If you consider The Muppets the best movie of 2011, we must first congratulate you on being right, and then insist that you grab this soundtrack to make your case to skeptics. It resuscitates a few old Muppets classics (the theme song to the TV show, Kermit the Frog's heart-tugging "Rainbow Connection," and Sesame Street's timelessly cool "Mah Na Mah Na") and throws in some obligatory pop hits (including Cee Lo Green's masterpiece, which here bears its G-rated title, though it could also have been called "Pluck You" given it's clucked wordlessly by a group of chickens). But the handful of original tunes penned by Bret McKenzie, who co-wrote the music for HBO's Flight of the Conchords, are the real draw. McKenzie was an inspired choice for this assignment, as his amazing ability to satirize musical tropes with a fan's affection rather than a cynic's disdain gave the movie all the beats it needed—show-stopping dance numbers, efficient character portraits, and soulful epiphanies—while also giving the audience multiple levels on which to enjoy them. You can laugh at the wordplay or wink at the conventions, but you might also get genuine chills whenever Animal starts pounding the drums.
Tim Quirk, Google Play
Clearly intended to appear at the end of Jewel's run on Dancing with the Stars -- a run that was pre-empted due to injury -- Lullaby finds her delivering her first children's album, appropriately appearing on Fisher Price Records. That label and title, along with versions of "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star," "Somewhere Over the Rainbow," and "Brahms Lullaby," are the strongest indication that Lullaby is intended for little ones; if it was taken as pure sound, it's almost indistinguishable from Jewel's earliest albums, particularly her crawling, portentous sophomore effort, Spirit. To her credit, Jewel never panders to kids, never creates something sickly sweet or cutesy, she merely delivers a collection of lullabies intended to relax and soothe. She succeeds so well in that regard that none of the individual songs stand out, they all blend together in a sweet, sometimes haughty sigh, something that will ease plenty of children into slumber.
Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Rovi
Ziggy Marley has switched directions for his third solo album, Family Time, but then again, not really. First off, it's a children's album, and a delightful one, and while he has always been an advocate for children's rights (he is the founder of U.R.G.E., a nonprofit organization that supports charitable children's causes in Jamaica, Ethiopia, and other parts of the world) and has contributed both his voice and songs to various children's programming, this is the first time Marley has done a full children's album. That said, the bright Jamaican rhythms and joyous vocals on display here aren't any different than what he has been doing all along, and children's songs or not, this is a wonderful roots release and is far from age-specific. Co-produced by Marley and Don Was, Family Time has a host of guest stars, including Rita Marley (Ziggy's mother), Cedella Marley (his sister), Judah Marley (his daughter), Paul Simon, Jack Johnson, Willie Nelson, Toots Hibbert (of Toots & the Maytals), Elizabeth Mitchell, Laurie Berkner, and Paula Fuga, and the album closes with two stories narrated by Jamie Lee Curtis, but even so, this is Marley's show, and his warm vocals make everything else possible. Highlights include the impressive "Cry, Cry, Cry," a fun re-imaging of "This Train," and an it-just-makes-you-smile version of the island traditional "Hold Him Joe," but all of the songs have a like sort of sunny charm. The two stories narrated by Curtis that close things kind of break the musical mood a bit, but that's a minor complaint for an album that is so much fun, so positive, and just so darn delightful.
Steve Leggett, Rovi
Dora the Explorer is a 44-song collection of songs from the Nick Jr. cartoon that features the plucky Dora and her sidekick, Boots the Monkey, along with her cousin Diego, her trusty map, and her magic backpack. The show is entertaining and educational, and the songs from the show mostly strike a pretty good balance between the two; at least they don't sacrifice melody in favor of preachiness. The songs range from about 30 seconds to two minutes, with most falling right around the expiration of toddlers' attention spans. They will want to hear their favorites like "Boot's Special Day," "Popping Bubbles," and "Run, Dora, Run" over and over. Parents will most likely curse the day they bought this disc, but hey, you knew what you were getting into when you had a kid, right?
With a track listing that's roughly half rock, country, and pop songs and half Randy Newman's score, the Cars soundtrack is probably the least inspired collection of music to support a Pixar film. However, that's only in comparison to the brilliant soundtracks to their other movies -- especially Finding Nemo and The Incredibles. Both the pop music and score for Cars fit the film perfectly, and neither is totally predictable. Indeed, the biggest surprise may be the soundtrack's opening salvo, Sheryl Crow's "Real Gone." With a stomping beat and driving (no pun intended) riff that echoes the Who's "I'm Free," this is the most fun her music has been in years. As good as she is at the thoughtful, mellow ballads that made up Wildflower, she's truly incandescent as a smart but happy-go-lucky rock chick. There's also a '50s undercurrent to the soundtrack, nodding to the fact that many of the characters in the film are cars designed during that decade, including a 1959 Impala and a 1959 Fiat 500. The Chords' "Sh-Boom" and Chuck Berry's "Route 66" add a sweetly nostalgic feel to the album (later on, John Mayer contributes a blandly slick version of "Route 66" that could appear on virtually any soundtrack). The soundtrack also ties in the film's NASCAR motif with country songs like Rascal Flatts' version of "Life Is a Highway," which sounds like a slightly twangier take on Tom Cochrane's smash hit, and Brad Paisley's "Behind the Clouds," a sweet, affable, traditional country song that is one of Cars' highlights. Newman's score, meanwhile, follows in the tradition of his Toy Story and A Bug's Life work, translating his witty musical style into orchestral pieces that are rooted in traditional film music but never sound stuffy. "Opening Race" alternates between brass fanfares and revved-up guitar riffs, while the thrilling strings on "McQueen's Lost" and "Dirt Is Different" suggest curving roads and wide-open landscapes. And as always, the whimsical love theme "McQueen and Sally" and self-explanatory "Goodbye" show that Newman is still capable of being sentimental without being schmaltzy. Even though a soundtrack that consisted entirely of Newman's pieces and songs would be more in keeping with Pixar tradition, Cars does a good job of balancing its pop and score elements.
Heather Phares, Rovi
The soundtrack from Nick Jr.'s hit musical series is a wholesome good time featuring the kiddie-pop favorites that have an entire generation singing along. The cheerful energy is contagious, from the Fresh Beat theme song to "Here We Go," "Bananas," "A Friend Like You," "Just Like a Rock Star" and "Great Day." All the songs are uplifting and offer straightforward advice relevant at any age, as in "Friends Give Friends a Hand": "When you fall and skin your knees/ when your hair's wild or your legs crazy/ don't worry you will see/ that friends give friends a hand."
– Laura Checkoway, Google Play