Looking Forward by Looking Back (Dan Zanes' "Lead Belly, Baby!")

Lead Belly, Baby! album cover

Lead Belly, Baby! album cover

When most people think about Smithsonian Folkways' kids' artists, I'd guess that the first names that come to mind are Ella Jenkins and Pete Seeger, with probably Woody Guthrie close behind.  But if I were to make that trio a quartet, I'd add Lead Belly to that list.  Lead Belly (born Huddie William Ledbetter in 1889) was a master of the 12-string guitar, and starting in the mid-1930s until his death in 1949, he recorded for a wide variety of labels.

His outsized influence on blues music generally masks the fact that he only recorded one album specifically for kids for Folkways, and that was an album released more than a decade after his death.  But in 1999, Smithsonian Folkways released Lead Belly Sings for Children, a collection of songs Lead Belly specifically recorded for kids in the 1940s along with other tracks that fit right in.  The liner notes describe it as "essential listening for all ages," and in this case, the hype fits.

Nearly three quarters of a century after Lead Belly started recording for Folkways founder Moses Asch, Dan Zanes has joined in.  As part of the typically detailed and lovingly-produced liner notes to the album, Zanes writes of being seven years old and discovering a Lead Belly record in the basement of his local library just as he was getting interested in the guitar.  In Zanes' telling, Lead Belly's music played no small role in Zanes' path toward becoming a musician.  In other words, this is a labor of love.

Now much of Zanes' all-ages musical path has felt like it came out of love and not any sort of calculated attempt at super-stardom, but this album does feel to me just slightly more personal, as if going back to one of his first inspirations helped Zanes tap into his own inspiration.  In time-honored folk tradition, Zanes adds his own voice and approach.  “Bring Me a Little Water, Sylvie” is given a slightly more uptempo, lilting feel.  Zanes has always been willing to make a space for hip-hop on his albums, but he's opened up a lot more room for it now.  There are many reasons that might be appropriate, but probably the most appropriate is that the arrangements breathe new life into these tracks.  The original Lead Belly recordings, after all, were primarily the man and his guitar -- they sound great, but there can be a certain monotony to those tracks.  But the arrangements here are wide open: in addition to the music store's worth of instruments -- concertina, saxophone, cowbell, mandolin -- five of the tracks feature guest raps.  

As with most music Zanes releases, this album features a couple dozen guest artists.  Some are famous -- hey, there’s Billy Bragg on “Rock Island Line!”… Is that really Chuck D offering up a verse on “Skip To My Lou?" to name but a couple such appearances.  But just as important to the overall feel are the guest turns by the musicians we’re probably less familiar with, like Jendog Lonewolf’s rap on “Julie Ann Johnson," while Memphis Jelks, invited onto “Skip To My Lou” by Chuck D., just about steals the show from the elder statesman.

If there’s anything I miss from the album, it’s the voices of kids.  Folkways albums for kids have always had lots of participation by kids -- Lead Belly Sings for Children is no exception, as it includes a number of tracks featuring Lead Belly singing to and with kids.  In contrast, aside from “More Yet,” there’s no chorus of kids on Zanes’ album.  (“Little Goose” makes an appearance on the intro to “Polly Wee” along with Father Goose, but that’s not really what I mean.)

After a series of themed albums that were musically satisfactory but less than fully… party-filled, Lead Belly, Baby! most closely replicates the freewheeling spirit of his early DZAF albums, the ones that propelled him into kids music stardom.  While in many ways this album will sound familiar to those fans of those albums (nearly twenty years old at this point), Dan Zanes is also walking some different musical paths than he was twenty (or thirty or forty) years ago.  If looking back to one of his earliest musical idols helps kick off another series of musical explorations into the future, then by all means bring it on.  Highly recommended.

Ella's Kids (Reviews of Ella Jenkins, Jazzy Ash, and Shine and the Moonbeams)

I've been thinking some about white guys with guitars.

I've got nothing against white guys with guitars -- I'm a white guy with a guitar (OK, ukulele), and as I think about my own favorite music, much of it is made by, you guessed it, white guys with guitars.  But there are a lot of white guys with guitars making music for kids.

I don't want to speculate on exactly why this is, but it can't be to the advantage of kids music that the lists of artists making kids music on a national level looks -- and, in terms of the musical styles of those artists, sounds -- way less diverse than, say, the Billboard charts, which might feature Beyonce, Nicki Minaj, or Rihanna (not to mention Pitbull or Drake or whomever) near the top.  I'm fully in favor of exposing kids to a wide variety of musical artists and musical genres, and right now that's not as easy as a parent might hope.

It's a little strange, especially because the very first kids music star was (and is) an African-American woman: Ella Jenkins.  In 1957, she released Call-and-Response Rhythmic Group Singing on Folkways Records, and over the next 60 years, she's released more than 30 albums on Folkways, then Smithsonian Folkways.  (Her 1966 album You Sing a Song and I'll Sing a Song is Smithsonian Folkways' best-selling album of all time, from any genre.)  And while Jenkins is not one to toot her own horn or make a big deal out of her politics (this is an hour-long interview from a decade ago where she does neither), but it's not hard to review Jenkins' discography and think that she, too, would want to see many different types of kids' musicians making themselves visible.

Jenkins recently released Camp Songs, her first album of new music in six years, and with the recent release of albums from a couple younger artists who've taken inspiration from Ella in different ways, I thought it was a good time to take a look at all three of these albums, all of them definitely recommended.

Camp Songs album cover

Camp Songs album cover

Camp Songs is labeled as being by Ella Jenkins and Friends, and that "and Friends" appendage is definitely important.  It's probably too much to expect an artist who just turned 93 years old to be up for leading a bunch of kids in song with nothing but a guitar and her voice.  Indeed, as Tony Seeger noted in an interview, "her voice was not as strong as she had hoped when the time came to record."  But she was definitely the animating spirit behind the album.  And in some ways, Jenkins receding somewhat to the background allows for a fuller musical experience.  It's not just Jenkins and a guitar, there are many more jumping in to share their voices.

As you'd suspect by the title, there are many camp favorites on the album -- "Kumbaya, "Down by the Riverside," "Michael Row the Boat Ashore," to name but three. It's led in many places by Tony and Kate Seeger, brother and sister, who have lots of experience leading a group of singing kids (read more about that here).  There are also musicians from Chicago's Old Town School of Folk Music (including Erin Flynn!) who lead some other songs and a children's chorus.  Ella sings a bit, plays harmonica on a few songs, and generally blesses the entire affair. If Ella isn't exactly front-and-center, I have no doubt that she's very pleased with the playful and communitarian nature of the end result.

Before heading into the next couple reviews, a brief shout-out to Robbi Kumalo, who performs music for kids as Robbi K, and is, as best I can recall, the only African-American woman aside from Ella with any national visibility whose main role was making music for kids in the 2000s (and before).  If you like the sounds of Ella and the next two artists and want more in that vein, I'd recommend check Robbi out.

Ashli Christoval has taken the sounds of New Orleans heritage via her mother and crafted a career making music for kids as Jazzy Ash.  She has spoken about her debt to Ella Jenkins -- seeing Jenkins make an appearance on Mister Rogers:

That moment was very monumental for me. I knew that I wanted to be part of the artist community that used art to preserve the wonderful the stories of culture.
Swing Set album cover

Swing Set album cover

On Swing Set, her fourth album, she comes the closest yet to seamlessly blending the African-American musical heritage, particularly jazz, with the singing together and movement work that Jenkins pioneered on record.  It kicks off with a swinging (pun unintended) version of "Li'l Liza Jane," which features an ebullient group call-and-response.  (Much more Preservation Hall Jazz Band than Elizabeth Mitchell -- to say that I like it as much as Mitchell's version is high praise from me.)

The word I kept writing down as I took notes on the album was "joyful."  This is, friends, the most joyful album of the year.  From Uncle Devin's hand-clapping on "Hambone" to Jazzy's insertion of "Fried! Froglegs!" as something Grandma's going to enjoy in "She'll Be Coming Around the Mountain" to her giving her band a kick in the pants in the slow intro to "When the Saints Go Marching In" ("Too slow, let's put a little swing into it!") -- there's so much happiness here.  It very much honors the stories of Christoval's culture, and in songs like "Miss Mary Mack" and the brief call-and-response interludes with a children's chorus, it honors Jenkins' legacy.  It's also a blast -- it's every bit as fun as that cover art above suggests.

Shooting Stars album cover

Shooting Stars album cover

Another artist who is walking in Ella's path, but a less-appreciated one, is Shawana Kemp.  Kemp is best-known in the kids music world as Shine in Shine and the Moonbeams.  On their 2013 self-titled debut album, Kemp's voice was the star, a voice that could literally stun listeners.

Kemp is back after far too long of an absence with Shooting Stars, an album released this spring that I'm hoping gets a little more notice.

The music of Shine and the Moonbeams has always been fairly complex -- jazz, R&B, and a fair share of funk.  It's not an approach Jenkins has ever been much interested in.  The reason I say that Kemp is also in walking in Ella's path is that the music of Shine and the Moonbeams is emphatically child-centered emotionally.  It's amazing to watch Jenkins with kids, because even though she's not a parent, Jenkins is so present.  It's clear that the kids are her most important audience, and she doesn't care about getting cool points from the adults in the audience.  (She just wants them singing along.)  And while performance-wise Kemp knows how to leave an impression on the entire room, when it comes to songwriting, the kids most definitely come first.  "Shooting Star," which leads off the album, is a glorious song about everyone having their own talent.  "Peekaboo Baby" is blues for the very youngest kid, and "Tough Love" is a funk rocker that explains exactly why the parent is not going to go easy on her kid.

Those songs are mixed into a set that also features some reggae ("Ace Boon Coon"), late '70s (?) funk ("Tell Me Why"), and the empathetic vocal soul of "Any Body Other Than Me."  And to have songs like "Soul Food Holiday" and "These Shoes" (a straight-forward jazz song whose lyrics encourage self-acceptance, especially of body image) that speak most directly to an African-American audience on a mainstream kids music release is awesome to hear.

I know I've combined these three albums into a single review for convenience and to make some overarching points, but I'd hate to see these albums get pigeonholed for a certain audience.  I'd much rather that these albums be the inspiration for future albums, for Ashli's and Shawana's kids... and Ella's grandkids.

Here's To The Dreamers (Lucky Diaz and the Family Jam Band's "Made in L.A.")

Made in L.A. album cover

Made in L.A. album cover

There's always been a touch of fantasy in Lucky Diaz's music for families.  From Diaz's first kids' EP's very first single, the strutting blues "Blue Bear," Diaz has often trafficked in a milieu that's familiar but not quite this world.  Filled with no small amount of anthropomorphic animals, Diaz's world is saturated with color and tastes like cotton candy.

The dream-like nature doesn't just apply to the animals, it applies to Diaz's thematic touchpoints.  Throughout his discography, Diaz returns repeatedly to the idea of dreams and aspirations.  This is a band who dreamt of creating a TV show, made an album that gave voice to the show whose heart was the songs about dreamers and hard workers like Jackie Robinson and Amelia Earhart, and then produced the show (and won an Emmy Award for it to boot).

It is this second meaning of "dreams" that Diaz and the Family Jam Band explore to tremendous effect on their latest album, the just-released Made in L.A..  As the center of film and TV production in the United States (and, arguably, the world), not to mention a major locus of music production Los Angeles holds a place in the imagination of artists and dreamers looking for their big shot.  La La Land is but the most recent fantasia on Los Angeles as the locus for dreams writ large.  Yes, as you can guess by the title, the album is an ode to the city of dreams, but it's also an ode to the dreamers that flock there.

The album kicks off with "The Magic Believers," specifically with Diaz singing, "I've got a voice in my heart / For some it's not much / But for me it's a start / But I will / Dream it out loud..." and fellow Los Angeles artist Mista Cookie Jar rapping "We come from the city by the sea called L.A. / Where people live to share their dreams on the center stage..."  It doesn't sound like anything Diaz has recorded before, dreamy and AutoTuned six ways from Sunday, and it's absolutely wonderful.

That's followed by "Silver Lake Stairs," another dream-like song.   This one, co-written by and featuring another L.A. musician, Todd McHatton, has more of a mellow chamber-pop feel and is capped by Alisha Gaddis expressing wonder at the top of the titular stairs and seeing all of Los Angeles spread out before her.  Lest the album get too ponderous, that's followed up by the summer anthem "Paletero Man" and the silliness of "Traffic," both of whom feature yet another well-known SoCal kindie act, Andrew and Polly.  Other highlights include Lucky's NorCal friend Frances England on "Echo Park," the guitar showcase on "Pato Loco," and the rave-up album closer "Fiesta De La Brea," which needs to be used by the La Brea Tar Pits for promotional purposes, like, yesterday.

If you haven't gathered by now, much like how movies might be the vision of a single person but require a cast of dozens (or thousands) to pull off, this album features a large team of Los Angeles-based musicians -- it really feels like a team effort, with each artist putting their own imprint on Diaz's guitar pop.   This isn't an album celebrating the city in name only -- with maybe only the exception of "Jelly," all of the songs on the 36-minute album provide a different angle on life in Los Angeles.  (The album's probably most appropriate for kids age 5 and up.)

Made in L.A. is the best album yet from Lucky Diaz and the Family Jam Band, based on themes Diaz has used from the start of his kindie career, but with an even sharper pop sensibility and a very specific sense of place.  Filled with dreamy songs and humorous takes on life in Los Angeles, with pop hook upon pop hook, it's a celebration of a particular city that's got a universal appeal.  One of my favorite albums of the year and highly recommended.  Thanks, dreamers.

Keep Kindie Weird

Music for Parents and Children cover

Music for Parents and Children cover

Just last week the long-running kids radio show Greasy Kid Stuff aired its last show after 22 years on the air.  There are many different shows that have played an important role in giving kids music a broader audience, many with slightly different niches, but I think the niche that hosts Belinda and Hova mined particularly well was that of weird kids music.  I think that more than any other kids radio show, their playlists sometimes featured songs that had a little "WTH" ("H" for "heck," because we're still running a family-friendly website here) to them.  There was slightly more of an element of surprise to the shows and the playlists.

As we reach the 20th anniversary of albums like Laurie Berkner's Whaddaya Think of That? and the huge wave of kindie that eventually followed, there can be little doubt that the amount and overall quality of recorded music released into the world is an improvement to the world into which dinosaur-stomping was introduced.  But even though the quantity and quality and even to some extent the diversity of the music has improved, I am rarely surprised by kids music these days.

Don't get me wrong, I still think what is being released is fun and is definitely worth sharing with families.  And I fully realize that listening to, what, 3,000? 4,000? albums over the past 15 or so years gives me a perspective that is, for better or worse, far more exhaustive (or exhausting) than that of the typical parent, which means that I may crave novelty more than most.  But I've been struck recently at how predictable -- often in good ways, but not all the time -- kids music is.

Which may explain my affinity for two of the -- let's just say it -- weirder kids music albums I've heard in some time, Froggins & Big's Dessert Island and Kleve & Davis' Music for Parents and Children.  These are two weird and often unpredictable sets of songs.

Dessert Island album cover

Dessert Island album cover

Let's start with Froggins & Bug.  The band is another spinoff from Dean Jones’ Dog on Fleas, which is slowly moving towards establishing a DOFMU (Dog on Fleas Musical Universe) of different bands.  This band features Dean Jones and saxophonist Shane Kirsch riffing on a whole bunch of silly topics with some backup musical help from occasional Fleas Ken McGloin, Dean Sharp, and Jim Curtin.  And with Dessert Island it’s odd to think of a jazz-inflected Dog on Fleas-related band that traffics heavily in spoken-word comedic riffs as being the less weird of two albums in a comparison, but here we are.

Jones tends to play the straight man to Kirsch, who’s most often the confused character.  “Sports,” in which Kirsch makes up a bunch of sports that sound awfully familiar, and “Dessert Island,” which takes its inspiration from the extra “s” in the title, are perhaps the silliest, but hardly the only such goofs.  (There’s also “Red Red Red Red Red,” which features Jones’ classic line, “That’s a whole lot of adjective, and not a lot of noun,” uttered after Kirsch sings the title repeatedly.)

But there’s plenty of silliness for the two of them to share, as in “Literal Red Riding Hood,” in which the two of them trade stories of the difficulties encountered by the metaphorically-challenged Red, and “Puppets Are Controlled by People,” which takes about a minute to outline the song title’s thesis.  And even the occasional moment of beauty, as on “I’d Like to Live in Your Hat,” and “I Wish I Could Eat Pinecones.”

But, really, it’s 35 minutes of jazz improv that’s pitched just young enough to that kids may get hep to it.  It’s odd, and miles away from generic songs about brushing teeth or pets.  There are many songs about pets, but we could use a handful of songs about jokey failures to understand metaphor to even out the balance.

Music for Parents & Children, on the other hand, is a little bonkers.  It’s by the Philly-area duo Klebe and Davis (who in reality are brothers Dave and Matt Amadio).  This isn’t their first album, though it is their first for kids.  They cite Warren Zevon, Frank Zappa, Tom Waits and Ween as inspirations, and there’s an anarchy that you just don’t hear in kids music much at all these days.

When I was listening to the album for the first time, there were parts where I honestly didn’t know where the song was heading to next.  On “And Then Pretend,” they leap from one improbable imaginative situation to the next.  The dreamy “Fire Drill” features a surreal day where a class of schoolkids are sent outside for the fire drill, and then nobody comes to collect them at the end of the drill -- by the end of the day they haven’t reached a “Lord of the Flies” situation, but some of them are in fact eating grass.  And the stomping rocker “Piece of Fuzz” makes a simple piece of fuzz positively ominous (with a kicker of a joke at the end).

Mix in 3 different fake ads (45 seconds long, enough to develop the joke, not enough to get bored with it) and other silliness and this is oddity on the level of John and Mark’s Children’s Album or Billy Kelly’s Is This Some Sort of Joke?.  (One final joke worth mentioning -- “Worst Day” features the line “this is the worst day of my life so far”… sung from the viewpoint of a kid who’s just been born.)   It’s a half-hour of music that captures childhood in its exhilaration and uncertainty and sounds unlike anything you’ve heard this year, I can pretty much guarantee.

Obviously albums that are a little further “out there” in terms of their musical, lyrical, and thematic approaches generally self-limit their audiences.  (By being a little brainier than most, they already probably limit their target audience to kids ages 6 and up.)  And listening to nothing but these two albums would deny your family the pleasures of a 3-minute pop or R&B song, a folk music standard, or a classical piece centuries old.  But I’d suggest that the weirdness heard within is just as important to a well-rounded musical and cultural life as hearing those different musical genres.  In a time when breaking through your own personal bubbles is important to understand the world around our families, giving albums like these two a louder voice has merit, too.

Recent Spanish-Language Kids Music Albums (and One Portuguese Album)

While the flood of kids music designed to teach kids a foreign language has thankfully slowed down somewhat (the results were usually very dry, musically-speaking), what's left over is generally of higher quality.  I wanted to highlight ever so briefly some recent Spanish-language (or mostly Spanish-language) albums for kids.  I've even thrown in a Portuguese-language album for good measure.  Whether any of these would sneak into my 2015 list of ten great Spanish-language kids music albums, I'd need to spend a little more time thinking about, but all of these five albums are worth listening to in one way or another.

Arriba Abajo cover

Arriba Abajo cover

The highest-profile of the five albums here is probably 123 Andres' Arriba Abajo, which picked up the 2016 Latin Grammy.  Based in Washington DC, Colombian-born Andrés Salguero has carved a niche by playing Spanish-language music that features more sounds of Central and South America than just Mexico.  This album features 10 songs sung entirely in Spanish, then the same 10 songs with English lyrics.  The lyrics are targeted at a preschool age (see "Cosquillas," or "Tickles"), so they are simple and direct, while the music is definitely more sophisticated.  (I particularly enjoyed "El danzon y al cha cha cha" and "Vuela, vuela" for the music.)  You can stream the album here and elsewhere.  I'm not sure kids would learn Spanish just by listening, but there have been far, far worse attempts at these sorts of album -- this is far more tuneful.

¡Alegria! album cover

¡Alegria! album cover

Los Angeles-based Sandra Sandia took a long time between albums.  The late 2015 album ¡Alegria! arrived about 7 years after its predecessor.  The inspiration for the project was some drum loops produced by a musician called DJ Salada, all with a Brazilian flavor.  The vast majority of the lyrics are in Spanish, and unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on your perspective) translations are nowhere to be found.  But as a pure listening experience, that may help.  And with songs about cats, snakes, whales, and, erm, flying saucers ("Platillo Volador"), the album is clearly targeted at kids.  With a more modern South American sound, this album might serve as a useful counterpoint to the more traditional sound of 123 Andres.

PANORAMA album cover

PANORAMA album cover

The most adventurous album (subject-wise, but also musically) of the bunch may be Moona Luna's early 2016 album PANORAMA.  It loosely tells the story of a family bus trip through South America, which means it has the time for songs about traveling (the title track), walking around cities at dusk ("Atardecer (Sunset)"), or just being with family ("Llevame (Take Me with You)").  Moona Luna's mastermind Sandra Velasquez has crafted some memorable melodies and, like all of these albums, a nicely-layered production.  And while Moona Luna's first songs were much more rigid in featuring Spanish-language verses and then direct-translation English-language verses (or vice versa), these latest songs are more flexible.  It means that you could take just about any song out of the context of the album, and still want to listen to it amidst a bunch of English-language kids music with more of a pop-rock flair.  (Stream it here and elsewhere.)  It's my favorite album of the bunch, but if it's yours depends on what you and your family are trying to get out of listening to Spanish-language albums.

Cuando Era Pequeña cover

Cuando Era Pequeña cover

For a shinier, poppier (albeit still Latin-influenced) take on the bilingual album look to Los Angeles’ Nathalia Palis (aka Nathalia).  On her 2016 album Cuando Era Pequeña (When I Was Your Age), the Colombian-born Palis switches from English to Spanish nimbly, sometimes within the same chorus, but also leaves room for songs sung entirely in one or the other language.  There is no (overt) language acquisition goal here, just themes that’ll sound familiar to anyone who’s spent time in the kids music world -- dancing like dinosaurs (“Dinosaur Dance,” natch), birthdays (the all-English “It’s My Birthday”), and perseverance (the pop-rocker “Otra Vez”).  There’s a big distance between this album and, say, the Paulinho Garcia album below, one that’s bigger than the language difference, but it’s also healthy that non-English language music for kids and families can cover such a wide range of styles and subjects.

Aquarela album cover

Aquarela album cover

Finally, unlike the other albums here, Aquarela from Brazilian-born, Chicago-based Paulinho Garcia is sung in Brazilian Portuguese.  (It's a release from the Global Language Project, which encourages the study and learning by kids of languages other than English.)  The melodies are sung by Garcia, accompanied by a small number of musicians who lay down the barest of musical accompaniments.  For any of you who have heard, say, Getz/Gilberto (and many probably have, even if you don’t know it), the samba sounds here (and the accompanying female vocals of Silvia Manrique) will have a soothing, familiar feel.  The title track is delightful, as is “Meu Limao, Meu Limoeiro,” but those are only a couple of the highlights.  If you want to learn Portuguese, the physical album includes lyrics in both the Portuguese and the English translation, but the relaxed take on these traditional Brazilian kids’ songs make for a pleasant spin regardless of whether you've got a second language in mind.

Better Late Than Never: 2016 Children's Grammy Nominee Reviews

One of the embarrassing things about writing about the nominees for the 59th Annual Grammy Award for Best Children's Album is that even though I did so in late January 2017, many months after the 5 nominated albums were released, I had only reviewed one of the 5 nominees, Frances England's Explorer of the World.

So while I'm transitioning out of more intensive review mode into something... else, I did want to make sure I added a few words about each of these nominees.

As I went back and listened to these albums, or at least these following four albums, I was struck by the idea that these albums weren't necessarily albums that took incredible creative leaps beyond what the artists had done before.  Instead, these albums are good examples of the type of music some of kindie's most popular and consistent artists have to offer.


Let's start with the act that's been the most prolific for the longest time, Seattle trio Recess Monkey.  The biggest -- and really only -- novelty of Novelties, the band's 13th (!) album, is the fact that it was released on Amazon Music and can only be purchased or streamed there.  Aside from that, it's another  solid collection of pop-rock songs pitched at your favorite ever-so-slightly snarky 7-year-old.  Yes, the song "Sweaty Yeti" is every bit as silly as that title might suggest.  Compared to other albums of theirs like Desert Island DiscNovelties dials up the clown prince factor, and dials down the emotional factor which, while never prevalent, sometimes played a supporting role.  But this is immediately identifiable as a Recess Monkey album and given the large role the band has played in encouraging other kindie musicians and their consistency (13 albums in, like, 12 years), the Grammy nomination was deserved.


Next we have Press Play, from New York's Brady Rymer and the Little Band That Could.  If Recess Monkey's calling card has been silliness and high energy, Rymer's has been emotionally open roots rock, and he's been offering it for even longer than Recess Monkey, albeit at not quite as frenetic a pace.  (Press Play is Rymer's eighth album for families, dating back to the year 2000.)  Rymer sings unironically about the virtues of trying new things, being kind, and the blessings of family.  They're the kind of sentiments that, stripped of Rymer's energetic singing and his harmony-filled Little Band That Could, could feel cheesy or trite.  But Rymer's music has always managed to move past that and make those valuable notions on tracks like the country-tinged "Dress in Blue" and the horn-and-organ-aided "Chain Reaction" fun to dance to.  Rymer earned another Grammy nomination for Press Play, and it's because his music usually goes down as comfortable as a plate of burger and fries in the hometown diner the band is posing in an album photo.  


The only one of this year's nominees who had previously won a Grammy (for Can You Canoe?), The Okee Dokee Brothers, came back with the final album in their three-part "Adventure Album series," Saddle Up.  As you can probably guess from the title, after traveling down the Mississippi River and up the Appalachian Trail, this time the duo went out west, spending a month on horseback in June 2015.  So there's more of a cowboy theme to their music, though I wouldn't describe this album as the boys going full Riders in the Sky.  As with the album's two predecessors, this album gently weaves a few more traditional songs (such as "Ragtime Cowboy Joe") into the originals.  One of the niftiest tracks is "Sister Moon and Brother Sun," which features Navajo lyrics on a story with Native American roots -- its mere presence on a "Western" album is, if not groundbreaking, at least noteworthy for its relative rarity.  The album features a slick DVD, and while the boys didn't earn another Grammy for this one, I think the three Adventure albums are definitely one of the most critically (and, comparatively, commercially) successful trio of kids' albums of the 21st century.  Fans of the Okee Dokee Brothers would likely have taken this just as much to heart as their two previous albums.


Last on this list of reviews is the actual Grammy winner this year, Secret Agent 23 Skidoo, a previous nominee and first-time winner for Infinity Plus One.  Skidoo continues to be the most vibrant practitioner of hip-hop for the younger set -- nobody else is as consistently intricate lyrically and musically.  I don't think Infinity Plus One is quite as... weird as its predecessor The Perfect Quirk, but it is far out, man.  Literally.  Because as you might guess from the album art, Skidoo's got a serious deep space vibe going on here.  A song like "Pillowfight Pillowfort" seems in the distant past at this point.  I'd say the whole album is more space-inspired than space-themed (the killer track "Secret Superhero" isn't really about space, for example), but in more than a couple places he proves to be a huge Carl Sagan fan.

As always, one of the secret weapons of Secret Agent 23 Skidoo albums' high repeat listenability is the depth of the musical arrangements.  You might hear "hip hop" in terms of the album description and think there's no connection with, say, Brady Rymer's roots-rock, but tracks like "Young Soul" and "Long Days & Short Years" would not sound out of place at all on Rymer's album.  (Actually, can we get a Skidoo/Rymer collaboration?  Thanks in advance.)  Infinity Plus One is a very solid collection of songs targeted more at the upper elementary school crowd, and while I think any of Skidoo's albums are a worthy entry point to his work for your family, this newly Grammy-crowned work is definitely an excellent place to start.  I'd recommend all these albums -- hopefully I've given enough clues to suggest which might be most appropriate if you're entirely new to kids music.


Very finally, I would be remiss if I didn't re-remind you of the review I did for Frances England's Explorer of the World, the other album nominated in this category.  I described it as "more experimental than most kids music," and if the four albums above are more refinements of the artists' individual artistic paths, I think Explorer shows off England's exploration (appropriately enough) of new paths, particularly in the music arrangements.  Tracks like "City Don't Sleep" feature sonic collages featuring everything but (and probably including) the kitchen sink.  This album was every bit as worthy a Grammy nominee as the four albums above, and I just didn't want you to forget about it as you were considering the albums above.