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.
DONNA LYNNE CHAMPLIN OLD FRIENDS 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.