Who’s the best actor turned singer of 2008?

Off the top of my head, I can think of three candidates.

The most obvious, of course, is Scarlett Johansson, who, if nothing else, shows impeccable taste on her debut record, Anywhere I Lay My Head, borrowing her material from the rich, deep Tom Waits canon and recruiting TV on the Radio‘s David Sitek to produce. On paper, that sounds like a promising combination, but of course, it lives or dies by Scarlett’s prowess as a vocalist. So does she live up to the promise of her source material and her choice of collaborators? Well, who knows? Sitek buries her voice so deep in the mix that it’s hard to make her out amidst all the sonic clutter, and Waits’ songs themselves have all their character-giving edges sanded away by Sitek’s busy arrangements. It’s an utterly audacious album, and alas, not one on which boldness adds up to anything thrilling or memorable. Next.

Wayne Brady, of course, has a natural leg up on Johansson: We already knew that he could sing. And for that fact alone, his debut album, A Long Time Coming, is a superior project; sure, it’s not nearly as bold or adventurous, but it is much more listenable and easy to enjoy. And while the professional sheen of his smooth, late-night R&B and the tameness of the songwriting don’t exactly add up to a barn-burner, this is really quite good, as far as faceless adult pop goes– if nothing else, a very promising start.

But the real winner this year couldn’t be anyone but Zooey Deschanel, a.k.a. the She in She & Him. Working with indie hero M. Ward, Deschanel cranks out a string of irresistible pop gems, falling somewhere around the intersection of country, 60s pop, and 70s folk and soft rock. Melodic, tuneful, and frequently beautiful, it’s an album that you can put into the player and sing along to from start to finish, then turn it back to the beginning and enjoy the whole thing all over again. And of course it helps that Zooey is a superb vocalist. If she gets stuck in too many more M. Night Shyamalan duds, she’ll always have singing as a rich and rewarding back-up career.

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  1. M. Ward: “Hold Time” « The Hurst Review - February 15, 2009

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