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In the last column, I presented what were, in my humble opinion, the Best Theater/Show Albums of 2002. Now it's time to focus on the Best Vocal Albums of 2002.

Cy ColemanThis year, the vocal album that graced my CD player more than any other was Cy Coleman's It Started With A Dream. Coleman, who is responsible for some of the liveliest shows written for the stage (Sweet Charity, City Of Angels, The Life, Little Me and On The Twentieth Century to name a few), as well as standards like "Witchcraft" and "The Best Is Yet To Come," makes his songs come alive with snazzy piano work and sure vocals. The real treat of the album is the number of obscure gems, such as "I Really Love You" and "Somebody," although the album is a delight from start to finish.

PentimentoGiven today's economic woes, Jessica Molaskey's album, Pentimento, could not be more timely or topical. The album breathes new life into 16 songs that helped get America through the Depression, thanks to Molaskey's incredibly laid back vocals and a killer combo led by Molaskey's husband, jazz great John Pizzarelli.

DeeDee BridgewaterDee Dee Bridgewater's jazz spin on Kurt Weill, entitled This Is New, has been played on more subways and at more dinner parties than any other CD received this year. Bridgewater imparts a delightfully playful jazz sensibility on Weill's songs without ever obscuring the melody or the lyrics, and her rendition of "The Saga of Jenny" alone is worth the price of the album.

PilgrimThis year, Ruthie Henshall finely did it. After two enjoyable but ultimately safe albums devoted to traditional musical theater fare, Henshall released one of the most eclectic albums possible with Pilgrim, and in so doing, created the perfect vehicle for her smoldering voice and sharp intelligence. Who else would combine pop songs by Kate Bush, Madonna, Enya, and Barbra Streisand with obscure theater songs from King David and Peggy Sue Got Married, plus toss in a few movie songs to make such an engaging, largely contemplative album?

Baby Jane DexterBaby Jane Dexter is as much a force of nature as she is an incredible singer. To see her on stage is to watch a tsunami of passion, energy and talent. While there is no way a thin silver disc is going to ever capture all that power into its digital confines, you have to give it credit for trying, especially when the result is the highly enjoyable album, With Arms Wide Open.

Recorded live at the greatly missed Arci's Place, With Arms Wide Open showcases Baby Jane at her best. From what may be the most appropriate opening number ever incorporated into a show (the title song, which welcomes the listener to the show and envelopes them in the raw energy that is Baby Jane) to its closer (Dexter's traditional prayer to the audience, Dylan's "Forever Young," which has been given a more subtle and emotionally powerful spin this time), With Arms Wide Open provides an hour of pure power and shear joy. Unlike previous albums, Dexter gives equal time to standards on this one, with delightful results. Rodgers and Hammerstein are surprisingly represented with the prayerful "Hello, Young Lovers" and the playful "The Gentleman is a Dope." While Dexter still brings down the roof with such high octane numbers as various odes to love gone wrong, Ellington/Strayhorn's "Something To Live For" is a beautiful exercise in subtlety and simplicity.

The show With Arms Wide Open won Dexter her third MAC Award last year for Best Major Pop/Rhythm & Blues Performer, and the CD displays the reason why in no uncertain terms.

John DePalmaThe strongest debut album of the year is also one of the best live albums in recent memory. John DePalma lives up to the title of his album, The Song Is Mine, by putting his stamp on each number through an understated delivery that nails every word and emotion. Combine that with exquisite song choices and you have a force to be reckoned with.

Simple SongI said it before, but it bears repeating: in any other era of musical theater, Matt Bogart would have been the darling of any songwriter who wrote songs that coupled highly emotional lyrics with a powerful vocal line (ie: Rodgers and Hammerstein or Lerner and Lowe). Bogart's solo CD, Simple Song, is one of the best solo albums devoted to theater songs to come our way in a long time, thanks to his subtle and emotionally honest vocals.

James NaughtonJames Naughton's It's About Time is not only the most aptly entitled CD of the year; it is also one of the best. Based on a recent cabaret show he did at the Carlyle, It's About Time is an incredible collection of standards and contemporary numbers by one of the most sensual voices from Broadway or cabaret.

SignatureBy focusing on songs made famous by other vocalists, Ann Hampton Callaway took a huge risk on her CD, Signature. Luckily, Callaway is more than up to the challenge. From the haunting "Tenderly" to the playful "Twisted," she makes each song her own, creating one of her strongest albums in the process.

Once again, the remaining slot for this list was a toughy. However, unlike the theater/show list, the last vocal album was difficult to choose due to the plethora of remarkable solo albums that were released in 2002. Although I was torn between including Christine Andreas' Here's to the Ladies, Susan Egan's So Far...or Brent Barrett's Alan Jay Lerner album, all three of which are beautifully realized solo albums focusing on musical theater, I ultimately had to go with Todd Murray's When I Sing Low. While the three aforementioned albums are all incredibly well done, they are also incredibly safe with nary a surprise or element to quicken the pulse.

Todd MurrayWhen I Sing Low, however, is an incredibly sensual album by a performer who was unknown to me (and indeed, his website, www.toddmurray.com, sheds no light on the subject whatsoever). With a rich, deep baritone that caresses each note like a lover and a sparkling way with a lyric, Murray interprets a variety of standards ("They Say It's Wonderful," "Where or When," "Just In Time," to name a few) with a swinging big band accompaniment. The true highlights of the album, however, are the more rarely recorded songs: John Bucchino's haunting "If I Ever Say I'm Over You," Fischer/Carey's playful "Could 'Ja," the very non-Wildhorn sounding "When Autumn Comes" (that sounds like it should be a Harold Arlen/Johnny Mercer offering), and the swingin' title number written by Todd Murray.


-- Jonathan Frank


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