Last week, we focused on the Best Theater/Show Albums of 2003. Now it's time to focus on the Best Vocal Albums of 2003, a genre that is significantly more difficult to whittle down to a 'top ten' format. Once again, the same rules and regulations apply, which makes the selection process all the more difficult as some of my favorite albums of the year were actually produced in 2002 (or even earlier). As two of them would most assuredly have appeared on the 2002 list if I had received them in time, I do want to mention them: Steven Lutvak's The Time it Takes and Karen Oberlin's Secret Love: The Music of Doris Day.

If the number of times a CD was played either on my CD player at home or on my I-Pod in the subway were to be the determining factor for 'Best Album of 2003,' Stacy Sullivan's West on 40th would be the hands-down winner. The album is a radical departure for Sullivan in terms of style of vocals and material chosen, and one has the feeling that in it, Sullivan has discovered her true voice. While a lot of the material on the album does not fall into the traditional cabaret or theatrical realm of music, it is all spun into lyric-driven gold thanks to Sullivan's emotional honesty and smoldering vocal intensity.

One of the most sensual albums of the year is Christine Andreas's The Carlyle Set , in which Andreas wraps her smoky soprano and passionate vibrato around a collection of comfortable songs set to a lush jazz score. With Valentine's Day just around the corner, those seeking the perfect 'mood' album would be wise to check it out, if only for the pairing of "How Insensitive" and "I'm a Fool to Want You."

Ute Lemper is one of the few performers who not only inhabits a lyric, but performs a full-scale remodel on it to make it fit her sensibilities. She is also one of the most visceral and mercurial of performers, tackling everything from Weimar Republic political cabaret tunes to Jacques Brel ballads to Elvis Costello numbers with equal aplomb and ferocity. Her latest album, But One Day, is the perfect synthesis of her tastes and is one of the most engaging albums of the year.

If anyone had told me last year that a spot on this list would belong to Michael Feinstein, I probably would have arched an eyebrow or two. While I am a fan of his older albums, the spark of delightful discovery that made them such a joy to listen to has been fading in direct contrast to the strengthening of his voice. However, in Only One Life: The Songs of Jimmy Webb , Feinstein has rekindled the sense of joy and abandon from his early works and paired it up beautifully with his more confidant and lush vocals.

Last year, Jessica Molaskey's debut CD, Pentimento, nearly topped the Best of 2002 Vocals list. Her follow-up album, A Good Day, repeats that honor, as it is a warm, sensual album perfect for the lazy weekend or romantic interlude. Let's see if next year she pulls a hat trick.

Lauren Kennedy and Jason Robert Brown joined forces to remarkable effect on Lauren's first solo album, Lauren Kennedy: Songs of Jason Robert Brown. The pairing of Kennedy's clear, effervescent vocals and Brown's arrangements and accompaniment is a treat. The inclusion of four premier recordings, including my favorite number on the disk (the haunting "If I Told You Now") make for a must-have album.

One of the most surprising discoveries of 2003 for me was Marieann Meringolo, as her vocals and stage presence simply blew me away during her CD release show at The Duplex. If K.D. Lang and Karen Carpenter were to have a love child, the result might sound like Meringolo, whose voice possesses a phenomenal belt that never overwhelms and a plaintive throb that makes every lyric tug at the heartstrings. Her album Imagine ... If We Only Have Love is equally thrilling and expressive.

Jazz/cabaret performer Joyce Breach has crafted an incredibly low-key album, Joyce Breach: Remembering Mabel Mercer, that is refreshingly simple and no-frills. Trusting that her voice, with its dark tenderness and emotional honesty, will be enough to captivate a listener, Breach performs a warm, comfortable collection of jazz-infused numbers containing great lyrics and melodies.

Another delightfully pulled back album is Tom Michael's beautiful CD, Written in the Stars. Taking the adage 'less is more' to perfectly realized heart, the CD is tender, spare and delicate. Carole Bayer Sager and Melissa Manchester's "Home to Myself," with its simple pairing of piano and guitar, is simply magical when combined with Michael's delicate phrasing and vocals.

A decidedly different approach is taken by Michael Holland in his latest album, Beach Toys Won't Save You, an incredibly produced album that inhabits the pop realm but manages to retain a sense of theatricality and lyrical sensitivity. Quite frankly, the album was released in the wrong season, as its musical hooks and thematic songs call to mind summer months lying on the beach (although, given the frigid temperatures of late, we definitely need a little August versus Christmas now).

Stylistically, the songs run the pop gamut from Billy Joel ("Beatrice's Boyfriend," a number that could be in a musical adaptation of Psycho Beach Party) to 'Uncle Bonsai meets the Beach Boys' ("Boys Say Go," a driving number on rebellion and cross dressing), to Fire Island dance numbers, ("It's Too Late (For a Summer Love)"), to ABBA (the bonus track, "Arriana Circus Girl"). The album does contain some tender ballads, "Wish You Were Here" and "More," which illustrate that Holland knows his way among the shoals of the heart as well.

-- Jonathan Frank

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