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.

Rock Nocturnal - Eric Ode

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Artist: Eric Ode

AlbumRock Nocturnal

Age Range: 5 through 9

Description: As an author and poet, Eric Ode has a firm sense of a) narrative drive, and b) syllabic scanning.  So do many musicians, of course, but if you're going to write an entire album about, as Ode puts it, "dirt diggers and nighttime critters," those skills are especially important lest you write lifeless songs that recite facts without engaging the listener.  Can you tell I've listened to many such songs that fall on that lifeless end of the lively/lifeless spectrum?

On Rock Nocturnal, Ode puts himself safely on the other, lively side of that spectrum.  It's a solid set of folky pop-rock with the occasional detour into raccoon-themed pirate chanties ("Raccoon and the Wizard's Daughter," "Hooray for Jessie Skunk").  The shuffling bluesy title track has a fun shout-out along chorus, and as you might expect from someone who spends a lot of time with the written word, there are a handful of songs which enjoy words as words ("Gophers in the Garden," "There's a Mole in the Hole," "Raccoon Round").  And if your kids just want a pop song, try "Look At That Acro-Bat."  (Go here for a stream of album samples from the 33-minute album.)

Rock Nocturnal to me sounds like an album recorded at least partially with the intent for use in schools and libraries, and should be popular in those venues.  Unlike many albums of that nature (er, so to speak), it also succeeds on its own merits far from that educational context.  Recommended.

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

Occasional Yogurt - Mo Phillips

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Artist: Mo Phillips

AlbumOccasional Yogurt

Age Range: 3 through 8

Description:  Idiosyncratic as ever, Mo Phillips' music on Occasional Yogurt, his fourth family album, fits in perfectly with Portland, Oregon's anything-goes-as-long-as-it's-true-to-you philosophy.

I'd call the music here "ramshackle," but that's a negative connotation I'm not really seeking.  It's rough around the edges, deliberately so, with a crackly sound  that suggests a vinyl record sixty years old.  It kicks off with "Talkin' About Teamwork," a sprightly song featuring guest vocals from fellow Portland musician Aaron Nigel Smith.  I didn't like all of the songs -- now that I've reviewed the album, I don't intend to listen to "The Runner" again -- but that just puts the excellent songs in that much sharper relief.  "Electric (Don't Even Try)" is an outtake from a B-52s album (or should be, at any rate) guaranteed to rev up your kids, and "A Little More Sleep," on which Phillips sings with Little Sue and Lincoln Crockett, is a tender alt-country lullaby/plea for sleep from the parents' perspective.

You can listen to the 44-minute album here.  Fans of Phillips' previous work will lap this up (and I suspect songs like "The Runner" work pretty well live).  While idiosyncratic albums rarely achieve mass popularity, eventually they find their fans -- might your be family be one of them?  You'll never know if you don't try.  Recommended.

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

Sea Blue Sea - The Whizpops

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Artist: The Whizpops

Album: Sea Blue Sea

Age Range: 5 through 10

Description:  On their third album, the Whizpops continue to make science- and learning-focused music for eager elementary school students.  Now, I'm not sure what would possess a band located in landlocked Montana to write an entire album about the ocean and its inhabitants -- wistful dreaming, perhaps? -- but they've done just that on Sea Blue Sea.  If the range of subjects is narrow, relatively speaking, the stylistic range -- Hawaiian ukulele ("Manatee") to operatic show tune ("Anglerfish") to reggae ("Blue Whale"), to name three points on the spectrum -- is not.  Listeners are bound to find at least a couple songs that float their boat.  (So to speak.)

You can listen to the 38-minute album here.  With its Schoolhouse Rock-meets-high-school-marine-biology-course approach, the album won't be for everyone.  But it's a cut above most efforts to marry learning with grooving.  If that approach is for you, then this is recommended for you.

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

Greetings from Cloud 9 - The Whirlygigs

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ArtistThe Whirlygigs

AlbumGreetings from Cloud 9

Age Range: Ages 3 through 6

Description: If you look back to the beginning of time… or, at least, the Time Before Kindie (i.e., 1999 or so), there were a lot more folk albums for kids, enough that one could subdivide them into subgenres.  Artists such as Taj Mahal and Buckwheat Zydeco offered a bluesier form of folk for the wee ones.

Those bluesy paths have become a little overgrown from too light use over, but Massachusetts artist Keith Wasserman (aka Mr. Whirly) is trying to make his own way.  On his debut full-length album, he mixes a little bit of blues with an earthy folk sound.  "Lookin' Out the Window" is a straight-up call-and-response blues while "Portabello Mushroom," with its kitchen sink percussion (not literally, but it wouldn't surprise me if it did) and nimble upright piano sound, is a conga strut.  The song subjects are grounded in everyday language and topics ("Tickle Machine" and "How Was Your Day") but also explore imaginative ideas such as on album closer "Sittin' on a Cloud."  (You can listen to the entire 35-minute album here.)

Greetings from Cloud 9 definitely has a retro sound, but it's not burnt in amber, either.  For families looking for a mellower kindie sound reminiscent of those Taj Mahal records (or perhaps a little bit like fellow New Englander Alastair Moock), this Whirlygigs album is worth exploring.  Recommended.

Let Us Get Together - Fox & Branch and Friends

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Artist: Fox & Branch

Album: Let Us Get Together

Age Range: 4 through 9

Description: I will admit to being biased in favor of kids music that has an indie-rock sound, even if that music is hip-hop or folk at its core. Not dramatically biased, but an album of straight-ahead folk music is not what I immediately gravitate to.  Having said that, while the Milwaukee duo's fifth family album is not necessarily my first choice, it is a very solid entry of the folk music tradition carved by Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Elizabeth Cotten, and others.

As with their previous albums, Dave Fox and Will Branch mix traditional songs ("Aiken Drum," featuring a sugar-y and non-sugary set of facial parts, "I've Been Working on the Railroad," "Zum Gali Gali"), familiar songs that might be considered more modern folk songs of a sort ("New Orleans Hop Scop Blues," "Accentuate the Positive"), and folk originals (I particularly liked the accordion-flecked "Tucson" and tender album closer "When You Were Born").  The duo's guitars are the base upon which they add banjos, mandolins, accordions, and on songs like "Big Kid" and "Let Us Get Together," a kitchen sink's worth of percussion.

Amidst the pop-rock focus of most modern kids music, I appreciate those artists like Fox & Branch who've maintained their interest in the folk tradition.  They're one of the best practitioners in the field right now and even those families who prefer their music amplified will likely find a lot of these songs delightful mixed in amongst their powerpop.  Recommended.

Appetite for Construction - The Pop Ups

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Artist: The Pop Ups

Album: Appetite for Construction

Age Range: 3 through 6

Description: Again, I'll let my NPR review of the album do most of the talking: "Brooklyn duo The Pop-Ups take the listeners back to 1985 on their album... If MTV had a kids music channel in their video heyday, "All These Shapes" would have been in constant rotation... They sing about making puppets, creating photo collages and trying on all sorts of clothes at a costume party."  This is definitely geared at your preschooler or kindergartner, though the sounds and hooks may keep it fresh even for a first or second grader.  Not to mention, well, you.  Highly recommended.

Wired - Recess Monkey

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Artist: Recess Monkey

Album: Wired

Age Range: 5 through 9

Description: I'll let my NPR review of the album do most of the talking: "With so many opportunities for kids to stare at screens - big and small - it can be work to get them to use their creativity and make things with their own hands... On their new album, Seattle trio Recess Monkey celebrates makers with songs about school dioramas, duct tape and Legos... The band started out with a heavy Beatles influence. But over the course of 11 albums in just nine years, they've also mixed in a bit of a pop punk sound.  Appropriately for an album about playing off of the grid, the band recorded this new album on tape" with John Vanderslice, a musician with whom the band has long been obsessed.  I think there have been other Recess Monkey albums with catchier songs overall and so it wouldn't be the single album I'd recommend to a newbie (there's a tough decision to make), but it's certainly another solid album from the Seattle band.  Definitely recommended.