displays a gift for words and analogies that would impress Emerson and Longfellow.
Issues: I wish I could sit here and tell you the chief objection to his nomination is that his band Africa 70 wasn't nominated with him. I really wish I could tell you that. Reggae was influenced by soul music, much like Afrobeat, and recognition of reggae as part of the rock and roll diaspora is an uphill battle. How much more so a style that isn't well-known in the States.
3. CAROLE KING
Innovation: She was a defining figure of the singer/songwriter movement in the 1970s, helping to define it as a musical movement all its own, with connotations that continue to this day.
Influence: Arguably the most influential of the singer/songwriters from that era, she is also the reason there's a difference in the meanings are evoked when one says "singer/songwriter" versus "musician who writes their own songs."
Impact: Her name recognition as a musician eclipses her legacy as a Brill building songwriter partnered with her then-husband. Tapestry remains a landmark album, and she had several other albums in the Top Ten of the Billboard 200.
Intangibles: She's been recognized for her lifetime of work with other presitigious awards and honors.
Issues: Is Tapestry enough? Critics of her nomination say her musical legacy is a one-trick pony, and though the Hall has inducted other artists for whom the same thing can be said, it's still a relevant question, provided one believes that her entire nomination and case for induction hinges on that album.
4. IRON MAIDEN
Innovation: They didn't invent heavy metal, but they elevated it with political themes and really helped cement the imagery of heavy metal that is often remembered.
Influence: Easily one of the most influential bands in heavy metal and hard rock.
Impact: A band of mostly middling album sales and nearly non-existent singles recognition in the U.S, they were much bigger in the U.K. Plus, their tours historically sold well, resulting in incredible name recognition.
Intangibles: Though not really a band member, their mascot Eddie just seems to be an X-factor for them. Additionally, they have something of an underdog legacy, overcoming a limited airplay handicap to still be considered a major player in the pantheons of rock, even in the U.S.
Issues: They're a band many know the name of, but not a band casual listeners would instantly recognize if one of their songs came on the radio or streaming service. You've heard of them and know something about them because somebody you can tolerate in small doses is emphatic about them.
5. MARY J. BLIGE
Innovation: She is a seminal figure in the creation of the hip-hop/soul merger, as a distinct and persistent style.
Influence: She is cited as an influence by R&B and pop singers ranging from Beyonce to Taylor Swift, and beyond.
Impact: She has at least a baker's dozen albums that made the Top Ten and a few dozen entries on the Pop charts, even more on the R&B charts.
Intangibles: Royalty nicknames can be part of a marketing ploy, but when they endure, such as "Queen Of Hip-Hop/Soul," it's more than just marketing. That's serious business.
Issues: The endurance hip-hop/soul, as developed and defined by Blige, has been diminished by the rise of modern EDM, and the way rappers have jumped on that bandwagon. Blige has adapted, but she no longer has home field advantage
Innovation: He helped redefine East coast rap, modernizing it.
Influence: Easily one of the top three most influential rappers of the past twenty-five years, if not the most.
Impact: The biggest commercial act on the ballot in terms of sales and chart presence, both in terms of singles and albums. Overall name recognition is through the roof.
Intangibles: As one-half of one the biggest power couples of the 21st century, plus his endorsement and side businesses, he is as much a brand as a musician.
Issues: Being as much a brand as a musician has a tendency to be as much of a liability as it is an asset. Plus, having dalliances bad enough to warrant an entire album from his wife, he has marred his own cache just a bit.
7. TINA TURNER
Innovation: Her solo records didn't break much new sonic ground, unfrotunately, but it did allow her to modify and maybe even reinvent her style of singing into something different.
Influence: Her style of rock singing has been extremely influential to rock singers, both male and female (and maybe singers of other genders too).
Impact: She has several instantly recognizable songs that were major hits, and hers is a household name.
Intangibles: Her comeback in the '80s is legendary, and her live stage presence was known for being electric.
Issues: The production values of her solo records are unmistakenly '80s and haven't aged well. Also, if her induction as a solo artist is justifiable, then said justification requires that the merits of her solo career and records be completely separated from those of her career in the duo, rather than subsuming the latter under the former. There is still an argument to be made, but it takes extra effort because of the extra work put in vis-a-vis the separation process.
8. RAGE AGAINST THE MACHINE
Innovation: Among the pioneers of nu metal, combining punk, rap, metal, and even elements of reggae, and brought it as close to the mainstream as can reasonably be expected.
Influence: Because their scene was more underground, it's a little harder to measure, but a lot of the nu metal bands took their lead from this band.
Impact: A few charted songs on the Album and Modern Rock charts, and a couple charted albums.
Intangibles: There is a sense of authenticity to them, and congruity with their name, their music, and their image offstage.
Issues: Their lyrics are often incomprehensible, so you don't know what they're saying, only that they're angry. Additionally, not big on longevity.
9. TODD RUNDGREN
Innovation: Due to his experience in the control booth, he has found new ways to create unique sounds and make them his own, which was heard on his records. He's one of the most experimental artists on this ballot.
Influence: Because he's worked with a lot of artists who respect him, his influence has been able to circulate widely, even if not necessarily terribly strongly.
Impact: His name recognition factor is very high, due to both his critical respect and his work with others. As a musician, he's had several charted singles and a respectable amount of album sales.
Intangibles: Not only one of the most experimental artists on the ballot, he's also one of the most versatile. He can do multiple styles and sing in multiple ways. That's not always a strong selling point for the Hall, but it is a tasty cherry on top.
Issues: This nomination is for his work as a solo artist, a musician. It's not always so simple to parse out his musicianship from his other credits, which may blur the ability to evaluate his actual output fairly.
10. DIONNE WARWICK
Innovation: Some might call her '60s records a kind of prototype of the "Quiet Storm" style of music that Roberta Flack and Sade would later grow and popularize.
Influence: In addition to being influential to her inducted cousin, a number of songs she first recorded were later covered by soul singers and groups.
Impact: The second biggest singles and albums act among this year's nominees, just a huge list of charting singles and albums, top ten hits in three consecutive decades.
Intangibles: The songwriters Burt Bacharach and Hal David are heavily respected, despite not being inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame either, and Dionne's legacy is strongly entwined with theirs.
Issues: Those who defend rap's inclusion into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame by insisting that rock and roll is more of an attitude, a sense of rebellion, and a culture of youth might just find themselves backpedaling at breakneck speeds to justify the nomination of a singer whose music, both lyrically and stylistically, is much more mature, and not a "Rated X" kind of mature--more like a "meticulously scrutinizing the details of potential life insurance policies while ingesting your daily bowl of high fiber cereal, which reminds me, you've got a colonoscopy coming up next month" kind of mature. Emotional maturity, I mean. Her rise to stardom on Twitter is her strongest ever connection to the youth culture.
11. THE GO-GO'S
Innovation: They weren't the first post-punk band, but they were early enough in its evolution to have played a sizeable part in its formation.
Influence: As one of the first bands of their style to achieve major commercial success, they were able to influence other bands that came after them, including pop-punk acts like Green Day.
Impact: Four big singles that have endured, and a few others, plus a landmark album to their credit.
Intangibles: The Hall loves to honor the rebellious troublemakers and rule-breakers; so naturally, they're falling all over themselves for the chance to induct this glass-ceiling-shattering band, right? Right?
Issues: While the Hall has no qualms about inducting acts that were short-lived, longevity is a great asset to have in the arsenal, and this band simply doesn't, having burnt out too soon.
12. THE NEW YORK DOLLS
Innovation: One of the foundational acts of punk rock, shaping its simplicity and catchiness.
Influence: They influenced a lot of punk bands, especially in the New York scene.
Impact: A few charted albums, but nothing in the upper half. No charted singles.
Intangibles: They were also influential in terms of image, and critics loved them.
Issues: Those they influenced surpassed them in terms of influence, commercial success, legacy, and possibly even image.
13. KATE BUSH
Innovation: Her sound is incredibly unique to her that it cannot be called anything but groundbreaking. Her infusion of Celtic, Bohemian, and so many other influences is just staggering.
Influence: Big Boi from Outkast is a noted fan who took songwriting cues from her, as do a lot of singers and songwriters, as well. The most direct descendants of her sounds would be artists like Tori Amos, Dido, and Annie Lennox.
Impact: She's much more commercially successful in her native United Kingdom, but even in the States, she had several charted albums and songs on the Mainstream Rock charts.
Intangibles: Her performances pioneered the usage of headset microphones. More importantly, her overall level of artistry, particularly by Western standards, is extremely high.
Issues: Her self-imposed decisions regarding her output and public appearances in general, let alone touring, have diminished her ability to reach larger audiences and reach superstar level.
14. CHAKA KHAN
Innovation: Her collaborative efforts with other artists featured infusions of various styles with hers.
Influence: After Donna Summer, she was probably the most influential of the disco songstresses, influencing a lot of female singers who followed, including those who have been nominated for and inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame.
Impact: She has two very well-known songs, along with about a dozen other charted singles, along with some charted albums, and her name recognition is extremely high.
Intangibles: She has worked with and rubbed elbows with a lot of people in the industry, plus the legacy she has as the front person in Rufus adds to her cache.
Issues: The Hall's penchant for false dichotomy makes one believe that either her solo career or that of Rufus will be inducted, not both, and many would prefer it be Rufus.
Innovation: They were them. They were around at the genesis of post-punk and constantly pushed the sonic envelope with a style that was still considered ahead of the times twenty years later.
Influence: Not the most widely cited of the post-punk bands, but due in part to their innovation, they were always in the conversation of highly influential bands of that ilk.
Impact: Folks might be shocked to discover that they actually had several hits across the various trade publications, included multiple entries on Billboard's dance music charts. They also charrted several albums.
Intangibles: They're a highly respected band among musicians for their artistry, both visual and sonic.
Issues: "Oh yeah, they had that one song, didn't they? Did they do other stuff too?"--the general public
16. FOO FIGHTERS
Innovation: They helped define harder and alternative rock in a post-grunge world.
Influence: Presumably influential in the hard rock community.
Impact: Steady major success on the Album and Mainstream Rock charts, with some decent crossover to the Hot 100, along with seven Top Ten albums.
Intangibles: In addition to being called "the last great rock and roll band," Dave Grohl's general likeability has translated in a general positive perception of the band, translating into reach.
Issues: Foo Fighters need to be inducted because... Dave Grohl? That seems to be the crux of a lot of people's arguments, and it just doesn't sell. Also, when you're called "the last great" anything, it suggests the tributary has run dry, and when you're up for honors from an institution that claims to be about recognizing and celebrating the perpetuation and evolution of something, it's not a ringing endorsement.
And with that, we conclue our look at the merits of the sixteen nominees for this year's class. This was not an easy task by any means, and I'm still agonizing over it. Nothing looks right or feels right, but any adjustments just make it worse. In a simple "pass/fail" litmus test that I generally use, all sixteen of these get a pass from me, even those I may have balked at at one point. When trying to write up these ranks, I also tried to separate their merits from the separate rankings list that AlexVoltaire has called "bottom line." I tried to separate the idea of the Hall needing them, as he put it. The Hall needs most if not all of these artists; whether it's representation of race, gender, geography, generations, or genre; the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame needs what each of these nominees bring to the table, the table with a giant hoagie on it. So that's where this list leaves off. Hopefully soon, it'll be a ranking of artists as I enjoy listening to them.