Editor’s note: You don’t have to rot your teeth to rock out with your kids. Our teenager correspondent offers this guide to the hippest, happiest music for kids.
I did not expect my 57-year-old uncle Greg to share my affinity for Billy Bragg, but when a scroll through his iPod on a four-hour train ride revealed Bragg’s cover of Woody Guthrie’s “Birds and Ships,” this appeared to be the case. When I asked him about the song, he said, “Oh yeah. That song is on a Martha Stewart album for babies. We use it to put Amelia to sleep.”
Amelia is my 3-year-old cousin. I didn’t see that one coming, either.
The realization that I share a taste in music with someone one-sixth my age seemed a cause for concern. My initial reaction was possessive, as in: “I am 18 and, as a legal adult, I say that Billy Bragg is mine.” But soon I realized that exposure to an artist as talented as Billy Bragg was a good thing for babies. Martha Stewart and Amelia weren’t stealing “my” music; they were giving and getting an introduction to a resonant and worthy culture.
Not surprisingly, Martha’s not the only person providing kids with worthwhile music. The past few years have seen the rise of what Salon.com has branded “kindie rock.” Most people without children (and even some people with) think that kids’ music is limited to whatever Raffi and Barney put out. The reality is that the music scene is now rich with kid-oriented artists, from ex-rockers such as former Del Fuegos frontman Dan Zanes to newcomers such as songwriter Laurie Berkner. These artists choose the kids’ music path for many reasons, not least for its passion and lightheartedness, and they’re releasing music that is educational and inspirational for kids — never “dumbed down” — and enjoyable for parents. Music of that variety acquaints kids with a motley collection of cultures that can help make them strong, independent thinkers later in life.
But “kindie rock” is not the only type of kids’ music on the rise. Kidz Bop, a series of Top 40 compilations with songs overdubbed with the voices of “the Kidz Bop kids” is wildly successful. “Kidz Bop 10,” which was released last August, sold 116,000 copies in its first week and sat at no. 3 on the Billboard Top 200 Album chart. I wish I were kidding. To what culture is this introducing today’s children? Where Billy Bragg’s “Birds and Ships” connects to folk great Woody Guthrie and the exquisite rock group Wilco, Kidz Bop only leads to the Now compilations. Which is fine, I suppose — the music to which a child is exposed doesn’t necessarily determine her life’s direction. But it’s influential enough to make me want to hug Martha Stewart for creating that baby CD.
You have your options. As always, “Kidz Bop” is in reach; now, however, worthier choices are equally attainable. If you need help, start with my guide. From there, you can choose what you like best and explore the music by related artists. That’s what’s so great about this music: Each album leads to more brilliant songs and artists. This is the culture you want your child to know, this culture of quality, collaborations, tradition, and creativity. Maybe you’ll find yourself getting involved, too. After all, I think “kindie rock” isn’t just “kid’s music” — it’s also known as “all ages.”
Claire Fox divides her time into thirds: one third attending class at the University of Washington, one third listening to Talking Heads, and one third advocating enthusiasm.
10 great songs
With my young cousins in mind, I’ve compiled a list of 10 songs and one album series that I think are entertaining and feature a combination of clear and simple storytelling, catchy beats, and educational value.
1. “Meltdown” — Justin Roberts, Meltdown. Roberts’ songs are simple stories (such as making chalk drawings on sidewalks and fighting with siblings) paired with very catchy tunes, and they have been compared to those of Elvis Costello. www.justinrobertsmusic.com
2. “Fishin’ Blues” — Taj Mahal, The Best of Taj Mahal. I used to listen to this mellow, bluesy tune of companionship when I was a toddler on fishing trips with my dad.
3. “Stay Up Late” — Talking Heads, Little Creatures. For whatever reason, toddlers love everything about babies. Maybe it’s because they make them feel older, wiser, more experienced and worldly. In any case, this playful song about playing with a baby brother — in fact, the entire album — is wonderful for little kids.
4. “The Yeah Yeah Yeah Song” — The Flaming Lips, At War with the Mystics. I love the backup vocals and beat of this quirky song, which make it a winner for listening pleasure; however, the content of this song is best understood by kids 5 and older. It asks mature questions relating to power that may be appropriate for young aspiring superheroes.
5. “The Avalanche” — Sufjan Stevens, The Avalanche — Outtakes and Extras from the Illinoise Album. Stevens is an extremely talented songwriter with a soothing voice and melodies. This song is great for a mellow afternoon and an introduction to complex thinking.
6. “Hoodoo Voodoo” — Wilco, Mermaid Avenue. Like “Birds and Ships” and the rest of Mermaid Avenue, “Hoodoo Voodoo” was written by folk great Woody Guthrie. Guthrie wrote this particular song of wordplay to put his kids to bed, but I’m guessing that the bubbly rhythm belongs to Wilco.
7. “What Goes On” — Elizabeth Mitchell, You Are My Little Bird. As much as I’d love to put a Lou Reed song on this list, I don’t think kids would respond well to his weathered voice. This cover of his song “What Goes On” is the next best thing: Mitchell does a great job of making this song a satisfying listen while doing justice to the original arrangement.
8. “Let’s Dance” — David Bowie, Let’s Dance. Kids love to dance. This song was playing recently at a local pizza place, and, as I waited for my order, I watched a toddler and her dad doing a cute little boogie. I immediately added this song to my list.
9. “Spring 2008” — Architecture in Helsinki, Fingers Crossed. This nearly all-instrumental song is a mellow selection from this Australian octet, but the blending of a flute, bassoon, chimes, and voice is animated and entertaining.
10. Putumayo Kids — Putumayo has released several Playground CDs for kids: World, Latin, African, Caribbean, French, Reggae, and now Folk. These fantastic compilation albums are education gold. Not only are the liner notes in multiple languages, but Putumayo employs popular children’s artists to cover songs on each album (such as the aforementioned Dan Zanes, Laurie Berkner, and Justin Roberts). www.putumayokids.com
Putumayo World Music: www.putumayo.com
Pancake Mountain: www.pancakemountain.com
Salon.com on "kindie rock": www.salon.com/ent/audiofile/2006/06/23/kindie/index.html, www.salon.com/ent/music/feature/2006/06/24/kindie/index.html
Zooglobble music blog: www.zooglobble.com
Justin Roberts: www.justinrobertsmusic.com
Elizabeth Mitchell: www.folkways.si.edu/search/AlbumDetails.aspx?ID=3130
Architecture in Helsinki: www.architectureinhelsinki.com