November 17, 2017

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Indie Music for Kids: An Essential Playlist

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Frances England

Frances England

OK, music fans, find the common thread here: a former Billboard Top 40 rocker, a trio of teachers, and a mom creating a fundraising project for her son’s school…all kindie rockers! From shiny power pop and faithful renditions of traditional tunes to funky fresh hip-hop and psychedelic sound tapestries, we’re entering a Golden Age of independent music for kids and their families. Major labels and distribution companies? Who needs ’em. Enhanced by the web and social media, the kindie scene has enjoyed unprecedented exposure as bands are able to physically and digitally distribute their music anywhere in the world at any time rather than having to lug around boxes of merch to every concert. Kindie rock has also experienced unprecedented growth in critical recognition, as evidenced by several Grammy awards and nominations over the last few years.

This independence has also boosted communication and collaboration among artists. Rather than fiercely competing for consumer cash or concert headliner status, kindie rockers have forged a cooperative community, giving rise to a network of performers, producers, and performance space owners who actively help and support each other. Artists regularly appear on each other’s albums, and bands routinely invite musical peers to their hometowns and host joint concerts. The camaraderie is also evidenced by bands’ eager participation on compilations such as Science Fair and Many Hands: Family Music for Haiti, both released by Spare the Rock Records, an indie label headed up by longtime kindie rock reviewer Bill Childs.

ARTISTS

Although many independent bands and artists have released superb albums over the last several years, we’ll concentrate here on kindie rockers who have built a significant body of quality work. Following are my picks for some of the best independent bands in kids’ music.

Recess Monkey

SLJ1502-Kindie-RECESSMONKEY40A trio of pre-K and elementary school teachers from Seattle with a passion for Beatles-like pop compositions has become arguably the most prolific kindie rock band in the business. Recess Monkey has released 11 CDs since 2005 (one a double album), each with its own theme. Having worked with young children for years, Drew Holloway (guitar), Jack Forman (bass), and Korum Bischoff (drums, replacing Daron Henry) are keenly adept at expressing the view of the world from a child’s perspective via extremely catchy melodies. For listeners who like the Beatles, Supergrass, and OK Go.

Recommended tracks:

“Tambourine Submarine” (Deep Sea Diver, Recess Monkey, 2013)
“Marshmallow Farm” (Field Trip, Recess Monkey, 2009)

Gustafer Yellowgold

SLJ1502-Kindie-GustaferLet’s set the scene: a little yellow creature hailing from the sun lands in the middle of the Minnesota wilderness. Over the course of six CD/DVD releases, he tries to make sense of earthly flora and fauna while struggling to come to terms with his homesickness. Brooklyn-based Morgan Taylor writes and performs (occasionally with the help of members of Wilco) the music of Gustafer Yellowgold, illustrating every song from each CD as a static, moving story on the accompanying “musical moving storybook” DVDs. Several of his CD/DVD packages have been transformed into stage productions performed at the DR2 Theater in Manhattan. For listeners who like Paul McCartney, Harry Nilsson, and XTC.

Recommended tracks:
“New Blue Star” (Gustafer Yellowgold’s Wide Wild World, Apple-Eye Productions, 2005)
“Smilefield” (Gustafer Yellowgold’s Wisdom Tooth of Wisdom, Apple-Eye Productions, 2014)

Elizabeth Mitchell

Mitchell and her husband, Daniel Littleton, have performed grown-up music for years as the band Ida, making their home in New York’s Hudson Valley. After transitioning to children’s music, Mitchell has become a song collector of sorts, rendering ancient folk songs from around the world on each of her albums. Mitchell also focuses the spotlight on tunes by celebrated pop songwriters such as Neil Young, Bill Withers, Lou Reed, Jimi Hendrix, Dickey Betts and Duane Allman, her presentations sometimes joyful, sometimes meditative and mantralike. She was signed by the Smithsonian Folkways label as their first children’s music artist of the 21st century, and her album Little Seed: Songs for Children by Woody Guthrie was nominated for a Grammy in 2012. For listeners who like Joni Mitchell, Velvet Underground, and traditional folk.

Recommended tracks:
“Who’s My Pretty Baby” (You Are My Little Bird, Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, 2006)
“Keep On the Sunny Side” (Sunny Day, Smithsonian Folkways, 2010)

Dean Jones

Jones has become the go-to producer in the kindie rock world, having helmed the boards for critically acclaimed bands like the Okee Dokee Brothers, Elizabeth Mitchell, Recess Monkey, Frances England, the Deedle Deedle Dees, and Uncle Rock. Also hailing from Hudson Valley, the inexhaustible Jones has released three solo albums of music for kids and families and eight with his kindie rock band Dog On Fleas. Jones’ lyrics range from the sublime to the ridiculous, but his words always leave the listener thinking. For those who like Tom Waits, the Band, and Americana music.

Recommended tracks:
“Rock Paper Scissors” (Rock Paper Scissors, Dog On Fleas Records, 2010)
“Green Grass of Summer” (When I Get Little, Dog On Fleas Records, 2006)

Frances England

In 2006, San Francisco’s Frances England self-released her debut Fascinating Creatures, intended as a fundraiser for her son’s preschool, and became an accidental kindie rock star. Her career has progressed in reverse of the typical children’s artist’s track: After having released three critically acclaimed albums for kids and their families, she simultaneously recorded an album of grownup songs, Paths We Have Worn, with her fourth children’s album, Blink of an Eye. England’s songs express everyday joys and concerns from the point of view of adult and child, and her sincere, thoughtful lyrics and intimate performances make listeners feel as if she’s singing directly to them. For those who enjoy Yo La Tengo, Sam Phillips, Norah Jones.

Recommended tracks:
“Tell Me It All” (Blink of an Eye, Frances England Music, 2013)
“Free to Be Me” (Family Tree, Paper Bird Records, 2009)

Caspar Babypants

SLJ1502-Kindie-caspar-babypantsOnce upon a time, Chris Ballew headed up the pop band the Presidents of the United States of America. After charting a handful of Top 40 hits in the ’90s the band parted ways, but Ballew soon reignited his musical career and reinvented himself as Caspar Babypants. The Seattle resident is a seemingly bottomless well of songs, having created eight CDs of family music since 2009 (including an album of Beatles classics), with upwards of 20 originals and covers each. Ballew brilliantly utilizes his pop songwriting acumen to transform folk, blues, and traditional classics into newly realized Babypants tunes. For listeners who like the Presidents of the United States of America, blues and traditional tunes, and the Beatles.

Recommended tracks:
“Free Like a Bird” (Here I Am!, Aurora Elephant Music, 2009)
“$9.99” (More Please!, Aurora Elephant Music, 2009)

Justin Roberts

SLJ1502-Kindie-JustinRobertsThis former member of the Minneapolis-based indie-rock band Pimentos for Gus has translated his sharp sense of musical arrangement into shining power pop for kids and their families, focusing on the everyday triumphs and travails of elementary-age kids. Now a Chicago-area resident, Roberts has released nine albums on his own Carpet Square Records since 1998, and he has two Grammy nominations under his belt (“Jungle Gym,” 2011; “Recess,” 2014). Although Roberts handled the distribution of his music when he first kicked off his kindie rock career, it’s now taken care of by Red Distribution (Sony/BMG). For listeners who like Fountains of Wayne, Green Day, and the Beach Boys.

Recommended tracks:


“Recess” (Recess, Carpet Square Records, 2013)
“Picture Day” (Way Out, Carpet Square Records, 2005)

Lunch Money

SLJ1502-Kindie-lunchmoneyLead singer/guitarist Molly Ledford (formerly of the indie-rock band the Verna Cannon) has increasingly become the face and presence of this West Columbia, SC, trio. In addition to rocking out with drummer/husband Jay Barry and bassist J.P. Stephens as Lunch Money, Ledford involves herself with empowering and entertaining projects like Girls Rock Columbia and puppetry troupe Belle et Bête. Releasing four albums since 2004, Lunch Money may be the most “indie rock”-sounding band in children’s music, highlighting a not-so-heavy, loose-limbed, jangly style, emphasizing uniquely kid-centric lyrics. For listeners who like Lush, Jonathan Richman, and Cocteau Twins.

Recommended tracks:
“Please Don’t Move (to Another Time Zone)” (Original Friend,
Squirrel Mechanic Records, 2010)
“Wake Up World” (Dizzy, Squirrel Mechanic Records, 2009)

Other notable artists

Todd McHatton. Want psychedelic? Todd’s got it.

Secret Agent 23 Skidoo. The absolute best Kid Hop out there.

The Okee Dokee Brothers. Grammy-winning duo creates Americana music travelogues.

A former senior children’s librarian with the New York Public Library, Warren Truitt now reviews children’s music for his blog “Kids’ Music that Rocks.”

THE ROOTS

The hallmark independent spirit of kids’ music has a long pedigree. The following performers possessed the gumption to get their music heard without the help of a major label. In so doing, they helped spawn the current kindie rock scene.

SLJ1502-Kindie-Haaca-DanceSingCV-BxBruce Haack, Dance Sing and Listen (Dimension 5 Records, 1963)
Originally intended as a musical enhancement of classroom movement activities, Haack’s debut inadvertently fueled the burgeoning field of electronic music by using oscillators, tape loops, and drum machines.

Hap Palmer, Learning Basic Skills Through Music (Educational Activities, 1969)
Palmer’s low-key, organic debut fit right in with the times. It was targeted at pre-K classrooms full of kids learning classmates’ names and colors, and participating in group activities.

Barry Louis Polisar, I Eat Kids anSLJ1502-Kindie-Polasar-IEatKids-bxd Other Songs for Rebellious Children (Rainbow Morning Music Alternatives, 1975)
The irreverence of Polisar’s bare-bones debut actually got him banned from performing in many libraries and schools. Enjoy his songs with your elementary-age kids and join in their snickers and snorts.

SLJ1502-Kindie-CavoukianSingableSongs-bxRaffi Cavoukian, Singable Songs for the Very Young (Troubadour, 1976)
Raffi’s “everyman” voice and simple arrangements of originals and well-known children’s songs made him and his first album wildly successful with the under-six crowd.

After a rather fallow period during the ‘80s and ‘90s of anonymously produced, cookie-cutter kids’ (with a “z”) music, the turn of the century introduced two artists who many consider to be the grandparents of modern kindie rock, Laurie Berkner and Dan Zanes.

SLJ1502-Kindie-Laurie-Berkne-bxLaurie Berkner, Whaddaya Think of That? (Two Tomatoes Records, 1997)
SLJ1502-Kindie-Dan-Zanes-bxBerkner’s uncluttered style and Pied Piper-like aura helped her kick off a kindie rock empire that began with this album of self-penned tunes and familiar children’s songs.

Dan Zanes, Rocket Ship Beach (Festival Five Records, 2000)
Zanes drew on his past success as a member of the Del Fuegos to deliver a rootsy, spirited debut with the help of fellow rockers like Sheryl Crow, Suzanne Vega, and Bad Company’s Simon Kirke.

This article was published in School Library Journal's February 2015 issue. Subscribe today and save up to 35% off the regular subscription rate.

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Comments

  1. Don’t forget to check out The Bazillions as well! They’ve got the top Preposition song on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/user/TheBazillions

  2. Janet Bass says:

    I really hope you give a shout out to the Sugar Free Allstars.
    They are always funky fresh! sugarfreeallstars.com
    They are a staple of the midwest kindie scene from
    St. Louis to Austin appearing in every school, library
    and festival in between. Don’t miss them!