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.

Review: Flight of the Blue Whale - Pointed Man Band

Flight of the Blue Whale album cover

Flight of the Blue Whale album cover

When you look at the Amazon page for Flight of the Blue Whale, the second album from Portland, Oregon's Pointed Man Band, here are the three genres in which Dan Elliott (who in the great indie rock tradition has taken on a band nom de plume for his music) has slotted the album:

- Children's Music

- Avant Garde & Free Jazz

- Miscellaneous

That, readers, is a review -- and an accurate one -- in seven words.  Oh, were we all able to be so concise!  But citations of Amazon genre categorizations are not why you visit this site, so onward I press.

In my review of the debut Pointed Man Band album Swordfish Tango from 2013, I wrote that the album was a "combination of Tom Waits and Shel Silverstein, the Beatles and Parisian cafes, the music [smelling] of hardwood floors and flannel and wood construction blocks."  The follow-up is both slightly more mainstream and weirder, if that's possible.

Flight of the Blue Whale tells a story in song of a red fox who operates a small clock and watch repair shop, comes home to find moles invading his garden and the town, and goes off on an adventure to... well, it ends with a flight of a blue whale.  What happens in that ellipsis is, frankly, a little confusing and I don't even really think that's the point.  Bottom line, the more conventional narrative drive of the story -- whose moral is about taking time to dream and not just work -- is just a structure on which to hang these songs.

And the songs are just as odd as their predecessors.  The album kicks off with perhaps the most straightforward track, "Red Fox," an indie-pop tune featuring an infectiously catching organ motif, but from that track, we move on to the stomping sound of "Moles on Parade" and the accordion-drenched near-instrumental "Valse de Taupier," one of a couple waltzes on the album.  Sometimes Elliott sounds like Tom Waits (as on "Moles" and "Baleen Curse"), but more often his voice will remind listeners of a certain age and sensibility of David Byrne, as on careening "The Plan" and the modern big band sound of "Tunneling to Paradise."  The title track (another instrumental) sounds like a Parisian cafe dragged begrudingly out to the seaside.

The 33-minute album will be most appreciated by kids ages 5 through 9.  You can listen to the album here.  (I also think the album artwork from Brooke Weeber is lovely and complements the album and story itself.)

Flight of the Blue Whale is most definitely not an album that will please all listeners.  It is, as I've noted, a little confusing in places, esoteric in its musical choices -- it's not eager to please.  It is, however, joyful and all those things I just mentioned are also its strengths.  Some kids and families will adore this album -- they are the families who probably really liked Wes Anderson's take on The Fantastic Mr. Fox.  (Note: We were one of those families.  This album is in some sense a spiritual sequel to it.)  So, not for everyone, but maybe for you.  Definitely recommended.

Note: I received a copy of the album for possible review.

Video: "Spring Day" - Karen K and the Jitterbugs

I know, I already featured the stream of "Spring Day" from Karen K and the Jitterbugs, but since the Boston area is in the low 50s today, it's clear that they need all the spring-affirming good vibes in the song and video.

But clearly, any time you take out your frustrations on a homemade reproduction of Olaf from Frozen, as one kid does in the video, it's time for winter to end.

Karen K and the Jitterbugs - "Spring Day" [YouTube]

Review: The Start of Things - Alison Faith Levy

The Start of Things cover

The Start of Things cover

Kids' music in the 1960s -- that is to say, kids' music before there was even a name for it -- basically took the folk music path that was one of the dominant musical strains of the era.  For Pete Seeger and Ella Jenkins, there was some distinction between folk music for adults and that for kids, but it was a distinction more of presentation than of subject matter.  And that folk music orientation was basically the default kids' music option through the '80s if not the '90s until the kindie wave swept through at the start of the 21st century.

Imagine, however, if other musical strains of the decade -- psychedelic pop, Phil Spector's Wall of Sound production -- also found themselves working their way into kids'  music with songs for the youngest listener.  Were that to have been the case, Alison Faith Levy's brand-new album The Start of Things would be a stellar example of that alternate reality rather than sounding so unique in today's kindie landscape.

Levy first came to the attention of the kids' music world as a member of the Bay Area band The Sippy Cups, which started out as a kid-friendly cover band for the music of the '60s and '70s before gradually becoming a band which wrote its own psychedelic-inspired kindie pop.  The band had been on hiatus for several years before Levy released her first solo album, World of Wonder, in 2012.  While there were echoes of the Sippy Cups' psychedelic and Wall of Sound production on that first solo album, it's much more pronounced on The Start of Things.  The opening title track features a groovy organ, horns, and the theme of how it's OK to be nervous when tackling a new project (first day of school, opening night of a play, etc.).  It's my favorite track on the album, just a great pop song for kids that a lot of adults might sneak into their own playlists.

The track "Pull Your Weeds" envisions a friendship between Cinderella and Snow White and the empowering lyric (printed on the inside of the CD package, so clearly resonant with Levy) "Do your thing / Love what you do / Appreciate your beauty / Pull your weeds and / Stand your ground / And the world will come around."  While "The Start of Things," Pull Your Weeds," and songs like "Rainbow Tunnel" and "Little Dreamer" sound like they could easily be part of a musical Levy is working on based on World of Wonder.

Other songs, however, are rooted more in interactivity -- the raucous "Are You Happy?" runs through a series of emotions that the kid-listeners are encouraged to mimic.  The "Ballad of Boo Ghosty" is a silly little story about a ghostly friend, while "The Froggy Dance" is a nonsense poem.  Given these tracks, the 32-minute album will be most appropriate for kids ages 3 through 6, though some of the songs mentioned earlier in the review have a slightly older age range.

The Start of Things has a '60s-inspired sound, but it still sounds fresh.  That colorful and rainbow-adorned album cover nails the vibe of Levy's bright and empowered songs.  Definitely recommended.

Note: I received a copy of the album for possible review.

Video: "Penguinese" - Recess Monkey

Hot Air album cover

Hot Air album cover

Spring: like clockwork, the arrival of spring means that regular season baseball, cherry blossoms in DC, and new Recess Monkey music are all on their way.

Yes, in the kindie world's least surprising (albeit very pleasant) news, the Seattle trio have announced a release date for their forthcoming album Hot Air.  It'll take flight (see what I did there?) June 16, and on top of the music (produced once again by band muse John Vanderslice), it'll also include a DVD with accompanying videos that tell their own story, including, to be sure, the video below for "Penguinese."  Yep, there's a new kid in town and he's a fancy dresser...

Recess Monkey - "Penguinese" [YouTube]

Upcoming: All Kinds of You and Me - Alastair Moock

All Kinds of You and Me cover

All Kinds of You and Me cover

I don't do "album announcements" much these days, but I decided to make an exception for Alastair Moock's upcoming album All Kinds of You and Me for a few reasons:

1) Just 'cause.  No need for strict adherence to somewhat arbitrary rules.

2) That album cover, featuring a drawing from fellow kindie musician and illustrator Key Wilde which captures Moock's attitude and music quite well, I think.

3) This sounds like a really cool project.

Now, Moock's last project was pretty darn cool.  Moock recorded Singing Our Way Through as a response to his daughter Clio's experience fighting leukemia, looking for a musical way to help families in similar situations respond to life with cancer.  It was an excellent album which garnered a number of accolades, including a Grammy nomination, not to mention being distributed to nearly 3,000 patient families.  How do you follow that?

Well, Moock chose to follow that by recording All Kinds of You and Me as a follow-up of sorts to the Marlo Thomas classic Free To Be... You and Me, engaging with themes of gender, ethnicity, identity, and family in the 21st century.  Given how well loved Free To Be... is by many of Moock's (and, well, my) generation, he's set himself a high bar to reach, but I'm hopeful he's up to the task.  (Also helpful: getting folks like Rani Arbo, Anand Nayak, Jennifer Kimball of The Story, Mark Erelli, and more to join in.)

All Kinds of You and Me will be released June 19.  Definitely one to look forward to.