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 year, when legendary guitarist Eddie Van Halen died, 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 2021. Like every year, the list includes the previously nominated (Todd Rundgren, Rage Against the Machine) as well as some first-time nominees (Jay-Z, Foo Fighters). 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. (Further confusing things, the pandemic shifted the Hall’s entire calendar, both delaying the inductions and pushing the nomination process into the following year.) 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 Whitney Houston, Bill Withers, and Notorious B.I.G. have recently been inducted, to name a few. (This year’s nominations also finally includes the previously snubbed Go-Go’s and Iron Maiden.) 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. While The Cure were inducted in 2019 and Depeche Mode in 2020, both had been eligible for more than a decade. The only other act from this category to make a ballot is The Smiths in 2015 and 2016, but there was no representation from this subgenre on the ballot at all this year.
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, so maybe the priority is getting them in first.
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 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 figure in hip-hop (plus Hollywood), is nominated for the sixth time this year, having failed to get enough votes on his first five ballots.
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. Last year was a bit of an exception, as three of the six inductees were deceased: Whitney Houston, The Notorious B.I.G., and T. Rex. If the Hall is comfortable with posthumous inductions like these, that might bode well for White. However, this year’s ballot is back to being mostly living acts, with Fela Kuti as the only passed nominee.
Became eligible: 2011 ceremony
Case for induction: In 1986, George Michael broke free from his massively popular pop group Wham! to embark on a solo career that was somehow even more massively popular. His debut album, Faith, would appear on the Billboard 200 chart for 51 nonconsecutive weeks, including 12 weeks at No. 1, and would eventually be certified Diamond. With that release also spawning six top-five hits (including the title track, “I Want Your Sex,” and “Father Figure”) Michael cemented his status alongside current Hall of Famers Michael Jackson, Madonna, and Prince as one of the biggest acts of the ’80s. He would go on to sell more than 100 million records over a long career of catchy yet powerful music that showcased not just his rich, soulful voice but also his impeccable talents as a songwriter and producer.
What’s the holdup: After a 1998 arrest for “engaging in a lewd act” with an undercover police officer, Michael became fodder in the media for cheap (and often homophobic) jokes. Sadly, his achievements as an artist might be overshadowed by the punch-line target on his back. However, especially after his untimely death at 53 in 2016, a serious reconsideration of his work could be around the corner.
Became eligible: 2016 ceremony
Case for induction: If you’re advocating for someone’s induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame, it’s pretty easy because you only have to show the statistics. The same rules don’t apply to something subjective like music, but when it comes to Mariah Carey, maybe they can? Two hundred million records sold. Nineteen No. 1 singles, the most of anyone. No. 1 singles in four separate decades, also the most of anyone. Eighty-two weeks at No. 1, which, you guessed it, is the most of anyone. I could keep going, but the point is Carey has made quite an impact. That impact is felt both through her own songs, which are still all over the radio, and through the many pop stars who have modeled themselves after her, from Christina Aguilera to Ariana Grande.
What’s the holdup: With the Hall, you sometimes get the feeling that there’s a “wait your turn” mentality. She was certainly not going to jump the line ahead of Janet Jackson or Whitney Houston, who were only inducted as recently as 2019 and 2020, respectively. With those two finally in, it looked like maybe the “pop diva” lane was going to be cleared for Carey this year, but those slots ended up going to a number of artists who came before her (Dionne Warwick, Chaka Khan, and Tina Turner) as well as one of her contemporaries (Mary J. Blige).
Comedian Joe Kwaczala is the co-host of the podcast Who Cares About the Rock Hall?, along with comedian Kristen Studard.