This month brings a mixed bag of musical delights perfect for the upcoming gift-giving season. Whether you celebrate Hanukkah, Christmas, Kwanzaa, winter solstice or some other holiday, music is a perfect gift for children and families to enjoy together. Since everyone is on a time-critical schedule, we will get right to some great music recommendations.
HEY, PICASSO, by Jessica Harper, Rounder Records, $11.99, www.rounder.com; ages 5-10.
Leave it to Jessica Harper to come up with a new and clever way to introduce children to the wonders of some of the world’s most treasured works of art. How, you say, do you bring the world of art to kids via a music CD? By writing songs inspired by the master’s art. Van Gogh, Monet, Mary Cassatt and Picasso are all here, plus others. It was Harper’s intention to write songs that would enhance and enliven a child’s first impression of a painting, and she used her own experience of looking at art as her motivation. For instance, Picasso’s “Self-Portrait with a Palette” inspired Harper to write a song about the creation of art itself. Vincent Van Gogh’s “Starry Night” moved Harper to write “This Starry Night,” a song that speaks to the delight and enchantment of gazing out the window at bedtime with all the magnificent sights and sounds of twilight.
In her trademark style, Harper mixes up the musical genres. Her musical palette includes jazz, pop, reggae and folk—all topped off with her sultry and intimate alto voice. Highlights include “Joy Ride” (inspired by Cassatt’s “The Boating Party”), “Friendship” (Frank Benson’s “Calm Morning”), “Not Your Father’s” (Picasso’s “Three Musicians”), “Beauty in Everything” (Renoir’s “Monet Painting in his Garden of Argenteuil”) and the title track “Hey, Picasso” with the verse, “Hey, Picasso, paint the sky. Put a white cloud in it. Add a small red bird or two. It only takes a minute.”
And to top it off, each piece of art is reproduced in the CD booklet.
MERRY FISHES TO ALL, by Trout Fishing in America, Trout Records, $17, www.troutmusic.com; ages 5-10.
Looking for something new this Christmas? Well this may just be the stocking stuffer you need. Fans of TFIA will chuckle, dance and deck the halls with delight as they experience a new batch of Christmas songs as only Ezra Idlet and Keith Grimwood can deliver. It kicks off with the rockin’ “Chocolate Christmas” (think Bruce Springsteen meets the Neville Brothers) with the lyrics, “It’s gonna be a chocolate Christmas. I’ll have a chocolate Christmas tree. Chocolate reindeer pull a chocolate sleigh full of chocolate toys for me.” And true to the Trout style, the musical arrangements range from rock to ballads—all superbly performed and produced. And there are even some very tasty string arrangements that add a gentle touch at just the right moment.
Some typical childhood Christmas themes are explored here, including the age-old lament “Santa Brought Me Clothes,” the delight of waking up after a big snowfall to find out that it’s a “Snow Day” and a plea to parents on Christmas morning “You Gotta Get Up.” But I think the best display of TFIA’s song writing is found on “My First Christmas,” where more than a dozen Christmas carol titles are worked into the song in a wonderfully zany way. Here’s how it starts: “On my first Christmas I was zero years old. I don’t remember but they tell me all about it. It was a silent night till I woke up and cried, ‘Peace on earth, somebody shouted.” But my favorite song might be “The Eleven Cats of Christmas” which, as you expect, is a take off of “The 12 Days of Christmas.” The melody is original, but the format is cumulative like the original and the lyrics are hilarious—even if you’re not a cat lover.
Though the lyrics are not printed with the CD, they are available at the Web site, along with some MP3 samples of songs.
CELEBRATE HANUKKAH, by various artists, Craig ‘n’ Co., $15, www.celebrateseries.com; all ages.
Each year I recommend this recording and each year someone writes to say “thanks” for the recommendation. Produced by Craig Taubman, “Celebrate Hanukkah” is a collection of traditional and contemporary songs that spotlights 13 songs from different artists as diverse as Peter Yarrow and Debbie Friedman to Rabbi Joe Black and Judy Frankel. With the Hanukkah thread throughout the recording, musical styles change with each artist—from reggae “Shel Chanukah” and folk “Light One Candle” to swing “I Have A Little Dreydel/Hanukkah” and traditional “Ocho Kandelikas”—a Ladino Hanukkah counting song.
To hear samples of all the songs and to preview these lyrics, visit the Web site where you’ll find lots of other great Jewish music titles, including the latest “Celebrate Hip-Hop,” which brings together the biggest names in Jewish hip-hop.
BEATLES HITS FOR KIDS, by the Bingo Kids, Bingo Records, $14.99, www.bingorecords.com; ages 5-9.
I’ve asked the same question before, too. Why in the world would you want to hear anything except the original? I mean I’ve always followed the belief that if you can’t improve upon a song, why record it. But there’s something charming about this record. Sure the kids don’t sound as good as John, Paul, George and Ringo, but the recording has a good-time feeling about it. I guarantee you’ll be singing along with the songs, too—just as I was. And there are some gems here (all picked by kids), including “Twist and Shout,” “Yellow Submarine,” “All You Need Is Love,” “Your Mother Should Know,” “When I’m Sixty-Four” and 10 other Beatle classics.
My 8-year-old son snatched up this CD as soon as it arrived and I had to “borrow” it to write this review. So that he’d gain an appreciation of where these songs came from, we made a new CD mix that features each song from “Beatle Hits For Kids” followed by the original version performed by the Beatles. For example, the CD starts with the Bingo Kids singing “She Loves You” followed by the original. This has led to some fun discussion. THE BEST OF MOZART, THE BEST OF BEETHOVEN, by various artists, Classical Kids, $7.99, www.childrensgroup.com; all ages.
As the first track, “Eine Kleine Nachtmusik,” from “The Best of Mozart,” was playing upstairs, my son shouted from the basement, “I love this music!” Cool, I thought to myself.
Compiled by Susan Hammond, acclaimed producer of the award-winning Classical Kids CDs (“Beethoven Lives Upstairs,” “Mr. Bach Comes to Call” and others) these collections (six in all) feature musical highlights from the Classical Kids CDs.
Liner notes include fascinating facts about each composer and the times in which he lived. My only complaint about this series is that the final track is an excerpt from a story-based recording about the composer. It comes off as a little too heavy-handed promotion for my taste. The recordings would have been better without the excerpts. So thank goodness for programmable CD players and an easily accessible stop button. But this minor inconvenience is not that bad considering the reasonable list price.
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.BestChildrensMusic.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 email@example.com.