Often I hear parents lamenting, discussing, debating, or downright ranting about tolerable “kid’s music” or the lack thereof. Given the massive industry that is churning out an avalanche of crap entertainment for kids, you’d think that there would be a better and more coherent source for helping parents sort out the good stuff. A Rolling Stone for kids, of sorts. Perhaps we could call it Rolling Pebble?
Before getting into publishing, I was in the toy business, and I spent nearly seven years working in a variety of different positions in one of the best independent toy businesses in the US–Henry Bear’s Park–headquartered in Cambridge, MA. Day in and day out I logged thousands of hours in those stores, and just about every minute of those thousands of hours was filled with kids music. Some good, and some–well–let’s not go there.
My criteria for great music for kids is pretty simple: it must stand up to repeated playing, over and over and over, without making the adult listener a) want to commit suicide because it’s so mind-numbingly saccharine, or b) bash their head into the wall because they can’t get the songs out ’cause they’re too damn catchy. Raffi, who I think is one of the most genius songrwriters for kids ever, falls into this latter category and so isn’t recommended below. Let me say for the record, however, that the song Baby Beluga is one of the most perfect kids songs ever written. Seriously. Kids love it, and it’s a blast to sing it to them.
Anyway, here is an essential dozen list of CDs I can confidently recommend, plus some extra stuff. They are great, everyone will enjoy them, and there’s quite a genre range so you can pick your poison. Many of the CDs are from series with additional offerings so you can go out and explore. I’m sure you have your own favorites that aren’t listed here, and if they pass the 1,000 play test, feel free to chime in below. Although I always support buying local if possible, I am including the Amazon links to my suggestions, because there you can listen to samples of every track. Enjoy!
One last note: There is nothing wrong with playing “real” music for kids. In fact, I think it’s a critical part of their cultural education. Why play a CD of kids singing reggae when you can just play great reggae? Like reading, kids will grow up loving music if they’re raised with lots of it around. Share what you love.
These first two are from a great series by a company called Music for Little People, and they are compilations of original music, so no saccharine kiddie pap. They have a bunch of Genre CD’s also, “A Child’s Celebration of” Show Tunes, (singer)Song(writer), Dance Music, Classical, Silly Songs, Jazz, etc. These two are a good start but every CD in the series is awesome.
A Child’s Celebration of Folk
Music for Little People
Favorite track: Garden Song by David Mallett
A Child’s Celebration of Song
Music for Little People
Favorite Track: St. Judy’s Comet by Paul Simon
I love Dan Zanes. He used to be in the Boston indie rock band the Del Fuegos, but he has seriously hit the big time with his CDs for kids. His theory as a musical pro with kids of his own was play good music that everyone will love. He’s right on, and he gets plenty of great musicians to go along like Cheryl Crow etc. It sounds just like an old fashioned hootenanny would sound if a rocker got it together. His song choices range far outside of traditional kid’s songs and his enthusiasm is infectious. (Even his hair is excited.) If he ever happens to be touring near you, it’s worth it to go, if only to see the legions of adoring five year olds in the mosh pit. Any of Dan’s CD’s are good (I particularly *heart* his sea shanty CD with kids singing about “beer and tabbaccy” below) but these two are a nice introduction:
Rocket Ship Beach
Festival Five Records
Favorite Track: Brown Girl in the Ring
Festival Five Records
Favorite Track: All for Me Grog
On a completely different vibe is Tony Bennett’s kid’s album. So smooth and hip you could play it at a cocktail party, and your guests might not even notice that he’s singing duets with the likes of Kermit the Frog and Rosie O’Donnell.
Favorite Track: (It’s Only) A Paper Moon
Many people don’t know that Woody Guthrie wrote a large body of songs for his kids, and they are all really charming. His son Arlo has recorded many of them on this excellent CD which also includes some of the original recordings by Woody.
This Land is Your Land
Favorite Track: Howdi Do
There are a ton of lullaby CDs out there, and they are not created equal. I am a total sucker for this album, both because it is so great musically, but also because all the songs were recorded and in some cases written by famous male musicians for their children. The album has a subtle old style country bluegrass feel, but it’s not at all hokey—okay—the song Little Hands IS hokey, but you can play around it.
Daddy’s Sing Goodnight: A Father’s Collection of Sleepytime Songs
Favorite Track: Nolabye by Jerry Douglas
Ah, the Putumayo Kids Present CDs. These comps of World Music by genre are completely awesome. There are many, many of these, all equally wonderful from all over the world, including Africa and Asia, so they can just pick what you like by genre. Bonus: because these are compilations, you can discover whole new areas of music by picking up the full titles by the artists on these albums you particularly like. These are a few of my personal favs:
Favorite Track: Bongo Bong by Manu Chao
Favorite Track: Durme Durme (Brazil) – Fortuna
Favorite Track: Chatouiller Le Ciel Avec Toi – Alain Schneider
Favorite Track: Here Comes The Sun – The Burning Souls
And last but not least, this one speaks for itself all year round:
A Charlie Brown Christmas
Favorite Track: Linus & Lucy
An alternative for our Non-Christian Brethren:
A Boy Named Charlie Brown
BONUS: As I look back on this list I realize it’s weighted more heavily to the folk end of things than rock. There are plenty of great original rock albums that are awesome for kids just as they are. Here’s a few suggestions, but any upbeat album with clean language will do the trick:
The Beatles: 1 (the singles)
The Flaming Lips: Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots
Jim Noir: Tower of Love
The Jackson 5: The Ultimate Collection
Various: Motown’s Greatest Hits
Wilco: Sky Blue Sky
Harry Nilsson: Greatest Hits
Various: Pure 80’s
(This last album does include some innuendo, but it’s very fun overall. You might want to skip over Centerfold by J. Giles and avoid the inevitable explanation scene you will have to deal with eventually. But hits are hits for a reason and greatest hits collections are usually awesome for kids.)