Keep Kindie Weird

Music for Parents and Children cover

Music for Parents and Children cover

Just last week the long-running kids radio show Greasy Kid Stuff aired its last show after 22 years on the air.  There are many different shows that have played an important role in giving kids music a broader audience, many with slightly different niches, but I think the niche that hosts Belinda and Hova mined particularly well was that of weird kids music.  I think that more than any other kids radio show, their playlists sometimes featured songs that had a little "WTH" ("H" for "heck," because we're still running a family-friendly website here) to them.  There was slightly more of an element of surprise to the shows and the playlists.

As we reach the 20th anniversary of albums like Laurie Berkner's Whaddaya Think of That? and the huge wave of kindie that eventually followed, there can be little doubt that the amount and overall quality of recorded music released into the world is an improvement to the world into which dinosaur-stomping was introduced.  But even though the quantity and quality and even to some extent the diversity of the music has improved, I am rarely surprised by kids music these days.

Don't get me wrong, I still think what is being released is fun and is definitely worth sharing with families.  And I fully realize that listening to, what, 3,000? 4,000? albums over the past 15 or so years gives me a perspective that is, for better or worse, far more exhaustive (or exhausting) than that of the typical parent, which means that I may crave novelty more than most.  But I've been struck recently at how predictable -- often in good ways, but not all the time -- kids music is.

Which may explain my affinity for two of the -- let's just say it -- weirder kids music albums I've heard in some time, Froggins & Big's Dessert Island and Kleve & Davis' Music for Parents and Children.  These are two weird and often unpredictable sets of songs.

Dessert Island album cover

Dessert Island album cover

Let's start with Froggins & Bug.  The band is another spinoff from Dean Jones’ Dog on Fleas, which is slowly moving towards establishing a DOFMU (Dog on Fleas Musical Universe) of different bands.  This band features Dean Jones and saxophonist Shane Kirsch riffing on a whole bunch of silly topics with some backup musical help from occasional Fleas Ken McGloin, Dean Sharp, and Jim Curtin.  And with Dessert Island it’s odd to think of a jazz-inflected Dog on Fleas-related band that traffics heavily in spoken-word comedic riffs as being the less weird of two albums in a comparison, but here we are.

Jones tends to play the straight man to Kirsch, who’s most often the confused character.  “Sports,” in which Kirsch makes up a bunch of sports that sound awfully familiar, and “Dessert Island,” which takes its inspiration from the extra “s” in the title, are perhaps the silliest, but hardly the only such goofs.  (There’s also “Red Red Red Red Red,” which features Jones’ classic line, “That’s a whole lot of adjective, and not a lot of noun,” uttered after Kirsch sings the title repeatedly.)

But there’s plenty of silliness for the two of them to share, as in “Literal Red Riding Hood,” in which the two of them trade stories of the difficulties encountered by the metaphorically-challenged Red, and “Puppets Are Controlled by People,” which takes about a minute to outline the song title’s thesis.  And even the occasional moment of beauty, as on “I’d Like to Live in Your Hat,” and “I Wish I Could Eat Pinecones.”

But, really, it’s 35 minutes of jazz improv that’s pitched just young enough to that kids may get hep to it.  It’s odd, and miles away from generic songs about brushing teeth or pets.  There are many songs about pets, but we could use a handful of songs about jokey failures to understand metaphor to even out the balance.

Music for Parents & Children, on the other hand, is a little bonkers.  It’s by the Philly-area duo Klebe and Davis (who in reality are brothers Dave and Matt Amadio).  This isn’t their first album, though it is their first for kids.  They cite Warren Zevon, Frank Zappa, Tom Waits and Ween as inspirations, and there’s an anarchy that you just don’t hear in kids music much at all these days.

When I was listening to the album for the first time, there were parts where I honestly didn’t know where the song was heading to next.  On “And Then Pretend,” they leap from one improbable imaginative situation to the next.  The dreamy “Fire Drill” features a surreal day where a class of schoolkids are sent outside for the fire drill, and then nobody comes to collect them at the end of the drill -- by the end of the day they haven’t reached a “Lord of the Flies” situation, but some of them are in fact eating grass.  And the stomping rocker “Piece of Fuzz” makes a simple piece of fuzz positively ominous (with a kicker of a joke at the end).

Mix in 3 different fake ads (45 seconds long, enough to develop the joke, not enough to get bored with it) and other silliness and this is oddity on the level of John and Mark’s Children’s Album or Billy Kelly’s Is This Some Sort of Joke?.  (One final joke worth mentioning -- “Worst Day” features the line “this is the worst day of my life so far”… sung from the viewpoint of a kid who’s just been born.)   It’s a half-hour of music that captures childhood in its exhilaration and uncertainty and sounds unlike anything you’ve heard this year, I can pretty much guarantee.

Obviously albums that are a little further “out there” in terms of their musical, lyrical, and thematic approaches generally self-limit their audiences.  (By being a little brainier than most, they already probably limit their target audience to kids ages 6 and up.)  And listening to nothing but these two albums would deny your family the pleasures of a 3-minute pop or R&B song, a folk music standard, or a classical piece centuries old.  But I’d suggest that the weirdness heard within is just as important to a well-rounded musical and cultural life as hearing those different musical genres.  In a time when breaking through your own personal bubbles is important to understand the world around our families, giving albums like these two a louder voice has merit, too.

Top Kids and Family Podcasts (June 2017)

It's been maybe 6 weeks since the last time I looked at ranking podcasts for kids, and it feels like things are continuing to change for the better. (For those of you interested, here is May's list of top-ranked kids and family podcasts.)  If you're looking for a podcast for kids, you could of course look at my list of podcasts for kids (now above 100!), but if that's a bit overwhelming, try the podcasts listed below.   Popularity isn't always synonymous with quality, but you could do much worse than dipping into the shows ranked below to start out.

In terms of big developments on the content side, I'm going to go with the debut of Circle Round, the new storytelling podcast from public radio's WBUR in Boston.  With just one episode (a pilot with Jason Alexander), the show already cracked this list.  When the show fully debuts in the fall, I'm sure it's going to move considerably higher.

The bigger development is really the overall health of the ecosystem.  May's list set or tied records regarding the number of shows in these lists, but June's list blew way by those records.  There are 19 ranked shows below -- meaning 16 shows that appeared in the top 100 of both the iTunes and Stitcher "kids and family" charts -- just 2-3 months ago we usually only saw 10 or 11.   The total number of podcasts listed below is 35, by far a record high.  A total of 4 podcasts below hit the overall iTunes Top 200, while in the Top 200 Kids & Family chart on iTunes, the total there (42) exceeded last month's record by 9 shows.  (The Stitcher total of 25 tied the record.)  It's not clear if it's summer vacation, road trips, smart home speakers, or something else, but way more people know about kids podcasts now than did just a few months ago.

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 United States iTunes and Stitcher "kids and family" charts on Monday, June 26, 2017.  Podcasts that appear on both charts are listed with numbers; remaining podcasts only appeared on one list.)  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. Brains On!

2. Wow in the World

3. Stories Podcast

4. Storynory

5.  The Unexplainable Disappearance of Mars Patel

6. Tumble

7. Eleanor Amplified

8. Story Pirates

9. The Alien Adventures of Finn Caspian

10. Story Time

11. But Why

12. Peace Out

13.  The Cramazingly Incredifun Sugarcrash Kids

14.  Ear Snacks

15. Short and Curly

16. Children Stories and Joyful Podcasts

17.  Circle Round

18. Spare the Rock, Spoil the Child

19. The Radio Adventures of Dr. Floyd

Others (listed alphabetically): 1001 Classic Short Stories and Tales, Activated Stories, Bedtime History, The Children's Corner, Children's Fun Storytime Podcast, Disney Story Central, Dream Big, Family Folk Tales, Little Stories for Tiny People, Official Adventures in Odyssey, Podcast Kid, Saturday Morning Theatre, Sparkle Stories, The Story Home, That Story Show, What If World

The Best of Kids Podcasts from May 2017

As we begin to wrap up June 2017, it's time to take a look back at some of the very best episodes from the kids podcast world in May 2017.

Now, if you want to get the background on how I'm using the RadioPublic iOS app to publish these lists, feel free to go back and read my list of the best of kids podcasts from March 2017. (Or if you want to hear what you missed last month, here's the best of kids podcasts from April 2017.)  But otherwise, just know that you can listen to these specific episodes from the RadioPublic app or right here by using the widget below.

There were way more episodes I considered or listened to than the (admittedly arbitrary) ten-episode limit I'm imposing on myself.  So while this is maybe a sampler as much as the "best," strictly speaking, I won't steer you wrong, I promise.  With that, let's begin with the list from May 2017!  (Use this link to listen from the RadioPublic website.)

[P.S.  I don't know why the Brains On elevator piece is still showing up, and why the Ear Snacks and Past and the Curious pieces aren't in the full playlist, but individual links show up below...]

[P.P.S.  If you've stumbled upon this list more than a month after I've posted it, the overall list has probably been updated, but you can stream each episode below.]

(In no particular order)

Sparkle Stories: "Cats New Home" [Another good introduction to a well-loved series of tales from Sparkle Stories.]

But Why: "Why Are Some Animals Pets and Others Are Lunch?" [I think this is an excellent discussion of ethics of pet ownership, a good match for a Short and Curly episode on a similar topic.]

Story Pirates: "Ep. 51: Eat a Spider Day" [I loved this.]

What If World: "Ep. 32 - What If Sharks Had Legs?" [Star Wars and bad puns.  You've heard of dad jokes and dad rock?  This is dad podcast.]

Story Time: "A Longish Tale written by Michael Ryan" [A shaggy dog story, except it features a long-tailed marmoset.]

Good Stuff Kids: "Episode #70 - Frances England" [Always happy to hear kids musicians talk about their work on this podcast.]

Hello, World!

Jamie Johnson Football Podcast: "Episode 9: Jurgen Klopp, Georgia Stanway & Nikita Parris" [I'm more of a Bundesliga guy, but this great for the Premier League fan in your house.]

Wow in the World: "Corn Your Toes and Blast-Off To The Moon!" [Yay for NPR, Mindy Thomas, and Guy Rax.  75% science, 25% silly.]

Ear Snacks: "Extra: Facts! (Steven Drozd)" [Not one but two musician interviews in this playlist.  This one with Steven Drozd is pretty silly.]

The Past and the Curious: "On The Move: Nelly Bly, Henry Box Brown, All Around this World" [Listen to this episode then listen to the Deedle Deedle Dees songs about the people, too!]

Bidding a Greasy Adieu to Greasy Kid Stuff

Greasy Kid Stuff logo by Rodney Alan Greenblat

Greasy Kid Stuff logo by Rodney Alan Greenblat

I saw on Twitter yesterday that the radio show Greasy Kid Stuff was coming to an end this weekend, and I thought it was important to publicly celebrate the show before it permanently went off the air.

Longtime readers are probably familiar with GKS, but if you’re not, the show was started 22 (!) years ago by Belinda Miller and Hova Najarian, airing on legendary New York station WFMU long before the couple became parents.  From the beginning, Belinda and Hova -- it was always Belinda and Hova, their last names have mostly been an afterthought -- were less interested in “kids music” as much as they wanted to play weird music they thought kids would enjoy as adults.  They weren’t the only kids music show (and they probably would issue with the idea that it was mostly for kids, but they were definitely the oddest, a mix of Dr. Demento, Sesame Street, and 120 Minutes.  And as kids music moved into a more kindie direction, they certainly shined a spotlight on artists that fit their somewhat off-center sensibility, but never fully embraced the full-on conventional kids music world.

That was, in my view, to their credit and benefit.  As I noted in my review of their third and final compilation of music (yep, they released three albums in total, all worth tracking down), I think kids music embraced Belinda and Hova’s approach as much as Belinda and Hova embraced kids music.  They weren’t the only radio outlet that took that view, but on the whole I think they did it longer than anyone else.

After moving across the country to Portland, Oregon in 2004 (and also becoming parents), Belinda and Hova eventually moved their show to 94.7 FM in Portland and more recently XRAY.FM.  (Why am I noting those links?  Because you can still find playlists, at least for WFMU and XRAY.FM, online if you want to see how unique those playlists are.)  But after 22 years, they’ve decided to hang up their headphones and microphones.  As they put it in a Facebook announcement earlier this month, they have “decided we’d like to see what it’s like to have regular weekends.”

I can’t say I blame them.  Twenty-two years is a long time to work on anything, and they have earned the right to break out the bedazzler and make some art (Belinda’s goal).  But the kids music community owes Belinda and Hova a big round of thanks for the many years of playing their music and for supporting the idea that kids can embrace music outside of the mainstream.

Greasy Kid Stuff logo by Musho Rodney Alan Greenblat

Radio Playlist: New Music June 2017

Summer is here -- today! -- and there's no stopping the kids music playlists.  A dozen songs, three dozen minutes, and if you want more, feel free to check out the May list here.

As always, these Spotify playlists are 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 June 2017 (June 2017 Kindie Playlist) ****

"Tilt-A-Whirl" - Trapper Schoepp

"Dance party avec un hérisson" - Dana & the Petit Punks

"Sunshine Sunny Sun Sunshine Day" - Danny Weinkauf

"Gozar" - Mister G

"Elephants" - Uncle Dox

"Superhero 2017 Remix (feat. Carly Ciarrocchi)" - Tim Kubart

"Go Out and Play" - Zigzag and the Astronauts

"I'm a Bear Now" - Will Parker

"Toss the Toys Blues" - Brenda Kahn

"Mozartistic (feat. Orion Weiss & Marley Carroll)" - Secret Agent 23 Skidoo

"Subway" - Joanie Leeds and the Nighlights

"Captain Brown Beard" - Mr. Dave

Summer Road Trip Playlist!

Swing Set album cover

Swing Set album cover

Beth Blenz-Clucas, proprietor of Sugar Mountain PR, has, for a number of years, compiled a summer road trip playlist featuring tracks from her clients.  This summer is no different, and there's a bunch of new and excellent tracks for your listening pleasure, including music from as-yet-unreleased albums from Lucky Diaz and the Family Jam Band, Danny Weinkauf, and Jazzy Ash, whose album Swing Set comes out July 21.  That's the very playful cover art over there.  (There's also music from artists like Lisa Loeb, Justin Roberts, and more.  Peep the list below.)

And while there's nothing definitively "road-trip-y" about the set (only Jazzy Ash's "She'll Be Comin' Round the Mountain" and Weinkauf's "Transportation") specifically suggest travel, it's an entertaining set nonetheless.  For the next week you can download it for free, but you can listen to it all summer.