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Here we are again at the start of another year, which means it's time yet again for that venerable and most cherished of traditions, the always subjective list of the Best Albums of 2003, which has been split once again into two categories: Best Theatrical Albums of 2003 and Best Vocal Albums of 2003.

Before we go on, let's recap the criteria for inclusion on these lists. First of all, the album has to be a new release, versus a reissuing of previously recorded material (thus making roughly 70% of all theatrical releases this year ineligible, a marked decrease from last year). Secondly, the album had to have been released in 2003. The chief deciding factor, however, is how often the album graced my CD player or IPod, or better yet, how many times I forced others to listen to it. As last year produced an especially large bumper crop of eligible theatrical albums, this year's list was an especially difficult one to compile, but here goes:

Avenue QThe best theatrical album is, without a doubt, the cast album of Avenue Q, which not-so-coincidently is also the best new musical on Broadway, has the best cast to come down the pike in a long while, and contains both the best new song ("There's a Fine, Fine Line") and the best line from a song (which is from "The Internet is for Porn" and ends with the words 'double click'; the rest is up to you to figure out).

WickedWere Wicked to be judged solely on its leading ladies, Kristin Chenoweth and Idina Menzel, it would most decidedly be on this list. However, it is also blessed with a score that contains tender numbers of heartrending pathos ("I'm Not That Girl"), light comedy ("Popular") and full-bore, rafter-raising intensity ("Defying Gravity" and "No Good Deed"), making it one of the most powerful, albeit debated, theatrical CDs of the year.

ElegiesWilliam Finn is one of theater's greatest living storytellers, as is amply evidenced in Elegies: A Song Cycle by William Finn. While each of the numbers on the album deals with loss due to either actual or perceived death, the songs serve to celebrate and illustrate life rather than dwell on the tragedy of loss. The cast, which includes Betty Buckley sounding and acting better than she has in years, is equally incredible and indelible.

A Man of No ImportanceA Man of No Importance amply displays why Stephen Flaherty is a musical chameleon and why he and his writing partner Lynn Ahrens combine to form a pair of today's top writers of musical theater. While the story is slight and a tad dated, the score is anything but as it burrows under one's skin and into one's heart with its deceptive simplicity and emotional honesty.

NineThis has certainly been the year of the male movie star on Broadway, with both Antonio Banderas and Hugh Jackman appearing in high-profile, show-carrying parts. While both stars shone brightly on stage and on disc, Banderas benefited mightily by having better material to sing in Nine (not to mention getting to perform an actual emotional arc in the show), and by having supporting characters that actually propel the narrative. While the women's inconsistent Italian accents remain grating, the material in general and Banderas' performance in particular make this one of the best albums of 2003.

The Maury Yeston SongbookComposer Maury Yeston was also well represented with a tribute album devoted to his material: The Maury Yeston Songbook, which contains numbers both familiar (Brian d'Arcy James' understated "Unusual Way" and Liz Callaway's "Simple") and obscure (Alice Ripley's "Please Let's Not Even Say Hello" and "Now and Then" with Laura Benanti).

The Broadway Musicals of 1964While the Broadway By the Year series put on by Scott and Barbara Siegel at Town Hall is always as entertaining as it is enlightening, the Broadway Musicals of 1964 recording provided the series' best album to date, thanks to the pairing of incredible performers (especially Tom Andersen, Barbara Fasano, Liz Callaway, Sharon McKnight and Craig Rubano) with strong material from some of Broadway's biggest hits (Fiddler on the Roof, Funny Girl,and Hello Dolly) as well as its more intriguing misses (Anyone Can Whistle, High Spirits and What Makes Sammy Run?).

Little Shop of HorrorsThe new Broadway cast recording of Little Shop Of Horrors would be a must-have album even if all it did was finally preserve the show in its entirety. However, toss in a cast that is decidedly more than serviceable and you have a wonderful recording of one of musical theater's quirkiest and most enjoyable of shows.

Listen to My HeartDavid Friedman's songs have long been a staple of cabaret shows and recordings, and a two-disc live recording of an Off-Broadway show devoted to his work entitled Listen to My Heart helps show why, especially when performed by an incredible cast of singers that includes one of my favorite voices, that of Anne Runolfsson. Incidentally, all but two of the songs in the show are collected in a mammoth 526-page songbook that contains 63 of Friedman's songs. At $60 ($50 through his website, www.middermusic.com), it rivals a fully published Broadway score for price but breaks down to eleven cents per page, or less than a dollar per song.

First Lady SuiteIt is always interesting to listen to an artist's early work, for therein usually lie seeds of what will develop in time. Such is the case of Michael John LaChiusa's First Lady Suite, a musical about some of the most overlooked (but highly influential) figures in American history: the presidential wives. By turns dissonant and jazzy, and with melodies that shift like a presidential promise, the album provides a haunting and evocative listen.


-- Jonathan Frank


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