Occasionally I receive a disk that is religious in nature -- this is what happens when you're willing to review religious kids' music (e.g., this Justin Roberts set of disks), even rarely. At this point the number of such disks I've received over the past year or two is approaching double digits. So it's time for a roundup of kids music albums that address in forms high and low, silly and serious, a Higher Power.
Obviously, if you're in the secular/agnostic/athiest camp when it comes to spiritual belief, I doubt this post will be of much interest to you and you should probably just move on. I'm sorry, there's really no way to not write these reviews and not mention God, Jesus, etc. Having said that, the majority of the songs here are appropriate for all families not matter your religious convictions (or lack thereof). And, in any case, I promise this kind of post only comes around once every two or three years.
I think it's also particularly useful for me to outline (in very broad terms) my own religious perspective, because I think most people's reaction to the music here will come not from the quality of the music itself, but from their spiritual attitudes. Anyway, I've been unchurched for much of my life, but have for the past 8 or 9 years been a member of a church affiliated with a liberal, mainstream Protestant denomination. I love the old hymns, can't stand a lot of praise music, and am not the kind of person to proselytize. Preachiness is a turn-off. (And no, I don't like long walks on the beach or kittens, either.) For what it's worth, I don't see conflict between They Might Be Giants' "Science is Real" and my religious beliefs.
Soooo... with those thoughts in mind, I'm ordering the music here not in alphabetical or "quality" order, but rather in order of "preachiness," from least to most. (I can't define "preachiness," other than to say, I know it when I hear it.) I'm not saying that the agnostic among you should listen to any of these albums, but if you're going to give any of them a try, I'm guessing you'll like the albums as a whole more at the start of the list. So let's begin.
OK, I'm cheating a bit, because the first album here is devoid of religious references. The only reason I'm including the late 2009 album Words that Rhymes with Orange from singer-songwriter Ross King here is because he's also a worship leader and usually records Christian music. I have no idea what that music sounds like, but Words that Rhymes with Orange is catchy pop with no small amount of heart and humor. My favorite track on the album is "Lionmonkeybacondonkey," which somehow manages to be funny ("Oh how I / wish I had a monkey that knew how to ride a donkey / I'd teach them both karate cuz you never know") and tender ("And if my monkey and my donkey both had black belts in karate / no one would be mean to me") at the same time. While there are life lessons (e.g., don't whine, try new foods), they're gently presented, and they're mixed with a few totally random songs ("Juicebox," which adds some hip-hop to an ode to the juicebox). OK, I guess the other reason I wanted to mention the album is that I never got around to reviewing it almost 2 years ago and I'm feeling kinda guilty about that omission now. If you didn't have it presented to you in a religious context, you'd probably just find it a nice little kids' CD regardless of your feelings about God. Recommended.
Butterflyfish is the trio of Matthew Myer Boulton, Elizabeth Myer Boulton, and Zoë Krohne who draw inspiration from the music of Dan Zanes and Elizabeth Mitchell in putting together a set of mostly original music celebrating God and faith. Compared to many of the albums on this list, there are probably more songs that explicitly reference God on their two albums, 2009's Ladybug and 2010's Great and Small. But the musical setting of homespun bluegrass and folk (mostly provided by multi-instrumentalist Zachariah Hickman on the first album and from a quartet of folks including Mark Erelli on the latter) and the gentle lyrics from Matthew Myer Boulton don't trigger my interior Preach Alert System. If I had to pick an album for the newcomer to spin, I'd go with the latter Great and Small, which features some fine songs, like the title track or "You Be You." You can listen to samples from both albums here. Butterflyfish takes a Dan Zanes approach to kids music -- this is as much "family music" (consciously so) as it is "kids music." As they sing, on "The Old Familiar," about old hymns, "those harmonies kept me from harm." Both albums are recommended for fans of Zanes and Mitchell who probably already subscribe to the view that singing is a force for good in the world and won't mind a Christian spin on that notion.
But there's more. Much more.
Nashville songwriter Randall Goodgame has written and recorded many contemporary Christian songs, but, more importantly for the purposes of this review, with his Slugs and Bugs writing partner Andrew Peterson, also wrote some VeggieTales songs. So he's got the Christian part down, but he's also got the goofy-music-for-kids thing down, too. The pair's 2006 album Slugs & Bugs & Lullabies is more slugs and bugs than lullabies, and the Nashville pop songs tread comparatively lightly on the religious references -- only five of the songs deal explicitly with God. The rest of the album eschews lesson-teaching for goofy songs about, say, postmen ("Post Office"), bears ("Bears," natch), or modes of transportation (the especially silly "Tractor Tractor"). How not self-serious is the album? -- it comes with the disclaimer "No children were eaten during the making of this record."
After releasing a Christmas album in 2010, there's now a brand new Slugs & Bugs album, Under Where?. Even though the songs are all credited to Goodgame this time around, with a title like "Under Where?" you can be pretty sure that the highbrow/lowbrow mix on the first couple disks is unchanged. Four of the songs deal with the Christian faith (and proclaim it loudly), and the rest of the album doesn't mention it at all, such as aping Queen on "Mexican Rhapsody" or New Kids on the Block on "I Wanna Help." You can listen to a few Slugs & Bugs tracks at the Slugs and Bugs site. Both albums are recommended for families who are comfortable with the occasional praising of the Lord. And, heck, even if you're not, I'd recommend the rest of the albums for a general audience.
Finally, Lisa Weyerhaeuser, AKA La-La-Lisa, provides a poppy sheen for her Christian music. Less than half the songs on her late-2010 release Big Green Alligator specifically reference God, but this felt like the most preachy album I listened to. That's probably because many of the other songs have a specifically moral/instructional bent. There is a continuum of subtllety upon which songwriters can choose to write a song on being careful with your kids, but on a song like "Be Careful What You Say," there isn't much of that. Which can be great for some kids. But isn't so great for the parent with repeated listens. But again, consider my background...
As we finish up the review, a brief detour into Judiasm. I've written more about The Macaroons than somebody who has, er, no connection to Judaism whatsoever. My (comparative) lack of knowledge about the Jewish faith has kept me from reviewing almost any Jewish-related kids music. (Of course, my comparative lack of knowledge about the Christian faith hasn't stopped me, either.) Why do I appreciate Let's Go Coconuts? It's because rather than telling stories about their Jewish faith, the Macaroons (an offshoot of the Jewish rock band The LeeVees) don't set up a barrier to the non-believers. They're stories about rituals -- compare that to the (virtuall non-existent) list of kids songs about the rituals in the Christian faith (not too many kids songs about communion, is there?) All of which would be irrelevant if it weren't accompanied by a killer, mostly indie-rock sound that is, without a doubt, the catchiest set of melodies in this review (and among the catchiest in all kids music). Listen to some songs here if you're interested. I can't recommend listening to Let's Go Coconuts just to understand the Jewish faith, but it's possible that if enough people of all faiths listen to it, there might be a shade more meeting of the minds and a lot more tapping of the feet and bopping of the heads.
Disclosure: With the exception of the Macaroons disk, I received every other album from the artists for possible review.