There are a couple of fine lines that inevitably get mapped when you’re picking music for kids that won’t make you, a parent and adult human alive to the many and various pleasures of the musical world, crazy. First: What’s the real difference between “bad” and “annoying,” and on which side of that binary do you prefer to spend your time? Second: How much is the brain between that particular little set of ears going to understand those lyrics?
Music made just for children is great (plenty of it, anyway). And there’s lots of it our kids will hear and then want to listen to on repeat. But we adult humans, with our lack of willingness to resort to screaming to get what we want, often sacrifice our own preferences at the altar of, like, less screaming. Let’s try to stop doing that: In these final weeks of summer, when camp is winding down and school is still weeks away, here’s a playlist of songs for those moments when grown-ups and their dependent offspring are sharing a space and a stereo and need to find some common ground.
Kids hear what’s meaningful to them: When my son was three, after a week of apparently listening more closely than I knew to Rihanna and Drake‘s hit “Work,” he delivered maybe the most precise takedown of the Teflon rapper I’ve ever heard when he told me, in a deeply concerned voice, “Daddy, he spilled all of his emotions.” A couple of years later he came home from school reporting that a friend had been singing an amazing song about 24 magic carrots that were In. The. Air.
Cute, but it’s not like adults have a monopoly on meaning. Any song on this list can be a song for kids, and any given song on this playlist might hold depths for a child’s parents or designated older person. Is The Raincoats‘ cover of “Lola” about playing dress-up? Sure it is. Is “Wake Up Little Susie” a perfect greeting for the end of naptime? Mmhmm. The reasons you might want to call a ghostbuster are as clear to all listeners as the welling of emotions in Carly Rae Jepsen‘s “I Really Like You.” Can’s late-era hit “I Want More” is equally meaningful to tiny little ones with unending desires and parents in need of a little more time, money, sleep, hugs, whatever. (Hayden’s “Woody” is just about a cat, though. It’s definitely not about the fleeting moments, like shards of crystal that refract overwhelming rainbows of emotion, where your human children discover that the limits of their own independence have stretched a little farther than they knew and they run blissfully on without turning back to notice the until-just-now-necessary outstretched arms of their parents. Definitely.)
Tiny pleasures abound for parents and kids listening together, like the whispered “wake up, wake up, wake up” refrain in Superorganism‘s “Night Time.” Sterling Holloway’s “Trust In Me,” from the somehow-not-currently-available-anywhere 1967 animated version of The Jungle Book, is iconically scary/seductive, and the impassively delivered, “Hold still please,” is perfect for imitating when you’re attempting to restrain someone who objects to being tickled. I packed a snack-themed mini-set for when you get two-thirds of the way through the playlist. Phoenix‘s “Tuttifrutti” is on here because Ti Amo is the dad-rock album of 2017, if not the decade. I could write an ode to the single best performance on this playlist, which is indisputably Frank Oz’s Cookie Monster and his zen-like portrait of self-knowledge, “‘C’ is for Cookie,” but I’d rather just listen to those perfect 89 seconds for the 100th time.
Is this a playlist of cool songs for kids? No. Is this a playlist of kids songs adults are guaranteed not to hate? Come on. Have I created a playlist dependent on a kind of compromise whereby nobody gets exactly what they want but a delicate balance is preserved in order to allow for the possible discovery of joy in unexpected places? Welcome to parenthood, suckers. Here’s 53 minutes of music we can all sort of agree on.