I'll kick off my review of the best kids music of 2011 with a look at the year's best debuts.
As was the case last year, we didn't know many of these artists a year ago (or if we did, we had no idea they had a kids music album in them). But these albums caught my ear fairly quickly and some of them even made my top albums of the year list.
I should note that, as I did last year, by using the word "debut," I'm assuming that this isn't the last family music album from each of these artists. Albums from Holly Throsby and Chip Taylor, for example, would've been considered for this list, but I've made the assumption that their family albums will be their sole foray into the genre. I would be happy to be proven wrong, next year or at any point in the future.
So here are ten debut kids music albums (listed alphabetically by artist) worth celebrating.
Leading off this alphabetical list is this Portland, Oregon duo (Eric Levine and Jeff Inlay, AKA Mr. E. and Mr. Hoo) who trade in sharp, hook-filled guitar jangle-pop and slightly absurd lyrics. (Sample song title: "Eric Saw Peter Buck's Girlfriend and Then He Saw Peter Buck".) But then again, isn't looking at life through a child's eyes a little absurd once we've left our adult glasses on too long? Listen here.
Cat and a Bird
Cat and a Bird
Energetic gypsy-jazz from the future. Lyrics about the animal kingdom. They had me at "violin." The duo of Vasiliy Taranov and Emily Chimiak make folk music for people who think they don't like folk music, and on their debut they somehow manage to combine catchy songs with some nuggets of knowledge regarding the animal kingdom that even the parents might not know. They are called "Cat and a Bird," after all.
Outside My Door
Let me quote from my original review: "Outside My Door: Songs for Children of All Ages is unlike any kids' CD I've heard in a long time. It's a throwback to 1970s piano jazz, nothing but Henriques' voice and nimble piano work. It's inspired by Sesame Street, though the lyrics especially are a bit advanced for the preschoolers who are that show's target audience." It's also -- more importantly -- really good.
The Little House Songs
Why Caroline Herring and not, say, Holly Throsby? Because I'm pretty sure that folksinger Herring wants to continue making these albums based on children's books. Herring got a boost from a Kickstarter campaign to turn her songs chronicling the fade and rebirth of a tiny house into a full-length album. It's simple album, made with care, and, given its subject matter, covers a wider range of emotions than many albums for kids. If it's the only kids' album Herring makes, it's a fine piece of work. (But I'm hoping it's not her last.)
Johnny & Jason
Go,go... go, go, go!
Another sign (beyond the Alphabeticians and Portland-based Henriques) that the Portland kindie music scene is coalescing into one of the country's hot spots. The Portland duo of Johnny Keener and Jason Greene have a homegrown and hook-filled sound that sounds friendly to all ages. You can listen to the album here. This summer, I called it a "definitely a contender for one of the year's best debuts"; now I'll confirm it.
Mr. & Mrs. Muffins
The Adventures of Ms. Rabbit and Mr. Carrot / The Striped Ladybird
The Seattle duo also used a Kickstarter campaign, in this case to press the music from their two books, The Adventures of Ms. Rabbit and Mr. Carrot and The Striped Ladybird, onto vinyl. But you don't need a record player to listen to or enjoy the music -- the books and music are designed for 21st-century mediums like the iPad. Their breezy sounds could have been recorded 50 or 75 years ago, but they're just as lovely as background music for Skype-ing with Grandma.
The Littlest Star
Composer Keith Kenniff and his wife Hollie Kenniff are in about a kajillion different musical projects -- for their latest, they give some traditional tunes (and a handful of originals) a spin around the block. Relaxed arrangements and vocals -- nothing is reinvented here, but sometimes you need a collection of classic kids' tunes that sound like they weren't on played on a keyboard in a brightly-colored plastic case.
Things That Roar
An album from Michigan's Papa Crow, AKA Jeff Krebs, that proves that "hushed" isn't just an adjective that applies to female musicians. Inspired by folks like Elizabeth Mitchell and Dan Zanes, Krebs turns in a quiet -- but not sleepy -- album of originals that sound great at any time of year, but especially with a sweater on, maybe sipping a cup of hot chocolate.
Mike Park isn't the first person to make punk music for the preschool set, but he probably has the nicest pedigree, being the bassist for Skankin' Pickle and releasing music from bands like the Alkaline Trio on his Asian Man Records label. This album is targeted right at the preschool set, focusing on basic concerns like counting and animals and jumping. (Hey, I think jumping is a useful skill for a future punk. Or just about anybody else.) Again, why include him and not Chip Taylor? Just a feeling that this isn't the last foray into kindie punk from Park.
Super-fun, imaginative bouncy pop -- which is either a description of the Boston-NYC-based band's debut album or a fizzy soda from Japan. I'm going with the music. Will your kids laugh? Yes they will. Will they dance? Yes they will. There's been a lot of radio silence from them since their summer tour, but I'm hoping we haven't heard the last of them.