My final entry in my list of the best kids music of 2010 is my list of my favorite kids music albums of the year. (And by "year," again, I mean Nov. 1, 2009 through Oct. 31, 2010 release dates available to the general public.)
I do use the word "favorite" advisedly. I get what I'm guessing is close to 300 family music albums every year. I review maybe 20% of those (if that much), even picking out 20 means that some albums in my top 10% of favorite albums don't get listed. (No Ralph's World? No Moona Luna? No Essie Jain or Keller Williams? Albums I genuinely liked considerably? That's how hard it is at this point.) So the difference between what goes in this list and what stays off is as much about personal preferences as it is about "objective" quality. (That's why I came up with the idea for Fids and Kamily, thinking that the personal preferences of many folks would be a much better approximation of "best.")
In any case, here are those albums, ranked from most favorite to a little less most favorite, that I (and we) most appreciated this year. (The top 10 reflects my Fids and Kamily ballot.)
1. Justin Roberts - Jungle Gym (review): Justin Roberts is starting to make family music reviewers look bad because his continued excellence leaves us scrambling to find new ways to write the same old thing -- how do we talk about his songcraft without repeating ourselves or draining all the enjoyment out of his music? How about this, then? Roberts is our generation's finest family music songwriter and Jungle Gym, his best album yet, is my favorite kids music album of the year.
2. Key Wilde and Mr. Clarke - Rise and Shine (review): I waited for this debut album for nearly three years after I first heard music from the New York/New Jersey area duo. It was worth the wait. It's joyful, tuneful, fanciful. Wilde's also designed a wonderful physical packaging for the album. It's been nearly a year since the album was released, and that's just too long.
3. The Pop Ups - Outside Voices (review): While KWMC's debut was three years in the making, a culmination of a long process, the arrival of Brooklyn's Pop Ups on the kids music scene was totally unexpected. I don't use this word often, but the reaction from some quarters (including, well, this one) was "rapturous," and for good reason. It seamlessly blended preschool-friendly topics with beats and sounds covering the past forty-plus years of popular music and filled in a gap in the kids music scene we didn't even know existed.
4. Elizabeth Mitchell - Sunny Day (review): Mitchell's fourth solo album for families was her second for Smithsonian Folkways and, I believe, her first recorded specifically for Folkways. To these ears the new album reflected a deliberate shift in her approach to making family music. Mitchell very much sees herself as part of Folkways long line of musicians who didn't see themselves so much as making music for people as much as making music with people. If you're listening and not joining in, making music of your own, then you're not getting quite all of it.
5. Recess Monkey -The Final Funktier (review): Are there any other superlatives I can heap upon the Seattle trio that I haven't already? Best hopscotchers I know? Best stuffed animal band manager in the business? They make it hard. The new album features another solid collection of songs from a band that already has a greatest hits album's worth of solid songs. They show no signs of slowing down, which is good news for families everywhere.
6. Billy Kelly -Is This Some Kind of Joke? (review): I have not laughed louder at any album this year than at Kelly's follow-up to Thank You For Joining the Happy Club. Kelly was working on a more typical kids music album when, as if possessed by one of the aliens he sings about on the album, he was motivated to make this "musical comedy album" targeted at a slightly older audience. Now, most of Kelly's songs can already be classified as "musical comedy," but here he just dials up the comedy a little bit more. I have never looked at cardboard boxes the same way.
7. (tie) Rani Arbo & daisy mayhem - Ranky Tanky (review): As I think back on this album, what I'm most struck by is that I didn't think Arbo and her bandmates had put out an album that fully captured the vibrancy of this band. Yes -- what I'm saying is that my seventh favorite album of the year, an album that is the musical descendent of Dan Zanes, had room for improvement. I don't know when they'll be making another album specifically for families, but let me make it clear -- I really, really, really hope they do.
7. (tie) Randy Kaplan - The Kids Are All Id (review): Kaplan is a raconteur, a weaver of stories. He makes old songs sound new and new songs sound timeless. He's got a slightly nasally voice that can adapt to any number of different characters but sounds beautfiul on the (few) times he's asked to break it out. He has many personalities, and for that I'm very grateful.
9. Various Artists - Many Hands: Family Music for Haiti (review): Family music from family musicians, proceeds benefiting Haitian relief efforts? It could've been middling. I mean, how many times have bought a benefit album and found that the music just didn't hold up its end of the bargain? You'd've been better off just sending the charity a tax-deductible $10 check and spending the extra $5 on an EP from your favorite band. Not this time. The accolades are all deserved -- it's a great idea, a great cause, and a great album. Best compilation of the years, (many) hands down.
10. Gwendolyn and the Good Time Gang - Clap Your Hands (review): Most of the albums on this list target older kids; to her credit, Gwendolyn has spent the family-music side of her career pretty much ignoring the first graders and instead focusing on those first graders' younger siblings. For the most part, her albums have passed under the radar, which is a shame, because for that audience (and their parents), her songs are a perfect fit. It's her best album yet.
11. (tie) Caspar Babypants - More Please! (review) / Dean Jones with the Felice Brothers - Rock Paper Scissors (review) / Secret Agent 23 Skidoo - Underground Playground (review): The hardest decision point of these lists every year is the #10 slot in my Fids and Kamily list. If you'd asked me at a different time, any of these three albums might be sitting at #10 instead. Three very different albums, one relaxing and bouncy, one chaotic and tender, one thumping and soaring. All very good.
14. The Deedle Deedle Dees - American History + Rock 'N' Roll = Deedle Deedle Dees (review) / Okee Dokee Brothers - Take It Outside (review): I didn't place these two bands together just because they're competing for the "most 'eeee' sounds in a band name" title. I placed 'em together because they're both bands taking slightly idiosyncratic approaches to their music (the Dees, history; Okee Dokees, bluegrass). And because both albums were lots of fun. That seems like enough.
16. (tie) Not-Its - Time Out To Rock (review) / Candy Band - High Five (review) / Renee and Jeremy - C'mon (review): These three bands released new albums that didn't tinker (much) with the fomula that worked for them on their prior albums. (Maybe R&J, but only in terms of tempo, really). Power-pop, proto-punk, and blissed-out harmonies/beats -- all fabulous.
Various Artists - Jazz Playground (review): My favorite of the Putumayo Kids "Playground" disks. It deftly mixes new and old, English and non-English, traditional and not-totally-traditional for an excellent blend of music. In a year which suggested that "jazz for kids" was making a comeback, this was my favorite jazz disk of the year.
20. (tie) Haley Bonar - Sing With Me (review) / Lucky Diaz - Luckiest Adventure (review) / Salteens - Kid Songs (review): OK, I lied, these are my 22 favorite albums of the year, not 20. But these three EPs combined make for a pretty great 45 minutes of music. It'd be the weirdest, most schizophrenic kids music album ever, but with tons of fabulous songs. (For least whiplash, I'd probably listen to them in the inverse of the order listed here.)