March 22, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

12 Kids’ Albums You Can’t Live Without

Is it Time to Update Your Albums for Really Young Listeners?

Has a parent or teacher asked your advice about the best new CDs for members of the preschool set? Well, you’re in luck.

In the last 10 years, the once-comatose children’s music scene has been resuscitated, starting with its performers. Many musicians who were rockers in a former lifetime (from Dan Zanes to Elizabeth Mitchell) are now parents, and they’re writing some terrific tunes for children. And these folks are just the tip of the iceberg.

Hundreds of lesser-known musicians have also joined the kiddie-music ranks. And thanks to inexpensive eight-track recorders, ubiquitous CD burners, and the Internet, these talented performers no longer have to rely on major record companies to distribute their songs. Now, there are several excellent online kids’ music stores—the best being CD Baby—which sell artists’ self-produced CDs and pay musicians much better royalties than the old-school record companies would ever dream of paying. And if you’re looking for a choice mix of kid-friendly music, head straight to The Pokey Pup, which stocks the most eclectic selection in cyberspace.

Although today’s music for tots features an impressive amount of variety, inventiveness, and talent, it should only be the starting point for a child’s exploration of the wonderful world of music. Sure, the Jellydots—one of the most exciting groups in kids’ music—offer some brilliant power pop, but you’ll also want to introduce your little ones to some grown-up tunes from groups like Big Star, the Records, and Teenage Fanclub. Likewise, the Putumayo Kids label provides an outstanding overview of world music, but it’s also smart to sprinkle in some grooves by Sun Ra, Bob Marley, and Tinariwen. Trust me: kids will let you know what songs they like to listen to.

Children’s music has never sounded better, and I’ve compiled a list of 12 albums you can’t live without—and another dozen that are too good to keep to myself. To hear some of my favorite tunes, visit SLJ‘s Web site and click on “Podcasts.”

Dog on Fleas
Cranberry Sauce Flotilla (Self-released)

Dog on Fleas has been performing together for several years now, and it shows on Cranberry Sauce Flotilla, their third CD for kids. Recorded mostly with a single microphone in band leader Dean Jones’s living room in upstate New York, the songs exude loads of organic vitality. The group’s use of fiddles, tubas, mandolins, acoustic guitars, and an upright piano, combined with their down-home song selections, will make you feel like you’re listening to The Band, playing at Big Pink.

Bassist John Hughes’s “Happy,” fiddler/mandolin player David Levine’s “Little Bird,” and guitarist Jones’s title track could be the springboard for a greatest-hits compilation; the songwriting is that strong. The band enthusiastically tackles traditional tunes like “Weevily Wheat” and add their own earthy touch to standards like Hoagy Carmichael’s “Lazy Bones” and Woody Guthrie’s “Bling-Blang.” This is wonderful music from a fantastically talented group.

The Jellydots
Hey You Kids! (Self-released)

Doug Snyder, a songsmith from Austin, TX, has that rare gift of writing from a child’s perspective without sounding forced or corny. These tunes, which he wrote for his young guitar students, convey a sense of comfort and self-worth in a beautifully understated way.

Snyder’s pop genius explodes in the song “Bicycle” and continues full throttle through “Hey You Kids!,” “Quite Naturally,” and “I’m Not Ugly (You’re Not Either),” the best song the Schoolhouse Rock songwriters never penned. “Race Cars Go” is a rock ‘n’ roll monster, while the band’s cover of the ’70s classic “Three Is the Magic Number” sizzles with a white-hot guitar solo. Even the quiet numbers, like the heart-achingly sweet “My Blanket,” are so unbelievably good it’s hard to get your head around the fact that you’re listening to an album for little kids.

Gustafer Yellowgold
Gustafer Yellowgold’s Wide Wild World (Little Monster)

Morgan Taylor has created a completely unique DVD that draws its inspiration from some unlikely sources, including ’70s soft rock and singer-songwriter Harry Nilsson’s animated film The Point! Gustafer Yellowgold’s Wide Wild World tells the story of a creature from the Sun who visits Earth and befriends a flightless pterodactyl, a tearful green bee, a dragon that makes his home in a fireplace, and an eel. These charming characters feel like they’ve sprung directly from the mind of Dr. Seuss.

Taylor’s songs deliver subtle messages about love and loss, friendship and loneliness, and joy and grief. Some of the tunes are so beautifully heart tugging, it’s hard not to get a little misty. His live show is a must-see—but if you can’t catch a concert, check out this recording. You’ll see what all the fuss is about.

Joel Caithamer
ACTIVATE! (Self-released)

Caithamer’s rockabilly songs are covered with blue suede and pompadour gel, but they’re not gimmicky twang. His band rocks sincerely and with gusto, churning out a performance that would have made Sun Records’ founder Sam Phillips proud.

The fact that this northern Kentucky children’s librarian works with kids is definitely a plus—and you can hear it in these tyke-appealing tunes about the not-so-bad Big Bad Wolf, Evel Knievel, the Dewey decimal system, and Lemony Snicket’s Count Olaf. This album is an example of a grown-up making rockin’ music for children without dumbing it down or compromising his approach. Just check out the raging harmonica solo that kicks off “Bobby’s Been Bad but Wanda’s Been Worse,” the rock ‘n’ roll beat of “Daredevil of Butte,” and the “Taxman”-like “Pancakes All Around.” Great stuff from a very busy librarian.

Elizabeth Mitchell
You Are My Little Bird (Smithsonian Folkways)

There’s a good reason why Mitchell was scooped up by a major record label: she’s the heir to Ella Jenkins, the first lady of children’s music. Mitchell sings folk songs, but she keeps her repertoire up-to-date with tunes from the likes of Neil Young, Lou Reed, Gillian Welch, and Bob Marley. She’s also been known to team up with her husband, Daniel Littleton, and her former college roommate, Lisa Loeb.

Of course, anyone can sing traditional folk tunes and strum a guitar, but to do it well and receive universal acclaim, well, that’s another story. Mitchell’s a cappella turn at “Little Liza Jane,” her ethereal reading of “If You Listen,” and her acoustic, rock ‘n’ roll cover of “What Goes On” emphasize her strengths as a subtle but powerful performer. This is a superb and eclectic group of songs performed uniquely, yet flawlessly.

Frances England
Fascinating Creatures (Self-released)

England’s quietly powerful album presents songs about riding a tricycle, reading one’s favorite books, and eating pancakes—y’ know, things that are important to kids. This CD began as a project to raise money for her son’s preschool, but word of mouth soon turned it into an underground hit.

Pretty much all you’re going to hear on this album is England’s voice accompanied by guitars and occasional percussion. But listen closely: it’s the spaces between the notes that make the difference. Just check out the title track, which is the aural equivalent of a gauzy curtain swaying in a summer breeze. The chorus of “Busy as a Bee” makes a great toddler-time sing-along, and the scatty “Charlie Parker” introduces a veritable who’s who of bebop.

This is a true indie-rock kids’ album, and everything from England’s stellar performance to her folksy cover art sets a high standard. To top it off, she’s only two credits shy of getting her MLIS.

Jim Gill
Jim Gill Sings Moving Rhymes for Modern Times (Jim Gill Music)

One of the hardest things to do is to write great songs for the very young. But this Chicago-based educator, author, and performer has released five CDs for kids, each better than the last, and his latest, “Moving Rhymes,” ups the ante. Gill’s secret is that he transforms simple movement songs into engaging and extremely well-played tunes that toddlers and grown-ups really dig.

If you’re in a bind for preschool activities, listen to “Swing Your Partner,” “Jump Up, Turn Around,” “Sliding, Rolling, Jumping,” or “Face the Facts”—they’ll get your group up and movin’ in no time at all. And the men’s chorus that occasionally pops up on these tunes just adds to the fun.

Gill is a big believer in the power of libraries in kids’ lives, and his commitment to excellence shines through in each of these songs.

Josh Levine
Josh Levine for Kids (Self-released)

Levine takes full advantage of his Latino roots and jazz background on Josh Levine for Kids, the New York City bassist’s first children’s CD. Never have toddler tunes received such a spicy interpretation! From “Tiburon” to Bill Staines’s classic “A Place in the Choir,” these songs are guaranteed to induce spontaneous salsa dancing at your next toddler time.

Levine, a former elementary school music teacher, does the almost impossible, performing songs for the very young that you’ll want to listen to again and again. Even oldies like “The Hokey Pokey” and “This Land Is Your Land” sound fresh and vibrant. And Levine’s originals, such as “I’ve Got Music in My Soul,” continue the joyous, jazzy vibe that runs through this album. His skill with the upright bass and the Venezuelan cuatro—a four-stringed instrument slightly smaller than a guitar—translate wonderfully into an album that’s pitch-perfect for preschoolers.

The Hollow Trees
The Hollow Trees (Self-released)

With banjos ringin’ and a big bass boomin’, the Hollow Trees grab your ears with the very first notes of their self-titled debut album, a collection of folk classics and originals performed in the spirit of Burl Ives and Pete Seeger. Guitarist Greg McIlvaine and bassist Laura Steenberge obviously love kids’ folk albums of yore, and this L.A.-based band shows its adoration in these reverent but playful performances.

From the rowdy “Jack Was Every Inch a Sailor” and the melancholy “Buckeye Jim” to the silly “The Whale Song,” the Hollow Trees cover a lot of ground, while keeping their sound uniform and entertaining. They even make a hoary chestnut like “Shoo Fly” sound fresh and exciting. This is an instant classic that will entertain your little ones and encourage them to explore the wide world of folk music.

They Might Be Giants
Here Come the ABCs! (Disney)

Brooklyn’s alterna-teen heroes are back with their second kids’ CD. Here Come the ABCs! features John Flansburgh and John Linnell’s witty, goofy, and catchy style at its best. It’s hard to resist the majestic “Alphabet of Nations” and the chunky funk of “LMNO,” and tunes like the breezy psychedelic “Pictures of Pandas Painting” and the swaying “C Is for Conifers” take the album’s theme and run with it.

The DVD version is even more amazingly creative, thanks to Bonfire Films of America, Robin Goldwasser’s Deeply Felt Puppet Theater, and animators Courtney Booker and Euan Mitchell. This talented team has interpreted the TMBG’s tunes through live action, puppetry, and animation. A few of the songs on the CD actually make way more sense when you see them on DVD—so splurge and buy both versions. You and your little ones will be fighting over whose turn it is to play them.

Putumayo Kids
Latin Playground (Putumayo World Music)

This is an outstanding introduction to world music provided by the folks at Putumayo. Latin Playground presents music from Venezuela, Mexico, Uruguay, Colombia, and Cuba, among other nations, performed by artists with roots in South and Central America. Kids can liven up their parties with Cubanismo!’s “Mardi Gras Mambo,” Nazare Pereira’s “Rodopiou,” Rudy Y Chévere Regalado’s “America Baila,” and Carmen Gonzalez and Koral Y. Esmeralda’s “Chocolate.”

Wanna dance? Then check out Flaco Jiminez’s “De Bolon Pin Pon,” Omara Portuondo’s “Guantanamera,” and Ruben Rada’s “Yo Quiero.” Even San Antonio, TX, native Terri Hendrix turns in a great tejano-style song, “Lluvia de Estrellas,” that was originally on her kids’ album Celebrate the Difference. Latin Playground is a great place to begin exploring the music of the Americas with your little ones.

Putumayo Kids
Caribbean Playground (Putumayo World Music)

The Putumayo Kids label has become amazingly adept at introducing children to music from around the world. Their secret? They go out and find the real deal—rather than recording some guy from our suburbs playing a Tibetan folk song on a synthesizer. Caribbean Playground is a collection of tunes from Haiti, Jamaica, Puerto Rico, Trinidad, Guadeloupe, and many other countries.

Desmond Dekker’s “Jamaica Farewell,” MissionIriez’s “Reggae Dancin’,” and Kali’s “Tambou Dan Tche Nou” will inspire nonstop dancing, while Jose González y Banda Criolla’s “Bomba Te Traigo Yo” and Taj Mahal and the Hula Blues’ “Great Big Boat” provide a great laid-back groove. This is yet another fabulous collection of world music that should not be missed.

Albums You Almost Can’t Live Without

Professor Presley
History Rocks (Self-released)

Bill Reynolds, a social studies teacher from Encinitas, CA, takes you on a tour of American history… via punk rock. Raging guitar, bass, and drums make our Founding Fathers’ words sound even more vital!

Melanie Dill
Alphabet Parade (Music for Learning)

This Kansas educator’s album is a flowing, sweet, funny, and highly entertaining stream of music, dialogue, and rhymes—kinda like the audio track of a really great TV show for kids.

Daddy A Go Go
Eat Every Bean and Pea on Your Plate (Boyd’s Tone)

Atlanta rocker John Boydston doesn’t hold back with the crunchy guitars, as evidenced by the awesome “For Those About to Walk (We Salute You).” Third-grade headbangers can’t resist playing their air guitars to this funny stuff.

Asylum Street Spankers
Mommy Says No! (Yellow Dog)

This raucous band from Austin, TX, specializes in acoustic music that evokes scenes from the roaring ’20s and the dust bowl ’30s. Although they’ve toned down their language on their first kids’ album, they still let the music rip.

The Terrible Twos
If You Ever See an Owl… (Vagrant)

Matt Pryor has channeled his considerable talents into kids’ music and the result is wonderful. The Terrible Twos are actually the New Amsterdams (Pryor’s adult band), so expect a melodic, thoughtful brand of quiet pop.

The Quiet Two
Make Some Noise (Not Big)

This Brooklyn-based duo draws inspiration from psychedelic British pop and their own wildly imaginative brains. Think the Small Faces playing a free-form variety show for kids.

Deedle Deedle Dees
Freedom in a Box (Self-released)

With titles like “Henry Box Brown” and “Underground Railroad,” this incredibly talented Brooklyn band loves to sing about social studies, and their enthusiasm is matched by each tune’s entertainment value.

Putumayo Kids
New Orleans Playground

Here’s a catchy collection of oldies by NOLA-based performers—everyone from Fats Domino to Clifton Chenier. All age appropriate, all ridiculously upbeat, all guaranteed to get the toddler-time party started!

Putumayo Kids
African Playground

This winning album—featuring tunes from Kenya, Senegal, and many other nations—is a great sampler for those who want to explore Africa’s music. Plus, it’ll make you want to dance!

Mr. David
The Great Adventures of Mr. David (Mr. David’s Musicworks)

David Alexandrou’s CD is the kids’ music equivalent of the Beatles’ “White Album.” Instruments and vocals appear at random and imagery runs rampant—but the whole thing gels brilliantly.