It happened again. The time has come to make my year-end recommendations and I stand amazed at the amount of great children’s music released this past year. The variety of music available for families to enjoy is also truly astounding. If you love world music, if you love oldies for kids or if your tastes lean toward singer/songwriters, you have a lot of choices.
I often write about how saturated the children’s music market is, and despite the abundance of music to choose from, we as parents have a difficult time finding the quality music we want for our children. The upside of a flourishing market place is that, among all the CDs available, there will be some really outstanding efforts that deserve to be recognized. Here are some of my favorites from the past year with hopes you might find more great music to share with your children.
Preschool Ride ‘n’ Sing Along, by Stefanie Fife, Lemon Jam Records, $10.95, www.lemonjam.com.
Any parent of a preschooler can attest that there are plenty of CDs marketed to this age group. So when one comes along that has wonderful, age-appropriate songs, is designed to keep youngsters engaged when riding in the car and doesn’t get on a parent’s nerves after the first listening, we need to spread the word. These 16 very singable songs reinforce important basic skills such as colors, shapes, numbers, rhymes and safety for your preschooler. You will appreciate the clever manner in which concepts are presented. I especially like that instead of just singing a list of safety rules, you hear a family of lambs who know the safety rules as they go for a ride in “Mary’s Car.”
Again, and I think this is an important point, one of the main reasons this CD stands out is because the project is written, produced and arranged to appeal to adults. Most songs are original, but you also will enjoy the clever innovations of traditional melodies. Great imagery comes to play when “Circus Comes To Town” borrows the melody and format of “The 12 Days of Christmas” with the last line becoming “in a yellow polka dotted minivan.” You will enjoy this as much as your preschooler. And that is a good thing. Ages 4-8 cELLAbration—A Tribute to Ella Jenkins, various artists, Smithsonian-Folkways Recordings, $11.98, www.folkways.si.edu.
This might be my favorite for 2004—not just because it is a timely tribute to “the first lady of children’s music,” or because it spotlights some of the finest artists of the genre or because the songs are impeccably well arranged and produced. While that is all true, I believe this CD is destined to become a classic because it puts into focus the enormous contribution that Chicago’s own Ella Jenkins has made to children’s music. Her passion about the importance of rhythm and community music-making has really set the stage and blazed a trail for artists to follow.
A true testament to her songwriting can be heard in these astounding arrangements of her classic songs. From the a cappela magic of Sweet Honey in the Rock’s version of “Did You Feed My Cow?” to the gentle voice of Pete Seeger singing “The World Is Big, the World Is Small” to Tom Chapin’s convincing “Please Is a Pleasant Expression” to the zany “World of Whickam Whackam” performed by Bill Harley and all songs in between, “cELLAbration” is brimming with the best from the best.
The Amazing Adventures of Kid Astro, Ralph’s World, Mini Fresh Records, $15, www.ralphsworld.com.
Another Chicago native, Ralph Covert, has just released his fifth children’s music recording. It might be his best yet. I have always enjoyed the first Ralph’s World release and this one is equally, or maybe even more exciting. Covert has a knack for writing catchy melodies and the time spent honing his skills with kids at the Old Town School of Folk Music has paid off. Combine this with the fact that he has a great voice and experience in the recording studio, and you have a superb CD. In addition “Kid Astro” has a nice mixture of musical styles and themes.
Not only is Covert a fertile songwriter, but on this CD he also includes two well-chosen traditional songs, “Mr. Rabbit” and “Sucking Cider From a Straw.” Other highlights include: “Fee Fi Fo Fum” guaranteed to get kids (and parents) dancing; an ode to candy, “We Are Ants;” another great movement piece, “Down In The Glen,” and “Who’s The Winner?” which serves as a good springboard for discussing winning and losing with your children. Covert is one of Chicago’s best, making great music for you and your kids.
It Takes All Kinds, by The Coles, O’Cole Music, $12.97, www.smallworldsongs.com.
I never know when I am going to come across a truly outstanding children’s music recording. That’s why I was so elated this summer when I first heard “The Cole Family Album,” which has since been re-titled “It Takes All Kinds.”
From the first song, I knew this was something special. In my July column, I called the CD “a family recording with danceable and eclectic musical styles along with memorable songs that only get better with repeated listening” and remarked that “it is so refreshing to come across such a well-written and produced family recording.” The reason for such high praise is that the songwriting team (Mom and Dad or R.C. and Deena Cole) accomplishes what only a handful of artists can: They take the simple day-to-day family experiences and write catchy, memorable, singable songs that do not come off as trite, contrived or self-indulgent.
A Duck in New York City, by Connie Kaldor, La Montagne Secrète, $24.99; $27.50 for book/CD combo, $19.50 for CD digipak, www.lamontagnesecrete.com.
This beautifully illustrated storybook could stand alone. It is a simple lesson in perseverance about a small duck that wants to make it big in New York City. And what is so exciting about this project is the accompanying music CD is equally strong. Packaged as a book/music CD combo, they are truly exceptional. The songs take right off from where the story ends. Each song is well-written, well-produced and the collection features a variety of musical styles and instrumentation.
The 12 songs from “A Duck in New York City” range from the title track to songs about friendship, “If You Love a Hippopotamus,” and nature, “Seed in the Ground.” There is also an endearing “Slug Opera,” a tender ballad, “I Want to be a Cloud” and a hilarious song about a bear and his “Honey, Honey, Honey.” As a bonus, the CD includes files with original lyrics, musical arrangements, great illustrations from the book and even French translations. All ages Jazz for Kids: Sing, Clap, Wiggle and Shake, various artists, Verve Records, $10.99, www.vervemusicgroup.com.
Leave it to Verve Records, the venerable jazz record label, to release a collection of jazz for children. After all, with a catalog of artists ranging from Ella Fitzgerald and Oscar Peterson to Lionel Hampton and Louis Armstrong, you’re bound to have some great old recordings. In the press release, they note that this is a kid-tested collection—children, nieces and nephews of the staff at Verve Records helped make the final selections. Great idea.
The CD kicks off with an up tempo version of “Old MacDonald” by Fitzgerald and finishes with the Armstrong’s classic “What a Wonderful World.” In between, you are treated to Carmen McRae singing “Red, Red Robin,” Louis Jordan’s “Ain’t Nobody Here But Us Chickens” and even “Yes, We Have No Bananas” by Slim Gaillard. The wonderful thing about jazz music is that it’s never out of style. It either swings or it doesn’t. And “Jazz For Kids” swings. You can check out song samples at www.vervemusicgroup.com.
Beethoven’s Wig 2: More Sing Along Symphonies, by Richard Perlmutter, Rounder Records, $12.98, www.rounder.com.
This follow-up to the highly acclaimed and Grammy award nominated original “Beethoven’s Wig” features 11 new songs with Perlmutter’s trademark zany, stick-in-your-head lyrics. Whether you want to introduce your children to some of the greatest hits of classical music or whether you just want to have some fun, “Beethoven’s Wig 2” will deliver. There are whimsical renditions of familiar classical pieces by some of music’s most beloved composers from Brahms to Verdi. The accompanying lyrics to these classic musical pieces are written to cleverly provide lyrical and musical hooks relating to the composition or composer. Favorites around our house include “Sing Verdi Very Loud,” “Wow What a Wedding Cake” (Mendelssohn’s famous “Wedding March”) and Suppe’s “Light Cavalry March.” And in addition to the 11 song versions, you also get the same 11 pieces in their original, instrumental-only versions.
Dodo la planete do 2 (Dream Songs, Night Songs 2), various artists, La Montagne Secrète, $24.99, www.lamontagnesecrete.com.
In an increasingly multicultural world, it is no wonder that world music has found its way into children’s and family music. This fanciful collection of 14 original night-time tunes features songs of far away (Spain, Poland, Japan, Armenia, Costa Rica, Italy) in their original language. The CD is part of a book/music combo in which the book reads like a bedtime story with each page representing one of the songs. From kalimbas and shakers to didgeridoo and djembe, the songs are full of unique ethnic instrumentation that provides a warm bed of music for these gentle night songs. In addition to being a wonderful CD, the disc also contains a file with 14 printable posters and lyrics in their original language as well as English and French translations. “Dodo la planete do 2’” provides the perfect soundtrack for those cherished quiet times with the little ones.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.