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Top 10 Vocal Albums of 2009

Following last week's look at the year's outstanding cast albums, it's time for our annual consideration of the past year's best vocal albums among those submitted for review. The ten favorites below are listed in alphabetical order by artist's name (those with a collection of artists are then at the end). These albums include some I hadn't had a chance to write about during the year for one reason or another—but there are plenty of reasons to love them all. Let me explain why.


Parting Glass Productions

Released near the end of the year, theatre performer Donna Lynne Champlin's Old Friends becomes an instant new friend for these ears. Unusually riveting and emotionally raw, the singing and song choices are full of vulnerability, and the accompaniment is shorn of unnecessary frills, fuss or fakery. It's often a hushed tones/ bare bones affair, making some of the 15 tracks quite mesmerizing, but when she chooses to unleash the power of her voice, it's cathartic and/or thrilling.

I'm very taken by the unusual album whose $1000-budget, hand-made step-by-step creation, with the singer playing most of the instruments and doing her own vocal harmonies, with many of her own arrangements, was documented at length on her blog. The eclectic repertoire has great range—from the old favorite "Smile" to folk and traditional songs to theatre and film selections of rather recent vintage. But don't look for anything bouncy, frivolous or empty-headed. This is serious stuff: haunting, healing and hypnotic to be sure.

Almost every selection seems to create its own naked reality and sense of yearning. The country-flavored story song "Where've You Been?" could easily turn into a melodramatic soap opera but instead it is truly moving with its fragile world believable and intact. "Still Hurting" from Jason Robert Brown's The Last Five Years starts as quiet deflation and then its pain and rage builds without losing the sense of a close-to-the-flesh wound of memory. In the film song by Randy Newman, "When She Loved Me" (Toy Story II), the memories of a relationship when "everything was beautiful" are recalled in reverential tones and come across as much-missed treasured, times. Again, we can almost see the scars and tears. Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens' swirling "Once Upon a December" from the animated motion picture Anastasia is one of the "bigger" treatments and picks up the energy. Throughout the album, the power of little pauses and changes in dynamics is striking. The overriding impression is of a woman who has been hurt but is, under all that, unafraid to face life because either she has hope or knows there is no other choice but to hold on and to carry on.

One of the most unusual albums of the year, from a performer whose theatre resume shows range, too (from the Carol Burnett character in her memoir Hollywood Arms to the male character of Pirelli in the recent revival of Sweeney Todd), it's a moving listening experience.


Brannock Productions
Original Review

Unabashedly sensitive to the max, with added intelligence and some dramatic tension, plus a strikingly gorgeous, high voice ... balladeer Kevin Dozier has the right recipe for a rapturous album. And one of the key ingredients to make the recipe so right? The emotion-laden but not overcooked arrangements by pianist Christopher Marlowe. Full of songs from shows and movies with in-the-moment interpretations that often sound like they are being directly addressed to one person (especially with "Call Me Irresponsible"), this debut CD is a must-have for true romantics. Love-Wise wisely resists the goo and rings true. The Fantasticks' "Soon It's Gonna Rain," Aspects of Love's "Love Changes Everything" and Oklahoma!'s "People Will Say We're in Love" (an atypical high-energy, driving arrangement) all catch the ear and heart. There's a lot to love in this love song collection. The high notes, rich and pure, are breathtakingly beautiful. It's a voice and an album that invites repeat plays just for that reason, but when one gets gorgeous, unstrained vocals along with thoughtful treatments of wonderful songs, it's like having your cake and eating it, too. As I said, Kevin and Christopher have that recipe.


Harbinger Records
Original Review

Enter the dynamic duo—the perhaps unexpectedly dynamite combination of Michael Feinstein and Cheyenne Jackson. Solo or (especially) in duet, they sparkle on this CD with the material from their knockout cabaret act which this week was announced as a big winner in January 25's Nightlife Awards held at The Town Hall. Michael presents some of his trademark elegant/intimate cabaret finesse and turns the energy and fun levels up several notches in the musical male bonding. With special lyrics to City of Angels' put-down jab-fest "You're Nothing Without Me" to the more cheery admiring "I'm Nothing Without You," the teamwork is full of energy and showmanship. Likewise their "Me and My Shadow" with a big nod to the Sinatra/Sammy Davis, Jr. specialized arrangement. The contemporary title song, another duet, is another winner and the two men interweaving the two songs written for the separated lovers in The King and I ("We Kiss in a Shadow"/"I Have Dreamed") becomes a powerful event, both musically and seen as a gay-dignity moment. Cheyenne Jackson fans should be pleased in any case and some may be surprised at his versatility, as Michael lends him the torch for some classic love songs like "Someone to Watch Over Me." Bringing freshness to standards, he's also vulnerable. And Michael reprises one of his longtime standbys, soloing "Old Friend" as he shares the bill—and the thrill—with his new friend.


Plum Song Records

Sometimes show tunes travel well in new musical clothing. In the case of ShowFolk, it works. Welcome to the land of folk music and country where a little bluegrass grows underfoot and musical theatre songs bloom quite well. Thank singer Rachel Bay Jones and a group of musicians with their acoustic instruments. An argument might be made that some songs might be more pre-disposed to such changes, already being a bit closer in style. Sure. But especially fascinating are the ones that succeed quite well but might not seem obvious candidates.

Rachel's earthy, interesting, rootsy voice brings new life to your show tune song stack. From the 1940s, happy-go-lucky "Lucky to Be Me" from On the Town feels like a natural fit in its new folky, funky, fiddle-flavored skin. Fast forward a couple of decades to Stop the World ... .'s determined "Gonna Build a Mountain" with a sincere treatment that avoids awkwardness. But more recent songs get most of the attention: "For Good" from Wicked; "Wicked Little Town" from Hedwig and the Angry Inch; and Rent's "Another Day." These are all nicely sung and interesting, albeit without some of the guts and grit that others have brought to them in cast or non-cast renditions. But the attempt seems to be to make them work musically, as anyone might personalize songs, not to use the musicals' characters as templates. "The Streets of Dublin" from A Man of No Importance by Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens is a welcome choice and it works especially well, sounding somewhat as if it were an old traditional folk song for real. Lots feels "real" here. More than just an intriguing experiment—though it is that—ShowFolk is a musically entertaining and emotion-laced album with instrumentation that freshens the brew.

The album title has a few meanings: show music/folk music; Rachel's folks are show people (actors); and she's one herself—she has joined the cast of Hair on Broadway.


PS Classics
Original Review

One of the most dreamy/vocally creamy and easy-to-get-addicted-to CDs of the year is Steven Pasquale's Somethin' Like Love. Using a gorgeous crooning voice rather than the big, powerful deeper Broadway voice he also possesses, this album is rapturous in its beauty but never boring. The reasons are simple: this actor is still acting the lyrics (but without angst or breast-beating) and he sings evenly, with a glorious tone. Produced by John Pizzarelli and Jessica Molaskey, who also wrote the delicious title song, listening is like gliding down a gentle musical slope. The small, tasteful band, which includes the decaf version of Pizzarelli on guitar, supplies sympathetic accompaniment for a bevy of great songs. These include "I Wish I Didn't Love You So" and "If I Were a Bell" and "The Lady's in Love with You" all by Frank Loesser (the last-named with Burton Lane's melody). Going way beyond just sweet, serene love songs, there are songs with some gentle swing and celebratory feel—and some lonely, searching moods, like an adult take on Annie's "Maybe" and "In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning." Without raising banners or raising a fuss, this solid CD raises the bar, raises goosebumps and raises expectations for somethin' like a sequel ... soon, please. Yes, it's that good.


Displaced Hip Productions
Original Review

It's worth a shout of celebration and a sigh of relief when there's a CD of distinctive contemporary songs by a writer with a flair for the kind of witty, breezy writing that seemed to be an endangered species. Shades has it in spades—whimsy, wit, with the mostly offbeat material entertainingly sung with a relaxed manner. Composer-lyricist-bassist-singer Jack Prather has a cool, laidback jazz style but a gift for nifty melodies and playful, intelligent lyrics showing a love of language. There are unusual word choices, puns, alliteration and smile-inducing rhymes (Cyd Charisse/ the dance police; groove/the Louvre). As a singer, he has a salty, swinging voice that suits his quirky, perky tunes. It's feel-good music with a brain. Real sentiment is not off-limits, with a few sincere pieces and a taste for nostalgia which are rewarding and well-crafted, too. Gifted vocalist Stephanie Haynes is most prominent among the guests, and her tracks are standouts: a wry duet about newly falling in love and a reflective one about a couple who did so many years ago and are now recalling the old days, good and bad. Her thoughtful solo, "Suddenly It's Summer," is evocative and knowing and just splendidly sung. Shades is full of wonderful treasures.


LML Music

Thank your lucky stars that a longtime cabaret star of the caliber of Steve Ross has turned his attentions to one of our great American lyricists, Alan Jay Lerner, as the subject of a generous-length embrace. The very literate Lerner loved words and so does Steve Ross, and he treats them with both respect and relish. The singer-pianist knows that simple can be elegant and elegant can be simple, as he trusts the material and presents it with care and clarity and attention to the craft. The result is that you hang on every rhyme and twist of phrase, even the ones you know by heart, appreciating them all over again. And likewise, you notice all over again how wonderfully they are wedded to the melodies of his major collaborators Burton Lane and Frederick Loewe. Lo and behold, a few become especially appreciated when they are sung more intimately and as pensively as one can in a small cabaret room: this live recording was made during his recent engagement at The Oak Room of Manhattan's Algonquin Hotel. Especially benefiting from the sincere, smaller-scale, heart-to-heart approach: "The Heather on the Hill" and a blend of "It's Time for a Love Song" (from the under-appreciated score to Carmelina) and "If Ever I Would Leave You."

The only songs with melodies not by Loewe or Lane are a trio from Lerner's last, uncompleted project, never before recorded. And they're terrific—and terrifically performed! The show would have been My Man Godfrey with music by Gerard Kenny. "Try Love" is a lovely, heartfelt ballad, "Dancing My Blues Away" is sprightly and fun. And full of sharp barbs akin to some of Henry Higgins' grousing in Lerner's My Fair Lady lyrics is the collection of snide comments, "I've Been Married." As Steve points out in his patter (of which I wish there were more), the writer had been married eight times when he wrote this one.

Though the veteran entertainer Ross has never been at a loss when it comes to grace and polish and sophisticated charm, here he also imbues many numbers with more longing and a bittersweet quality. Directed by his co-arranger, Duncan Knowles, the proceedings are a master class in presenting classy songs with class (and much contagious joy). Thank heaven for the loverly Steve Ross.


Columbia Records

Decidedly low-key and reflective, very vocally pulled back or sounding like she's pulling up the fuzzy blanket and snuggling into a romantic song, Love Is the Answer for Barbra Streisand. This is a gentle, quiet album that stays very much on that page. Suggesting maturity and perspective, the sadder songs come out wistful with lessons absorbed rather than instead of a raw, fresh wound. The CD is all slow tempos and romantic. Light candles rather than firecrackers. It's hard to find fault with the very, very pretty tones and distinctive timbre with its control. Some may miss the power belt, the grand highs and lows—of emotion or vocal heft—but this is a tender and lovely recording with great songs. The title comes from a key line in the included "Make Someone Happy" from Do Re Mi. The song also includes the line, "Fame, if you win it, comes and goes in a minute." Considering her long-lasting superstardom of decades, that may seem a stretch, but it's good to hear her classic voice on this Broadway ballad composed by Jule Styne, a few years before he wrote her Broadway triumph, Funny Girl. This song's lyricists, Betty Comden and Adolph Green, are also represented by "Some Other Time" and Barbra is appropriately wistful and warm as she respectfully floats through the indestructible Leonard Bernstein On the Town melody. Although her personalized phrasing finds some freshness in this and other well-known numbers, the treatments are never wild reinventions or gimmicky at all.

Love Is the Answer is available in two versions: a single CD with very spare accompaniment or a 2–CD set that has those as well as the same songs with elegant, understated orchestral settings added, arranged and conducted mostly by the music veteran Johnny Mandel. As a composer, Mandel is represented by "A Time for Love" with a Paul Francis Webster lyric and "Where Do You Start?," the broken-hearted break-up song with words by Marilyn and Alan Bergman. One of their masterful songs with composer Michel Legrand, "You Must Believe in Spring" is only on the orchestral single album. This bonus track, is one of the highlights, exquisitely sung—not some minor item tossed in. The singer sounds especially involved in the lyric, one that is about more than just romantic relationships. The great Bill Charlap is on piano. Although much publicity for this project involved the participation of major league jazz singer-pianist Diana Krall as a collaborating producer, she is not the pianist on the majority of the tracks. Not to worry: all the piano work is sublime, Tamir Hendelman and Alan Broadbent and Charlap all top drawer.

With intelligence and taste underlying and underlining everything, there's much to marvel in with this CD suited for the calm times "In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning" (that's another fine track) or maybe a long rainy afternoon (and not just because of moody, mellow readings of "Here's That Rainy Day" and "The Gentle Rain"). These cooed adult lullabyes and a few held-in-check reality checks about dreams not always coming true make good company. When you want to listen to performances to knock your socks off, there are plenty of other Streisand recordings to choose. But when you want to wander down Dream Street and wonder what to fill your your head and heart with, Love Is the Answer is the answer.


Released just a few weeks ago, Susan Winter's debut album is a live recording of her classy, engaging cabaret show at New York's Metropolitan Room. That show won her the Bistro Award and she's got a winning, warm, wise way about her that comes through on disc. Here's someone who can get inside a lyric because she understands it, loves it and sounds like she has lived it or is at least very comfortable in its skin. It all seems very natural, whether she's radiating optimism with "Lucky to Be Me" from On the Town or quietly in awe of a man being in love with her in "It Amazes Me," the gem by Cy Coleman and Carolyn Leigh. With an exciting, vibrant voice that can belt without getting harsh, snuggle up to a love song without slipping into mushy sentimentality, the Winter way is a versatile one. Also possessing a particularly attractive vibrato that takes in emotion and lets it linger in the air, she has a lot going for her.

Susan's set list consists mainly of the Great American Songbook. There's Gypsy's "Small World" done simply and effectively and a touching but very down-to-earth re-framing of the Gershwins "Isn't a Pity" to show how she re-connected with her father when she was well into adulthood. In her patter, she talks about her parents' courtship and marriage, with appropriate songs and anecdotes, including their own letters, to crystallize key moments, romantic and amusing. That's the centerpiece—or more precisely, heart—of the act. Heart is what Susan Winter shows plenty of, as well as a savvy way of getting to the heart of a song. She communicates. And she is at her very best with "You'll See" by Carroll Coates, perfectly nailing great lines encouraging a potential lover to open up, like "Come on, give in/ Surrender and win/ You haven't far to fall." Notably, she's at ease with post-Golden Age material, too, like Dave Frishberg's "Love Rolls On" and "I Can't Be New" by Susan Werner and Jane Paul: cool stuff. All she needs to complete this pretty picture and pretty marvelous album are a couple of sensitive and super-skilled musicians, and she's got 'em: bassist Tom Hubbard and Rick Jensen, who is the simpatico pianist, arranger and her co-producer. They co-produce sparks here ... and a lot of intelligent, satisfying music.

 ... and a collection of various singers to round out the list:



Chantooz Music
Original Review

If you can't come to the cabaret, old chum, the cabaret will come to you ... via this fine live recording featuring a large number of New York cabaret singers. The ongoing Grace Notes group shows, at the longtime theatre district club Don't Tell Mama, and this new record company, Chantooz Music, are headed by singer Grace Cosgrove. She sings two contrasting songs on this maiden effort: the classic "Skylark" and a rousing "Que Sera, Sera," cutting the usual saccharine mood of that number with a dollop of humor. After all, the show/CD theme is Hope and Humor in Hard Times. The show tune alert happily includes "I Got the Sun in the Morning" from Annie Get Your Gun, "A Change in Me" from Beauty and the Beast, "Wonderful" from Wicked, "Laughing Matters" from When Pigs Fly and "Feeling Good" from Roar of the Greasepaint ... . And that's just half the list. There's some pop songs and a bit of jazz and one number in French: something for everyone, you might say. And lots of good cabaret talent.

Well, that's the list—a fond look back at favorites. Here's hoping 2010 brings another bounty to hear and cheer.

- Rob Lester

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