You Should Be Listening to Sam Phillips. Start Here.

Slate's Culture Blog
Aug. 19 2013 3:33 PM

You Should Be Listening to Sam Phillips

Sam Phillips

Photo illustration courtesy samphillips.com

Last week Slate music critic Carl Wilson reviewed Sam Phillips’ new Push Any Button, the Los Angeles singer-songwriter’s first studio album in five years, after several online-only releases.

Phillips has been making music for more than a quarter century, first as Christian singer Leslie Phillips, and then under her current moniker (unfortunately easily confused with the famous 1950s Sun Records producer). She’s collaborated with Elvis Costello, Van Dyke Parks, REM, and long-time producer and now ex-husband T-Bone Burnett. And she provided the distinctive music for two beloved Amy Sherman-Palladino series, Gilmore Girls and Bunheads. But for new fans who haven’t heard much more than her Luke-and-Lorelai-romancing la-la-la’s, how to sort through the large back catalog of this true “artist’s artist”? Wilson offers up a career top 10, plus a bonus round.

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“Holding Onto the Earth,” The Indescribable Wow (1988)
From her pop debut and her long string of albums with T-Bone Burnett, where the ’80s sound indicates why her previous label called her “the Cyndi Lauper of Christian music,” as well as her ongoing Beatles loyalties. This is one of its darker-tinged songs, with psychedelic keyboard swirls, indicative of the direction she would continue into the 1990s.

“Lying,” Cruel Inventions (1991)
A cutting example of what would become her strong suit as a songwriter: Straight-complicated-talk about lust and love.

“I Need Love,” Martinis and Bikinis (1994)
Likely the peak of Phillips’ critical and popular acclaim, this album earned her a Grammy nomination and led to her casting as a fearsome blond terrorist in Die Hard 3.

“Taking Pictures,” Fan Dance (2001)
This album marked Phillips’ turn to a more acoustic-cabaret sound that won new fans but is divisive to others who miss her 1990s power-pop style. Gilmore fans will remember this song as the bittersweet punctuation to a key Luke-Lorelai scene; Phillips is seen playing it on a Stars Hollow street corner at the end of this clip.

“Reflecting Light,” A Boot and a Shoe (2004)
Recorded while Phillips and Burnett were splitting, this album may be her best, and belongs in the annals of breakup albums alongside Richard and Linda Thompson’s Shoot Out the Lights. This song scores a Luke-Lorelai dance under the stars on Gilmore Girls and also appears on the soundtrack of Crazy Heart.

“If I Could Write,” A Boot and a Shoe

“I Wanted to Be Alone,” A Boot and a Shoe

“Sister Rosetta Goes Before Us,” Don’t Do Anything (2008)
This tribute to 1930s and 1940s rock’n’roll pioneer Sister Rosetta Tharpe is a highlight of Phillips’s somewhat uneven, first post-Burnett, self-produced album, and received a fine, faithful cover on Krauss and Plant’s Grammy Album of the Year winner, Raising Sand, also from 2008.

“Magic for Everybody,” Solid State (2011)
The full album that completed Phillips’ two-year “Long Play” project, which featured frequent releases of singles, EPs and videos to fans who subscribed online.)

Things I Shouldn’t Have Told You,” Push Any Button (2013)
Fans of Phillips’ earlier work will be glad to hear her rocking out again.

Bonus: The Best & Worst of Leslie Phillips
“River of Love,” The Turning (1987)
Phillips’ final Christian album, for which T-Bone Burnett was hired as producer—when she wanted to break her contract, she simply had to threaten to reveal to the world that they were sleeping together.

“Put Your Heart in Me,” live at Cornerstone Christian Music festival, 1985
I feel a little guilty linking to this embarrassing clip, but it shows how Phillips started out being marketed as a Debbie Gibson poptart for the Jesus-fearing—and how very far she came in just a few years. 

Note: The Spotify playlist below does not include “Holding Onto the Earth,” which is not available on the streaming service. In its place, we have added “River of Love.

Carl Wilson is Slate's music critic.