Backyard Garden - Earthworm Ensemble

Backyard Garden album cover

Backyard Garden album cover

Artist: Earthworm Ensemble

AlbumBackyard Garden

Age Range: 4 through 8

Description: The Los Angeles group refines their alt-country indie-rock but keeps the eco-sensibility on their second album, the follow-up to their 2010 self-titled debut.  As a person who has heard more kids music than 99.999% of parents (99.99999%?), I don't need to hear songs like "Compost" or "Reduce Reuse Recycle," which take a more instructional view of encouraging a greater awareness of the natural world (and our impact as a part of it), though I was amused by the Beach Boys homage midway through the latter track.

More subtle, but still vivid, are songs like the alt-country pop of "Ladybug" or the Beck-ian shuffle of "Bees Make Honey."  Telling the story of the predator-prey relationship between moles and coyotes Rashomon-like in two songs -- the bluesy "Mole vs. Coyote" (from the mole's point of view) and the driving "Coyote vs. Mole" (the coyote, natch) -- is particularly innovative.

The 46-minute album features a large cast of guests joining the heart of the band with the resulting songs given a nice sound -- ramshackle when called for, but mostly well-polished.   Listen to three songs from the album here.  Lots of albums celebrating the natural world can feel stiff and didactic, but Backyard Garden avoids those traps for the most part.  It's an album your family would conceivably listen even if it's not the week of Earth Day.  Recommended.

Trees - Molly Ledford & Billy Kelly

Trees album cover

Trees album cover

Artist: Molly Ledford & Billy Kelly

Album: Trees

Age Range: 5 through 9

Description: I could probably write a thousand words reviewing this album from Lunch Money mastermind Ledford and the Pennsylvania-based Kelly.  Instead, I decided to review the album on NPR.  Trying to fit sound clips, host intro and extro, and narrative into about 3 minutes and 15 seconds tends to cut down on the number of words one can squeeze in.  Having said that, let me just say that I love this album -- the interplay between Ledford's sweeping palette and Kelly's precise and often humorous views, the interplay between Ledford and Kelly themselves, ably assisted by producer Dean Jones.  Kids will dig different songs for different reasons.

You can stream the entire album here.  I hope there isn't an album as good as this one this year, because I'm not sure my heart could take it.  Get it.  Highly recommended.

The Incredibly Spaced-Out Adventures of Jupiter Jackson - Eric Herman

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Artist: Eric Herman

Album: The Incredibly Spaced-Out Adventures of Jupiter Jackson

Age Range: 6 to 10

Description:  The Washington-based Herman is best known for his music (including one undeniable classic), so his latest album, a concept comedy album, is a bit of a departure.  Not too much of one, as Herman's always had a higher laugh ratio than most kids albums, but in recording an album of comedy sketches, he definitely steps further out on that limb.

There's a supposed theme to the album -- it's an hour of radio broadcasting from the XYZPDQ Satellite Radio Network -- but it's unimportant.  This is humor for your favorite 8-year-old of varying degrees of sophistication.  Don't be deceived by some of the titles -- "Monday Science" and "Archaeology Hour" are probably the two most immature (in a good way) sketches.  "Monster League Baseball" is particularly pun-filled.  There's also a pleasing thoroughness to the album as a whole with phrases repeated in different sketches, and the "ads" and public service announcements having a certain... circularity.   (You can listen to preview clips here.)

The album won't erase the memory of the classic comedy albums of your own youth, but it's amusing, and also serves to emphasize how comparatively rare albums like this - audio comedy targeted at the mid-elementary school crowd - are these days.  Recommended.

Note: I received a copy of this album for possible review.

Wishin' Volume 1 - Liz, Holly & the Jolly Lollies

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Artist: Liz, Holly & the Jolly Lollies

Album:  Wishin' Volume 1

Age Range: 2 through 5

Description: Based in the Charlotte area, Liz Seegers and Holly Lorette are early childhood music teachers, so it's little surprise that their debut EP stays safely in that preschool age range.  Songs about transportation ("I Wish I Were an Airplane"), feeling OK when things go bad ("We All Have Bad Days"), a "Freeze!" song ("Wiggle Freeze") -- these are familiar topics for albums for this age range.

But there's something about this album that elevates it above a lot of the music I hear for this age range.  Maybe it's the slightly handmade sound, so it's not overproduced.  Maybe it's Seegers' and Lorette's voices, which are sweet but slightly nasally and sound lovely in harmony.  Maybe it's the fact that they offer up "Storm," which is more tone poem than song.  Maybe -- probably -- it's all three of those things.  Whatever, it just works.

You can listen to clips and one full song from the 16-minute album (hey, I said it was an EP!) here.  The duo is currently raising money via Kickstarter for Volume 2.  Based on the evidence from Volume 1, I'm looking forward to hearing more.  Recommended.

Note: I received a copy of the album for possible review.

Spaghetti Eddie and Other Children's Songs Volume 4 - Brendan Parker

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Artist: Brendan Parker (aka Spaghetti Eddie)

Album: Spaghetti Eddie and Other Children's Songs Volume 4

Age Range: 2 through 6

Description: The Oklahoma-based Parker released his latest collection of preschool-friendly pop over the new year.  Like volumes 1 through 3, a lot of the music on Volume 4 tackles educational topics (defined broadly), like animals at the zoo ("Zoo Song") or more socio-emotional topics like sharing ("What's Mine Is Yours") and self-acceptance (the ba-ba-da-ing "I Am Me").  Adults may find some of the sillier songs ("Dance!," "Robot Ralph," and "Yawns Are..." chief among them) have more replay value precisely because they're not as overtly educational.

But Parker's refined his songwriting over the years -- in the course of this 26-minute album, he offers up more than his fair share of alternative pop hooks.  Fans of artists like SteveSongs and the Flannery Brothers will find themselves in familiar, and probably appealing, territory here.  Recommended.

Note: I received a copy of this album for possible review.

Let's Boogie - Rock 'n' Rainbow

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Artist: Rock 'n' Rainbow

Album: Let's Boogie

Age Range: 3 through 7

Description: File this in the "don't judge a book by its cover" file -- the cacophony of colors on the cover of this album set off all sorts of warning sounds in my head, making me leery that I was in for a cheesy third-rate glam-inspired version of other preschool bands in color-coordinated outfits you may have heard of.

But once I put the CD in my player, I was pleasantly surprised.  The band is the brainchild of Mike Whitla, who runs Rainbow Songs, an early childhood music education program in Toronto, and has released 6 other kids music albums.  He's brought together other Toronto musicians and producer Tor Hyams to give these songs a slick sheen.  Some of the songs ("Hands Together, Hands Apart," "That Is the Right Hand") are clearly intended to be movement-oriented songs -- they're well done, but they're not necessarily unique.  Some songs, however, are pure brilliance, like the album opener "I Like To Ride My Bike," which musically references Queen's song of nearly the same title and then proceeds to out-Queen Queen in its over-the-top production.  The Ramones-referencing "I Can't Fly" and the funky "Five Senses" also transcend their origins -- they're just plain fun.

The best way to listen to songs from the 45-minute album is on Whitla's YouTube channelLet's Boogie is energetic and a different spin on a lot of early childhood music education music. For families looking for a slightly glitter-infused take on music for their kindergarteners, this could fill that niche well.  Recommended.

Note: I received a copy of this album for possible review.

Beautiful Rainbow World - Suzee Ramirez, Lynne Raspet, Daria Marmaluk-Hajioannou

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Artist: Daria

BookBeautiful Rainbow World

Age Range: 2 through 5

Description: This is a simple concept -- take a song whose lyrics celebrate the diversity of people and add pictures of kids whose faces and clothes bring those lyrics to life.  You know how you can use Shutterfly or other photo services to create photo books of your family's year or big summer vacation?  This book feels a little bit like that, except it's for the entire world under the age of 10.  Black and white, color, stylized, documentary -- there are a range of photographic approaches in the pictures.  Young kids will enjoy looking at the many faces, both those that do and don't look like their own.  (And if you want a copy of the song that inspired it, there's link inside the book for a free download.)

Earth Party (AKA Recycle Your Happiness) - Yumzah (AKA Mr. Steve)

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Artist: YUMZAH!

Album: Earth Party!

Age Range: 4 through 9

Description: If it looks like there's a lot of AKA-in' goin' on, you'd be right.  Is the album from Nashville's Mr. Steve (AKA - sorry - Steve Lee), the guy who released the occasionally stunning What Did You Do Today, Stephen Scott Lee? in 2007?  Or is it his mysterious new band project YUMZAH!?  And is the album titled Earth Party as my iTunes player suggests, or is it Recycle Your Happiness as the Indiegogo preorder page says?

Does it really matter?  These are educational songs, loosely themed around earth-friendly songs, but with so much wit and verve.  "Trees Are the Hair of the Earth" packs wordplay, a plea against de-forestation, and a plaintive melody into less than 4 minutes of pop goodness.  "Blue Whale" is so rousing and joyful that I feel like Lee could plausibly slap a "Smiles Guaranteed!" sticker on the album and not be accused of false advertising.  "Don't Text and Drive" is waaaay better than any song with that title need be.

Note: I received a copy of the album for possible review.

At 8 tracks and 22 minutes in length, this is barely an EP.  It's not clear when it'll see the full light of day.  I like to think of this album as his portfolio for what should be true calling: writing kids music for Yo Gabba Gabba!.  So good and joyful.  Definitely recommended.