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.

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.