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.


59th Grammy Award Nominations for Best Children's Album

... or, as I call it, the final victory of kindie.

Last month, the nominations for the 59th Annual Grammy Awards were announced, and while I continue to be less than completely convinced of the value of Grammy awards for kids music, there's no doubt that the awards are still considered a Big Deal throughout the recorded music industry, kids' musicians included.

First, let's list the five nominees in the category of Best Children's Album:

Explorer of the World cover

Explorer of the World cover

Explorer of the World

Frances England

Frances England Music

Infinity Plus One cover

Infinity Plus One cover

Infinity Plus One

Secret Agent 23 Skidoo

Underground Records

Novelties album cover

Novelties album cover


Recess Monkey

Recess Monkey

Press Play cover

Press Play cover

Press Play

Brady Rymer and the Little Band That Could

Bumblin' Bee Records

Saddle Up cover

Saddle Up cover

Saddle Up

The Okee Dokee Brothers

Okee Dokee Music


The Grammy Awards will be announced on Sunday, February 12 -- the biggest awards in the evening, the rest of the awards (including this category) that afternoon.  And unlike most of the nominees, the kids' nominees take the opportunity to play a benefit concert the Saturday the day before the concert.  This year, the concert is on Saturday the 11th, and if you've got kids and live in Los Angeles, it's worth checking out getting tickets.  (You can read more about the history here.)  I went to last year's concert, and, yeah, it's a good time -- the public is unlikely to get to hear these five artists play together.

The annual Grammy weekend has also become the closest West Coast analogue to KindieFest/Kindiecomm, thanks to an annual industry-only luncheon also held on Saturday the day before the awards ceremonies.  This year is no exception (details here), and for those musicians who haven't had a chance to attend either the Grammy-related luncheon or the East Coast gatherings, it's definitely worth considering whether a day or two in the L.A. area might be within your budget.

I've been writing this site for more than 12 years, and when I started, the word "kindie" hadn't even been coined.  Yes, artists like Dan Zanes, Laurie Berkner, and Justin Roberts had released multiple albums, and of course artists like Trout Fishing in America, Cathy Fink and Marcy Marxer and Raffi were walking along the paths Pete Seeger, Ella Jenkins, and others had created.

When I researched the Grammy nominations for the kids music awards (non-spoken word) handed out in February 2004 and February 2005, bookending the start of this site, I was a little surprised to see that it wasn't a collection of Disney retreads -- both years are pretty solid collections of albums from artists familiar to this site.

But I think it's fair to say that those lists come more from a folk-music tradition with some gentle pop thrown in.  I think that the Dan Zanes nod in 2005 is the only album that could safely plant both feet in the "kindie" tradition as it's been most popularly understood -- pulling in rock and other musical traditions beyond folk and pop, and not dependent upon music labels for funding and distribution.

This list, on the other hand, while pulling in elements of folk music and pop, feels like its heart comes from indie rock and some hip-hop.  At this point Brady Rymer (nominated for multiple Grammys) and the Okee Dokee Brothers (winners and nominated multiple times) seem like Grammy royalty, and only Rymer had released an album before 2005.

And unlike lists of recent years, on which Rymer, the Okee Dokee Brothers, and Secret Agent 23 Skidoo had previously appeared, there was no "exception" this year.  No non-kids artist making an album for kids, no spoken-word recitation of a book, no... nothing.  Just five artists all easily described as kindie stars, with roughly 35 albums for kids between them.  I don't want to say it's the perfect "kindie" list, because that implies a qualitative hierarchical distinction that I'm not trying to make.  But I'm not sure I could come up with a list that is... more kindie (as it's currently defined in terminology and example) than this one.

I don't want to say "my work here is done," but I think it's fair to say that one of my goals when I started this site more than a dozen years ago -- raising the visibility of great kids music that drew upon a broad range of musical styles -- has been accomplished.  I'm not taking credit for any of it -- that belongs to the artists themselves -- but I think it's time for me to think (again) about how to further expand the visibility of kids audio to an even wider audience, and to think (much more) about how to further expand who creates kids audio to an even wider creator base.  Because the two are related, and the two are how when we talk about kids music a dozen years from now, somebody will talk about a Grammy list that builds upon the paths the Okee Dokee Brothers and Secret Agent 23 Skidoo further blazed, but doesn't include them, either.

Intro to Kindie: Stefan Shepherd

It has been a long time since I've posted an "Intro to Kindie" list, such a long time that even if you're a regular reader, you'd probably need a reminder of its purpose.  (Here you go: Folks like me who are immersed in the genre provide a one-hour introduction to the genre for people who are unfamiliar with it.  It's the mixtape equivalent of an "elevator pitch.")

There are a lot of reasons for that, mostly having to do with PEOPLE BUSY ALL THE TIME.  And I'd always been planning on doing one of my own, but of course, PEOPLE BUSY ALL THE TIME.  Still, I felt like this post -- my post -- in particular just kept slipping further down off the list, and maybe that's because I thought that putting a list down "on paper" would make this list more permanent that it needs to be.

I would note that this isn't a list of the 20 best kids' songs of all time, or my 20 favorites, or my family's collective 20 favorites, or the 20 most important songs or artists.  Certainly some of these would appear on all such lists, but the purpose for me of this list is something more modest -- simply introduce an unfamiliar listener to kids' music to such music, perhaps with an emphasis on more modern music, but at least a good overview.

So as you look at (and listen to) this list of songs that I think make for a good introduction to kids music past, present, and future, keep in mind that what makes up the past, present, and future is always changing.  (It's changing as I write this.)  I'll still always think these songs are great and important, but my perspective, and kids music generally, will continue to evolve.

Without any further ado -- after all, this has been delayed long enough -- here is my intro to kindie, arranged roughly in alphabetical order:

Ella Jenkins - "Miss Mary Mack"

Pete Seeger - "Skip To My Lou"

Raffi - "Mr. Sun"

Laurie Berkner - "Moon Moon Moon"

Dan Zanes and Friends - "Pay Me My Money Down"

Elizabeth Mitchell - "Little Liza Jane"

They Might Be Giants - "Seven"

The Hipwaders - "Educated Kid"

Medeski, Martin & Wood - "Where's the Music?"

Lunch Money - "A Cookie As Big As My Head"

Secret Agent 23 Skidoo - "Gotta Be Me"

Recess Monkey - "Sack Lunch"

Caspar Babypants - "Stompy the Bear"

The Okee Dokee Brothers - "Can You Canoe?"

Justin Roberts - "Recess"

The Pop Ups - "All These Shapes"

Lucky Diaz and the Family Jam Band - "Piñata Attack"

Jazzy Ash - "Hide and Seek"

Mista Cookie Jar - "Gratitude"

Frances England - "See What We Can See"

Radio Playlist: New Music May 2016

If it's the last of May, can I still post a new music playlist? Of course I can.  It's just 21 minutes, but it's 21 minutes of good stuff.  (If you want to catch my list from April, you can see that playlist here.)

As always, it's limited in that if an artist hasn't chosen to post a song on Spotify, I can't put it on the list, nor can I feature songs from as-yet-unreleased albums.  But I'm always keeping stuff in reserve for the next Spotify playlist.

Check out the list here (or right here in you're in Spotify).

**** New Music May 2016 (May 2016 Kindie Playlist) ****

"Llama" - The Que Pastas

"The Baby's Favorite Song" - Lefty Magee

"I Want to Buy a Monkey" - Sir. Crazy Pants

"Spring in My Step" - I Have a Go

"(Silly) Wheels on the Bus" - Miss Nina & the Jumping Jacks

"Jersey Dinosaurs" - Jason Didner and the Jungle Gym Jam

"The Great Divide" - The Okee Dokee Brothers

"Everything's Better with a Mustache (Walrus Song)" - The Whizpops

Video: "Jackalope" - The Okee Dokee Brothers (World Premiere!)

Is this the mysterious jackalope?

Is this the mysterious jackalope?

After a trip down the (spiritual) heart of the country, the Mississippi River, on their Grammy-winning album Can You Canoe?, and along the Appalachian Trail spine of the East Coast for Through the Woods, it's time for The Okee Dokee Brothers to finish their Adventure Album trilogy.  On Saddle Up, the duo head west for adventures along and around the Continental Divide.

Saddle Up album cover

Saddle Up album cover

As with their previous two albums, this new one celebrates the outdoors in songs both heartfelt and (occasionally) silly.  In more the latter category (but also a little bit the former) falls "Jackalope," a tall tale about a mysterious and rarely seen animal.

For the song's video, Joe Mailander and Justin Lansing recruited a couple westerners to help -- Red Yarn helps out with a familiar puppet, while Laki Karavias, known to kindie fans as one of main ringleaders of the Big World Audio Theatre, handles the cinematography.  I asked Joe and Justin what motivated them to work with the pair of Portland-based musicians, and this is what they said:

We love both of their work as family musicians as well as their work in puppetry and filming. On top of that, they're really nice people with a similar aesthetic to our brand. Justin and I aren't great with puppets, so we reached out to our favorite folk singer/kids musician/puppeteer about using one of his Deep Woods critters for this video. We had thought Andy would need to make a whole new jackalope for us, but he had the great idea of giving Bob Rabbit a makeover. He sent us some photos before they did the filming and we approved of Bob's new look. Both Laki and Andy did a great job of matching Bob's "acting" (which took place in the woods of Portland) with our jackalope hunt story (filmed in AZ during our western trip). When we got the footage back, we were all so surprised at how well everything matched up - from the lighting and setting all the way down to little plot points. It was a real pleasure working with those two.

As for the titular character, when I asked if they'd ever gone jackalope hunting when they were kids, they said:

Yes! Growing up in Colorado we would always see taxidermied jackalopes hung on walls in people's basements or in gift shops. We had some tricky uncles who convinced us that, if we waited long enough, we could catch a jackalope (along with some other strange creatures... snipes come to mind). They would teach us how to hold our gunny sacks and what calls to make in order to lure the jackalopes into our bags. I remember staying out in the woods for hours one night with Justin, whistling and chirping at the moon to no avail.  But guess what, tricky uncles: We did catch something... it might have taken 20 years of wandering around making weird noises, but we caught a song out of the deal!

Joe and Justin seem particularly flummoxed in their search for this particular jackalope, but their fans should enjoy this world premiere video from The Okee Dokee Brothers just fine.

The Okee Dokee Brothers - "Jackalope" [YouTube]