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.


Video: "Used to Be" - Spring Bees (World Premiere!)

 Spring Bees album cover

Spring Bees album cover

I love to get word of musicians trying their hand at the kids music world for the first time -- so much promise and uncertainty.  So when self-described "indie rock Texpatriate" Monte Holman (he lives in Kansas City at the moment) sent me a copy of his debut album recorded as Spring Bees and cited folks like Dolly Parton, Neutral Milk Hotel, and Joao Gilberto as musical reference points, I was eager to hear it, to see what came out of it.

Almost as cool as hearing new music from new bands is seeing that they've got their act together, and in this case, Holman already had his debut video lined up.

The first video from Spring Bees' self-titled album, "Used to Be," is a celebration of a love that will last a long, long, looooong time.  The lyrics suggest a series of lifetimes that the singer has lived through caring for someone else, suggesting a love that survives reincarnation.  But because those lifetimes feature, say, giraffes and alligators, it gives the weighty concept a much lighter feel.  The video was created by animator Cody Ground, who used stop-motion animation featuring what I like to think of as all those "zoo in a tube" tiny plastic animals you're stepping on when you're not stepping on your kids' Legos.

I'm guessing that the band name is inspired by the name of Monte's daughter (which starts with the letter "B"), and unsurprisingly given that track above, there's a strong feeling of love suffusing the entire album.  And those references above?  Totally earned.  (Just wait 'til you hear "Burp," which feels like a missing track from Getz/Gilberto.)  The album definitely will give you warm and fuzzy (and fuzzed out) indie rock feelings, but not in a too-cool-for-school way.

The self-titled debut is out April 21, but in the meantime, I'm happy to world-premiere this video and help get Spring Bees' music slowly out into the world.  I'm eager to see (and hear) what will happen.

Spring Bees - "Used To Be" [Vimeo]

Four on the Floor (Kids Music Reviews for Preschoolers)

 Owl Singalong cover

Owl Singalong cover

Here's the next installment of reviews of albums before I pause a bit with my reviews.  Last week I covered some recent (2017) releases, but this week's roundup includes some albums more than a year old.

I wanted to take a look at some recent albums targeted at the preschool set, those kids moving close to (if not sitting directly on) the ground.  This isn't a complete listing of such albums, but they are four albums that I think give a fair overview of where 21st century music for your favorite 3-year-old is at the moment.

We'll start with the most famous kids musician on this list, and arguably, the first kids music superstar -- Raffi.  Most folks recognize the first wave of kids musicians -- legends like Pete Seeger, Ella Jenkins, Woody Guthrie, Leadbelly -- as folksingers, including the social justice component that folksingers have often been recognized as having, especially in the United States from the '30s through the '60s.  They weren't just singing about animals and playtime, they also sang about freedom and justice.  (Sometimes they even did so simultaneously.)

It took awhile, but Raffi has become every bit the political folksinger his predecessors were.  When he first burst onto the scene in the mid-1970s, his first albums were classic sing-along stuff, but he avoided political items.  Gradually, however, he mixed in songs celebrating the natural world, with "Baby Beluga" becoming a touchstone song for hundreds of thousands of kids in the early '80s.

His 2016 album Owl Singalong came comparatively quickly on the heels of his previous album, 2014's Love Bug, signifying new inspiration after more than a decade away from the genre, and this album is filled with lots of songs celebrating the importance of the natural world and, one senses, a new urgency from the 68-year-old Canadian singer.

There's a sprightliness to the music here, aided by Raffi's newfound discovery of the ukulele.  Longtime friend and collaborator Ken Whiteley and his son Ben help out with instrumentals, his niece Kristin Cavoukian sings on a couple songs, as do a number of others, and he deftly mixes new takes on old classic music circle songs like "More We Sing Together" and "The Lion Pokey" with folk songs written with a wider circle in mind, like "The Garden Song" and "Somos El Barco."  (Oddly enough, this may be the album pitched at the oldest audience of these four.)  Raffi's voice is as fine as ever, though he's still willing to be very playful with his voice, too.  All in all, this is a fine collection of songs, a worthy addition to Raffi's long discography.

 Love Bug cover

Love Bug cover

Another artist who covers much the same ground as Raffi is Maryland's Valerie Smalkin.  A ventriloquist and musician who's been performing a long time, her 2016 album Love Bug (see, a Raffi connection right there!) could easily find a home in many a preschool classroom.  For the most part, the album is filled with originals with a couple more traditional songs ("Hey Betty Martin," "Bumblebee") mixed in.  The physical album comes with suggestions for making listening to the songs a more interactive process as well, which is not unusual for these types of albums -- it's another common theme we often see.  The execution of these songs in arrangements is just enough improved over most such albums that I think it won't wear out its welcome nearly as fast.  Smalkin's appealing voice helps out as well.  (I could do with less synth, but most similar types of albums lean on that synth even more than it's leaned on here.)  I wouldn't listen to this album by itself as much as I would the other three albums here, but for those looking for a little more movement and interaction as part of their listening experience, this might do the trick.

 Songs for Little Ones cover

Songs for Little Ones cover

Moving on to an artist clearly inspired by Raffi -- Charlie Hope.  I've compared the Canadian/American Hope favorably with the Canadian legend, and her latest album, Songs for Little Ones, released late last year, does nothing to dissuade me from the comparison.

Whereas her previous albums tended to be a little more of a mix of original songs (and some darn catchy ones to boot) and classic kids' songs, this new album shifts the balance of the songs to the classic side, with only 3 originals -- still lovely -- and 22 covers.  I tend to think that new families should have multiple versions of these types of albums just so those families can hear how, say, Raffi's take on "Down By the Bay" differs from Hope's here, but there are far worse voices to include on a short list of albums of classic songs than Hope's bright, clear voice.  The arrangements here are more folk-pop -- no synths, but poppier perhaps than Raffi's earthier approach (just enough tasteful percussion or perhaps an occasional string instrument or recorder to liven it up).

 Away We Go cover

Away We Go cover

Finally we have Caspar Babypants.  Chris Ballew has been remarkably consistent and productive in making remarkably good music for preschoolers over the past decade, and there's nothing in his latest, 2016's Away We Go!, that changes that assessment.  Ballew heads the other direction as Hope, as this new album leans more heavily towards original tunes than reworking classic kids' songs.  There are some nifty new takes, like the concluding track "If You're Sleepy," which converts "If You're Happy and You Know It" into a very sleepy (and very Beatles-esque) wind-down track.  It's mostly a solo effort from Ballew, with only Jen Wood providing vocals on "If You're Sleepy" and the Okee Dokee Brothers pitching in on a couple tracks, but his poppy arrangements are, as always, filled with verve and occasional surprises.  And as always, Ballew's lyrics are fanciful (tiny horses, runaway pancakes, best friends snail and spider) and playful.

If I were to pick the album I'd listen to most on repeat, it'd probably be the Caspar Babypants album just because it's the most varied in melody and words, with the Raffi a close, close second.  But Songs For Little Ones would make a fine addition to any home or preschool classroom, and I think Love Bug could find a good home in a classroom as well.  They're all recommended to varying degrees.

Note: I was given a copy of these albums for possible review.

Kindie Keeps on Tickin' (Reviews of Early 2017 Albums)

After questioning why people read record reviews, I also said that I'd be taking a break writing reviews, at least as how I'd normally conceived of them.

But I had a few more albums -- a couple dozen maybe -- I wanted to get through first.

So let's take a look at a quartet of recently-released albums that show how kindie keeps on tickin' even while I get a little antsy about writing reviews.

The quartet can essentially be split into a couple of duos, the first pair a little more conventional, the second pair a little more atmospheric and adventurous.  Both pairs of albums have a lot to offer their listeners, but will probably have their own distinct sets of fans.

 Big Buncha Buddies album cover

Big Buncha Buddies album cover

Let's deal with the more conventional albums first, starting with Big Buncha Buddies, a self-titled debut from Keith Munslow and Bridget Brewer

Munslow is a musician and comedian with a number of albums under his belt, while this is Brewer’s first, but her sense of humor (and voice) blends nicely with Munslow’s.  Some songs use humor as the default (“That Was A Bad Idea,” “Why Did You Teach Me That Word,” which is a country ballad bemoaning a questionable parental decision) whereas others just have a comedic interlude (Brewer’s pleading with her overeager and misguided dog in “Stray Dog”).  But there’s always a non-cloying sense of love and friendship, most notably on the last track “Don’t Grow Up Too Fast” and on the album’s centerpiece literally and figuratively “The Loneliest Whale,” which posits a connection between a solitary whale and a child trying to make her social way through the world.  Gently, the 35-minute album presumes a world in which people have imagination, are a little bit weird, and make connections despite (or because) of it.  Which as a non-obtrusive background to a set of songs that will amuse your 5-9-year-old, is a nice bonus.

 Trippin' Round the Mitten album cover

Trippin' Round the Mitten album cover

Onward to Randy Kaplan, whose latest album Trippin’ Round the Mitten features his usual set of humorous takes, often featuring Kaplan as an aggrieved narrator dealing with the frustrations of the world around him.  Now that Kaplan’s a father, he’s got an even more constant stream of inspiration.  Kaplan has excellent taste in cover songs, sliding in ELO’s “Jungle,” The Dead Milkmen’s “Beach Song,” and “Mr. Bass Man” (among others), not to mention a sharp parodic ear, reworking “Mr. Bass Man” into “Mr. Spaceman” (hi, Elon Musk!) and turning Maroon 5’s “Sugar”’s inappropriate-for-a-four-year-old’s lyrics into an ode to a four-year-old’s favorite ingredient.  Kaplan’s comedic approach could be wearying if it weren’t for the fact that he’ll thrown in an incredibly heartfelt song, like following up “Cat & Mice” (about what happens on a “guys weekend” with dad and son) with longtime producer Mike West’s “Tongue Tied,” a gorgeous apology in song that parents and kids have both felt.  And in the case of Kaplan’s “On the Phone on the Toilet,” the salty and sweet are inextricably mixed.  Kaplan doesn’t change his formula here, but when the formula works well as it does again, I’m OK with that.  Longtime fans will dig in; if you’re new to Kaplan, this album is a fine place to start for your favorite 4-to-8-year old.

 Spectacular Daydream album cover

Spectacular Daydream album cover

Moving on then, to the dreamier pair of albums, starting with Mo Phillips’ Spectacular Daydream, which is a strong contender for Most Accurate Album Title of the year, as the Portland musician gives us a dozen songs that seem inspired by, or designed to encourage listeners to, sleep.  It’s not that this is a lullaby album, but the dreamy imagery (sample lyrics: “Your ears are made out of French toast”) and lush and often mellow musical arrangements -- and guest artists including fellow Portland musician Red Yarn -- encourage a relaxed listen rather than active engagement.  The prominent use of ukulele helps in this regard as well.  In fact, thanks to a grant from Portland’s Regional Arts and Culture Council, Phillips has turned the album into a ukulele songbook with elaborate drawings -- it’s definitely the one album I’d encourage tracking down in physical format if you care at all about it.  (The younger listeners in the 3-to-7-year-old target audience may want to color the illustrations, too.)  Along with Pointed Man Band’s Between the Waves and the Cardoons and Red Yarn’s Born in the Deep Woods, Spectacular Daydream is the third in what has been an impressive 2017 thus far for Portland-based kids music.

 The Moonlights album cover

The Moonlights album cover

Finally we have The Moonlights, the debut from The Moonlights, better known to kindie fans as the duo's component parts, Dean Jones (Dog on Fleas, kindie super-producer) and Rachel Loshak (Gustafer Yellowgold).  From the album's very start, when "That Light" quotes Shakespeare, there's a fable-like quality to the 33-minute album that is completely enchanting.  (That album cover picture of a moon shrouded in fog is an excellent visual companion.)  The songs celebrate the natural world in all its many splendors, often in awe, but occasionally feature a more comedic touch.  "Symphony for Dogs" is about writing a symphony for canines that humans can't hear while "Early Bird" spins the phrase "the early bird gets the worm" into a whole series of animal pairings.  And while the dueting between Jones and Loshak is lovely on tracks like "Colour of Leaves" and "Bake a Cake" (the sweetest love song you'll hear on a kindie album this year), I think it's really Loshak's voice which is the star, a clear soprano deployed to beautiful and occasionally humorous effect, featured by Jones' typical instrumentally restrained but eclectic arrangements.  To me, this ranks up there with Dog on Fleas' best albums and Jones' solo Napper Delight.  These four albums are all worth you checking out -- all definitely recommended to be sure -- but this one is my personal favorite, definitely a candidate for my favorite of the year.

Top Kids and Family Podcasts (March 2017)

This month podcasters are using the hashtag #trypod on Twitter to suggest a podcast for listeners.  If you still haven't tried listening to podcasts, you're missing out on a wonderful world of audio content, and the hashtag is a great, albeit perhaps overwhelming, way to jump in.

If you're looking for a podcast for kids, you could of course look at my list of podcasts for kids but you could also look at the nebulously-ranked world of podcasts, this time for March 2017.  (Here is January's list of top-ranked kids and family podcasts.)  Popularity isn't always synonymous with quality, but you could do much worse than dipping into the shows ranked below to start out.

This month's list looks similar to previous months, although the rankings of these particular podcasts within the "kids and family" charts in the iTunes and Stitcher kids and family charts always fluctuate a bit.  The total number of podcasts listed below is 30, down from the record high of 32 on the last chart and once again none of the iTunes Kids & Family podcasts hit the overall Top 200, but if you dip down into the Top 200 Kids & Family chart on iTunes, the total there (33) I think was a record.

As always: this is a blunt instrument, combining pure rankings from two fairly opaque charts, and for a variety of reasons has only marginal value as a measure of quality.  (Results compiled from Top 100 podcasts on iTunes and Stitcher "kids and family" charts on Thursday, March 16, 2017.  Podcasts that appear on both charts are listed with numbers; remaining podcasts only appeared on one list.)  In this particular month, the hybrid nature of the chart penalizes the brand-new Dream Big and relatively-new Disney Story Central podcasts neither of them chart on Stitcher while generally appearing in the Top 5 or 10 and iTunes.  So: grain of salt noted.

Two other reminders:

1.  If you're looking for a list that has most (or all) of these podcasts, check out my comprehensive list of podcasts for kids.

2. If you're interested in the future of podcasts for kids, you might be interested in Kids Listen, a grassroots organization of podcasters and folks like me interested in helping high-quality audio for children thrive.  We're looking for other interested folks -- producers or otherwise -- to join in!

With that out of the way, let's get to the chart.

1. (tie) Stories Podcast

1. (tie) Brains On

3. Storynory

4. Story Time

5. Tumble

6. Story Pirates

7. The Alien Adventures of Finn Caspian

8. The Unexplainable Disappearance of Mars Patel

9. The Radio Adventures of Eleanor Amplified

10. The Radio Adventures of Dr. Floyd

Others (listed alphabetically): Activated Stories, Bedtime History, Book Club for Kids, But Why, Children Stories and Joyful, The Children's Corner, Children's Fun Storytime, The Cramazingly Incredifun Sugarcrash Kids Podcast, Disney Story Central, Dream Big, Ear Snacks, Family Folk Tales, Little Stories for Tiny People, Molly and the Sugar Monster, Official Adventures in Odyssey, Peace Out, Short and Curly, Sparkle Stories, The Story Home, That Story Show

Video: "OK Toilet Bowl" - StevenSteven

I am Team Kids Music Is Generally Better When It's Not Educational.

But I am also Team StevenSteven.

So, when presented with "OK Toilet Bowl," from the duo's fine debut album Foreverywhere, I am conflicted.  On the one hand, it's a song encouraging kids to poop in the toilet -- there's little in terms of subject matter that could be more "educational for kids."

On the other hand... it's just such an awesome song.  And when the video features a cheesy '70s-style game show lyric video to go along with the cheesy vibe of the song, Steve Burns in a 'fro out to here, and its own dance move to rival the Macarena, I guess I'm sunk.  Team StevenSteven all the way, I guess.

StevenSteven - "OK Toilet Bowl" [YouTube]