There may be better kids music albums released since the turn of the (twenty-first) century, there have been better-selling ones as well, but a pretty strong case can be made for saying that No! by They Might Be Giants is the single most important and most influential kids music album of the past decade or so.
Yes, today's kindie superstars like Dan Zanes, Laurie Berkner, Justin Roberts, Ralph's World, and more had all released an album (or more) for families before TMBG's first album foray out of the world of pints of beer and into the world of half-pints of milk. And other artists like Trout Fishing in America, Cathy Fink & Marcy Marxer (and many others preceding them) had been releasing albums for years. But I think in terms of cultural impact (and, as a result, the impact on the genre itself), nothing matched that of the yellow-covered collection from Brooklyn's rockers.
The band is celebrating the tenth anniversary of the album's summer 2002 release with a deluxe edition of the album, adding on 7 bonus tracks, including one newly-recorded expanded version of a TMBG classic. (More on that in a moment.) It's easy to look back and say that the move into kids music was an obvious one for the band -- their songs often had a playful melodic sense and even though many of their songs had a darker undertone, some of their biggest hits ("Birdhouse in Your Soul," "Istanbul (Not Constantinople)") were completely kid-friendly. But at the time, lots of people wondered exactly what the band was thinking, reaching for a kids' audience.
It was only after the album outsold their previous release (Mink Car, for adults, and released on September 11, 2001) that the band -- and the rest of the musical world -- realized that this was a genre that held much more financial and creative potential. As the band's fans (like me) had grown up and become parents, the selections of kids music available to us were limited, and even more limited in terms of their sound. With No!, the band thrust into some small part of the mainstream the idea that musical sounds for kids could be every bit as broad (and loud) as that for adults.
No! begat the band's deal with Disney, which yielded three excellent albums and lots of visibility for the band. It also launched dozens of albums by musicians with names small and large. No matter how long their creators had been working on them, I don't think TV shows like Yo Gabba Gabba! or Jack's Big Music Show or Imagination Movers get greenlit without the Brooklyn duo showing there was a market for this music and parental attitude. I don't know if it is "cool" to make music for kids (and I don't really care personally), but it is no longer uncool and for an industry that is still often image-based, that is a not insignificant victory.
As for the album itself, it's so embedded in my brain (and the brains of my family), that trying to listen to the album again and listen critically after literally hundreds of spins is difficult. My original review of the album, originally written nearly a decade ago, and one of the first posted to the website nearly seven years ago, while clunky in its narrative, still hits the key points: somewhat restricted instrumentation, skewed world viewpoint, and some excellent songs. In retrospect (and after listening to maybe a couple thousand kids albums since then), one of its strongest aspects is the lack of any overt lesson songs. It's not quite "no hugging, no learning," but the album's chief virtue is its own inquisitiveness and adventurousness, rather than any message within any specific song.
As for the bonus tracks, none are essential save one, a newly recorded version of "Alphabet of Nations." This is a track, sharp listeners will note, that didn't make an appearance for another 3 years, on the album's follow-up, Here Come the ABCs. No matter -- the Johns have taken their song, barely a minute long in its original form, and recorded the 2:30-version they play live. More countries, even more fun. The other six tracks are live versions of songs, some from No!, a couple from other albums. They're good tracks, but none are essential -- feel free to download "Alphabet" and any of the other tracks whose samples move you.
That assumes, of course, that you already have the original. If you don't, I'm not entirely sure how you've found your way to this site (or why you've read all this way). If you don't, finish reading this paragraph and go get the thing. Because in addition to being a culturally significant album, it's also a damn good one, too. Inventive and witty, with no small amount of danceability. Most days I'd argue it's not TMBG's best kids' album, but there are also days when I think that it is. That's no small bar to leap. I'm reading too much into this, but the fact that the next to last track on the original album is essentially kids' music's "A Day in the Life" makes No! the Sgt. Pepper's of kids' music. Highly recommended.
Note: I received a copy of the album for possible review, as well as offered the opportunity to premiere tracks from the album.