It's that time of year once more, time for me to give you my rundown of my favorite kids and family albums from 2008.
As always, I use the adjective "favorite" deliberately, as opposed to "best," because taste is subjective. It's why I came up with the idea for the Fids and Kamily Awards -- because I think the opinions of 20 or so attentive listeners are worth more than the opinion of just 1 listener. (I should also note here that "2008" really means Nov. 1, 2007 through Oct. 31, 2008, which means I've already reviewed a few CDs late this year that don't make this list but have a good shot at next year's.)
But for those of you who are interested in what particularly tickled the fancies of this one attentive listener and our family this year, read on...
1. (tie) They Might Be Giants - Here Come the 123s
1. (tie) Barenaked Ladies - Snacktime
1. (tie) Medeski, Martin & Wood - Let's Go Everywhere
Yes, my top 3 albums of the year are from artists who usually make music for adults. OK, perhaps They Might Be Giants have been doing this for the kids long enough to be counted as a full-fledged member in the kids musician union, but the Barenaked Ladies and Medeski, Martin & Wood put forth adventurous and fun albums for the family their first time out of the gate. TMBG rounded up a bunch of excellent videos to go with their occasionally educational songs. Barenaked Ladies applied their their pop-folk humor to a younger age set; to no one's surprise, it worked. Medeski, Martin & Wood's album was playful and totally accessible (psst, don't tell anyone it's jazz or they might not want to listen). Fabulous music all around -- 2008's best.
4. (tie) Justin Roberts - Pop Fly
4. (tie) Recess Monkey - Tabby Road
4. (tie) The Terrible Twos - Jerzy the Giant
The musicians here are slightly more experienced in the kids music biz, and they're the most consistent songwriters in the genre. Justin Roberts was probably ever-so-slightly unfairly advantaged because his previous album is a classic, easily in my top 5 ever; this new album is just as good, just slightly mellower. Recess Monkey just keeps turning out album after album with pop nuggets, as if we'd just discovered that the Beatles had recorded a ton of kids music 40+ years ago. And the Terrible Twos actually straddle the kids music / adult music divide, with Matt Pryor still making music for those of drinking age as well, but his music for (and sometimes with) kids is a string of great character sketches.
7. (tie) Frances England - Family Tree
7. (tie) Secret Agent 23 Skidoo - Easy
There aren't many stylistic similarities between Frances England and Secret Agent 23 Skidoo -- the one produces indie-folk-rock for kids, the other hip-hop for kids. They are, however, wholly original in their sound. England's songs tackle all your usual kids music subjects and celebrates the imagination in a gentle (but not too gentle) manner; accompanied by England's artwork, the album is a guaranteed gift winner. Secret Agent 23 Skidoo has done nothing less than produce the first great kids hip-hop album. But as with the Medeski, Martin & Wood disk, to peg it as a genre disk is to diminish it -- the album will appeal to a wide range of families. It, too, like England's disk, celebrates the imagination. They're not so dissimilar after all.
9. Central Services - ... Presents the Board of Education
I've written many words about the Central Services disk. I've been enamored of these tunes ever since I first heard early versions of them nearly two years ago. The album itself is geared just as much toward older kids as the younger kids who make up the majority of kids' music's target audience, but it's sort of the music equivalent of Young Adult literature -- dealing with themes (or school subjects) your well-past-kindergartner might relate to with a whole bunch of undeniable hooks.
10. Laurie Berkner - Rocketship Run
Laurie Berkner might not have another classic toddler sing-along tune like "We Are the Dinosuars" here, but there is nobody else who is taking such care to make albums for the under-5 set. Matching another set of catchy melodies with some detailed production and her great voice produces this new album. Let's hope it's not another 4 years before her next CD.
11. (tie) Brady Rymer - Here Comes Brady Rymer and the Little Band That Could
11. (tie) The Nields - Rock All Day, Rock All Night
Picking the #10 album for my Fids and Kamily ballot is always the hardest part for me because I end up leaving one or two albums off the list that I really want to be on there. So this year, Brady Rymer and the Nields were thisclose to my Top 10. Rymer continues to refine (and improve) his family-rock sound (and has a Grammy nomination to show for it), while the Nields sisters used their own family to record a double-album of tunes -- one bouncy, one mellow. Another day, and I might have put one of these disks in my top ten...
13. Dan Zanes - Nueva York!
It is odd for me to not put a Dan Zanes disk in my top ten. Recording a whole album in Spanish was an audacious move by the godfather of the kids music revival, and as a result, the new album was a little less accessible than, say, its Grammy-winning predecessor. But it's still a very good disk, filled with the joy and energy that are Zanes' hallmarks. A worthy addition to Zanes' canon.
14. The Hollow Trees - Welcome to Nelsonville
The Hollow Trees, on the other hand, sound a little bit like the Dan Zanes of ten years ago, mining classic American tunes and reinvigorating them with bluegrass and folk takes. The traditionals and covers fit right in with their originals about Nelsonville, a place that's ever-so-slightly like the Hundred Acre Wood. Nelsonville sounds like a place that's a lot of fun, y'know?
15. (tie) - Harmonica Pocket - Ladybug One
15. (tie) - Randy Kaplan - Loquat Rooftop
There's nothing particularly similar about these two disks. The Harmonica Pocket mixes indie pop and traditional toddler favorites with a bit of world music while Kaplan is all over the map with some tin pan alley, folk-rock, and punk. Both albums share the feeling that their creators are following their idiosyncrasies wherever they may lead them, and luckily for us, they're leading both of them down some very musically rewarding paths.
17. Gretchen Eichberger-Kudlack - Songs For Sleepy Beings
My favorite lullaby album of the year. Long-time readers will know that I am particularly picky about lullaby disks, so that is high praise. The album is well-constructed as a lullaby album, starting out with a full band playing some gentle tunes and slowly stripping back the instrumentation until it's just Eichberger-Kudlack playing classical piano melodies. A tiny gem.
18. (tie) Ellis Paul - The Dragonfly Races
18. (tie) Me 3 - The Thin King
18. (tie) David Tobocman - I Count To Ten and Other Very Helpful Songs
When you get to this point in the list, distinguishing between albums is sort of a fool's errand. I know I didn't like these three disks quite as much as I liked my top three. I know I liked them quite a bit, though -- Paul's heartfelt folk-rock-with-a-message (living in the world division), Me 3's quirky indie-rock, and Tobocman's piano-pop-with-a-message (personal skills division). What I don't know is how to distinguish between the three of them for ranking purposes. And, frankly, there were another half-dozen albums that could have pretty easily been on this list as well. But the list has to end sometime and any list that ends with these three disks has got to be a pretty good list.