I don’t have much reverence for the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame — a shadowy and arbitrary institution founded by record executives and music industry influencers who have historically hewed to a pretty narrow definition of rock ’n’ roll. However, this year’s inductees, which were announced earlier this week, represent one of the strongest classes in recent memory.
This calls for a playlist.
The group of seven artists who will join the institution in November contains both overdue legends (Willie Nelson, the Spinners) and iconoclastic innovators (Kate Bush, Rage Against the Machine). It’s a bit more diverse than the normal Rock Hall class, which isn’t saying much: According to the writer Evelyn McDonnell, who has long been covering the Hall’s glaring biases, women make up just 8.63 percent of its inductees. The great Missy Elliott will make history this year as not just the first female rapper to make it in, but also the first Black female artist inducted in her first year of eligibility. Such achievements are worth celebrating — as Elliott did, in an exuberant series of tweets — but we should also bemoan the fact that they took so long to happen in the first place.
In sequencing today’s selections, I found some common threads: the way Bush and Elliott share an imaginative and ambitiously artful approach to composition; the way George Michael updates the intricate soulfulness of a group like the Spinners for the more self-aware ’90s; a certain sneer in Sheryl Crow’s delivery that, when it hits in a certain way, echoes the grit of Rage’s Zack De La Rocha.
Purists can debate whether or not any of these artists can be classified as “rock,” but I prefer the more exciting definition Ice Cube put forth in his speech when he was inducted with the rap group N.W.A in 2016. “Rock ’n’ roll is not an instrument; rock ’n’ roll is not even a style of music,” he said. “Rock ’n’ roll is a spirit. Rock ’n’ roll is not conforming to the people who came before you, but creating your own path in music and in life.”
Listen along on Spotify as you read.
1. Kate Bush: “The Big Sky”
This year marked the fourth time Bush has been nominated for the Rock Hall, but it’s likely that the recent, “Stranger Things”-inspired resurgence in the popularity of “Running Up That Hill (A Deal With God)” finally pushed her over the edge. You’ve probably heard that song plenty in the past year, so how about a less ubiquitous — but just as great — track from that same 1985 album, “Hounds of Love”? The 1-2-3-punch of “Running Up That Hill,” the title track and this one, “The Big Sky,” just might be one of the most visionary opening stretches of any pop album. (Listen on YouTube)
2. Missy Elliott, “Work It”
Sometimes the obvious choice is the correct choice. The hallucinatory “Work It” isn’t exactly an obscure B-side in Missy’s discography, but it’s one of the most obvious examples of her brash, otherworldly genius as both an M.C. and a producer, and of the gloriously outré sounds she was able to smuggle into the mainstream. Who else could run a chorus backward and still make its nonsense syllables sound so infectious? (Listen on YouTube)
3. Rage Against the Machine, “Bulls on Parade”
Does this mean the RATM superfan Guy Fieri is a Rock Hall voter? I kid. Rage is probably the most traditionally rock-leaning artist among this year’s inductees — which is certainly saying something, since “traditional” isn’t a word I’d normally use to describe this band’s politics or sound, its most recognizable hits (like the pummeling “Bulls on Parade”) included. (Listen on YouTube)
4. Sheryl Crow, “Leaving Las Vegas”
It feels weird to call any of the singles on Crow’s huge debut album “Tuesday Night Music Club” underrated, but … I think this one actually is? Sure, “All I Wanna Do” has been overplayed to oblivion, and “Strong Enough” has proved an important touchstone for a younger generation of female musicians like Haim and boygenius — but “Leaving Las Vegas” has bars. Her delivery of the line “There’s such a muddy line between the things you want and the things you have to do” (!) kills me every single time. (Listen on YouTube)
5. The Spinners, “Could It Be I’m Falling in Love”
The air is a little bit lighter in a Spinners song than it is back down here on Earth. Bobby Smith’s lead vocal seems to float just a few inches above the rest of the track, leaving no doubt about the answer to the question he poses in this timeless 1972 hit, by a group neglected by the Motown machine that rose to prominence anyway in its own time. (Listen on YouTube)
6. George Michael, “Freedom! ’90”
Some days, this is my answer to that impossible question, “What’s the best pop song of all time?” But any day of the week I’d tell you it’s the best song ever written about being a pop star — that strange contract between performer and fan that Michael knowingly interrogates from inside the machine and finally sets ablaze in a liberatory chorus. He more than deserves a place in the Rock Hall; I just wish he could have lived to attend his induction. (Listen on YouTube)
7. Willie Nelson, “Tower of Song”
Earlier this year, the newly 90-year-old Nelson beat out a bunch of young whippersnappers like Maren Morris, Miranda Lambert and Luke Combs to win the best country album Grammy for “A Beautiful Time.” It’s a lovely record with some strong original material, but the track I keep returning to is his lived-in rendition of Leonard Cohen’s wryly majestic “Tower of Song.” If this cover passed you by when the album first came out, well, you’re in for quite a treat. (Listen on YouTube)
Pause for the chant,
The Amplifier Playlist
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“Did the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame (Gasp) Get It Right?” track list
Track 1: Kate Bush, “The Big Sky”
Track 2: Missy Elliott, “Work It”
Track 3: Rage Against the Machine, “Bulls on Parade”
Track 4: Sheryl Crow, “Leaving Las Vegas”
Track 5: The Spinners, “Could It Be I’m Falling in Love”
Track 6: George Michael, “Freedom! ’90”
Track 7: Willie Nelson, “Tower of Song”
Joe Kwaczala and Kristen Studard host the highly entertaining podcast “Who Cares About the Rock Hall?,” which strikes a balance between appropriately irreverent skepticism (both are professional comedians) and Kwaczala’s encyclopedic knowledge of Rock Hall history. Every year, they do an in-depth episode about each of the nominees; I found out about the show when they kindly asked me to talk Dolly Parton with them last season. Their episode about this year’s class of inductees was especially great, if full of playful jabs at my queen Crow (I forgive, but will take this opportunity to link to one more Sheryl banger).
And, as always, check out our weekly Playlist for the latest songs worth your time. Today we’ve got fresh tracks from the post-punk legends Bush Tetras, the D.J.-turned-electro-pop-singer-songwriter Avalon Emerson and more. Listen here.