The Rock & Roll Hall of Fame has been good to Seattle. In the last few years, we’ve seen the induction of still-roaring ’70s rockers Heart and grunge titans Nirvana and Pearl Jam. The trio of vaunted hometown rock bands bolstered a Western Washington contingent that already included prolific instrumental surf-rockers The Ventures and music icons Quincy Jones, Ray Charles and The Jimi Hendrix Experience.
The Rock Hall’s class of 2020 has a chance to add another set of local stars in first-time nominees Soundgarden and Dave Matthews Band.
The hard-rock heroes and jam-pop troubadour join a roster of 16 nominees, including Whitney Houston, The Notorious B.I.G., Depeche Mode, The Doobie Brothers, Judas Priest and Nine Inch Nails.
Each year, a voting body of roughly 1,000 industry personnel and rock historians elects a handful of inductees; fans will also have a say via an online vote, open through Jan. 10 at rockhall.com. Later in January, we’ll learn whether or not Soundgarden and DMB will be among the Rock Hall’s class of 2020.
The Cleveland institution has faced criticism for its secretive nomination process, and at times seems to relish fans’ endless cries over perceived snubs. And really, arguing over the Rock Hall’s picks — or even the legitimacy of the organization — is half the fun. In that quarrelsome spirit, this week and next, we’ll take a look at the arguments for and against our local nominees, and we’ll offer our predictions for their Rock Hall bids. This week, we look at Soundgarden.
The case for Soundgarden
The Rock Hall offers loose criteria for inductees, and the biggest argument for Soundgarden’s inclusion is the band’s impact on “the development, evolution and preservation of rock & roll.”
Using building blocks carved by the likes of Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin and The Stooges, Soundgarden helped build a new breed of metallic, punk-infused rock ‘n’ roll, echoes of which still ring through rock radio. While hardly the first band to meld elements from once-disparate genres (see: fellow nominees Motörhead), Soundgarden did so in a way that transcended underground heroism and infiltrated the mainstream. Credit archetypal frontman Chris Cornell howling like a demonic Robert Plant over Kim Thayil’s menacing, drop-D guitar tuning — and odd time signatures, which pulled Soundgarden up from the underground by the dog tags.
From grunge’s ground floor, Soundgarden was instrumental in laying the foundation for the unlikely movement that radically altered the course of rock history, killing metal’s big-hair era and paving the way for “alternative” rock to become a dominant force in pop culture. Though Nirvana’s and Pearl Jam’s stars brightened faster in the ’90s, Soundgarden became the first grunge band to release a major-label album. And the band earned a Grammy nomination before Nirvana broke out, before Eddie Vedder and the boys had even cut their debut.
Soundgarden wouldn’t reach its commercial zenith until 1994’s chart-topping “Superunknown,” which featured Grammy-winning singles “Black Hole Sun” and “Spoonman” — MTV staples now synonymous with a generation of rock music.
The case against Soundgarden
Devil’s advocacy here: Despite its pioneering role in grunge’s explosion, Soundgarden was never quite as big as previous inductees Nirvana and Pearl Jam. Will voters feel the Hall’s grunge bases are already covered? (Alice in Chains, too, has not yet received a nom, though it makes sense the Hall would first consider Soundgarden, which has been eligible longer.)
Grunge’s mainstream incursion officially took hold with the 1991 releases of Nirvana’s “Nevermind,” Pearl Jam’s “Ten” and Soundgarden’s “Badmotorfinger.” Easily the heaviest of the three, “Badmotorfinger” eventually went double platinum, but the album didn’t make the same impact on the charts during that initial blastoff period, peaking at No. 39 on the Billboard 200. It wasn’t until grunge’s later years that Soundgarden would land its only No. 1 album with “Superunknown.” (The follow-up, 1996’s “Down on the Upside,” topped out at No. 2).
For all its success, the band cracked Billboard’s Hot 100 singles chart just once (barely, at No. 96) with “Black Rain” — a reworked holdover from the “Badmotorfinger” sessions that was released on the band’s “Telephantasm” compilation and a Guitar Hero video-game soundtrack in 2010. The track earned a Grammy nomination; will that be enough to sway a voting bloc that at times seems to favor commercial success over cultural influence, despite it not being an explicit criterion?
At the risk of sounding callous, Cornell’s untimely death in 2017 has prompted a wave of reflection from fans and critics on Soundgarden’s legacy and place in the rock canon.
The Rock Hall has a long history of uneven treatment toward heavier bands, which could be a bit of a wild card for Soundgarden, but our gut says they’re in. It can’t hurt that Cornell’s Audioslave bandmate, Tom Morello, is a member of the nomination committee and has waged a crusade to bolster the hall’s hard-rocking ranks — efforts reflected in 2020 nominees like Judas Priest, Motörhead and MC5, a favorite of Thayil’s.
Having been eligible since 2011, and with Nirvana and Pearl Jam already enshrined, it feels like Soundgarden’s time. Come January, we should be one step closer to completing Mount Grungemore in Cleveland.