The Top 10 Kids' CDs of 2010
Justin Roberts’ Jungle Gym deserves Grammy justice.
This banner year for kids’ music saw quality continue to rise, thanks mostly to independent music makers who “get” children. Justin Roberts, Recess Monkey and Secret Agent 23 Skidoo took their rightful places in the upper echelon of artists whose name on an album guarantees quality. Carve a new place at that table for producer Tor Hyams, whose work shines in several of my 2010 Top 10.
A key 2010 development: Online CD previews and song downloads free musicians and consumers from the whims of buyers, distributors and record stores. Online buying is now standard.
The Top 10
My favorite album of the year spun its web around my heart with the first listen. Justin Roberts’ Jungle Gym never strayed from its position at the top. If there is Grammy justice, this will be Roberts’ year. Numbers 2-10 on my Top Ten list are interchangeable — they’re that good, loaded with high production values and a wide range of musical styles suiting all ages.
1. Jungle Gym / Justin Roberts. Roberts writes great pop songs, and I first called him the “McCartney of children’s music” in USA Today in 2008. This CD about indoor recess and movement (“We Go Duck,” “Gym Class Parachute”), siblinghood (“Obsessed by Trucks”), and impish self-pity (“Sign My Cast”) hits serious subjects (“Never Getting Lost,” “Fire Drill”), too. He blends musical styles (mariachi/hard rock, surf music/psychedelia) seamlessly within songs. Every song has real kid experiences at its core, adding up to an album that holds together brilliantly. www.justinroberts.com
2. Take It Outside / The Okee Dokee Brothers. Tor Hyams’ “twang-tastic” production combines with the band’s imaginative songwriting to lend modern sensibilities to bluegrass. New ears immediately get comfortable with the many layers of sound within the genre. “Lucy and Tighty” takes a complicated road to its simple “opposites attract” moral. “Hero” veers from bluegrass to form an individualistic anthem with an inspiring blues sound. www.okeedokee.org
3. Underground Playground / Secret Agent 23 Skidoo. This musical family welcomes all to their sonic solidarity. This is empowering, literate hip-hop for the whole family, and the band’s whole family includes Skidoo’s young daughter, whose presence impacts every song. It’s family band gone hip-hop. “Sky Music” (the song’s clouds sing to each other) will inspire young imaginations to watch the skies in new ways. www.secretagent23skidoo.com
4. The Final Funktier / Recess Monkey. Heavy electronic sounds spark the Seattle-based trio’s latest CD. Kids will feel at home with the synthesized sound of “Sunglasses” and “Moonboots.” Adults will be eased into enjoyment by the band’s signature Beatles-influenced songwriting and fun on songs like “Constellation Conga.” A richly layered production that never gets away from songwriting basics. www.recessmonkeytown.com
5. Mind of My Own / Frances England. The title track has an edgy indie musical feel, with England’s strong guitar-playing echoing the strength of her voice. The CD celebrates everyday parts of childhood (“Bicycle,” “Ladybug”) while the sweet mommy love with banjo sound of the closer “Big Heart” reveals the secret of this CD: It’s for mommy as much as the kids. www.francesengland.com
6. Many Hands: Family Music for Haiti / Various Artists. This benefit album for earthquake relief combines good music with good works, with marquee stars Pete Seeger, Dan Zanes and They Might Be Giants in the mix. Songs from Randy Kaplan, Grenadilla, Rani Arbo & daisy mayhem and Lunch Money foretell family music’s future. Authentic Haitian rhythms from Bonga & the Vodou Drums of Haiti reinforce the album’s purpose. It’s one-stop shopping for family music’s best. http://sparetherock.com/wordpress/?page_id=403
7. The Big Picture / Uncle Rock. This one guy with a guitar packs a wallop with stripped-down 50’s/60’s rock and roll. Uncle Rock’s deceptively simple subjects mask his depth of purpose, as he (real name Robert Burke Warren) celebrates nature (“Leave the Bees Be”), ecology (“Shop at a Mom & Pop”), and self-reliance (“Shake It Off”).www.unclerock.com
8. Funky, Fresh & Sugar-Free / Sugar-Free All-Stars. Kids with “Capt. Underpants” sensibilities will love this CD. Fine horn sections, rocking percussion, and kid-friendly themes like the wonders to be found “In My Pocket” (“that’s where I keep my stuff”) make this a hit for kids comfortable in the “6th Grade Band” (“somebody give us a hand”). The jazz fusion “Tiger in My Backyard” embodies the whole album: funny, a little hard-edged and ultimately very sweet. www.sugarfreeallstars.com
9. Sunny Day / Elizabeth Mitchell. Soothing folkie-flavored sweetness provides a quirky alternative (or addition) to Disney’s princesses. Kids’ music that covers Moondog (“Tell It Again”) and Bill Withers (“Sunny Day”) is worth discovering, as Mitchell reveals layers that her whispery singing voice might mask. Sample a free download at www.folkways.si.edu/explore_folkways/sunny_day.aspx
10. This is Fun! / Caspar Babypants. Solid, simple music aims at the youngest kids and moms and hits both targets. “The Legend of the Bone” seems to be a silly story with silly mouth effects, but winds up in a hermit crab’s home. “All You Pretty Babies” touches basic numbers and movement concepts. “Shoo Fly” is countrified simplicity. Lots of call-and-response songs that never get worn out. www.babypantsmusic.com
Kathy O’Connell is a contributing writer to MetroKids and host of the Peabody-award-winning Kids Corner, weekdays 7-8pm on WXPN 88.5 FM.