The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is a bizarre institution that manages to simultaneously be one of the highest honors in music and also be extremely peripheral. Last month, when Cars frontman Ric Ocasek passed away, just about every article covering the news mentioned his status as a Rock and Roll Hall of Famer. Some even had it in the headline. It’s an immediately recognizable shorthand for significance. On the other hand, most people completely forget about the Hall’s existence, save for maybe one or two times a year. These moments usually coincide with its major announcements: who’s been nominated, who’s being inducted, what’s happening at the annual induction ceremony. And the typical response is often one of incredulity, if not outrage. “How is this artist not already in?!” “This artist sucks and doesn’t belong!” “Who cares about the Rock Hall?”
This week, the Hall announced its slate of nominees for induction in 2020. Like every year, the list includes the previously nominated (Kraftwerk, Nine Inch Nails) as well as some first-time nominees (Whitney Houston, the Notorious B.I.G.) Over the next few months, there will be no scarcity of discussion (online at least) of these acts, and even more so for the handful that eventually get voted in for induction. But for now, let’s take a moment to formally acknowledge some of the artists most deserving of Rock Hall induction who somehow have never been nominated.
Some notes before we begin. Artists become eligible for induction 25 years after their first released recording. This could mean an album, EP, single, whatever. Technically, it’s more like 26 years, as the nominating committee chooses artists at the end of the year for induction the following year. For example, Led Zeppelin’s first release was in 1969 (their debut album) so they were first eligible in 1994, then were inducted in 1995. No amount of time passing renders an artist ineligible.
Also, the Rock Hall has a pretty loose definition of the term “rock and roll.” I get a lot of shit on my podcast, Who Cares About the Rock Hall?, for claiming the “roll” part of the term includes genres like R&B, soul, funk, and hip-hop. But I think I’m right, and it appears the Hall agrees: Acts like Donna Summer, Bill Withers, and N.W.A. have recently been inducted, to name a few. So cry as you might that they’re “not rock and roll” but the point is moot. The ship has sailed, and there’s no coming back. And honestly, if it’s a ship that’s playing Tupac Shakur (Class of 2017) and Nina Simone (Class of 2018), then it’s a ship worth being on.
Became eligible: 2004 ceremony
Case for induction: The B-52s kicked off their career in 1978 with the avant-garde party bop, “Rock Lobster,” a song so weird and great that it inspired John Lennon to start making music again. After four albums (including two undeniable classics, their eponymous debut and Wild Planet), the death of guitarist Ricky Wilson could have meant the end of their career. But they regrouped for an astonishing comeback with 1989’s Cosmic Thing, featuring two of their most iconic songs, “Roam” and “Love Shack.” And enough can’t be said for their influence as one of the earliest and most prominent queer bands in rock.
What’s the holdup: Hard to say because they’re so innovative and have had success both critically and commercially. A potential problem might be that the layman probably only knows four of their songs (the aforementioned three, plus “Private Idaho”). But anyone who’s dug into their catalogue even a little bit knows there’s no scarcity of really great music.
Joy Division/New Order
Became eligible: 2004 ceremony
Case for induction: When Joy Division lead singer Ian Curtis committed suicide on May 18, 1980, the eve of their first American tour, the band had already established themselves as post-punk pioneers. The releases that came within the next few months would only cement their legacy: their quintessential single, “Love Will Tear Us Apart,” and their stunning final album, Closer. However, the story doesn’t end there. They soldiered on, and although the band name changed to New Order, the DNA mostly stayed the same. Keyboardist-guitarist Gillian Gilbert was added, but otherwise the lineup, label, manager, and even album-cover artist went unchanged. What did change was the music; they evolved into one of the most influential electronic and dance groups of all time with club anthems like “Blue Monday” and “Bizarre Love Triangle.”
What’s the holdup: The Hall has been slow to recognize the British post-punk bands. To the nominating committee’s credit, they’ve been putting these artists on the ballot (Depeche Mode in 2017, 2018, and 2020; the Smiths in 2015 and 2016), but it wasn’t until this year that one was able to finally break through: the Cure. Now that they’re in and Depeche Mode has a decent shot of induction next year, maybe Joy Division/New Order isn’t far behind.
Kool & the Gang
Became eligible: 1995 ceremony
Case for induction: Not only does Kool & the Gang have huge songs that everybody knows, but they released them over a surprisingly long career. The funk staple “Jungle Boogie” came out in 1973, while the stone-cold groove “Ladies’ Night” was 1979. In the ’80s alone, they had eight Top 10 singles, including timeless classics like “Celebration” and “Get Down on It.” But perhaps the most enduring influence is the frequency with which they’re sampled in hip-hop. The horn intro to “Hollywood Swinging” provides the beginning for two rap classics: “Let Me Clear My Throat” by DJ Kool and “Feel So Good” by Mase. There’s not enough room to list all the samples; Who Sampled lists the group as having been sampled a whopping 1,586 times.
What’s the holdup: When it comes to funk or soul groups on recent ballots, the Hall has gone with bands like Rufus, the Meters, and the Spinners in recent years. All three of these (also very worthy) groups have been nominated multiple times without induction (Rufus is up again for next year’s class), so maybe the priority is getting them in first.
Became eligible: 2006 ceremony
Case for induction: Let’s start off with a big one here: The Go-Go’s 1981 debut, Beauty and the Beat, was the first No. 1 album from an all-female group who wrote and played their own songs. The music industry was clearly skeptical this could happen, as evidenced by the band struggling to get signed in the first place. So if you like any female rock bands, you can thank the Go-Go’s for breaking the door down for them. This alone is grounds for induction, but consider that their catalogue of catchy pop-rock songs like “Our Lips Are Sealed,” “We Got the Beat,” and “Vacation” is still widely known and played today.
What’s the holdup: Their second and third albums were not as popular (critically or commercially) and in 1984, just three years after their debut, the band had broken up. If they had been around a little longer, they’d have a stronger case. Or maybe the sexism that they had to overcome in the ’80s is … also a problem at the Rock Hall?! Just another door they’ll have to kick down, too.
Became eligible: 2013 ceremony
Case for induction: “I was basically trying to rip off the Pixies. I have to admit it.” This is Kurt Cobain, talking in a 1994 Rolling Stone interview about the creation of Nirvana’s opus, Nevermind. He’s referring to the signature noisy, soft-then-loud, punky-but-still-pop sound that Nirvana (inducted in 2014) may have popularized but the Pixies had previously perfected. In the late ’80s, the Pixies put out two pivotal alt-rock LPs, Surfer Rosa and Doolittle, that set the template for grunge. Although none of their songs were hits at the time of release, many are considered classics today: “Here Comes Your Man,” “Where Is My Mind?,” and “Monkey Gone to Heaven,” to name a few.
What’s the holdup: Traditionally, the Hall is not great at acknowledging music that was influential, despite not being massively popular. It took the Stooges eight ballots and 15 years before they were finally inducted in 2010. Eligible since 1992, MC5 have been on five ballots (including 2020’s) and still aren’t in. And these are groups from the ’60s, an era that the Hall voters tend to like! Worthy underground artists from later time periods (Sonic Youth, Black Flag, Hüsker Dü) are likely to struggle, given the lack of mainstream name recognition.
A Tribe Called Quest
Became eligible: 2015 ceremony
Case for induction: Back in ’89 they simply slid into place — a thoughtful hip-hop group with a joyful sound at a time when gangsta rap was all the rage. Their first three albums (People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm, The Low End Theory, and Midnight Marauders) make up one of the best runs in the history of the genre, representing a beautiful confluence of inventive artistry, critical acclaim, and commercial success. Although they broke up in 1998, they returned in 2016 with one of their best releases, the timely, political We Got It from Here… Thank You 4 Your Service.
What’s the holdup: The hip-hop acts that have been inducted so far have mostly been the hugely famous, obvious picks, like Run-DMC (Class of ’09) or the Beastie Boys (Class of ’12.) But even LL Cool J, who’s a major celebrity, has been nominated five times and somehow still can’t get in. Given that they’re not at that fame level, Tribe will sadly have to wait their turn.
Became eligible: 1999 ceremony
Case for induction: Does anybody sound like Barry White? That ultra-deep, smooth voice is unmistakably his, and you have to give it up when an artist owns their sound. Here’s another question: Is anybody’s music more synonymous with having sex? If a TV show or movie wants to signify a sexy moment, they play Barry White. That’s the power of this guy’s music. Not to mention, he’s got the catalogue to back it up. He sold millions of albums throughout the ’70s, supported by seductive songs like “I’m Gonna Love You Just a Little More Baby,” “It’s Ecstasy When You Lay Down Next to Me,” and the iconic “Can’t Get Enough of Your Love, Babe.” But unlike many of his peers from that era, he was able to make a significant comeback two decades later with 1994’s multiplatinum LP, The Icon Is Love.
What’s the holdup: White passed away in 2003, and in recent years, it feels like the Hall’s priority has been to induct living artists. However, that might be a thing of the past, if the 2020 ballot is any indication. Acts from the current ballot that are either dead or have significant members dead: Whitney Houston, The Notorious B.I.G., MC5, Motorhead, Soundgarden, T. Rex, and Thin Lizzy. So maybe Barry White’s chances are looking up. But if the next induction ceremony catches heat for mostly honoring the deceased, maybe not.
Became eligible: 2005 ceremony
Case for induction: Ask any heavy-metal fan, and they’ll tell you that Iron Maiden is without question one of the most important and influential bands in the genre. It’s obvious to them. However, given their lack of radio airplay on American radio, it might not be so apparent to everyone else. But that lack of acceptance from the mainstream only makes the accomplishments more impressive. They have sold somewhere between 80 to 100 million records worldwide, are still touring massive venues 40 years into their career, and their top five songs on Spotify have over half a billion listens. Half a billion.
What’s the holdup: The Hall doesn’t seem to know what to do with metal. While Metallica got in immediately, it took Black Sabbath ten years and eight nominations to finally see induction in 2006. Maiden’s metal forebears, Judas Priest, made the ballot in 2018 but missed out on induction, so the priority might be on getting them in first (they are now up for induction again, along with Motörhead). But there may be hope for metalheads after all: Rage Against the Machine’s Tom Morello is both a devout fan of the genre and a member of the nominating committee.
Comedian Joe Kwaczala is the co-host of the podcast Who Cares About the Rock Hall?, along with comedian Kristen Studard.