13. Stew, The Naked Dutch Painter and Other Songs (Smile, 2002)

Music geek that I am, I usually try to keep a close eye on new CD releases. However, a week before this album was officially available in stores, I came across a promotional copy of it in a used record bin without any knowledge of its impending existence. I couldn't have asked for a more delightful surprise--Stew's second solo album is a ramshackle but substantial masterpiece, and the finest introduction to this quirky, obscure, droll songwriter. Falling somewhere between a live document (complete with 'tween song banter) a lushly-produced studio set, and an original cast recording, it defies easy categorization. The Naked Dutch Painter... blends all the man's obsessions into a thick, heady... um, stew, making room for jaunty piano cabaret about "girls who carry switchblades and are very well read", Marvin Gaye-by-way-of-The Beatles balladry ("Reeling") and an astounding three-part "Drug Suite" that waxes rhapsodic about intoxication and abstinence with wit and precise detail. Plus, the climactic title track is as sharp and intuitive as a short story by Raymond Carver or Dorothy Parker, only better because Stew can enhance his narrative prowess with a terrific melody.