It’s time to celebrate dads — all they mean to us and all they do. With thousands of songs out there that shout out the singer’s father or muse on the epic story that is fatherhood, it’s near-impossible to cull them down to 10 essentials.
For Father’s Day 2020, though, we’ve handpicked 10 songs that should liven up any celebration this summer. A few you might expect, and a few you almost certainly won’t. These 10 tracks celebrate the special relationships between fathers, sons and daughters. Some of them are just a good time, some of them celebrate the complicated in life and some of them will almost certainly make the tears flow.
Although we’re counting down in reverse order, the ranking is almost meaningless — except for one classic, which we think you’d be hard-pressed to argue against taking the No. 1 slot.
Here are 10 songs you should be playing this Father’s Day.
10. “Daughter” by Loudon Wainwright, III
Loudon Wainwright, III, is the patriarch of an impressive musical dynasty, with son Rufus and daughters Martha and Lucy Wainwright Roche all making their own names in a variety of genres. His straightforward, conversational take on singer-songwriter Peter Blegvad’s 1996 song “Daughter” was recorded for Judd Apatow‘s 2007 film Knocked Up.
The song simultaneously boasts that the singer has always been there when his daughter has needed him — and that it’s been nigh-impossible to beat her in an argument. It’s a sweet, funny and universal track that should strike a chord for most fathers.
“That’s my daughter in the water/Every time she fell I caught her,” Wainwright sings. “That’s my daughter in the water/ I lost every time I fought her.”
9. “Just The Two Of Us” by Will Smith
Movie megastar Will Smith recorded “Just the Two of Us” for his 1997 debut album “Big Willie Style” and included his 5-year-old son Trey on vocals. Smith had divorced Trey’s mom, Sheree Zampino, two years prior.
Trey warns Will at the outset that “this is a very sensitive subject.” Then, well-chosen samples and lyrics from Bill Withers and Grover Washington Jr.’s 1981 love song of the same name gel with Smith’s admittedly goofy and dated (at one point he mentions “101 Dalmations on your CD-ROM) rhymes in an easygoing anthem that’s hard to argue against on Father’s Day. It’s a ubiquitous track for many who grew up in the 90s, but it’s also genuinely sweet and infectious.
“Always tell the truth, say your prayers/Hold doors, pull out chairs, easy on the swears,” Smith raps. “You’re living proof that dreams come true/I love you and I’m here for you.”
8. “Down Down The Deep River” by Okkervil River
Okkervil River’s song conjures the pain and confusion of growing up through lyrics that circle the edges of an epic (and possibly terrifying) story of adolescent awakening. After breathlessly alluding to “very bad men” and a possible teen suicide, though, frontman Will Sheff even more clearly describes the abiding love of a dad in an uncertain world. And the song’s chugging rhythm and chiming synths hammer home that this isn’t a tragedy — it’s just life.
It’s hard not to be affected when Sheff evokes a father running to pick his son up from being knocked down and empathizing how the pain feels “when you’ve only just begun to be only just beginning.”
“I’ll be your fighter and you’ll be my mirror/And you’ll be all right, because I’ll be right here,” Sheff sings, then quoting a promise that powerfully underlines the song’s ecstatic embrace of uncertainty. “Oh kid, now I’m not going anywhere/I swear I’ll try to not be going anywhere.”
7. “Daddy Could Swear, I Declare” by Gladys Knight and the Pips
Atlanta R&B family group Gladys Knight and the Pips celebrate a dad who couldn’t seem to catch a break, was short in stature and didn’t mind letting the curse words fly when things went wrong. Their song, off 1973’s Neither One Of Us, is perhaps a tribute to Knight’s father, a postal worker.
“Daddy” endures the garbage man backing into a picket fence he had just built and leaves a lasting — and loving — impression on Knight, who says he was a “heck of a man” over an irresistible groove that landed on the Billboard Top 20. It’s a danceable, loving tribute to dads who may be a little rough around the edges, but never flag in their devotion to family.
“Daddy wasn’t no scholar, no/No, he didn’t have a PhD,” Knight sings. “But in my eyes and down in my heart/My daddy means the world to me.”
6. “Daughter” by Ulrik Munther
Twenty-six-year-old Swedish singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Ulrik Munther doesn’t have any children yet. He does, however, perfectly evoke the marriage of anxiety and hope that comes with a young relationship. Not only does he want it to last forever, he wants to leave a mark on the world with a daughter that carries with her all his partner’s incredible qualities.
Munther dreams of moving abroad and starting a farm, then concedes that New York City would do, while watching his partner sleep. Gentle, twinkling piano eventually is joined by horns and drums as Munther pledges his devotion and admits that he just might have something to teach his future daughter as well. It’s a sweet and evocative song that might hit dads and dads-to-be equally hard.
“Oh, how I hope that if we have a daughter/She’ll grow up to be like you,” Munther sings. “And if she sometimes takes after her father/That would be OK, too.”
5. “Sins of My Father” by Tom Waits
A bit darker and further off the beaten path, Tom Waits spins a 10-minute ballad with a son trying to rid himself of his father’s legacy. A straight narrative is hard to decipher, but it’s easy to be caught up in the brooding tale, with legendary guitarist Marc Ribot and bassist Larry Taylor constructing a murky and hypnotic noir atmosphere that evokes reggae and the blues, and never changes tempo.
Waits casually strews a trail of breadcrumbs featuring Biblical deep cuts and hard-won wisdom like, “The heart is heaven, but the mind is hell. He even weaves former President George W. Bush into this quest for redemption, which eventually seems to exonerate fathers — and instead implicate human nature itself in the cycle of sin and tragedy. It’s dark, but it grooves and offers a heady, mysterious Father’s Day thrill.
“The horse is steady but the horse is blind/Wicked are the branches on the tree of mankind,” Waits rasps. “The roots grow upward and the branches grow down/It’s much too late to throw the dice again, I’ve found.”
4. “Papa Don’t Take No Mess” by James Brown
The Godfather of Soul originally wrote this ode to dads with an attitude to soundtrack Larry Cohen’s 1973 blaxploitation film Hell Up In Harlem, but Cohen rejected the music, so “Papa Don’t Take No Mess” ended up on Brown’s 1974 double album Hell.
Truth be told, there’s not much more revealed about “papa” in the nearly 14-minute funk workout (the full-length version is available here), but Brown’s ever-ecstatic vocals pay tribute to a possible apocryphal father who had to “do whatever he can.” Although Brown rattles off cavalier references to gambling, drinking and a father who would “beat the hell out of us,” there’s a hint of genuine affection toward the end of the irresistible tune. A fine addition to any Father’s Day soundtrack.
“When he thought that I would die/He says something was in his eye,” Brown sings. “I knew it was a lie/Mama said, ‘Papa’s smart’/Papa got a whole lotta heart/And papa would do his part/When the game got hard.”
3. “Song for Leigh” by The Walkmen
Over the course of a decade, New York City rock band the Walkmen underwent quite a transformation from desperation, scuzz and anxiety to a serene sense of pride and satisfaction in family life on their final album “Heaven.”
“Song for Leigh” is frontman Hamilton Leithauser’s love song to his one-year-old daughter, in which he appears to dedicate his entire repertoire to the happiness she’s brought into his life. Leithauser tells his new guiding light, “I sing myself sick about you,” over a chiming, instantly memorable surf guitar sound. With a few simple lyrics, a song about being a new dad on tour becomes a love song that should resonate with fathers of any age.
“So it begins/Another blessed hymn,” Leithauser sings. “Walk around the world/Singing to my girl/Patience will keep you alight.”
2. “Song for Dad” by Keith Urban
Keith Urban‘s country ode to finally understanding his father is catchy as hell, and will probably wrench a tear or two from anyone loves their dad — or perhaps is just coming around to appreciate him.
From Urban’s 2002 album Golden Road, the song finds him noticing little bits of his dad in everything he does, from jingling his car keys to drumming his fingers on the table. Urban was raised in Australia by his parents, Marienne and Bob Urban. When Urban was six, his dad put a sign soliciting a guitar teacher in the window of his convenience store and Urban proved to have natural talent, according to his Allmusic biography.
Urban wrote the song before he was a dad, but its sentiments are both simple and profound, and it’s an even more poignant listen in the wake of his dad’s death in 2015. At his memorial service in Australia, attended by hundreds, Urban said he’d forged a “new spiritual relationship” with his father.
“The older I get, the more I can see/How much he loved my mother and brother and me,” Urban sings. “And he did the best that he could/And I only hope when I have my own family/That every day I see/A little more of my father in me.”
1. “Cats In The Cradle” by Harry Chapin
It’s unlikely that Harry Chapin’s 1974 classic will ever be dethroned as the ultimate song for fathers and sons. Despite its melancholy, the song has become ubiquitous in popular culture — Grand Theft Auto V players might even find themselves unexpectedly wiping an errant tear during a chase sequence when the track appears on the game world’s radio.
There’s little new to be said for the song at this point. Through a series of simple conversations between Chapin and his son at age 10, in college and as an adult, it captures the anxiety of fatherhood, as well as the joy of seeing a son grow up. According to Chapin’s wife, Sandy, she still gets letters about the song from parents who resolved to be there for their kids more, because of the song. Chapin was tragically killed at just 38 in a car crash in 1981, according to his New York Times obituary. His song will probably never cease to soundtrack Father’s Days around the world.
“And as I hung up the phone, it occurred to me/He’d grown up just like me,” Chapin sings. “My boy was just like me.”