Soul Survivor: The best of Bettye LaVette

Bettye LaVette’s is one of the truly gut-wrenching stories of being used, abused, overlooked, and underestimated by the music industry. She had an R&B radio hit when she was 17, then spent 40 years getting passed over time and time again. In her 50s, she began releasing a string of records that distilled a lifetime of frustration and disappointment, channeling her own song of lament almost entirely through interpretations of other people’s work. (By my count, the five albums I’ve listed below contain exactly one LaVette writing credit.) With these albums, she has finally commanded the admiration that’s long been her due. Her music of exquisite heartache now comes with an aura of triumph.

For my money, she is the greatest soul singer in the world. Whether this is because of or in spite of her long years in exile, I’m not totally sure. Certainly, personal suffering is not a prerequisite for singing the blues, nor is it something to be fetishized. And yet, listening to the work of her glory years, I am struck by one thing in particular: Bettye LaVette is someone who never lets any pain go to waste.

There are five of her albums that I treasure:

01. The Scene of the Crime (2007)
I remember being baffled by the announcement that Bettye was headed to Muscle Shoals to cut an album with the Drive-by Truckers, though I don’t exactly remember why; maybe in those days none of us quite realized how well the Truckers could handle a groove. The resulting album is a masterpiece, one that excels on a couple of levels. You can enjoy it as an old-fashioned jukebox record; a wonderfully dank, swampy take on blues, R&B, and country, absent any unnecessary frills. But it’s also a transfixing piece of autobiography, told almost entirely through cover songs: Songs about drinking, paying the bills, jealousy, and regret, but also a story arc about getting chewed up and spit out, left for dead, then somehow rising in glory. It would be corny to say that LaVette delivers these songs as if she wrote them; more accurately, she makes it sound like these songs were written about her. She actually did write “Before the Money Came,” the record’s triumphant climax… though by that point, the hard turn into memoir feels almost unnecessary. 

02. Worthy (2015)
Sometimes when I compliment my wife’s cooking, she responds by asking: “With these ingredients, how could you go wrong?” This is exactly how I feel about Worthy, where LaVette is produced by Joe Henry and backed by a all-star squad of studio players; she revitalizes a marginal Dylan tune and an underrated Stones, turns Henry’s classic “Stop” inside-out, and finds the gospel heart of Over the Rhine’s “Undamned.” There is no overarching concept here, and there doesn’t need to be: Everything about Worthy, from the performances through the album sequencing, displays an absolute mastery of craft.

03. Blackbirds (2020)
It’s incredible that it took so long for LaVette to make an album of songs popularized by Black women (with one Beatles tune to serve as the coda). The result is a stunning example of LaVette’s masterful transference of pain. She doles out song after song of romantic anguish… and then she gives us a spectral “Strange Fruit” for the ages, which will make you realize she’s been singing about a different kind of heartache all along.

04. I’ve Got My Own Hell to Raise (2005)
ANTI- Records’ decision to pair LaVette with producer Joe Henry (then riding a wave of acclaim for his work on Don’t Give Up on Me, a career-reviving album for another soul survivor, Solomon Burke) really proved to be the catalyst for her remarkable latter-day resurgence. Compared to some of her other albums, including the next one she made with Henry, the production is just a shade too genteel, despite a few songs that revel in sludgy low-end fonk. And yet, everything that makes LaVette great is in evidence here. I should probably just say that she sings a Lucinda Williams tune and a Dolly Parton number, and both sound great. What else could you possibly need to know?

05. Things Have Changed (2018)
Or: Bettye LaVette Sings Bob Dylan. The chance to hear our greatest interpreter sink her teeth into such a hallowed body of work may almost sound too good to be true, like a classic unstoppable force/immovable object situation, but make no mistake: Bettye devours these songs. Part of the reason it works so well is that the singer never sounds like she’s intimidated or unworthy; instead, she asserts her right to do with these songs what she will, treating them not as sacred writ but rather as vessels for her own self-expression. Though stacked with studio pros (including Keith Richards!), the sound is a little too slick, slinking and gliding when you wish it would rumble and rage. And yet the album remains an astonishing witness to the space LaVette can create for herself, even within such oft-trod material.

Rivers of Suggestion: The best of R.E.M.

By the time I came to R.E.M., they already belonged to the world. Only by retracing their catalog did I understand they had belonged first to Athens, Georgia; then to the South; and then to the college rock underground. But even when they strode the earth like giants— stadium-fillers and soul-winners second only to U2—there was always a pulse of strangeness to their music, a shroud of mystique, an aroma of the unknowable. Maybe this makes their success uniquely resonant in the South: Even winning mass acclaim didn’t make them feel less like outsiders. Their triumph was in how they brought a regional accent to a universal tongue. It was in how they started out strange, and mostly stayed that way.

Much of their other-ness can be attributed to Michael Stipe, one of the great rock singers of all time, whose earliest contributions to the band were cryptic lyrics delivered in mumbles and murmurs. Eventually he learned to enunciate, which isn’t the same thing as making himself clear: Even in their commercial prime, R.E.M.’s songs were often emotionally resonant and logically inscrutable. There’s also Peter Buck, who became one of the era’s most notable and influential guitar players by cribbing the jingle-jangle of The Byrds and the ragged simplicity of garage rock. Mike Mills, ostensibly the bass player, provided some of the band’s most memorable flourishes on organ, keys, and most crucially on harmony vocals; he and Stipe belong on any list of the all-time great rock and roll singing foils. Drummer Bill Berry was the band’s pulse— and, as became clear following his departure in 1997, their voice of reason.

If there’s an opposite to striking while the iron’s hot, R.E.M. did it masterfully and perhaps pathologically. Every successful album was followed by one that felt completely opposite. Sometimes these U-turns generated even greater successes: Consider that, after spearheading a revival in guitar rock, they got the biggest hit of their career by trading the guitar for a mandolin.

Ranking my favorite R.E.M. albums is tough because so many of them are good, and they are good for very different reasons. A majority of their studio albums are included here, but I will note one emphatic absence: Around the Sun, a limp and listless album released in the fall of 2004. Upon its release, I listened over and over, hoping to hear something that would redeem it. That’s the album that broke my heart.

Perhaps because the band never burned out— they amicably retired in 2011, a decade and a half past their commercial prime— their music isn’t romanticized like that of, say, Nirvana. Such is the curse of their steadiness and longevity. Kids today don’t know just how great this band was; here’s where I would start:

01. Lifes Rich Pageant (1986)
Captures a band in transition—but also a band in triumph. On their fourth album, R.E.M. still sounded every bit the scruffy Athens scene-setters, but by now it was obvious they were headed for the big leagues. To help them get there, they enlisted producer Don Gehman, who cleaned up their sound just enough for you to hear Berry’s beats glisten, and Stipe articulate his lyrics with greater clarity than ever. Rather than sounding boxed in by their ambitions, they sound inspired: How else do you explain the way frantic punk (“Just a Touch”) crashes into a stately Civil War ballad (“Swan Swan H”), with both of them preceded by an apocalyptic salsa (“Underneath the Bunker”)? This is also the album where Stipe’s slanted verse coalesced into a clear political worldview, or at least a galvanizing call against disengagement. I can’t necessarily parse every line, but I can tell that “Fall on Me” betrays a conservationist’s heart, and “These Days” champions the wisdom of youth. Years later, I don’t know which is more rousing: Stipe’s idealistic appeals (“we are hope despite the times”), or Mills’ pure bubblegum closer (a cover of The Clique’s “Superman”). The future seemed so bright!

02. Automatic for the People (1992)
By 1992, R.E.M. were ready to embrace their role as elder statesmen— meaning, a ruminative, ballad-heavy exploration of age, mortality, and lost innocence. Ruminative doesn’t mean austere, as Automatic for the People is richly textured and colorful. Part of that’s the string arrangements from John Paul Jones, but part of it’s the varied material, which includes a simmering sex song (“Star Me Kitten”), grown-up nursery rhymes (“The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite”), and Stipe’s hammy Elvis Presley impression in “Man on the Moon.” These songs are emotional counterweights to the more pensive songs, and make Automatic more than a funeral dirge: It’s actually a bracing affirmation of life lived fully. That’s important context for “Everybody Hurts,” the most basic thing Stipe ever wrote, which gains particular resonance when you hear it as a rejoinder to grunge’s nihilism and despair.

03. Reckoning (1984)
The one I play when I just want to hear R.E.M. in careening, garage-rock mode… which is pretty often. With the phrase “rivers of suggestion,” Stipe provides the perfect shorthand for describing his own lyrics; an adroit piece of self-criticism.

04. Monster (1994)
At the height of their celebrity, R.E.M. took to hiding in plain sight. On Monster, they bury their songs in murky wah-wah pedals, and Stipe evades the spotlight with story-songs of anguish, dysfunction, and kink. It sounds like the work of a band desperate not to be seen, yet they’re writing about characters crawling out of their skin for some kind of connection. The feedback-drenched “Let Me In,” written in eulogy for Kurt Cobain, tops “Everybody Hurts” to be their most persuasive answer to grunge. And the trashy, thrashy “Circus Envy” remains one of the underappreciated gems in their catalog.

05. Out of Time (1991)
Their sweeping, blockbuster pop album, loaded with lavish string arrangements and high-caliber guest vocalists. This generates some expensive filler, like the instrumental “Endgame,” but mostly it speaks to their confidence as a band: Even when they lean hard into platinum-plated studiocraft, they still sound like R.E.M. Most of the album feels irresistibly sweet, though its two best songs happen to be its most anguished: A mandolin-driven unrequited love song (“Losing My Religion”) and Stipe’s dejected, stream-of-consciousness relationship postmortem (“Country Feedback”). Some would say the album sounds a little too sweet, at least on the unabashedly chipper “Shiny Happy People,” which the band later said they hated. But by hearing it as a satire of the artificially upbeat, I think we should allow it.

06. Green (1988)
Among the things that R.E.M. were very good at, spindly folk songs and delirious bubblegum pop both rank fairly high on the list. Green is heavy on both, bearing witness to a band that was always going to sound idiosyncratic because they just had no other way to be. “Stand” always makes me wish they’d made a children’s album. Three songs later, Stipe is singing about chemical weaponry!

07. New Adventures in Hi-Fi (1996)
One of the classic “recorded on the road albums” where the band channeled pent-up adrenaline into brave experimentation. (See also: U2’s Zooropa.) New Adventures contains some of their most adventurous writing, their goofiest larks, and their most muscular rock and roll performances; it’s a hodgepodge, but it adds up to a picture of a band with limitless possibility in front of them. A year later, Bill Berry left the band, and they would never sound quite this confident ever again.

08. Document (1987)
Fierce, polished, professional rock and roll; the one you’re most likely to hear playing on AOR radio stations to this day (assuming those still exist). I’m more partial to the ragged feel of Lifes Rich Pageant, but there’s no denying the power of their performances here. Contains two of their most essential songs (“The One I Love,” “It’s The End of the World as We Know It”), but my favorite moment is a boisterous take on Wire’s “Strange,” which they perform as a bubblegum anthem, and which sounds like it’s a song about R.E.M.: “Michael’s nervous and the lights are bright/ There’s something going on that’s not quite right.”

09. Murmur (1983)
They’d go on to write better songs, but Murmur remains an iconic debut. Come for the weird textures, the blurry vocals, and the perfect jangle of the guitars. Stay for the tunes: From the very beginning, R.E.M. were melodists of the highest order.

10. Reveal (2001)
Berry left the band in 1997, and the remaining trio embarked on a three-album boondoggle through increasingly-labored, synth-driven studio experiments. I would describe the first of these albums, Up, as an uneven but admirable adventure; and the third, Around the Sun, as hot garbage. Reveal is the trilogy’s middle chapter, and its most successful: Though it wants for the kinetic energy of the band’s rock and roll recordings, it almost makes up for it with its ravishing and romantic melodies, testimonies to the group’s fascination with The Beach Boys. This could almost pass for a Stipe solo album, and he has never sounded more tender as a singer or as a lyricist, penning warm, accessible songs about childlike faith, imagination, and the pains of growing up.

11. Accelerate (2008)
R.E.M. shook off the malaise of Around the Sun with this tight, fat-free rock and roll album—a risk-averse update of Document’s rock and roll professionalism. And professionalism is hardly without its merits. By this point R.E.M. knew a thing or two about cranking out monster riffs, pacing an album with real momentum, and refusing to wear out their welcome. They couldn’t recapture the mystique of the earliest records, and perhaps were wise not to try; they still knew how to sound like a cutthroat rock and roll band, and some days that’s all you can ask for.

Walk the Mystery: The essential albums of Sam Phillips

It could have been so easy for the singer born Leslie Phillips to stick with contemporary Christian music forever. By now she might have achieved some kind of emeritus status, living comfortably in Franklin or Brentwood, emerging every few years for a handsome collection of hymns, perhaps an annual Christmas tour with someone like Steven Curtis Chapman. Instead, with a 1987 album called The Turning, Phillips declared her independence from narrowly right-wing evangelicalism and its predilection toward propagandistic expression and pat moralism. Since then, she’s assumed the childhood nickname Sam and released a string of accomplished albums that wrestle with faith and doubt, avoiding dogma for inquisitiveness, ideology for poetics. These albums have not made her a star in any conventional sense, but they have made her a patron saint for similarly-inclined skeptics and believers who view Christianity as an invitation to embrace mystery. If she ever writes a tell-all memoir of her CCM days and subsequent emancipation, she could name it with one of her old song titles: “Answers Don’t Come Easy.”

Of course, this backstory is largely unknown and probably irrelevant to those who only recognize her as the composer for shows like Gilmore Girls and Bunheads, where her signature la-las bear witness to her easeful way with earworm melodies. It is pleasing to think that the TV gigs funded some of the cagey, challenging, philosophically-rich pop records listed below. Her role in Die Hard 3 probably helped, too.

Starting with The Turning, Phillips made seven albums with producer T-Bone Burnett, to whom she was also married. Their collaborations stand among the best work Burnett’s ever done. And yet, it’s possible that the most important creative partnerships in Phillips’ discography are the ones she’s forged with great drummers, foremost among them Jay Bellerose. 

Of the many excellent Sam Phillips albums, these are the ones I hold most dear.

01. A Boot and a Shoe (2004)
The best and final Phillips-Burnett collaboration happens to be a chronicle of their dissolution— and one of the most illuminating divorce albums ever made. If it’s tabloid pull-quotes you’re after, Phillips scatters them like breadcrumbs (“I’m not sorry we loved/ but I hope I didn’t keep you too long”). But her interest is not merely in cataloging grief; “let’s excavate the surface,” she enjoins, in what could be her life’s mantra. And so, in richly suggestive and meaningfully open-ended songs, she digs deep into themes of suffering and surrender; failure and loss as conduits for grace. The presence of God hovers over these songs, even if you can never quite pin him down. Maybe that’s the Divine arriving “One Day Late,” offering consolation to the broken only once they’ve abandoned self-sufficiency; and maybe it’s him Phillips is wrestling with “All Night,” unwilling to let go until he concedes a blessing. But then again, maybe not. These lyrics reward contemplation even as they evade tidy resolution; as ever, answers don’t come easy. If you’re looking for something rock-solid, listen to drummers Bellerose, Carla Azar, and Jim Keltner, whose work here makes A Boot and a Shoe something rare indeed: A singer-songwriter album that’s as taken by rhythm as it is melody and words.

02. Fan Dance (2001)
In many ways, a matching book-end for A Boot and a Shoe— same producer, overlapping personnel, similar half-hour runtime, comparable bent toward catchy tunes played on acoustic instruments. Thanks to Burnett, those instruments sound great: Fan Dance revels in the creaks of the piano bench, the rustle of acoustic strings, the rattle of hand percussion. And the songs seem to capture Phillips at a peak of inspiration: Hear her write gorgeous pop melodies worthy of The Beatles (“Love is Everywhere I Go”) and lean into her droll sense of humor (“Is That Your Zebra?”). The songs are about questing for truth through art, poetry, and beauty. In “Five Colors,” she offers another mantra: “I’ve tried but can’t find refuge in the angle/ I’ll walk the mystery of the curve.”

03. Martinis & Bikinis (1994)
If you only associate T-Bone Burnett with the analog austerity of his post-Raising Sand material, you’ll be in for a shock when you hear the colorful, kinetic sound of Martinis & Bikinis— merely one of the most tuneful and exhilarating guitar-pop albums of the 1990s. In those days, Phillips wasn’t yet writing with the level of introspection that would make her later albums so rich; mostly, Martinis levels righteous anger and prophetic witness against materialism, greed, emotional manipulation, and poor environmental stewardship. I take enormous pleasure in assuming “Baby, I Can’t Please You” addresses the CCM machine from which she was still just-recently unencumbered. 

04. Don’t Do Anything (2008)
Her first self-produced album retains a number of structural and thematic similarities with her T-Bone material, especially Boot and Fan Dance. The biggest difference is Phillips’ rediscovery of electricity, which provides several songs with a jolt of static and hum. Recorded by Robert Plant and Alison Krauss, “Sister Rosetta Goes Before Us” is rightly regarded as a classic. But the best song is the title track, which comforts doers and overachievers with the notion of unconditional love.

05. World on Sticks (2018)
Long wary of the outsized influence of commerce and technology in our lives, Phillips spent a decent chunk of the 90s issuing moral warnings that occasionally seemed strident at the time, but have largely been vindicated today. The self-produced World on Sticks sounds wiser and deeper, with Phillips tracing sociopolitical problems to our underdeveloped spiritual formation. (“Troubles on the outside can be reflections of troubles on the inside,” she says in the liner notes.) Sticks also reveals just how confident she’s gotten as a record-maker, with special effects piling up one after the other… many shaking loose from Bellerose’s drum kit, but the majority conjured with cinematic flair by The Section Quartet.

06. The Turning (1987)
Compared with many of the albums that came after it, The Turning now sounds a little bit stiff, a little too cautious. It’s nevertheless an absorbing pop record, and a striking work of conscience. To borrow a phrase from Obi-Wan Kenobi, this is the sound of somebody taking her first step into a larger world. 

07. Push Any Button (2013)
Phillips deals with heavy subject matter, which can sometimes obscure her gifts as a pop confectioner. This 29-minute party record comes spring-loaded with bright melodies, colorful sounds and texture, and crackling rhythms. Enormously fun.

08. Omnipop (It’s Only a Flesh Wound Lambchop) (1996)
Her boldest experiment— a bizarro mashup of winking lounge music, vaudevillian pop, and psychedelic experimentation. Burnett can always be counted on to line up A-list session pros, and Omnipop’s pleasures come primarily from the chance to hear the likes of Marc Ribot, Jon Brion, and Smokey Hormel creating such lush (or is it louche?) arrangements. Phillips’ songs satirize commercialism in a way that always reminds me of U2’s album Pop: She goes so far down irony’s rabbit hole that she finds its dead end. After this one, there was no option but retreat and reinvention.