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Kids' music that rocks

The other day my son, Cole, was sitting in his car seat singing to himself. “Soaring, flying,” he crooned sweetly in his 5-year-old voice.

“Oh, Cole, that’s so nice; what song is that?” I asked.

“It’s from High School Musical!” he beamed.

I stopped. “Oh no, honey. Your mom has a very important reputation to uphold as a musical snob. My son can’t be caught singing High School Musical songs!”

Let’s be honest: From nursery rhymes to today’s heavily marketed preteen bubblegum, kids’ music can suck. There are some great and glorious exceptions to this rule – more so every day, it seems – but in general, being stuck in a car listening to the Wiggles and Raffi is pretty much my idea of hell.

We don’t have to eat Gerber’s peas and carrots; we can leave the room when Teletubbies comes on (unless we’re still coming down from a rave and want to stay), but there’s a way in which tots’ tunes are inescapable - maddeningly so. Indie-rock icon and Wee Hairy Beastie Jon Langford told me he once threw one of his kids’ CDs out the car window. We’ve all been there, haven’t we?

It doesn’t have to be this way. The Wee Hairy Beasties are one of a new wave of musicians who are trying to make kids’ music that lives up to the smart entertainment standards of Pixar. (Think about it: It’s easy to watch Ratatouille over and over. Why is it so hard to make it through a Kids Bop album?)

Even more satisfying – for both me and Cole – is just playing the music I love. Music doesn’t have to be premasticated, watered down, and reduced to a couple sing-song lines repeated over and over again for children to get it. People believe fetus-dwellers can absorb Mozart; don’t we think toddlers can love the Beatles?

I’m not saying you can just throw Ornette Coleman on and expect your kid to hum along. But as with food or books or whatever, a listening palette can be nurtured. Should be nurtured. So I’ve been trying to educate my son – about instrumentation, rhythm, genres, roots -- by introducing him to the classics of various genres. And then there are the “kids” acts we both love. (Most parents probably know about Dan Zanes and Laurie Berkner by now, the stars of this kids’ music renaissance.) Admittedly, kids appreciate – even need – repetition in a way that can drive grownups batty. But I’d much rather have to keep hitting replay on Blitzkrieg Bop than on Here Come the Wiggles.

Here are some of Cole and my favorite artists, songs and albums.

Oh, and no matter how hard you try, you might still have to put up with dreck. Back in the car, Cole thought my little pronouncement was hilarious. After cracking up, he went right back to “soaring, flying.” As he should.

OUR FAVORITES

  • Bob Marley: Cole began singing Three Little Birds when we visited Jamaica a couple years ago; “Every little thing’s gonna be all right.’’ Really, is there a better song for post-tantrum soothing or world-peace promulgating? Maybe it was just us, but Jamaicans seem to love kids in a way you don’t always see when traveling, let alone stateside. Cole was an ambassador for us there. “Don’t worry about a thing”; it’s a mom’s anthem, too.
  • The Ramones: Kudos to Neal Pollack on this one, who writes eloquently and hilariously about schooling his son on the quintessential punk rockers in his memoir Alternadad. Their music is simple and loud and infectious; what child wouldn’t sing along to “hey, ho, let’s go!” Of course, it gets a little stickier when Cole starts chanting “Beat on the brat with a baseball bat.” I’m also teaching Cole about irony.
  • The Sippycups: This San Francisco band plays great psychedelic pop; whenever I put Electric Storyland on, adults ask what cool new indie rock record it is. I’ve given it as a gift to most of his classmates and friends, and have been repeatedly thanked by a lot of grateful parents. Definitely our favorite kids’ music album.
  • Wee Hairy Beasties: A bunch of stellar alt-country musicians got together to play at a zoo, and discovered that kids’ rock can pay better than their day jobs. Bluegrass punk songs about animals may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but until your kid is ready for the Mekons, this is a good place to start.
  • "Laffy Taffy'': As adult music, this D4L speaker-rattler is a novelty hit, but think of it as a kids’ song, and it’s got a phat beat. Cole takes a hip-hop dance course once a week and this will inevitably get him to start breakdancing at a party.
  • Anything by Putumayo: The clothing label long ago figured out that children’s music comes in all shapes and sizes. Their compilation albums group songs by themes and regions, and lots of times comprise old hits, folk songs, and world music anthems.
  • Uncle Rock: Like Zanes or Langford, this Woodstock daddy had a respectable career as a gigging musician until he went and had a kid and began writing songs for him. Too Many Presents perfectly captures a birthday meltdown.
  • Dianne Reeves: Cole loves singing, to do it or to hear it. And just about no one out there right now sings better than this four-time Grammy winner. Her upcoming album When You Know opens with a version of Just My Imagination that will take your breath away. It did Cole’s, when I played it for him the other day; he was still, spellbound in his seat, until it finished.
Evelyn McDonnell is a former music critic for The Miami Herald and author of Mamarama: A Memoir of Sex, Kids & Rock ’n’ Roll.
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