Tonight, HBO airs the 2019 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony, which took place last month and added (among others) Radiohead, Stevie Nicks, Def Leppard and the Cure to the pantheon of rock acts that were popular enough to be included in that silly, stupid corporate institution. As music journalist Bill Wyman wrote in the introduction to his Vulture ranking of every artist in the Rock Hall, “There shouldn’t be a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. The idea of a bunch of self-satisfied music-industry fat cats in tuxedos having rock stars assemble for a command performance once a year is precisely the sort of thing rock was created to be the antidote to. There is nothing less rock and roll than a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.”
That said, there are still some incredible musicians, singers and bands who aren’t part of the club who should be.
To that end, I’d like to take a moment to speak up for Sonic Youth.
It’s very possible that many of the cool bands you’ve liked since the 1990s wouldn’t exist if it wasn’t for this New York group. Nirvana adored them. Pavement adored them. Meanwhile, great bands like Sleater-Kinney, Yo La Tengo and No Age owe a debt to Sonic Youth, which typified the experimental, anti-commercial aesthetic of 1980s noise-rock.
Led by married musicians Kim Gordon (vocals/bass) and Thurston Moore (vocals/guitar), the band also consisted of guitarist/occasional vocalist Lee Ranaldo and drummer Steve Shelley, all of them conspiring to create a bunch of loud, abrasive, sometimes beautiful punk and art-rock. They started out in the early 1980s making angry, combative albums with titles like Confusion Is Sex before segueing into hypnotic, powerful, guitar-driven (but still often loud and abrasive) generational anthems like “Teen Age Riot.” Where other groups were trying so hard to fit into the mainstream, Sonic Youth were proud weirdos who knew that being authentically themselves was more important than being popular.
In the 1990s, the mainstream found them, somewhat, once DGC Records signed the band, which responded with (by their standards) the most commercially accessible records of their career, Goo and Dirty, without losing a bit of their intensity or smarts. Sonic Youth never really had a hit, but they just keep crafting remarkable albums — everything from 1998’s dreamlike A Thousand Leaves to 2006’s focused, spectacular Rather Ripped.
Among the band’s many unconventional moves, Sonic Youth were also radical for being a beacon of committed, romantic love. Gordon and Moore were the queen and king of the alternative-rock prom, proving that monogamy, married life and parenthood could actually make your music even richer and more interesting. As a young guy seeking a soulmate more than a one-night stand, I found them to be relationship role models. If they could make love last while delivering such electric, exceptional music, I figured maybe there’d be a chance for me, too.
Anybody who followed Sonic Youth knows what happened, though. Their story didn’t have a happy ending: In 2011, Moore left Gordon after falling in love with another woman, essentially scuttling the band. (Weirdly, Moore didn’t understand why his affair would lead to Sonic Youth’s dissolution.) Their split, and especially his betrayal, still makes it hard to listen to their records. Part of what made Sonic Youth great was the impression that their music was the product of two souls intertwined, working out their issues and expressing their desires through song. But that doesn’t detract from the volume of incredible work they achieved.
Speaking of which, Gordon was once asked why Sonic Youth isn’t in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. She sounded like she couldn’t care less:
I can’t say I blame her. Thinking about her old band probably just reminds her of her ex. No doubt an induction ceremony would be awkward for all involved. Nonetheless, Sonic Youth deserve it. They’re the missing link between influential-but-unloved bands like the Velvet Underground and influential-and-beloved bands like Nirvana. The Rock Hall shouldn’t just be a popularity contest. The people in the tuxes should also care about music that has endured.
Below, other members of the MEL team offer their picks for the best artists who currently aren’t in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Where do I even start? The quality of the band? With sentimentality? Their origins and history?
Maybe then I’ll just start with this:
Their debut album Too Hot to Handle alone should qualify them for entry into the Rock Hall. The vocal range of lead singer and cofounder Johnnie Wilder Jr. could have given Prince a run for his money. And the keyboardist, composer and songwriter Rod Temperton had the style and ear to work with Quincy Jones and Michael Jackson. The quality of the music aside, it’s the kind of sound that stays in your heart for the rest of your life. It’s one of the first funk albums I remember my dad playing from me as a kid, aside from Parliament-Funkadelic (who are already in the Rock Hall). Even though “Always and Forever” made me feel sad (probably because of the ratio of minor to major chords), it also inspired me. I was around nine years old at the time and studying piano. And so, I decided to give myself the project of learning the main melody.
I never did figure it out, but every time I hear it, I’m inspired all over again. — Erin Taj, Art Director & Chief Astrologer Officer
I’ve never quite understood if rap/hip hop qualifies as rock ‘n’ roll. Because for me at least, the term conjures images of Elvis, AC/DC, the Beatles and Pink Floyd. But in the end, that’s not my call. As of today then, there are currently six hip-hop acts in the Rock Hall, and number seven should be the ATLiens themselves — Outkast.
For those unfamiliar, Outkast is one of the best hip-hop acts to ever do it. Just to run off a few stats — they’re fifth in all-time hip-hop album sales, and to this day, they still have the record for hip-hop single album sales with Speakerboxxx/The Love Below.
Short of that, though, “Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik” is the only thing you need to know. It represents everything that is Outkast — Southern, playa and creative. The first time I heard the song, I was in the 10th grade on a church retreat. I felt disappointed — not that I was listening to secular music while I was to be focused on the Lord, but that I wasn’t at home and able to listen to it over and over again on my dad’s excessive sound system in the living room. Being from the South, it was the first time I felt hip hop represented me on a national scale. — Ernest Crosby, Video Producer
In my mind, Björk is a genius — constantly evolving her sound and fervently dimensionalizing her albums by creating cinematic music videos in support of the music. She’s also been crazy influential on other artists, reportedly inspiring everyone from Missy Elliott to Madonna to Radiohead to Evanescence. Basically, she’s the pinnacle of avant-garde pop. Or as she sings, “I’m a fountain of blood. In the shape of a girl.” — Tierney Finster, Contributing Writer
I’m not going to sit here and tell you that I know every song T. Rex ever released, because that would be a lie. But I will say that the first crunchy chord in “20th Century Boy” (among their most popular songs, I know) will forever manifest a more badass, carefree vibe from within my soul.
What can I say? Their songs bring me back to better days — even if they were days Iong before my time. Plus, those harmonies are next level.
On a final note, Marc Bolan is a glam-rock pioneer — one who rocked the look and lifestyle like he was born to do so, with the perfect assemblage of leather pants, bedazzled blazers and unshackled curly locks. All of which is probably why I doubt Bolan, if he were still here, would care much about whether or not T. Rex made it into the Rock Hall. — Ian Lecklitner, Staff Writer