As the mother of two small children, I've been exposed over the past five years to a lot of things, one of which is a whole world of music I hadn't visited since I would listen to Up with People on vinyl at a friend's house lo those many years ago. Well, the children's music industry has come a long way, baby.
I'll admit up front that I'm predisposed to like children's music to some extent, because I like making music accessible to my kids. I'm not one of those hipster parents whose kids only listen to, you know, whatever it is that they listen to, or whatever it is that they think their children should listen to, and I've made it my business to dig into what's going on in children's music nowadays, and what follows is the fruits of five years of that labor (no pun intended).
Dan Zanes is the reigning king of the children's music world, no doubt about it. You may not remember the Del Fuegos too well - I know I don't - but that was his band way back in the day. Otherwise, before Dan got started in this weird little industry of the people who like to make music for the children, the last thing I could find of his was a spooky little instrumental he contributed to the outstanding Natural Born Killers soundtrack. Since then, he's made album after album of effortlessly cool, unselfconscious, musically diverse, international, guest-star-laden kids' music, and "Walkin' the Dog" is one of my very favorites.
Dan Zanes - Walkin' the Dog.mp3
If Dan Zanes is the king of bratpop, then Justin Roberts is the jack in the deck. Based out of Chicago, Justin spins a more straight-forward brand of quirky, primarily acoustic pop, and he puts on a fantastic show, although I'm not entirely convinced he was smiling with his EYES, but that can be hard for any artist to do when facing a mob of raging toddlers. He also has a penchant for slipping in-jokes for the parents hipsters into his music - for instance, there's a nice "Melt With You" reference in the title track to "Meltdown!" - and he keeps things just off-kilter enough to be enjoyable for kids and parents alike. "Great Big Sun" is my favorite album of his by far, but "Yellow Bus" is sure to be amusing to all.
Justin Roberts - Yellow Bus.mp3
Ralph Covert of Ralph's World is probably the most vanilla on my short list of five, but that doesn't make him any less enjoyable. Okay, maybe sometimes it does. Sometimes he dives a little too far into the realm of the sticky sweet, and then I have to remind myself that it's not for me, it's for them, and THEY love it. All his earnest and disneyfied sweetness notwithstanding, I can't help but love the wordplay in "Animal Friends."
Ralph Covert - Animal Friends.m4a
After my son was born in early 2005, I stuck mostly to guy music, who knows why? but when my daughter came along in early 2007, I fell into the mood for something softer. Truth be told, she and I listened to a lot more Iron & Wine - the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack was my personal favorite for putting her to sleep - than anything else, but, in the children's music arena, that was about the time I discovered Elizabeth Mitchell. Her cover of the Velvet Underground's "What Goes On" is excellent, and it serves as an excellent introduction to her.
Elizabeth Mitchell - What Goes On.m4a
And, finally, much as I'd love to leave her off, I can't help but include the inimitable Laurie Berkner, the reigning queen of children's music. Although I can't argue with her fun sense of fashion or her wild-yet-well-tamed hair, most of the time she just doesn't do it for me, but my boys (by which I mean both my husband and my son) love her, and I know it would be a grave mistake to leave her out. And what follows may, in fact, be "The Happiest Song I Know." For what that's worth.
Laurie Berkner - The Happiest Song I Know.mp3