No matter the genre, lots of songwriters have daddy issues. Whether the perspective is a father’s or a son or daughter’s, songs about fatherhood are often incredibly personal, many clearly containing autobiographical details that feel like real-life conversations. The 23 songs on this playlist run the gamut in terms of tone and style. But fathers figure into all of them.
“Watch Me” (Anohni)
It’s hard to decide exactly which song from Hopelessness — the fiercely political debut album by Anohni, the singer formerly of Antony and the Johnsons — is the most daddy issue of them all. On “Obama,” she wails the name of the country’s Daddy in Chief, taking him to task for “executing without trial” and “punishing the whistleblowers.” On “Crisis” she asks: “If I killed your father / With a drone bomb / How would you feel?” But it’s on “Watch Me” that “daddy” features most prominently, with Anohni calling out to him in between the eerie chorus, “I know you love me / ’Cause you’re always watching me.” In this track, daddy is the surveillance state, protecting its babies by observing their every move. Taken as a whole “Hopelessness” is a tour de force through the daddy issues of a disaffected progressive in 2016, where daddy is the patriarchy itself.
“Glory” (Jay Z)
On 2011’s Watch the Throne, his collaboration with Kanye West, Jay gave us a glimpse into his mindset about the possibility of becoming a dad. In “New Day,” he worried about what life might be like for his unborn child: “Sorry, junior, I already ruined ya / Cuz you ain’t even alive, paparazzi pursuin’ ya / Sins of a father make your life 10 times harder / I just wanna take you to a barber.” But when his first child, Blue Ivy, was born, all he could feel was happiness. On the elated “Glory,” which came out shortly after his daughter’s arrival in January 2012, Jigga is a proud papa; he also wonders, however, if he can end the cycle of broken families that affected him as a kid. “Your grand-pop died of liquor failure / Then he died of liver failure,” he admits. “Deep down, he was a good man / God damn I can’t deliver failure.”
“Daddy’s Song” (Harry Nilsson)
Nilsson was a wizard at finding the sweet spot between the saccharine and the sardonic. On “Daddy’s Song,” the deceptively catchy surface contrasts with the trauma of a broken home. In the first verse, the narrator is remembering his father as an amazing man. In the second, a different narrator (possibly the first narrator’s father?) tells a story that’s far less rosy, about a son scarred by a dad who left him: “He just couldn’t understand / that his father was not a man / and it all was just a game.” In the final verse, yet another narrator hopes not to inflict the same pain on his son. Are all these narrators the same person or different individuals? It’s unclear, but that’s Nilsson’s point: When a divorce destroys a family, it also shatters everyone and everything in its path.
“Dance With My Father” (Luther Vandross)
Vandross made his name with sappy, middle-of-the-road R&B ballads. But the quiet-storm hit “Dance With My Father” demonstrated his knack for nailing the universal truth behind a clichéd sentiment. The song has a simple premise — a son pleads to God that he and his mother could spend just a little more time with his deceased father — but Vandross sells the emotion with a voice so buttery that you can’t help but give in to its tear-jerking purity.
“Cat’s in the Cradle” (Harry Chapin)
One of the most divisive father-and-son songs ever recorded, “Cat’s in the Cradle” is (depending on your perspective) either a crushingly bittersweet account of a failed generational connection or a horribly mawkish guilt trip about a dad who was too busy working to appreciate his kid. The right answer is that the song is both things, with Chapin zeroing in on a universal worry: that the amount of time we spend trying to pursue a career or support our families is actually cutting into the precious days we have with the people we really love.
Prince sang about sex from a thousand different angles, but on his first album he examined the unexpected consequences of too much bump-n-grind. On the ballad “Baby,” the narrator finds out his girlfriend is pregnant, but he pledges to make it work no matter what, even though they “barely have enough money for two.” Working his falsetto to evoke endless devotion and vulnerability, Prince declares to his beloved, “I hope our baby has eyes just like yours.” Even when he’s thinking about settling down and starting a family, the man had a way with smooth talk.
“Jesus Hates Faggots” (John Grant)
Growing up gay in a rigidly religious and homophobic family created plenty of problems for Grant. This electronic-pop track from his 2010 solo album Queen of Denmark details the artist’s anguish and anger, remembering his dad’s bigoted words of wisdom: “Jesus, he hates faggots, son / We told you that when you were young.” Unlike a lot of songs on this playlist, “Jesus Hates Faggots” is no fond salute to a father. Instead, it feels therapeutic, Grant trying to resist the urge to kick the crap out of his old man for his regressive views.
“It just came from his heart — it was out of love,” explained Destiny Jones the first time she heard her dad, rapper Nas, perform his song “Daughters,” a ballad about wanting to be a good father. On the 2012 track, Nas talks about what it’s like to be a celebrity raising a teenager as a single father in the age of Instagram and Twitter. He’s pretty sure she won’t post any naked pictures of herself on social media, but he definitely wasn’t expecting Destiny to publish a photo of his condom supply for everyone to see.
“Father and Son” (Cat Stevens)
Few things are more difficult than truly understanding another person’s perspective. This Stevens folk ballad captures that dynamic poignantly, the songwriter voicing two characters: a father who’s angry at his restless son and a son who’s frustrated that his dad won’t let him live his own life. Never favoring one character over another, “Father and Son” movingly illustrates how all of us have our reasons for doing what we do, even if those closest to us will never totally appreciate them.
“Sugar Daddy” (Hedwig and the Angry Inch)
A feast of come-ons, “Sugar Daddy” isn’t about fathers-and-sons but two lovers dying to fuck. Over a jaunty Dolly-Parton-by-way-of-the-strip-club groove, the East German Hedwig imagines what life will be like with Luther, the American soldier promising to get Hedwig the hell out of East Berlin. The lust (and lust for freedom) mixes with Western capitalism as Versace jeans, French cigarettes and cheap whiskey become not just the trappings of a better life, but the lubricant for love sweet love.
“Sail to the Moon” (Radiohead)
Written for his newborn son, “Sail to the Moon” catches Radiohead frontman Thom Yorke in a delicate but edgy mood. Over pianos, this lullaby is filled with anxiety, the singer noting, “Maybe you’ll be president / but know right from wrong / or in the flood / you’ll build an ark / and sail us to the moon.” In other words, “Sail to the Moon” is very Radiohead-y, looking at the promise of becoming a father through the dark perspective of a potentially cataclysmic world event.
“Biological Didn’t Bother” (Shaquille O’Neal)
Shaq’s biological dad Toney wasn’t part of the picture when he was growing up, having left the family when the NBA all-star was only six months old. (“He was upset and told me to stay away,” Toney told the Los Angeles Times in 2002 about his later attempts to reconnect with his son.) In response, Shaq wrote this tribute to the stepdad who raised him. Sure, O’Neal was never much of a rapper, but his straightforward flow is plenty effective in articulating the athlete’s lingering anger at his negligent birth father. “You brought me into the world, but you’re not my dad,” Shaq declares. “Mess around with those drugs, makes my moms mad.”
“(You’re) Having My Baby” (Paul Anka)
Anka wanted to write a song about the happiness a man feels when he learns that his significant other is pregnant. And so out came “(You’re) Having My Baby,” a treacly, kinda gross ballad that contains such lines as “The need inside you / I see it showin’ / Whoa, the seed inside ya, baby / Do you feel it growin’?” Anka didn’t mean for his massive hit to sound ludicrously sexist and possessive (or so we think), but as a result, “(You’re) Having My Baby” is an uncomfortably perfect mid-1970s time capsule of the Me Generation at its most un-self-aware.
“Beautiful Boy” (John Lennon)
With the birth of his second son Sean, Lennon seemed to embrace the joys of fatherhood, practically retiring from public life for a few years to be a devoted house-husband and doting dad. The fragile ballad “Beautiful Boy” appeared on his 1980 comeback Double Fantasy, and it contains one of Lennon’s truest lines: “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.”
“Forever Young” (Bob Dylan & the Band)
In the early 1970s, Dylan stepped away from the limelight and voice-of-a-generation pressures to start a family. Not surprisingly, domesticity inspired the rock era’s finest writer. “Forever Young” articulates the hopes of every parent: that your child will be able to rise to every occasion, overcome every obstacle and remain eternally optimistic about the future. Written for his son Jakob, who would go on to front the Wallflowers, “Forever Young” sometimes get slagged for its sentimentality but, c’mon, what new dad doesn’t sound a little corny when he’s gushing over his baby boy?
“Sometimes You Can’t Make It on Your Own” (U2)
An ode to Bono’s father, who was dying at the time, “Sometimes You Can’t Make It on Your Own” tackles grieving from several angles. On one hand, the song touches on the strange sensation of looking in the mirror and seeing your father’s face staring back at you. But on the other, it’s about grappling with a dad who’s too tough to admit how scared he is about mortality. Not to mention a dad with whom you never saw eye-to-eye: “We fight all the time / You and I / That’s all right / We’re the same soul / I don’t need, I don’t need to hear you say / That if we weren’t so alike / You’d like me a whole lot more.”
“Montauk” (Rufus Wainwright)
The Wainwrights have aired family business in public via song for decades, and most of the offerings are fairly vicious, such as Rufus’ “Dinner at Eight” and sister Martha’s “Bloody Motherfucking Asshole” (both about father Loudon). This track is far gentler, with Rufus considering the various states in which his newborn daughter will find him and his husband when visiting the family home in Montauk. Candidly outlining the behavioral foibles he knows will be on display — “One day you will come to Montauk / And see your dad trying to be evil / And see your other dad feeling lonely” — Rufus just hopes she’ll want to stay.
“A Father and a Son” (Loudon Wainwright III)
It’s only fair to give equal time to Loudon, who’s been brutally honest about his failings as a father. This 1992 folk ditty, sung to Rufus when he was still a teenager, is Loudon’s attempt to explain why he’s such a screwup. “When I was your age / I was just like you / And just look at me now / I’m sure you do” is how the song begins, Loudon then saying, “But your grandfather was just as bad / And you should have heard him trash his dad.” “A Father and a Son” is all about acknowledging that fathers don’t have all the answers — the most they can do is try not to screw up their kids as bad as their dad screwed them up. And there’s a lot of compassion about the bonds that bind dads and their sons: “This thing between a father and a son / Maybe it’s power and push and shove / Maybe it’s hate but probably it’s love.”
“My Father’s House” (Bruce Springsteen)
Sometimes, fathers and sons don’t reconcile, the pain of that unresolved feud haunting both men. That sentiment has rarely been expressed so achingly as in this Nebraska track, in which the narrator dreams of returning to his father’s home, waking up after being embraced by his old man. It’s a powerful image — even more so because, as we’ll soon learn, his dad no longer lives in that house, and his whereabouts are unknown. “My father’s house shines hard and bright,” Springsteen sings over a hushed acoustic guitar. “It stands like a beacon calling me in the night.”
“St. Judy’s Comet” (Paul Simon)
Simon has written a few songs about his kids — including 2002’s “Father and Daughter,” which was nominated for an Oscar — but the best is this 1973 lullaby to his “little sleepy boy” who’s trying to stay awake even though it’s time for bed. Simon laments, “If I can’t sing my boy to sleep / Well, it makes your famous daddy look so dumb.” Maybe a Garfunkel song would have worked better?
“Isn’t She Lovely” (Stevie Wonder)
Plenty of people mistakenly think this Wonder smash is a declaration of love to a wife or girlfriend. But if you pay attention to the lyrics, it’s clear that “Isn’t She Lovely” captures a new father’s joy about his daughter who’s “less than a minute old.” If you pay close attention, you can hear his little girl gurgling in the background. (It’s why she’s credited with “background vocals” on the track.)
“Your Most Valuable Possession” (Ben Folds Five)
For a different take on how to incorporate a family member into a song, check out this instrumental track from Ben Folds Five’s 1999 disc The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner. On “Your Most Valuable Possession,” Folds creates a jazzy musical bed as a backdrop for a voicemail he got from his dad. It’s an incoherent message about muscle mass, astronaut John Glenn and a person’s “most valuable possession, your mind.”
“Daddy Cool” (Boney M)
To leave you with some happy thoughts about dad — it is Father’s Day after all — enjoy this 1970s bubblegum disco track spearheaded by Frank Farian, the puppetmaster behind Milli Vanilli. The lyrics aren’t very deep — it’s about a crazy lady who _really_ loves her “Daddy Cool” — but that funky beat, sexually explicit background moans and catchy chorus are like a perfect time capsule of Studio 54 cocaine excess.