Inward & Onward: New albums from A.J. Croce, Willie Nelson, and Yasmin Williams

At InRo, I wrote about a trio of noteworthy roots music releases, two of which delve into familiar songbooks: There’s By Request, an exhilarating covers album from A.J. Croce that turns to rock, soul, and R&B chestnuts for catharsis and release. And, there’s That’s Life, a second Frank Sinatra tribute album from Willie Nelson, which I like well enough but not nearly as much as the first one. Meanwhile, on an arresting instrumental album called Urban Driftwood, a young guitarist named Yasmin Williams starts drafting a songbook entirely her own.

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.

Don’t Ask Me For Indifference: New albums from The Weather Station, Celeste, Hayley Williams, etc.

Some quick takes on a few notable new releases.

01. Ignorance | The Weather Station
When the poet Adam Zagajewski invited us to “praise the mutilated world,” this may have been what he had in mind. The fifth album from The Weather Station offers tragic love songs for a planet in peril— like “Atlantic,” where the narrator is caught between rhapsodizing creation’s beauty and mourning its decline. There’s also “Robber,” which sounds like a twisted love song written to capitalism, where consumer culture itself is a relationship as abusive as it is inescapable. And “Loss” offers a lament unadorned by metaphor: Brokenness is brokenness and the end of the world is the end of the world, whatever other life lessons you try to extract from them. In other words, Tamara Lindeman has basically written this year’s soundtrack for Lent, and an anguished summary of the Fall: How brokenness and corruption have dysfunctioned our relationships with the planet and with each other. (As the prayer book says, Lord have mercy. Christ have mercy.) She honors her grief by refusing to sugarcoat it, and she makes it palatable through dusky, late-night grooves with subtly dramatic arrangements. Supported by crisp drums, pristine piano, and the occasional moan of wind instruments, Ignorance boasts a mastery of tone and perfection of narrative momentum; and Lindeman sings her songs of grief as though they’re really anguished torch songs, which of course they are. I haven’t even mentioned “Heart,” where she’s unwilling to surrender love to apathy, no matter how much it pains her to keep caring. It’s an ache that anyone who’s ever loved will recognize all too well. 

02. Not Your Muse | Celeste
A lovelorn R&B record for the wee small hours of the morning. Young in years but old at heart, Celeste is obviously smitten with vintage styles, yet she never seems like she’s trying to sound retro, much less nostalgic; cliches though they may be, timeless and elegant feel more apropos. She sounds great on a clutch of glistening bangers, preferring coyness and intimacy over the raw power you’d get from, say, Adele. But what clinches it are the smoldering, threadbare torch songs that open the album (“Ideal Woman,” “Strange”), which show where her power really lies—vulnerable storytelling, grounded in the quiet embers of her voice.

03. FLOWERS for VASES/ descansos | Hayley Williams
The Paramore singer’s first solo album was the kind of sturdy, autobiographical pop record that seemed predestined to make a big splash; naturally, its rollout was swallowed by the dawning pandemic. You can hardly blame her for keeping the follow-up a little looser, more ragged and instinctive. Recorded during quarantine and performed completely alone, FLOWERS for VASES feels homespun and demo-ish, a set of melancholy acoustic guitar tunes buoyed by gurgling electronics. It’s a great showcase for her robust melodies and unguarded singing, and for lyrics that process divorce while cycling through grief and acceptance. Includes an album-opening line that many a country singer would kill for: “The first thing to go was the sound of his voice…”

04. Sound Ancestors | Madlib
The celebrated hip-hop producer releases an arresting, mostly wordless suite of beats, samples, and juxtapositions— a smorgasbord of sounds that reflects deep musicianship, insatiable curiosity, and a skill for paying close attention. There are some vintage R&B and soul samples that prove emotionally load-bearing, but I’m just as fixated on “Loose Goose,” where a disembodied Snoop Dogg speaks affirmations over what sounds like a symphony of bird calls, and “Riddim Chant,” a hypnotic odyssey of percussion.

05. Tasjan! Tasjan! Tasjan! | Aaron Lee Tasjan
Initially I was put off by how precisely Tasjan replicates the glossy production style of Jeff Lynne (think Tom Petty, Traveling Wilburys). Why invest so much effort in what’s effectively cosplay? But then I found myself laughing out loud at “Feminine Walk,” his salute to rock and roll androgyny— a real hoot. And I’ve been singing the tune from “Up All Night” for days. So I started to wonder: Maybe historic reenactment is how this guy’s mastered his craft, in much the same way that tracing letters has taught my five-year-old son how to write freehand. And maybe Tasjan! Tasjan! Tasjan! is something special: An homage that doubles as a showcase for its auteur’s tunefulness, whimsy, and humor.

06. Medicine at Midnight | Foo Fighters
Foo Fighters are one of the last big bands to remain so admirably, stubbornly, deludedly, quixotically committed to the idea of rock and roll; not even U2 are as set in their ways. It’s almost funny that their idea of shaking things up is to try their hand at disco, something The Rolling Stones did more than 40 years ago, but I’ll say this for Medicine at Midnight: Both rhythmically and melodically, this is about as hooky and engaging as the Foo Fighters have ever sounded, a party record from our most duty-bound crusaders. It’s just a shame their rock and roll conservatorship forces them to be so risk-averse; you can practically hear them straining to avoid developing a real point of view.

07. OK Human | Weezer
You can take away the guitars, you can strip out the power chords, you can gussy everything up in lush orchestral arrangements… but at the end of the day, for better or for worse, the songs of Rivers Cuomo are always going to sound like the songs of Rivers Cuomo. That means OK Human is consummately tuneful, unabashedly nerdy, and problematic any time it unfurls a proper noun. It’s not enough for Cuomo to make an album indebted to Serge Gainsbourg and Harry Nilsson; he has to reference them by name, making his intentions just a little too clear. And when he name-drops the Audible app, it doesn’t feel like writerly detail so much as crass product placement. What’s most impressive about the album, besides its inspirational title, is how Weezer can make an album utterly distinct in its character yet still of a piece with all their others. The more things change, the more things stay the same.

Loss & Legacy: New albums by Steve Earle, Barry Gibb

In the latest installment of “Rooted & Restless,” I take a look at two new albums that both grapple with legacy: Steve Earle’s JT, which both mourns the loss of his son and celebrates the body of work he left behind; and Barry Gibb’s Greenfields: The Gibb Brothers Songbook, Vol. 1, which recontextualizes classic songs from The Bee Gees. Both are worth hearing, especially JT. Though tragic in its circumstance, it’s one of the richer, more rewarding Steve Earle albums in recent memory.

Core Canon: 60 albums I’d hate to be without

Lists like this require more work than you’d think, which is why I don’t make them too often. But as new releases just start to trickle in, I thought I’d offer my hypothetical hall-of-fame ballot; my response to the age-old desert island question.

I am presuming a fairly spacious island, and lots of time on my hands. So why 60? Because 100 seems unwieldy somehow, yet keeping it to 50 required cuts I couldn’t bring myself to make. As is always the case with lists, I intend this as a snapshot in time: 60 albums that have been formative, that have brought pleasure, that have abided mystery and midwifed revelation. Ask me again in a month and I’m sure I’d come to some slightly different conclusions.

  1. Tiny Voices | Joe Henry
  2. “Love & Theft” | Bob Dylan
  3. The Birth of Soul | Ray Charles
  4. Birds of My Neighborhood | The Innocence Mission
  5. The Bright Mississippi | Allen Toussaint
  6. Mama’s Gun | Erykah Badu
  7. The Long Surrender | Over the Rhine
  8. The Weight of These Wings | Miranda Lambert
  9. Kind of Blue | Miles Davis
  10. Black Messiah | D’Angelo
  11. Civilians | Joe Henry
  12. Real Midnight | Birds of Chicago
  13. Good Dog Bad Dog | Over the Rhine
  14. A Love Supreme | John Coltrane
  15. Every Picture Tells a Story | Rod Stewart
  16. The Basement Tapes | Bob Dylan & The Band
  17. Sign o’ the Times | Prince
  18. So | Peter Gabriel
  19. The Low End Theory | A Tribe Called Quest
  20. Paul’s Boutique | Beastie Boys
  21. Court and Spark | Joni Mitchell
  22. Money Jungle | Duke Ellington
  23. In a Silent Way | Miles Davis
  24. Rain Dogs | Tom Waits
  25. Abattoir Blues & The Lyre of Orpheus | Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds
  26. Red | Taylor Swift
  27. The Gospel According to Water | Joe Henry
  28. The Scene of the Crime | Bettye LaVette
  29. Painted from Memory | Elvis Costello & Burt Bacharach
  30. Parade | Prince & The Revolution
  31. Undun | The Roots
  32. Highway 61 Revisited | Bob Dylan
  33. Golden Hour | Kacey Musgraves
  34. Legacy! Legacy! | Jamila Woods
  35. Mingus Mingus Mingus Mingus Mingus | Charles Mingus
  36. Basie & Zoot | Count Basie and Zoot Sims
  37. Thelonious Monk Trio | Thelonious Monk
  38. Achtung Baby | U2
  39. All This Useless Beauty | Elvis Costello & The Attractions
  40. Time Out of Mind | Bob Dylan
  41. Purple Rain | Prince & The Revolution
  42. Hell on Heels | Pistol Annies
  43. Sings the Blues | Nina Simone
  44. Otis Blue | Otis Redding
  45. How I Got Over | The Roots
  46. A Boot and a Shoe | Sam Phillips
  47. Time (The Revelator) | Gillian Welch
  48. John Wesley Harding | Bob Dylan
  49. Trust | Elvis Costello & The Attractions
  50. Voodoo | D’Angelo
  51. Back to Back | Duke Ellington & Johnny Hodges
  52. Folklore | Taylor Swift
  53. RTJ4 | Run the Jewels
  54. Fetch the Bolt Cutters | Fiona Apple
  55. Hounds of Love | Kate Bush
  56. King’s Record Shop | Rosanne Cash
  57. Lifes Rich Pageant | R.E.M.
  58. Brighter Than Creation’s Dark | Drive-by Truckers
  59. there is no Other | Rhiannon Giddens with Franceso Turrisi
  60. Diatom Ribbons | Kris Davis

Sound & Shadow: Piano reflections from Jason Moran

The arresting new solo piano recording from Jason Moran gets its title from the late Vertamae Smart-Grosvenor, a long-time culinary arts contributor for NPR. (How do you know when your chicken has been in the fryer long enough, one might ask. Smart-Grosvenor’s answer: “The sound will tell you.”) The title befits an album that speaks not just through its form, but through its depth of tone, conveying the weariness of its origins but also a deep reservoir of wisdom and resilience; an album that feels both modest and cavernous at the same time. Moran recorded The Sound Will Tell You, currently a Bandcamp exclusive, in just three days at the start of 2021; the final sessions were held on the same day white nationalists stormed the Capitol. This truly is music for piano only, though— just like on Modernistic, Moran’s 2002 exemplar of the form— he does employ some elegant technological enhancements, including what he calls a “DRIP” effect, which gives his notes something of a sustained resonance, or shadow. As such, the songs generally move with a languid gait (intentionally modeled on the music of DJ Screw), and the music feels as thick and muggy as our COVID summer, the George Floyd summer, stretching into an airless winter of discontent. But it’s not music of despair so much as fortitude: Many of the song titles borrow turns of phrase from Toni Morrison, another indicator of the depths of strength, dignity, and resolve that Moran is tapping.

Always an evocative pianist, he conjures our recent and not-so-recent history of violence in “How much more terrible was the Night,” shaping minor-key jitters into a full-on Hitchcockian nightmare. If that makes the album sound sobering, well, sure: These are pensive reflections for a fraught era, and the first half of the record, in particular, leans into melancholy tunes and a solemn mood. But Moran’s gift for sustaining a particular tone does not preclude mischief or exploration. One of the great fascinations of his catalog is how he fixates on certain songs and ideas, using them as benchmarks for his creative evolution; here it’s an animated version of “Body & Soul,” which sounds livelier than it did when he played it on Modernistic. “Hum then Sing then Speak,” appearing near the album’s end, reconnects Moran with the bluesmen and stride piano legends he’s venerated in the past; and in doing so, it connects The Sound Will Tell You to a long lineage of music that bears beauty from brutality. “The only morning coming,” with a melody as clean and simple as a songbook standard, finds romantic undercurrents within the album’s prevailing sadness. But Moran saves the album’s greatest masterpiece for the very end. The earthy, molasses-thick “Toni Morrison said Black is a Rainbow” sounds at once halting and resolute— the perfect summation of this quietly majestic album, which both testifies to its times but also transcends them.

One Little Song That Ain’t Been Sung: Catching Up with Margo Price, Drive-by Truckers, & Gillian Welch

The team at In Review Online is closing the book on 2020… and not a moment too soon. Before we turn our attention to 2021’s fresh page and new crop of releases, let me plug just three holdovers from last year that I really enjoyed: There’s Perfectly Imperfect at the Ryman, a majestic, thoroughly winsome live album from Margo Price; The New OK, which is probably my favorite Drive-by Truckers record since 2008; and the excellent third volume of “lost songs” from Gillian Welch, which I’ve already extolled.

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.