There are two prominent Sam Phillips in popular music. This list isn’t about the Sun Records producer who worked with Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, and Jerry Lee Lewis. Rather it’s about the idiosyncratic female singer-songwriter who launched her career in Christian music as Leslie Phillips in the 1980s. This list doesn’t cover Phillips’ early work as a CCM artist – instead, it starts with her fourth album, The Turning, where she started working with producer T Bone Burnett. Burnett had recently worked on Elvis Costello’s King of America, and would become one of the most acclaimed producers of his era with records like the soundtrack of O Brother, Where Art Thou?
After The Turning, Phillips married Burnett and rebranded herself as Sam Phillips, a childhood nickname. Despite sharing a name with Elvis’ producer, her music often recalls The Beatles. Her songs are succinct, punchy, melodic, and distinctive. These songs are drawn from four different decades – Phillips continued to thrive after splitting from Burnett, taking over production duties herself. She’s also dabbled in acting, appearing as a mute terrorist in Die Hard With A Vengeance.
10 Best Sam Phillips Songs
#10 – When I’m Alone
from Push Any Button, 2013
Phillips’ music often feels Beatles inspired; ‘When I’m Alone’ specifically recalls the innocence of the pre-psychedelic Beatles, or even of Buddy Holly. The strings and little rockabilly guitar solo are straight from the early 1960s.
#9 – Reflecting Light
from A Boot and A Shoe, 2004
Burnett and Phillips’ personal relationship was deteriorating during the recording of A Boot and A Shoe – although Burnett produces and plays bass, in hindsight the album plays like a chronicle of their divorce. Despite the circumstance, this waltz-time torch song is lovely. It was later used in Gilmore Girls, a TV show that Phillips contributed music to.
#8 – Power World
from Omnipop (It’s Only A Flesh Wound Lambchop), 1996
Omnipop is the odd duck in Phillips’ catalogue – she later described it to Salon as “throbbing with pain”. It only sold about a quarter of the number of copies of Martinis & Bikinis. Often it’s a tough listen, but ‘Power World’ is excellent, carrying through on a psychedelic rush. Kudos for the unusual chorus – Phillips simply repeats the line “our ideas of perfect are so imperfect”.
#7 – I Don’t Know How to Say Goodbye To You
from The Indescribable Wow, 1988
While most of Phillips’ music sounds timeless or retro, The Indescribable Wow is firmly tied to its era, a 1980s pop album. It’s excellent anyway, the most joyous release from the sometimes guarded Phillips.
#6 – Lying
from Cruel Inventions, 1990
The Indescribable Wow was an excellent album full of great tunes, but Cruel Inventions is closer to what you’d expect from a T Bone Burnett production. There’s a tough guitar riff and a chunky bass line. Phillips didn’t like her “strident” vocal and revisited the tune on her Long Play project, but it’s fine as is.
#5 – I Need Love
from Martinis & Bikinis, 1994
Phillips’ Beatles influences are displayed most clearly on Martinis & Bikinis. A cover of John Lennon’s ‘Gimme Some Truth’ closes the record, while XTC’s Colin Moulding adds McCartney-inspired basslines to the tracks he plays on. “I left my conscience like a crying child/Locked the door behind me” is a terrific opening line, while “I need love/not the political Church” is a dig at her CCM career.
#4 – River of Love
from The Turning, 1987
The Turning was originally released under the name Leslie Phillips, although it was later re-released under her new name. Either way, it clearly demonstrates a break away from Christian pop toward more honest songwriting as she started working with T Bone Burnett. ‘River of Love’ was written by Burnett – he released it on his 1986 self-titled album. Placed first on The Turning, it represents a break from her earlier sound – instead of soft Christian pop, she’s working with roots-oriented musicians like Jerry Scheff.
#3 – How to Dream
from Fan Dance, 2001
The harsh, experimental Omnipop seemed like a dead-end for Phillips, and she reinvented herself for the 21st century with the pretty acoustic folk of Fan Dance. Prettiest of all is ‘How To Dream’ – Phillips often uses the pinch and rasp in her voice for effect, but here her vocal is pure and beautiful.
#2 – Same Rain
from Martinis & Bikinis, 1994
While Phillips left the CCM industry, she didn’t abandon her faith when she stopped recording as Leslie Phillips. “Same Rain’ is drawn from the gospel of Matthew – “He sends rain on the just and the unjust alike.” On her early work as Sam Phillips, she often stacks layers of intricate backing vocals – here they kick in before any other instrument, creating an unsettling psychedelic effect.
#1 – Sister Rosetta Goes Before Us
from Don’t Do Anything, 2008
Before Phillips released her own version of ‘Sister Rosetta Goes Before Us’ it turned up on Robert Plant and Alison Krauss’ duet album Raising Sand. Burnett produced the record, and remaining a fan of his ex-wife’s work, he recommended the song to the duo. While Plant and Krauss won many plaudits for their album, I prefer the mystery of Phillips’ own version. Sister Rosetta Thorpe was an early adopter of the electric guitar, known as the “grandmother of rock and roll”.
Note that my favourite Phillips song isn’t currently available on Spotify – I’ve instead included the cover by Robert Plant and Alison Krauss.
Any favourite Phillips songs I neglected? ‘Cameras in the Sky’ and ‘Where The Colors Don’t Go’ were two late cuts.
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