Classic Songs & Traditional Tunes - Andy Z

Classic Songs and Traditional Tunes album cover

Classic Songs and Traditional Tunes album cover

Artist: Andy Z

Album: Classic Songs & Traditional Tunes

Age Range: 3 through 7

Description: If you review music long enough, you run the risk of being overly enamored of the new and of novelty because you've "heard it all before."  So this album of 15 songs from the Bay Area-artist Andy Z runs the risk of being overlooked simply because it's a set of classic songs performed with few twists.  But that's also the very reason why it might appeal to someone -- it's the sort of album that isn't made much anymore.  I mean, I like a unique take as much as the next person, but trying to find an album of standard interpretations that has a modicum of production quality is harder than you might think.

Andy Z takes a country-folk approach to the songs, and the songs that have a Western/cowboy hook to them -- "I've Been Workin' On the Railroad," "Don't Fence Me In," "Ghost Riders in the Sky" -- fare best of all.  The album also benefits from songs like "Ghost Riders" and "Shake a Friend's Hand" (along with unfamiliar-to-me lyrics for "Take Me Out to the Ballgame") that aren't as overplayed as the other traditional tunes.  It's a bit languid for my tastes in spots -- there are definitely songs where I would have appreciated a Dan Zanes-style kick in the electronic guitar rear -- but the band and its guests, all of whom play a host of stringed instruments, make it sound appealing.

The 38-minute album won't be to the tastes of families needing a more modern take on traditional songs (or a traditional take on modern songs and subjects), but I'd recommend it for families whose music collection has a gap for these types of songs -- it fills that gap quite nicely.

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

Hamster Pants - Ratboy Jr.

Hamster Pants album cover

Hamster Pants album cover

Artist: Ratboy Jr.

Album: Hamster Pants

Age Range: 4 through 7

Description: Different kids musicians have different strengths -- for some it's intricately-crafted musical productions, and for others it's an energetic live show.  For the Hudson Valley duo of Timmy Sutton and Matty Senzatimore, their strength is their loopy attitude, which thoroughly permeates their music.  How thoroughly?  Well, on this, their third album, the song "Sponges" features a chorus -- an incredibly catchy one -- with the lines "Even Billy Ocean / Uses sponges from the ocean."  This is a line that really makes very little sense in the context of the song but is so goofy that it will likely delight listeners of all ages.

Their affinity for improv is heard in other songs like "Littlest Giant" and "Marian the Barbarian Librarian," which are synth-assisted raps that sound off-the-cuff and overloaded lyrically.  While I suspect those songs amuse in concert (try not to shout "Plate Tectonics" along to "Poofy"), on record I think the band shines the most when they polish their ideas into irresistible crunchy pop nuggets, like "Dancing Room."  The band also does the occasional tender song well ("Sleep Like One..." and album closer "Try").

The band brings in guest musicians (including co-producer Dean Jones) here to round out their sound on the 41-minute album.  The goofiness might be too much for the surliest and serious amongst you, but most folks young or old who've ever taken a liking to "Weird Al" Yankovic, They Might Be Giants, and Barenaked Ladies will find much of the music appealing.  Recommended.

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

Take Me Outside - Jessie Farrell

Take Me Outside album cover

Take Me Outside album cover

ArtistJessie Farrell

AlbumTake Me Outside

Age Range: 3 through 7

Description: A few years back, I thought that country music would be the next genre to receive the full kids music treatment.  There were a couple artists that took that approach and then... it all faded away.  Today there's virtually nobody making what I'd think of as straight-ahead country for the younger set.

Enter Canadian musician Jessie Farrell, who's recorded four albums of country music for adults and has now released this new album for kids.  The album title suggests songs celebrating nature and the outdoors, and sure enough, that's what we get.  The gentle "Wind," the messy "Marvellous Mud Pie," the earthy "Bugs and Slugs" (all about, yes, bugs and slugs).  The production features Farrell's warm voice with a hint of twang and enough fiddle and acoustic guitar to place this firmly in the country music camp.  While I didn't care too much for the songs that tried to make a point (in "Feeling Free," a kid begs the parents she loves to take her outside), songs like "Morning Song," which are more brief sketches, are more effective.

I still wonder why the lyrics-driven and production-focused genre that gives us artists like Kacey Musgraves and Eric Church hasn't produced more music for families. Take Me Outside is a good first step -- artfully done, and an album I'd recommend for any families who wish their family music collection had a little more twang.

Sleep Softly - L'Ensemble Agora (The Secret Mountain)

Sleep Softly album cover

Sleep Softly album cover

Artist: L'Ensemble Agora (The Secret Mountain)

Album: Sleep Softly: Classical Lullabies by Brahms, Schubert, Satie, Debussy...

Age Range: 0 through 3

Description: The latest book/CD combo from Canadian publisher The Secret Mountain turns to music decades -- OK, mostly centuries -- old to produce a classical lullaby album.  L'Ensemble Agora is a French sextet known for setting children's literature to music, so they know their way around playing for kids, though one would hope that in a concert setting they're trying to engage their audience, rather than put them to sleep.

There are dozens -- hundreds? -- of classical lullaby albums, so what's distinctive about this one? Well, these are mostly short pieces (in some cases mere excerpts, I believe), and many of them are specifically lullabies (as opposed to relaxing pieces of classical music).  It's also distinctive in that it's a book, though the book is geared more towards the adult than the 18-month-old who just won't fall asleep -- Elodie Nouhen's detailed, dream-like illustrations will be appreciated more by older kids and adults, and the explanatory notes are definitely for adults.  I suppose that's not surprising, as that target audience of 18-month-olds can't read, so why provide kid-focused liner notes?  But in its chief task, of calming and reassuring the child (and, to some extent, the parent), Sleep Softly succeeds -- everything else is just bonus.  Recommended.

Animals - Jonathan Mann

Animals album cover

Animals album cover

Artist: Jonathan Mann

Album: Animals

Age Range: 5 through 10

Description: Jonathan Mann is best known for recording and releasing a song a day, every day, for  more than 6 years.  So when he came up with the idea of revisiting and rerecording some of his best songs, he clearly had a large batch to choose from.  Animals is, as you'd surmise, a collection of animal-related tunes that, while not specifically a kids' album, is definitely kid-friendly.  (Mann notes that while he was thinking of this as his "kids album," none of the songs were written as kids songs.)

The poppy and synth-assisted songs themselves are pretty silly -- "Penguins Having a Party" and "Kittens in Space" lead off the album, and they're about exactly what their titles suggest.  The songs generally tend toward the fanciful (another song: "Steve, the Hippo with Multiple Personalities") and so while there's some factual information, that's not the purpose of these tracks.  Because of their origins -- hey, you try writing a song a day every day -- some of the songs are pretty brief and feature a single idea.  When it comes to kids' songs, though, that can be a feature, not a bug.  ("Deer Licks the Cat" is a gloriously dorky singalong focused on a chorus basically consisting of the title... and it won't. leave. your. brain.)

You can stream and purchase the digital album here.  It's a light album, catchy and happy.  Slide some of these into your next playlist.  Recommended.

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


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.