The high point in my list of the best kids music of 2011 is this, my list of my favorite kids music albums of the year. By "year," again, I mean albums with Nov. 1, 2010 through Oct. 31, 2011 release dates available to the general public. That means albums like Laura Veirs' Tumble Bee, with a Nov. 8, 2011 release date, have to wait another 12 months before appearing in this list. (I would be shocked -- albeit incredibly delighted -- if there were 25 albums better than that particular one in the next year.) I do use the word "favorite" advisedly. I receive something approaching 300 family music albums every year. I review maybe 20% of those. Last year I picked out 20 albums, and cutting off this list this year at 20 just seemed cruel. But, as it turns out, increasing the number on the list to 25 didn't make things any easier. Albums from folks like Laura Doherty, Chip Taylor, Todd McHatton, and ScribbleMonster -- albums I genuinely liked -- didn't make the list. That's what happens when albums in the top 10% of everything I heard this year can't fit into the number of slots available; I had probably about 40 albums I was seriously considering for this list. So the difference between what goes in this list and what stays off is as much about personal preferences as it is about "objective" quality. (That's why I came up with the idea for Fids and Kamily, thinking that the personal preferences of many folks would be a much better approximation of "best.") In any case, here are those 25 albums, ranked from most favorite to a little less most favorite, that I (and we) most appreciated this year. (As always, the top 10 reflects my Fids and Kamily ballot.) 1. Caspar Babypants Sing Along! [Review] "I really, really like Sing Along! -- the Caspar Babypants disks have been favorites at our house for a long time, and I see no reason why this new album won't join its predecessors in heavy rotation. If he can keep it up, Chris Ballew might just create a body of work for preschoolers to rival Raffi's."
Big props to Amazon for continuing to offer free kids' music. A couple months ago it was Justin Roberts and Bloodshot Records, among others -- this month it's Burnside Distribution, who's offering a free 7-song sampler of artists whose albums they distribute. Because Burnside's based in Portland, OR, it's no surprise that the sampler's got a big Pacific Northwest tilt -- Caspar Babypants ("I Wanna Be a Snowman"), Recess Monkey ("Flapjacks"), and the Not-Its ("I've Got a Goat") have songs from their latest album on the list. The album also includes The Verve Pipe's deservedly beloved and over-the-top "Cereal" and Kimya Dawson's dorky and lo-fi "Bobby-O" from Alphabutt. For those of you on the lookout for new music, the album does have a couple less-familiar tracks. One is "Tootsie" from Edukator Jr., a song with an Americana feel (which is a much different sound from the rest of the tracks on their Myspace page). No surprise, Greasy Kid Stuff was all over the album when it was first released a couple years ago. The other is "Things That Can't Be Pets" from a band called Snack Trap. The track sounds like The Postal Service (if the duo had invited a female singer along).
Check out the sharp new, er, Sharpies employed by Chris Ballew and his daughter Josie for his latest video. It's "Butterfly Driving a Truck" from Ballew's latest Caspar Babypants album SING ALONG! (that's an order, though a relatively easy one to comply with for that album). It's a simple video to go along with a simple song, but cute and well-presented -- very nice. Chris Ballew - "Butterfly Driving a Truck" [YouTube]
A lot of kindie musicians dream of creating their own TV shows. Most of the rest of them want to become authors. That works out to varying degrees, of course. Chris Ballew, AKA Caspar Babypants, in addition to being a talented musician (and visual artist), has the good fortune to be married to artist Kate Endle. Togther they have combined to produce two lovely books -- Bunny Rabbit in the Sunlight and My Woodland Wish -- which parents (or kids) wholly unfamiliar with Caspar Babypants or Chris Ballew would be happy to have on the shelf. In fact, these books owe the majority of their charm not to the words but to Endle's cut-paper artwork, which is simply beautiful. It's a collage but with everything meticulously planned and put just in the right place. (Take a look at that cover -- you'd think that it was entirely hand-drawn until you look closely at those bushes.) Both books are nature-based -- Bunny Rabbit presents a series of animals in different light settngs while My Woodland Wish is an ever-so-slightly more narratively-driven book that follows a girl spying on (and interacting with) various woodland creatures. The books are cute, but not too much so -- they don't over-anthropomorphize the animals (or give them eyes waaaaay out of proportional to the rest of their bodies). The words/lyrics to the books (created by Ballew alone in the case of Bunny Rabbit; the two of them together for My Woodland Wish) aren't bad, they're just not what keeps me returning to the books. Ballew created Caspar Babypants melodies for the words, and while they don't have the zippy energy that I personally enjoy most about CB songs (nor should they given the subject matter), they definitely create a sense of dream-like wonder like many of his other songs do. Caspar Babypants - "Bunny Rabbit in the Sunlight" (book preview) [YouTube] (The video book preview for the other book is at the end of this review.) The board book Bunny Rabbit in the Sunlight is most appropriate for kids ages 2 through 5; the picture book My Woodland Wish is more appropriate for ages 3 through 7. You can download both books' tracks here. I should also note that this is not a typical self-published book, which in my experience can look kinda cheap when you hold it in your hand. These are both releases of Sasquatch Books, a regional publisher distributed by Random House; they both look and feel gorgeous and solidly made. You can find the books, therefore, all over the internet (and maybe even your local bookseller); Endle also sells them at her Etsy store. I've been almost a little scared as to how easily Ballew has made the transition to part-time (bordering on full-time) family musician. There's not a single dud in his Caspar Babypants CD canon, and now he's helped create two wonderful kids' books with Endle. (A third, Augie to Zebra, is due out in May 2012.) Given their success with books, perhaps they should think about TV... Definitely recommended. Disclosure: I received copies of these two books for possible review.
This video for the closing track on the new Caspar Babypants album Sing Along! is every bit as beautiful as the song itself. The video is for "Baby Cloud," which primarily features the vocals of Rachel Loshak (aka Morgan Taylor's wife and a recording artist in her own right.) It's a modern folk classic, and now it has a video worthy of the song. Caspar Babypants feat. Rachel Loshak - "Baby Cloud" [YouTube] But wait, there's more at his YouTube page.
OK, you have folks like Raffi and Ella Jenkins and Justin Roberts -- people who, once they started recording music for kids, showed little interest to breaking away from that and recording for adults. But there's a long history of "adult" artists dipping their toes into the world of kids' music -- Carole King, Johnny Cash, Harry Nilsson, Tony Bennett, all the way up through They Might Be Giants, Lisa Loeb, and Barenaked Ladies and every artist who's ever recorded a song for kids' music compilation. Some, like TMBG (or Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie long before them), spend a lot of time there, but usually the artists return to the world of checking for fake IDs and adult themes. Which is what makes watching Chris Ballew, longtime Presidents of the United States of America member, so interesting to me. In less than four years, he's released four albums for families as Caspar Babypants, including this week's new release, Sing Along!. Over the course of that time period, Ballew has thrown himself into the project with energy and has tapped a rich vein of creativity. While all four of his albums are very good, this new one is my favorite and one of the best albums of the year. It starts off with "Bad Blue Jay," with its "Yes, sirs" and "No, sirs" clearly inspired by the "Yes, ma'ams" and "No ma'ams" of the kids' classic "Mr. Rabbit." Next is "Wild Wild Time," which uses an old Beethoven melodic line. And on it goes, with Ballew pulling in influences from all over and creating new folk songs or in time-honored folk tradition, tweaking classics like "Ba Ba Black Sheep" or giving a hint of Beach Boys sound on "Long Long Dream." Also, I really dig Mike "Outtasite" Singleton's rap turn on the classic "Dem Bones." And while Ballew's always been willing to do very simple music for the very young, doing things like getting Frances England to duet with you on "Loud and Quiet" (or Rachel Loshak on the album-closer "Baby Cloud") makes those teachable songs listenable long after the concepts have been mastered. The album's targeted at kids ages 1 through 5, though hopefully I've made clear that older kids will dig it, too. You can hear samples here. I really, really like Sing Along! -- the Caspar Babypants disks have been favorites at our house for a long time, and I see no reason why this new album won't join its predecessors in heavy rotation. If he can keep it up, Chris Ballew might just create a body of work for preschoolers to rival Raffi's. Highly recommended.