20 Great Songs About Bad Dads (2023)

Photo courtesy of Justina Mintz & AMC

It's Father's Day, and for a lot of people that means throwing back a few cold ones with the old man or giving a quick call home to say "I love you." But the world's more complicated than that; people are complex and flawed, human. Not everyone has a great or even functional relationship with both parents, and for many, Father's Day is a day not of love and appreciation but of loss, of longing, of reflection. Here are some songs to get those people through the day.


Neil Young - "Old Man"

You think it's the longing for "someone to love me the whole day through" that makes Neil Young's classic Harvest single "Old Man" a tearjerker but consider the titular old man. Neil's father, famed Canadian sports writer Scott Young, divorced his mother in the early 60s after falling for another woman while away on a job, eventually settling down on a farm in the late 60s as Neil's music career began to take off. Is Neil a lot like his dad because he'd just bought a farm too or because his job kept him from settling in one place for long?

Harry Nilsson - "Daddy's Song"

"Daddy's Song" is Harry Nilsson at his best, flipping adversity into art and stashing grievous anger inside of an arrangement so peppy you could miss the real story for all the literal bells and whistles. Many would do exactly that after he sold the song to the Monkees, and they turned it into a manic dance routine for their druggy cult classic film Head. (Nilsson's dad skipped out by the time he turned three, as we're told in "1941," but Davy Jones' never did.)

Everclear - "Father of Mine"

Everclear's "Father of Mine" was the arch absentee father angst anthem of its time, but it hasn't aged well. Lead singer Art Alexakis complains about being a "scared white boy in a black neighborhood," but in 2015 his family would've been excited to raise a kid in a community where he could soak up some diversity while they saved money on rent. (Wanna feel old? Here's what the kid from the video looks like nowadays.)


Nas - "Poppa Was a Playa"

Nas' father gets caught in the middle of a coke-fueled romp with another woman on I Am-era non-album cut "Poppa Was a Playa" and offers to buy the kids nice shit as long as they don't tell their mother. It's dark and heavy and irresonsible, but Nas gives him credit for sticking around through his children's adolescence when a lesser man might've skated. Fun fact: "Poppa Was a Playa" was produced by a young, then-unknown Kanye West.

Frank Turner - "Father's Day"

Folk-punk troubadour Frank Turner shaves his head into a mohawk as a teen quietly awaits his dad's disapproval. Thing is, the dad's the one deserving of scorn because Frank knows he's been cheating. It's a clever flip of the old "Wait til your father gets home" concept.

Tyler, the Creator - "Answer"

Tyler, the Creator's resentment for the father that abandoned his family is well documented, but on Wolf's "Answer," he's willing to set it all aside to just reopen the lines of communication. You begin to wonder whether cuts like "Bastard" aren't just longing disguised as anger.

Earl Sweatshirt - "Chum"

Tyler's sometime Odd Future compatriot Earl Sweatshirt has been candid in recent years about issues he has with his father as well. On "Chum," Sweatshirt is uncommonly frank about his strained relationship with his dad, South African poet Keorapetse Kgositsile, fessing up for hiding a hurt heart beneath wily antics and violent, reactionary raps.


Johnny Cash - "A Boy Name Sue"

"A Boy Named Sue" is wild because the kid doesn't so much seem annoyed his father walked out on him so much as peeved at the name he was left with but also because when the kid finally tracks the sonofabitch down he falls for the father telling him the name was a way of being sure the kid would grow up tough.

Jane's Addiction - "Had a Dad"

Like the kid in "A Boy Named Sue," Jane's Addiction singer Perry Farrell decides to get revenge on a deadbeat dad by whooping his ass on Nothing's Shocking's "Had a Dad."

Beanie Sigel (feat. Jay Z & Rell) - "Still Got Love for You"

Jay Z and Beanie Sigel made a couple of stunning songs touching on fathers who unceremoniously left the family on Jay's sorta-but-not-really label compilation The Dynasty: Roc La Familia with "This Can't Be Life" and "Where Have You Been," but the label keeps pulling them off Youtube, so while you track those down, enjoy this song off Beans' album The Reason where the two of them refuse to apologize for the shit they said on Jay's.

Ben Folds Five - "Brick"

"Brick" isn't here so much because it's about a bad dad, since it's a first person account of one of two unprepared parents-to-be deciding it's in everyone's best interests to get an abortion. People make mistakes, and they pick up the pieces and move on. The problems come to a head on the hook: "She's a brick, and I'm drowning slowly." "Brick" is really just a selfish dude talking a girl into a choice that works best for him, not the both of them. (Fret not: Ben makes up for it a few years later with the wistful, lived-in "Still Fighting It.")


Martha Wainwright - "Bloody Mother Fucking Asshole"

Martha Wainwright comes from a musical family: her mother was Kate of 70s folk duo Kate and Anna McGarrigle, and her father was Loudon Wainwright III. "For most of my childhood, Loudon talked to me in song," Martha once told The Guardian, so when Martha began recording her 2005 debut album, she decided to send daddy a message right back. Just imagine the next Christmas.

Rufus Wainwright - "Dinner at Eight"

Martha wasn't the only Wainwright kid with a bone to pick with Loudon. (Sample lyric: "No matter how strong, I'm gonna take you down/ With one little stone, I'm gonna break you down.")

Kelly Clarskon - "Because of You"

The OG American Idol lets her dad have it for all the hangups he left her with after her parents' divorce and rubs her newfound inner strength in his face.

Carrie Underwood - "Blown Away"

Storms are times of reckoning in country music (see: "White Lightning," "The Thunder Rolls," "Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain"). On "Blown Away," Carrie Underwood is so mad at her shithead alcoholic dad that a thunderstorm hits, and she prays for the whole house to come apart. And it happens!

Ryan Adams - "Shadowlands"

Carrie prays for wind and thunder on "Blown Away," but Ryan Adams asks for an entire flood on Love Is Hell's "Shadowlands" in hopes it'll free a girl stuck there living with a methhead dad and a mom who puts up with him. The waterworks that come aren't the ones Adams expected.


Death Cab for Cutie - "Styrofoam Plates"

"There’s a saltwater film on the jar of your ashes/ I threw them to sea but a gust blew them backwards/ And the sting in my eyes that you then inflicted/ Was par for the course just as when you were living." And that's just the first four lines.

Thrice - "Daedalus"

Daedalus is a good dad in theory but a terrible one in practice. He's a genius inventor whose creations find him favor in with Minos, king of Crete, until Daedalus betrays him, and the king lcks him and his kid Icarus up in the famed labyrinth where Theseus kills Minos' personal killing machine, the minotaur. Daedalus plans his escape, but knowing most would expect him to make his escape by land and sea, he crafts makeshift wings for himself and Icarus, and they take to the skies. Daedalus neglects to tell the boy to stay low to keep the wings' wax from melting, and the boy crashes into the sea and drowns. Bad dad.

Bruce Springsteen - "Adam Raised a Cain"

The Boss is not one to mince words: "Daddy worked his whole life for nothing but the pain/ Now he walks these empty rooms looking for something to blame/ You inherit the sins, you inherit the flames/ Adam raised a Cain."

Harry Chapin - "Cats in the Cradle"

We'd be slacking to make it through a list like this without mentioning singer-songwriter Harry Chapin's quietly devastating "Cats in the Cradle." There's not a deadbeat or a cheater or a thief or a druggie or anything like that in the story. Just a dad who can't find time to spend with his boy finding out he fucked up when the boy doesn't feel a real connection to him later in life. The little slights sting too, you see.

Craig Jenkins is honestly running out of dads. Follow him on Twitter.

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