The rhythms of traditional songs and nursery rhymes are supposed to be great for kids. So why is it that so much “kids’ music” drives parents nuts?! Shouldn’t good kids’ music be good music?
Fortunately, over the past eleven years as a parent, I have found some music for kids that I can tolerate—and even appreciate. Here, in no particular order, are some of my favorites:
1) Baby Loves Jazz
The geniuses behind these albums set well-known songs to jazz arrangements and wrote original songs that will get you moving, all performed by accomplished New York jazz musicians.
Some of our favorites include:
“Make Me Want to Scat”
“Big Huge Daddy Hugs”
“Whole World in His Hands”
“Skip To My Lou”
“I Like Blue Lemurs”
“I Use Potty” (We have used this one as our potty training celebration song with all of our children!)
2) You Are My Little Bird – Elizabeth Mitchell
Mitchell has many albums to choose from, but this one is our favorite and is also a Smithsonian Folkways recording. The simple, clear folk tunes are a family collaboration: Mitchell’s husband, daughter, and friends sing and play instruments with her.
Our favorite songs include:
“Little Bird, Little Bird”
“Three Little Birds” (a cover of Bob Marley’s song by the same name)
“Down in the Valley”
“Peace Like a River”
“Little Liza Jane”
“Winter’s Come and Gone” (a cover of Gillian Welch’s song by the same name)
My four-year-old likes this album so much that we’ve started calling her Little Bird (it suits her). I recommend Mitchell’s Sunny Day album too.
3) Sing-A-Longs and Lullabies for the Film Curious George – Jack Johnson and FriendsThis album is full of happy, acoustic guitar music that mimics the playfulness of kids and Curious George. Several of the songs have teaching messages—about sharing, the 3Rs (reduce, reuse, recycle), and changing the world.
Our favorites are:
“We’re Going to be Friends.”
We listened to this album all the time when my oldest was a toddler. When she heard some Jack Johnson music playing in the store one day, she threw up her arms and exclaimed, “Monkey George music!”
4) It’s a Bam Bam Diddly – Father Goose
This music is dance party music. Jamaican Father Goose collaborates with other artists to record traditional Caribbean island songs and more. Many have a reggae feel, but there is a blend of styles and even a waltz (“Jane and Louisa”).
You may recognize songs like “Mary Ann” or the religious “By and By.” Other new songs you might enjoy:
“Panama” (in Haitian Creole),
“Chi Chi Buddo”
“Nah Eat No Fish”
This album is thoroughly enjoyable.
5) Catch That Train! – Dan Zanes and Friends
Dan Zanes has more connections to this list of albums than any other artist. He appears on Sunny Day, It’s a Bam Bam Diddly!, and American Playground. The songs range from dance track (“Let’s Shake”) to spiritual (“Welcome Table”) to a beautiful Spanish melody (“Mariposa Olé”) to a Scottish ballad (“Loch Lomond”) to an African track (“Pigogo”) to traditional folk and more.
The song “I Don’t Want Your Millions Mister” (“…I just want my job back.”) by the How Not To Get Rich Orchestra makes me laugh. The songs are infectious.
I pulled out this album again after a long absence and found myself trying to sing along with it even though I had forgotten the words. The Grammy-winning Zanes has many other albums; I just looked some up and fell down a rabbit hole trying to decide which one to explore next.
6) Now and Then: Folk Songs for the 21st Century – Alex de Grassi
For a change of pace, check out de Grassi’s contemporary arrangements of folk songs. This is calming, purely instrumental music. With only occasional light percussion or bass accompaniment, the acoustic guitar is the star of the show: intricate, stand-alone acoustic guitar.
De Grassi takes a basic melody and plays with it, like when “Single Girl” morphs into “The Star-Spangled Banner” and back again. The album includes classics such as:
“Swing Low, Sweet Chariot”
“Bury Me Not”
“When Johnny Comes Marching Home”
“Shortnin’ Bread” (my favorite)
7) Marsh Mud Madness – Roger Day
Day’s songs teach science — how everything in the marsh ecosystem is interconnected and interdependent — but they are also fun to sing.
You’ll hear the ew-inducing songs “Mosquito Burrito” and “Vulture Vomit,” the haunting “Ghost Crab,” and the bit-of-local-pirate-history song “Blackbeard.” If you get the album DVD, your kids will see footage of Sapelo Island and its inhabitants, along with a view of a live performance in front of students by Day and his band (guitar, violin, ukulele, bass, drums, and percussion).
If you want more education, there are worksheets and study guides available on Day’s webpage.
8) French Playground and New Orleans Playground – Putumayo Kids
Putumayo Kids has made numerous wonderful albums for children. We own two of them.
French Playground conjures images of sitting in a Parisian café, having a large French family dinner, and ice skating in Quebec. My favorite songs are “Wonderful” and “P’tite Monnaie.” Liner notes include the French/Creole words and English translations.
New Orleans Playground includes songs by great New Orleans musicians like Buckwheat Zydeco and Fats Domino. Favorites include “Choo Choo Ch’Boogie” and, of course, “When the Saints Go Marchin’ In.”
Many public libraries carry Putumayo Kids CDs. We recently borrowed a handful from our library, and I particularly liked African Playground, American Playground, and African Dreamland. (Putumayo also produces albums for adults. We enjoy their World Reggae album.)
9) Classical Music
Music definitely sets a mood in a home, and when we want to settle rowdy kids down for the evening or start a quiet Sunday morning, we frequently turn to Bach cello suites or Chopin sonatas. Even if you can’t tell if your kids are listening, you will see the music’s effect on their mood.
We are fortunate that we can find almost anything we want to listen to for free at the library, online, or on the radio (check out the Classical Network). So, if it’s Christmas or Easter or a random Wednesday and you feel like listening to the Hallelujah chorus from Handel’s Messiah, gather the kids, and go for it.
10) Your Music
There’s no rule that music for kids has to be “kids’ music.” Let your kids listen to your music. While you still have influence, teach them what you think is good music. Help form their tastes.
I try to stick with music that we can all enjoy. If it’s a song I love, I don’t mind when the kids want to hear it on repeat, or when it gets stuck in my head.
Do you have any good music to recommend?