"This one goes out to the kids": It's arguably the hoariest sentiment in all of music, running alongside "Are you ready to ROCK?" Fortunately, it's increasingly taken on a different meaning in the last several years as artists of all stripes cash in on the growing market of kids' music. Appealing to preschoolers makes sense; thumb suckers don't know anything about torrents.
The parents are obviously the key, so it doesn't hurt if you spent a couple decades enticing Mom and Dad at campus dives and indie rock clubs. The real reward comes in soothed nerves and freedom from the kind of psychotic breaks induced by too much exposure to a certain purple dinosaur.
Guitarist Keller Williams is new to the kiddie pool, but he's particularly well suited to it. With his impish demeanor, goofy humor and wide-eyed spirit, he just seems like a children's entertainer. When you step beyond the odes to flying through space in a "Car Seat," bluegrass-flavored propaganda "(I Love) Taking a Bath" and reggae-inflected fart jokes ("Mama Tooted"), his tremendous technical ability still astounds. He's a gifted roots-based craftsman with an unflagging sense of groove.
While Williams seems like a natural fit for the children, a wealth of other fine artists have gone there, including many who might surprise you. Here are nine of the finest kid entertainers culled from an aging generation of indie rockers left looking for work after the go-go '90s.
Dan Zanes: The former Del Fuego was among the first to tap this market, with 2001's Rocket Ship Beach, highlighted by a tight "Polly Wolly Doodle" with Sheryl Crow. His palette with children is broad but similar to his old bands; he favors funky R&B, country-rockabilly, American and Irish folk, though he's also done sea shanties and world music tunes. He mixes originals with a high quotient of somewhat reworked and revitalized traditional tunes, like "The Hokey Pokey" and "Loch Lomond."
They Might Be Giants: A band that made nearly as easy a transition as Keller Williams, the Giants have long possessed a punchy vibrancy that's as suited to sugar-addled children as neurotic, over-caffeinated adults. They're inventive, quirky songwriters with a surreal imagination, which they bring to songs about a three-eyed shrimp or a family-style picnic with "My Brother the Ape." Hell, "Istanbul (Not Constantinople)" is educational as anything on The Electric Company.
Los Lobos: Though it was only intended as a final, contract-satisfying release, Los Lobos Goes Disney offers the most dynamic takes these children's classics have ever seen. "Heigh-Ho" becomes a steel-drum, salsa-dance firestarter, while "The Ugly Bug Ball" sounds like it ran into Link Wray and Bill Haley. "Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah" turns into a laconic Creole sway, and "Cruella De Vil" goes lounge. It's perhaps the most musically accomplished children's album of all time.
Asylum Street Spankers: These Austin fixtures are one of the more unusual acts to release a kids' album, but they do bring flair. Before breaking up after a final tour this past spring, the Spankers played country, jazz and blues in the style of Tin Pan Alley and recorded an entire album dedicated to the wonders of marijuana. But their 2007 album, Mommy Says No!, only has child-geared subject matter; from the sound to the subversive wit, nothing else has changed. Check the smirking cocktail jazz ode "Boogers" for proof.
Farmer Jason: Jason Ringenberg brought the heifer to cow-punk with genre trailblazers Jason & the Scorchers, so it's only natural that he gave Old McDonald's farm a country-rock makeover with his 2003 debut, A Day At the Farm, by way of Farmer Jason. He went Mutual of Omaha for Rockin' in the Forest, which included the rockabilly "Punk Rock Skunk." His song with Todd Snider, "He's a Moose on the Loose," feels like it escaped from a '60s variety show.
Terrible Twos: Get Up Kids frontman Matt Pryor recorded 2007's If You Ever See An Owl ... and 2008's Jerzy the Giant EP with his band The New Amsterdams. Musically, it's pretty, strummy pop with diary entry intimacy, but the words betray the childish intent—from the wonder at handling household implements ("A Rake, A Broom, A Mop, a Shovel" oh my!) to the jangly counting tune "Math Stomp." The lovely lullaby "Watch Out For Lions" is among the prettiest things Pryor's ever written.
Lisa Loeb: The release of 2008's Camp Lisa coincided with the launch of Loeb's charitable foundation to send poor kids to camp. It includes Stomp-like wake-up songs, gross-out camp songs ("Grandma's in the Cellar") and deftly delivered traditionals like "Home on the Range." It followed 2004's Catch the Moon, an album more oriented to toddlers and recorded with Ida's Elizabeth Mitchell, a fine kids artist in her own right.
The Dino-5: Featuring producer Prince Paul, beatboxer Scratch and a host of others backing spoken-word artist and narrator Ursula Rucker, The Dino-5 presents the story of a crew of rapping dinosaurs who compete in a talent show. They crack on each other like children; generally that which isn't rib-cracking ("That's Funny") is at least charming ("Jump").
Sara Hickman: A talented songwriter who's also a tireless activist, Hickman blends adult contemporary pop, Laurel Canyon folk and Texas country with a lot of uplift and resilience. That generally upbeat attitude lends itself to kid's music, a form she's explored over three albums tied to her son's advancing age, beginning with 1999's Newborn through 2001's Toddler and 2003's Big Kid. From odes to the cat to little moral anecdotes, it's smart, well-crafted stuff.