The end of 2013 has arrived... so, of course, this list had to happen. This wasn't an easy decision... so many cast albums and musical theatre based albums were released this year, and so many were terrific. Finding a top ten out of all of the albums I bought this year was quite the task, but I've reached a list I'm satisfied with.
Disclaimers: Some of the albums on this list are interchangeable in terms of their order. Also, this list is not strictly limited to cast albums. Anything musical theatre themed is eligible.
So, without further ado, let's begin with number ten...
#10 - Aaron Tveit: The Radio In My Head (Live at 54 Below)
One of a number of titles from the "Live at 54 Below" series released this year by Broadway Records, this Aaron Tveit album stands out for its generosity. Tveit's concert isn't an exercise in self indulgence, but rather he sings the stuff he knows we all want to hear, only occasionally singing a song that he openly admits is just for him. With a bright tenor voice that you could listen to all day, Tveit sings out of musicals like Rent, Myths and Hymns, Carousel, and Next to Normal while also tackling songs by popular artists like Billy Joel, Bruno Mars, and even Taylor Swift. It all makes for a more than satisfying listening experience.
#9 - Pippin (New Broadway Cast Recording)
Sh-K-Boom/Ghostlight Records always knocks it out of the park with their album releases, and this is no exception. This album beautifully captures the excitement of the hit Broadway revival of Stephen Schwartz's iconic pop-rock musical. The music is catchy and memorable if not innovative, and the cast, including Patina Miller, Matthew James Thomas, Rachel Bay Jones, Terrence Mann, and even Andrea Martin, is wonderful. A few welcomed revisions have been made to the score since it's original Broadway run, but for all intents and purposes, this is Schwartz's music as you've always known and loved it.
#8 - Far From Heaven (Original Cast Recording)
Michael Korie and Scott Frankel, composers of the excellent Grey Gardens, return with another score that establishes them as some of the strongest song-writing talent we have today. This music harkens back to the old days of Broadway while still remaining accessible, compelling, beautiful and ultimately rather timeless. Not to mention the incomparable Kelli O'Hara and Steven Pasquale leading the way. Moving, gorgeous, and simply ravishing music.
#7 - I Could Use a Drink: The Songs of Drew Gasparini
I have a lot of these types of albums... collections of random songs from shows by new emerging composers. This one has to be my favourite. This eclectic, fun, and emotionally full album of music by the talented Drew Gasparini features some great pop-rock show tunes sung by some of the best in the business... Jeremy Jordan, Lindsay Mendez, Jennifer Damiano, Kacie Sheik, Alex Brightman, Mykal Kilgore, and Nick Blaemire just to name a few. The melodies are catchy, the lyrics are spirited and truthful, and the vocal performances can't be beat. In terms of upcoming talent in musical theatre, Mr. Gasparini is among the cream of the crop. This album is solid proof.
#6 - The Last Five Years (Off-Broadway Revival Cast Recording)
A cult favourite musical since its original cast album was released in the early 2000s, a revival, starring Adam Kantor and Besty Wolfe and directed by composer Jason Robert Brown, was produced at Second Stage in New York. Kantor and Wolfe bring a totally different vibe to the roles of Jamie Wellerstein and Cathy Hiatt, which sets this terrific revival far enough apart from the unmatched original cast that this album avoids comparison well enough. Though the biggest problem that critics have had with this modest contemporary musical have been more or less about the story, the real draw here are Brown's excellent songs which span a variety of musical genres and excite as much as any score in the last decade.
#5 - Lizzie (Original Studio Cast Recording)
Easily the most pleasant surprise of any cast album I heard this year. I had no idea what to expect going into Lizzie, a punk-rock opera based on the famous Lizzie Borden murders scored by Steven Cheslik-DeMeyer, Alan Stevens, and Tim Maner. Turns out, it's one of the strongest new scores I've heard in the last while. What makes it better are the powerhouse performances by an all-female cast including Carrie Manolakos, Storm Large, Carrie Cimma, and Ryah Nixon. Tight and soaring harmonies, heatfelt ballads, and pounding punk anthems presented here with a musical theatre sensibility... this album is creepy, sexy, delicious fun.
#4 - Laura Benanti: In Constant Search of the Right Kind of Attention (Live at 54 Below)
Laura Benanti is wonderful in so many ways... talented, beautiful, hilarious, this amazing woman is the complete package, much like this album. Recorded live at 54 Below, Benanti's concert features musical theatre tunes by composers like Maury Yeston, David Yazbek, and Todd Almond as well as songs by pop artists like Lana Del Ray, Ellie Goulding, Joni Mitchell, and Harry Chapin. The wonderfully fun variety of songs is done justice by Benanti's remarkably versatile soprano voice. One of the best, if not THE best, album released under the Live at 54 Below title. Entertaining in every single way.
#3 - Dogfight (Original Cast Recording)
Another one of those wonderful emerging teams of composers, Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, tackled some tough musical theatre subject matter with staggering success. This powerful musical based on the astonishingly cruel movie of the same title features a score so good that Pasek and Paul deserve a place in the ranks of the great emerging musical theatre writers, in particular for songs like the addictive duet First Date/Last Night, the soaring Before It's Over, the emotionally powerful Come Back, and the ridiculously catchy Some Kinda Time. A moving and tuneful pop-rock score carried on the shoulders of some of the best new talent like Derek Klena, Lindsay Mendez, Annaleigh Ashford, Josh Segarra, F. Michael Haynie, and Nick Blaemire.
#2 - Giant (Original Cast Recording)
Michael John LaChiusa's best score, and one of the best scores in recent memory. This epic undertaking proved to be successful in this seriously underrated musical based on Edna Ferber's novel. LaChiusa's massive score never lags, unusually tuneful compared to his other work and still wonderfully sophisticated and gripping from the very first song to the final chord of the album. Brian d'Arcy James, Kate Baldwin, Michelle Pawk, PJ Griffith, and Katie Thompson among others carry the weight of this heavy and difficult material. Influences of country, bluegrass, jazz, swing, rock, and mariachi are ever present in this remarkable work, and Giant is a musical that not only deserves to be put on Broadway, but to be remembered for decades to come among the best.
#1 - Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812
For the record, this is easily interchangeable with #2 on my list. Dave Malloy's 'electro pop opera' based on Leo Tolstoy's classic novel War and Peace is one of the most exhilirating, innovative, unique, beautiful musical theatre scores I've likely ever heard. Seamlessly combining pop, rock, classical, Russian folk, and even dance beats and electronica, this eclectic music is thrillingly dynamic, percussive, and melodic. Dramatic and gorgeous arias like No One Else, Natasha Lost, and Sonya Alone are contrasted by the thunderous and muscular In My House, the catchy Balaga, and the wonderfully weird The Opera. Excellent cast, stunning orchestrations, this music has it all. One of my new all-time favourites, a truly original work of musical theatre.