Parents' Choice Foundation: Reviewing Children's Media Since 1978
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25 Years of Audio

A mother’s soft hum to her newborn; a toddler’s sunny bounce and sway to the radio; a preschooler’s unselfconscious musical narrative during play; road trip singalongs: for children, music can be the earliest language of love and comfort, it can fuel flights of imagination, aid the development of listening, learning and motor skills, tickle funny bones and enhance pleasurable family time.

It makes perfect sense that recorded music—and storytelling, another window on a wider world— created specifically for children would become an integral part of early education, and that it would be increasingly sought out by parents for at-home sharing and enrichment.

What has changed since Parents’ Choice began rating quality children’s albums in 1978? Audiocassettes eclipsed vinyl; then came CDs and new internet technologies. Raffi became the first superstar of children’s music, encouraging many other artists to enter the field. Major record labels, recognizing a growing industry, jumped into the children’s music business in the early 1990s, and just as quickly stepped out, unable to meet the marketing challenges.

What has remained the same? The best children’s audio, no matter how varied in style, combines creative and artistic excellence with content that respects a child’s intelligence, emotional growth and humanity.

Throughout its history, the Parents’ Choice Foundation has singled out hundreds of recordings for top honors—recordings that represent only a fraction of those submitted for consideration. The best of the best add up to far more than 25; in no particular order, here are some of them:

Let's Play1. Let’s Play, Raffi (2002). The iconic Canadian troubadour’s signature anthems “Baby Beluga” and “Down by the Bay” are as toddler-friendly today as they were more than two decades ago, but this “comeback” album, the first new recording in seven years, is both vintage Raffi—gentle, tender and playful—and an evocative reflection of his personal growth and years of commitment to the well-being of children. Canada has been a rich source of award winners, among them Fred Penner (“Happy Feet,” 1992), Norman Foote (“If the Shoe Fits,” 1992) and Sharon, Lois & Bram (Sharon, Lois & Bram Sing A to Z,” 1991).

2. Songs, Rhythms & Chants for the Dance, Ella Jenkins (Classic, 2001): Jenkins, winner of multiple Parents’ Choice honors from 1978 on, is about to release a brand-new album this year, some 45 years after she began bringing her child-centric, global world of rhythm and rhyme into classrooms and community centers. This re-release of classic material is a good introduction to this esteemed children’s music pioneer, featuring spirituals, folk songs, gospel, soft jazz, African and Cuban chants and some words of wisdom and encouragement from Jenkins and a variety of dance pros and enthusiasts.

Can A Jumbo Jet Sing the Alphabet?3. Can a Jumbo Jet Sing the Alphabet? Hap Palmer (1999). “Babysongs” artist Palmer has carried the music-in-early-education banner through many years of top-rated bounce-to-the-beat, movement- and learning-oriented releases such as this one. Palmer is a master at turning lessons about shapes, letters, arithmetic, phonics, and rhythm into irresistible fun.

4. Nobody Else Like Me, Cathy Fink and Marcy Marxer (1994):
This knockout performing, recording and producing duo, a cornerstone of children’s music, appears often in the Gold Award lists, too, for their warmth, creative lyrics and musical polish. Here, with fun-filled and heartfelt songs from different cultures, and accompanied by a children’s chorus, Fink and Marxer celebrate diversity while emphasizing the similarities and common experiences that bring people together.

40 Winks5. 40 Winks, Jessica Harper (1998). Film actress-turned-children’s artist Harper uses her stunning, warm-honey alto and unbeatable gift for gorgeous harmony and inventive lyrics to create mom- and child-savvy slice-of-life songs that, like those of so many other top-notch artists, underscore the fact that the simplicity of a message is compatible with musical and lyrical sophistication. Here, as in all her Gold Award CDs, every song is found treasure.

6. Counting Sheep, Collin Raye (2000): Country star Raye’s delightful album fairly glows with a fond dad’s warmth, but more than that, it’s a stand-out for creativity and artistic purity. This family album is one of the best you’ll find anywhere, alive with parental warmth, gentle humor, stand-out creativity and breathtaking, lullaby loveliness. Among other crossover releases that have memorably enriched the field are Tony Bennett’s “The Playground” (1998), John Lithgow’s “Singin’ in the Bathtub” (1999) and the late Waylon Jennings’ “Cowboys, Sisters, Rascals and Dirt” (1998).

7. Latin Lullaby (1998): Some of the best children’s music is found on lullaby albums that come in a wealth of musical and multicultural styles. Whether traditional, classical, pop, country, jazz, Afro-Cuban, Brazilian, Celtic, Eastern European, Spanish—and on and on—this quiet time music is accessible to all ages, celebrating parental love and the ways that children play and dream. This exquisite collection features heart-melting, spirit-soothing cradle songs from Mexico, Puerto Rico, Venezuela, Argentina, Cuba, Mexico and Spain. A few other winners to look for: “Lullaby Berceuse,” (1989), “Cada Nino/Every Child” (1996), Linda Arnold’s “Lullaby Land” (1994) “The Planet Sleeps (1997), Priscilla Herman’s “Moondreamer” (1998), and “African Lullaby” (1999).

Little Proto’s T-Rex Adventure, an Odds Bodkin Musical Story8. Little Proto’s T-Rex Adventure, an Odds Bodkin Musical Story (1999):
A little protoceratops, a resident of the late Cretaceous Period, feels left out when his baby sister comes along. He runs away, finding more adventure than he bargains for, and winds up discovering a new appreciation for home as a result. Master storyteller Odds Bodkin, using his 12-string guitar to enhance the tale, creates an enthralling world of the mind, populated with memorable characters and vivid action.

 

9. The Little Prince (Classic, 1993): Originally released in 1974, this remarkable recording of Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s fable about an innocent, unearthly child who teaches a downed pilot that the important things “can only be seen with the heart,” features captivating performances by Richard Burton and then-8-year-old Billy Simpson. It was magical then and it’s magical now, an ageless treasure.

A few others in a host of spell-binding books on tape that have earned top honors are “Audrey Hepburn’s Enchanted Tales” (1993), “Follow the Drinking Gourd,” with Morgan Freeman (1994), “Esperanza Rising” and “The Fledgling” (both 2001) and Daniel Pinkwater’s “The Moose Tales” (1993).

10. Woody’s 20 Grow Big Songs (Classic, 1992): The legendary Woody Guthrie’s legacy of simple, sweet and funny songs that he wrote for his own young children has been kept alive in such releases as this beautifully done collection of found songs sung by Arlo Guthrie and other family members. They blended their voices with recordings done by their late father of such playful classics as “Riding In My Car” and “Don’t You Push Me Down.” A companion songbook features Woody Guthrie’s illustrations. Another must-have for little and big Woody fans: “Daddy-O Daddy! Rare Family Songs of Woody Guthrie” (2001), sung by Taj Mahal, Cissy Houston, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott and others, with a recording of Guthrie’s tender recitation of “Howdy, Little Newlycome,” a 1947 welcome to one of his own newborns.

The Days Gone By11. The Days Gone By: Songs of the American Poets, Ted Jacobs (2000): Poetry, spoken and set to music, has inspired several Gold Award recordings, among them “The Dream Keeper and Other Poems of Langston Hughes” (1980), and “A Swinger of Birches: Poems of Robert Frost” (1986). Here, in a breathtakingly inspired recording that is meant for adults as well as children, composer-singer Jacobs matched works by James Whitcomb Riley, Emily Dickinson, Longfellow and other poets with beautiful melodies and stellar vocalists to perfectly complement each poetic “voice.”

A Kid's Life12. A Kid’s Life, Robbo (2000): Children’s artists traditionally feature songs and stories that, whatever their style, illuminate and offer support for a child’s concerns, from relationships with parents, teachers, peers and siblings to homework, braces, being different and the cycle of life, death and renewal. Singer-songwriter Robbo outstandingly addresses several of such concerns on this resonant, real-life album, infusing his comic and serious songs with the empathic message that “everything we do becomes our story…and our life.”

13. Celtic Tales for Bedtime Kids, Jerry and Nancy Bell, (1994): Simply captivating storytelling, this golden release is as much for grown-up “kids” as children, with the Bells’ vivid performances of “The Flute Festival,” “The Well of Eternal Youth,” “The Princess and the Piper” and “The Warrior’s Porridge” woven together with evocative traditional songs of Scotland and Ireland.


14. Really Rosie, Carole King (1978, 1999): “Chicken Soup and Rice,” “Alligators All Around,” “One Was Johnny”—this classic rendition of Maurice Sendak’s brilliant kids’-eye view of neighborhood life, sung by standout pop singer-songwriter King, was among PC’s first honorees. Its whimsical charm and vivid storytelling are as fresh today as they were 25 years ago.

15. John McCutcheon’s Four Seasons: Wintersongs (1996): Multiple Grammy nominee John McCutcheon has scored with each of his four “Season” releases, painting knowing musical portraits of the everyday of childhood, the big and the small moments. This is one of his best, filled with going-to-school blues, the aromas of hot soup and hot chocolate, the exhilaration of ice-skating, the thrill of migrating geese soaring overhead—and just plain silly stuff.

Hallelujah Handel!16. Hallelujah Handel!, Classical Kids (1996): The Canada-based Children’s Group has been winning awards for its creative mix of classical music and youth-centric dramatizations based on the lives and works of the great composers since its first releases, “Mr. Bach Comes to Call,” in 1989 and “Mr. Beethoven Lives Upstairs,” a year later. In this terrific tale, inspired by the fact that Handel donated his masterwork, “Messiah,” to a London orphan’s home, the composer and a young girl investigate the case of a mysterious young boy with the voice of an angel.

17. Heart-Shaped Rocks, Pamela Jay (2001): Singer-songwriter Jay turned sunsets and the rhythms of nature into tender magic and invited her listeners to slow down and think about the natural world that every living thing is part of, even though we human types, busy with our technology-driven, harried daily lives, may tend to forget that. With her lovely voice and casual approach toward songs about soaring hawks and heart-shaped rocks found by a creek, Jay shares her sense of wonder at it all.

18. I’m an Animal: Songs of the Earth as Animals See It, Sarah Weeks (1998): Weeks is another artist who conveys messages of respect and empathy for the creatures of the world, and the interconnectedness of life with passion, not preachiness, offering listeners a fact-based view of the world through the eyes of a sea turtle, a panda, the big cats of the jungles and a penguin baby, snuggling with dad: “Nothing but sea ice for miles around…./But here I am warm as toast/Balancing on your feet.”

Night Time!19. Night Time!, Dan Zanes (2003). Crossover rock ‘n roll and pop singers, too, have proven to have a lot to say on the subject of childhood and parenthood, and they’ve said it with daffy, delightful, soulful authenticity. Among these Gold Award-winners are the cult favorite They Might Be Giants’ “No!” (2002); ), Trout Fishing in America’s “InFINity” (2001); Gunnar Madsen, co-founder of avant-garde a cappella group The Bobs, and his “Old Mr. Macklehackle” (1999) and “Ants in My Pants” (2002); and raspy-voiced Zanes, former leader of the stone rock band Del Fuegos. Zanes had an epiphany when he became a dad and now devotes himself to creating big-hearted, image-rich, wistful acoustic music for lucky children and their parents, with four terrific releases so far. Here, his lyrical gift takes flight in such original songs as “Linger Awhile”: “There’s a moon over my street, tipped back like a silver chair, and the sweet smell of dogwoods bringing summer to the springtime air….”

20. Fairy Tale Favorites in Story and Song, Jim Weiss (1994): This is just one of many enchanting recordings from master storyteller Weiss and his Greathall Productions label. Weiss brings humor and suspense to even the most familiar fairy tales. Another stellar effort, among many, is his dramatization of the lives of mathematicians, astronomers, scientists and inventors in “Galileo and the Stargazers” (2000). A few of the other irresistible storytellers who have won top honors are Jackie Torrence (“Legends From the Black Tradition,” 1983); Grammy Award-winning David Holt (“Stellaluna,” 1995), Charlotte Blake Alston (“Wadin’ in the Water,” 1998), Joel Ben Izzy (“Stories From Far Away,” 1992), and Bill Harley (“Fifty Ways to Fool Your Mother,” 1987).

Not Naptime21. Not Naptime, Justin Roberts (2003): Roberts is another in the select group of top-notch artists who make resonant, comical and moving music out of the well-observed reality of childhood—and parenthood. With his mellow James Taylor-ish tenor, and with quirky humor, Roberts sings here of a room clean-up that goes overboard, a night with Dad where the stars are like fireflies, and a refusal to bathe that poignantly turns out to a desire to preserve the memories of three wonderful days. Don’t miss Roberts’ “Yellow Bus” (2001), either.

22. She Set Out to Seek Her Fortune, Ruth Halpern. (1998): Halpern, a simply brilliant storyteller, transports listeners to far-flung realms with these inspirational “Tales of Adventurous Heroines” ranging from the story of a woman who protects a band of peaceful pilgrims from desert mauraders, to a princess who is much more than a prize to be won by brave suitors, and a girl who finds adventure in a city of mechanical dolls.

23. In My Hometown, Tom Chapin (1998). Veteran folk artist Chapin has scored more than once with his deft musical vision. Here, he sings about a sunny, funny, soulful town, where a doo-wop chorus goes to the dogs, literally; the local diner is pretty seedy (but that’s o.k. with its feathered customers), and a babysitter named Harry the Hat makes his charges an offer they can’t (and don’t want to) refuse.

24. Fire in Boomtown, Amy Lowe and Megan Wells (1999): Every now and then, along comes an entirely unexpected treat. Who would have thought that a recounting of the story of the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 could be so enthralling? In their recording aimed at age 8 and up, Lowe and Wells skillfully combine commentary, theatrics, music and history in an eloquent portrait of a city’s devastation, hope and renewal.

Bad Mood Mom25. Bad Mood Mom (and other good mood songs), Jamie Broza (2003): Broza’s remarkably accurate, compassionate, stage musical-style look at the developmental stages—with all their attendant emotional and physical challenges—that children go through, from babyhood on, is a tour-de-force, from a two-year-old’s ego-asserting “No!” to that first-grade swagger in “I’m Six.”

The past 25 years of critical scrutiny have proven one indisputable fact: top quality children’s audio can’t be defined or dismissed as childish. It is far too substantive and rich.

With a slew of Grammy Award winners and nominees, celebrities, first-timers and low-profile independent singers, songwriters and musicians, the artists are as eclectic as the content they create—classical, folk, jazz, country, rhythm and blues, doo-wop, Broadway, rock ‘n roll and world music; as well as theater-of-the-mind recordings of books on tape and theatrical dramatizations.

Children’s audio encompasses lullabies with a Latin beat, hip-hop nursery rhymes, play-along rhythmic games, word-play, rib-tickling humor, and world-view, character-building, ego-boosting ballads. It’s about science, nature, letters, numbers and shapes, talking dinosaurs and teddy bears, fairy tales, aliens from outer space, witches, dogs, dreamscapes, grandparents and new babies, parenting sagas and life challenges, family road trips and magical journeys.

It is evergreen, too—barring changes in delivery and production technologies—because there’s no built-in “top 40” obsolescence for good children’s recordings.

Yes, there are many truly awful children’s recordings—too cloying, too loud, too cheerleader-ish and downright sloppy—that give the field a bad name and frequently prompt new artists to promote themselves with a “finally, children’s music that adults can enjoy, too” attitude.

And, the wealth of sophisticated, entertaining children’s audio out there takes some effort to find. There is nearly non-existent radio play for independent children’s artists—even Radio Disney leans heavily toward contemporary pop and oldies rock—and children’s sections in mainstream music stores may offer little more than movie- or TV-related fare.

To find them, concerts at libraries and parks where independent artists sell their own material are still a best bet, as are specialty book and toy stories, and the internet, a boon to the field.
The search is worth it.


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