Best Kids Music 2011: Top 25 Albums

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.) SingAlong.jpg1. 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."

Video: "Bartleby Finkleton Will Not Take a Bath" - Steve Weeks

Steve Weeks' album Dandelion is a fine collections of tall tales and songs of scoundrels. One such scoundrel is Bartleby Finkleton, recalcitrant bather. The video for Weeks' song "Bartleby Finkleton Will Not Take a Bath" has been around for awhile, but so what? It's got a couple things I like, which is enough: 1) Weeks playing a real guitar while standing up in a bathtub in the middle of a room. 2) The putative Finkleton playing a cardboard guitar while standing up in a dumpster. Steve Weeks - "Bartleby Finkleton Will Not Take a Bath" [YouTube]

Itty-Bitty Review: Dandelion - Steve Weeks

Dandelion.jpgFreed from his devotion to the alphabet (see: A-H, I-Q, and R-Z), Colorado's Steve Weeks is back with Dandelion, an album lacking an obvious organizational hook. But what hasn't changed with this new album is Weeks' affinity for tall tales rooted in decency. Songs like the rock-folk "Bartelby Finkleton Will Not Take a Bath," the gentle "My Dog Ate My House," and "The Blizzard of '78" are a blend of Shel Silverstein and Keller Williams. (There is a reason Weeks also a song titled "I Might Be Lying" on this album.) While these songs will sound familiar to fans of Weeks' earlier work, he branches out a bit -- "Birdsong" is a list of well over a hundred different birds over a driving beat, while "Why" features kids asking a bunch of legitimate questions over Weeks' nifty acoustic guitar playing. And the title track is Weeks' finest song yet, a subtly metaphorical look at the usefulness of a dandelion, reminiscent of and as good as Justin Roberts' best work. The album is most appropriate for kids ages 5 through 9. You can hear samples from the album here. Dandelion is a good album for a sunny day, and for a history-making snowy day, too. There are tall tales here, but some truths, too. Recommended.

Melissa Block's CD Changer and Ours Look Similar

To those of you visiting here from Melissa Block's post on CDs her family's been enjoying, welcome. You'll find over 140 reviews of CDs here (all accessible from the artist links on the right-hand side of the page), plus news and interviews squeezed in whenever I can find the time. For what it's worth, you can follow the links below to my reviews of the albums Melissa lists... -- Catch That Train! - Dan Zanes and Friends (review / interview) -- You Are My Little Bird - Elizabeth Mitchell (review) -- New Orleans Playground - Various Artists / Putumayo (review) -- Alphabet Songs - Steve Weeks (Vol. 2 review, Vol. 3 review) -- The Johnny Cash Children's Album - Johnny Cash (review) -- Whoever Shall Have Some Good Peanuts - Sam Hinton (review) And thanks for stopping by!

Review: Alphabet Songs Vol. 3 (Rabbit Run) - Steve Weeks

AlphabetSongsVol3.jpgColorado-based musician Steve Weeks takes a decidedly different approach on his third kids' album, Rabbit Run, as he retells the classic 1960 novel by John Updike... for kids! Uh, no. Released earlier this month, Alphabet Songs Vol. 3 (Rabbit Run) is actually the final in Weeks' series of CDs drawing inspiration from the alphabet as its lyrical source. With 9 songs, one each for letters R through Z, Weeks adheres to the theme to varying degrees. The opening title track features Weeks' nifty bluegrass playing accompanying a story of how water flows from the smallest of tributaries (the "Rabbit Run") all the way to the ocean. The theme of interconnectedness is one that Weeks comes back to on other songs on the disk, such as Barenaked Ladies-styled-rap on "Someday" or the sweet mid-tempo folker "Yellowjacket," which had darn well better be on the next Putumayo Folk Playground collection, should one be in the works. (I also need to mention "Up!," another favorite of mind, a very positive slice of kids' folk-pop.) Not every song works well. At 6 1/2 minutes long, "Take the Tinkertown Trolley" goes on too long, which wouldn't be bad if the musical accompaniment didn't sound a little cheesy. (Weeks plays every instrument by himself on the disk -- this song shows the potential limitations of such an approach. I tended to prefer his slightly simpler, more bluegrass-y tunes.) And while I give Weeks credit for going whole hog on "Xavier Xerxes Xenophane X," and certainly setting a record for most words starting with the "x" sound on a single song, it doesn't really hold up to repeated listenings. It's as if he decided that was it for the alphabet theme, as "Yellowjacket" and the African-accented "Zed and Zoey" have very few "Y's" and "Z's" in them. The length and story-telling nature of many of the songs (what better way to get words starting with a desired letter than to create names?) makes the 42-minute CD most appropriate for kids ages 6 through 10. You can samples at the album's CD Baby page. With a few less-than-perfect tracks, I don't think this will be quite the classic Rabbit, Run was as a novel. Still, there are enough strong tracks on Alphabet Songs Vol. 3 to make it a CD worth your investigation. And now that Weeks has completed his alpha-odyssey, he's hopefully figured what works best for him and is free to go wherever his muse leads. As the narrator sings at the end of "Zed and Zoey," "this is not the end." I hope not. Recommended.

Review: Alphabet Songs Vol. II (Ivan Idea) - Steve Weeks

This review really revs up when the reader reconsiders her readily held notions regarding the realism referred to in this record... OK, I admit it, it's hard to write (or "rite," to continue the motif) reviews by focusing on a single letter. And so it begs the question, why would an artist set up such an obstacle? For that very reason, I had some trepidation upon my initial spin of Steve Weeks' 2004 album Alphabet Songs Vol. II (Ivan Idea). Each of the nine songs focuses on a single letter, I through Q, and I feared lyrics stretched beyond anything remotely resembling (stop it!) enjoyment. Luckily, the CD passes the enjoyment test with flying colors. The lyrics themselves focus on a single letter, but generally not in a way to call attention to them. (Only if you're listening closely will you notice all the words starting with the appropriate letter.) On the CD's best songs, the letters seem almost secondary. "Kiki Kangaroo" is a bouncy song about a kangaroo with a mind of its own, "Look, Look!" a midtempo rocker about noticing what's all around, and, my favorite, "Monkeys" is an amusing, laid-back track about, well, monkeys. (The song, which includes a completely gratuitous "Sound of Music" reference, has a very Jack Johnson-like vibe, which is a little ironic given Johnson's work on the Curious George soundtrack.) Some songs tend to show the effort of focusing on a single letter a little more (see letters "N" and "Q"), but there isn't a weak track on the album. The album is nicely produced -- fun acoustic guitar work, with some funky percussion tracks and even an occasional banjo. The songs are mostly gently uptempo folk-inflected rock. To put the album in adult terms, I'd describe it as Barenaked Ladies meets Phish. (Weeks' voice even reminds me of one of the Ladies' singers.) I'd recommend the album for children aged 5 through 9. It's a fun album (or, to end the motif, "really rockin'") and would probably work in a school setting (though it'd work outside of such a setting, too). You can get the album through the usual online retailing suspects and through Weeks' website.