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.

Advertisement

“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.

TODAY IN SLATE

Sports Nut

Grandmaster Clash

One of the most amazing feats in chess history just happened, and no one noticed.

The Extraordinary Amicus Brief That Attempts to Explain the Wu-Tang Clan to the Supreme Court Justices

Amazon Is Officially a Gadget Company. Here Are Its Six New Devices.

Do the Celebrities Whose Nude Photos Were Stolen Have a Case Against Apple?

The NFL Explains How It Sees “the Role of the Female”

Future Tense

Amazon Is Now a Gadget Company

Food

How to Order Chinese Food

First, stop thinking of it as “Chinese food.”

Scotland Is Inspiring Secessionists Across America

The Country Where Women Aren’t Allowed to Work Once They’re 36 Weeks’ Pregnant

The XX Factor
Sept. 18 2014 11:40 AM The Country Where Women Aren’t Allowed to Work Once They’re 36 Weeks’ Pregnant
Moneybox
Sept. 17 2014 5:10 PM The Most Awkward Scenario in Which a Man Can Hold a Door for a Woman
  News & Politics
Weigel
Sept. 18 2014 3:19 PM In Defense of Congress Leaving Town Without a New War Vote
  Business
Business Insider
Sept. 18 2014 3:31 PM What Europe Would Look Like If All the Separatist Movements Got Their Way
  Life
Outward
Sept. 18 2014 4:15 PM Reactions to a Sketch of Chelsea Manning Reveal Transmisogyny
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 18 2014 3:30 PM How Crisis Pregnancy Centers Trick Women
  Slate Plus
Behind the Scenes
Sept. 18 2014 1:23 PM “It’s Not Every Day That You Can Beat the World Champion” An exclusive interview with chess grandmaster Fabiano Caruana.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 18 2014 4:33 PM The Top 5 Dadsplaining Moments From The Cosby Show
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 18 2014 4:26 PM Global Oceans Break All-Time Heat Record; World on Pace for Warmest Year Ever
  Health & Science
Science
Sept. 18 2014 3:35 PM Do People Still Die of Rabies? And how do you know if an animal is rabid?
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 18 2014 11:42 AM Grandmaster Clash One of the most amazing feats in chess history just happened, and no one noticed.