At the risk of over-simplification, I think there are five kinds of kids music albums:
1. Explicitly educational music (for the most part, left undiscussed here),
2. Renditions of traditional kids songs (e.g., Raffi, early Laurie Berkner),
3. Rock/pop/folk songs with kid-focused lyrics (Ralph's World, Justin Roberts, later Laurie Berkner, tons more),
4. Music geared at the whole family simultaneously (Dan Zanes, Elizabeth Mitchell).
Well, the fifth type looks a bit askew at the kids music genre. If it doesn't quite subvert the genre, it doesn't quite buy into it, either. They Might Be Giants, who could easily fit into the rock/pop/folk category above, fit here, as do albums from folks like Duplex and the Quiet Two. You can also lump in every album that attempts to fit the kids song peg into an adult hole (traditional kids songs... done in electronica!) or the adult peg into the kids music hole (ahem, I'm looking at you, Rockabye Baby). I wouldn't want a kids music library consisting of nothing but albums from this category, but their quirkiness is a welcome change, even from nothing but excellent albums in the other categories.
For those of you looking for an album in that fifth category, I can't commend John and Mark's Children's Record to you highly enough. The album is the creation of John Upchurch and Mark Greenberg, who played together in the Coctails many years ago and now find themselves each father to three kids. The album was inspired, of course, by life with their kids, but the result sounds like little else you will hear this year.
"The Lawnmower" kicks off the album with a kid's lament that he might be trapped inside the house all summer long since the grass has grown so high before chugging into a country-folk tune which will have you humming "the lawnmower goes off / and the lawnmower goes on" and the killer couplet "I can rest well assured / of a lawn well-manicured." It's the kids music album equivalent of "you had me at 'hello'." From there the album moves into "A Counting Error," which beyond its lyrical subversion (to tell you more would ruin the surprise) has funky "Mahna Mahna"-style vocalizing, whistling, and sax interspersed. I can't think of a more striking kids song all year.
"Pat, the Alligator Lady" is an odd little song about a lady who, Greenberg says, ran a rescue shelter for odd animals in an 80-year-old Victorian house. "The Elephant Leads the Way" is a poppy banjo-accented number followed up by "People Have Good Reasons," which sounds like it lost its way from another album made just for adults -- the spoken-word carousel tune is amusing, but it's the album's one false step as kids'll probably be mystified ("It is very VERY important / So precautions that they've taken are all warranted / And accepted / as a rule of law").
And on it goes. I have no idea what the titular shoes are of "Honey Boots," and the lyrics consist primarily of "I've got my honey boots on," but that's one of the joys of this collection -- not everything is spelled out. "Colors" is about, yes, colors, but it's as if Shel Silverstein wrote a poem about colors and asked Sufjan Stevens to write song to along with it. The album mellows as it draws to a close, ending with a lullaby ("Until the Dawn") and a slow instrumental ("In My Blue House").
The album is about 35 minutes long and most appropriate for kids ages 2 through 7; you can download a couple tracks -- including the sublime "A Counting Error" -- here. You can download the entire album from iTunes or eMusic. But I should mention the album packaging (designed by former Coctail member Archer Prewitt) is beautiful and well worth the additional shipping cost (the album costs the same in physical format as through iTunes).
As you can tell by now, I think this album is fabulous. It is a bit odd perhaps, but I've figured out over time that what separates the great "odd" albums from the annoying ones is love -- that people love the genre and the kids in their lives and they're making music borne out of their own musical and personal experiences. John and Mark's Children's Record reflects that love in spades. It's one of my favorite albums of the year. Highly recommended.