Like most moms out there, much of my day is spent driving — drop offs, pick-ups, weekend little gym classes, play dates, and lots of errands. And as a lifelong music lover, I’ve always got something playing. When it’s just me, that time is almost sacred. When it’s me and the kids, I try to mix in some of what they call my “grown-up mom” music. But as you might expect, I now spend a lot of time listening to kids’ music. I came to this genre reluctantly, but after five years, I’m starting to develop some favorites, as well as a list of music that I must personally avoid at all costs.
This list is not exhaustive, and there’s a lot I haven’t listened to (yet), but there is some music that has stood out to me while creating the soundtrack to drives with my kids — the good, the “ok,” and the irritating. When played enough times, all of this music can start to sink into your subconscious and send you up the wall. They can be so catchy and ear wormy that none of this music is all good or all bad all the time. Also, most of the time, if they’re anything like mine, your kids will have very specific ideas about what exact songs will be played in the car once that car seat buckle clicks.
A Category Of Its Own: Disney
Sure, some Disney music is just ok. But when Disney music is good, it transcends the kids’ music category. It is genuinely enjoyable for many adults, myself included. While some of the movies have been legitimately criticized over the years for depictions of certain cultures and certain messaging in its stories, Disney certainly seems to have parents at least partially in mind when creating this music. There are almost too many good ones to name. My kids haven’t seen all of the movies but they still know a lot of the music, which is a beauty of Disney. The music can be appreciated without seeing the movie.
Some of my favorites: “Zero to Hero,” “Be Prepared,” “One Jump Ahead,” to name a few. I can’t listen to the “Moana” soundtrack without crying, but I can’t stand “Let It Go.” Unpopular opinion?
There is a reason I’m starting with this one. To me, this is the standout queen of kids music. Each song sounds different, which sounds like a lazy compliment, but it’s important to note in this category! The lyrics are surprisingly good and the range of topics and moods provides a crucial amount of variety for parents on a long car ride. I also feel like some of these songs are good reminders for adults, not just kids. After a particularly frustrating day, who doesn’t want to be reminded that “when you feel so mad that you want to roar,” it’s a good and self-aware step to “take a deep breath and count to four”? Honestly, great advice for when you’re stuck in traffic.
But the track that slaps hardest for me is “Find a Way to Play Together.” This chorus is just so catchy it stays in my head all day. Also, I find Katerina Kitty Kat’s lisp quite endearing when she says "gifts" during her verse.
Raffi is a great option for parents who want a slight vintage folk vibe in their listening. He’s a legend and sings a range of classic kids songs and rhymes. While his music may be slightly more geared to younger kids, he can be enjoyed at any age. His voice is mellow and he has that certain power to really de-escalate a stressful car situation in my family. This was also go-to lunch and dinner highchair music when my kids were young. Stand out tracks: “Biscuits in the Oven” and “Shake My Sillies Out.”
The Just OK
These are beautiful and perfect for bedtime but make me extremely tired while I’m driving if I’m already exhausted (which is to say, all the time). We had one album in particular that we played every night for my daughter while she fell asleep. When we tried to create that same sleep magic on long car rides in hopes that she would drift off to a peaceful nap (rarely happened), it just ended up making my husband and I sleepy. Yawns, heavy eyelids, the whole thing. Be warned!!
This one is hit or miss for me, so it finds its home in the “ok” category, which I know might be controversial. But I’ll stand by my take: generally, it does provide a nice way for kids to stay up to date on new music if parents don’t want them hearing certain lyrics and it is also a nice break for parents from pure kids’ music. Some of these songs are genuinely solid, while others can be maddening. For example, the Kidz Bop version Tones and I "Dance Monkey" is tolerable only because it already has lyrics that appeal to kids.
But a Kidz Bop "Break My Soul"? I’m sorry, not for me. It’s not that they necessarily did a bad job with the cover — it actually sounds pretty good — but it’s just objectively kind of ridiculous. We don’t listen to Kidz Bop a lot; they mostly come up on Spotify shuffle. But when I do hear these songs, I mostly find myself wanting to just listen to the real song.
I know that Cocomelon as a TV show is a hot button issue for some parents and I can’t contribute to that debate as I have never seen those big baby heads on my own TV. We have, however had their music come up randomly on Spotify in the car. And the Cocomelon renditions of classics like "Baa Baa Blacksheep" and "The Wheels on the Bus" are annoying. While I can see why kids would like them, they sound a little fever dream-y to my ears.
Again: I know this will be controversial. Sesame Street is perhaps the best kids’ show ever made. But let’s get real, here. There are two types of Sesame Street music: The songs featured on the show that are sung by actual singers and musicians, like Maggie Rogers singing "It’s Nighttime" and Hailee Steinfeld singing "I Wonder, What If, Let’s Try!" Those are fantastic. Like Disney, they do a great job keeping adults entertained by featuring people that we know and love, such as Chance the Rapper, Lin Manuel Miranda, and Kacey Musgraves, regardless of your taste in music.
But I’m sorry, somebody has to say it: The second type of music — aka most songs sung by the actual Sesame Street monsters, specifically Elmo and Cookie Monster — drive me slightly crazy. While I’ve never heard Gonger sing a song, he is implicated here too. It’s the voices. Sorry Elmo. I love them all! Just not in my car.
Beware. Beware of playing a kids song, setting Spotify to shuffle and then walking away from your phone. The most annoying song that you’ve never heard, by a band or singer you’ve never heard of, will come on. Your kids will hear it. They will love it. They will expect you to remember the name / artist after hearing it once, even though it made you want to throw your phone against a wall. And they will ask you to play it again. For a while. Until they ultimately forget about it. Thankfully.
Taylor Siering is a mom of two from New York City, currently living in the midwest. She is a PhD student who studies the intersection of professional work and gender, with a specific focus on the experiences of mothers and motherhood. She spends a lot of time thinking about mom content, pop culture, social media trends and her other random, hyper-specific interests.