Tuesday, September 30th, 2008
Review: Universal Music Family CD Collection
Here’s a children’s music collection that is long overdue. Universal Music has dug into its vast historical song library and begun assembling collections of family songs based on themes and genres.
You’ve played your personally favorite music for your baby or toddler, right? My wife liked to play Abba’s Dancing Queen to get our 1-year-old daughter smiling.
Now at age 4, we don’t play the music we enjoyed as teens because too often there are lyrics we don’t fancy explaining to our inquisitive daughter. She is very astute.
That’s where Universal’s collection shines. First, you get child-safe lyrics. Second, you get songs by major artists that you’re often familiar with, but don’t already own. You wouldn’t buy many of these songs individually, but as a collection they hold real value. Sorry iPod and MP3 lovers, sometimes you miss out treating music like a salad bar. These are three course meals.
What follows are our favorites from the CDs and links to everything.
Too often sleep CDs include songs with clashing tempos.
Jazz Lullaby is mellow throughout with the same range of instruments (sax, piano, guitar) and somber voices (for the few tunes with lyrics). Artists in this collection include Ella Fitzgerald, Mel Torme, Ben Webster, Bill Evans and Abbey Lincoln.
This CD has proven itself a secret weapon for car travel. Pop it in right after a tantrum or when you want to wind down the day as you drive home near bedtime.
The appealing force of Fitzgerald’s voice draws you in, even in children’s songs. As my wife says, "I find it hard not to listen."
Muffin Man â€” This is a trusted classic. After you learn the song, swap ‘muffin’ for other nouns. Sing about the kitten man, the watermelon man, and so forth.
Molasses, Molasses (It’s Icky Sticky Goo) â€” I parlayed this silly song into a successful pizza wager. My wife and daughter were singing it in our car when I remarked that it was horribly disrespectful to make a song about death and disaster.
What, you say? There was never a molasses flood that killed man and beast alike? Sometimes a dad knows things.
The song is not about the The Great Boston Molasses Flood of 1919, but we all have our own reasons why we like a tune, right?
Old McDonald â€” The fastest lips in the West let rip in Fitzgerald’s infamous scat in a way my daughter thinks is fun, a song recognizable to anyone who has participated in "circle time."
Songs for the Car (ages 2+) [audio preview / Amazon buy] holds an eclectic collection billed as "songs to keep kids (and parents) happy in the car." There were only 1 or 2 pieces we didn’t already know.
Our House by Madness â€” It’s an upbeat ’80s song with a familiar refrain, "Our House, in the middle of our street…" Doesn’t ring a bell? It will once you hear it again.
All Star by Smash Mouth [semi-lame youtube music video] â€” We’re not Smash Mouth fans, but got hooked into this song from the film Mystery Men (those flunky super heroes who pull it together in the end).
A toddler won’t understand the lyrics, which could be summed up as "You’re great, now go do your best." But a 4- or 5-year-old who knows that a "star" is a stellar person will enjoy it. Our daughter rocks her shoulders back and forth to the music. Kind of funny.
All Night Long by Lionel Richie â€” I gagged at this song as a teen, but Lionel was on my wife’s short list for naming our son. She enjoys dancing to Lionel with our daughter. The message in the lyrics? Sing all night long.
Route 66 by Chuck Berry â€” Just a favorite regardless of who sings it. Berry’s rendition emphasizes the vocals, easy to hear and sing.
I Got Ants in My Pants (and I need to Dance) by James Brown â€” Our daughter finds this song hysterical. It’s a fine example of a song I’d never buy for myself, but completely works in the context of listening to it with family.
Stir it Up by Patti LaBelle â€” This was a single, but you know it as "that song from Beverly Hill’s Cop." It’s a high intensity jazzercise tune, perfect for flailing toddlers.
Gonna Make You Sweat (Everybody Dance Now) by C-C Music Factory â€” Wow, club music pitched to toddlers. Does it work?
My daughter’s immediate reaction was to walk around doing a shoulder shimmy like Will Farrell in that Saturday Night Live Roxbury Guys clubbing skit. She actually said, "I can’t stop my body from moving, Mama." This song is a mix of Roxbury, YMCA and a little bit of MC Hammer.
Whether or not you like these songs depends upon your age and your experiences with them, as opposed to Ella Fitzgerald with whom none of us probably have any first-hand experience.
I’d call it the weakest of Universal’s family offerings, maybe because I don’t own CDs from any of the featured artists. However, I still find myself inserting the CD, hitting ‘play’ and transporting myself back to seventh period art class, the only class where you doodle, chat and listen to the radio.
Rhythm of the Night by DeBarge â€” "I like DeBarge. What can I say?" -My wife. The message? Dance the night away.
Celebration by Kool & The Gang â€” This is a personal time warp back to attending A’s baseball games with my grandfather, hearing Celebration after every homerun and every stolen base by Ricky Henderson. And Grandpa never skimped on the hot dogs and chocolate malts.
Celebration has safe and happy lyrics, great for dancing. And if your kid is clapping impaired, he really can’t miss with this one.
ABC by Jackson 5 â€” This is an awesome sing-along for toddlers because they’re familiar with at least two of its three guiding principles: A-B-C, 1-2-3 and do-re-mi.
Please Mr. Postman by The Marvelettes â€” Another daughter favorite. Anything she can make a connection to, she likes. She asked me whether our postal carrier would like it. Then she asked to hear a song about a garbage man.
Do You Love Me by The Contours â€” "Do you love me now that I can dance? [...] I can mash potato! I can do the twist!"
It’s an invitation for silly dancing. And the lyric "I can mash potato" is the funniest toddler joke on the planet.
To compound things, our daughter learned "one-potato two-potato" at preschool. So when this song comes on she whips out her fists and declares, "Put out your spuds!"
The Way You Do The Things You Do by The Temptations â€” This classic features rhyming couplets where whatever you love is turning into something else. That’s right, the Temptations are a learning experience.
"The way you swept me off my feet
You know you could have been a broom
The way you smell so sweet
You know you could have been some perfume"
Future Idols (ages 5+) [audio preview / Amazon buy] is our favorite CD of the whole bunch. It’s composed mostly of Broadway music which is meant (duh) to be sung live. It’s distinct. It’s articulated. It’s easy to sing well even if you have a lousy voice. It’s grandiose and so fun to belt out.
from The Sound of Music â€” Our daughter loves, loves, loves to sing this
classic. Most days she sings it word-for-word as we walk to preschool.
Last week she greeted her teacher with this exchange:
Daughter: "I have a song I want to sing."
Teacher: "Oh, what song?"
(pause, then whispering to Mama)
Daughter: "Mama, what’s the name of the song?"
Teacher: "Oh, that’s a wonderful song. Do you want to sing it in small group or large group?"
Daughter: "Large group."
And she did exactly that after she and the teacher taught the basics
to the other students. It was a monumental event for us because she is
a bit shy with anyone other than family and good friends.
She learned the song from this CD and I’ll be intrigued to see how she reacts when she’s old enough to see the film.
Tomorrow from Annie â€” It’s a sing-at-the-top-of-your-lungs kind of song. It’s also interesting to teach that words can have dual meanings, as in, "The sun will come out tomorrow" means "I’m not happy right now, but tomorrow I will be."
Consider Yourself from Oliver! â€” The genius award goes to whomever thought to include this track from the musical based on Charles Dicken’s novel Oliver Twist. It’s sung by a child of the street, Artful Dodger, as he welcomes Oliver into a criminal den that uses orphans for petty crime.
Except, because Dodger is deceiving Oliver, the lyrics are entirely kid-friendly when disassociated from the plot of the musical.
"Consider yourself at home,
Consider yourself one of the family,
We’ve taken to you so strong,
It’s clear we’re going to get along."
And again, I love explaining the complex meaning of words such as the lyric "Consider yourself part of the furniture" which really means you’re a welcome and permanent part of our family.
Final Thoughts: I appreciate that Universal Music attempted to categorize each CD by listening age, but aside from the lullabies, it’s all rather flexible. Toddlers begin reacting to rhythm and instruments with a basic "Can I sway or jump up and down to it?" reaction. Understanding frequently repeated lyrics comes much later. I’d play any of these tunes for a 1-year-old if they make him happy.
What you get with Universal’s collections is a wide selection of mainstream adult music that is lyrically safe for kids. That’s perhaps what I like about it. I’m not a mainstream kind of guy. Some songs I like. Some songs I’m familiar with and enjoy even though I probably don’t want to admit that I enjoy them. And the rest of the songs are an exploratory experience, learning to love them as my children hear them for the first time, observing their untainted, excited reaction to each new song.