In my previous column, I stated what I believed to be the Best Theatrical CDs of 2004 all the while bemoaning what a disappointing year it was for albums of that nature. Thankfully, the same cannot be said about the vocal albums of 2004 as last year produced a sizable number of albums that I feel will be favored additions to one's musical library for many years to come. In fact, nearly every album on this list outshines, in my oh-so-humble opinion, nearly every album on the Best Theatrical list (thus quashing my thought of creating a unified list this year, as there would have been very few theatrical albums that survived the cut).

To pick an all-around 'best' vocal album is close to impossible this year, as all the albums on this list have gone round-robin in my head for that honor. However, attention must be paid to an album by a singer who has completed the proverbial hat-trick this year by appearing on the last three 'best of' lists: Jessica Molaskey. While I love her previous albums (Pentimento and A Good Day) and their jazzy easy-listening sensibility, Make Believe kicks things up a notch by displaying Molaskey utilizing a more 'Broadway legit' sound throughout, all the while keeping her jazz sensibilities intact. Jessica will be performing a show based on this album at The Algonquin's Oak Room from January 18th through the 29th (visit for more information).

I have to take a moment to praise two stars in the Vocal category who had a remarkable impact on the genre despite never having sung a note: producers Tommy Krasker and Christopher McGovern. In addition to Molaskey's CD, Krasker and his label PS Classics released the next album on the list, Rebecca Luker's Leaving Home (as well as other albums that were strong contenders for this list, as well as some that made the Theatrical list). The album was produced and music directed by Christopher McGovern, who also contributed some original songs for the CD. Leaving Home is a remarkable album as much for showing a new side to Luker (who knew she was a fan of the folk/rock singer/songwriters of the '60s and '70s? Or more importantly, who knew her performances of that type of material could be so emotionally connected and affecting?) as well as simply being an album that is haunting, heartbreaking and honestly moving.

McGovern also deserves kudos for working the same magic with Susan Egan's Coffee House, which contains her best and most personal work to date. Truly one of the most eclectic albums of the year (who else would do songs by Kate Bush, Cat Stevens, Joni Mitchell, Marcy Heisler and Zina Goldrich, plus a number from a Disney cartoon?), Coffee House has been playing nearly non-stop on my IPod since I got it this summer.

To me, Karen Akers is a cabaret and musical goddess who can do no wrong (well, except for that period when she tried to do comic numbers, such as the "Torch Songs" from When Pigs Fly). Thus, is should come as no surprise that her latest album, If We Only Have Love appears on this list. From revisiting "My Husband Makes Movies" and "Be On Your Own" from her Broadway appearance in Nine (plus "Unusual Way," which Akers recorded on one of my all-time favorite CDs) to lesser-performed numbers like "Patterns" from Baby and "A Sleeping Bee," from House of Flowers, If We Only Have Love the CD is a superb album from a one-of-a-kind, magical singer.

What may just be my favorite album of the year defies category. Somewhere, jazz pianist Bill Charlap's ode to one of Broadway's best and most musically sophisticated composers, Leonard Bernstein, is not a theatrical album, although all the songs come from Bernstein's Broadway shows. As it does not contain any singing, is it not a vocal album, although it can be argued that Charlap's greatest talent is to 'sing' the lyrics through his brilliant piano playing. What cannot be argued is that Somewhere, which also features Peter Washington on bass and Kenny Washington on drums, is pure magic as it transforms a dozen numbers written by Bernstein into hypnotic jazz tunes that are equal parts loving tribute to what was originally written and delicious improvisations that are wholly original.

Two more albums from the jazz world made it on this list, thus helping dispel the notion that jazz performers are more concerned with a song's music (and putting his or her own stamp on it) than its lyrics. Janis Siegel, of The Manhattan Transfer, released a superb solo album, Sketches of Broadway, that contains some of this year's best storytelling. From the Latin-guitar driven "The Story of Lucy and Jessie" from Follies to the dreamy "Born Too Late" from The Littlest Revue (Vernon Duke/Ogden Nash) to a swaying Latin version of Company's "Sorry/Grateful," this was one of the most surprising finds of the year.

This year, John Pizzarelli joins his wife (Jessica Molaskey) on the list. His album, Bossa Nova, a salute to the legendary João Gilberto, had me swaying and relaxing after many a stressful day, thanks to a softly swinging "The Girl From Ipanema" that strips the song of its lounge clichés, a warm and sexy "Estate," and an evocative setting of Sondheim's "I Remember."

Another instrumental album that defies labeling but appeared on my CD player a great deal this year is John Bucchino's solo piano album, On Richard Rodgers' Piano, which features Bucchino performing melodies written by Richard Rodgers on a Steinway Rodgers purchased in 1939 and on which he wrote many of his greatest creations. The tunes have a free-flowing improvised feel that are by turns jazzy, ethereal, wistful and touching, thus showcasing both Bucchino's talent as a pianist and Rodgers genius for melody.

My only complaint with Brian d'Arcy James' CD, From Christmas Eve to Christmas Morning, is that I will have to wait eleven months to hear it again as I have a deep loathing for listening to Christmas music before Thanksgiving. This is a shame because I truly love the album so. But at least it gives me something to look forward to (Christmas in July, perhaps?)

As I am genre-bending all over the place, I decided to include an album that has not left my bedroom since I got it last month: Paul Schwartz's latest installment in his "Aria" series, Aria 3: Metamorphosis. Between Luker's crystalline soprano and Schwartz's hypnotic and sensual grooves, this album has greatly enhanced my life. Enough said.

And as this is my last Sound Advice column, I wanted to make sure that one album released this year does not fall through the cracks: Sam Arlen's Arlen Plays Arlen: A Timeless Tribute to Harold Arlen (an album that would have made my Best of 2004 list, had it been released a few days earlier). Sam, who is Harold Arlen's son, has inaugurated this year's Harold Arlen Centennial with a CD that features him playing tenor saxophone on a baker's dozen of Harold Arlen's classic tunes. While most of the album features a robust big-band sound (such as the rousing opening track, "That's A Fine Kind O' Freedom," from the 1965 album Harold Arlen Sings Arlen (With Friend): the friend being Barbra Streisand, and a delightfully over-the-auditory-top version of "Ding Dong! The Witch Is Dead"), there are also moments of quieter introspection sprinkled throughout (the most touching being "It's A New World" from A Star Is Born as it features Harold Arlen himself providing the only vocals of the album). In an album filled with them, other highlights are a jazzy "Let's Fall in Love" (recalling Mancini's Pink Panther in verve and vigor) and the wailing trumpet-filled rarity, "So Long, Big Time!"

-- Jonathan Frank

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