Tom Waits

Reinventing Kids’ Music

Elizabeth Isadora Gold

By Elizabeth Isadora Gold

on 10.24.13 in Lists

So you had a baby! Can you believe how cute the little thing is? And how little sleep you’re getting? Yup, the rumors are true: you’ll ricochet from ecstatic love to feral panic in any given matter of minutes — for the rest of your life. Guess which rumor about parenting is pure balderdash? That you’ll have to listen to Raffi all the time now. Or that kids must hear major chords only, with song topics limited to Baby Beluga whales, magic dragons, the occasional banjo-driven giant who answers to the name Abiyoyo (or maybe, if you’re lucky the They Might Be Giants Disney record). You might drive a minivan now but you don’t have to listen to Barney all the livelong day. Reproducing is actually a great excuse to explore a wider range of music than you would ordinarily choose. Kids are sponges, and exposing them weird and wonderful sounds will only make them cooler and smarter.

We suggest using this list of “children’s music” as a starter kit for eMusic’s even deeper cuts of surprisingly kid-friendly fare. Who knows? Maybe your toddler will love free jazz and Afropop, and eventually run off to Kenya to study with a Master Drummer. Or perhaps he’ll want to dress as Candide for Halloween — in which case, procure a mini-doublet and hose, and start reading him Voltaire instead of Curious George at bedtime. Or maybe your tyke — like many confronted for the first time with barbeque shrimp or spicy black bean soup — will scream her head off the first five times you play her a track she doesn’t already know by heart. Don’t worry! Developing a musical palate is a process. Persevere.

Really Rosie

Carole King

The first time I played Carole King's Really Rosie for my daughter, Clara, I filmed her reaction. At two, I suspected she was too young to appreciate the Big Kid antics of Maurice Sendak's histrionic heroine, but that initial listen was still a historic moment for me. When King recorded this soundtrack for a relatively obscure animated film about Sendak's Brooklynite Nutshell Kids (available now only on YouTube), she was at the height of her Tapestry-era fame. As a little girl in the '70s, I thought I was Rosie, checking King's LP out of the library every week, peering for hours at the illustrator's cover art. Sendak's stories are the texts for most of the songs (though some, including "Avenue B" and "My Simple Humble Neighborhood," are from King's adult point of view). Even though it's officially pitched to children, Rosie is so cool you might find yourself listening even when your babe is out at a play date.

The Best Of Friends

Loggins & Messina

Best of Friends by Loggins and Messina is not strictly a kid's record, but "House at Pooh Corner" is about A. A. Milne's infamous bear, and "Your Mama Don't Dance" is great for some daddy jitterbugging. This is ideal nostalgic driving music for that Thanksgiving trip to the grandparents, after you've already listened to Alice's Restaurant three times. You'll all sing together: "And it goes on and on, watching the river run…" And as far as old-fashioned dissipated SoCal pop, "Vahevala" is waaay more appropriate for the kiddies than "Gold Dust Woman." Warning: one look at the cover art will crack you up. Really Messina, did you need to unbutton your shirt all the way?

Little Creatures

Talking Heads

In general, the kids love art rock: It's bouncy, silly, and catchy — a non-migraine inducing version of the Wiggles. All of the Talking Heads' records are suitable for children, but Little Creatures wins because it includes "Stay Up Late," the most fun track ever to sing with babies. You can kind of throw them around and joke about how they're never going to sleep, which, as all parents know, is not funny. At all. "Stay up late" is so groovy that Maira Kalman, a brilliant and hilarious illustrator, made it into a children's book (out of print, but you can get a used copy on Amazon). Also, I swear David Byrne's metallic, inscrutable voice has the same calming effect on children as a vacuum cleaner.

David Bowie Narrates Peter And The Wolf

David Bowie

Every child should listen to Prokofiev's masterpiece Peter and the Wolf. The instrumental story of a boy, his cat and a hungry wolf, Peter is appropriately scary, sprightly and intense, with a recurring and easily recognizable theme for each character. The score does what orchestral music is supposed to: The flute and violins make small listeners feel springtime in the meadow, the kettle drums and cymbals terrify, the horns braying out the hunter's approach bring a relief and hope. By the end of the story, reassuringly, everyone's okay! Except for the big, bad wolf. David Bowie's elegant, understated narration is gravy here. Super cool gravy.

Rain Dogs

Tom Waits

Rain Dogs opens with Tom Waits sounding like Louis Armstrong singing from inside a deep ocean cave, and gets weirder from there. Hurdy-gurdies played by angry seafaring rats, bands of gleeful iguanas on percussion…Who knows who's actually playing those instruments and producing such creepy, submerged, exciting sounds? Rain Dogs was Waits's first "homemade" instrument record, and remains his most accessible. The songs are almost catchy, sing-alongs if your ideal hootenanny includes the immortal lines: "Uncle Irving, Uncle Irving, independent as a hog on ice!/ He's a big shot down at the slaughterhouse, plays accordion for Mr. Weiss!"


Joni Mitchell

Perfect for Sunday mornings when you don't want anything up-tempo. (Late night out? Shame on you, Mom and Dad!) Mingus (1979) is Joni Mitchell at her most wonderfully wacked-out, collaborating with the jazz great just before his death. "God must be a boooogeyman…" she croons, and Jaco Pastorius's bass answers her, elastically. The personnel here is essentially Weather Report plus Herbie Hancock; lyrics are often lifted from Mingus's own diary.

Hotter Than July

Stevie Wonder

When I was five and six, I roller-skated around my house to side B of Stevie Wonder's Hotter Than July every night. Even now, when I hear the first notes of the reggae-inflected African liberation anthem "Master Blaster," my feet start to move like they're in old school sneaker-skates. "Do Like You" is the story of a little boy who wants to dance just like his older sister (set to a disco beat); "Cash in Your Face" taught me about housing discrimination; "Lately" gave me a break from the fast skating (and is a seriously beautiful ballad about infidelity); "Happy Birthday" is a plea to make Dr. Martin Luther King's birthday a national holiday. Civil rights, marital problems, and how to be the "baddest dancer in the whole neighborhood." What else does a kid need to know?

Anthology: Jackson 5

Jackson 5

True fact: MJ is perfect kids' music. They don't need to know anything about him, but just put Little Michael on the turntable (I mean the, uh, computer) and watch them go bananas. If you really want to make them crazy, throw on some YouTube clips of the boys with their Afros and striped flares — but only if you feel like springing for keyboards and a drum set, and having another six or seven children. Regardless of the emotional and physical tragedies of Michael's later years, he was just brilliant belting out "Never Can Say Goodbye" as a 13-year-old as he was as a grown-up pop icon And yes, when you feel it's time, roll up the carpet, practice your stocking-feet moonwalk, and move on to Thriller.

Done By The Forces Of Nature

Jungle Brothers

"All decked out in my tiger skin suit, hair braided up, in my Jungle Brother boots," is a lyric made for maximum bouncing. Roar like a tiger and then jump on the bed! Along with fellow Native Tongues members De La Soul and A Tribe Called Quest, the JB's brought levity and knowledge to Golden Age hip-hop — not to mention Ohio Players samples. Sure, some of their lyrics may be "inappropriate," but they're nothing worse than what your kid will eventually hear on the playground, and it's comparatively tame by what followed in their wake, And there are plenty of good, kid-friendly messages ("First you crawl before you walk/First you think before you talk," they admonish on "Beyond This World").

Around The World In A Day


"Raspberry Beret"! OK, it's totally dirty, but the children don't know that; they just hear a song about a purple hat. The title track is Prince at his most Beatle-esque, with a harmonica and finger cymbals leading a cartoonishly funky orchestra, plus lyrics about a train conductor and an infectious shout of "I wanna dance!" "Paisley Park" might as well be about a playground. And what self-respecting family doesn't have a tambourine lying alone in a toy bin just waiting to accompany "Tambourine"? Get your kid some purple high-heel boots, will you? And send us a photo.

Flying Cowboys

Rickie Lee Jones

Rickie Lee Jones is a complicated artist, and Flying Cowboys is typically difficult to define. Is it jazz? Pop? Country? Is "hep lullaby" a genre? She wrote "Horses" for her then-baby daughter, singing, "If you fall, I'll pick you up, pick you…When I was young, I was a wild, wild one." "Rodeo Girl" is moody and atmospheric, perfect for playing inside with toy horses on a rainy afternoon. No Rickie Lee album would be complete without a cover or two, and "Don't Let the Sun Catch You Crying" (originally recorded by British invasion group Gerry & the Pacemakers) is sweet and soft, especially when soothing a wailing infant to sleep.


Angélique Kidjo

World music can be an overwhelming genre. How do you pick an artist, a style, or even a continent? Angelique Kidjo's Oremi is a great introduction to the diverse and thrilling world of African pop. Born in Benin, Kidjo now lives in Brooklyn with her husband and children, and her music reflects both locales. The record begins with a searing cover of Jimi Hendrix's "Voodoo Child," and doesn't rest. Polyrhythms, close harmonies, and Kidjo's own taut, breathy, and breathless singing make for a potentially interactive listening experience. Young listeners can gasp, huff, and roll their tongues along with the singer — kinetic engagement without an instruction manual.

The overture from Leonard Bernstein's Candide conjures joy like few other pieces of music in the world; it has everything — piccolos and crashing cymbals, violins running up and down, fire and thunder. This is appropriate for the introduction to a "light" opera about the ultimate ingénue living through war, kidnapping, and heartbreak in the "best of all possible worlds." "Glitter and Be Gay" is possibly the best-known coloratura (super high soprano — think Mariah Carey on steroids) composition since Mozart's Queen of the Night aria in the Marriage of Figaro. Yes, it's the song of a happy hooker, but Candide's message is about singing through disaster. Note: Please don't overlook Bernstein's West Side Story soundtrack. But you knew that already.

Like most recordings in the Smithsonian Folkways collection Jamaican Songs & Games for Children is a hybrid, both a musicological document and archive of fascinating and varied performances. Kids love listening to other kids sing (see Michael Jackson, above and forever), and nursery rhymes and game are easy to copy and make their own. These songs were recorded live on location in Haiti, Puerto Rico, Trinidad, Jamaica — and the Bronx. The ambient sounds and less-than-perfect clarity are part of the fun, especially for young people who want to sing along. This album could even lead to a recording session of your own. Boom mike required.