Best Kids Music 2011: Top 10 Album Packages

It was a little harder this year picking out 10 favorite album packages in my review of the best kids music of 2011. Not because design is getting worse, but because I am slowly entering the 21st century when it comes to reviewing music.

Which means accepting electronic versions of albums in lieu of the physical CD.

Now this isn't a case of asking you kids to get off my damn lawn. Really, I'm fine with it -- while I prefer the physical product (if only because I tend to listen to music sooner that way), I understand why mp3s are easier, especially for the artist. And while receiving the slim jackets that just consist of the front and back cover and the CD mean I don't get all of the lovely album art or have lyrics handy when listening, when you have something like 1,000 or CDs in boxes, there is a certain allure in having those slim packages.

And it should be noted that the primary focus, of course, is the music encoded in the mp3s or tucked away in those slim packages. Caspar Babypants CDs (which do feature cute cover art from Kate Endle) come in slim packages -- they could come wrapped in newspapers and I'd be overjoyed to get them to listen to the music inside. But an attractive package can sometimes help break down the barriers to listening to kids music for people new to the genre who think that it's still cheap and chintzy.

This list is also a little bit like Wheel of Fortune. (Hunh?) Remember how on the final bonus round puzzle the finalist used to get to choose a few letters which (if present) would be turned by Vanna? Yeah, well everybody ended up picking "E" and "T" and "S" and other common letters. So now they automatically show those letters (along with "R," "N," and "L") and the finalist picks other letters.

I sort of feel like Smithsonian Folkways and Putumayo and Dan Zanes are sort of like the "E" and "T" and "S" of album packaging -- you're always going to get quality work for them. I'd probably be better off just eliminating them from consideration and picking, say, a Top 5.

Maybe next year. Anyway, with the caveat that it feels weird not putting Dan Zanes or Putumayo on this list (I'm sure they were lovely as always, but we received "slim" packages this time around not that I'm in any way complaining, I swear), here are my 10 favorite kids music album packages of 2011, listed in alphabetical order.

OutsideMyDoor.jpgLori Henriques
Outside My Door
It's probably unfair that Henriques' brother is Joel Henriques, proprietor of the most excellent Made By Joel website, which shares arts and crafts projects for children. But, it's important to take advantage of the talents you have in your midst, and the packaging features cute line drawings, the lyrics (important for Henriques' wordy songs), and recycled paper.

That looks lovely... just as the rest of these disks do...
TheGoldenState.jpgThe Hipwaders
Golden State
One of the entries on this list is a collection of disks that I thought presented an attractive, simple package. The latest album package from the California trio is just as simple, what earns it its own mention on this list is its gorgeous album art by Brian Clarke. It so perfectly matches the sunny West Coast vibe of the excellent music inside that you could be forgiven for thinking the album art came first and the Hipwaders recorded an album as its soundtrack.

LifeOfSong.jpgElla Jenkins
A Life of Song
As always, a particular strength of Smithsonian Folkways' releases is the care and dedication they put into their liner notes. (Full disclosure: I've contributed an essay to one of their previous family releases.) One would hope that an album entitled A Life of Song from living legend Ella Jenkins would have detailed notes, and the liner notes for the album do not disappoint. A brief introductory essay from Jenkins herself, a short but elegant biography, and notes and lyrics for every song, it's a fittingly detailed complement to what is in essence a musical biographical sketch.

OriginalFriend.jpgLunch Money
Original Friend
I'm biased -- I like illustrator Brandon Reese's work so much, I had him design this site's logo. And the South Carolina trio Lunch Money has been dedicated to good design (album-wise and otherwise) from the begin. So it wasn't much of a surprise that this album (the second of Lunch Money's that Reese has provided the artwork for) was so lovely. From a purely visual enjoyment standpoint, this is probably my favorite album of the year.

TagYoureIt.jpgThe Not-Its
Tag, You're It!
While not as detailed, perhaps, as Original Friend, the Seattle band the Not-Its! have created a very distinctive visual style -- their visual brand, as it were -- from the very beginning. And while they employed a different artist to do their cover artwork this time around, it still looks very "Not-Its!" to me. Which is a Good Thing.

FLYING Cover 72 dpi.jpgRecess Monkey
Another band who's had a distinctive visual style almost from the beginning, the Seattle trio (must be something about trios... or Seattle... that lends itself to good album artwork and packaging) utilized the services of Jarrett J. Krosoczka to provide some of the artwork for their superhero-themed album, creating a whole comic strip to accompany the title track (and its album-ending reprise).

GoldenKidsRules.jpgChip Taylor and the Grandkids
Golden Kids Rules
If the Ella Jenkins album requires lots of background and detail because it's a musical biography, the Smithsonian Folkways people take a different approach on what is a very personal album from songwriter Taylor. Recorded with his kids and inspired by a family wedding, the album doesn't need technical notes -- instead, the liner notes feature personal reminisces from Taylor, an essay from his brother, actor Jon Voight, and gentle art direction.

See.jpgHolly Throsby
The album artwork has every bit of the DIY vibe of the music inside from the Australian singer-songwriter. A lovely cover photo, cute drawings of the animals mentioned on the album by Throsby herself, lyrics and chords -- it's just one of those packages that you can give to a person who thinks (not entirely without merit) that kids' music comes packaged in cheap cases with poor font selection and even worse Photoshopping to show that, yes, there's an alternative.

Green_Growing.jpgShannon Wurst
Green & Growing
It's one thing to record an album of songs dedicated to sustainable agriculture and "green living" -- it's another thing to print the album "locally on recycled paper" with a tastefully simple set of notes inside. But it's another thing entirely to then ship it in "recycled material," as Wurst describes it on her website. To break the code, that "recycled material" is a sewn envelope made out of a paper grocery bag. It so stunned me that I still have the envelope -- I'm pretty sure it's the only CD envelope I've ever kept.

ShiningLikeAStar.jpgMindOfMyOwn.JPGTheFamilyGarden.jpgTheseAreMyFriends.gifThingsThatRoar.jpgLaura Doherty (Shining Like a Star) / Frances England (Mind of My Own) / Billy Kelly (The Family Garden) / Alastair Moock (These Are My Friends) / Papa Crow (Things That Roar)
These are all fine examples of fairly simple album packages that present the music (all of it in these cases good) in the best possible light. Be they simple digipaks (paper with a plastic jewel case base) or eco-wallets (folded cardboard sleeves with a slot to slip the CD in), these five albums make the best of comparatively limited visual space to convey the important things about the music inside. Sometimes that's pictures, sometimes that's hand-drawn artwork, sometimes that's credits. But all five show that it's possible that good art direction is doable without breaking the bank.