Although I run a well-respected kids music site (psst, it's this one), it's not something I'm constantly trumpeting. (I still get co-workers walking into my office with a quizzical expression the morning after an All Things Considered review airs saying, "I was driving home last night and I heard this familiar voice on the radio…") As a result, I'm often in the situation of explaining this interest of mine to co-workers or neighbors, and it's not uncommon for the following question to come up:
"So what albums do you recommend for my kid/niece/grandson?"
Now, I probably should have developed a concise answer by now. But when you've been listening to this music critically for more than a decade, trying to distill that knowledge into, say, three albums is difficult, and probably a little unfair as it leans too heavily on my own personal tastes.
Having said that, giving that response doesn't do the person asking the question any good. So I've decided to dive in and provide a list. I'm actually going to provide a series of lists, but the one I want to start out with is for new parents and their infants, toddlers, and maybe early preschoolers -- basically, kids ages 0 through 3.
There are lots of great kids musicians whose music isn't specifically targeted towards that age group. I love Justin Roberts' music, for example, but most of his music is pitched at a slightly older age group. (Believe me, when I get to the next age group, there will definitely be a Justin Roberts album in that collection.) The albums for this age group feature more simple, classic songs you may already know or faintly remember.
Now, there's no way I can limit this list to the number of albums I've featured. (For example, I was struggling immensely until I realized that I could make lullaby albums their own category. That'll be a future post.) So I've suggested some possible music series if you think my list is too limited or not diverse enough in its musical scope.
With all of that said, here's my list, organized in no particular order -- and if you want to add any for consideration, please feel free to do in the comments.
Raffi: The Singable Songs Collection (1976-1979) -- OK, this is cheating slightly, since this is actually a 3-CD set featuring the kids music superstar's first three albums. I've always suspected that people who make fun of Raffi have never actually listened to more than five minutes of his music (or have only listened to his later albums, which sound more dated in parts and a little more preachy). These 3 albums, particularly the first 2, Singable Songs for the Very Young and More Singable Songs for the Very Young, are a mix of traditional kids' songs and Raffi originals, arranged with a light but not too-light touch and with actual instruments. Raffi has the best male singing voice in kids' music (even today), and here, it rarely sounds treacly. Just try it -- I'm pretty sure you'll be fine with it and (more importantly) your kids will probably swoon.
Elizabeth Mitchell and You Are My Flower: You Are My Sunshine (2002) -- I might be accused of sticking too close to home -- Mitchell was the start of my kindie journey -- if it weren't for the fact that everyone else adores her as well. As with many artists on this list, narrowing it down to just one album has flummoxed me. (Really, I've been staring at a blank spot for the album title for far too long.) What I really want Mitchell to do is to release her first 3 albums as the You Are My Collection, named for the fact that those first albums all start with the words "You Are My..." I slightly prefer the album after this one, You Are My Little Bird, but think it's pitched at a slightly older age group, maybe starting at age 2 or 3. But if you want to substitute that one for Sunshine, I won't judge.
Old Town School of Folk Music: Songs for Wiggleworms (2000) -- Saying that singing to your child is important isn't some dramatic statement on my part, because early childhood experts agree that it's a Good Thing. But I think it's important to have a CD that helps model singing songs to the very young in addition to music that takes those songs and performs them in more varied and elaborately ways (such as these other disks). There are about 3 dozen songs here, arranged very simply so that the focus is on singer themselves and the lyrics of the song. The new parent who is tentative about singing to his or her child should feel more confident after listening to this, and the kids will be drawn to the renditions as well.
Laurie Berkner: Whaddaya Think of That? (1997) -- The closest we have to Raffi's spiritual heir. She's generally been content to write music for preschoolers and not have her music change to address an older age group. She's also the biggest kindie superstar, able to draw large crowds for her occasional shows. In part, that's due to her presence on Jack's Big Music Show on Sprout in the mid-to-late-2000s. But it's also due to the earworms of hooks she writes and the verve and humor with which she delivers them. You could always make your own Laurie Berkner mix on iTunes, or maybe get the follow-up Buzz Buzz instead, but this'll do you just fine.
Caspar Babypants: Sing Along! (2011) --The adults reading this may be more familiar with Chris Ballew's run with the Presidents of the United States of America, but I think it can be legitimately argued that 20 years from now his most lasting impact will be on kids music. What's most impressive in his career making music for families is the sheer consistency of his polished and reformulated folk music for the 21st century -- generally an album every less-than-a-year, all of high quality. It took me a long time to try to figure out which CB album I should list here (other contenders: More Please! and, well, just about any of the originals). What I'm saying is that you should just get a Caspar Babypants album and don't sweat the details too much.
Now, as I noted above, limiting your choices to these is, well, a little foolish. I could easily list another 5 or 6, and then complain that I couldn't limit myself to 10 or so, and I think you can see where that is leading to. So instead I'll list a few series that offer a broad range of options for the very youngest for you to dip into.
Smithsonian Folkways: In addition to Elizabeth Mitchell, Folkways has an amazing collection of recordings for kids. Some of them are more appropriate for a slightly older kindergartener-ish (the many Pete Seeger albums come to mind), but Woody Guthrie's and Suni Paz's records and the many albums of the legendary Ella Jenkins are targeted at the under-5 crowd.
Putumayo Kids: Just like its "parent," the kids offshoot of the Putumayo label scours the globe for interesting sounds, and many of the resulting themed albums are a nice way to dip into the music of a non-American culture. The "Playground" albums are geared toward a slightly older audience, but their "Dreamland" albums feature lullabies from around the world (including, sometimes, the English-speaking world).
Music Together: Having spent a number of years with my kids in this music-participation series, I'm biased in that I'm familiar and comfortable with the songs on their many in-class CDs. They've collected favorites on 3 different CDs they sell to the public, and I find the sound -- engaged vocals, restrained but not simplistic production -- to be reminiscent of Raffi's.
Baby Loves...: They started out as Baby Loves Disco, producing dance afternoons for kids barely old enough to walk (and their older siblings and parents). And they've sort of returned to that. But in between, they produced 4 albums -- disco, jazz, hip-hop, and salsa -- that are worth checking out for your almost-preschooler.