The high point in my list of the best kids music of 2011 is this, my list of my favorite kids music albums of the year.
By "year," again, I mean albums with Nov. 1, 2010 through Oct. 31, 2011 release dates available to the general public. That means albums like Laura Veirs' Tumble Bee, with a Nov. 8, 2011 release date, have to wait another 12 months before appearing in this list. (I would be shocked -- albeit incredibly delighted -- if there were 25 albums better than that particular one in the next year.)
I do use the word "favorite" advisedly. I receive something approaching 300 family music albums every year. I review maybe 20% of those. Last year I picked out 20 albums, and cutting off this list this year at 20 just seemed cruel. But, as it turns out, increasing the number on the list to 25 didn't make things any easier. Albums from folks like Laura Doherty, Chip Taylor, Todd McHatton, and ScribbleMonster -- albums I genuinely liked -- didn't make the list. That's what happens when albums in the top 10% of everything I heard this year can't fit into the number of slots available; I had probably about 40 albums I was seriously considering for this list. 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 25 albums, ranked from most favorite to a little less most favorite, that I (and we) most appreciated this year. (As always, the top 10 reflects my Fids and Kamily ballot.)
1. Caspar Babypants
"I really, really like Sing Along! -- the Caspar Babypants disks have been favorites at our house for a long time, and I see no reason why this new album won't join its predecessors in heavy rotation. If he can keep it up, Chris Ballew might just create a body of work for preschoolers to rival Raffi's."
2. (tie) Frances England | Lunch Money | Recess Monkey
Mind of My Own | Original Friend | FLYING!
[Review | Review |
"One of the key charms of England's first two albums was the lo-fi intimacy England achieved that fit her folky sound. But if on those albums she was willing to make the recordings be akin to a secret shared between friends, on the new album she's a proud 4-year-old, sharing the news with all the world."
"Original Friend is every bit as "open book" as its predecessor Dizzy, but this time around songwriter Molly Ledford's subject is friendship. Friendship temporarily lost and then regained (the strings-assisted 1-minute opener "Friends Again"); friends who are awesome (the title track, and a prototypical Lunch Money indie-pop song); friends willing to imagine with you (the pop-by-way-of-circus-music "Getaway Car")."
"At this point the band writes succinctly
And perhaps a little distinctly
There's almost no fluff
Or extraneous stuff
The melodies simply just hit me."
5. (tie) The Hipwaders | Dan Zanes and Friends
Golden State | Little Nut Tree
[Review | [Review]
"Where are the albums for kids too old for Laurie Berkner but not ready for Lady Gaga? This year's best album for that age group is the latest record from the Bay Area band The Hipwaders. It's called The Golden State, and as you might guess from the title, it's a big, sunny power-pop embrace of their homestate..."
"So, it was worth the wait, friends... It's a joyful album meant for listening and dancing and singing along to -- in other words, a classic Dan Zanes album and one of the best kids music albums of the year."
7. (tie) Cat and a Bird | Lori Henriques
Cat and a Bird | Outside My Door
[Review | Review]
"Cat and a Bird is fairly new to the scene -- the band's website isn't even set up as of this writing. But their self-titled debut bristles with an energy and self-assurance that pays dividends. Their sound -- mixing elements of folk, rock, electronic beats, and gypsy violin -- sometimes sounds both 100 years old and from 100 years in the future."
"It's a Broadway (or perhaps off-Broadway) musical waiting to be made, or perhaps the subject of the first kids' music-themed episode of Marian McPartland's Piano Jazz, or a Randy Newman album consisting of pleasant narrators."
9. (tie) Caspar Babypants | Holly Throsby
This Is Fun! | See!
"The title suggests that Ballew is finally feeling comfortable in this his new skin of family entertainer. And while you never would've known that he was uncomfortable after listening to his first two tons-of-fun disks, it is a clue that Ballew has begun to figure out his calling. That calling? Focusing on preschool-aged kids and younger." [Note: Yeah, I know. Two spots in the Top 10. I almost thought of limiting CB to just one spot on the list. But that didn't seem fair to this album, which was nearly as good as its successor.]
"One of most captivating family music albums I've heard this year. Recorded at an old church south of Sydney, the album kicks off with the sound of a horn heard off the coast as the intro to "Putt Putt," a gentle tune about going out into the ocean with a small motor boat. From there, the album moves to "Fish and Mice," which starts out with what sounds like a Casio drum keyboard and eventually leads to an infectious sing-along chorus with a bunch of kids singing interjections ("Fish!"... "Bike!"). This looseness in musical production is carried on throughout the album."
9 (tie, continued). The Deedle Deedle Dees
Strange Dees, Indeed
From here on out I'm just going to post links to reviews -- if you want to read more about the fine albums on the rest of the list, the links are there for your enjoyment and edification. But I do want to single out the new album from the Dees.
Every year, the hardest part of drawing up my Fids & Kamily list is not picking out my favorite. Oddly enough, that's been pretty easy over the years. No, it's picking out #10 in the list. Because there is inevitably at least one album (if not more) that gets excluded that you're wondering exactly how it didn't make the list. This year that album is the Dees' Strange Dees, Indeed. If you'd asked me on another day, I might have preferred it to Caspar or See! (or decided there should only be one CB album in that list). So even though it didn't make my F&K ballot, it's tied with those two albums above in my mind. It's woolly and weird, just like the Dees themselves, and I mean that in the best way.
16. (tie) Papa Crow | Chuck Cheesman
Things That Roar | Dancing with No Shoes On
I reviewed these two folk albums together, and while I like them both for different reasons, I like them both a lot.
19. Gustafer Yellowgold
Gustafer Yellowgold's Infinity Sock
This ranking is just for the music itself, which for several years now has been consistently good. This could go on for many more years.
20. (tie) Ellia Jenkins | Biscuit Brothers
A Life of Song | Get Up and Go!
[Review | Review]
Ella Jenkins is a living legend, while Austin's Biscuit Brothers are merely well-loved by a number of folks. But both do a great job in helping kids develop a lifelong love for music.
22. Various Artists
I Love: Tom T. Hall's Songs of Fox Hollow
There are some gorgeous (and fun) songs on this song-for-song remake of a kids' country album classic.
23. Brady Rymer
Love Me for Who I Am
The rare album targeted at (or inspired by) a small group (in this case, kids with alternative learning styles who have autism, Asperger's, etc.) that completely transcends that to speak to all listeners.
25. Alastair Moock
These Are My Friends
One sign of how vibrant the kids' music scene is right now is that this album, squeaking in on this list at #25, could very well have made my Top 10 list from 2006.