Ask any parent and they will tell you the instinct to protect their child is primal and fierce. It is almost as strong as the instinct to open their child's mind to new and interesting music, while at the same time not go insane or choke on their own vomit listening to The Wiggles (or a certain purple grinning dinosaur that shall remain nameless) for the 1,067th time. What has been brewing for years hit a boiling point in 2006 as hordes of artists normally associated with entertaining grown-ups have set their sights on attracting a much younger potential fan base: pre-schoolers and tots. And they have been making inroads to the hearts of the little tikes through their closest points of contact: their parents.
Over the course of this past year we have had the pain and/or pleasure in witnessing a legion of Various Artists releases like Paper Bag Records' See You On the Moon (Junior Boys, Sufjan Stevens, Broken Social Scene), the Belle and Sebastian-curated charity album Colours Are Brighter (Four Tet, Franz Ferdinand, Snow Patrol), and the Detroit-based bands effort Family Hootenanny (The Go!, Blanche's Dan Miller, Jawbone); Saint Etienne's Up the Wooden Hills EP (which they are planning to expand into a full set next year); Devo 2.0; two volumes of Kids Rap Radio (created by Beyoncé's father); Go Kart Records' Brats on the Beat: Ramones for Kids and Little Monsters' All Together Now: Beatles Stuff for Kids of All Ages; The Wee Hairy Beasties' Animal Crackers album, performed by Cyril the Karaoke Squirrel, Monkey Double Dippey, and Marjorie the Singing Bee (Jon Langford and Sally Timms of The Mekons and Kelly Hogan respectively); scores of cutesy kindie pop bands like the Jellydots and the Sippy Cups ("the Flaming Lips of the toddler set" according to the LA Times); Gustafer Yellowgold's Wide Wide World ("Dr. Seuss meets 'Yellow Submarine'," says the New York Times); and the creation of full-on sub-genres and the bands associated with them (i.e.: Australian "indie romp" and Melbourne-based female duo The Purple Stripes). New blogs and kid-friendly music sites (Zooglobble, Kids Music That Rock, etc.) are popping up every day and nightclubs are increasingly putting on daytime shows catering specifically to the younger ones. When you add the stuff like the Baby Rock Rockabye Baby series of cutely-rendered lullaby tracks by the likes of Metallica, Nirvana, and Tool (nine titles came out in 2006), things like the Punk Rock Baby releases, a ton of Kidz Bop volumes, and so on, this phenomenon safely surpasses what can be termed as "a passing fancy"…this is bordering on full-blown industry hysteria.
We are not here to argue the merits of re-recorded songs in lullaby form; we can safely assume that consumers of these things are hotter-than-hot-shit parents who are busting to tell everyone that their wonder child was “listening to alternate versions of Radiohead since birth.” Nor will we delve into the hugely popular genre of what most would normally consider "children's music". This area of music, albeit a strange sensation in its own right, is as popular as new country, has it's own stable of superstars like Dan Zanes (formerly of the '80s cult garage/roots band The Del Fuegos), Laurie Berkner, and Justin Roberts, and it is really outside our scope of interest. We are certainly not going to talk about things like My Silver Balloon, a CD that comes personalized with your child's name incorporated into the narrated story at least 50 times. No, our objective here is to take a cursory glance at this small but unerring niche that has been quietly carved out in recent years by artists, many of whom often appear in these very web pages, and to discuss some of the touchstones behind this recent beehive of children's album activity.
As one would expect with just about any compilation or theme album, this year's bumper crop of music for kids is a mixed affair; there are a bunch of notable, excellent children's albums and collections of songs made by normally “adult” independent and mainstream artists…and some that are crappier than crappy nappies. The expected motives behind all this kid commotion are as numerous as the releases themselves. While it would be nifty to think artists and labels have detected a desperate need to help children with socializing and confidence, to provide solid music and entertainment to both the younger and the older members of a family, to help strengthen the bond between child and adult with common likes and dislikes, or to just lend a hand at getting the little ankle biters to sleep, it would be foolhardy to assume this is always or ever the case. The sheer popularity of the toddler-rock movement means it is most likely full of artists who are attempting to jumpstart their careers or garner press and labels looking to exploit the consumer and swindle larger pieces of market pie. Of course one could argue we should just leave it alone and accept that all children-geared albums are a righteous and genuine exercise, but what sort of music criticism site would this be and what sort of questioning human being would you be if we both didn't address the subject together here?
Folkies have always turned a sympathetic ear toward the kith and kin, so much so that it used to be damn near impossible to distinguish a folk singer from a children's music singer, at least at first sight. The stereotype of a balding man in rainbow suspenders plucking away at an acoustic guitar is as time-honored and true as it comes. Folk, for the most part, has a one-up on most styles of music here because it more-often-than-not celebrates the story-in-song tradition and it lends itself nicely to telling tales, even if aimed at the smaller peoples. Hence, for every "straight" folk album, you have had corresponding albums like Pete Seeger's Birds, Beasts, Bugs & Fishes (Little and Big) and Peter, Paul and Mary's Peter, Paul and Mommy. There are loads of folk albums that contain child-like themes and songs. The fine folk at Trunk Records jumped all over this connection in July when they compiled unreleased demos and obscure soundtrack clips and issued Fuzzy Felt Folk in the UK. They were rewarded with thumbs up from both curious kids and their nostalgia-prone parents (Notes to self: 1. Commission a load of North American archival television and soundtrack music for possible compilation release; 2. Market to freak-folk fans and library music footage geeks. 3. Receive flattering review on Tiny Mix Tapes site).
Traveling to the seemingly opposite end of the spectrum, punk music for kids is a burgeoning scene for some odd reason. Apart from the Ramones for Kids comp mentioned above, a number of CDs have been marketed towards aging "punks" that want to revisit those super sweet times when you applauded your favorite bands by gobbing at them. The Guardian caught up with Punk Rock Baby owner Ian Walker, who explained the impetus to starting his particular label, which specializes in soft renditions of punk classics (although the label has branched out to include albums of chill and dance versions for the crib). "The thought of my child not liking The Clash, or listening to [popular UK boy band] Westlife, fills me with horror," he said. "I'd go round [to friends' houses] and they'd be pulling their hair out because their kids were watching the Tweenies for the 156th time. That started me off thinking, 'Why isn't there any decent music for really young kids?'"
This feeling is echoed in the pop world. Saint Etienne's Bob Stanley spoke to TMT recently about the reason behind his band's decision to record and release Up the Wooden Hills, a six-track EP released in limited copies with their last studio album, Tales From Turnpike House. "Well, Pete and Sara [band mates Wiggs and Cracknell, respectively] both have kids, and I think all three of us are fans of a lot of, sort of, children's music anyway…things like The Free Design's [Sing for Very Important People] and Carole King's Really Rosie, which is great. So many people we know who have had kids have said there's no decent music to play kids, apart from the They Might Be Giants album, which people quite like. There's virtually nothing that appeals to children and adults so we tried to make an album that did."
John Flansburgh and John Linnell would agree too. While some may argue all of their albums already sound like they were made for kids, the duo, known better as They Might Be Giants, have certainly concentrated much of their time toward producing music "for the entire family" since the beginning of the '90s. Not only have the two Johns released two excellent full children's albums (No! in 1992 and the Here Come the ABCs: Original Songs About the Alphabet CD and DVD package issued on The Disney Sound label in 2005), but they also have published a book entitled Bed, Bed, Bed in collaboration with celebrated Canadian illustrator Marcel Dzama, whose demented child-like drawings have adorned CD sleeves by Beck (Guero and Guerolito), The Weakerthans (Reconstruction Site) and the hardcover version of Nick Hornby's Songbook. On the backs of these recent activities, plus a ton of past children-oriented projects, TMBG have since inked a deal with Simon & Schuster to release two more picture-books-and-CDs, the first of which they will start recording this month and is rumored to be "a project for children, but 'for older, more Edwardian kids.' " They also will be releasing a follow-up to Here Come the ABCs called (what else?) Here Come the 123s and will be providing songs for the upcoming film production of the popular children's book Coraline (for which Stephen Merritt's Gothic Archies side project did the incidental music for the audio book).
With all of this recent activity trying to please the sippy cup scene, it must be noted that it's not all for the kids. It's only natural that parents would want to share the experience of learning about music with their offspring. Speaking to Dose, Leila Hebden of Toronto's Paper Bag Records, whose See You On the Moon bears the subtitle "Songs for Kids of All Ages," says, "There are fewer things that parents and kids enjoy on the same level. With TV, things like Teletubbies, it seems we're moving further apart. Musically, no one's done anything since Paul McCartney's frog song, "We All Stand Together." I have fond memories of listening to that with my dad and it not being excruciating for him.
Daddy Hebden must have a stronger stomach than most. But daughter Hebden hits upon a key point: The best children's albums appeal to both parents and children. Furthermore, really good children's albums have one crucial common element: they are written by accomplished songwriters, not opportunists. The problem with a great deal of 2006's preteen albums is the rushed, going-through-the-motions manner of them, at least to these seasoned ears. As is the case with anything, the nuggets, whether new or old, are yours for the discovering.
Probably spurred on by at least a couple of his veritable brood of kids, supreme songwriter Harry Nilsson (another Brooklyn-born songwriter) wrote, recorded, produced and narrated the story and songs on a 1971 animated made-for-television fable The Point!. This existential children's story follows the only round-headed boy named Oblio and his trials and tribulations trying to get along in a pointed-headed world (“The Land of Point”). Not only are the songs some of the strongest of an already strong, albeit inconsistent, career, but Nilsson actually snagged a top-40 hit single with the standout track "Me and My Arrow."
As Saint Etienne's Stanley mentioned before, Carole King's Really Rosie is really great. Written to accompany fellow Brooklynite Maurice Sendak's fantastical picture books and lyrics about a New York girl with a wild imagination, King manages to tap into her inner child with her songs. It's fortunate that this inner child just happens to be a wickedly talented songwriter as well. Originally released in 1975, Really Rosie has been described by Douglas Wolk on Salon.com as "the finest children's album ever made." The songs by King here are heartfelt and stand up to a great many of her classics.
In 2004, Sir Paul himself resurrected the aforementioned and much-ridiculed 1984 Paul McCartney and the Frog Chorus' "We All Stand Together" children's single by re-releasing it as the B-side to his single "Topic Island Hum." The latter single was recorded to introduce a new animated character on DVD, described at the time as a "cheeky Scouse nut-muncher" (now, now, this is a kid-friendly article!) named Wirrel the Squirrel. McCartney said to the BBC at the time, "I'm still fascinated by the things that fascinated me as a kid; the passion for adventure, humour or romance." Judging by the results, both in 1984 and in 2004, it is obvious that McCartney's intentions have much more to do with a misguided attempt to stay relevant than to produce a work of any lasting quality. But they are efforts nonetheless, as worthy as most of the weak efforts by the many indie darlings contained in the 2006's myriad of musical dispatches.
(The Beatles, of course, didn't have to worry about specific targeting – though they are the exception to many rules due to their immense popularity – their tendency to record childish ditties and silly commercials is well-known and their willingness to include their more inane songs alongside their more serious tracks on albums makes their albums mainstays in the record collections of a wide-ranging demographic of fans and figure predominantly in many folks' childhood memories. They are indeed one of the first bands I remember hearing when I was young, particularly the tracks "Octopus Garden" and "Maxwell's Silver Hammer" from the Abbey Road album. Then, as now, I recall disliking those particular tracks, but that is beside the point. Not surprisingly, there has been more Beatles kiddie/lullaby cover versions recorded than is possible to even begin thinking about listing here.)
Of course if the original Beatles albums cannot turn your lil' sprog into a card-brandishing member of the "in crowd" of musos and "Q" subscribers, or to help you connect significantly with your youngsters, then maybe the same songs performed by Jason Lytle (Grandaddy) and a kids chorus and additional toy piano and bubbling keyboards, for example, will do the trick? Who knows? And does it matter? If it does the job of putting your son or daughter to rest, entertaining the dickens out of them and (to a certain extent) you, or if it helps bridge the generational gap between you and yours then it doesn't really matter what it is, does it? An annoying song is an annoying song, whether by a cool indie group, a credible hip-hop star or "Dora" and "Diego." Most likely we are going to be bowled over by the amount of infant-aimed records to realize what is good and what isn't, but it's always worth the research and the ol' college try. Kids are a tricky species; their earliest and fondest memory of childhood music may just be you, draped in a throw rug with a bag of onions on your head, doing a psychotic tiptoed dance to Celtic Frost's To Mega Therion."
If all of this baby blather is making you scared or angry rather than hopeful and cheerful, you just may have to resign and accept the bandwagon's centrifugal force. If you think you have been artful in your dodging of this odd trend in 2006, there will be no hiding from it in 2007: The Saint Etienne full-length alluded to above should be out sometime this coming year; Medeski Martin & Wood's children's album Let's Go Everywhere is due in April; the Robbert Bobbert and the Bubble Machine record (Robert Schneider of Apples In Stereo) will be released "in early 2007"; They Might Be Giants will most likely have a dozen or so kiddie-related pieces out; and there will definitely be 11 more Baby Rock lullaby releases (including Bjork, Pixies, Nine Inch Nails, and Queens Of The Stone Age). We are keeping our fingers crossed that other long-forgotten bands will not soon be thinking about taking the plunge in the shallow kiddie pool (Goo Goo Dolls, you better not be reading this!). There is even a rumored children's album being prepared by '80s 'lectro throwbacks Erasure. Now that really is frightening!