Also see Rob's Top Ten Cast Albums of 2008

As with last week's list of favorite cast albums, the Top 10 Vocal Albums list one is not in any particular order. All are CDs that caught my ear right away and are iPod-worthy favorites, or the ones I want to return to again and again, often finding that my appreciation deepens rather than diminishes upon repeated exposure. I hope this will expose you to some that might have passed you by and remind you of others.

JILL O'HARA
ALONE TOGETHER

Coming out very late in the year, Jill O'Hara's new album is one that is immediately arresting and consistently compelling. The spare accompaniment and uncluttered arrangements suit the beacon-in-the-bleak-night feel of many of the performances. Her unique, crushed velvet, vulnerable voice evokes a soul who sympathizes with the subjects of her songs told in the third person yet engenders sympathy for her naked first-person confessionals. That sense of the little-girl-lost wanting to be found and wanting to find love but accepting realities is as present and virtually unchanged from what we heard on the cast album of Promises, Promises of forty years ago, shortly after she was featured in Hair.

The intensity of Jill's performance style and the laser beam she focuses on the lyric and the story make for compelling listening. Often choosing songs that suggest someone who observes life keenly and feels things deeply, a sense of melancholy and ruefulness linger with cautious optimism breaking through the trepidation. It's a fascinating mix and her sound can be hypnotic. Randy Newman's specifically-imaged and emotionally on-the-edge songs dominate the album, and it's a good match of sensibilities. (Two of his songs were highlights of her eponymous prior solo album, first released in 1993 and now being reissued.) The honesty, the bravery fighting with caution, the self-effacement and wonder come through in old gems like his "Marie."

The title song by Schwartz and Dietz is a prime example of Jill's ability to present the romantic idealism twisted around a sense of hopeful affirmation while making the speaker seem not so sure at all the pair of lovers will really "weather the great unknown." Oh, she's set to face "the blinding rain" but there is also tension and subtext that keep the familiar number interesting and the tension ever present. A change-of-pace number, "Kitchen Man," usually done in raucous, leering double entendre wink-wink, here has an odd but refreshing sweetness and almost an innocence. One moment a troubadour, the next a lamenting balladeer, and in many moments a storyteller painting a picture with specificity and rich colors of emotion, Jill O'Hara communicates and captivates and her voice and tales stay in the ear and mind to linger long after the notes fade away.

BARBARA COOK
GOT A RAINBOW 'ROUND MY SHOULDER

DRG Records
Original review

A song has no better friend than Barbara Cook. She finds a reality in each piece she chooses and, through her involvement and commitment and subtle shadings, we feel she's living from moment to moment as the lyric is lovingly unspooled. It's as if she's saying, "This word is key. Listen to this. Feel it as I do." Everything rings true and her voice rings out with joy or aches with regret as the emotions she pulls from the material requires. She's a master of her craft and the ultimate singing actress, making each song a brush with the human spirit's various facets: the need for others, the longing for fulfillment and acknowledgment, the positive attitude that beams through like fiercely determined sunshine through a persistent cloud.

This latest of many very satisfying albums has a few songs she's recorded before, including the haunting "Where or When" essayed on her solo album from half a century ago. It's deeper and warmer and wiser now. A few perky numbers, full of life and frothy, serve as breaks from the more intense moments like Stephen Sondheim's "I Wish I Could Forget You" from Passion. Passion is something Miss Cook has in huge amounts: passion for life, passion for singing, passion for connecting and communicating. The soprano voice's beauty is burnished and it can sound tender or triumphant, always at the service of the song and the story it tells.

MICHAEL FEINSTEIN
THE SINATRA PROJECT

Concord Music Group
Original review

Yes, you can salute a singer without resorting to the extremes of unimaginative copycat syndrome in hero-worshiping or the desperation of radical difference for the sake of radical difference. Simply but wisely, Michael Feinstein focuses very much on the sensibilities and style trademarks of the arrangements and big band brash blast and pow that were so much a part of the success of Sinatra on records and in concert. Whether it be the happy zing and swing of Billy May or the plethora of little instrumental riffs and melodic additions upon which Nelson Riddle built a chart for bands, or lush ballad accompaniment, the Bill Elliott charts are evocative and in the tradition. Not slavish, they stand up on their own, thoroughly enjoyable as homage or fresh backbone and trimmings.

Not heavy-loaded with the Sinatra warhorses, the mix of tunes span his career from early days to a song he'd planned to sing very late in the game but never actually got to, with a lovely lyric by Marilyn and Alan Bergman ("The Same Hello, The Same Goodbye") that had been sitting on the shelf collecting dust. There's nothing dusty or tired or same-old/same-old about this Sinatra-inspired serenade. And Michael is in terrific voice, exuberant or pure and tender as the mood and melody command. A powerful "All My Tomorrows" and a sly but sweet "Exactly Like You" are among the fine tracks. As always with this song-respecting, song-knowledgeable talented vocalist, one comes away as impressed with the craft of the music and lyrics as well as the performer himself.

BILLY STRITCH
SINGS THE MEL TORME SONGBOOK

Blair Lake Music
Original review

Billy Stritch jumps into singing in the Mel Torme style with both feet and both piano-playing hands. Saluting one of his idols, the affection comes through and he channels the pop-jazz singer wonderfully while adding a dollop of his own savvy and sassy musicality and charm, plus energy galore. A deft musician and vocalist with real jazz chops, Billy is the right man for he job. A real, unabashed valentine to the singer, he impresses with actual bits of phrasing and stylizations that Torme fans will recognize and does them to a faretheewell, sounding comfortable and in command. Clearly, he's done a lot of listening and the influence is there. It's all to the good, with dazzling showmanship on standards and on specialty arrangements of things like the perky, snappy, bright as a new shiny penny "Lulu's Back in Town" and lush ballads. The year 2009 marks the tenth anniversary of the death of major artist Torme, and it's great to have new versions of his contributions as interpreter and arranger of the Great American Songbook and his own songwriting, such as "Born to Be Blue" and that perennial about those "chestnuts roasting on an open fire ("The Christmas Song" is an instrumental here).

Busy Billy, the musical equivalent of the Energizer Bunny, is sill going strong and, happily for us, has plenty of music running in his veins, a terrific and prolific treasure. Mel Torme's legacy has a great and loving keeper. This album is a keeper, too.

SHAYNEE RAINBOLT
SINGS RUSSELL GARCIA:
CHARMED LIFE

Original review

Mel Torme paired with Frances Faye or Louis Armstrong with Ella Fitzgerald—each team sang the score of Porgy and Bess, thanks to the creative mind of arranger Russell Garcia, a legend in jazz circles. Now the man who also arranged for Anita O'Day and Margaret Whiting returns to the recording studio after a long absence, with a new muse who rises to the occasion: Shaynee Rainbolt. With songs that are dreamy, swinging or atmospheric, Garcia's vintage specialty—arrangements featuring four trombones—comes back and it's quite spectacular.

This is the third and most impressive CD for the vocalist with the very appealing sound and solid technique, and it's a class act all the way: great band (including strings and rhythm), excellent sound and production, exciting charts by Garcia (now 92) himself. The two even collaborated on one marvelous new song, "I Remember," which was voted as the outstanding song of the year by the Manhattan Association of Cabarets and Clubs (MAC). Many others are from the past, some never before recorded with vocals. Shaynee shows her versatility and jazz knowhow, taking admirable musical leaps and spins, while still paying attention to the lyrics and painting a picture. An adventurous listen with romantic and lighthearted turns and a sweet anthem of gratitude as its title song, Charmed Life works like a charm.

MAUREEN McGOVERN
A LONG AND WINDING ROAD

PS Classics
Original review

Not content to just climb aboard the nostalgia train to make the trip down A Long and Winding Road a sentimental, feel-good, warm and fuzzy Memory Lane, Maureen McGovern goes deeper. She invests the songs from the 1960s and '70s with the long view from today. But we sense the affection and deeper understanding of the been-there/ remember that/ got-that-in-my-bones revisit to the past as she fully embraces and enriches landmark numbers from the pens of the Beatles, Joni Mitchell, Jimmy Webb and others. There's a wisdom running through the messages and mantras with a life-affirming throb in her singing, whether it be "Let It Be" or the call to arms (or the call to ban them) of Bob Dylan's declaration "The Times They Are A-Changing."

Part earth mother, part déjà vu prophet, part motivator, Maureen McGovern lights a fire under this material—but often a slow-burning one whose embers simmer and glow and continues to warm the heart. And that glorious instrument that is her voice, of course, makes it all a richer, more satisfying listening experience. An outstanding album in any year, with high quality production and arrangements, it's dignified yet vital, and makes us listen to many of these songs with new ears and new perspective.

PHILIP CHAFFIN
WHEN THE WIND BLOWS SOUTH

PS Classics
Original review

Philip Chaffin is a marvelous singer and this third solo album shows him to be even more interesting and multi-faceted. With a solid, invigorating voice and good musical instincts all around, Philip gives a nod and a big bear hug to his Southern roots. This isn't a county and western throwback or crossover disc. Much better by far, he has Dixie as a reference point, and gets some mileage from that with songs that naturally work their Southern charm. Items from writers past and present (Harold Arlen, Ricky Ian Gordon, Jerry Herman, Michael John LaChiusa and Georgia's own Johnny Mercer) are prominent.

Ebullient with some tunes and laconic as appropriate with others, there's something bracing, bright and invigoratingly positive about most of this album. From the Finian's Rainbow standby "Old Devil Moon" to a burst of joy and high spirits called "I Got Out of Bed on the Right Side," (I dare you not to grin), Philip stays on the right side of everything with this very pleasing album release. And of course, he and Tommy Krasker put the usual care and quality into having fine production/sound and musical direction that is tops (Sam Davis this time). Bright, tight and just right.

ELLI FORDYCE
SOMETHING STILL COOL

Original review

Whereas some new albums come on strong with a one-two punch, this one comes on gently and deliciously, but with a subtle grace and professionalism; the impact grows with each listen, and it's one I've gone back to more than most. A jazz-oriented singer who respects and understands both lyrics and music, Elli Fordyce has put out a rewarding album where she explores mostly quite familiar songs. It's not that she always makes them startlingly new with an overriding concept, it's more the little nooks and crannies of turns of phrase and little shifts of emphasis from what you might be used to hearing in a well-known line from a lyric. She'll put the stress on an unexpected word and bring a slight but noticeable difference to it. And she's very hip but definitely warm, despite the title (it refers to the song "Something Cool," that mini-drama of a woman in a bar, especially well done here).

Brazilian melodies are in her comfort zone ("Dindi" is a gem), but she knows her way around Broadway songs, too, imbuing them with flair and re-costumed in jazz garb, including "Hey There" from The Pajama Game, one of a few vocal duets with ingratiating Jim Malloy. This debut recording from the lady who calls herself "a late bloomer" (she returned to music after a long hiatus, and proudly admits to turning 72 in several weeks) is a real discovery, and delight.

DWAYNE BRITTON
DWAYNE BRITTON
LML Music

Original review

Dwayne Britton's debut CD is a gentle breeze and a truly refreshing one. Emotionally up front without getting gooey, a genuineness that makes this very promising singer instantly endearing jumps out at the listener and stays. It's a thoroughly enjoyable experience, with vocals that are cozy, intimate or rhapsodic, sometimes embracing childhood wonder ("Pure Imagination" from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory and a song for Hercules, a role he played for Disney live shows) or ever-hopeful romanticism. His voice is easy on the ears; its power creeps up on you emotionally rather than hitting you over the head. Chalk up one for sincerity. Brimming with hope and humanity and—there may be no other word for it but sweetness, and that's a good thing here—this CD is a rewarding one from beginning to end. There's real intelligence in the phrasing and involvement with the lyric at hand. It's a vacation from gloom and jadedness and a dreamy vacation at that—one that stays with me as a memorable trip.

STACY SULLIVAN
IT'S A SMALL TOWN

LML Music

I spent Halloween night this year at Stacy Sullivan's show at Manhattan's popular Metropolitan Room, hearing most of the songs from this new album. For a Halloween, it was all treat and no trick, as her repertoire, arrangements and interpretations were superb and the album is gorgeous. Arrangements are by the singer and her pianist, Ed Martel (six musicians are on the CD). Open-hearted emotionalism and sorrow and hope are all places the singers is willing to go to, examine, and then she moves on.

The CD is romantic at its heart as is the singer, with dewy-eyed but still grown-up looks at love where every cloud has a silver lining ... maybe a solid gold one. Often, the "Blue Skies" she sings of in the opener by Irving Berlin seem to dominate her perspective and agenda. Her "Two for the Road" is a honeymoon in the moonlight, an idyllic but thoughtful journey. Two Rodgers and Hart classics, though recorded by so many, shine here, too: "My Romance" and "My Funny Valentine"—she brings such a sense of wonder and commitment that you can forget any possibility of them sounding tired or shopworn (a particularly intriguing arrangement for the latter makes it a great new one to snag for Valentine's Day just three weeks away). And you can't beat Cole Porter's "So in Love" for direct love declarations; that's here, too. But it may be the less familiar and newer songs that really take the cake or are at least the icing on it: the evocative and multi-hued title song by the late Lew Spence; Tom Andersen and Tim DiPasqua's dramatic and effective song about a woman getting a letter from the (now grown) child she gave up for adoption as a baby ("Another Tuesday"); and "My Little World," a tender tale by Stacy's mother, Elizabeth Sullivan.

Pensive and present, direct and dramatic, Stacy shows numerous sides to voice and excels in storytelling and mood-setting. Up-close miking and a breathy quality work for her and there's great integrity—and musicality—throughout.

SPECIAL MENTION:

Not a reissue, since the material had not been released, in a special category is a set of recordings and live recordings from a singer who died in 1995 and is still much missed and discussed by those who relish communicative singing:

NANCY LaMOTT
ASK ME AGAIN

2-CD SET
Midder Music
Original review

What a gift to have unreleased recordings from the singer who epitomized the art of personalized, intimate cabaret singing, the late Nancy LaMott. Unpretentious and possessed of intelligence and a voice and personality that cut to heart of listener and song, she connected and knew how to interpret a lyric to communicate its essence and details. A lovely voice that just naturally seemed to project a personality that showed its cards unapologetically and without trumpeting anything: real vulnerability, thoughtfulness, and kindness. Some of the songs are known from released versions, but others are not on any of her excellent albums. Released at the same time as a DVD with different material, it's a treasure and more is promised in the future. A mix of standards done simply and contemporary ones done simply spectacularly, this is thoroughly involving and heartrending. Some early work lacks the polish and command that would come later, but it's all worthy and wonderful.


Next time, back to "business as usual" with new releases. Here's to 2009 and a lot of good music for a happy year and happy ears.


- Rob Lester


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