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Too Much of a Good Thing? : This year's Rock Hall of Fame ballot boasts a strong lineup, from Allmans to Zep, but it may mean some worthy artists get passed over again.

November 06, 1994|Robert Hilburn | Robert Hilburn is The Times' pop music critic and a member of the Rock Hall of Fame's nominating committee

There's a logjam at the entrance to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

For the first time in the foundation's 10-year history, there are more deserving artists--including Led Zeppelin, Janis Joplin and Neil Young--on the Hall of Fame ballot than can be inducted under the rules.

On one hand, that's good news. The hall's voting process has often been criticized for turning to secondary artists--such as the Four Seasons and the Platters--to fill the annual quota of seven. Why? The more stars at the induction banquet the better.

But the flood of candidates this time presents its own hazard. If the 600 voting record executives, musicians and critics skipped over such landmark acts as Joni Mitchell and the Velvet Underground last year when the competition was less intense, they could very well look past these essential artists again.

Of the 15 names on this year's ballots, 10 made the kind of invaluable contributions to the evolution of rock that merit Hall of Fame recognition. But the difference between those 10 acts--in terms of artistic excellence, chiefly, but also influence and longevity--is sometimes substantial.

Under hall rules, artists become eligible 25 years after the release of their first record, so artists who began their careers in 1969 are now eligible. The seven winners are expected to be announced shortly with induction ceremonies scheduled for Jan. 12 in New York.

Here is a personal ranking of the nominees.

1. Neil Young-- Three Top 40 singles as a solo artist, including 1972's "Heart of Gold," plus 19 Top 40 solo albums stretching from 1969's "Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere" to the current "Sleeps With Angels." First year of eligibility as a solo artist.

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Young is a restless, independent spirit who fearlessly follows his most radical instincts, whether it leads him to moments of delicate introspection or unrelenting sonic assault. He has been cited by today's young alternative rockers--from Sonic Youth to Pearl Jam--as more of an influence than Bob Dylan. Young's recent "Sleeps With Angels" is an album of the year contender. Who else in rock has shown that kind of creative vitality after 25 years?

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2. Joni Mitchell-- Four Top 40 singles, including "Help Me" and "Big Yellow Taxi" in 1974, plus 12 Top 40 albums, including 1971's "Blue" and 1974's "Court and Spark." Second year of eligibility.

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The failure of the Hall of Fame judges to induct Mitchell during her first year of eligibility in 1993 was as big an embarrassment as overlooking Bob Marley a few years back. Hailed as an influence by artists as diverse as Prince and alternative rock hero Paul Westerberg, Mitchell--whose new "Turbulent Indigo" album is one of the year's strongest works--is a unique voice of the modern pop era. She is a master of musical textures who rivals Dylan for literary sensibility and the ability to examine relationships with an uncompromising eye.

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3. Led Zeppelin-- Six Top 40 singles, including 1969's "Whole Lotta Love" and 1971's "Black Dog," plus 11 Top 40 albums, including eight Top 5 sellers in a row between 1969's "Led Zeppelin II" and 1979's "In Through the Out Door." First year of eligibility.

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This British band was beaten up by critics because its songs lacked the revelation or craft, lyrically, that you expect of a world-class group. But there's no denying the quartet's influence on everyone from Jane's Addiction to Soundgarden. Zeppelin's legacy is its focus on the sheer exhilaration of music; its aggression and assault are all the more striking because of occasional moments of tenderness and beauty.

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4. Janis Joplin-- Just one Top 40 single--1971's "Me and Bobby McGee"--and four Top 40 albums as a solo artist, but she had another Top 40 single--1968's "Piece of My Heart"--and a Top 40 album as a member of Big Brother & the Holding Company. First year of eligibility as a solo artist.

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Joplin, who died of a heroin overdose in 1970 at the age of 27, may have been the most undisciplined artist ever to achieve superstar status in rock. Despite neither the vocal purity of Chrissie Hynde nor the revolutionary songwriting vision of Patti Smith, Joplin still stands as rock's most captivating female performer. The blues-rocker's weapon was pure passion. She sang with such intensity and abandon that you felt as if she was giving you a piece of her heart every time she stepped on stage.

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5. Velvet Underground-- No Top 40 singles or Top 100 albums until "VU," a collection of previously unreleased material, broke into the album charts in 1985, more than a dozen years after the band called it quits. Fourth year of eligibility.

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