Esther Crow made her entrée into children’s music with her band Thunder & Sunshine’s 2017 album, This is Thunder & Sunshine. Just a handful of years later, Esther returns with All Together Now, her first solo album for families which is set to be released on June 25. The first video from the album, “It’s so Easy Being Green” debuted on May 21 and detailed simple ways we can help the planet by changing our daily habits. Today, I am pleased to premiere “Hard to be Happy,” the second video from All Together Now.
Written in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder, Esther says of “Hard to be Happy,” “I was hoping to find a way to reach the very young, and to highlight the importance of empathy for others and acceptance of ourselves. I continue to struggle with the fact that people are persecuted for the color of their skin, or for whom they love.” To that end, the video features a conversation and duet between Bernie the Bee and Moonice the Cow, two of Esther’s signature paperbag-style felt puppets. In “Hard to be Happy” Moonice is struggling with the fact that instead of being black and white, Moonice is red and purple, while Bernie is coming to terms with being a bee who loves anchovies instead of flowers. While each character is facing challenges and things that make them sad, they know that they will be ok because they have each other.
Created by Jeff Lewonczyk, the simple nature of the puppets makes the theme of being yourself in order to be happy even more accessible to young listeners. The static background, puppetry, and music with a message gives “Hard to be Happy” a retro vibe, calling to mind children’s programs of the 70s and 80s. Bernie and Moonice (and Esther too) give listeners much to think about. “Hard to be Happy” ends with a courage-filled pledge that we should all adopt, “We’ll live our lives unafraid. We’ll be brave.”
I have to admit, when I think of children’s music, I don’t often (ok, never) think of New Zealand as a place to turn to for amazing performers. Well, that stops now. New Zealand has a beautiful treasure in children’s music artist Claudia Robin Gunn. Her latest album, Sing Through the Year – A Little Wild Childhood, was funded by a Creative NZ 2020 Continuity Grant and is packed with 25 songs that celebrate the seasons, nature, and life in general. Inspired by bright moments and experiences with her children, each track is filled with musical storytelling that just makes my soul happy. Gunn’s indie folk/pop sound is often reminiscent of the Indigo Girls, especially when the uplifting harmonies are given center stage, while still managing to have a modern element that will appeal to all listeners.
Sing Through the Year – the album, is wonderful on its own, but for the full experience, I highly recommend the Sing Through the Year – a Little Wild Childhood Songbook, which is available to American audiences as an ebook. In the songbook, Gunn gives an introduction to each song while Auckland artist Elise De Silvaprovides charming paintings for each of the tunes. Also included are the lyrics and music/chords for each song as well as a QR code for easy streaming of individual tracks. Whether you choose the album or the entire songbook, Sing Through the Year is just the light summery treat (even when the topic is snowflakes!) that you need.
It’s been quite the year for students across the nation. Throughout the myriad of challenges – remote learning, hybrid learning, in-person learning, in school all day with very little movement from the classroom, wearing masks all day, not seeing friends, not seeing loved ones – our kids have shown an amazing amount of resiliency. Not only did they adapt, but with all that was going on, they still managed to participate, learn, and have some fun while “in school.” I’m in awe of the kids I see everyday. Yes, many have struggled, but many have also found ways to thrive and they are coming back stronger than ever before because they saw things this year. They experienced things this year. They hurt and they found joy. But most importantly, they made it. From the preschooler to the high school senior, it’s time to celebrate all those kids (and the families behind them!) who reached that life milestone of graduation.
Let’s start things off with “Ace It” from SaulPaul‘s recently released album OK to Be Different. “Ace It” recognizes the challenges that students face both at school and at home, as well as the reward when all that hard work pays off with graduation. One of my favorite phrases is “Life is a test…Ace It. Show up. Show out. Shine. Repeat.”
With graduation season having already started in some places, but running through the middle of June in others, let’s cap things off with a dance party from Fyütch with SaulPaul. “Graduation Bop” will have students moving and grooving across the stage to lyrics filled with praise. “You did it, you’re moving on up. Today we’re celebrating, we gon’ turn it up. You made it. What an accomplishment. Put on your cap and gown and get ready. It’s your graduation.” Congratulations to ALL of the 2021 graduates. This was a year for the books and as the song says, “you made it.” Celebrate!
Bryan and Neil, the dynamic duo who make up the gold-accented hip-hop dance party known as Koo Koo Kanga Roo, return with a new album on May 21. Slow Clap, their seventh studio album, is a non-stop blast from beginning to end. Each of the eleven songs tells its own tale from a celebration of honey in “Sticky Icky” to the many reasons someone might need a midnight milk in “Sneakin’ Downstairs” to an ode to that favorite summer drink “Ice Cold Lemonade.” Along the way they also celebrate the wonder that is the “Forklift,” get hips shaking with “Putt Putt Butt Butt,” and pay tribute to the “200 Worms” that live in Bryan’s compost bin. Filled with rhymes and beats that will appeal to the whole family, Slow Clap is a perfect reminder of how much fun life can be!
As fans of Koo Koo Kanga Roo know, they are not just a treat for the ears, but their videos are a blast to watch as well. Videos are already out for three of the tracks and on Friday they released “Backyard Swimsuit,” an homage to that timeless hot weather activity – the slip and slide. Check it out!
What began as a fun video to remind children to be grateful because the grass isn’t always greener on the other side, took on a whole new level of meaning during the pandemic. Released as a track on their 2018 album, We Are One, Animal Farm‘s “It Always Could Be Worse” features a child (in the song)/a bear (in the video) bemoaning the fact that they woke up with a sore throat/had to ride in the backseat during a road trip/ate too much banana cream pie and got a tummy ache. In each instance the character is then approached by an animal who explains that they have things a little worse off. For example imagine having a sore throat when your neck is six feet long like the giraffe’s, having to fly everywhere like a bird, or having four tummy aches at a time like a cow. Each instance reinforces the message to listeners that “That’s right it always could be worse/Try an attitude of gratitude, it’s really not that hard!”
Based on a collaboration between Animal Farm’s David Ladon and Charlie Malave and Lily Emerson, the creators of the webseries Adventure Sandwich, the video for “It Always Could Be Worse” took a full year to complete and masterfully matches the quirky melody and lyrics with amusing cardboard (and a splash of digital) animation. Finished in February 2020 and originally slated to debut in April 2020, Animal Farm never imagined what was to come. By mid-March they chose to delay the release of the video because it didn’t feel right to be touting the message of “it always could be worse” while people were losing jobs and loved ones to Covid. At that time, Animal Farm chose a new date – June 2020 to release the video but again chose to move the date back because it didn’t feel right to debut it in the midst of the social unrest following the death of George Floyd. The next release date was scheduled for October 2020, but once again Covid cases were soaring and the time still wasn’t right. A fourth possible date for release was chosen – April 2021 and finally, the time was right. Vaccinations were on the rise, cases were on the decline, and the world started to feel a little less scary.
In his songwriting workshops for children, David talks about how our relationship to art changes as we change and his journey to release this video is a perfect example of that. “In the song and video, we use these silly vignettes about feeling uncomfortable to offer perspective on how things could be worse. But this last year has truly shown us how bad it can get. For me this song feels more relevant than ever as we navigate going forward and engaging with a world that has been scarred by the pandemic. Even for me as a performer and co-writer of the song, I find new meaning in it.” Enjoy the video below, then take a few minutes to reflect on how your view of the phrase, “Things Always Could Be Worse” has changed over the past year.
Music Makes Me Happy may be Katie Dwyer’s first album of children’s music, but I have a feeling that it won’t be her last. Targeting the younger listeners, this collection of 17 original songs skillfully demonstrates Dywer’s knowledge of what works best with this age group. Almost all of the tracks on this album have a run time of 1:30 to 2:30 minutes and the majority of them are up tempo and will get children and their caregivers dancing. Kids are encouraged to waddle like penguins, chomp like crocodiles, make animal sounds, move their bodies all around doing the “Hula Hula La La La,” and zoom around in their pretend cars. Even in the quieter, slower songs like “Dance Like a Snowflake,” Dwyer keeps listeners moving and engaged. Katie’s experience writing and performing her songs for children in her Katie’s Corner music classes is evident in the entertaining lyrics that feature her crystal clear solo voice often only accompanied by her piano, and on occasion, guitar and drums. Each track tells a story and features repeating phrases so that children are given a chance to sing along while the more interactive songs suggest movements that are appropriate for this developmental stage. Music Makes Me Happy is an excellent album for family listening and is filled with songs that would be right at home in storytimes and early childhood music classes.
In Black to the Future, the follow-up to D.a.D. (2020), his debut album for families, Pierce Freelon introduces listeners to Afrofuturism. Combining imagination, science, and technology Freelon takes a futuristic look at the world through the lens of the Black experience, crafting a collection of music that is at once timely and out-of-this-world. Over the course of 18 tracks, we are treated to conversations with Freelon’s son and daughter as well as one special conversation with Miss Ella Jenkins. The songs on Black to the Future cover topics ranging from the process of a father and daughter working to get her hair braided, to navigating the first day of school, to the pain that hurtful words can cause. Along the way important lessons such as being grateful for the big and the little things in life, it’s ok to say no, and “Black boys, it’s ok to be vulnerable” are included. And in a tremendous ode to cultural icon Levar Burton listeners are urged to “seek knowledge and understanding.”
The Afrofuturism influence is felt from the album’s cover art to tracks like “Solar Skate” and title track “Black to the Future.” From beginning to end, Black to the Future is filled with an incredible blend of jazz, R&B, hip hop and electronic pop often set to engaging cosmic beats. A pair of songs bookend the album and serve as perfect examples of the evolution of the music. The album opens with “No One Exactly Like You,” a long lost recording by Freelon’s mother, jazz legend Nnenna Freelon, and closes with a futuristic take on the same song.
The pandemic is also evident on the album in the form of the songs “Cootie Shot” and “ZOMBI.” In “Cootie Shot” listeners are encouraged to not be afraid of needles in order to get those important shots, while Freelon’s daughter Stella shines on her song, “ZOMBI” as she talks about the scary struggle that the past year was for kids having to not only stay home, but physically stay distanced from others. Both songs serve as powerful reminders of the times we are living in.
Black to the Future is a one-of-a-kind album that will have wide appeal and is the perfect set of music for those tweens that are too old for “little kid” music and not quite ready for more adult albums.
I’m so excited to announce that Little Miss Ann’s sixth album of original songs for families is being released on May 7 (check out that fantastic album cover art at left from Pirata y Luna Estudio Creativo!). Available for pre-order beginning on April 23, this latest album promises a new and exciting sound. Based on what I’ve heard from the first single, that promise is being kept! Produced by Dean Jones and written and performed by Little Miss Ann, with an assist from Suzi Shelton, “Marshmallow Man” is powered by electric guitars and filled with groovy fun. Listeners will be entertained with the single all on its own (https://distrokid.com/hyperfollow/littlemissann/marshmallow-man-feat-suzi-shelton), but it’s the stop-motion video created by Little Miss Ann during quarantine that really takes “Marshmallow Man” to another level. Enjoy!! P.S. Join Little Miss Ann at 4:00 p.m. CST TODAYfor a Facebook Live “Marshmallow Man” Viewing Party. I hope to “see” you there!
Stacey Peasley’s fifth album for families, Make It Happen!, is a wonderfully refreshing thirty minutes of music. Backed by popping melodies, each of the ten original songs in this collection tells a story packed with details that children can easily relate to. The first three tracks – “Make It Happen,” “Boo Boo,” and “What Girls Do” – employ lyrics that empower listeners with messages that acknowledge that even though being a kid is hard, they are resilient and are here to do amazing things. With spring and summer sports beginning again, listeners will get all revved up for game day with the anthem “Play the Game,” while “Swimming Pool” will be a good track to share with children who might be nervous about taking swimming lessons for the first time. If you’re looking for new songs to use during storytime, “Choo Choo” is a great fast paced tune to use during a dance break, while “At the Parade” is interactive from beginning to end, inviting listeners to be the instruments, marchers and cheering audience at the parade. Make it Happen! is a joy from beginning to end.
So often Spring is celebrated with the blooming of flowers and arrival of baby animals while Fall is the time when trees are allowed to shine as they lose their leaves and prepare for winter. Suzi Shelton’s new song and video “Magnolia Tree” changes that. This charmingly animated video gives nods to Suzi’s Brooklyn home base while featuring a fantastically diverse group of young friends who gather under a beautiful magnolia tree as its springtime leaves and flowers make an appearance. Created through a collaboration between Dallas-based artist Jackie Land and Venezuela-based illustrator and animator Alcides Urrutia, who has worked with Latin Grammy winners 123 Andrés, the video perfectly pairs Suzi’s light, uplifting vocals with images that capture the freedom that comes with being outside and the joy of finding a special place to hang out with friends. “Magnolia Tree” is the perfect way to kickoff Spring.