Top Ten 2009 Albums to Play for Your Parents

The last of the Super Secret Space Base posts. Links were to dead streaming site lala.

There comes a time in your life where you run out of time to pay attention to all of the different things that were so interesting in your youth. Very often, this time comes right around the time you have children. Thus, most parents have tastes in music frozen in time around the arrival of their bundles of joy. They’re often, but not always, unwilling to appreciate any new developments in music. Unfortunately, the new developments in music that they are receptive to are the most unchallenging (this is why American Idol is popular–it’s basically mass participation karaoke).

For my baby boomer parents, while some touchstones include early Zeppelin, early the Who, mid-period Beatles (specifically the McCartney songs), most of their go-to tunes can be graciously described as “easy listening”. My dad likes classic rock but doesn’t like that it now includes early U2 and Van Halen. For my mom, it’s either schlocky R&B/Motown with any edge carefully buffed out or Billy Joel and his ilk. I have some of their old records and can testify that they used to have good taste in music (Mom’s Steely Dan got sold before my time, but Dad handed down some ELP and Jethro Tull). Your parents are probably similar–the most recent cds they own are probably an American Idol alum like Kelly Clarkson or a soundtrack for a movie targeted directly at their demographic. Now, while not all parents are in this boat (Thurston Moore and Kim Gordon’s kid is the luckiest alive in this regard), most of them probably have similar touchstones of their frozen music taste. Here are ten albums released in 2009 which will pass through their Music Defense Shield and might have them open their mind a bit.

Richard Swift – Atlantic Ocean

This album is best if your parents ever liked seventies high-art pop songwriters like Randy Newman, Harry Nilsson, and ELO. It’s got some synth, but it’s mostly played the way synth was played in the seventies: as a funky keyboard. There’s a lot of perfect pop songwriting, with piano and falsetto. Come to think of it, this album might work really well during a late party where a board game is being played with some intensity, but everyone has had a bit to drink. Also, watch out–there’s some swears–nothing severe but you might want to know.

Monsters of Folk – Monsters of Folk
There’s a lot going on in this album. It features the frontmen of My Morning Jacket (Jim James, who released an album of hushed George Harrison covers as Yim Yames this year–Parent Approved) and Bright Eyes (warbly-voiced Conor Oberst) as well as singer-songwriter (and Zooey Deschanel collaborator) M. Ward (who also released a Parent Approved album this year called Hold Time) and Bright Eyes producer/guitarist Mike Mogis. The best approximation is southern rock like CCR and the Allman Brothers (without the all the guitar fireworks), though there’s some Neil Young and some Prince thrown in for good measure. There are a couple of clunkers on this album (thanks, Conor!) but it’s mostly hushed folk mixed with nice rocking songs complete with guitar solos, and a couple of funky butt-rock songs. Monsters of Folk will work best in a loud setting, either a talkative car or a boisterous party.

The Decemberists – Hazards of Love
This is a slightly risky inclusion on the list, but I think it is a worthwhile one. What we have here is a full-on rock opera, with a specific story and structure and everything. The Decemberists have finally taken that literary nerd rock they love and fully integrated with the Led Zeppelin sound. (Don’t think they go together? What about Misty Mountain Hop? The song’s about hobbitses, precious.) Your dad will love the monster Zep (or Sabbath or Rush, whatever his touchstone is) riffs, your mom will love the quiet duets about love. If your mom’s like mine and was a singer in a past life and is always complaining that all the lady singing she hears you listen to is all whispery and not nearly strong enough, then Shara Worden (as the Forest Queen–see what I mean about rock opera?–and also from the band My Brightest Diamond, which is quite a bit more challenging than this) will knock her off her feet. This is probably best as car trip music, provided you’re driving. Plus you can mention their lighthearted feud with Stephen Colbert as either serious or joking depending on their political leanings.

Music Go Music – Expressions
Everybody likes Abba. Everybody likes the Top Gun soundtrack. Everyone likes a little bit of Yes. Especially your parents. Rock on!

Kings of Convenience – Declaration of Dependence
Every baby boomer has a soft spot for Simon and Garfunkel. Some might prefer Paul Simon’s solo work, but the duo have a classic pop-folk sound which is still relevant and popular. Great for quiet evenings, it boasts syncopated acoustic finger-picking and great singing in harmony, featuring Erlend Øye’s butter-smooth vocals. Just, uh, maybe don’t mention that they’re Swedish?

Cotton Jones – Paranoid Cocoon
A blues- (but not blooz-) soaked folk album, this might remind your parents of their hippie days, before it was commodified and sold back to them in a high-priced special edition. It’s got a great hazy Sixties feel, with warm organ and lazily strummed vintage guitar. It’s sure to warm an afternoon and it’ll go just as well with tea as with wine.

Helado Negro – Awe Owe
This is perfect music to play for your abuela and your tias while they whip up their famous batch of tamales (make sure to save me some). Sure to be a hit with anyone who owns an album by someone named Gilberto, Roberto Carlos Lange takes the traditional Latin touchstones and mixes in some ambient atmospherics. This works perfectly as background music–the more “challenging” sounds fade into the background, but the samba and other elements jump out when the time is right.

Neko Case – Middle Cyclone
Have your parents ventured into the wasteland that is country music? My dad spent a morning at a country station talking up one of his clients, and later mentioned to me that country music is great! I assured him that most of the time, country music is actually the opposite of great. Neko Case is one of the fantastic exceptions. She writes incredibly solid, twangy pop songs with singable choruses and vital lyrics which tell vivid stories. They’re often sad, even, keeping in line with the classic country stereotype.

Mulatu Astatke/The Heliocentrics – Inspiration Information 3
Do your parents like jazz and funk music? Do they listen to jazz and funk music that is antiseptic and overproduced to the point that it’s practically elevator music? Here is their antidote. This is another great quiet evening soundtrack, perfect for listening while your yearly game of Monopoly rages ever onward.

Grizzly Bear – Veckatimest
Okay, let’s be honest. This album, while definitely one of the best of the year, is pretty difficult. But it’s worth it. Your parents may be unsure at first, so why not start with the single version of While You Wait for the Others featuring every baby boomers’ favorite crooner, Michael McDonald? They use mostly conventional instruments, and write gorgeous pop songs. Don’t call them experimental, just call them a pop rock band. This album might be the most difficult connection to make, with little to connect to Approved music. But just let the songs sink in over dinner and hope for the best. The payoff will be worth it.

For best exposure, play these subtly in the background while driving with them or enjoying a meal. Don’t jump on your parents when they ask who it is. Give the name, and maybe mention them in conjunction to an artist on their Approved List. For best results, shuffle with a complementary Approved album or two–you’ll likely get a “sounds like you finally have good taste in music” backhanded compliment. Let it slide.

Mary Poppins – Still Great for Kids

Another originally posted at Super Secret Space Base.

Recently I sat down to watch Mary Poppins with my daughter. She had really enjoyed The Sound of Music (aka the greatest musical ever made) and I thought I would subject her to some more of Julie Andrews’ singing, this time augmented with some Disney magic. I was struck while we watched the film–Disney’s live-action fare has changed dramatically since its heyday in the 60’s. I stand by Mary Poppins as a movie, but it’s hardly the scientifically-maximized-for-kids entertainment compared to most stuff available now.

I’ll start with why it doesn’t measure up to today’s kid movies:

1. Length. The movie is just under 2 and a half hours, which, as anyone with a child under 5 knows, is waaaaay too long to sit still.

2. Pacing. There are some great, fanciful, exciting parts of the movie. Unfortunately for a child, they’re broken up by plot. While I am not complaining about plot (I’ll talk about liking it below), it’s pretty easy for a toddler to get bored during these sections.

3. Dick van Dyke’s accent. It’s terrible. Doesn’t matter how old you are, it’s just comically bad.

But what makes it superior to whatever Nickelodeon/Disney Channel-promoted flick out now?

1. The songs. These songs, unlike those in most kids’ shows (Sesame Street and Yo Gabba Gabba! excepted) are timeless. Chim-chim-chiree and Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious got me and my 18-month-old daughter singing along and having fun. They aren’t dumbed down or overproduced. They’re stone-cold classics.

2. The sense of whimsy and fantasy. The magic that happens is never explained or even really questioned. Not to say that a lack of skepticism is positive, but, as with JJ Abram’s mystery box, a lack of explanation can make some things more interesting and more exciting. We don’t know how much of this movie actually happens to the Banks children, if they really go into that chalk painting or dance on clouds of smoke above rooftops, and it isn’t important. Neither is HOW it happened. The world is magical for the children in the movie and should be for the viewers as well.

3. The story’s sense of realism. This might sound completely opposed to the previous point, but hear me out. There are very real issues in the story: the children are out of control, their parents are hardly involved in their lives, and their dad is a workaholic. There are no magic revelations in the movie, everyone goes through experiences that change them as people (or children, as the case may be) and they end up better people and a better family. There is real crisis, too, with the run on the bank, George Banks’ firing and subsequent not returning home (initially). The crises develop each member of the family in ways that are implied throughout the film rather than stated, bringing the movie to a satisfactory (okay, and whimsical) end.

So, sure. This movie will not completely occupy your children for its entire run time like the perfect electronic babysitter.* But, viewed as a family, it’ll give you great joy (the songs! I had to find my soundtrack record after we watched this), a chance to discuss things with older children, and even an opportunity to teach the younger ones (“In every job that must be done, there is an element of fun. Find that fun and *snap* it’s a game!”). Plus, Julie Andrews’ voice is perfect.

*Your best bet for viewing is to watch the first half before naptime and then put them down immediately after the “Stay Awake” lullabye. The second half can be viewed later in the day. Both halves have an extended song and dance number and kids can be brought up to speed quickly.