Every May, there’s no shortage of mawkishly sentimental songs to play on Mother’s Day, but a month later, there are comparatively few Father’s Day equivalents. Sure, there are some treacly tracks like Bob Carlisle’s 1997 adult-contempo hit “Butterfly Kisses,” but fatherhood is more often than not invoked in pop music as a discomfiting sexual metaphor (see “Big Poppa,” “Father Figure,” and the countless songs that feature the phrase “who’s your daddy?”).
The best and most enduring songs about fatherhood tend to explore darker and more complex themes, or depict imperfect or absent dads, rather than provide sunny theme songs: “Cat’s In The Cradle,” “Papa Was A Rollin’ Stone,” even Everclear’s “Father of Mine.” This Sunday will be the third Father’s Day I’ve celebrated since becoming one myself; I have a good relationship with my father and am deeply devoted to my son. But I’d rather listen to the songs on this Spotify playlist, and others that explore the complexities and unpredictable gray areas in the bond (or lack thereof) between a man and his son or daughter, than hear goddamn “Butterfly Kisses” again.
1. Pulp, “A Little Soul”
For years, I heard this single from 1998’s This Is Hardcore as Jarvis Cocker inhabiting another dodgy character in one of his songs, an unreliable narrator who’s self-aware enough to warn his son that he can’t be relied on, imploring “You look like me, but please don’t turn out like me.” It was only recently that I learned that the Pulp frontman reunited with his own estranged father, who’d run off to Australia while Cocker was a child, the same year the song was released.
2. Mike Watt, “Piss-Bottle Man”
Watt’s father is pictured on the cover of his 1997 “punk rock opera” Contemplating The Engine Room, and much of the album’s narrative centers on parallels between the Minutemen bassist’s touring adventures in the back of a van and his dad’s years of service in a Navy submarine. But perhaps Watt’s most perversely memorable tribute to his father is on his first solo album, 1995’s Ball-Hog or Tugboat? “Piss-Bottle Man” is a musical homage to The Who’s “Pictures of Lily” and a lyrical homage to the elder Watt’s tradition of keeping a receptacle in his truck on long drives to avoid pit stops: “Drivin’ in his shoes, usin’ the bottle he used/ Every time I pop I think of my pop and pay my dues.” Even more hilariously, Watt drafted alt-rock heartthrob Evan Dando to sing this celebration of urination and used a major-label budget to shoot a video for it.
3. Jay-Z and Kanye West, “New Day”
The sadly low number of dedicated fathers in the African-American community is reflected in the especially dark catalog of hip-hop songs about dads. Shawn Carter himself has contributed to that tradition with 2003’s “Moment of Clarity,” confessing “pop died, didn’t cry, didn’t know him that well.” And on the 2000 Amil collaboration “For Da Fam,” he obliquely referenced a possible love child or pregnancy scare that otherwise never became public knowledge. But on last year’s Watch The Throne, amidst soon-to-be-confirmed rumors that wife Beyoncé Knowles was expecting, Jay and Kanye each wrote a verse addressed to possible future sons. And Jay’s rhymes on “New Day” remain more conflicted, thoughtful and touching than anything on “Glory,” the cheeseball track he dropped the week that Blue Ivy Carter was born.
4. Teairra Mari, “No Daddy”
In the summer of 2005, Jay-Z took two young divas under his wing as president of Def Jam, and helped both score breakthrough hits and release debut albums. Rihanna’s “Pon De Replay” ended up being her first danceable uptempo hit, while Teairra Mari’s “Make Her Feel Good” wound up the sole success of a on- hit wonder. I can’t help but wonder whether history would’ve have told a different story if Mari hadn’t followed up her first single with “No Daddy,” an aggressive anthem for fatherless girls that didn’t quite have the breezy summer jam appeal of “Make Her Feel Good.”
5. Spymob, “National Holidays”
Spymob, best known for providing the rock band backing for hip hop producers The Neptunes’ genre-bending N.E.R.D. project, never got the attention they deserved for their own songs, and the 2004 Star Trak album Sitting Around Keeping Score came and went with little notice. But I’ve always regarded that album as an overlooked classic, and one of the biggest reasons is “National Holidays,” a first person narrative from the perspective of a divorced dad, voicing his frustration with an ex who got custody of the daughter they both want to raise: “You get to wake her up every day, and we divide up national holidays.” My dad wanted to raise me and my brother on a daily basis, but after the divorce, he only got to see us every other weekend. I tapped my toes to this song’s catchy tune dozens of times before I listened to the lyrics and realized what it was about, and it ripped my fucking heart out.
6. Nirvana, “Serve The Servants”
Kurt Cobain didn’t become the voice of a disaffected generation of kids from broken homes by spelling things out plainly. So some of the most direct lyrics to his parents’ divorce, and his strained relationship with his father (“I tried hard to have a father but instead I had a dad/ I just want you to know that I don’t hate you anymore”) pass by quickly in the middle of In Utero’s opening track, which is perhaps more famous for addressing Nirvana’s success and wife Courtney Love’s media pariah status.
7. Apollo Sunshine, “I Was On The Moon”
I don’t know exactly what’s going on in this Boston indie band’s 2003 debut single: whether “I was on the moon when you were born” is a metaphor or an actual narrative from the perspective of an astronaut or space traveler, or if the real truth is in the line “I think maybe I was in the room when you were born.” But there’s still something perfect and wistful about the song’s climax, as multitracked harmonies promise “I want you to see how beautiful you look to me, so I’ll be home soon.”
8. Rufus Wainwright, “Montauk”
Rufus Wainwright is the son of another singer-songwriter, and Loudon Wainwright III has written a number of songs about his children, including “Daughter” and, perhaps most memorably, “Rufus Is A Tit Man.” In 2011, Rufus became a dad himself, and his excellent new album Out Of The Game features a sweetly self-deprecating song written to his daughter: “One day you will come to Montauk and see your dad playing the piano/ And see your other dad wearing glasses/ Hope that you will want to stay for a while/ Don’t worry, I know you’ll have to go.”
9. Fabolous featuring Marsha Ambrosius, “Stay”
Fab is not the kind of rapper you expect to come up with a touching, heartfelt song about how he never had a good dad, but is determined to be one himself. And that’s exactly why this track from 2009’s Loso’s Way was so alarming and memorable to me: “He left me without saying what he was leaving for/ And that’s when I became a man, and that’s the day he stopped being one/ This year I became a father, and I’ma die being one.”
10. Sade, “Babyfather”
When the second single from Sade’s comeback album Soldier of Love was released two years ago, I saw multiple critics incorrectly cite the chorus lyric “Your daddy love come with a lifetime guarantee” as “Your daddy don’t come with a lifetime guarantee.” Perhaps we’re so used to hearing good songs about deadbeat dads or bad songs about loving dads that we almost can’t believe our ears when we hear a good song about a father’s love?