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).
Not really sure what Amazon's been thinkin', but somebody last month must have said, "Hey, you know what would be cool? Free kids' music!" And, then, actually followed through on that idea, because now there are a handful of free EPs for the digital downloading, with easily 15 to 20 good songs worth your time. Justin Roberts leads the pack with his, er, Snack Pack EP, featuring songs from 5 of his albums. You probably have some of these already, but maybe not the earlier songs ("Little Raindrop" or "Billy the Bully"), and if you don't have any of them, then get over there pronto. The real find in the craziness is Roberts' fellow Chicagoans Bloodshot Records' Fun For All Ages sampler, which includes seven tracks from four fine albums, Songs for Wiggleworms, Wiggleworms Love You, Animal Crackers, and The Bottle Let Me Down. Do not hesitate in picking up this album, the Alejandro Escovedo track is especially lovely. But that's not all. VeggieTales aren't for everyone (particularly if you're not religious and you're listening to their Bible-based stuff), but their silly secular stuff can be fun no matter your denomination or lack thereof. Their Five Super Silly Songs EP is exactly that; it includes versions of a couple songs that were big hits on Kids Place Live, "The Hairbrush Song" and "The Pirates Who Don't Do Anything." What's that? You want more? How about some Sesame Street? Their Amazon sampler has a more energetic version of "Ladybugs' Picnic" than you might be familiar with (but it's still good) and also features "What's the Name of that Song?" You can also pick up an EP from the Wiggles as well as a Cedarmont collection and a sampler from a Rockabye Baby-style knockoff called "Cradle Rock." Not my thing, those last two, but your mileage may vary.
Caring whether your kids have "good" (read: "your") taste in music, books, and movies is a foolish thing to do, so it means something that the day that my daughter said she really didn't like The Muppet Movie was one of the very few times when I actually, well, cared. It's a great movie, a little cheesy at points maybe, but funny and tender, one of the great movie musicals of the past half-century. (Seriously -- there are very few post-1960s musical on the AFI list of the Greatest Movie Musicals, and even fewer created specifically for the screen.) Why do I relate the story? Well, more so than most albums reviewed here, it's my opinion, not that of kids, which matters here, because Muppets: The Green Album isn't really a kids music album. The album is a collection of 12 Muppet-related songs, drawn mostly heavily from The Muppet Movie or from songs heard on The Muppet Show. Much like Disney's collections of covers from their own stable of American tunes, Disneymania, Disney's approach here is to get popular (critically or otherwise) artists to tackle the Jim Henson-related songs. The fact that some of these artists weren't yet born when The Muppet Show went off network television doesn't seem to have hurt their recruiting efforts. (The fact that the rest of 'em were kids when the show was still on probably helped tremendously.) And as is the case with any such collection, Disney or otherwise, this album succeeds or fails based on how good the songs are and whether the artists bring anything new to them (or, if they ruin their charm). As to the former issue, I think I've made clear my admiration for the Paul Williams-Kenny Ascher-penned songs for The Muppet Movie, but in addition to those classics, you also have songs like the Joe Raposo-penned Sesame Street song "Bein' Green." What do the artists do with them? Well, some combinations work really, really well -- punk group the Alkaline Trio give "Movin' Right Along" a fun kick in the pants it didn't know it needed, and Sondre Lerche resurrect "Mr. Bassman," a song from a Muppet Show episode. I liked The Fray's take on "Mahna Mahna" more than I expected to, though it's probably the most faithful cover here. OK Go put their own spin on the theme song, and even though I could do without the tacked-on guitar solo, they do manage to keep the listeners' attention during what is, well, a theme song. And Andrew Bird's take on "Bein' Green" nails Kermit's wistfulness without making his cover a carbon copy. But following Kermit is a tough act, and while many attempt to cover "Rainbow Connection," very few succeed, and I can't say that Weezer and Hayley Williams from Paramore do, either. As for "Night Life" from The Great Muppet Caper, covered here by Brandon Saller of Atreyu and Billy Martin, I'll just quote my wife after hearing it for the first time: "I never need to hear that ever again." So, is this a kids' album? Not really. I'll put the age range for the album at ages 8 and up, not because any of it is inappropriate for younger kids, but because unless they've seen lots of Muppets on TV/DVD, they won't have the context for the music. (Older kids can enjoy the music on their own terms, or perhaps even recognize a few of the bands.) For a little while longer, you can stream the album here. In the end, Muppets: The Green Album has a number of very good recordings from an underrated American songbook. Is it a great kids' album? No. Is it a lot of fun for those of us of a certain age who are still able to tap the kid inside? For the most part, yeah. For those Muppet fans, it's recommended. Disclosure: I received a copy of this album for possible review.
My kids music reviews for NPR's All Things Considered have, for whatever reason, often ended up being a gentle counterpoint to what obviously is a fairly serious news-driven program. None perhaps more gentle than I Love: Tom T. Hall's Songs of Fox Hollow, a tribute album to the Nashville songwriter and his out-of-left-field hit album of the same name. If you're a regular reader, you can check out my review here. And if you're new to the site and found your way here because of the review, welcome. Lots of other great music to check if you've got the time.
Can you call a movie franchise a "re-boot" if you're trying to make it look (and sound) like it was made fifty years ago? Well, if so, then Disney's successfully rebooted at least the soundtrack for Winnie the Pooh, the latest film about A.A. Milne's silly old bear and his friends in the Hundred Acre Wood. The chief allure for most readers here will be the tracks feature Zooey Deschanel and M. Ward, more commonly known as the duo She & Him. Deschanel's voice is a very good fit for the retro sound employed here, such as on the theme song and "A Very Important Thing to Do." Deschanel's original contribution to the soundtrack is the end-credit song "So Long," and it's very much a She & Him track. If you're going to pick up any single song from the soundtrack, it should be that one, though traditionalists might prefer the theme song. I also liked (sight unseen) one of the new tracks, "The Backson Song," which features Craig Ferguson's voicing of "Owl" whipping the cast into a frenzy. The score from Henry Jackman (found on the latter half of the disk) sounds pleasant enough, but unless you have a budding Mozart in the household, that is not the draw for your 4-year-old. (The soundtrack is most appropriate for the movie's target age range, that of about 3 to 6.) The soundtrack to Winnie the Pooh is not attempting to break any new ground, but that's precisely the point -- it's intended to serve a movie which is trying very hard to envelop the viewer (and listener) in Milne's timelessness. In that regard, the soundtrack succeeds in being as satisfying as a pot of
hunny honey. Recommended for fans of the movie and of Pooh Bear; even She & Him fans are bound to find a track or two worth adding to their collection.