Friday, August 29, 2008

Top Ten Kids' Music Albums

I figured a good way to dive into the world of kids' music would be to do a top ten list of albums that I've enjoyed from childhood up to the present day. My disclaimer is that I did not include any of my albums in an attempt to be impartial (though people have described Coconut Groove as the Sgt. Pepper's of children's music albums, and by "people" I mean me). I tried to compile a list of classic and contemporary music. I hope everyone in the Blog-o-sphere enjoys!

10) Let's Go Everywhere ~Medeski, Martin and Wood
This is the first foray into the world of kids' music by the ultra-hip piano/organ trio. I am usually skeptical of non-children's musicians who try to bust in on the scene (like Madonna writing children's books), but this is a solid effort by MMW. I was wondering about what this instrumental group would do as far as vocals, and though Tim Ingham's singing isn't top notch, the lyrics are clever and there is a nice Johnny Cash quality to the title track. I am quite fond of the instrumental numbers and those with chidlren's voices. This one's a bit out there for your average listener, but for those parents who play Mozart or Coltrane to their kids, it's not much of a stretch.

9) Old Dog, New Tricks ~ Barry Louis Polisar
My wife Tracey recalls seeing BLP in a Maryland shopping mall growing up. I remember playing several of his vinyl albums that we borrowed from the local library. BLP has had a recent media boost with a feature during the credits of the hit movie JUNO. For me it's difficult to choose between the albums I enjoyed growing up which is why I chose this "best of" album. There's are other compilation albums of his music as well for those looking to add to their musical library. BLP's music is funny and singable. His lyrics can range from the gross and improbable to the warm and heart-felt. His unique sense of humor is the thread which ties it all together.

8) Dan Zanes (and Friends)~ Catch That Train
Dan Zanes has been blowing up in the past few years. I've seen a video of his on Nickelodeon, and I have been sent countless articles on him around the country. He brings his 90's indie-rock pedigree (as a member of the Del Fuegos) to the world of "Family Music" as he like to call it. This album has a down-home charm and a good dancing vibe (especially on the title track and songs like "Let's Shake.") Zanes just released a Spanish language album called Nuevo York which I have not heard, but I'm sure will be great for my students here in South Florida.

7) The Jimmies ~ Make Your Own Someday
Ashley (the lead singer of the Jimmies) is my next door neighbor's daughter. She has a background in voice over, and we hear her voice every now and then on national commercials. Her father Howard Albert runs Big Sounds Studios here in Miami, and his years production experience (working with everyone from Steven Stills to Eric Clapton) are clearly evident on this album. In a comment to their Myspace page I wrote: "What would happen if the Go-Go's, AC/DC, Norah Jones, Toni Basil and the Muppets started a supergroup? I Think you'd call it the Jimmies!" That pretty much sums up this album. It's fun and catchy. Ashley's got a great voice and a talent for kids' song writing. There are also some great videos of a few of the album tracks on their website

6) Yo-Yo Ma and Bobby McFerrin ~ Hush
This album is a gem. Part classical, part experimental a cappella, part hoe down. I like to play this one as background music in my classroom, but it is also a good sit-down record. What can you say about Yo-Yo Ma and Bobby McFerrin? For those who only know Bobby McFerrin from "Don't Worry Be Happy," he's more than a one hit wonder. The man can sing two notes at once for starters. Team him up with, arguably, the most famous classical musician of the second half of the century and you've got gold. It would be a good record to put on at bedtime, but every now and then it gets a little raucous (as in the introduction to the "Musette" and the "Flight of the Bumblebee"). Hush has been a mainstay in my music collection since it came out in 1992.

UPDATE! (thanks to my sister I figured out how to add the next five albums, so here goes)

5) Pete Seeger ~ Abiyoyo (And Other Story Songs For Children)
Before there was Sesame Street, before there was Mr. Rogers, there was Pete Seeger. As a mythic figure in the world of folk music, it was not a big stretch for Pete Seeger to branch out into the genre of children's music (or possibly even invent it). With his signature Vega banjo and his easy sprech-stimme (speak singing) syle, this collection of tales and traditional children's folk songs is a must have. Pete Seeger laid the foundation for future generations of children's musicians to build upon.

4) Sesame Street ~ Songs from the Street
I received this 6 CD set as a gift this past Christmas, and I almost jumped out of my skin. Technically, this is more than one album but it saves me having to include the almost 40 years of Sesame Street recordings on this list. This collection is like a high-light reel of all of the best performances and compositions that went into Sesame Street since it went on air in 1969. I also got the Sesame Street "Old School" DVD set which makes a nice companion piece to the music CDs. I could fill pages about what makes the music of Sesame Street so great. Putting the amazing song writing of people like Joe Raposo and Christopher Cerf aside, the session players alone who play on these songs from the early years of Sesame Street are insane (in a good way)! Then you look at the stars who have made guest appearances from Billy Joel, Stevie Wonder, Paul Simon and Cab Calloway to REM, Steven Tyler and the Spin Doctors. 'nuff said?
3) Sesame Street ~ Born to Add
Okay so I included another Sesame Street album on the list. This one is for selfish reasons, being that this was my favorite growing up. Just look at the album cover! Someone spent serious time making an exact replica of the Boss's Born to Run album. Following this vein, Born to Add includes some of the greatest Sesame Street sound-alikes ever. "Born to Add," "Hey Food," "Letter B," and "Cooperation (I Can't Get No)" are genius. As a composer who has been requisitioned to record song sound-alikes, I can tell you it's no easy task. The folks behind this recording had to completely rewrite these songs while still keeping a pearl of similarity so the listener gets the reference (or the listener's parents as it were). "The Opposite" song is one of my all-time favorite songs (across genres) and my band in college was famous for ending all our sets with this classic rock gem. (Please Note: I came across a rereleased version of Born to Add on Amazon from the 90's that did not included the Beatles inspired tunes. They have been moved to the Sesame Road album. If you can get your hands on the original 80's version, do it. If not, buy them both!)

2) Bill Harley ~ Monsters in the Bathroom
I was so psyched to read that, after several decades in the kids' music biz, Bill Harley was finally given a Grammy! This is the album that started it all off, and the music that initially inspired me when I began to play music for children. I saw Bill Harley at Fales Elementary school in 1986, and his funny, energetic and delightfully gross performance has stuck with me to this day. It's a neat comparison to listen to both Bill and Pete Seeger's versions of Abiyoyo. (It's kind of like Dylan and Hendrix doing All Along the Watchtower, one's the original and one takes it to the next level). Bill Harley is a talented story teller and song-writer alike. He also pops up as a commentator on NPR every now and then. If you and your family live in Massachusetts, find out where he's playing and GO!
1) Sesame Street ~ In Harmony
Well, by now you can see where my biases lie. Though this does have appearances by several of the Muppets, I don't think of this as a true Sesame Street album. Most of the songs were never on the show, and the whole concept of the album is a who's who of popular music of the 60's, 70's and 80's doing children's music. Listen to this list: James Taylor, Carly Simon, The Doobie Brothers, Bette Midler, Livingston Taylor, Billy Joel, Dr. John and the list goes on. The talent pool is deep, the songs are classics and the awesome performances make this album my top pick. "I've Got My Pajamas On" by Livingston Taylor is another song which I have covered frequently, and "Jellyman Kelly" by his more famous Brother is great as well. They made at least one additional volume of "In Harmony" which is a good companion to the original.

So that's the list. I had to make some tough decisions and some great albums didn't quite make the cut. Do you have a favorite kid's album that's not on the list? Drop me a line. I'm always looking for new tunes! Thanks for reading this installment of Singing in the Bathtub.

kid quote of the day: (upon smelling my morning coffee breath) "Nick, your voice smells bad!" ~Sam (age 3)


Anne Deysher said...

Wonderful list! Several of the albums - In Harmony, Born to Add, Monsters in the Bathroom, stand the test of time as I remember enjoying them with my kids (Nick included) when they were young.

Traicye said...

Here is a new album you might want to review for your list if you ever would like to update it. It is called "WeBop: A Family Jazz Party," and it is EXCELLENT! Led by the jazz drummer, Matt Wilson, the WeBop Family Jazz Band swings and sings! The album is for the entire family and is not a compilation of nursery rhymes done in "jazzy" arrangements. WeBop is a program at Jazz at Lincoln Center in NYC. CHECK IT OUT!