Friday, October 31, 2014

Song of the Day: Prince - 17 Days

There are only a handful of arguments in pop music that fundamentally bother me, and here they are: When people think The Beatles are overrated, when people hate Springsteen for reasons that they can't articulate, when people think John Bonham was a better drummer than Keith Moon, and when people think Michael Jackson was better than Prince. In the case of the first three, the contrarian opinion is simply wrong. The last one is trickier. 

Prince versus MJ can be approached in any number of ways, and I conceed that there isn't necessarily a "right" answer. But the two biggest things I think Prince has indisputably in his favor are that he was more interesting and more prolific. Arguing the merits of being "more interesting" and why that makes someone better is a topic for another day. But beyond simply being more prolific (which is just fact), I think Prince just released a lot more great music than Michael. Prince reached his A+ territory with startling regularity for a longer span of time than Michael, and a song like "17 Days" helps to illustrate that. 

This song was the B-Side (!!) to "When Doves Cry," and the only place you can own it on CD is the 3-disc Hits/B-Sides compilation. The song doesn't even exist on YouTube, which is why I can't embed a video in this post (but here's a link to the song). It allegedly received a bit of radio play in 1984 (I can't exactly be an authority on that), but it's otherwise a pretty unknown song. Michael Jackson's discography, despite its many merits, doesn't feature any lost classics. With Prince, on the other hand, you could burn someone an 80-minute CD that featured entirely great songs they probably haven't heard. Of course, part of that's his own fault; he just released too much material and some of it was frankly bad. But that's the thing with Prince--his genius never had an "off" switch. The shit was just spilling out of him 24/7/365. There are so many great Prince songs out there, just waiting for people to discover them. For most artists, "17 Days" could have been their break-through hit. Prince threw it away on a B-side because he knew he had ten more songs to write the next day.

This was originally written and posted on Facebook on May 28, 2014

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Song of the Day: Stone Temple Pilots - Interstate Love Song (1994)

Generally speaking, when kids first start really listening to current music around the middle school years, they don't initially understand qualitative differences. They know if they like something, and they know how popular that something is, but objective judgments of artistry don't come into the picture until much later (or never, for some people). As a middle schooler in the mid-'90s, my friends and I loved current alternative music, and we had a basic understanding of the hierarchy, but that understanding was really only based on duration. There were the bands that we'd only heard one album from, and then there were the bands that had released two or three. Anyone in the latter group was, obviously, awesome. If MTV was playing your second or third album just as much as your first, and the songs sounded just as cool, what else was there to know?

To anyone that was five or more years older and seriously listening to music, it was obvious that Stone Temple Pilots initially existed as a shameless Pearl Jam rip-off. Their big hits off of their first album, 1992's Core, were all just re-writes of "Even Flow." But to middle-schoolers, that didn't enter into the logic lexicon. 

STP's second album, Purple, was one of the first three CDs I ever bought, and I loved it immediately. The first few songs sounded edgy, "Big Empty" was on the soundtrack for The Crow, which was THE cool action movie of the time among my friends and I, and we even loved the hidden lounge-style track at the end. In retrospect, that hidden song was probably one of our first real encounters with irony. And then there was the huge hit, "Interstate Love Song," which was probably the most ubiquitous song on MTV in 1994 (Soundgarden's "Black Hole Sun" would be the other major contender). It was absolutely inescapable, and we couldn't get enough. 

It's amazing with hindsight to realize how much we didn't know in 1994, and how bad we were at recognizing quality. Sure, we all owned the great albums by Nirvana, Pearl Jam, and the Smashing Pumpkins, but we also all owned the popular-at-the-time albums by The Toadies, Seven Mary Three (definitely the most egregious of all the Pearl Jam rip-offs), FilterGravity Kills, Sponge, Candlebox, and so many other bands that have been very justifiably forgotten. All we had to go by is what MTV played and whether or not it sounded cool. The fact that it might have sounded EXACTLY like something else never entered the equation. Context is generally not a strong point of the seventh-grade mind. 

As an adult, I think Stone Temple Pilots are one of the most interesting bands of the era to analyze. They no longer fit into my easy 12-year old logic of "sounds cool = absolute greatness", but I'm also smart enough now to realize they didn't remain the Pearl Jam clone that they clearly started as. In hindsight, few bands have ever done a better job of redefining themselves with a second album as STP did in 1994. Though critics didn't recognize it at the time--and to be fair, it's difficult to mentally reframe a band that began so poorly--STP really crafted a follow-up album that acknowledged the criticism initially levied against them. While Scott Weiland couldn't totally alter the timbre of his singing voice, his Vedder-ish inflections are mostly gone now, as are the grunge-by-numbers riffs that drew so much ire the year before. More than anything, Purple just sounds like '90s classic rock, and I mean that as a compliment. 

"Interstate Love Song" remains one of the best songs of the era, a song that absolutely defies anyone to get sick of it. It's acoustic and melancholy intro, punctuated by a bit of twang, set the tone, and the chorus melody soars over the mainstream rock guitar. And that's really why STP wouldn't die despite the concerted attempts the critical community of the time made to kill them: their best songs had really, really good melodies, and after the years distance you from all the unoriginal sounds that got caked over the top, the melodies still sound great. STP's best songs initially made their commercial impact not solely because of who else they sounded like, but also because of how infectious they were, and two decades later, that's the part that still stands out. 

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Thursday, October 30, 2014

Song of the Day: Spoon - Got Nuffin (2010)

My tastes have expanded, grown, and matured a lot in the last several years, and so much of what I listen to now are things that I barely went near in college. But having said that, Indie Rock is still my favorite genre of music. The heart wants what the heart wants. 

This is definitely one of my favorite Indie Rock songs from the last five years, and it's a good example of what the best of the form sounds like. Spoon are one of the better Indie bands of the millennium thus far, and their 2007 album Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga was one of my favorites of that decade. Their follow-up, 2010's Transference, wasn't quite as good as its predecessor, but it did contain this gem, which just might be their best song yet. I remember I played it for my cousin back around the time it came out and it was my favorite song of the moment, and he said that the difference between he and I was that he "need(s) there to be some kind of hook for the song to be great." And that's when I knew we'd have to agree to disagree, because I think this song is ALL hook. The bass line is one of those that just stays in my head for hours after I hear it, and I love the way the angular guitar bounces in and out, almost like it's just throwing riff bursts at the bass line. So much hook. 

This was originally written and posted on Facebook on May 27, 2014

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Song of the Day: Rod Stewart - Man of Constant Sorrow (1969)

Anyone that's talked seriously about music with me knows I have a completely unashamed love for early Rod Stewart, and he's a contender for my favorite singer ever. That may seem odd given what Rod has been for the last 35 years, but he really wasn't always like that. Prior to "Da Ya Think I'm Sexy?" and his sell-out cultivation of the "mom audience" that continues to this day, he was one of the best rock vocalists and performers out there. 

Few artists have ever had a hot streak like Rod had from '68-'73, when he hit a peak in three different genres. First he recorded two albums as the vocalist of the Jeff Beck Group, which a lot of rock historians credit with having created heavy metal. Then in '69 he started dual careers as a solo folk artist and as the front man for The Faces, who were nothing short of the best rock band of the early 70's not named The Rolling Stones or The Who. (Yes, they were better than Zeppelin.)
In some ways, it's problematic to even think of Rod's five albums from this period as real solo albums, because the other members of The Faces all played on them (and Ron Wood was even co-writing a lot of the songs). But the chief difference is that Faces albums were all-out rock and had all original material, while Rod's albums were mostly acoustic and folky and featured a lot of covers. This is one of the best.

To listen to Rod's cover of "Man of Constant Sorrow" is to fully understand why he used to be so great, no matter how hard he keeps trying to make us all forget it. This is a folk song from 1913, probably most famous in it's incarnation from the soundtrack to Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?, but this is the best version. The arrangement (probably by Wood) is wonderful, and Rod's voice is the perfect mix of Sam Cooke-soulful and whiskey-soaked growl that few other singers have ever come close to. The way he transitions from the song's loud climax down into the calming lyric of "I'm going back to Colorado" just slays me every time.

This was originally written and posted on Facebook on May 26, 2014

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Song of the Day: Green Day - Welcome to Paradise (1994)

Twenty years ago this week, I acquired my first CD player as an early Bar Mitzvah present, and I officially became a music buyer--a title which has cost me quite a bit of coin over the last two decades. That day, I bought my first three CDs, songs from which I will write about for the next three days as I begin a long look at the music of 1994. 

All art recycles ideas constantly; the trick is in recycling them in ways that actually feel new instead of derivative. As a 12-year old in 1994, I can verify that Green Day felt like something new even though we didn't understand how or why. At that point, we were about three years into the new era of music and youth culture that Kurt Cobain hath wrought, and we were already being described as the generation that didn't care. (I guess that's marginally better than the current generation, which is undoubtedly the generation that hates everything.) For people just becoming teenagers at the time, it was a bit troubling, because we weren't even old enough to have figured out what we were supposed to care about

Good punk music generally arrives out of a dissatisfaction with a status quo. In England in the '70s, it was mostly Thatcherism and the class & economic separations of the people, while at the CBGB's scene of New York, it was mostly about the boringness of the rock and roll being ushered in by prog, disco, singer/songwriters, "classic" rock, and pretentious Led Zeppelin drum solos. Those things all sustained punk for several years, and then in the '80s MTV provided whatever motivational fodder was still needed. But Green Day retroactively feels like the first punk band to capture the dissatisfaction of just being dissatisfied. 

"Welcome to Paradise" is my favorite song on Dookie for a few reasons. Sonically, the opening riff is both the most immediate one on the album and the most visceral. It just sounds like punk music in a nutshell. You could play it for someone that didn't have any idea what punk sounded like and they'd fundamentally understand the style within four seconds. In that sense, I was probably going to like this song regardless of its lyrical content, but growing up in Muncie, IN really sealed the deal. As far as I knew at the time, in my sheltered laboratory school life, Muncie didn't have any crack streets or broken homes, but it sure as hell felt like a wasteland, and that's a sensation that would only grow and fester over the years. 

What Green Day did with this song, and the entire Dookie album, was tap into a collective feeling that the youth of this country was experiencing, make it sound hostile enough to feel dangerous and alienating to our parents, and yet somehow also catchy enough to be really enjoyable to listen to. Basically, it's music that felt universal and exclusionary and fun. Not an easy combination. The other best songs on the album, "Longview" and "Basket Case," were (respectively) about being so bored that even masturbation and channel flipping had lost their luster, and about appearing crazy to everyone else even though you feel completely normal. It was music that somehow felt like it was speaking to just us, even though it was collectively hitting us all at once. And by the time Green Day became superstars a few months later, it caught us all by such surprise that any backlash would have felt unfair. And it just wasn't a backlash kind of era. 

Dookie came out around 18 years after the advent of punk music, and around 16 years after the advent of pop-punk. They were not a sonically original band, but their repackaging of older sonic ideas with lyrical themes that were distinctly of their time was a breath of fresh air, even to nascent teenagers of the time who didn't have the requisite knowledge to recognize whether something was repackaged or not. And regardless, some things are just fundamentally exuberant enough to transcend a lack of originality. 

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Friday, October 24, 2014

Who Should be in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (That Isn't Even On the Ballot)?

A few days ago I went through the fifteen names on this year's Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (RRHOF) ballot, dissecting the candidacy of each artist. But the equal (bigger?) debate when the ballot comes out each year is who wasn't on it at all. Without further adieu, here are the eligible artists not on this year's ballot that I think are most egregiously missing from the RRHOF. 

1. Gram Parsons

As I mentioned with Kraftwerk, there's a difference between artists who first take a sound to the masses, and artists who first take a sound to any attention at all. Often it's the artists that find mass appeal who receive all the historical credit, while the artists who first paved the way continue to languish in obscurity. There is little question that The Eagles were the most responsible for taking country rock to the masses. Yes, Linda Ronstadt, and Neil Young, and Poco, and certain Stones songs, and others all had an impact, but The Eagles are probably why the sound broke through. However, the RRHOF seems to be strangely ignoring why this sound even existed to break through in the first place. Before Don Henley met Glenn Frey, before Richie Furay formed Poco, before Neil Young recorded in Nashville, and before the Stones recorded "Honky Tonk Women," "Dead Flowers," or "Sweet Virginia," there was Gram. 

Gram Parsons is the biggest reason country rock exists, and really, there's no close second. He's who got Mick and Keith interested in writing country songs ("Wild Horses" was actually written for Gram's band a whole year before the Stones released their own version), he's who made the various members of The Byrds and Buffalo Springfield start seriously recording country music, he's who first released a major country rock album (The Byrds' Sweetheart of the Rodeo), and he's who gave us Emmylou Harris. The old cliche about The Velvet Underground is that only a thousand people bought their first album, but everyone who did ended up forming a band. With Gram, maybe only a few thousand people bought his albums, but everyone who did was already in a band, and immediately started writing songs like Gram. 

Now here's the problem with Gram: No one knows how to induct him. He released six albums in his life time, but those six albums were by four different artists. The first was with The International Submarine Band, who are not worthy of the RRHOF. The second was with The Byrds, who are already inducted, but Gram is mysteriously not an inducted member (even though he was the mastermind behind Sweetheart of the Rodeo, which might be their best album). The third and fourth were with The FLying Burrito Brothers, who were hugely important, but no one outside of music snobs has ever heard of them. Then the fifth and sixth were solo albums. So what do you do? I don't know, and even more importantly, I don't see why it's worth halting progress over the issue. It's the rock equivalent of a trivial semantic argument. The other key Burrito brother (Chris Hillman) and all of the relevant Byrds are already in, so just induct Gram Parsons and be done with it. 

2. The Replacements

80's indie rock and alternative music (what was at the time labeled "college radio") has thus far been a mostly ignored genre in the RRHOF. We basically have R.E.M. and U2 inducted, and that's completely it. There are a huge host of artists from that decade deserving further consideration (many of whom appear further down this list), but The Replacements are one of the only  bands that I think should be completely non-negotiable. I just don't see how we get to the 90's alternative music explosion without them. Their sound, their style, their sloppiness, their attitude, their journey to a major label, their evolution to more crafted pop songs, their substance issues, their unashamed love of metal (they covered Kiss on their best album, 1984's Let It Be), and so much more… the 90's as we know them just couldn't have happened without The Replacements.

3. Brian Eno

Like Gram Parsons, Eno is a bit tricky because his name was so many different (important) places that it's difficult to figure out precisely how to induct him. And again, I don't see why that should be a hindrance. As the original keyboardist of Roxy Music (also being conspicuously ignored by the RRHOF), a solo artist largely responsible for bringing ambient music and "pure" art rock to greater attention, and a producer responsible for some of the greatest albums of the post-60's (not hyperbole), his contributions are just too seminal. Three already inducted artists--Bowie, U2, and Talking Heads--released what are (un?)arguably the best albums of their careers with Eno at the controls, and they'll all happily tell you that he was more than simply a producer. He was a guiding force for those artists creating their most innovative and important work, helping them to tap into a side of their artistry that they might not have ever accessed otherwise. A case could definitely be made that he's the greatest post-60's producer in pop music history. He produced 11 albums on Rolling Stone's "500 Greatest Albums Ever" list from a few years ago, which (I believe) is more than anyone else. His solo work, while important, can just be looked at as a bonus to a career deserving of RRHOF induction. 

4. Joy Division/New Order

Here's a case, like The Small Faces/Faces, where we'll probably have to bite our collective tongues and allow these two bands to get inducted together, else neither will get in. Yes, they're different, but they're the same enough. After all, Joy Division was already headed in a synth-ier direction with their last few songs prior to Ian Curtis' death. Who's to say they wouldn't have basically become New Order anyway? 

Anyway, either of these bands should be locks to get in on their own, and together, I don't see how they can be left out. Joy Division was one of the most important post-punk bands, who sonically paved the way for both goth and indie-rock, and lyrically paved the way for the profound effect Morrissey and Robert Smith songs would have on a generation of depressed teenagers. And New Order are the most important and greatest British dance band since the BeeGees. (And yeah, I can't believe I just typed that sentence either.) Anyway, the influence of these two bands is literally everywhere, in bands as disparate and seemingly unrelated as Interpol and The Scissor Sisters. 

5. Nick Drake

Nick Drake is one of pop music's great casualties, because not only did he die far too young (he didn't even live long enough to be in rock's "Forever 27" club), but virtually no one bought or heard his three lovely albums in his lifetime. In the forty years since he died, that's obviously changed. Right now, Nick Drake is one of the most important folk rock musicians ever, as well as one of the best. More than anyone else, he's who moved folk rock away from the nasally meandering sound of the Dylan disciples and brought it into its current styling of somber etherealness. With the booming success of a new generation of Indie-folk artists like Bon Iver, Fleet Foxes, and Iron & Wine, it's prime time for Nick Drake--the primary influence of all three--to get inducted. 

6. The Cure

Who started or created "Goth" music is debatable, and whether you want to credit The Cure, Joy Division, Bauhaus, Siouxsie and the Banshees, or someone else is up to you. But far less debatable is which of those bands actually reached a large audience, and it's The Cure. Would goth music have ever even become a thing without Robert Smith leading the way for as long as he did? Doubtful. Just as important is that Smith didn't languish in one style, but rather moved from post-punk to goth to alternative to synth pop to dance pop, and then back through all of them again. As he cultivated an audience in each genre, he brought that audience with him to other places they hadn't been before, and that can't be underestimated. And for what it's worth, The Cure released music central to their legacy in three different decades, which comparatively few bands can ever say. ("Boys Don't Cry" was the late 70's, and "Friday I'm in Love" was the early 90's.)

7. Sonic Youth

"Art Rock" means a lot of different things to a lot of different people. It's a term that's fairly impossible to nail down. But even if we can't really define it, we can absolutely have associations with it. Has any band been called Art Rock more frequently--or accurately--than Sonic Youth? Has any band, other than maybe (maybe!) The Strokes, more perfectly embodied New York City over the last 40 years than Sonic Youth? Has anyone--other than maybe John Lennon in the opening seconds of "I Feel Fine"--ever made feedback sound cooler and sexier than Sonic Youth? For that matter, how many bands have ever even had a cooler and sexier name than Sonic Youth? How many albums not by Bruce Springsteen have more perfectly encapsulated the follies of the Reagan era than Daydream Nation? Has any rock and roll marriage ever seemed more perfect than Thurston Moore and Kim Gordon (until it depressingly ended, which we've all tacitly agreed not to talk about)? Forever a defining archetype of indie-cred coolness, we just don't celebrate Sonic Youth as much as we should. 

8. Depeche Mode

Say what you will about synth pop, but it changed and defined the 1980's as we know them. Depeche Mode took the raw material of Kraftwerk and reforged it into something that could be enjoyed by millions and millions of people. They also did so in an extremely catchy way that never remained stagnant, constantly shifting to darker and darker sounds, images, and subject matter, remaining relevant even into the 90's alternative explosion despite defiantly remaining loyal to synthesizers. Not an easy task to pull off, but so little of what Depeche Mode did well was ever easy. 

9. Boston 

Yeah, I know. Trust me, I know. We aren't supposed to take Boston seriously. But it's about time we did. What Tom Scholz and Bradley Delp did was, along with punk, and completely adjacent to it, seize rock radio away from the interminable drum solos of Led Zeppelin and the interminable classical influences of prog-rock and forge a new era of pop songs played with huge riffs and sung with soaring melodies. This music is slight and uninteresting, but it also conquered the world and all of us secretly love singing along to it. I'm not remotely suggesting inducting all of the major bands in this field--Styx, Journey, Foreigner, REO Speedwagon, Kansas, etc.--but Boston is the godfather to them all, as well as maybe the only one that never feels 100% uncool listen to. 

10. The Pixies

They bridge the gap between the feedback and artiness of Sonic Youth to the punk for the masses of Nirvana. They're an undeniably important stop on the journey to the 1990's, but also a band that released great music. Fight Club has, perhaps undeservedly, become one of the defining films of the 90's, and a Pixies song ("Where Is My Mind") is used to define the crescendo of that film. "Loud quiet loud" has become one of the most overused style descriptors in rock music, and The Pixies likely didn't even create that sound, but the term was created just for them. Kevin Bacon always said he may not be the greatest actor ever, but he's the only one with a game named after him. The sound of The Pixies has become one of the defining shorthands in rock music, just as Die Hard did for action films. For years, every pitch meeting described "Die Hard on a…" Today, we still describe new indie bands as "like The Pixies, but…"

A Baker's Dozen of Other Deserving Candidates

MC5/The New York Dolls--The two halves that made the whole of The Stooges, the garaginess and volume of the MC5 and the trashiness and showmanship of the New York Dolls. Both eventually deserve their rightful place. 

De La Soul--Responsible for arguably the greatest rap album ever (3 Feet High and Rising), as well as the kaleidoscopic soundscapes the more innovative hip hop acts continue to explore to this day. 

Television--I've argued before that they're the first Indie-Rock band, and they created a defining guitar style. 

Gang of Four--Anything ever described as "dance punk" starts here.

Steve Earle--No way he can be inducted before Gram, which is why he's down here. But he helped bridge a new generation between rock and country. 

Duran Duran--Helped define the sound of a decade, as well as the look of MTV, which can't be understated. They're susceptible to the same slightness arguments as Boston, but damn did they write good songs. 

Black Flag--There are a lot of other 80's underground bands that need to be inducted before we can travel down this road, but eventually…

The Jam--The missing link between the 60's Englishness of The Kinks and the 90's Englishness of Britpop. The Smiths might have been the ones that brought back the guitar sound, but The Jam kept the Union Jack cool as it came to band identity. 

Phish--An entire summer concert and festival industry exists at their behest. 

Dinosaur Jr/Husker Du--The next tier down of the 80's American underground, but also the progenitors of extremely influential guitar sounds. 

The Stones Roses--Where Britpop and British House music meet is a place created by these guys. 

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Breakdown of the 2014 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Ballot

This is the first post of what I hope will become an annual tradition: A thorough breakdown of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame  (RRHOF) ballot. Who should get in? Who doesn't even belong on the ballot? Who is conspicuously absent from the ballot? 

The RRHOF is often difficult to talk to people about, because it constantly alienates a portion of its audience with almost every decision it makes. This isn't fair, of course. Like all awarding institutions--The Oscars, The Baseball Hall of Fame, etc.--The RRHOF will never ever have a track record of indisputable decisions and results, but even the most suspicious of them all shouldn't invalidate the entire institution, in much the same way that Bush "beating" Gore in the 2000 election does not invalidate the American government. (Though I'm sure there are those who disagree!)

No voting body, in any field, is a perfect one. They may be too vast or too narrow. They may be forced into too quick a decision, with limited data at their disposal. (Please, ask Oscar voters how many of the Best Documentary nominees they even watch in a given year.) The entire concept of "The Test of Time" is an ever-evolving one, and no isolated moment of voting can pin down an accurate assessment of such a thing. 

But holy shit is it fun to try, and even more fun to argue about. 

My Ballot

If I were one of the 700ish people with an actual ballot for the RRHOF (maybe one day!), here's who my five selections would be, in order of how easy they were to choose. 

1. The Smiths 

Any time I'm trying to assess the importance of a pop music artist, the first thing I consider is how the trajectory of pop music might have been different had said artist never entered a recording studio. That's why The Smiths are the easiest vote for me. When looking at the last 35 years of British rock music, particularly the peak influence and popularity of Britpop in the 1990's, it's extremely difficult to imagine things having gone quite the same way without The Smiths. I hate when music critics use the term "single-handedly" to describe anything, because virtually nothing in the music industry happens single-handedly, but having said that, The Smiths are at least heavily responsible for the return of guitar rock to prominence in English pop music. Maybe that seems too specific an honor, but when funneled through the lens of the major 90's English bands--Oasis, Blur, Pulp, The Verve, Suede, etc.--it's especially difficult to imagine who those bands would have been looking to for primary inspiration if not Morrissey and Marr. Obviously nothing in rock happens in a vacuum, and that's why we call them influences (emphasis on the plurality).  A host of other bands mattered to the evolution of English rock into Britpop, but I'd argue--and I wouldn't be in the minority here--that The Smiths mattered most. And when you matter most to what the dominant music of England sounded like for an entire decade, you deserve to be in the RRHOF. 

2. Kraftwerk

Here's a case where it's useful to differentiate between two kinds of importance. Did an artist take a style from obscurity (or non-existence) to the attention of the industry? Or did said artist take a style from the attention of the industry to mass popularity? Is either leap--obscurity to attention, attention to popularity--a more important or valuable one? It's a worthy debate, and one I won't get into at the moment. But I will say that the first kind of importance--the bringing of something from non-existence to the attention of an industry--IS an extremely important contribution, and it's one that should be absolutely sales proof. 

Fact 1: The average public does not know who Kraftwerk is. Fact 2: Fact 1 should have absolutely no relevance to their RRHOF credentials. I still won't resort to the term single-handedly, but Kraftwerk is even more responsible for the advent of electronic music than The Smiths were to the advent of 90's Britpop. The only reason I have The Smiths ranked higher is because 90's Britpop became so immense, while electronic music has never entirely escaped the margins. But also relevant is Fact 3: Kraftwerk are the musical Ground Zero for more styles and sub-genres than any eligible artist not already inducted into the RRHOF. This is their third appearance on the ballot, and I hope they don't require a fourth. (Or fifth…)

3. Chic

Chic are in many ways the exact opposite candidate as Kraftwerk. While Kraftwerk experienced no popular success and is largely only known by serious music snobs, Chic are often dismissed by music snobs despite their huge popularity and lasting influence to dance music. For these reasons, it's sadly very difficult to imagine both bands being inducted this year, because they aren't likely to have a lot of voter overlap. But on this imaginary ballot (as in real life), Chic and Kraftwerk can coexist for their relatively equal importance. 

Rap and dance music have a long history of sampling, but where those samples come from is all over the map, from the most obscure dustbins of history to the biggest hits of yesteryear. Chic and Kraftwerk are responsible for the samples that drive two of the great early rap epics, with Kraftwerk providing the basis for Afrika Bambaataa's "Planet Rock," and Chic providing the basis for The Sugar Hill Gang's "Rapper's Delight." That's just the most obvious way of saying these bands are two sides of the same coin, with Kraftwerk being the Euro-art rock side and Chic being the NYC populist club version. Regardless, it's difficult to isolate the contributions of one without factoring in the other. And for what it's worth, this is Chic's NINTH appearance on the ballot. So there's that. 

4. N.W.A.

I was all for N.W.A. not getting in on their first nomination, because I felt like that would unfairly put them on equal footing with Public Enemy (also nominated for the first time the same year), and I believed a delineation of quality between the two would be helpful. And it worked; Public Enemy got in on their first year of eligibility, and N.W.A. are appearing on their third ballot. But now we're good. They're somewhere between the second and seventh most important rap group, depending where you stand on Run-DMC, Outkast, Wu-Tang Clan, The Beastie Boys, and Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five. They gave us Dr. Dre, Ice Cube, Easy E, and (by extension) Snoop Dogg. Let's just induct them already. 

5. Lou Reed

And now I will attempt to discuss Lou Reed without mentioning his former band. Seriously, I won't even type their name. Lou Reed has already been inducted into the RRHOF once, but I believe he deserves induction as a solo artist. He didn't do any one thing that tips him over the top, but rather, it's the totality of his aspects of notable importance. He's responsible for the all-time weirdest top 20 hit single, "Walk on the Wild Side." His 1975 "album," Metal Machine Music, is completely unlistenable, but it remains arguably the greatest "Fuck you" statement the music industry has ever seen. (And don't underestimate how important that was to the future of artists dealing with record companies.)  His 1973 album, Berlin, brought vaudeville and European theater to rock music. His ubiquitous presence on the NYC music scene of the 70's heavily helped cultivate the CBGB punk explosion, and you could even argue that he's the most iconic NYC rock star ever. Add it all up and it should equal a second RRHOF induction. It's just a shame that Lou had to die first. 

The Rest of the Ballot

The ballot for this year's RRHOF induction has fifteen nominees, and although six are likely to get inducted (at least that's the usual number), you can frustratingly only vote for five. Here's how I feel about the other ten, ranked in descending order of how  difficult they were for me to not select with my imaginary votes. 

6. Nine Inch Nails

When I first saw the ballot a few weeks ago, I thought for sure NIN would be one of my picks. But then I saw this list. That's every artist that has gotten into the RRHOF on their first year of eligibility. I mean, just look at those names. That's a murderer's row of absolute legends. Only three names on that list even remotely feel like they don't belong: The Everly Brothers, Fats Domino, and The Pretenders. Personally, I would not be comfortable adding Nine Inch Nails to that list. 

Look, Nine Inch Nails is (that's the correct pronoun, right? I mean, it's just Trent Reznor we're talking about here) getting inducted to the RRHOF, it's just a matter of when. They/he is completely deserving. But inducting an artist on the first ballot sends a further message that they're one of the all-time greats, and I just don't quite feel like NIN are worthy of that accolade. They/he can wait a few years. 

7. Green Day

Everything I just wrote about Nine Inch Nails is applicable to Green Day, except they have the added wrinkle of the whole 25 years thing being very questionable in their case. The RRHOF has set the rule that you can't be nominated for induction until 25 years after the release of your first recording, with the idea being that 25 years is an adequate amount of time to assess an artist's career and contribution to the art form. But with 
Green Day, we simply haven't had 25 years; we've only had 20. The release of Dookie in 1994 was the first time anyone outside of their family members and high school classmates had ever heard of this band. The fact that they had technically been releasing music for five years at that point is such a minute technicality that it's ridiculous to even factor it in. 

And yes, I know that Nine Inch Nails also didn't have their/his major breakthrough until 1994, but the difference is that 1989's Pretty Hate Machine and 1992's Broken actually did make small impacts and helped cultivate an audience. People heard those albums. No one really heard a Green Day recording until 1994, and that's why we should wait on them. 25 years may be a completely arbitrary number for the evaluation of an artist's legacy, but the fact remains that it's the number that was chosen, and it's the number that every other RRHOF inductee has had to acquiesce to. Inducting Green Day anytime before 2020 does not honor the wait that every other inducted artist had to endure. 

8. Joan Jett & the Blackhearts

With Joan Jett, you have to figure out precisely what you're arguing about: the creator or the creations. As a figure, Joan Jett has been extremely important to women in rock & roll, and is likely responsible for the creation of an archetype. Her existence matters greatly, but the product she created frankly wasn't that special. She's a lot like Sid Vicious in that way. She mattered far more as someone for a generation of kids to look at than she did for any other reason. Is that enough? I don't know. Sid is in the Hall, but that's because he was a Sex Pistol, and they obviously deserved induction. Sid couldn't be separated from the rest of the band for us to have this debate, but Joan can and is. 

Personally, I would say no. I think the product ought to matter more than the image and the idea. I know with Lou Reed I argued for the merits of Metal Machine Music as a part of his legacy, but that's still a tangible thing that he put into the world. It was an artistic statement, even if it was a shitty sounding one. With Joan, the statement was all in the image of her playing guitar and looking like a complete badass. I don't think that's quite enough, but I might be susceptible to the counter-arguments. 

9. The Spinners

I like The Spinners, but I never thought of them as anything more than a good third-tier soul act. That would seemingly eliminate them, but things get a bit tricky if you factor in geography and the concept of scenes. While the Spinners might have nationally been a third tier soul act, they were probably the greatest Philly soul artist, and maybe that matters enough to push them over the top. Philly soul was an important music style of the 70's, and it made a huge impact to the advent of disco and the more polished sound of black music than was coming out of the south and midwest. 

The other problem with arguing against The Spinners is the reality that Hall & Oates got into the RRHOF last year, and they were a lesser Philly soul act than The Spinners. So this could be a case of making a previous bad decision look less comparatively questionable. Do you induct The Spinners because Hall & Oates is indefensible without them? Or do you just call Hall & Oates a fuck-up and leave well enough alone? As with Joan Jett, The Spinners are the only other artist on this ballot that I feel on the fence about their RRHOF deservedness. My inclination is to say no, but I could probably be swayed the other way. 

10. Stevie Ray Vaughan

If this were the guitarist hall of fame, I'd have absolutely no beef with Stevie Ray getting in. But I think of Stevie Ray as more of a craftsman than I do an artist. He was a remarkably gifted technical guitarist, but I think it's far more difficult to argue that he was an influential artist. To go back to my Smiths argument, would the trajectory of pop music have been any tangibly different without Stevie? I'm sure John Mayer would say yes, but I'm dubious. The RRHOF is about the importance of an art form. Stevie never forged enough of his own territory to be honored on that level. Rock and blues guitar have probably never seen a better imitator, but the RRHOF isn't the proper place to recognize that ability. 

11.-14. The Paul Butterfield Blues Band, The Marvelettes, War, and Bill Withers

These four artists all fit into the same interchangeable quagmire for me. They were good acts that released good music, and I wouldn't want their CDs to be stolen from my collection. But really, I don't see much beyond that. Like The Spinners, these acts were all third tier, but they don't have the added benefit of owning and embodying a certain musical style or scene. I wouldn't dispute that all four are good, but I don't see the argument for considering any of the four to be truly Great. 

15. Sting

Well, here we are. The nadir of the 2014 RRHOF ballot. Look, I LOVE The Police. They made it in on their first ballot, and deservedly so. After The Clash and Talking Heads, they were probably the third best band in the world for a solid five years.  But when evaluating Sting as an artist unto himself, one has to pretend that he had never released any music prior to his first solo album. And when considering him in that light… Oooof. 

Sting is the only artist on the ballot that I'm genuinely baffled by. I don't understand how he could possibly be a candidate for induction into the RRHOF. We've all known for several years now that the RRHOF is not strictly for rock musicians; that's no mystery. Madonna and Public Enemy both got in on their first year of eligibility, and deservedly so. The RRHOF now stands as a testament to the counter-culture, and the importance artists can have to the trajectory of music that truly matters and speaks to people in a way that tangibly impacts their lives. Rock and roll may no longer be solely about "sticking it to the man" (as Jack Black memorably states in School of Rock), but it's still supposed to be about something that matters. Admittedly, that's difficult and maybe impossible to quantify, which is part of the whole problem the RRHOF runs into every year, and why so many people feel alienated by the results of its induction process. But Jesus, we have to draw the line somewhere, and I just don't see how Sting's solo career is any metaphorically different than Harry Connick Jr.'s. It's adult contemporary vocal jazz. They were both releasing albums to be played and ignored at dinner parties, and that ain't rock and roll no matter how you choose to define it.

Check back tomorrow for Part 2, where I break down the major snubs of the RRHOF who didn't even appear on this year's ballot. 

And check out for a wealth of information about the RRHOF inductions, past and present.