There are a lot of good singers out there. But what makes a vocal album extra special is a compelling vocal quality and the right match of material. When the singer and the song bring out the best in each other - with the help of exciting arrangements and excellent production - sparks fly. Here are the ones that most sparked my interest this year. Please note they are not ranked by preference, and that only albums released for the first time in this calendar year were eligible.
Before we get to the solo albums, let's begin with two "various artists" CDs, both tributes to songwriters:
Here's one of Broadway's major composers explored, but it's his film song catalogue that's up for grabs, including a medley of Academy Award nominees courtesy of Jason Danieley and Marin Mazzie. The album may seem like a bunch of disparate parts that don't quite fit together and flow as well as some themed albums, but oh, those parts are terrific. Jule Styne in Hollywood puts on display various types of the prolific composer's melodies: the sentimental, the boisterous, the unabashedly romantic. Most have lyrics by Sammy Cahn who never met a fun rhyme he didn't like.
Besides the classics that have been recorded time after time (like "Time After Time" which is welcome when so sincerely sung as it is here by Brent Barrett), there are some neglected nuggets. In that rarer category, there's much adrenalin: Audra McDonald bursts out with the insomniac's frustration of counting "10,432 Sheep" and Klea Blackhurst irrepressibly presses on with the chipper cheer of "That Ain't Hay (That's the U.S.A.)". On a more reflective note, Eric Comstock offers an appealing and affecting interpretation of the old World War II favorite "It's Been a Long, Long Time" that doesn't go the easy route of sentimentality. Johnny Rodgers' ingratiating and wistful "Brooklyn Bridge" is a jewel in this treasure chest of a CD that also features Broadway favorites Norm Lewis, Victoria Clark, Kelli O'Hara, Sutton Foster, Leslie Uggams and Rebecca Luker. This PS Classics salute to Styne's centenary also has a charmer of a cut ("Come Out, Come Out, Wherever You Are") by Philip Chaffin, who is more often occupied co-running the record label with dedicated, talented producer Tommy Krasker. This is Styne with style.
It was a musical marathon: a 12-hour concert at the New York venue Symphony Space, celebrating Stephen Sondheim's 75th birthday in 2005, but sadly only a fraction of it was released on CD a year later. Still, the 17 tracks chosen include some exciting theatrical performances. The material spans the years from 1951's "I'm In Love With a Boy," done with grace and ingenue ingenuity by Emily Skinner, to 1990's Assassins sure shot, "Unworthy of Your Life," matching Annie Golden from the original and Alexander Gemignani from the Broadway revival. With picks from Saturday Night to Sunday in the Park With George, there are many treats, including Into the Woods' original cast member Chip Zien going it alone on "No One Is Alone." The charm award goes to Sheldon Harnick and Michael Arden for the smile-inducing "Free," and major kudos to Laura Benanti, John Dossett and Danny Gurwin for nine and a half minutes of their combined forces on "Now"/"Soon"/"Later."
Six tracks feature a full orchestra conducted by Sondheim regular Paul Gemignani, while the others have piano accompaniment. You can definitely feel the excitement in the air in this live recording. The applause and cheers for stars like Judy Kaye, Liz Callaway and others keep ringing and resounding - wall to wall.
Moving on to solo performers, here are three women who have all been recording for some years, starting with the one who's been most prolific and then two who each have a few.
Ann Hampton Callaway's latest CD is like a resumé, featuring many of her skills. It displays her rich, velvety tones, her mastery of jazz, ballads and blues, her songwriting skills, and her sense of humor. Blues in the Night is just one more in an impressive collection of solo albums by an artist who only seems to get better and get deeper into the music and lyrics. Though the CD is titled for the Harold Arlen/Johnny Mercer classic, which she also sang in the Broadway production Swing!, it's not a collection of weepy wailings. In fact, one of her very cool original songs is called "Hip to Be Happy" and was intended for Swing!. "Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most" is an example of Ann's ability to set a mood, and build it with a sense of drama without shortchanging the pure musical values. Liz Callaway joins her sister on a medley as an extra added attraction. Ann is also joined by an array of top musicians, and the album is - no big surprise - solid, swinging and sensational.
Whether on cast albums or a track here or there on a theme album, Debbie Gravitte's performance is always juicy. Defying Gravity is only her third solo album and it is, to some degree, a retrospective of her stage roles. Some songs she has recorded on cast albums ("Mr. Monotony," which was key in snagging her a Tony for Jerome Robbins' Broadway, and "Sing for Your Supper" where she was part of a trio - here she does all three parts). Some are from shows she performed in, but didn't record - from the fairly recent ("When You're Good to Mama" from her time served in prison in Chicago) to the long ago (the short-lived revue Perfectly Frank's frisky "Junk Man"). She also does that same "Blues in the Night," which was the title song of another Broadway revue from her past. Other songs are just big, belty, bravura Broadway bombasts she indulges in. With the Jule Styne melodies "Don't Rain on My Parade" and "Some People" - and elsewhere - The National Symphony Orchestra plays the original Broadway orchestrations. This is a pretty straightforward musical theater presentation; songs are not reinvented. But with the big voice and star quality of Debbie Gravitte, nothing is phoned in. She's in good voice, good spirits, and on solid ground. Wicked's surname-similar "Defying Gravity" is described in her own playful liner notes as "what a song for the theater should be - a thrilling journey (with a great big high note at the end.)" 'Nuff said. Dynamic Debbie delivers.
A no-nonsense, hit the ground running, high voltage performer: that's Judy Barnett. Her fourth CD, Too Darn Hot, is energizing and just great fun. The true pleasure (and care) she takes in performing - and in the songs themselves - is obvious. She also relishes words and rhymes and is very present with the lyrics. She can definitely swing like crazy. On Too Darn Hot, she is at her best. The songs on the CD are mostly about the spring and summer, and Judy and her band definitely generate some heat. The title song from the pen of Cole Porter is just about the best, as it just builds and builds. Judy is particularly good with fast tempi and this one really flies at a fast clip. "Come Back to Me" from On a Clear Day You Can See Forever packs a punch, too, and South Pacific's "Bali Ha'i" is the surprise survivor of radical surgery, transformed to become a wild, hard-driving swinger. Judy shows her more sentimental side with a soft spot for the Nat King Cole hit, "That Sunday, That Summer." The arrangements are especially exciting: there's real teamwork with a large, brass-filled band. Never a dull moment.
The following are debut solo albums from musical theater performers. The first two focus on a particular era of pop music.
A tongue-in-cheek bit of evidence for reincarnation is Nancy Anderson, who sounds so at home with the cheery, buoyant musical sounds of the 1930s (and a couple of years on either side of the decade) that she seems to have first-hand experience. You'd think she was an ingenue of the period rather than a young theater star of today (Fanny Hill, Wonderful Town and Kiss Me, Kate). Her perky, pert persona and insouciance are captivating. The change-of-pace dramatic moments capture a period-specific sensibility, too. This is the opposite of a singer just winking at a style or parodying its cliches. Nancy gets it.
The sparkly and evocative arrangements featuring the talents of pianists Ross Patterson and Danny Whitby and reeds, brass and even ukulele, are deliciously right. When I first heard the CD, my only frustration was that it didn't show the range of Nancy's soprano voice, as heard in theater roles and her many appearances in the Broadway by the Year and Unplugged concerts at Town Hall. It's just a slice of her talent, but a wonderfully enjoyable slice. The title song is one of four well-known Rodgers & Hart numbers, but many of the others are much lesser known charmers, full of sweetness and sass. A favorite in the sass-with-bounce category is called "It Ain't Right." But this album is so right. Welcome to the thirties.
No album this year has reached me emotionally as directly and strongly as did - and still does - Shiny and New, the debut release by Jonathan Rayson. And none has impressed me more for its craft, partly because it all feels so natural. On the sensitive ballads (a strong suit), the very human feelings are expertly and instantly conveyed. He is seemingly free of artifice, and his willingness to be emotionally naked opens up the listener, too. This disarming effect is especially true with love songs whose lyrics allow Jonathan to express a sense of awe about having or wanting an intense connection (Don McLean's "And I Love You So"; a victorious and vulnerable "Rainbow Sleeves"). The laments ache (the Joni Mitchell song "River"), but there's no self-pitying wimp factor with Jonathan Rayson. Instead there's a sense of psychological bravery here. Of course, the fact that he has a singularly beautiful voice and knows how to shade it makes listening a pleasure just on the basic sensory level. The upbeat numbers, with a bit of grit, balance things and show a determined optimism in the happiness-seeking department.
The songs are mostly pop choices from the 1970s, bookended by Billy Joel picks, "Summer, Highland Falls" and "Souvenir." An accomplished musical theater actor (debuting on Broadway as a star of A Year With Frog and Toad, then taking over the lead in Little Shop of Horrors and touring with it), Jonathan has had a busy year in major roles since this album came out: The Paper Mill Playhouse Hello, Dolly! followed by The Flood and the holiday revue at the York Theatre, That Time of the Year. He's about to open in the new Christopher Durang/ Peter Melnick musical Adrift in Macao. Hopefully, there will be time for a follow-up album in the near future. Meanwhile, Shiny and New never gets old.
Another theater performer with impressive credits is Julia Murney, and her debut album is, mostly, a powerhouse of intensity. There's a respite here and there like Tom Waits' tender "Rainbow Sleeves" mentioned above, but Julia waits only briefly before she's back in high gear. I'm Not Waiting is contemporary and uses her steely and strong voice well, as well as her acting chops. She jumps into the performances - musically and dramatically - with an admirable fearlessness.
In addition to the CD's title song, Julia revisits the work of Andrew Lippa with two numbers from his score for The Wild Party: one used and one cut. "I'm Not Waiting" (he's on piano, too - a plus!) is perhaps the best example of Julia's ability to be Superwoman while also playing the subtext of a character who has her hurts and doubts. It's a skillfully complicated story of a song about how people do or don't connect and what is behind an attitude or decision. The versatile Mr. Lippa also gets major applause as producer of this CD. There are notable contributions from Tom Kitt (playing, and writing a standout song, "Perfect"). With "Beautiful Boy," Julia gives a nod to a song used in Lennon, a recent Broadway credit, and she's joined by some members of that company on vocals for the track. Her Wicked experience is especially well served with a superb rendition of "I'm Not That Girl." The album is just bursting with singing drama and dramatic singing. It's a keeper.
I guess NewClear is a rock album more or less, with some folk-y characteristics. Euan is a bit of a chameleon. He was introduced to Broadway audiences when he played Boy George in Taboo and he sings two Boy George numbers on the album. He handily proved he can handle more traditional musical theater when he participated in several concerts at New York's Town Hall in the last few years. Nothing on the new album resembles traditional musical theater in style, but there's real theatricality in it. Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah" gives Euan's mesmerizing voice free reign to wail, and he digs down and has a soulful catharsis. There's an intense and haunting vulnerability in his voice that makes it especially memorable. It also has quite a lot of strength when he unleashes some power on sustained notes. The songs here don't all take full advantage of that, but this CD is full of riveting moments.
Whether singing of encounters involving love and/or sex with relish and/or regret, there's a story being told. A sense of unrest gives NewClear a pulse and a tension. David Nehls co-produced and wrote the driving "Good Time Gone Bad." Indeed, Euan's ability to project melancholia and also to sing of fighting it makes his performances here quite magnetic, as with two different version of "At This Moment." At this moment, the performer will be gearing up for his next theater role in New York; he's opening in a play called Howard Katz, beginning performances in three weeks. Alas, it's a non-musical, but expect all kinds of things in the future from this talented, risk-taking actor-singer.
....and rounding out the list:
Chicago-based Tony Andriacchi came up with a winner of a CD this past year with At Long Last. He can be a real swingin' guy when he chooses ("Day In, Day Out") and is quite the balladeer (romantic movie themes a specialty); or he can play both roles on one track (the almost-title tune, Cole Porter's "At Long Last Love"). The well-crafted arrangements and orchestrations by flugelhorn player Carey Deadman paint lush moods, using a good-sized orchestra, then switches into medium or high gear for the up tunes with kick. Tony easily switches from croon to crescendo, with fresh phrasing on familiar material.
New to many New York concert fans, he was a hit this fall at the annual Cabaret Convention. The album (his second) begins and ends with Bobby Darin's "As Long As I'm Singing"; the opening is just a couple of lines: an arresting a capella moment that pulls you in, and when the song is done full out (though still too briefly for my taste), it's a high energy blast of confidence and joy. As long as he's singing, I'll be listening. Very impressive and very welcome.
Released overseas in 2004 and officially available at most American sources in April of this year, so sort of out of bounds, was a favorite - despite its having only three tracks in English. Like the singer himself, the album was born in the Philippines and made its way to America later. Broadway star Jose Llana's (Flower Drum Song, ...Spelling Bee) album Jose has some glorious singing that resonates. A grasp of Tagalog would be a plus, but still .....
We don't generally review reissues, but an album from the 1950s that had never been on CD is a delight. Here's hoping for more long-lost treasures like the very funny Songs I Taught My Mother by the very funny Charlotte Rae, on the PS Classics label.
Listening back to the dozens of CDs from the year was so enjoyable, I'm already nostalgic for 2006.