Intro to Kindie: Amberly Warnke (Ages 3 and Up!)


Yay, it's another entry in our Intro to Kindie series! It's America's favorite series for discussing how kindie folk would spend an hour or so introducing kids music to someone new to the concept.  Today, it's Amberly Warnke's turn.

For about ten years, Amberly has been playing music for families and kids on her show, Ages 3 and Up!.  (Note: as far as I know, listeners under 3 are totally welcome.)  The show airs 9 'til 10 AM on Saturday mornings on WRFL 88.1 FM in Lexington, Kentucky.

Without, then, any further ado, Amberly's 20 songs...

Lori Henriques - “How Great Can This Day Be” - How Great Can This Day Be 

Future Hits - “This Past Sunny Weekend” - Today is Forever 

Frances England - “Up A Tree” - Family Tree 

Gustafer Yellowgold - “Getting In A Treetop” - Mellow Fever

Dog on Fleas - “Beautiful World” - Beautiful World 

Caspar Babypants - “Tiger Through The Trees” - This Is Fun! 

Ages 3 and Up logo

Ages 3 and Up logo

Brian Vogan and His Good Buddies - “How To Fly” - Sing A Little Song

Todd McHatton - “Green Eleven” - Sundays At The Rocket Park

Charlie Hope - “One That I Love” - Songs, Stories and Friends:  Let’s Go Play!

Kira Willey - “Caterpillar Caterpillar” - Dance For The Sun:  Yoga Songs for Kids

Medeski Martin & Wood - “Pat A Cake” - Let’s Go Everywhere

Sarah Lee Guthrie & Family - “Go Waggaloo” - Go Waggaloo

Secret Agent 23 Skidoo - “Luck” - Easy

Me3 - “Come On” - The Thin King

The Pop Ups - “Big Wheel” - Outside Voices

Key Wilde & Mr. Clarke - “Going To The Moon” - Rise and Shine

Justin Roberts - “No Matter How Far” - Lullaby

The Harmonica Pocket - “Bumblebee Lullaby” - Ladybug One 

John Upchurch and Mark Greenberg - “Hum Drum Bumblebee” - John and Mark’s Children’s Record 

Elizabeth Mitchell & You Are My Flower - “I Wish You Well” - Blue Clouds



Best Lullaby Albums

It was foolish, perhaps, but I went ahead and did it anyway -- I boiled down more than a decade's worth of listening (and more than a half-century's worth of recordings) to what I thought were the five most essential albums for new parents.  Despite my trepidations in providing such a list (including the insanity in thinking that such a list could even be limited to five), it seemed to be well-received.

So now I'm providing my second list of top albums -- this time, it's my list of best lullaby albums.

Before I provide my list, I should note that, unlike the broader set of albums for infants, toddlers, and preschoolers, as far as I can tell there weren't nearly as many lullaby albums dating back a half-century -- I can't find evidence that Pete Seeger or Ella Jenkins, for example, bothered recording a specific album of just lullabies.  That is an interesting musicological question worth exploring, but not today.  In any case, the upshot is that the notion of a "classic" or "best" lullaby album is far less settled than it was for the "new parents" list above.

As a result, this list feels more idiosyncratic to me than that other list, like I'm going out more on a limb.  I do have a particular preference for lullaby albums in a way I might not for kids music albums generally and that preference is for music that would conceivably be played to lull a young child back to sleep.  I have memories of taking the 3 AM feeding shift, or of calming a restless infant, and sometimes (some of) these albums were the soundtrack for that. In my experience, many lullaby albums seem far too hyper and vocally piercing to be very useful for that quiet, darkened room.

So, with that, here are my five picks, listed alphabetically by artist.

Lullabies: A Songbook Companion cover

Lullabies: A Songbook Companion cover

Julianne Baird, Madeleine Kapp, Mela Tenenbaum & Richard Kapp: Lullabies (A Songbook Companion) (1997) -- This might have been the first lullaby album we had that we truly enjoyed, so it's possible that personal affinity drives this selection more so than most.  But as with the other albums here, even today it holds up very, very well.  With piano, violin, and viola accompanying the vocalists, this is unsurprisingly by far the most traditional (and classical) album of all those listed.  It covers a wide range of lullaby songs from not only the English-language tradition, but also others.  There are also a handful of instrumental tracks that serve as nice counterpoints to the vocals.  And while a few tracks are more emotive than I'd prefer, on the whole, it's both thorough and gorgeously done -- a one-stop lullaby shop.

Now the Day Is Over album cover

Now the Day Is Over album cover

The Innocence Mission: Now the Day Is Over (2004) -- This album more closely resembles the majority of the lullaby albums here -- unique interpretations of songs, only some of which might originally have been considered lullabies.  This is the band's only venture into the kids music world, and were it not for the cartoon-y cover art, the listener might not necessarily file it there at all.  Low-key, minimally-arranged, the "hushed" on this album is dialed up to 11.  Singer-songwriter Karen Peris' voice is distinctive and has a bit of a distinctive taste, but I've heard this album so many times that I can't think of many of the songs they cover ("Stay Awake" and "Moon River," among others, along with some instrumentals and one original) without it.  Definitely a secret to be passed from one fan to another.

Napper's Delight album cover

Napper's Delight album cover

Dean Jones: Napper's Delight (2007) -- First, yes, that's an awesome album title.  But moving beyond that, this is probably the most daring lullaby album on here (it's the one whose inclusion on the list I took the most time debating).  How many times do you hear drum machines on lullaby albums, or at least on lullaby albums you want to listen to repeatedly?  More so than the other albums listed, this is also more of a journey as the first few songs aren't super-sleepy.  But give it a few songs and by the time Elizabeth Mitchell lends her vocals to "Grow Little Flower," the relaxed vibe is definitely established.  Jones' eclectic taste in instrumentation (see drum machine above) makes this the most unique album here -- definitely not a lullaby album in the strictest definition of the phrase, but a superb take on sleepy time and relaxation.

All Through the Night album cover

All Through the Night album cover

Mae Robertson & Don Jackson: All Through the Night (1995) -- I don't even remember how I first heard this album.  I think it was probably one of the (comparatively) few (at the time) kids music CDs at the library, but I remember playing it over and over in a darkened nursery.  Robertson has a lovely voice, but doesn't oversell (i.e., over-emote on) the songs.  Her choice of songs -- relatively few of which would be considered lullabies in any traditional sense -- delighted and surprised me.  And the musical arrangements from Robertson and Jackson, featuring guitar, piano, and a handful of other stringed instruments, are warm enough to snuggle in.  In short, this is the lullaby album I imprinted on and the one I still implicitly judge all other lullaby albums by today.

It's a Big World album cover

It's a Big World album cover

Renee and Jeremy: It's a Big World (2007) -- Finally, this album is the most modern-sounding lullaby album on this list, a combination of Jack Johnson and Elizabeth Mitchell with a series of (mostly) original lullabies.  I remember liking the album a lot, then hearing it on a really good pair of headphones while recording an NPR review of the album and being blown away by how spare and intimate the album sounded.  Since then, I've also become a much bigger fan of how Renee Stahl and Jeremy Toback meld their voices together.  Between the sound, their intertwined voices, and the whimsical cover art, this is the lullaby album most likely to be named "not your parents' lullaby album."

As with any of these "best" or "most essential" lists I'm creating, limiting your choices to these is a little foolish, but people also want them.  But if you're looking for a few more suggestions, here are some other categories of lullaby albums you may want to consider:

Artists I've Already Mentioned: Raffi (with his Quiet Time compilation), Laurie Berkner (with Laurie Berkner Lullabies), Caspar Babypants (with Night Night), and Elizabeth Mitchell (with significant chunks of most of her albums) would definitely have been under consideration for this list were it not for the fact that they already appeared on my best kids albums for infants and toddlers list.  Somehow it's not surprising that artists who record a lot for the youngest of listeners know their way around a lullaby.  As for Justin Roberts, his album Lullaby is excellent, but since he'll be appearing on a future list, I omitted him from consideration for this one.

Putumayo Kids: As I noted in the earlier "new parent" list, Just like its "parent," the themed albums of kids offshoot of the Putumayo label scours are a nice way to dip into the music of a non-American culture (though they offer some nice English-language compilations, too).  Their "Dreamland" albums feature lullabies from around the world -- the sounds can sometimes be unfamiliar to the older ears of the parents (and therefore less than fully relaxing), but that shouldn't be a problem for the kids.

The Secret Mountain: This Canadian label has had an excellent run of nearly 15 years of publishing books and accompanying albums (or is it the other way around)?  I've found their non-lullaby works to be pitched at a slightly older crowd (meaning, non-infant), but their lullaby albums, just like Putumayo's, span the globe in their coverage.  Now if would only start publishing picture or board books that were specifically targeted at kids who might be just year or two old, that would be an awesome combination.

Best Kids Music Albums for New Parents

Although I run a well-respected kids music site (psst, it's this one), it's not something I'm constantly trumpeting.  (I still get co-workers walking into my office with a quizzical expression the morning after an All Things Considered review airs saying, "I was driving home last night and I heard this familiar voice on the radio…")  As a result, I'm often in the situation of explaining this interest of mine to co-workers or neighbors, and it's not uncommon for the following question to come up:

"So what albums do you recommend for my kid/niece/grandson?"

Now, I probably should have developed a concise answer by now.  But when you've been listening to this music critically for more than a decade, trying to distill that knowledge into, say, three albums is difficult, and probably a little unfair as it leans too heavily on my own personal tastes.

Having said that, giving that response doesn't do the person asking the question any good.  So I've decided to dive in and provide a list.  I'm actually going to provide a series of lists, but the one I want to start out with is for new parents and their infants, toddlers, and maybe early preschoolers -- basically, kids ages 0 through 3.

There are lots of great kids musicians whose music isn't specifically targeted towards that age group.  I love Justin Roberts' music, for example, but most of his music is pitched at a slightly older age group.  (Believe me, when I get to the next age group, there will definitely be a Justin Roberts album in that collection.)  The albums for this age group feature more simple, classic songs you may already know or faintly remember.

Now, there's no way I can limit this list to the number of albums I've featured.  (For example, I was struggling immensely until I realized that I could make lullaby albums their own category.  That'll be a future post.)  So I've suggested some possible music series if you think my list is too limited or not diverse enough in its musical scope.

With all of that said, here's my list, organized in no particular order -- and if you want to add any for consideration, please feel free to do in the comments.

Singable Songs Collection album cover

Singable Songs Collection album cover

RaffiThe Singable Songs Collection (1976-1979) -- OK, this is cheating slightly, since this is actually a 3-CD set featuring the kids music superstar's first three albums.  I've always suspected that people who make fun of Raffi have never actually listened to more than five minutes of his music (or have only listened to his later albums, which sound more dated in parts and a little more preachy).  These 3 albums, particularly the first 2, Singable Songs for the Very Young and More Singable Songs for the Very Young, are a mix of traditional kids' songs and Raffi originals, arranged with a light but not too-light touch and with actual instruments.  Raffi has the best male singing voice in kids' music (even today), and here, it rarely sounds treacly.  Just try it -- I'm pretty sure you'll be fine with it and (more importantly) your kids will probably swoon. 

You Are My Sunshine album cover

You Are My Sunshine album cover

Elizabeth Mitchell and You Are My Flower: You Are My Sunshine (2002) -- I might be accused of sticking too close to home -- Mitchell was the start of my kindie journey -- if it weren't for the fact that everyone else adores her as well.  As with many artists on this list, narrowing it down to just one album has flummoxed me.  (Really, I've been staring at a blank spot for the album title for far too long.)  What I really want Mitchell to do is to release her first 3 albums as the You Are My Collection, named for the fact that those first albums all start with the words "You Are My..."  I slightly prefer the album after this one, You Are My Little Bird, but think it's pitched at a slightly older age group, maybe starting at age 2 or 3.  But if you want to substitute that one for Sunshine, I won't judge.

Songs for Wiggleworms album cover

Songs for Wiggleworms album cover

Old Town School of Folk MusicSongs for Wiggleworms (2000) -- Saying that singing to your child is important isn't some dramatic statement on my part, because early childhood experts agree that it's a Good Thing.  But I think it's important to have a CD that helps model singing songs to the very young in addition to music that takes those songs and performs them in more varied and elaborately ways (such as these other disks).  There are about 3 dozen songs here, arranged very simply so that the focus is on singer themselves and the lyrics of the song.  The new parent who is tentative about singing to his or her child should feel more confident after listening to this, and the kids will be drawn to the renditions as well.

Whaddaya Think of That? album cover

Whaddaya Think of That? album cover

Laurie Berkner: Whaddaya Think of That? (1997) -- The closest we have to Raffi's spiritual heir.  She's generally been content to write music for preschoolers and not have her music change to address an older age group.  She's also the biggest kindie superstar, able to draw large crowds for her occasional shows.  In part, that's due to her presence on Jack's Big Music Show on Sprout in the mid-to-late-2000s.  But it's also due to the earworms of hooks she writes and the verve and humor with which she delivers them.  You could always make your own Laurie Berkner mix on iTunes, or maybe get the follow-up Buzz Buzz instead, but this'll do you just fine.

Sing Along! album cover

Sing Along! album cover

Caspar Babypants: Sing Along! (2011) --The adults reading this may be more familiar with Chris Ballew's run with the Presidents of the United States of America, but I think it can be legitimately argued that 20 years from now his most lasting impact will be on kids music.  What's most impressive in his career making music for families is the sheer consistency of his polished and reformulated folk music for the 21st century -- generally an album every less-than-a-year, all of high quality.  It took me a long time to try to figure out which CB album I should list here (other contenders: More Please! and, well, just about any of the originals).  What I'm saying is that you should just get a Caspar Babypants album and don't sweat the details too much.

Now, as I noted above, limiting your choices to these is, well, a little foolish.  I could easily list another 5 or 6, and then complain that I couldn't limit myself to 10 or so, and I think you can see where that is leading to.  So instead I'll list a few series that offer a broad range of options for the very youngest for you to dip into.

Smithsonian Folkways: In addition to Elizabeth Mitchell, Folkways has an amazing collection of recordings for kids.  Some of them are more appropriate for a slightly older kindergartener-ish (the many Pete Seeger albums come to mind), but Woody Guthrie's and Suni Paz's records and the many albums of the legendary Ella Jenkins are targeted at the under-5 crowd.

Putumayo Kids: Just like its "parent," the kids offshoot of the Putumayo label scours the globe for interesting sounds, and many of the resulting themed albums are a nice way to dip into the music of a non-American culture.  The "Playground" albums are geared toward a slightly older audience, but their "Dreamland" albums feature lullabies from around the world (including, sometimes, the English-speaking world).

Music Together: Having spent a number of years with my kids in this music-participation series, I'm biased in that I'm familiar and comfortable with the songs on their many in-class CDs.  They've collected favorites on 3 different CDs they sell to the public, and I find the sound -- engaged vocals, restrained but not simplistic production -- to be reminiscent of Raffi's.

Baby Loves...: They started out as Baby Loves Disco, producing dance afternoons for kids barely old enough to walk (and their older siblings and parents).  And they've sort of returned to that.  But in between, they produced 4 albums -- disco, jazz, hip-hop, and salsa -- that are worth checking out for your almost-preschooler.

Best Kids Music of 2014: Top 30 Songs

know.  This is madness, right?  Trying to come up with a list of my 30 favorite songs from the past year? Completely. Nuts.

But that's what I'm willing to do for you, dear readers.  More so than a list of albums or debuts or videos, however, a list ranking favorite songs is ephemeral, subject to the whims of a particular moment.  More than that, it probably tends toward the poppy, upbeat, and lively.  Tender lullabies have to do more work to stand out in my (or your) memory if you've heard literally thousands of kids' songs over the past year.

But regardless of how different my list would next week (or late in the evening), these 30 songs are among the best that kids music offered us in the past year.  ("Year," as always, defined as Oct. 1, 2013 through Sept. 30, 2014, though that's harder to stick to given the prevalence of singles which might have been released on either side of that window.  Deal.)

Also, these are in alphabetical order -- if you think I'm going to attempt to rank all these, you're even more nuts than I am in deciding to pick them.

Anyway, I've combined these into a handy Spotify playlist found at the bottom of this list (click here if you're already in Spotify).  Enjoy!

Bears and Lions - "Pancakes"

The Laurie Berkner Band – "Fireflies"

Caspar Babypants – "The Girl with the Squirrel in Her Hat"

Lucky Diaz and the Family Jam Band – "When I Grow Up"

The Dirty Sock Funtime Band (w/ Laurie Berkner) – "We're in Love"

Laura Doherty - "I'm a Little Fish"

Django Jones – "Counterpoint"

Gustafer Yellowgold - "Toothloser"

The Hipwaders – "Kings & Queens"

Charlie Hope – "Harmony" (feat. Elizabeth Mitchell)

Hullabaloo – "Like a Bird Must Feel"

Jazzy Ash - "Throw Me Something Mista" (feat. Mista Cookie Jar)

Randy Kaplan – "Not Too Young for a Song"

Joanie Leeds and the Nightlights – "Food Fight"

Josh and the Jamtones – "Green and Spakkled Frogs"

Luscious Jackson – "Hula Hoop"

Walter Martin - "Hey Sister" (feat. Kat Edmonson)

Mista Cookie Jar & the Chocolate Chips – "My My My"

The Not-Its! - "When I Fell (The Scab Song)"

The Okee Dokee Brothers - "Through the Woods"

The Pop Ups - "All These Shapes"

Raffi – "Love Bug"

Recess Monkey - "Smooth Sailing"

Red Yarn - "The Fox"

Brady Rymer and the Little Band That Could – "Just Say Hi!"

Secret Agent 23 Skidoo – "Imaginary Friend"

The Short Films – "The Mysterious Okapi"

Ben Tatar and the Tatar Tots – "The Grape Jam" (feat. Spare Parts)

Danny Weinkauf – "Oh No Oh Yeah"

The Whizpops! – "Sea Turtule"

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)