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 Sandmaterial, 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 Stickssounds 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.
When Sara Bareilles announced the release of her sixth album, she promised a patchwork of love songs, breakup ballads, and hymns to the exemplary grace and decency of the Obamas. It’s that last part that suggests Amidst the Chaos as a topical affair, one that lingers over faded glories as a way of avoiding contemporary traumas, but the songs themselves are more circumspect, and better because of it. Only on the closing “A Safe Place to Land,” where Bareilles and John Legend pronounce a benediction of courage over border detainees, does the album’s currency become irrefutable. Everywhere else, plausible deniability abounds. You could listen to any one of these songs and reasonably assume it’s about romantic triumph or folly. And yet, there’s plentiful insinuation that these songs were marinated in the times; as critic Stephen Thomas Erlewine notes, the album’s very title is a valuable and blunt shorthand for what life feels like in America circa 2019, and if Bareilles’ songs don’t have political weariness as their object, they suggest it as their point of view. In a masterclass of subtext, implication, and poetic imagining, Bareilles bears witness to what it means to maintain a joyful countenance when a rancorous national mood sweeps into the cracks and fissures of everyday living; what hard work it is, and how necessary. Meditate, if you will, on the words of “If I Can’t Have You,” a wistful chronicle of having, losing, and choosing gratitude over regret: “If I can’t have you/ then I’ll have to find a way to get through/ Though I don’t want to/ I have to do my best to recall/ That I’m thankful that I held you at all.” She could be looking back on a lost love or an evaporated civilization; either way, who couldn’t relate? There’s also “Saint Honesty,” where Bareilles summons the better angels of candor and truth—the truth that sets captives free and clears our path through any manner of bullshit. And what about “Eyes on You,” where the world’s spinning fast and out of control, but Bareilles chooses to hold her head high and keep her eye on the prize. Make of it what you will, and apply it to whatever tribulations buffet you. Its admonishment is simple and profound: Know hope. These songs are confident in their point of view, which means they don’t have to trip over themselves to pluck references from the latest headlines; they do something more valuable by capturing the blustery weather of a tumultuous planet, acknowledging the way in which cultural turmoil bleeds into personal dislocation, and providing sanity-saving articulations of resilience.
More than any of the five albums that preceded it, Amidst the Chaos makes its case through understatement and reserve. Up to this point, Bareilles has always thrived by blowing up her Carole King troubadour roots into widescreen, Technicolor pop confections; she knows how to apply studio sheen to sturdy bones, which is how “Love Song” became ubiquitous without becoming obnoxious. But to make Amidst the Chaos she stepped outside of her comfort zone, enlisting the venerable T-Bone Burnett to produce. He surrounds Bareilles’ piano with a multitude of session pros, among them mighty drummers Jay Bellerose and Jim Keltner; bass stalwart Dennis Crouch; ax slinger Marc Ribot; soundscaper Keefus Ciancia; and Milk Carton Kid Joey Ryan on harmonies. They stick to small gestures and intimate performances, warm and largely acoustic but never austere or inert. Burnett’s reputation is as a folklorist, and he does help Bareilles trace some of her roots; she sticks to the bluesy low end of her piano on the rumbling “Armor,” writes stately gospel in “Saint Honesty,” and creates shimmering soul perfection in the gently propulsive “If I Can’t Have You,” the kind of song you’d love to hear on an album by the Tedeschi Trucks Band. But what Burnett understands is just how little polish Bareilles needs for her songs to sound colorful and epic, which many of these do: “Eyes on You” sprints toward euphoria, while the opening “Fire” stokes glowing embers into a raging chorus. Just like Bareilles’ words, the performances convey clear emotions without overselling, her dramatist’s zeal kept in check by her devotion to careful songcraft.
Blessedly, Bareilles finds space for peace within the chaos: Reprieves come in the sultry sway of “Miss Simone” and the smoky reverie “Someone Who Loves Me”—the former a scene of everyday tenderness and romance, the latter a trust fall into the arms of an unfailing partner. She allows herself to shed light on all she’s (we’ve?) lost in the twinkling melancholy of “No Such Thing,” but ultimately realizes the futility in obsessing over the past (“I can’t fix it by fixating on a rewind,” she acknowledges.) That’s not to say that the past can’t illuminate the present. Check the bellicose “Armor,” where Bareilles traces a lineage of strength and resilience that runs through all the women who’ve come before; “strength means blessed with an enemy,” she intones, her resolve forged in the fire of tribulation and emboldened by the generations that blazed her trail. And in “Orpheus,” she spins familiar lore into an allegory of perseverance. “Hold me in the dark and when the day appears/ We’ll say we did not give up on love today,” Bareilles pleads; love blooms and hope springs in the land of the dead, because where else are such things to happen? These songs are saturated in joyful intent even as they’re littered with signs o’ the times, and none strike that balance more rousingly than “Fire.” Here, Bareilles documents a love she thought would last, now reduced to ash and rubble. “Someday, I won’t have to feel the cold/ But I do now so I’ll know/ What it feels like when I feel fire,” she declares. It’s a prophetic word for anyone enduring cruel winter, but knowing in their hearts that springtime will come again. No need to spell it out further: You know exactly what it is she’s talking about.
“A place belongs forever to whoever claims it hardest, remembers it most obsessively, wrenches it from itself, shapes it, renders it, loves it so radically that he remakes it in his own image,” Joan Didion wrote. If she’s right, then the City of New Orleans must surely belong to the musicians who have at once ratified and expanded its traditions. Think of soul stirrer Irma Thomas, R&B shaman Dr. John, most of all the late and eternally-cool Allen Toussaint. Think also of the prodigious John Batiste, the singer and pianist who, as Stephen Colbert’s bandleader, stands as New Orleans’ most prominent cultural ambassador, smuggling Dixieland swing into mainstream America five nights a week. Batiste makes his major label debut with Hollywood Africans, also the first album he’s made without his unruly Stay Human collective, and it’s further proof of the gravity with which he assumes his emissary role: It’s music made by a man who knows he’s a keeper of the flame, and understands his duties to encompass both historical curation and progressive ideation.
If the album is about any one thing, it’s about the intersection between person and place—how geography and culture shape a man, and continue to exert a gravitational pull throughout his life. Given that, it’s important to know that Batiste cut Hollywood Africans in an old New Orleans church. It may also help to know that he made the album with producer and roots music impresario T-Bone Burnett, present not so much to shape the record’s sound as to preside over a séance, calling the rattling haints of Crescent City song and story into era-spanning communion. The result is a mixture of Batiste originals and sacred texts—a few ornamented by strings, percussion, or harmony singers, but most presented solo and unadorned. Burnett captures all of it with the same analog austerity he’s favored since Raising Sand, his Grammy-winning team-up with Alison Krauss and Robert Plant. It’s a muted approach that seems jarring at first, diametrically opposed to the exuberance Batiste channels night after night on The Late Show, yet it’s ultimately the right choice for an album that shows off a different side of Batiste—earnest, meditative, grateful in his acknowledgement of the giants who have come before him, humbled to reveal how he’s built on their achievements.
You can hear it in his engagement with some of New Orleans’ most hallowed documents, like a shimmering and blissed-out reading of the Louis Armstrong staple “What a Wonderful World.” Batiste sings it not as a feel-good anthem so much as a meditation on holy wonder and active gratitude; it drones where Armstrong’s exults, and feels almost liturgical in its calming resonance. There’s also a reading of “Saint James Infirmary Blues” where the artist is comfortable enough with the song’s familiar contours that he can both lean into camp (listen to the disembodied voices and funeral-march horns that haunt the song’s periphery, like the ghosts of all the New Orleans bluesmen who’ve performed it before) and sprinkle in his own goofy humor (“she ain’t never gonna find another sharp-dessin’ piano player like me,” he winks), all while upholding the song as a serious piece of folklore.
These gently revisionist histories set the parameters for Hollywood Africans, where tradition exists not to be recited into the public record but to provide a malleable language for personal expression—and Batiste takes that even further with his originals, the best of which are instrumental. Opening song “Kenner Boogie,” named for the New Orleans suburb where he honed his chops, is a blazing three-minute history of stride piano, encompassing everyone from James P. Johnson to Little Richard in its raucous two-handed fury. “Chopinesque,” meanwhile, belongs to a lineage of jazz compositions that keep one foot in classical sophistication, the other in the free-flowing logic of swing (think of Mingus’ brainy ballets, Ellington’s symphonic masterworks, or Brad Mehldau’s luxuriant After Bach).
Batiste is eloquent in his native tongue, even as he bends it to his modern dialect. You might think his carefully-plunked melody on “Green Hill Zone” is a lost Solo Monk outtake, at least until the strings enter—but actually, it’s a melody snatched from Sonic the Hedgehog, a video game that shares bandwidth in Batiste’s head with shopworn standards like “Smile” and “The Very Thought of You,” both played straight here. There’s also “Mr. Buddy,” a ruminant and tender-hearted recollection of a childhood mentor or teacher. The deeper Batiste goes into the rhythms of his city, the more they seem to shake loose these remembrances, and the more fully his personality blossoms; what seems at first like a travelogue reveals itself to be a self-portrait, and an argument that person and place are never fully separable.
All of that lends gravity to the closing song, a Batiste original called “Don’t Stop.” A pensive waltz, the song urges open-hearted, resilient love; in another context, it might sound naïve, but here it’s a bloom of hope planted in a very particular soil, the same soil that nurtured Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World” and Toussaint’s “Yes We Can.” “Let’s keep it shakin’ while we can,” Batiste sings, sounding not quite like all the cats who kept things shakin’ before.