Excellent, creative (and creativity-inspiring) music for children
November 3, 2006 7:21 PM   Subscribe

Looking for really excellent music for children. Stuff that makes you say "Wow." Bristling with ideas and creativity. Not the vapid dumbed-down crap is often marketed as "children's music." (Actual complete sentences found inside)

There's some great stuff in these two previous threads in previous years with similar questions, but (a) I'm sure it only scratches the surface and (b) I'm especially interested in music intended for children that is also brilliant art (which, it seems to me, is extremely rare) but feel free to throw in anything else that is loved by a child you know or used to be (or that you imagine would/could be)
posted by winston to Media & Arts (47 answers total) 25 users marked this as a favorite
I'll kick things off with a few favourites of ours:

Gail Issenman's Swinging the ABCs has versions of songs like Itsy Bitsy Spider (MP3) that make parents who've heard the songs a million times before say "What CD is this? That sounds great." There's a sequel that I haven't heard yet.

Turkey Rhubarb's Hello Out There uses traditional songs from around the world with a great sense of fun and playfulness. Their first CD is also good (and apparently equally beloved by my toddler son) but I think the playfulness doesn't come through quite as much on that one.

Smithsonian Folkways Children's Music Collection. Children's recordings from Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Lead Belly or Langston Hughes, Ella Jenkins, and more -- including field recordings. My favourite track is Lord Invader and the Calypso Orchestra doing "Merrily We Roll Along," recorded in 1960.

My son is also a big fan of a few CDs not (specifically) intended for children: Zap Mama's self-titled debut CD (re-released as Adventures in Afropea vol. 1) and the Warsaw Village Band (People's Spring and Uprooting).

I've recently learned of Sir Jerry and have just taken a brief tour around the web site and think I might get the CD on that basis alone. (A link on the front page says "This website requires awesomeness and a huge imagination. If you don't have it, download it here.")
posted by winston at 7:24 PM on November 3, 2006

"or Langston Hughes, Ella Jenkins"
should be
"Langston Hughes, and Ella Jenkins"

posted by winston at 7:25 PM on November 3, 2006

As a kid, I loved Don Spencer and Franciscus Henry. They were pretty much the bees knees. I found my old Don Spencer CD the other day, and my 4 year old cousin loves it. She ditched her Wiggles CD in favour of it.
posted by cholly at 7:37 PM on November 3, 2006

I asked a similar question a while back. Got some good responses: Check them out.
posted by crapples at 7:40 PM on November 3, 2006

I really don't care for commercial kids music, but my daughter and I have been rocking out to For The Kids. Any album that signs up Tom Waits to do a kids song is okay in my book. The tunes are classics (though I'd never heard Wonderwheel or I've Got To Be Clean Before) and the interpretations are awesome.

We're also big They Might Be Giants fans, and the TMBG albums made for kids (No! and Bed, Bed, Bed) are "bristling with creativity" as you put it. Our daughter is currently into Jack Johnson and Paul Simon's Graceland album (she's 9 months).
posted by jeanmari at 7:45 PM on November 3, 2006

Tom T. Hall's Country Songs for Children
posted by yclipse at 7:47 PM on November 3, 2006

Baby Dub and Baby Jazz by Jelly Deluxe are great fun and very cruisy.
posted by slightlybewildered at 7:55 PM on November 3, 2006

They Might Be Giants have a couple of kids' albums which are reputedly great.
posted by LobsterMitten at 7:57 PM on November 3, 2006

Abbey Road.
posted by four panels at 8:23 PM on November 3, 2006

All day today, I've had Barry Louis Polisar's "There's No Substitute For a Cat" stuck in my head (lines include "they meow and growl and scratch/a cat can give you hours of joy/better than a brother or any other toy"). It's from his Songs for Well-Behaved Children, which my parents gave me on cassette when I was about 8. I bought it on CD last year, supposedly for my young cousins, but ended up keeping it for myself.

Some Kinky Friedman is child-friendly, including the song he wrote as a 12-year-old, "Old Ben Lucas".
posted by katemonster at 8:25 PM on November 3, 2006

When you said "bristling with ideas and creativity" I immediately thought of The Rheostatics Story of Harmelodia.
posted by teg at 8:33 PM on November 3, 2006

As mentioned in previous threads, Dan Zanes. As not mentioned in those threads, maybe--the albums are not just thoughtful musically, but the packaging and liner notes are also really beautifully done. My girls (4 and 2.5) really enjoy looking at the booklets, some of which are board-book style and really useful for keeping them entertained during car rides while they rock out.
posted by padraigin at 8:34 PM on November 3, 2006

Already mentioned, but I have to recommend They Might Be Giant's album "Here Come the ABC's" -- the animated DVD is actually quite an impressive achievement and the songs and videos are worth watching regardless of age.
posted by visual mechanic at 8:42 PM on November 3, 2006

All of the old Children's Workshop material from Sesame Street and The Muppet Show. I don't want to live on the moon, lower case n, all of it. It's brilliant.
posted by Jairus at 8:44 PM on November 3, 2006

Seconding the nomination for Ella Jenkins. All of her stuff is wonderful, as is a great tribute album put out two years ago by Smithsonian Folkways (Pete Seeger, Tom Paxton, Riders in the Sky, and a man with one of the most beautiful voices ever, Red Grammer).

For the Kids is excellent, as is the follow-up, For the Kids Too - Robyn Hitchcock, Nada Surf, Matthew Sweet. All stuff you'll enjoy as much as your kids will.

Finally, my favorite record in my kids' room - Catch the Moon by Lisa Loeb and Elizabeth Mitchell. It's a board book with a CD tucked in the back cover - and it's absolutely lovely. Definitely hits your original request for children's music that "is also brilliant art."
posted by jbickers at 9:36 PM on November 3, 2006

One more thing: If you're looking for something more upbeat/lively/silly, try "You're Nice People You Are" by NRBQ ("by disposition that most playful and childlike of bands").
posted by jbickers at 9:38 PM on November 3, 2006

We also have Elizabeth Mitchell's You Are My Sunshine, which has a great version of "Ladybugs' Picnic". And she's got a couple other kids' albums out as a solo artist.
posted by padraigin at 10:09 PM on November 3, 2006

Trout Fishing in America has some great, hilarious, witty kids' albums that adults love, too.
posted by Pater Aletheias at 10:45 PM on November 3, 2006

I have to also recommend They Might Be Giants. ABCs is good for younger kids, but some of their other stuff is perfectly ok for older kids. Particle Man, Istambul, etc.
posted by ChazB at 1:19 AM on November 4, 2006

ideas and creativity is what bristles inside your kids.

some music that mine love: guem (african percussion solos); prokofiev's peter and the wolf; roberto murolo's napoletana. also appreciated: unusual versions of standards, eg. steeldrum revisitations of disney classics.

stuff i remember as seminal for myself: white album, abbey road, miriam makeba, procol harum, jethro tull (yeah, pothead parents...)
posted by progosk at 2:43 AM on November 4, 2006

Shockheaded Peter by the Tiger Lilies is a brilliant, scary presentation of the Struwwelpeter stories for children. All the children end up dead Dead DEAD DEAD!!!
posted by handee at 3:24 AM on November 4, 2006

My then 9 year old sister stole my copy of Flood and refused to give it back. I can think of no greater accolade for They Might Be Giants than that.
posted by Jilder at 3:37 AM on November 4, 2006

Saint Etiennes last album, the very wonderful Tales From Turnpike House has a bonus album (Up The Wooden Hill) of cool indie flavoured but eminently listenable songs for the kiddies. The main album is great for grownups too. ;-)
posted by merocet at 3:39 AM on November 4, 2006

Sit 'em down, and let Lennie show 'em what's what.
posted by paulsc at 4:22 AM on November 4, 2006

It's not necessarily all music, but David Bowie does a narration of Peter & The Wolf that is absolutely fantastic.
posted by hooray at 5:26 AM on November 4, 2006

I never really understood the idea of music specifically for kids - why not buy music that you AND your kids can enjoy? I grew up listening to Motown, funk and Brill Building hits and loved it all - pop music is simple enough for anybody to understand.
posted by sluggo at 6:37 AM on November 4, 2006

My kid loves this Pete Seeger CD. I like it too. Pete Seeger is the man.

He has at least a couple of other CDs for kids too.
posted by i_am_a_Jedi at 6:42 AM on November 4, 2006

Well, if you like kids' music performed by convicted killers, there's always Leadbelly. It's excellent old folk music, and you can sing along.
Leadbelly Sings for Children

My favorite new folk kids' CD is by Little Miss Ann. So cute and fun! Her album is called Music for Tots.
posted by chippie at 6:50 AM on November 4, 2006

Anything by Bill Harley is terrific.
posted by JanetLand at 6:53 AM on November 4, 2006

Hm. Bill Harley has put out a lot of stuff. Which CD do you recommend I start with?
posted by winston at 7:56 AM on November 4, 2006

I recently bought Colours Are Brighter for my nephew and I can't get Four Tet's Go Go Ninja Dinosaur out of my head
posted by patricio at 8:11 AM on November 4, 2006

I'm going to throw in a couple of votes for some very, very old stuff that I loved as a kid and my kids loved too: both of them work as either movies or music alone. Harry Nilsson's The Point, and Carole King doing Maurice Sendak in Really Rosie. In another vein, we got a lot of mileage at my house out of Jerry Garcia & David Grisman: Not for Kids Only.
posted by mygothlaundry at 8:12 AM on November 4, 2006

A reunited Luscious Jackson is apparently shopping around a kids-oriented album.
posted by sad_otter at 8:53 AM on November 4, 2006

All Wound Up by Brave Combo. You can find it on Amazon, I'm sure, or you could get it from the source: www.brave.com. (Is there anything Brave Combo can't do?)
posted by Lockjaw at 9:00 AM on November 4, 2006

My two-week old baby is currently jamming to Miles Davis' In a Silent Way. But for the record, I will never play TMBG for the critter. Just can't stand 'em. Sorry, blasphemy, I know, but everytime it comes up on this recurring thread it's the default position.
posted by DenOfSizer at 9:32 AM on November 4, 2006

We like Tish Hinojosa and Laurie Berkner, whom I haven't seen mentioned yet. The album Shakin' a Tailfeather by Linda Tillery, Taj Mahal, et al is so good I keep listening to it in the car even if the kids have gone to sleep. We have an album called Hippity Hop that is hip-hop versions of classic songs plus some original stuff and it's a bit uneven but when it's good it's very good.

Seconding Carole King's recording of musical versions of Maurice Sendak stories. "Alligators all Around" and "One was Johnny" are favorites around here.
posted by not that girl at 10:33 AM on November 4, 2006

On re-reading the question: Of my list, I'd say Shakin' a Tailfeather falls most closely into your criterion of "good music for kids that is also art," versus just "good music for kids."
posted by not that girl at 10:43 AM on November 4, 2006

Work your way through the glorious archives of WFMU's Greasy Kid Stuff radio show.

If you know anything about WFMU and its listeners, you know that you get nothing but fantastic (very often "brilliant") programming, and their kids show is no exception. Even though the show is targeted towards children (albeit intelligent/artsy/thinking children) I constantly find myself being blown away at some of the amazingly original, entertaining and downright iPod-worthy songs that they play.

Unfortunately, Greasy Kid Stuff went off the air this month, after 11 years of broadcasting, but since WFMU keeps up permanent archives of ALL of its programming since 2000, you can still listen to the show over the internet.
posted by melorama at 2:30 PM on November 4, 2006

Bob the Builder

Muppets in Space soundtrack
posted by amtho at 3:10 PM on November 4, 2006

Oops. I messed up the links in the original question to the two previous threads. The second one is supposed to go here. (Flagging this comment in hopes that someone will fix it)
posted by winston at 3:27 PM on November 4, 2006

Ralphs World
posted by Malla at 5:31 PM on November 4, 2006

My son is almost 4, and I've just sort of moved him over to "real" music. Actually, Matteo sent him his first symphony CD when he was 2, and he loves that CD. He loves Miles Davis, and Dizzy Gillespie too. He can pick out subtleties that I don't notice, for example, he can tell the difference between two conductors doing the same piece of music, where I often don't notice which one I put in. I think kids are capable of understanding more about music than I thought they would.

All that said, for sing-a-long music, we have ever single Laurie Berkner CD...probably because she and I sing in the same register/range and so I can sing her music when we don't have a CD player handy. He loves, loves, loves Laurie.
posted by dejah420 at 6:20 PM on November 4, 2006

I never really understood the idea of music specifically for kids [...] pop music is simple enough for anybody to understand.

Well, yes. I find that the best kids music (and the stuff they like best) tends to be more complicated/textured/etc., not more simple. AFAICT, kids can often handle more challenging music than adults can. That's the stuff I'm looking for. (And finding lots of it here -- thanks, everybody!)
posted by winston at 7:03 PM on November 4, 2006

I've been working on an FPP for about a week on the popularity/reemergence of alt-kids music - there's just so much to choose from! Look for it soon. I'll be sure to reference this thread too.

In the meantime, I guess it depends on how old your children are, because some of it gets too infintile once they pass a certain age (when bodily fluids are of more interest than the wheels on the bus).

Not to give too much of my research away, but The Old Town School of Folk Music in Chicago has a program called Wiggleworms for babies and toddlers, which has produced a couple CDs as well as one for the older set. Also, Bloodshot Records released a couple discs too. I'm a huge fan of The Bottle Let Me Down (and I don't even have kids - just living vicariously through my friends!)

Finally, I've yet to hear the whole thing, but my favoritest band The Asylum Street Spankers just released, Mommy Says No. I heard a few tracks live in concert and was highly entertained by them.
posted by DonnieSticks at 9:44 PM on November 4, 2006

[fixed the second link in the post]
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 11:10 PM on November 4, 2006

Singing Science Records! Fans of (Amanda's) Rocketboom will most definitely recognise the first track.
posted by jim.christian at 6:25 AM on November 5, 2006

I second the recommendation for the Jerry Garcia kids album mentioned above. Also, They Might Be Giants has a great kids album
posted by krudiger at 10:24 AM on December 6, 2006

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