Best Kids Music of 2014: Top 10 Debuts

Continuing on with my look back at 2014 (or Oct. 1, 2013 though Sept. 30, 2014, or thereabouts), let's turn our attention to debuts.

The notion of "debut" is a difficult one, particularly in kids music, because one often hears music from artists who've been around for a long time recording music for adults who dip their toes into the kiddie pool.  Is that a debut?  My answer has tended to be "no."  So albums from artists like The Short Films and Sólrún Sumarliðadóttir, albums I clearly loved, weren't considered for this list, because I got no sense that those artists viewed those albums as the start of a career (or even career sideline) making music for families.  Same goes for albums by Luscious Jackson, Zee Avi, and MC Frontalot.

Or what do you do about artists like Dan Flannery and Steve Lee, who recorded kids' albums already with the Flannery Brothers and, er, Steve Lee?  Well, you disqualify albums recorded as Danny Lion and Yumzah which would've potentially made this list.  And Rainbow Beast?  I just didn't know what to do with that group of folks recording music written by a rotating set of kids.  So I omitted them.

Luckily, the list of ten albums below are still fine introductions to kids music from artists I've got a pretty good feeling might come back for round 2 -- at the very least they went to the trouble of creating a new band, right?  So here are my top 10 favorite debuts, listed alphabetically.



Bears and Lions - We're a Club in the Woods (review) - "Jangly, southern-fried guitar-pop songs about jumping out of airplanes, man's best friend, and PAN! CAKE! SWEEP! STAKES!  (Just listen to "Pancakes" all the way through, trust me.)"


Edie Carey & Sarah Sample - 'Til the Morning: Lullabies & Songs of Comfort (review) - " 'Til the Morning is an album of love songs, just like all lullaby albums should be, and beyond that it also has a feeling of things fitting just so, its songs of comfort also comfortable."


Django Jones - D is for Django (review) - "Songs like "Counterpoint," which manages to be about counterpoint the musical term and counterpoint the metaphorical concept while being mostly in counterpoint, demonstrate heart and humor and (natch) tight harmonies."


Jelly of the Month Club - Introducing… (review) - "Some songs like "Tell Someone" contain lessons of a sort, but that's a song that namechecks Cheryl Ladd and Chaka Khan, to name a few, so clearly there's a playfulness that cuts through any overt "Learn. This." approach."


Walter Martin - We're All Young Together (review) - "Whatever cool-points Martin may have lost by wadding into the kid's music world, the playful and sweet nature of this new album shows he doesn't care one bit. He feels very much at home."


Red Yarn - The Deep Woods (review) - '"Mr. Rabbit" has an almost desperate urgency while "The Fox," which brings together "The Fox," "Midnight Special," and "Go Tell Aunty Rhody," is absolutely gorgeous.  This is a folk revival, in all the many meanings of the word "revival."'


Andres Salguero - ¡Uno, Dos, Tres con Andrés! (review) - "From "Los Colores" (a mellow bachata, popularized in the Dominican Republic) to "La Clave" (a percussion-driven -- of course -- Cuban/Puerto Rican salsa tune), Salguero samples Latin America's rich musical heritage."


Ben Tatar and the Tatar Tots - Food! (review) - "But like a good bowl of mac'n'cheese, when done right, this style of kids music can be very satisfying.  The multi-instrumentalist Tatar plays in a number of bands throughout Chicago, and the level of production is excellent, with Tatar handling a lot of duties, but also bringing in his friends to fill out the sound."


Danny Weinkauf - No School Today (review) - "You don't have to be a They Might Be Giants fan to appreciate this album (though TMBG fans are most likely to go nuts for this), just a fan of nicely-crafted, occasionally goofy, kid-pop."


Whirlygigs - Greetings from Cloud 9 (review) - "Greetings from Cloud 9 definitely has a retro sound, but it's not burnt in amber, either.  For families looking for a mellower kindie sound reminiscent of those Taj Mahal records (or perhaps a little bit like fellow New Englander Alastair Moock), this Whirlygigs album is worth exploring."

Video: "Gingerbread Man" - Lunch Money

So of course Lunch Money had to make a video with Belle et Bête, the puppetry troupe with whom Lunch Money ringleader Molly Ledford made a space puppet opera (or is that puppet space opera?).

The two troupes collaborated on a video for "Gingerbread Man" from Lunch Money's fine 2012 album Spicy Kid.  It's cute -- the titular baked good (based on Brandon Reese's album art!) leading some of Columbia's citizens on a chase around the city.  I liked it.

Lunch Money - "Gingerbread Man" [YouTube]

Video: "Just For You" - Caspar Babypants


There's a brand new Caspar Babypants album coming out next month.  I know, Chris Ballew's productivity sometimes makes it seem like there's a brand new Caspar Babypants album coming out every month, but that's really not the case.

The brand new album is called Night Night! and it's CB's lullaby(-ish) album.  It's set to be released on March 17 and in anticipation of the release, Ballew has released a brand-new lo-fi video every bit as brilliant as his other lo-fi videos.

It features a bunch of pictures of Ballew as a baby, but I can assure you that his one simple trick turns something that would be of interest for about 10 seconds into a genuinely fun 3-minute video.

Caspar Babypants - "Night Night" [YouTube]

Best Kids Music of 2014: Top 30 Albums

If I were more disciplined about my writing, I'd have written this three months ago when people were thinking about holiday gift lists rather than, well, now.  The advantage is that, rather than giving you a "hot take" about music that I might regret later, I can let a few weeks or months go by and make sure I'm not forgetting (or including) something time has given me more perspective on.

Given that it is approaching the end of February, I think I'll skip the think pieces, the "what does it all mean" text and jump right into the list.  As always, my year-end best-of list matches the Fids and Kamily year -- that is to say, from October 1, 2013 through September 30, 2014.  So some good albums from the last 3 months [waves at Lori Henriques] will just have to wait for next year's list.

One final comment: I originally titled this the "Top 25 Albums" but when I went over my reviews, I realized that limiting it to 25 was going to a difficult proposition.  So I've bumped it up to 30.  That's a good problem to have.

Edit: A couple days later, I was going through my spreadsheet and realized that I totally forgot to add Key Wilde & Mr. Clarke's Animal Tales.  Can't leave that album off the list.  So now it's a Top 31 Album list.


#1 The Pop Ups - Appetite for Construction

Review - "The Pop-Ups know that you don't need your parent's smart phone to have the world at your fingertips."


#2 Charlie HopeSing As We Go!

Review - "It's traditional but not musty, sweet but not cloying, engaging but not pandering.  It's a gem of an album, definitely worthy of a comparison to Raffi."


#3 Red YarnThe Deep Woods

Review - '"Mr. Rabbit" has an almost desperate urgency while "The Fox," which brings together "The Fox," "Midnight Special," and "Go Tell Aunty Rhody," is absolutely gorgeous.  This is a folk revival, in all the many meanings of the word "revival."'


#4 Walter MartinWe're All Young Together

Review - "Whatever cool-points Martin may have lost by wadding into the kid's music world, the playful and sweet nature of this new album shows he doesn't care one bit. He feels very much at home."


#5 (tie) The Okee Dokee BrothersThrough the Woods

Review - 'The title track, featuring a lovely descending bass line, is the spiritual successor to the last album's title track, but most of the songs are more content to celebrate tiny moments -- dancing with neighbors in "Jamboree," the gentle love song "Evergreen," the ode to keeping things loose "Out of Tune."'


#5 (tie) Recess MonkeyDesert Island Disc

Review - "If the songs hold together in any particular way, it's more in their sound.  In the orchestrations (from Jherek Bischoff, brother of drummer Korum Bischoff), toned-down retro-rock, and love songs, this is easily their most Beatles-esque album since their little-heard debut Welcome to Monkey Town."


#7 (tie) The Short FilmsKingdom Animalia

Review - "The entire album has a dream-like effect -- "Pegafox" is about a make-believe animal, for example, the body of a red fox with the wings of a red-tailed hawk.  "The Mysterious Okapi" is the kids song we never knew Portishead had written about an animal almost none of us know."


#7 (tie) Elizabeth Mitchell - The Sounding Joy

Review - "The communal experience of singing in celebration is honored here, somewhat hushed, always joyful."


#9 (tie) Danny WeinkaufNo School Today

Review - "You don't have to be a They Might Be Giants fan to appreciate this album (though TMBG fans are most likely to go nuts for this), just a fan of nicely-crafted, occasionally goofy, kid-pop."


#9 (tie) Sólrún SumarliðadóttirSkýjaflétta

Review - "This is a thoroughly charming album and while I'm sure I will never get a chance to see the dance pieces these were composed for, I'm glad the album has a chance to cross the ocean for families with adventurous listening habits."

After the top ten, which I can give you because it matches my Fids and Kamily ballot, distinguishing between the rest of my list becomes a little more difficult.  So I'm taking the easy way out - alphabetical order for albums 11 through 31.

Laurie Berkner - Laurie Berkner Lullabies (review)

Bears and Lions - We're a Club in the Woods (review)

Edie Carey & Sarah Sample - 'Til the Morning: Lullabies & Songs of Comfort (review)

Caspar Babypants - Rise and Shine (review)

Danny Lion - First Songs (review)

Lucky Diaz & Family Jam Band - Aqui Alla (review)

Lucky Diaz & Family Jam Band - Lishy Lou and Lucky Too (review)

Laura Doherty - In a Heartbeat (review)

Gustafer Yellowgold - Gustafer Yellowgold’s Wisdom Tooth of Wisdom (review)

Thomas Hellman and Emilie Clepper (The Secret Mountain) - I Know an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly (review)

The Hipwaders - Year-Round Sounds (review)

Hullabaloo - Shy Kid Blues (review)

Jelly of the Month Club - Introducing… (review)

Randy Kaplan - Jam on Rye (review)

The Not-ItsRaise Your Hand (review)

Papa Crow - Full Moon, Full Moon (review)

Raffi - Love Bug (review)

Recess Monkey - Wired (review)

Brady Rymer and the Little Band That Could - Just Say Hi (review)

Secret Agent 23 Skidoo - The Perfect Quirk (review)

Key Wilde & Mr. Clarke - Animal Tales (review)

How I Got Here: Jazzy Ash (Ella Jenkins and Ella Fitzgerald)


Offstage, she's known as Ashli Christoval, but kids probably know her best as Jazzy Ash, whose music brings some of the sound of New Orleans to kids music.  She's just kicked off a PledgeMusic campaign for her new album Bon Voyage! and, yes, she's going back for another trip through the city's rich musical heritage.

So I thought it appropriate for Ashli to take a look back at her own musical heritage, and in the latest iteration of the "How I Got Here" series, she offers praises to three albums from a couple artists you may have heard of, Ella Jenkins and Ella Fitzgerald.

I had never really thought about it before, but my musical career has really been shaped by two ladies named Ella.

My childhood was surrounded by an eclectic collection of music. My mom is from New Orleans, my dad is from Trinidad, and when I was growing up my mother ran a daycare in our home. So, I was exposed to music of all kinds - music for learning, music for fun, music of tradition, and music of culture. I was really blessed - or weird, depending on how you look at it.

In the way the every home has a certain scent, that’s how music was in our house. It was always there, but not necessarily something I had a keen ear to. Although, I would find myself humming Greg & Steve tunes down the halls of my junior high school - because Greg & Steve songs are so darn catchy!


One day, we were watching Mister Rogers. I was way too old for Mister Rogers, but remember, I practically lived in a daycare. Anyhow, my mom explained, “This episode is about Ella Jenkins. She shares songs from the African American tradition.”

I winced. “Oh, no,” I thought, “slave songs.” As far as I could figure, everything I had heard about African American history or tradition had to do with slavery or segregation or something like that. Obviously, those topics are really important to learn about, but they also can be really depressing. And, as a young black girl, it used to make me really blue when all anyone ever talked about in black history were the bad things that happened to us.

But Ella Jenkins didn’t come from that angle at all. This kind-faced woman stood on Mister Rogers’ front lawn and glanced into the camera, quite warmly. The songs she shared were, dare I say, fun! They were playful, and they had rhythm and groove and soul. I felt proud.

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.

By my freshmen in high school, I was really deep. I was too cultured for pop music, and was looking for something more…“satisfying.” Haha!


In Target one afternoon, I stumbled up on a compilation CD called Sirens of Song and took it home. It promised to be a collection of the best voices in jazz. I had been exposed to traditional New Orleans jazz since I was a baby, but most New Orleans jazz doesn’t include a vocalist. This was something new for me entirely.

Now, everybody’s heard of Billie Holliday. But now I had Sarah Vaughn, Edith Piaf, Lena Horne, and Nina Simone. It couldn’t get better. And then, it did!

Ella Fitzgerald sauntered in on Track #4. She was singing “I’m Getting Sentimental Over You,” and it’s not overstated to say that I have never been the same. I was completely engrossed.

I had to have more, so I stepped up my game. I went to Virgin Records.

I bought Ella Fitzgerald’s albums Flying Home and Ella & Louis. Oh, Lordy. I played those CDs over and over, trying to figure out how she could make her voice sound like a sip of hot chocolate. I mean, “Moonlight in Vermont” still brings a tear to my eye. Her ballads are so effortless and smooth.  Her work with Louis Armstrong is so beautifully rough around the edges, and has that familiar New Orleans, street-side flare. And then I moved into her playful be-bop tunes, like “Air Mail Special.”  She’s a scatting genius! I spent months memorizing every phrase. Someone was finally speaking my language. 

It’s because of Ella that I become completely obsessed with jazz. My collection expanded: more Louis, Sidney Bechet, Fats Waller (love him!), and Duke Ellington, whom I named my son after.

Having children of my own re-inspired my love children’s music. In my early twenties, I developed a preschool music program, and I had the privilege of sharing the music of children’s music legends: Greg & Steve, Cathy Fink, and Hap Palmer and, of course, Ella Jenkins. Through her albums, this Ella taught me so much about how to share cultural music in a playful, engaging way.

A few years into my music program, I started writing and performing my own music for children. I was still listening to Ella Fitzgerald and other early jazz religiously, and had even purchased a record player to make my jazz appreciation appear more legit. But I never thought about bringing my love for early jazz into my songwriting.


Then I went to KindieFest 2013. It was magical for me in two ways. First, I got to meet - no, hug! – Ella Jenkins and tell her how much she her work meant to me. I’ll never forget that moment.

Secondly, somebody on a panel said, “Even in kid’s music, you have to find your own voice.” That stuck with me. I knew my “voice” was roots jazz, but I guess I thought it might be too heavy for kids. But then I remembered Ella Jenkins’ playful approach to traditional music. I remembered Ella Fitzgerald’s sweetness that felt like a warm hug. Well, playfulness and sweetness – what kid doesn’t love those things?? That was my aha! moment.

Since then, my music has been a gumbo pot full of the rich children’s music I grew up with and the roots jazz tunes that are so close to my heart. For me it’s the perfect combination, and I’m in heaven every time I take the stage.  Thanks Ellas!