1. Harry Chapin, “Cat’s In The Cradle” (1974)
Probably the quintessential song about a shitty dad, Harry Chapin’s “Cat’s In The Cradle” is actually sung from the bad dad’s point of view. Packed with vague promises and excuses, the song’s first two verses find the dad constantly avoiding spending time with his kid only to have that come around to bite him on the ass in the second half of the song, when his kid is all grown up and just not interested in spending time with his ol’ deadbeat pop. As the narrator sadly notes, his “boy [became] just like me,” suggesting that, hey, there might be consequences to years spent consciously avoiding your own child.
2. Death Cab For Cutie, “Styrofoam Plates” (2001)
The narrator of “Styrofoam Plates,” from Death Cab For Cutie’s excellent The Photo Album, is at his father’s funeral, and he’s pretty solidly stuck in the “anger” stage of grief—and unlikely to move past it anytime soon. The deadbeat dad was also a drunk who spent the family’s money on booze (“We’d never see the money / That went down your throat / Through the hole in your belly”), forcing them to eat Thanksgiving dinner at a charity—thus the titular plates. It’s a stinging indictment made all the more so because there’s no thawing at any point; the song ends, “He was a bastard in life, thus a bastard in death.” Gibbard has noted that the song isn’t about his own dad, but a friend’s.
3. The Temptations, “Papa Was A Rollin’ Stone” (1971)
Originally recorded by second-tier Motown act The Undisputed Truth, “Papa Was A Rollin’ Stone” is the pinnacle of The Temptations’ dalliance with psychedelia, with 12 minutes of wah-wah guitar, spaced-out orchestral arrangements, and an inquiry about one of pop music’s sleaziest absentee fathers. Singing of the titular father posthumously, the All Directions-era Temptations trade questions about a guy who’d be a fascinating character if he wasn’t such a total shit: a drifting “jack-of-all-trades,” rumored to pass himself off as a preacher—when he wasn’t boozing, womanizing, and playing dad to a completely different family. The track’s instrumental excess was a source of tension between the group and songwriter/producer Norman Whitfield, but its sparse, searching tone works in perfect concert with The Temptations’ harmonies and Barrett Strong’s lyrics. The man who gave Motown its first hit with “Money (That’s What I Want)” put a similar sense of yearning into the chorus of “Papa Was A Rollin’ Stone,” which ends on one of Strong’s most indelible couplets: “And when he died / All he left us was alone.”
4. The Beach Boys, “I’m Bugged At My Ol’ Man” (1965)
When the Beach Boys released Summer Days (And Summer Nights!!) in 1965, the band was still so straitlaced that the singer of “I’m Bugged At My Ol’ Man” was too shy to put his name to the song. But the song was written by Brian Wilson, supposedly as a dig as his father Murry Wilson, who had been fired as the group’s manager the previous year. The litany of complaints are typical teenage stuff—“I came in a little late / And my old man he just blew his mind.” As a result, the singer is stuck in his room, with boards on the window and bread and water on the menu. “Why did he sell my surfboard? / He cut off my hair in my sleep.” The song ends on what, in 1965, may have been the most damning accusation of all: “I’m bugged at my ol’ man / And he doesn’t even know where it’s at.”
5. Marceline The Vampire Queen, “The Fry Song” (2010)
Like Buffy before it, Adventure Time uses its oft-surreal world of monsters and sentient candy as an extended metaphor for teenage emotions and problems. And for nearly every character on the show, those emotions only come to the forefront in song. Perpetually teenaged vampire Marceline starts singing about a very minor slight: “Daddy, why did you eat my fries? / I bought them, and they were mine.” But a few pilfered fries are just an excuse to get into much deeper issues. Cartoon or not, are there lyrics more plaintive than, “Daddy, do you even love me? / Well I wish you’d show it / ’Cause I wouldn’t know it”? Being Adventure Time, Daddy turns out to be an immortal demon intent on sucking the souls out of Marceline’s friends and neighbors, but he does, in the end, try to make his wounded little girl feel better.
6. Madonna, “Oh Father” (1989)
Madonna’s most famous song about fraught father-daughter relations is “Papa Don’t Preach”—but her more harrowing song about that general topic is “Oh Father.” The 1989 track is a subtle, muted ballad, and it dwells with bitterness on memories of her childhood: “You can’t hurt me now / I got away from you,” she sings, addressing her father as the title more than implies. Then she adds, “Maybe someday, when I look back / I’ll be able to say / You didn’t mean to be cruel.” The specifics of that cruelty are left vague, but there’s nothing ambiguous about the song’s poignant rumination on the pain a father can inflict.
7. Jane’s Addiction, “Had A Dad” (1988)
Perry Farrell is listed as the lyricist of the 1988 Jane’s Addiction song “Had A Dad.” The premise, however, comes from bassist Eric Avery—although Farrell effectively turned Avery’s unhappy paternal relations into something that sounds more defiant than self-pitying. “Had a dad / Big and strong / Turned around / Found my daddy gone,” spits Farrell as the band riffs and rages behind him. Then things turn darker as hints of domestic violence creep into the story, leading to the implication that a cycle of abuse has been passed along from Avery’s father to him and his brothers. In this case, having an absentee dad is as much of a blessing as a curse.
8. Sufjan Stevens, “That Was The Worst Christmas Ever!” (2006)
Sometimes even holiday cheer isn’t enough to stop paternal shittiness. Part of Sufjan Stevens’ Songs For Christmas album, “That Was The Worst Christmas Ever!” describes how two young siblings’ Christmas is destroyed by their angry father. After yelling at his kids, the unnamed dad burns their toys in the family’s wood stove. Berating your children during the holidays is already a jerk move, but destroying their Christmas presents in front of them makes this Dad a front-runner for douchebag of the year.
9-10. The Mountain Goats, “Hast Thou Considered The Tetrapod” and “This Year” (2005)
The Mountain Goats’ John Darnielle doesn’t write too much autobiographical music, but it hits pretty hard when he does. 2005’s The Sunset Tree dedicates almost every song to Darnielle’s childhood and his abusive stepfather, with tracks like “Hast Thou Considered The Tetrapod” making the situation sound pretty bleak. That song describes the stepfather’s violent rage and Darnielle’s hope that his beloved stereo doesn’t get destroyed. “It’s the one thing that I couldn’t live without,” Darnielle sings, suggesting that music is the only thing keeping him alive. The theme of The Sunset Tree is hope, though, and that comes through in “This Year,” which focuses on Darnielle looking forward to finally being able to move out of the house. It’s surprisingly upbeat for a song that features the chorus “I am going to make it through this year if it kills me,” but that’s just how desperate he is to get away. Darnielle’s stepfather died a year before The Sunset Tree was released, but he actually gave the man a respectful farewell in the album’s liner notes, writing “may the peace which eluded you in life be yours now.” So it seems like Darnielle turned out okay, at least.
11. Everclear, “Father Of Mine” (1997)
There’s nothing subtle about Everclear’s “Father Of Mine,” the group’s first and biggest hit that’s still an unavoidable staple on alt-rock stations. Lead singer Art Alexakis wrote the song about his own father, who walked out on his family when Alexakis was young, as the song makes perfectly and painfully clear. Everclear’s song is ostensibly about a deadbeat dad, but as the lyrics recount every bad memory and lost opportunity, it becomes a song about the singer instead. “I will never be safe / I will never be sane,” Alexakis sings in the bridge. Weirdly, it’s not a dirge—the song is kind of upbeat, and even the music video is brightly colored and cheerful. The song is raw, but not obviously so—it’s possible to casually listen without knowing it’s about a guy who has a really messed-up relationship with his wife-beating dad. At the risk of getting mushy, it’s kind of about overcoming pain, as much as it is about experiencing it. And in its ubiquity, it’s quite possibly the definitive number on the tortured relationship a kid has with his messed-up, abusive, neglectful father.
12. Genesis, “No Son Of Mine” (1991)
Most songs about bad dads focus on the abuse, physical or otherwise; if there’s any confrontation between the abuser and the abused, it’s usually triumphant or violent. “No Son Of Mine” takes the knife and twists it. After spending his childhood being beaten (or watching his mother get beaten, or both; the song is ambiguous on this point), the unnamed narrator runs away from home, desperate to escape. As time goes by, he realizes he needs to go back to his parents, if only to confront them about what happened. Instead of expressing any guilt or shame over his behavior, the narrator’s father sits him down and tells him, well, it’s right there in the title. The beatings were bad enough, but the song’s chorus suggests that the rejection might have had a greater impact.
13. Andrew Jackson Jihad, “Who Are You?” (2009)
From its outset, Phoenix’s Andrew Jackson Jihad struck a masterful balance, touting an ability make listeners crack a smile as the band delved into the darkest parts of the human condition. On its third full-length, Can’t Maintain, AJJ vocalist Sean Bonnette took his absent father to task on “Who Are You?,” coating his complex emotions in witty one-liners. Bonnette’s link to his father goes beyond a passing resemblance highlighting his dad’s skills as a drummer and trumpet player, noting that, “Music was the one thing / We would have had in common.” After a bit of pondering what made his dad reach out to him after a 16-year absence, Bonnette closes with an unexpected thanks to his deadbeat dad that can’t help but feel uplifting: “Thank you so much for not raising me / You spent your life on better things / And you would have been an awful dad / Thank you, though, for those genes you had.”
14. Frank Turner, “Father’s Day” (2006)
Before he started selling out Wembley Arena, Frank Turner used his debut album Sleep Is For The Week as a means to bridge the gap between his hardcore past and his greater ambitions. In many ways the album sets the stage for his later forays into punk-inspired arena rock, but on “Father’s Day” he avoided boisterous sing-alongs for an introspective analysis of his own father-son relationship. It’s a song that displays his father’s distaste for Turner’s interest in punk rock, demonstrated by his dad giving him a stern talking-to after Turner gives himself a shoddy mohawk in his family home. Turner flips the traditional paternal line of “We’ve got a lot we need to talk about,” using it to address his dad’s broken promises, infidelity, and how it all left Turner without a clear picture of who his father was. That critical eye turns inward as Turner dissects the influence of his dad on his own life, going as far as admitting that, despite any and all efforts to stop it, “I am turning into you.”
15. The Lawrence Arms, “The Old Timer’s 2x4” (2000)
Where many songs highlight fathers that were either absent or overly domineering, The Lawrence Arms’ Brendan Kelly has the ability to cut it right down the middle. “The Old Timer’s 2x4” starts with a father whose presence fluctuates from being a supportive presence in Kelly’s youth to giving way to physical abuse and then a prolonged absence. Kelly continually makes use of the word “mistake” to highlight the general sentiment from father to son, and when Kelly’s dad misses his son’s graduation it proves an act just as scarring as his physical presence. Even the wistful call of “Here’s to you” at the song’s end can’t help but feel like a sendoff from son to father, and the fact that the album’s lyric sheet features an unsaid “Ya old bastard” only drives it home, showing that any ode from Kelly to his old man would be a bitter one.
16. Shaquille O’Neal, “Biological Didn’t Bother” (1994)
This list would be hopelessly incomplete without checking in on the preeminent songsmith of this or any other generation: four-time NBA champion and noted Kazaam genie Shaquille O’Neal. Before either towering achievements, however, O’Neal released his 1994 single “Biological Didn’t Bother” as part of his second album, Shaq Fu: Da Return. The heavily autobiographical song is dedicated to Shaq’s stepfather, Philip Arthur Harrison, who, Shaq explains, took care of him and his mother after his biological father abandoned them. While the song is primarily focused on all the good Harrison did for him, Shaq’s fury at his biological father is palpable, with every chorus of “Phil is my father / ’Cause my biological didn’t bother” pointing out that each fresh day after the abandonment is its own new misdeed. But we don’t need to get too abstract here, because Shaq is plenty clear about his biological father’s transgressions: As a new parent, he “messed around with those drugs” and left the family when Shaq was just a few months old. Worse, now that Shaq is an All-Star in the NBA, his father has only just resurfaced, asking for money from his rich and famous son. In the music video, Shaq rips up a check, just to make it clear how unlikely a handout will be.
17. Bill Danoff and Taffy Nivert, “Please, Daddy (Don’t Get Drunk This Christmas)” (1993)
Nothing says “Merry Christmas” quite like a ditty sung from the point of view of a 7-year-old whose father ruined the previous holiday season by succumbing to the siren song of sweet Mother Alcohol. The young narrator’s plea to his pops, which is accompanied by reminiscences about the year before (“You came home a quarter past 11 / And fell down underneath our Christmas tree”) and an expression of his desire to avoid seeing his mother’s tears for two consecutive December 25ths, was most famously delivered by John Denver and has since been covered by artists as disparate as Alan Jackson and The Decemberists. But “Please, Daddy (Don’t Get Drunk This Christmas)” was actually written by Bill Danoff and Taffy Nivert, the husband-and-wife duo who—in addition to co-writing Denver’s signature single, “Take Me Home, Country Roads”—may be better known in their stead as founding members of the Starland Vocal Band… and in case you’re wondering, yes, Danoff did write “Afternoon Delight.”
18. Lindsay Lohan, “Confessions Of A Broken Heart (Daughter To Father)” (2005)
Lindsay Lohan has lived her life in the public eye for so long that it’s hard to remember a time when we, the collective mass of humanity, didn’t know about her troubled family. Fortunately (or unfortunately), Lohan decided to expound on her tumultuous relationship with her addict father, Michael, on her 2005 album, A Little More Personal (Raw). In the song the actress notes that she grew up with “the weight of the world on [her] shoulders” waiting to hear from her father. She says she wore “all [his] old clothes, [his] polo sweater,” dreaming of “another you, one who would never, never leave me alone to pick up the pieces.” It’s certainly melodramatic, especially considering the public’s skepticism about Lohan in general, but it’s heartbreaking all the same. No wonder she’s got issues.
19. Austin Powers, “Daddy Wasn’t There” (2002)
Austin Powers In Goldmember wasn’t the best Austin Powers movie, to say the least, but it did have “Daddy Wasn’t There,” a catchy track performed by Ming Tea, a faux-band featuring Matthew Sweet and Susanna Hoffs. In the song, Powers maligns the absence of his father, the always-elusive Nigel Powers. The rhymes (fair, care, there, underwear, and so on) are fairly simplistic, but maybe it’s understandable that the younger Powers has emotional issues considering his dad was nowhere to be found when he was first baptized, criticized, ostracized, jazzercised, and circumcised.