If there was a theme to 2013, it was that of collaboration. Most of the news I was excited about revolved around kindie artists reaching out. Oh, sure, I've been talking about collaborations for a while now, but it seemed like every week news of a new partnership was announced -- Dan Zanes and Elizabeth Mitchell, for example, or Todd McHatton and, well, everybody in the kindie world. And it wasn't limited to fellow musicians. Laurie Berkner, Lunch Money, and Melissa Levis (AKA Moey) made musicals; Alison Levy is working on one and Justin Roberts might be. Recess Monkey finished their second circus show. And there are plenty of kids musicians who are still seeking that brass ring of TV.
To me, that's a sign of a couple things, one slightly worrisome, one not. The worrisome thing is the sense that people are worried about making a living just from music. Not those particular artists necessarily, but if artists in this age of Spotify are worried about making a living from selling their music to just their fans, then one way to respond is to sell their music to (hopefully) a broader audience. Or to bring their music to different audiences altogether. Given the risk of not making their money back after investing in an album (why do you think Kickstarter and other crowdfunding sites hit a tipping point in the kindie world this year?), artists are looking to diversify and spread that risk around.
The non-worrisome thing is that artists are looking for different challenges to keep themselves interested and their creative juices flowing. That sort of risk-taking may not (heck, will not) succeed every time artistically and commercially, but for an ecosystem as a whole, that's a good thing.
In the end, though, no matter how many different people musicians reach out to, as a listener I'm still focused on the music itself. This year's list of top albums was every bit as hard to select as in prior years. Looking back at calendar year 2013 (which is different from the year that I've defined for this exercise -- Nov. 1, 2012 through Sept. 30, 2013, to match Fids & Kamily), I reviewed more than 80 albums and I would guess that that reflects barely a quarter and certainly less than one-third of what I received. So that means these albums reflect the top 10%, maybe even less, of what I heard this year.
In talking with someone the other day, I said that I didn't necessarily think the very top albums -- the top 5 or 10, perhaps -- were significantly better in quality than the same albums 5 or even 10 years ago. It's the depth the "bench," so to speak -- the 25th best album of the year is better than the 25th best album probably 5 and definitely 10 years ago.
With all that said, it's time to list my 25 favorite kids music albums of the year. These are listed in preference order, starting with my very favorite, though as you'll see, my interest in making fine distinctions was… diminished from prior years. Thanks to these artists (and many others) who made music for families worth sharing this past year. Onward to 2014!
In filling out my Fids and Kamily ballot, I couldn't decide between my two favorite albums of the year. Luckily, that's totally OK, you can have ties on the ballot. So these albums are tied for #1.
Review - "Many of Roberts' songwriting hallmarks are on display in Recess, starting with the irresistible title track. Child narrator with enthusiasm on full display? Check. Internal rhymes? Check. Spelling? Check. (OK, I wouldn't necessarily suggest that spelling is one of Roberts' hallmarks.) All that wrapped in powerpop that seems that seems like it can't get any more powerpoppy until he finds the amp that goes to 11."
Pleased To Meet You
Review - "Pleased To Meet You is fabulous, an energetic blend of Americana and punk, of empathy and third-grade snark."
In a fit of indecision, I ranked the other eight albums on my F&K ballot as tied. Seems like it would be a bit generous to rank them all as tied for third, but we're generous people around here. So, alphabetically, here is the rest of my Top 10:
Blink of an Eye
Review - "Many of the songs are fleeting glimpses -- memories -- of family life and parenthood. "Blink of an Eye" is the most obvious, but it's the dreamy "Salt Water Spin" and "Look How the Light Dances with Trees" that feel like England telling herself -- and by extension her family and us, the listeners -- 'Don't. Forget. This.'"
Deep Sea Diver
Review - "All the qualities that have endeared Recess Monkey to thousands of families nationally from their Pacific Northwest perch are in ample display on their brand new album Deep Sea Diver . Humor (the wry look at those scavenging birds in the mellow Beatles-esque "Seagull" or the punny title of "Choral Reef"), kid-focused topics (disco-dancing with "Walkie Talkies" and complaining about being short in "Shrimp"), and, yes, hooks galore."
Review - "For the follow-up to his masterful album Jungle Gym, Roberts didn't choose to write another album of perfect pop and power-pop songs... Instead, kindie's finest songwriter stretched in a slightly different direction, writing an entire album of, well, if not exactly lullabies, then at least songs for downtime."
Turn Turn Turn
Review - "There are a handful of dance songs for fans of Zanes' dance parties and some songs that showcase Mitchell's warm yet crystalline voice. But the album's biggest strength is that this album of two of kindie's biggest stars features those musicians getting together to play songs humbly and joyfully."
The next 5 albums listed alphabetically below are the ones I hated to have to leave off my Fids & Kamily ballot/Top 10 list. They're the albums that, in a different mood, on a different day, might have appeared on that list.
Color This Album
Review - "There's the country bluegrass of "Larry the Frog," the Woody Guthrie absurdity of "Hop in the Car," and the bluesy lament "Lullaby to Stellaouise." Or perhaps you'd prefer Bob Dylan-in-silly-mode "Crayons," the bluegrass raveup "Thirteen Bears" (it's the number of bears on the shirt, in case you're wondering), and the stone-cold classic of parental frustration/unconditional love 'Take You Into My Arms.'"
Singing Our Way Through: Songs for the World's Bravest Kids
Review - "Singing Our Way Through might not be the first album a family thinks of to purchase for their own family, assuming that their family hasn't been struck with a serious disease. And the first couple tracks, "I Am the Light" and "When I Get Bald," deal with cancer head-on. But once you get past that, the songs just deal with tough times and humor in those tough times."
Shine and the Moonbeams
Review - "While it's the songs that deal with real-life social issues like bullying and self-respect that could give this album a long shelf life with schools and families, I'm also looking forward to sillier, groovier, jazzier songs along the lines of "Do You Ever Stop" and "Shake for Eight." Lots of fun, lets hope the success of this one makes the follow-up come out faster."
My Cup of Tea
Review - "You can appreciate My Cup of Tea as a straight-up album of music from folk and world traditions played with verve and imaginatively arranged. But I think you'll get more out of it if you think of it as a variety show without the banter, skits, and sponsor thanks."
The next 5 albums (again, alphabetically by artist and, if you're keeping score at home, albums 16 through 20) are definitely top 20 material.
Cat Doorman (aka Julianna Bright)
Cat Doorman Songbook
Review - "But even more important to the album than a spirit of peace and love is the celebration of do-it-yourself and individual expression. Songs like "Oh, the Inspiration!" and "Yeah!," as different as they are sonically, speak of the spark that drives people to create and express themselves."
When the World Was New
Review - "When the World Was New is an intimate album inspired by big questions -- why are we here? what are we doing? where are we going to? -- but never feels like a boring textbook. Instead, Jones' album is a series of (musical) essays that might prompt a few questions in the listeners' own minds, young and old."
Finally, as I was trying to narrow down the final 5, I realized I just couldn't, and after all these other times of stopping at an arbitrarily-defined round number, I decided I'd stop at an arbitrarily-defined unround number. Here, then, are the final 7 albums in my Top 25, er, 27 albums of 2013
Review - "On Frog Trouble, Boynton and her musical partner, the arranger Michael Ford, offer up another dozen songs of often surreal and animal-based nature... But a number of the songs, some of them the album's strongest, play it mostly straight -- Alison Krauss' lovely take on "End of Summer Storm" and Ryan Adams performing "When Pigs Fly," which takes that absurd premise and turns it into something beautiful."
Lucky Diaz and the Family Jam Band
Review - " By marrying his bubbly pop songs to a new language, he's given the songs new life and suggested an alternative route to non-English music for kids."
Review - "This new album moves their folk/rock/alt-country sound out of the sanctuary and into a barn somewhere for a late-afternoon picnic that stretches into a moonlight night. The whole effect is mesmerizing, the sisters' harmonies reverberating on both the slow and uptempo tracks."