Well, 'tis the season for that most beloved of institutions. No, not the resolution to refrain from eating, drinking or being merry in response to the over-indulgences of the past few weeks. Rather, it is time for that highly subjective, rarely respected list of The Best Albums Of 2001 (or at least the best theater and/or cabaret related albums of the past year). This was not an easy list to concoct, as 2001 provided us with a plethora of possibilities. A few last minute discoveries made this list all the more difficult to make, which is why I am cheating a bit and making it a Top Baker's Dozen List rather than the traditional ten (it's my list and I'll cheat if I want to!)
And what, you may ask, is the criteria for inclusion? First of all, the album had to be a new release versus a re-issuing of previously recorded material (thus making two of my favorite albums from last year, the overdue CD release of Working and Rupert Holmes' Widescreen, ineligible). The main criteria, however, is how much the album was played throughout the year, or better still, how many times I forced others to listen to it, thinking it was something they just had to hear or buy.
Which, in my oh-so humble opinion, makes Lea DeLaria's Play It Cool the number one album of the year, as no other album has spent so much time on my various CD players. Lea's debut album features a fantastic collection of theater songs brought to vibrant life through her flawless jazz sensibilities. From a sultry "With Every Breath I Take" to a rocking "Welcome To My Party" this album is absolutely delightful. And who knew that "The Ballad Of Sweeney Todd" was such a swingin' tune?
Whenever Karen Akers comes out with a new album, I am in heaven. Few performers have the ability to completely inhabit a lyric like Karen does and her husky alto was the first voice I fell in love with, thanks to the cast album of Nine. Her latest CD, Feels Like Home, is her best album since In A Very Unusual Way (one of my Desert Island Discs, by the way). Consisting primarily of songs either in French or about France, the best number is her nigh-definitive interpretation of the non-Continental "Stars And The Moon."
In some colossal oversight, it has taken twenty-seven years for Stephen Sondheim's The Frogs to be recorded. Thankfully, Nonesuch's recording of The Frogs (paired with Sondheim's TV musical, Evening Primrose) was worth the wait. Combine a stellar cast consisting of Nathan Lane, Brian Stokes Mitchell and Davis Gaines (The Frogs) and Neil Patrick Harris and Theresa McCarthy (Evening Primrose) with fantastic orchestrations by Jonathan Tunick, Paul Gemignani's conducting of the American Theatre Orchestra and Tommy Krasker's brilliant producing skills and you get the best theater CD of the year.
It is hard to believe that after twenty-five years of writing for the musical theater, William Finn has only given us a handful of shows. Best known for The Marvin Trilogy and A New Brain, Finn has left an indelible mark on the theater and cabaret world. A revue of his songs, Infinite Joy, was recorded live at Joe's Pub with an incredible cast that includes Liz Callaway, Stephen De Rosa, Wanda Houston, and Mary Testa. Carolee Carmello's devastating rendition of "When The Earth Stopped Turning," written after the death of Finn's mother, makes for one of the most poignant and beautiful performances of last year.
The best CD of a 'new' musical was the Off-Broadway show tick, tick ... BOOM!. Not only does it contain the funniest song currently on or off Broadway (the Sondheim pastiche/parody "Sunday"), but "Why" is the most heartfelt ode to performing since A Chorus Line's "What I Did For Love." tick, tick ... BOOM! also marks the first time that I felt the world really lost what could have been a major talent with the death of Jonathan Larson.
Karen Mason's new album, When The Sun Comes Out, contains the best new cabaret song of the year, "We Never Ran Out Of Love," which reduces me to tears upon every listening. A great mix of standards and newer material, When The Sun Comes Out displays Karen at her emotionally charged best and is her strongest album to date.
Howard McGillin's long awaited solo album, Where Time Stands Still, barely arrived in time to make this list and made me do some last minute shuffling and rethinking. But it definitely is one of the best albums of 2001 as it is an absolutely gorgeous album. McGillin possesses one of the most expressive voices in existence, which is perfectly displayed on this CD. The arrangements are a delightful exercise in simplicity and allow McGillin to shine. His breezy tenor is incandescent on standards, such as a poignant pairing of "My Romance" and "The Folks Who Live On The Hill," a tender "Why Did I Choose You?" and a surprisingly effective fusion of "The Music Of The Night" and "Unexpected Song." His voice is less suited, however, for some of the more 'modern' songs. The poor grammar and contractions in James Taylor's "The Secret O' Life" do not mesh with McGillin's classic timbre and enunciation, and Emily Saliers' "Power Of Two" does not provide a good match for his vocal style. But these slight flaws are not enough to keep this wonderful album from being one of the best CDs of the year.
Love it or loathe it, there is no denying the cleverness of Urinetown, which was the last album to make this list. At first I was afraid that Urinetown was all brains and no honest emotional presence. After repeated listenings and actually seeing the show, I realized that Urinetown does indeed have a heart beating somewhere under the cynicism and myriad musical pastiches, and that it is a delightfully dark and twisted one. It also contains performances that are all Tony caliber, a veritable drinking game of 'name that source material,' and the oddest subject matter for a Broadway hit since Sweeney Todd. Toss in the fact that the album perfectly captures the show in terms of sound and story and you have the best Broadway Cast Album of 2001.
Singer/songwriter Tim DiPasqua writes the songs that should be heard on the radio. However, until stations stop playing tunes that are in an emotional holding pattern, you will have to get his CD Monster Under These Conditions to hear his original and highly enjoyable songs. The album keeps digging itself deeper and deeper into my head, with "Maybe You Didn't Hear Me (But I Just Said I Love You)" taking up permanent residence there.
It has been almost a decade since I attended my first memorial service featuring material from Bill Russell and Janet Hood's Elegies For Angels, Punks and Raging Queens, a collection of monologues and songs about people lost to the AIDS epidemic. Unfortunately, the material is still as applicable and affecting today as it was then. A live concert recording released this year provides us with one of the most powerful albums of the year, due to emotionally charged performances that include Bryan Batt, Alice Ripley, Emily Skinner, and Stephanie Pope. Brian D'Arcy James provides the emotional highpoint of the album with his gut-wrenching version of "And The Rain Keeps Falling Down."
One of the greatest joys in my life is to hear songs previously unknown to me. Windflowers, a collection of largely unrecorded songs by Jerome Moross (best known for the musical The Golden Apple, which contained the standard "Lazy Afternoon") has provided me hours of sheer delight. Alice Ripley's sterling interpretation of one of my all-time favorite songs, "Windflowers," (also from The Golden Apple) and her touching performance of "Some Day" (a hitherto unrecorded song from the film Forget Me Not) alone would have made this album one of my favorites of 2001. The fact that Windflowers also includes a treasure-trove of forgotten gems (sung by Philip Chaffin, Jenny Giering, Jessica Molaskey and Richard Muenz), is just icing on the cake.
One of the most infectious albums of the year is Stephanie Pope's debut CD, Now's The Time To Fall In Love, which contains songs from the '20s and '30s that were featured in Bob Fosse's last original musical, Big Deal. The arrangements by Daryl Kojak reinterpret and re-energize the numbers, yet allow them to retain their basic spirit. Pope's sensual vocals make the album a delight to hear.
Last, but definitely not least, is Susannah McCorkle's Most Requested Songs. The inclusion of this album is a bit of a cheat on my part, as all the songs were previously released on other albums. However, the fact that McCorkle handpicked the songs shortly before her untimely and highly tragic suicide adds a depth to the material that turns the album into something fresh and new. The songs, largely due to rarely heard verses, tell a poignant story of 'what might have been' that makes for a haunting final letter from this gifted and greatly missed singer.
And there you have it: the thirteen best theater/cabaret albums of 2001. And what does 2002 have in store for us album-wise? You'll just have to tune in and see.