Dr. Noize – The Ballad of Phineas McBoof
Pity Phineas McBoof. Exhausted by his fame and fans, the "musical King Kong" has disappeared, and only his International Band of Misunderstood Geniuses knows how to find the iconic monkey. It's a familiar tabloid tale, as seen through the lens of a kaleidoscope rather than a paparazzo's camera. Loaded with witty narration and some creatively impressive tunes, the CD has launched a book by the same title and a sequel is due. Recipient of a 2007 Parents' Choice Award, it goes without saying that the album also wins the prize for best title of the year.
After creating musical lessons around "Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel" and "Juanita the Spanish Lobster," it's actually a little disappointing (though not surprising) that Stories in Music has done its own recording of Sergei Prokofiev's childhood warhorse. The Russian composer knocked out this orchestral story in two weeks, but the tale of how a small boy defeats a big, bad wolf remains one of the most effective ways to introduce instruments and their sounds to small ones. While Sir Alec Guinness, for me, remains the gold standard in narrators, this new recording has a lot to recommend it by way of educational extras. Russian folk music, a listening lesson taught by Maestro Stephen Simon, and a brief biography of Prokofiev all whisk briskly and authoritatively along.
The Brian Setzer Orchestra – Wolfgang's Big Night Out
For parents looking for classical music that hasn't been preserved in amber, you couldn't do better than this new album by the Brian Setzer Orchestra, which takes some of the biggest clichés in classical music and sets them spinning. With help from octogenarian orchestrator Frank Comstock (whose credits include everything from "Dragnet" to "Rocky & Bullwinkle"), Rimsky-Korsakov's "Flight of the Bumblebee" becomes "Honey Man," while Johann Strauss's "Blue Danube Waltz" gets dubbed "Some River in Europe." My favorites include "For Lisa" (Beethoven's "Für Elise") with its acoustic Spanish guitar, and a swinging "1812 Overture" you could imagine Fred and Ginger stepping out to.
Recess Monkey – Wonderstuff
He's not a pinball wizard, but Everett the Wonderbee nevertheless has a heart that hails from the 1960s. Seattle band Recess Monkey has created a pop opera – with help from some childhood campers – about Everett's journey to save the magical meadows from the encroaching Gray. (The environmental message is clear, but hardly heavy-handed. The band is too busy making bee puns and referencing the Beatles, the Byrds, and the Beach Boys.) The gloriously goofy narration is delivered with a British accent as fruity as plum jam, and the pop culture references cover everything from "Hamlet" to "Scooby-Doo." The slower tracks can be a snooze, but with 20 songs to choose from, there are plenty of highlights: "My Pet Rock," "The Pool," and "Bad Ideas" among them. The double album may be a little long (for adults) to listen to straight through, but I faced a mutiny from my 5-year-old when I suggested we take a little break from Everett and fellow adventurers Harold the Rat and Sammy the Turtle.
Debi Derryberry – Very Derryberry
Debi Derryberry is probably most recognizable for being the voice of "Jimmy Neutron" on Nickelodeon, but I tried not to hold that against her. Derryberry has an undeniably sweet voice, and most of the songs have a bounce to them that will appeal to preschoolers. As an album, though, there are too many covers of sing-a-long cliches – "Skinnamarink" and "The Animal Fair" – and not enough originality to stand out in an increasingly creative field. That said, "Lechita Chocolate" is a standout peaen to the nectar of childhood, and how can you not love a song titled "Freckle-Faced Freddie"?