Music to enjoy for years to come By Fred Koch
It is always fun to sort through my favorite children's music releases of the year and put together my picks for the best of 2003. I continue to be amazed and enthralled by these extraordinary artists who create such exemplary music for children and families. In a music genre that is saturated with product, it is refreshing to find and share with you these projects that succeed in being meaningful and appropriate for our children and musically satisfying for us as adults. So again I offer some of the year's best music releases in hopes that you find as much pleasure in them as our family has, and that you will continue to give the gift of music during this holiday season. Drum roll, please…
A PLAYFUL MIND-MUSIC FOR INFANTS, VOL. 2: TRAVEL MUSIC FOR THE CAR, by A Playful Mind, $16.99, infants and toddlers; www.aplayfulmind.com. No segment of children's music has been more exploited than that of music for infants. Ever since the Mozart Effect made its mark, company after company has filled the market with knockoffs and imitations. So when a CD comes along that is genuine and sincere in its music for the youngest of listeners, notice needs to be taken. Such is the case with the music of Thomas Schoenberger. His polyphonic and classically influenced music is quickly catching the attention of parents nationwide because of its simple, but elegant effect. Some dub it the Schoenberger Effect, but in jest or not, his music is deservedly receiving some high-profile support and recognition such as "Best of Year" acclaim from Dr. Toy. You will enjoy an hour's worth of music featuring 23 new piano pieces with titles such as "Refrain From a Windy Night," "Sonatina for a Bright and Sun Drenched Morning" and "Car Seat Sleep Song." A must for parents with very young children.
THE TOWN AROUND THE BEND, by Bill Harley, Round River Records, $15, ages 3-7; www.billharley.com. Bill Harley's newest recording is a very special collection of songs and stories for bedtime about a wonderful and wacky imaginary place he calls "The Town Around the Bend." And (thank goodness) it is not your typical sugary sweet nighttime CD filled with "you are special" messages. First of all, Harley reminds his young audience that in order for him to do his job, they must first be in bed. Then he proceeds to spin some fanciful tales and sing some charming songs-all in that child-like, intimate Bill Harley style. Favorites of my 7-year-old include the story "Bucket of Beans, Clarisse and the Bubble Machine" and the song "Look Out Your Window" with the chorus of "And every star is like a story waiting to be told / And every star is like a song that's sung that never grows old." An exceptional CD from an exceptional songsmith and storyteller! Ages 3-7
INDIAN ELEPHANT TEA, by Skip Ewing and The Big Kidz Band, Rounder Records, $16; www.bigkidzband.com. This CD is a great platform to showcase the talents of Skip Ewing, a highly successful Nashville songwriter to the stars, because it spotlights his outstanding production and imaginative arranging skills. From the very first moments of "Old MacDonald Had a Sampler," you know that you're in for something special. Ewing takes a bunch of traditional children's songs and, although it has been done before (usually not very creatively), he very successfully adapts these songs and puts an original and refreshing spin on them. Who would think of coupling "The Itsy Bitsy Spider" with Duke Ellington's classic "Take The ‘A' Train?" Well, Skip Ewing pulls it off. There are some tender moments, too, including "Fare Thee Well Fondly" (co-written by Ewing and his daughter) and the title track "Indian Elephant Tea," a poem his grandmother wrote and Ewing set to music. A soon-to-be favorite for more kids and parents.
HEAR & GONE IN 60 SECONDS!, by Various Artists, Rounder Records, $9.99; www.rounder.com. Hailed by Moira McCormick, Family Fun Magazine's music reviewer, as her "pick for best children's album of 2003," this CD could be sub-titled "A Taste of Children's Music." The title of the CD lets the listener in on what will be coming out of the speaker: 29 artists performing all new original songs-each within 60 seconds (or so). And Chicago children's music artists are well represented here. In addition to my "Forever and Ever" on track 17, you will hear a new Justin Roberts song, a new bluesy little number from Ella Jenkins and "I'm Not Tired," quickly becoming one of my favorite Ralph Covert (Ralph's World) original songs to date. One of the goals of "Hear & Gone" is to introduce parents to the idea that there are a lot of talented artists contributing quality songs to the children's music industry. So, though you may recognize some of the artists here, you will most certainly hear some musicians who are new to you and because of this introduction to these new performers, you will seek out more family music from these artists. Can't wait for Volume Two!
HOUSE PARTY, by Dan Zanes, Festival Five Records, $15; www.festivalfive.com. Dan Zanes has been bringing a lot of good publicity to children's music lately. And for good reason-his story is a familiar one (rock ‘n' roll guy matures, has kids, now writes children's songs) but it is the good music, not the good PR, that captures parents looking for the best in children's music. This is Zanes' newest release and, to my ears, each is better than the last (this is his fourth). As with other Zanes CDs, he mixes up some fabulous original songs ("Shining Star") with great old traditional songs ("Old Joe Clarke," "Down In The Valley") and treats them all with an edgy rock/folk style. And the star-studded supporting cast on all of Zanes' recordings is impressive. This project features Bob Weir of the Grateful Dead singing "Wabash Cannonball," Deborah Harry helps with "Waltzing Matilda" and Philip Glass collaborates with Zanes on the final piece, "A Place For Us." If you haven't listened to any Dan Zanes music, this is a great place to start. Ages 7 and up
MY FABULOUS PLUM, by Peter Himmelman, Frinny Records, $15; www.peterhimmelman.com. A long-standing favorite of Chicago rock audiences, Peter Himmelman's follow-up to his first critically acclaimed children's CD, "My Best Friend is a Salamander," is truly in a class by itself. Himmelman is one of those rare musicians who produces music that doesn't sound like anyone else's. What I mean is that he trusts his own intuitive nature when he is writing and producing his songs. The result is some amazingly creative journeys into the imagination that also have something to say to kids. "A World Where You Only Eat Candy" and "I Don't Like To Share" can spur some great conversation. "Ain't Nothin' To It" and "Love Feels The Same Way Everywhere" will pep up someone when they really need it. Imagery will soar with "Karena Chasing Butterflies" and "Herman The Big Oily Moose." Himmelman only comes out with a children's/family CD every few years but it will take you that long to tire of "My Fabulous Plum." Compilations
JANE GOODALL'S WILD CHIMPANZEES, by Various Artists, Big Screen Music, $15.98, all ages; www.chimpcd.com. This is the original soundtrack recording for the IMAX film, "Jane Goodall's Wild Chimpanzees," and is a compilation CD featuring some extraordinary songs and music. South African songwriter and producer Johnny Clegg is featured extensively throughout this recording, along with songs contributed by Bonnie Raitt ("Hear Me Lord"), Bruce Cockburn ("Wondering Where The Lions Are") and Paul McCartney ("Wild Life"). Unlike many soundtrack recordings, this CD is full of great songs with a great story to tell. Sales benefit the work of the Jane Goodall Institute and its mission of "raising awareness about the plight of chimpanzees in Africa and conserving wildlife habitat to fostering respect and compassion in young people for the world around them." All the great music has motivated our family to go see the IMAX film, which in turn should help spark our sensitivity to these issues. I WILL BE YOUR FRIEND, by Various Artists, Teaching Tolerance, free to educators, $30 for additional copies, ages 7-10; www.tolerance.org/teach.
In an effort to help children learn more about and celebrate the great cultural diversity of America, Teaching Tolerance is publishing free support materials for teachers (also available for purchase by parents). The "I Will Be Your Friend" kit includes a 26-song CD featuring a wide spectrum of musical artists, a book with complete lyrics to all songs and the full score for one choral anthem. The classroom activities section is loaded with great ideas on how to use the songs as starting points for discussion and how to integrate related subjects. This project is so well put together that teachers will love the reproducible pages and the abundance of quality resources. But the best part is this compilation CD is brimming with great songs. Some of the standouts include "It Could Be a Wonderful World" (performed by Pete Seeger), "I Find a Good Friend" sung in Chinese (performed by Gao Hong featuring the pipa, an ancient Chinese musical instrument) and the gospel-flavored "What Can One Little Person Do?" (by Sally Rogers). So drop a note to a favorite teacher and introduce him or her to this great organization and the free teacher support materials. All teachers need do to receive a free copy is fax Teaching Tolerance a request for "I Will Be Your Friend" on school letterhead. All information is at the Web site, so check it out. While you're there, order a copy for yourself. It is money well spent.
There are many children's music CDs that aren't new this year but still are meaningful and exciting. So when you're searching for great children's music CDs for this holiday season, consider these outstanding recordings. "This Land Is Your Land" (Music For Little People, ages 7-10, www.mflp.com) is a tribute to the concepts of liberty and justice for all with a star-studded cast of musicians including The Neville Brothers, Raffi and Willie Nelson, just to name a few. "Beethoven's Wig: Sing Along Symphonies" (Rounder Records, all ages, www.rounder.com) is the brainchild of Richard Purlmutter. He figured out that if he wrote some humorous lyrics to symphonic pieces he could get kids (and adults) to listen to orchestra music in a whole different light. It is a wonderfully entertaining (and educational) project. Music-only versions of his adaptations are also included on the CD. "Jim Gill's Irrational Anthem... and More Salutes To Nonsense" (Jim Gill Music, ages 2-5, www.jimgill.com) is the latest from a local favorite. Teachers have been using Jim's music for years and now parents are realizing that his recordings are perfect for music play at home. Though Tom Chapin has made many great recordings for children, my two favorites are "Family Tree" and "Around The World and Back Again." Both are available at http://members.aol.com/chap info/tc/ or by calling Sundance Music at (914) 674-0247.
Fred Koch lives in Lake Bluff with his wife and son and is an award-winning music educator, children's musician and producer. His Web site, www.BestChildrens Music.com, helps parents, teachers and librarians select quality children's music. The Web site also includes an archive of all Koch's past reviews published in Chicago Parent. Please e-mail notes and comments to fred@best childrensmusic.com.