With our babysitter about a half-hour away, Katie and Violet spend roughly an hour total in the car with either Mama or me each weekday. On those mornings when conversation isn’t exactly flowing, I often use music to fill in the gaps. I realized shortly after Katie-Bug’s arrival that my days of driving around town singing angrily along with Green Day were probably in my rear-view. Normally we just turn on the radio. I like to listen to NPR, but that doesn’t hold the girls’ attention like something with a beat. We’re extremely lucky to live in an area with excellent reception of both K-LOVE and Air1, two stations that focus on family-friendly programming and contemporary Christian music. So in all honesty, my car radio rarely makes it off of those two channels.
If that sort of thing isn’t quite your cup of tea or if you’re just in the mood for something a little different, the good news is that there are options other than to go over to the dark side and buy a Wiggles CD (hey! they’re actually good!). Here are five acts worth checking out, arranged roughly by age level (although I’ve got a mix CD I put together of all of these that Katie-Bug already seems to like).
It’s moderately shocking to me to think this qualifies as a ‘classic’ act now. Ouch. But several of the songs from this animated, after-school series have developed a cult following due to their ability to teach while simultaneously being quite catchy. The musical minds at work behind the scenes on the show took advantage of the human brain’s seemingly inexplicable tendency to hold onto song lyrics at the expense of all sorts of other cognitive material. As a result, listen to these songs a few times through and before you know it you’ll know all of your state capitals, presidents and even the countries of the world!
Good stuff! I especially like the occasional historical tidbits thrown in with the Presidents song, which (as you might have noticed) ends in the nineties with President Clinton.
I wish I could link to a CD of the Animaniacs songs, but the ones that were released are all out of print and, judging from the $80+ prices on Amazon, quite the collectors’ items. So content yourself with the free streaming versions here from YouTube, and if you happen to have an original CD somewhere in a box in a closet you might want to dust it off and see what you can get for it (with a modest percentage to Kentucky Dad Life in the form of a finder’s fee, of course).
2. Weird Al
I honestly can’t remember my first Weird Al exposure, although it was probably in the form of one of his ingenious music videos on MTV. Regardless, he’s been cranking out albums since “My Bologna” first got air time on the Dr. Demento Show in 1979. (Geek-out: Weird Al’s first song aired on commercial radio was an original, “Belvedere Cruisin’,” in 1976, also on Dr. Demento. But most consider his parody of The Knack’s “My Sharona” his big break. /end geek-out). Anyhow, while most casual listeners are familiar with that and other parodies of pop songs, Weird Al has also amassed a large and respectable body of fully original works. Some of these are “style parodies,” where he recreates the signature sound of a group without specifically covering a song – examples would be “Dare to be Stupid” (Devo), or “Genius in France” (Frank Zappa). Others are full-on originals in his own style. And don’t forget the polkas – lots and lots of polkas, each one a medley of other songs.
While I won’t try to figure out the educational value of Weird Al’s music, the fact remains it’s very kid-safe and very fun. If you ever have the chance to see him in concert I’d highly recommend it. Also, while all of his albums are great if you’re just getting started you may want to check out The Essential Weird Al Yankovic. In the meantime, here is my personal theme song!
3. Tom Lehrer
Ah. How to even begin to describe the musical genius that is Tom Lehrer…
Although his music is dated (the bulk of it having come out in the late fifties and early sixties), it remains just as catchy, humorous, and musically impressive now as when it was new. A mathematician by training, Lehrer developed a ‘side business’ of sorts penning songs regarding political themes and social satire and ended up releasing a couple of albums. These sold relatively well around Harvard, where he was working at the time, and slowly over the ensuing decades led to a cult following of sorts. He’s the type of artist that one has either never heard of, or whose catalog one possesses in full – there rarely seems to be an in-between.
His closest modern analog is the PBS political comedian Mark Russell, and when I had the chance to meet Mr. Russell back in 2000 we talked at some length about Lehrer and his influence. Russell summed it up best when he said that Tom Lehrer was THE musician behind political and social satire, and that everyone else who has followed has just been a hack. Weird Al Yankovic has often cited Lehrer as an influence, and Dr. Demento has referred to him as the preeminent musical humorist of the twentieth century.
Dr. Lehrer still teaches math at the University of California and, as he has mentioned in interviews in recent years, passes his time by spreading rumors of his own demise. His Wikipedia profile seems to be the most reliable source of information on him.
A word of warning: not all of Mr. Lehrer’s body of work is necessarily kid-appropriate, in that he touches on themes of murder and mayhem and, well, to quote the title of one of his most popular songs, “Poisoning Pigeons in the Park.” His political songs are mostly historical curiosities now, so unless you’re prepared to explain who Werner Von Braun was or what happened at Vatican II you might want to stay clear of those. Some of his work, though, is quite educational and toe-tappy. Here are two – “The Elements,” and, from The Electric Company, “L-Y.”
4. They Might Be Giants
It actually doesn’t feel quite right to have TMBG this far down the list from Animaniacs, since (in the interest of full disclosure) the first place I ever heard of them was on the show in a music video for “Istanbul.” At any rate, the band makes this list as a sort of ‘crossover’ act. They Might Be Giants enjoyed considerable success (well, still do, in fact) as an alternative rock band starting with their formation in 1982. In recent years, partially as a result of many of the band members’ experiences as parents themselves, the group has released a series of kids’ albums. The trilogy (so far) consists of Here Come the 123’s, Here Come the ABCs, and Here Comes Science. Here’s a track off of that last one, called “Science is Real.”
5. Barenaked Ladies
Yes, barenaked. Kid-friendlier than the name might suggest. This Canadian group has been a favorite of mine for a long time, and they’re the other of the two out of five acts on this rundown that I’ve been lucky enough to see in concert (as with Weird Al, if you get the chance, go!). BNL followed much the same path as They Might Be Giants into the genre of kiddie tunes, releasing their first full-on kids’ album Snack Time in 2008 after, as guitarist and singer Ed Robertson puts it, the band realized their collective kids had them outnumbered more than two to one. Here’s a video for the song “7-8-9.”