Review: Universal Music Family CD Collection

Logo image reading Universal Music Family.

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.

Image of the CD cover for Jazz Lullaby.

Jazz Lullaby (ages 0 to 4) [audio preview / Amazon buy] is a cohesive collection of drift-to-sleep tunes that compliment each other, flowing beautifully from piece to piece.

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.

Image of the CD cover for Miss Ella's Playhouse.

Miss Ella’s Playhouse (ages 1 to 4) [audio preview / Amazon buy] contains eleven nursery rhymes and other kid-friendly novelty songs from The First Lady of Song, Ella Fitzgerald.

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 — 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) — 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 — 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."

Image of the CD cover for Songs for the Car.

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 — 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] — 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 — 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 — 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 — 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 — 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 — 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.

Image of the CD cover for Totally '80s.

Totally ’80s for Kids (ages 2+) [audio preview / Amazon buy] is a mix of popular early 80s tunes oriented toward fans of top 40 music.

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 — "I like DeBarge. What can I say?" -My wife. The message? Dance the night away.

Celebration by Kool & The Gang — 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.

Image of the CD cover for Motown for Kids.

Motown for Kids (ages 2+) [audio preview / Amazon buy] contains "classic versions from original Motown artists."

ABC by Jackson 5 — 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 — 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 — "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 — 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"

Image of the CD cover for Future Idols.

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 — 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?"

Mama: "Do-Re-Mi."

Daughter: "Do-Re-Mi."

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 — 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! — 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.


9 Responses to “Review: Universal Music Family CD Collection”

  1. BusyMom says:

    LOVE IT!!!!!

    We have been making mixes to listen to in the car with our kids. It’s sometimes surprising how many questionable lyrics can be found in songs that you love, that you never considered when you were listening pre-kids (or actually pre-toddler).

    I think I might have to send them a list of some of the collections that our kids love and learn what their special thank you package is.

    I already forwarded the link to my husband to get his opinion. I think the 80′s, the songs for the car, the Motown and the future Idols discs might just be featured in my car soon.

    September 30th, 2008 at 3:02 am

  2. Dani says:

    I think we will definitely have to purchase some of these! Especially the motown! I may have grown up in the 80′s but I was raised on the Temptations. My father used to sing The Way You Do The Things You Do to me but change all the lyrics around to make it VERY silly. It’s one of those treasured memories and this may make it a little easier to pass down.

    September 30th, 2008 at 5:25 am

  3. RobMonroe says:

    I’ve been apreciative of finding different versions of these collections over the last 18 months. We have a 22 hour playlist in our house that is on whenever we’re awake. It includes intentionally children’s music (thanks AJ for the Red Grammar tip) and more fun, more diverse music. We’ve had a lot of the offerings on the 80′s collection in our mix for a while. There is also a lot of newer music that is both fun and toddler apropriate.

    I’m all about variety of music and having opportunity to experience things differently. With that in mind we’ve also sought out songs from India, Mexico, South America, Africa and Canada. Okay, so the Canadian songs are hockey songs, but they count as international to me!

    September 30th, 2008 at 5:35 am

  4. anjii says:

    These seem great! I can’t wait to add a few of them to my CD shopping list… I see a lot of dancing in our immediate future ; )

    September 30th, 2008 at 8:02 am

  5. callmekelly says:

    Reviews like this are one of the reasons I stop in here daily… you hit all the angles and take out the guesswork. Thanks for an easy to understand comprehensive review!

    but no thanks at all for the hard to shake mental images conjured up by following the wiki link… shudder, shudder, shudder…

    September 30th, 2008 at 2:18 pm

  6. Paul says:

    Thanks again for an awesome review. It’s amazing how much easier life is since most of my best buys have been reading your review and then buying it, without the hours of shopping and pondering what to get. Best so far was the Bob’s Books series.

    Anyway on this one I have to disagree with one premise. Within reason, there’s nothing wrong with questionable lyrics. It will be something that a child misses originally, and then gradually grows into and learns from over time, adding a depth to the song. In my own case I grew up on M*A*S*H and All in the Family enjoying the antics, and then gradually over the years understanding and learning the deeper meanings, noticing some of the ‘questionable’ adult issues, and eventually even deciding what to agree or disagree with. (yes I’m dating myself … I was around when these were new and my parents watched them). And hey maybe I still haven’t grown into understanding Puff The Magic Dragon or all the Beatles. ;-)

    It’s uncomfortable to answer some questions but if the child is old enough to ask coherently, then I’d rather a clean but honest answer come from me than the street!

    All that said some of these sound wonderful and I’m sure I’ll be getting a few. :-)

    September 30th, 2008 at 3:09 pm

  7. Inki says:

    These sound awesome! Thanks for the tips, now I’m off to put them on my Amazon wish list for Christmas :-)

    September 30th, 2008 at 10:59 pm

  8. Stephanie says:

    We are always surprised by what our daughter will shimmy to in the back seat. The other day, it was Jimi Hendrix. You never know what your kid will find entertaining.

    October 2nd, 2008 at 6:14 am

  9. anjii says:

    I have to agree with Paul. While there are some CDs in my collection that I save for those rare times in the car when I don’t have 3 1/2 year old ears along for the ride, most of our music is up for listening. Most of the age inappropriate lyrics go over his head, and any questions he poses opens up discussions. Sometimes short and boring, but sometimes quite interesting. My parents were the same way. We listened to a HUGE variety of music, both kids and adults. Even today, sometimes I’ll be listening to a song that I haven’t heard in years, and although I sang along when I was a kid, all of a sudden now, it’s like “Oh, so THAT’S what this song is about!” And I’m so grateful for my music exposure as a child, because I still love most of the stuff they played, and I have a true love and appreciation of almost all kinds of music thanks to my parents. Oh, and we also had a lot of kid specific music, and I love that too, and have transferred a lot of my childhood cassettes onto CD so I can share them with my kids.

    October 5th, 2008 at 8:14 am

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