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Strong in Song:
Top Ten Vocal Albums of 2012
(and a P.S.)

Also see Rob's list of Top Ten Cast Albums of 2012

Now that we have covered the past year's top ten in cast albums, here are the favorites that don't fall into that category, from the CDs with 2012 release dates submitted for review. This annual round-up of favorites, previously reviewed or covered here for the first time, are the ones that are particularly strong and memorable in their combination of vocal quality, production, material choices, arrangements and interpretations, making for especially rewarding repeat listening. They are listed in alphabetical order by name of the artist, with a P.S. honoree at the end.

NEW CATEGORY: HALL OF FAME

Alphabetically, she's at the top of our list, and seemingly automatically she is frequently in our year-end list: it's the sixth time that's happened since I took over the Sound Advice column in 2005 and she was in the top ten the year before I came along. So, I think it's time we gave recognition separately for this vocalist above the other top ten for our first Lifetime Achievement Hall of Fame entry artist—who, yet again, has one of the finest vocal albums of the year.

Barbara CookBARBARA COOK
LOVERMAN

DRG Records
Not previously reviewed

Making old standards seem fresh and richer, Barbara Cook is the gold standard singing actress with the golden voice, turning any song into lustrous gold. She mines deeply to bring out meaning and shadings. She turned 85 this year and turned out a beautiful new album of 17 songs (including a couple of song pairings). From the opening track of Harold Arlen and Ted Koehler's sweetly cheery romantic invitation "Let's Fall in Love" through the winking "Let's Do It (Let's Fall in Love)" of multi-species behavior by Cole Porter to the direct look at "Makin' Whoopee," this Cook's tour of love and life is one more gem. It's a lesson in how to make the most out of every song, make it a story, and bring its essence to life while finding many a detail to hold up to the light. She makes us listen with more involvement and thought because she puts so much of that into the material. Pianist/musical director Ted Rosenthal is a worthy simpatico new partner who orchestrated and co-arranged with the singer on all but two tracks, joining just three other musicians: woodwind player Lawrence Feldman, bassist Jay Leonhart, and drummer Warren Odze. Buoyant numbers are joyful and the sad, wistful songs of yearning or rue cut to the bone, as in pondering "If I Love Again" or the third-person telling of "When Sunny Gets Blue" (an exquisite arrangement left behind by longtime musical partner Wally Harper). Those expressing romantic contentment (such as "The Nearness of You") have a sense of explored, understood deep appreciation, as does Lee Musiker's arrangement of "What a Wonderful World."

Most striking is a totally a cappella version of the old folk song "The House of the Rising Sun," mournful with palpable pain and regrets. Everything on this album rings true, even with sudden shifts of tone and style, such as going from Billy Joel's "New York State of Mind" embracing her adopted city's ways right to a look back at her own home state, "Georgia on My Mind," with convincing longing and nostalgia as if that remained her home sweet home and none other would do. But that is the secret of Barbara Cook's art: whatever she is singing/acting at the moment, she makes us feel and thus we feel she is fully in that moment and feeling. So, the earnestness of relishing or missing or longing for any Loverman is convincing and we are just as ready to accept her shedding the cloak of drama to comically turn her nose up and declare "I Don't Want Love" (Dan Hicks) in a song about preferring food.

Again, as ever, Barbara raises the bar. She is in a class by herself.

Robert CreightonROBERT CREIGHTON
AIN'T WE GOT FUN!

LML Music
Original review

Here's a debut album by an old soul who treats antique material with relish and is our most valuable Broadway player when it comes to high-energy freshness ready to head the army to bring back vaudeville. Whether taking on Depression-era cheer-up specialties or bringing forth his own frothy pastiche of his own musical where he plays James Cagney, Robert Creighton is a showman who shows us a delightful, bubbly personality. Cast in the revival of Anything Goes, he was also Joel Grey's understudy, and veteran Grey joins him in a showstopping duet. Other Broadway vets stop by for wonderful harmonies and happy doings. Ain't We Got Fun!, in its title song and much more, is much more fun than any zippy CD throwback this past year. The bubbly guy with the character voice and big personality and panache is pure delight. I'm crazy for Creighton and his happy happenings.

Kate McGarryKATE McGARRY
GIRL TALK

Palmetto Records
Not previously reviewed

When jazz singer Kate McGarry picked up a Nightlife Award this Monday, she chose the opening track of this album to represent her work: "We Kiss in a Shadow" from The King and I. Although she adventurously reshapes material by taking liberties with melody lines and usual tempi, she does not come off as cavalier because she starts with and keeps in view the core of songs and their messages. The changes she makes make us consider them anew in whole or isolated lines and words emphasized with new magnifying glass exploration. Elongated lines let us linger. The Gershwins' "The Man I Love," while sung by so many singers over so many years, seems freshly minted because it's worn like a new garment. While hip and savvy, when Kate McGarry sings "I Just Found Out About Love," she's so in tune with the basic sensibility of being overjoyed that it feels real and you want to join her high or high-five her.

And the singing doesn't even have to be in English to communicate. "O Contador" (known in English as "Like a Lover") captures the longing and awe as she intertwines her voice with Kurt Elling's in a lush highlight. And, speaking of good matches, her work with talented, tasteful guitarist/producer husband Keith Ganz presents some mighty impressive blending as he plays in the spotlight or more subtly supporting; he arranged two tracks and they arranged three others together (she arranged the last two mentioned numbers on her own). The confidence earned by a singer who's walked some miles in her jazz shoes and is rooted in the material blends with a zesty freshness for a tangy, solid experience. In case you're new to the great Kate who now has several albums, she has a warm, bright voice that always sounds fresh. It's vulnerable and searching on ballads when need be, can pick up some smoky mysterious quality, and have unadorned and disarming blitheness when simple exuberance or guilelessness are the order of the day (as in her declarations of how she's "just walking on air" in "It's a Wonderful World").

More variety comes with the quite different lengths of the ten tracks: a couple are briskly well under three minutes, four are luxuriously more than five minutes. Keyboardist Gary Versace switches up things in his department by taking turns on both piano and organ and bassist Reuben Rogers and percussionist Clarence Penn adeptly complete the small band. Alternating comforting, soothing warm breezes and invigorating crisp gusts of musical wind, the weather is ideal on this album. Look for more from this explorer in coming years.

Marissa Mulder IllusionsMARISSA MULDER
ILLUSIONS

Miranda Music
Original review

After young singer Marissa Mulder won the competitive MetroStar Talent Challenge (an annual event at Manhattan's Metropolitan Room with the winner's show recorded there, live) in the summer of 2011, it has been interesting and rewarding to watch her progress and growth. This is the prize live recording of her themed show Illusions, which explored the expectations and impressions we grow up with and how they are reinforced, recalled, revitalized—or wrecked. So, reflections on childhood create a template and reference point, beginning with the opening medley of "Pure Imagination" and "Never Never Land" to the tender "Lullaby for Nathan Charles" (music by Michael "Mickey" Leonard and lyrics added later by Nathan's dad, author/teacher David Hadju who's married to Marissa's director, the award-winning singer Karen Oberlin).

A sunny, emotional singer bursting with enthusiasm and keeping a girlish insouciance and innocence, Marissa has honed her skills, but still seems fresh as the eternal daisy. Coached by musical director/arranger/pianist Bill Zeffiro, who's at the keys here and wrote the included hilarious loser's lament "My Kind of Guy," she's in cozy home turf and in good hands, joined by John Loehrke on bass and Pete Anderson on sax, flute, and clarinet. Felicitous choices from Broadway let her show her range and maturity, including a fierce and feisty "The Money Tree" (Kander & Ebb from The Act) and a heartbreaking but determined look at the salvation found in an imagined "Disneyland" (Marvin Hamlisch and Howard Ashman, from Smile). Although most of the patter was trimmed from the act to allow for a generous 16-track songstack, Marissa's personality and graciousness still shines through.

John PizzarelliJOHN PIZZARELLI
DOUBLE EXPOSURE

Telarc Records
Original review

A guy who clearly loves and knows the old jazz classics and standards and the pop/folk/rock music of his youth, singer/guitarist/arranger John Pizzarelli doubled his pleasures—and ours—by pairing one of each on the tracks of his latest CD, Double Exposure. Whether done prominently or with a subtle flavoring, one style/era enlivens and rejuvenates the other as song's contents and themes inform each other. Things never feel gimmicky or gratuitous or predictable. The multi-talented Pizzarelli's guitar work is exemplary and his singing can zip along with crackling life-loving energy or be cloaked in brooding melancholia. Songs from the 1960s and '70s from the pens of such troubadours as Neil Young, James Taylor and Joni Mitchell and the Beatles joined with echoes or full encounters with classics of previous generations prove than the whole is more than the sum of the parts. For example, Tom Waits's "Drunk on the Moon" meets up with Billy Strayhorn's classic tale of a disillusioned "Lush Life" led among world of "jazz and cocktails."

Sue RaneySUE RANEY
LISTEN HERE

Rhombus Records
Original review

Just announced this week as a winner of a major honor in the annual Bistro Awards, songbird Sue Raney is back with a marvelous new CD. (I'm glad to be on that small committee of reviewers and to join in the New York critics' accolades for this California-based veteran's first Manhattan nightclub engagement in more than a quarter of a century, which featured many numbers from this album.) Raney's jazz-tinged voice is like gossamer lined with stainless steel. Exceptionally pretty and delicate, her voice is celebrated for its clarity and her soaring or sailing to trademark high notes while keeping its luster and ease of delivery. The lucky songs this time out include Broadway-born notables like Funny Girl's "The Music That Makes Me Dance," Knickerbocker Holiday's "It Never Was You" and Roberta's "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes." Investing as much care and attention to lyrics and music, she makes each a warm and graceful experience, never indulging in surface-skimming or milking the emotion, over-singing or over-wringing tears. Her discretion translates as "taste," but doesn't feel aloof. And intimacy is assured by the choice of having just the piano accompaniment of the thoughtful, artful Alan Broadbent. I find this mesmerizing and gratifying and it's just the latest in a series of memorable albums over many years and Sue Raney still reigns supreme.

PanacheMARTA SANDERS
PANACHE

Original review

Brimming with life and mischievousness, Marta is full of life and sass. Famous songs like an exultant "On a Clear Day You Can See Forever" share disc space with originals like the title song and her been-there/done-that mantra as she blasts the fact, "I've been around the block before!" custom-written by top-drawer team Jay Jeffries (lyrics) and John McMahon (composer and her pianist/musical director here). She can be goofy as all get-out with the wacky story-song about a stud muffin/eye candy fellow bus passenger or turn around and make you wonder and eventually teary in a tale of a seemingly deluded, vigil-keeping woman who for years can't believe her husband was lost in the war and will somehow return to her. Marta can belt in her big voice that energizes and packs a pow or croon gently. Part earth mother, part loony tune, part storyteller, she's very much worthy of applause as she sings Applause's "But Alive" and much more.

Stacy SullivanSTACY SULLIVAN
IT'S A GOOD DAY:
A TRIBUTE TO MISS PEGGY LEE

LML Music
Original review

An unusually effective tribute album, Stacy Sullivan captures the essence of her subject, Peggy Lee, and channels much of her style and persona without sacrificing her own. A rare balance achieved! Without relying just on the most iconic songs, Stacy (who recently relocated to New York City from California) has been getting increasing airplay and attention in clubs with this project. Her research shows and she is blessed to have the especially glorious and creative and on-the-mark arrangements and piano work of Jon Weber. Selections include Rodgers & Hart numbers and other Broadway-based material as well as a generous selection of numbers co-written by Miss Lee. The haunting "Johnny Guitar" gets under one's skin and tear ducts and the brighter numbers serve as musical sorbet and lighter relief/release, capturing the playful, breathy, minimalist, and rhythm-centric Lee style trademarks and sensibilities, too. Who can resist the animated Disney representative co-written with Sonny Burke, "He's a Tramp" (Lady and the Tramp)? But Stacy Sullivan gets a great deal from the oeuvre and its many facets, making it all a rich and accessible tapestry.

Lost Broadway and More Vol 4VARIOUS ARTISTS
LOST BROADWAY AND MORE VOLUME 4:
WOMEN THEATRE COMPOSERS

Original Cast Records

Original review

The invaluable series collecting musical theatre songs (Broadway, regional theatre, etc.) that are under-the-radar items, many never-before-recorded treats lost in the shuffle of time has its fourth installment in 2012. This time, the spotlight shines on female songwriters. (Some have male collaborators.) Many tracks are fascinating and charming in this generous grab-bag. We go back to early decades of the last century for Kay Swift (Fine and Dandy) and included is a close friend from her later years, entertaining singer-pianist Bill Zeffiro, a chameleon-like returnee to this series. Marian Grudeff's collaborations with Ray Jessel make the cut—with cut material from their Baker Street from the Broadway of 1965 and other projects, with actual old work tapes and new recordings featuring irrepressible still-actively writing/performing octogenarian Jessel. Other writers' shows include musicalizations of National Velvet, Little House on the Prairie (a recent regional entry) and more. Fine work is turned in by cabaret major lights Steve Ross, KT Sullivan and Heather Sullivan, with Michael Lavine, a regular in this series of unearthed treasures, at the keyboard for some numbers.

Victor Herbert: Collected SongsVARIOUS ARTISTS
VICTOR HERBERT: COLLECTED SONGS

New World Records

Original review

New World Records takes us to the old world of operetta's grand master, composer Victor Herbert, for a mammoth collection of his work, but not by any means just the same old chestnuts one hears in gatherings of the most celebrated/successful shows' most celebrated popular songs. They have dug deep into a rich well and come up with previously unrecorded obscurities, cut material, and begin the whole shebang-up job in German with his earliest work before the American operettas of the glory days. Loving excavators and musical reconstructionists and dedicated watchdogs make it as close to the real deal as fragmented histories will allow. Thank you, Paul Tai and editor/arranger/scholar Larry Moore for painstaking work. This big box set jam-packed with material very well annotated and explained is not just an educational field trip to the roots of musical theatre. It's also just a very entertaining and musically irresistible cornucopia of lush and ingratiating melodies and a whirlwind of lyrics showing the development of the form (all lyrics are included). The formidable voices include stars familiar from Broadway roles and cast recordings, like Rebecca Luker, Aaron Lazar, George Dvorsky and a bevy of versatile opera-experienced singers such as soprano Marnie Breckenridge, mezzo Rosalie Sullivan, Margaret Jane Wray and baritone Jonathan Michie. Pianist William Hicks does yeoman's service. Familiar show title like editions of The Ziegfeld Follies and Babes in Toyland are represented, as are a myriad of other shows and isolated projects.


P.S.:

SPECIAL MENTION: INSTRUMENTAL ALBUM

Earl WentzEARL WENTZ (PIANO)
WHAT IS THIS THING
 ...?:
EARL WENTZ PLAYS LOVE SONGS OF COLE PORTER
Sixpence, Inc.
Not previously reviewed

When my ears need a rest from singers (wonderful like the above or otherwise) crooning or belting or bemoaning their romantic escapades, I find myself increasingly listening to instrumental recordings of the great songs. Not blaring Broadway overtures so much and certainly not Muzak slush, thank you. I've found myself playing pianist Earl Wentz's album, What Is This Thing ...? over and over. While we don't review enough instrumental albums to have a top ten, I thought I'd add one this year. Of the great musical theatre writers of the golden age, Cole Porter was the composer-lyricist I kind of gorged on first, quite some time ago. Then and now, I was dazzled by his wordplay and whirlpools of words and wit. I confess they often, for me, upstaged my appreciation for his melodic gifts. I've sought out instrumental versions of his songs to try to right that wrong and not be distracted, but most recordings I found didn't quite do the trick the way this one does. (They were so sweeping and strong in melodic thrust that I just was simply hearing the lyrics in my head and focusing too much on them again—or they were inventive jazz excursions that took many liberties and improvised long stretches so that I was admiring the players' skill rather than the architecture and flow of the original melody lines). Concentrating on the romantic melodies of Porter, rather than his celebrated bounce and snazzy tunes, without getting soupy or syrupy, these piano versions find a happy medium between automatic pilot and extra-loose creativity. It's about the lilt and the strong melodic sweeps and lines, always mixing emotional potency with musical figures. This fleet but non-showy pianist's style is my cup of tea. It's the first of a projected series of Porter releases that were recorded a few years ago, shortly before Mr. Wentz passed away.

The dozen selections will be familiar to anyone with more than a passing Porterly interest as they are among his oft-recorded numbers. But, wait! They are resplendent and thoughtfully done, beginning with a refined but energetic "True Love" and including an especially gratifying "I Love You," rarely given such care in light or schmaltzy vocal versions. The category "Love Songs" is taken seriously, so that something like "I've Got You Under My Skin" eschews the hard swing tempo it often gets and isn't some wimpy tremulous flower garden of ardor either. It's truly romantic and rich. And "It's De-Lovely" becomes—yes, truly lovely instead of the bouncy cute energizer it often becomes in vocal excursions. The appreciation of these grand melodies, treated with respect but not stodginess, is accomplished. And there is enough variety within and among selections, and enough musical ideas and subtle touches that make just keep playing and playing it-my constant companion. I can hardly wait for those sequels promised in the near future.


- Rob Lester


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