If I Had a Ballot for the 2016 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Nominations

If I Had a Ballot for the 2016 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Nominations
09 Dec
Not in Hall of Fame


Chaka Khan

Background: With a distinctive, flexible, expressive voice able to handle styles from rock to R&B to jazz and a musical mind to assimilate it all, Chaka Khan has never fully realized her tremendous potential despite her contributing the whirling disco standard "I'm Every Woman," later integral to Whitney Houston's success, to the pop canon. Khan got her start fronting the funk-rockers Rufus, an interracial and intersexual 1970s act that really functioned as a showcase for Khan's dynamic vocals; when she went solo, the band floundered. (In 2011, Rufus was one-and-done on its only Rock and Roll Hall of Fame ballot to date.) Stevie Wonder penned "Tell Me Something Good" to spotlight Khan; it became the band's highest-charting single in 1974, reaching Number Three, while Rufusized (ABC), also from 1974, is the band's hallmark album, yielding the propulsive disco-funk of "Once You Get Started" while Khan makes Janis Joplin's "Half Moon" her own, and "I'm a Woman (I'm a Backbone)" presaged the gender identity of "I'm Every Woman." The following year, the enticing ballad "Sweet Thing" became Rufus's only other Top Five single, one that Mary J. Blige covered two decades later.

Outpacing her Rufus mates, Khan went solo in 1978, but although her debut album Chaka (Warner Bros.) featured "I'm Every Woman," she and producer Arif Mardin, who had been so instrumental in getting Aretha Franklin on track, settle for generic exercises such as "Life Is a Dance" and "We Got the Love," a duet with George Benson. That trend continued through the tepid follow-up Naughty (Warner Bros., 1980), though What Cha' Gonna Do for Me (Warner Bros., 1981), loaded with session talent from Herbie Hancock to the Brecker Brothers Michael and Randy, struck sparks with an assured cover of the Beatles' "We Can Work It Out" and the muscular dance-oriented title track, while with her contemporary take on the jazz standard "A Night in Tunisia," which indeed featured co-author Dizzy Gillespie on trumpet (a move later picked up by Stevie Wonder for "Do I Do"), Khan demonstrated her easy mastery of any style. Certainly her tour de force performance on "Be Bop Medley," the whirling jazz survey course from Chaka Khan (Warner Bros., 1982), launched her into the realm of elite vocalists, as did her rendition of Michael Jackson's "Got to Be There" while she walks all over a still-pretty-decent Rick James on their slinky, funky duet "Slow Dancin'."

Khan's very name became an early hip-hop touchstone when rapper Melle Mel riffed on it for Khan's cover of Prince's "I Feel for You," Khan's highest-charting single, peaking at Number Three, and the highlight of her album of the same name (Warner Bros., 1984). But then Khan all but disappeared into the wilderness for more than two decades before striking gold with Funk This (Burgundy, 2007), which yielded the throwback funk of "Disrespectful," a duet with Mary J. Blige, another duet, this one with Michael McDonald, on the Doobie Brothers' "You Belong to Me," and the ballad "Angel," which found her vocal skyrockets still in scintillating form. From her start with Rufus in the 1970s, Chaka Khan's singular and powerful vocals have pegged her as a remarkable talent, but throughout her career she has struggled to connect with the material and the collaborators to convert her abundant ability into definitive statements.

Will the artist be voted into the Hall? No. Although voters may admire Chaka Khan's obvious technical and even emotional talent as a vocalist, too much of her output has been on the periphery of pop while the bulk of her material has been pop-oriented and difficult to justify as an artistic statement. As a result, voters will likely not consider her to be a Hall of Fame talent.

Would I vote for the artist? No. On talent alone, it is impossible to discount Chaka Khan as one of the great vocalists of the Rock and Soul Era, but evidence of her having put those rich talents to effective use are scattered across her career, from the funk of Rufus to her late-1970s disco efforts and her early-1980s blush of pop stardom. Furthermore, her fiery vocals have been too difficult to emulate, rendering her more of an inspiration than an influence, which may not be a demerit—no one can sing Chaka Khan like Chaka Khan. However, her legacy is too diffuse to be considered definitive.

Los Lobos

Background: After four decades, Los Lobos has become one of the premier roots-rock bands, incorporating vintage and classic rock, blues, country and western, and other myriad influences, all executed with an appealing sharpness and economy that often underplays the inherent prowess of the musicians. Ah, but this long-running act from East Los Angeles has as bajo la manga, or an ace in the hole: As Mexican-Americans, Los Lobos has never been shy about blending in the traditional Mexican music they grew up with, particularly norteño, which tackles plainspoken folk songs with jaunty polka-like tempos and instrumentation. The Rock and Soul Era has seen notable Mexican-American artists before, primarily Ritchie Valens and Carlos Santana, although Valens, despite an early smash with the Mexican folk song "La Bamba," had his career cut tragically short while Santana, though not neglecting his roots, has incorporated his undeniably Latin influences into a heady brew of rock and jazz that strives for an internationalist flavor. By contrast, Los Lobos have assimilated their cultural influences so seamlessly that they simply become another thread in the fabric of American rock, yet it remains a thread that doesn't sublimate its identity.

Formed by singer-guitarist David Hidalgo and singer-drummer Louie Perez, with singer-guitarist Cesar Rosas and bassist Conrad Lozano joining soon afterward, Los Lobos spent the 1970s woodshedding, privately releasing a couple of albums before Slash Records took a chance on a 1983 EP, . . . And a Time to Dance, which contained a cover of Valens's "Come on, Let's Go" along with the norteño "Anselma" and the infectious rootser "Let's Say Goodnight." Encouraged by the response, the band released a full album, How Will the Wolf Survive? (Slash/Warner Bros., 1984), that not only saw Los Lobos, now augmented by L.A. saxophone veteran Steve Berlin, having fully integrated their traditional influences into original songs that flashed that verisimilitude (the propulsive "Corrida #1"), but using them to comment on the immigrants' experience in America (the tender "A Matter of Time," the yearning, metaphorical "Will the Wolf Survive?") while serving up the brawny, brooding rocker "Don't Worry Baby," one of the band's best songs. But while "One Time One Night," another signature tune from the follow up By the Light of the Moon (Slash/Warner Bros., 1987), refined the band's thoughtfulness as the itchy blues-rocker "Shakin' Shakin' Shakes" flexed its muscle, too many of the tracks ("The Mess We're In," "My Baby's Gone") sounded like rehashes.

Still, Los Lobos raised its profile by recording tracks for the 1987 Ritchie Valens biopic La Bamba, whose soundtrack album became a chart-topper while the band's rendition of the title song went to Number One on the singles charts. Spurred by the cultural boost, the band released La Pistola y El Corazon (Slash/Warner Bros., 1988), a well-received tribute to Tejano and Mariachi styles, before releasing a pair of albums, The Neighborhood (Slash/Warner Bros., 1990) and especially Kiko (Slash/Warner Bros., 1992), that brimmed with such assurance that it was impossible not to be swept into the dynamic current. With Hidalgo burnishing his reputation as a first-class guitarist, "Jenny's Got a Pony" and "That Train Don't Stop Here" established themselves as rollicking classics while the evocative "Kiko and the Lavender Moon"—check the quotations from "Three Blind Mice"—displayed impressive depth and sophistication. Los Lobos may have overplayed the eclecticism with 1996's Colossal Head as, the mechanical blues of "Buddy Ebsen Loves the Night Time" notwithstanding, Warner Bros. subsequently cut Los Lobos loose from the stable, sending the band shopping for boutique labels as it slipped into emeritus status although still capable of gems such as the metallic crunch of "Good Morning Aztlan" while releasing, of all things, an album of Disney songs, Los Lobos Goes Disney (Walt Disney/DisneySound, 2009).

Roots rockers Los Lobos have been pumping out their heady brew for four decades. Will it get them a spot in the Hall of Fame?

Will the artist be voted into the Hall? No. This is Los Lobos' first time on the Hall of Fame ballot, and for voters who only remember "La Bamba" they haven't yet taken in the breadth of the band's considerable catalog. It may take a couple of appearances before the groundswell carries the band into the Hall.

Would I vote for the artist? Yes. What is remarkable about Los Lobos is not just the range of music it has assimilated—rock, blues, folk, Mexican—but how the band has synthesized those disparate sources into a distinctive sound that rolls seamlessly with energy and confidence. They soon made the novelty of being a Mexican-American rock band superfluous as they wrote succinct, thoughtful songs about the American experience overall and thus have become an essential rock and roll band.

Steve Miller

Background: Singer and guitarist Steve Miller became a mainstream rock-radio fixture in the 1970s with string of instantly accessible singles that were seamless without being slick and familiar without seeming derivative. Miller's 1973 album The Joker (Capitol) offered little beyond the title song—which became a Miller calling card as it topped the singles chart—but Fly Like an Eagle (Capitol, 1976) and Book of Dreams (Capitol, 1977) packed in so much bright, economical guitar rock garnished with electronic flourishes that both seemed to be greatest-hits packages; not surprisingly, when Capitol did release Greatest Hits 1974–1978 in 1978, easily the best-selling item in the Miller catalog, all but "The Joker" had been culled from those two albums. (Greatest Hits conveniently ignores everything before The Joker, but we'll get there by and by.) Eagle's title song sported a "Space Intro" and leftover-hippie lyrics but the arrangement was cool and contemporary as "Rock 'n Me," another chart-topper, and "Take the Money and Run," seemingly inspired by the Steve McQueen film The Getaway, rocked with straightforward hipness while "Wild Mountain Honey" was how blissful chillout in the '70s used to go. "Jet Airliner," from Book of Dreams, recycled Cream's "Crossroads" riff while a synthesizer blast kicked off the compulsive "Jungle Love" and the infectious "Swingtown" really did swing.

But Steve Miller's 1970s success lies in his 1960s woodshedding, which contains arguably his most creative endeavors. Growing up in Wisconsin and Texas, Miller befriended singer and guitarist Boz Scaggs and keyboardist Ben Sidran, who became collaborators when Miller relocated to psychedelic San Francisco. That influence, along with British blues-rock, informed the lukewarm debut Children of the Future (Capitol, 1968) although that album introduced muscular bassist Lonnie Turner, another key early contributor. Released later that year, Sailor (Capitol) sparkled with prog-rock touches ("Song for Our Ancestors"), winsome ballads ("Dear Mary," "Quicksilver Girl"), and wry trip-out warnings ("My Friend") as it brandished full-bore rockers from Scaggs ("Dime-a-Dance Romance") and Miller, whose brilliant "Living in the U.S.A." remains a manic, Turner-fueled gallop through contemporary Americana ("somebody give me a cheeseburger!"). Scaggs had split by Brave New World (Capitol, 1969) although his influence still lingered (check the delightful nonsense of "Kow Kow") even as Miller delivered his statement of purpose with the coolly swaggering "Space Cowboy"; meanwhile, his cheerfully chaotic "My Dark Hour" previewed the guitar riff he'd later lavish on "Fly Like an Eagle."

The early 1970s were a dry spell for Miller, whose output was thin and uninspired, the social comment ("Jackson-Kent Blues") from Number Five (Capitol, 1970) notwithstanding, before he released The Joker. Then, following his flush of mid-1970s success, he hit another rough patch before releasing Abracadabra (Capitol) in 1982, which wasn't a strong album although it was his last platinum studio album, undoubtedly on the strength of the ubiquitous title song, his last Number One hit and in some ways his most audacious—who else would think to rhyme "abracadabra" with "reach out and grab ya"? That was Steve Miller's last gasp, though, as he faded from the pop front lines and into the boutique and nostalgia markets, his legacy residing primarily in those 1970s hits and, for those willing to dig deeper, his late-1960s experimentation.

Will the artist be voted into the Hall? No. Although Steve Miller ruled rock and pop radio in the 1970s alongside the Eagles and Fleetwood Mac, even his smartest hits seemed to echo a safe, surface sentiment that failed to reveal any emotional depth, and thus they lack the resonance of their contemporaries even during a time rife with plastic sentiment. Hall voters will consider Miller to be more of a canny byproduct of the era rather than a sincere architect who helped to shape it.

Would I vote for the artist? No. It is easy to underrate Steve Miller, particularly when you listen to his most satisfying triumphs from Sailor and Brave New World, before he distilled those experiments into a clutch of neatly crafted songs with an easy appeal. However, Miller, even during his most substantial period in the late 1960s, has always been a talented craftsman and not an engaged artist, content to let his informed facility dictate his output without providing much insight into his sentiments and vision.

Nine Inch Nails

Background: Industrial rock had been simmering beneath the punk-rock surface since the late 1970s, and it accrued underground cachet throughout the 1980s, but it took Nine Inch Nails to thrust industrial into the mainstream—no small feat as the band has made few lyrical or musical concessions since its 1989 debut Pretty Hate Machine (TVT). That album featured one performer almost exclusively, Trent Reznor, and although Reznor has used a plethora of musicians on subsequent releases and concert tours, Nine Inch Nails has been the vehicle for Reznor's angst-ridden outbursts incorporating sex, politics, and religion (Pretty Hate's "Sanctified" and "Something I Can Never Have"), even as "Down in It" and "Head Like a Hole" demonstrated considerable pop accessibility. Going the Ministry route, NIN replaced the synth-pop of Pretty Hate Machine with a metal attack on the brutal 1992 EP Broken (TVT/Nothing), with remixes subsequently released as Fixed, as uncompromising tracks such as "Happiness in Slavery" and the hit "Wish" ushered the band into the ranks of influential noise merchants of the 1990s, with Reznor's lyrical and melodic hooks propelling him above the pack.

The Downward Spiral (Nothing, 1994) upped the ante as the concept album about suicide not only kept up the electro-metal assault but drew its inspiration from earlier experimental- and progressive rock (particularly David Bowie's Low); prog-rock stalwart Adrian Belew (King Crimson, Talking Heads, Frank Zappa) supplies distinctive guitar. The album contained the band's signature song "Closer" while the blistering "March of the Pigs" maintained the edgy aggression, and the jarring dynamics of "Mr. Self Destruct" chronicled the clashing social and personal upheaval. Subsequent recordings found Nine Inch Nails working through the implications of the sound it had found with mixed success, although With Teeth (Interscope, 2005) still proffered a catchy thumper in "The Hand That Feeds," and Year Zero (Interscope, 2007) was a full-blown examination of future political dystopia that was ultimately uneven and suggested that Reznor's insights were more effective in concentrated doses.

But as Reznor and Nine Inch Nails have continued to record and tour, their legacy has been established, and at this point it is simply a matter of updating the résumé. Reznor has garnished his reputation by supplying songs for film soundtracks and, with musician and composer Atticus Ross, has scored three David Fincher films, winning an Academy Award for The Social Network (2010), and establishing industrial rock as a mainstream genre—you cannot escape it even in the safety of your MultiPlex cinema.

Will the artist be voted into the Hall? Yes. Hall voters may be holding their noses as they check this box, but they also know that few acts have—perhaps no other act has—pushed industrial into the mainstream with such forceful conviction as has Nine Inch Nails.

Would I vote for the artist? Yes. Industrial music has remained murky and anonymous, but Trent Reznor and Nine Inch Nails have given it both a face and a voice, in turn making industrial a rock genre to be reckoned with as they have inspired subsequent musicians. Moreover, Nine Inch Nails's lyrical and musical contributions have helped to shape the course of contemporary rock.

Last modified on Thursday, 10 December 2015 17:52

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