1. The Juliana Hatfield Three, “My Sister”
“My Sister” opens with typical teenage glibness—“I hate my sister, she’s such a bitch”—but immediately expresses the longing lurking beneath the pissy surface: “She acts like she doesn’t even know that I exist / But I would do anything to let her know I care.” Adolescent sibling relationships often run hot and cold, so it’s no surprise that Hatfield begins verse two with “I love my sister, she’s the best” before extolling all of her virtues. But Hatfield’s protagonist must admire from a distance, because her sister has “a wall around her nobody can climb.” Being so close yet so far away is a hallmark of sibling life—you can be inextricably tied to people without having much of a functional relationship with them. Strangely, even when they completely disappear from your life, you still miss them—as is the case by the end of Hatfield’s song.
2. Dessa, “Children’s Work”
Not all complicated sibling relationships are contentious—in the case of “Children’s Work,” MC Dessa and her little brother (who, tellingly, is “nearly twice my age”) are each other’s eye in the center of a familial storm. Speaking in the sort of coded metaphor that permeates the Minneapolis MC’s stellar debut, A Badly Broken Code, Dessa characterizes her parents as “a paper plane” and “a windswept tree” and alludes to divorce and a couple of violent episodes. Meanwhile, her brother (whom she calls “the prophet of 1989”) helps her quiet her inner turmoil, while she teaches him to read and makes him a library of tiny books. Both have since learned to cope and now have “a grown-up love,” but the song is mostly reflecting on barely healed adolescent wounds that give credence to the chorus, “Children aren’t as simple as we like to think.”
3. Arcade Fire, “Neighborhood #2 (Laika)”
Addressing “Alexander, our older brother,” “Neighborhood #2 (Laika)” is at times angry, energizing, and remorseful, capturing the awe and disappointment of younger siblings enduring a broken family dynamic. The lyrics tackle their older brother’s legacy, cheering for him as he sets out on “a great adventure,” even though that means writing the family off: “He tore our images out of his pictures / He scratched our names out of all his letters.” Referring to the Soviet mutt sent up in a rocket during the early days of the space race, the band yells in the chorus, “Our mother should have just named you Laika.” Like Laika, Alexander won’t be coming home: He’s sent away after provoking too many fights with his father (and embarrassing the family in front of smug neighbors). Calling the song “conflicted” hardly touches on the memories of complicated dysfunction at work; it hits the hysteria of youth, the anger of loss, and broken sibling bonds.
4. Rufus Wainwright, “Martha”
The interfamilial relationships of the Wainwrights/McGarrigles have been well documented through a series of songs from pretty much every musical member of the troupe, but particularly Rufus and Martha Wainwright. For the past five years, Martha has sought to do her own thing, but Rufus’ “Martha” revealed just how thoroughly their ties were severed. In the context of the passing of his mother, Kate McGarrigle, Rufus documents attempts to bring his sister back into the fold during a time of family tragedy: “Martha, it’s your brother calling / time to go up north and see mother / Things are harder for her now / and neither of us is really that much older than each other anymore.” He’s pleading with her to to let hard feelings go, but “Martha” doesn’t reveal whether the effort worked.
5. Joanna Newsom, “Emily”
As with anything Joanna Newsom does, it isn’t easy to immediately discern what the hell she’s singing (or thinking). Her least-compromising album, 2006’s Ys, is a perfect example of just how inscrutable she can be. Luckily, the harp-plucking songstress has since let interviewers in on a little secret: “Emily,” the 12-minute opening track of Ys, was written about her sister. Of course, you have to sit through approximately 20 meandering verses of bucolic simile and mountainside melancholy to figure that out. It’s still difficult to draw any definitive interpretation from the lyrics, except that Newsom loves her sister, misses her, and maybe thinks she’s been turned into a bird, a meteorite, a constellation, or just a dream.
6. De La Soul, “My Brother’s A Basehead”
On this jaunty, gospel-tinged track from 1991’s De La Soul Is Dead, Posdnuos alternately laments and excoriates his brother, who started out smoking weed, but met his match when he hit the crack pipe. “Now the brother who could handle any drug had just found the one that could pull his plug,” Pos raps—and he doesn’t seem that sorry about it, either. While De La’s songs have always sported a mixture of pity and contempt for stereotypical ghetto antics, when Pos talks about “me brudda,” there’s nothing but scorn in his voice. He tries interventions, rehab, and even taking his basehead brother to church to get religion. When nothing works, he happily writes him off: When friends ask about him, “I’ll be the first to splash, ‘Yo, he’s a basehead.’” The word has rarely been voiced with such disdain.
7. Bruce Springsteen, “Highway Patrolman”
“Highway Patrolman” is so thick with cinematic detail that it was turned into an actual movie, Sean Penn’s The Indian Runner, in 1991. But nothing compares with the film Springsteen projects in listeners’ heads about two brothers—Joe Roberts, a police officer, and Frank, a haunted Army veteran with a wild streak—and how their troubled relationship finally, and possibly fatally, comes to a head. Joe hears a report over the radio about a brutal assault downtown; normally he’d put down the assailant “straight away,” but when witnesses say Frankie was involved, the guilt-ridden Joe wonders whether he should look the other way. After chasing his brother to the state line, Joe does just that: “I pulled over to the side of the highway and watched his taillights disappear,” Springsteen sings forlornly. Springsteen sings about how family’s can be both support and burden in many songs, but the ties that bind never weigh as heavy as in “Highway Patrolman,” where the final line—“Man turns his back on his family, well he just ain’t no good”—turns from an honorable virtue to a curse.
8. Night Ranger, “Sister Christian”
Night Ranger’s biggest hit brought drummer Kelly Keagy to the fore with a song he wrote about his sister Christy. (It was initially called “Sister Christy.”) Troubled by her burgeoning sexuality, Keagy sings about their worried momma and how the boys don’t just want to play anymore, until the power ballad’s slow-mounting concern about his sister’s virginity explodes into an ecstatic guitar solo and the song collapses into a spent heap. It’s the greatest make-out anthem ever recorded about a brother who’s way too involved in his sister’s sex life.
9. Kanye West, “Big Brother”
Eccentric genius Kanye West came of age creatively as a pet producer of Roc-A-Fella boss Jay-Z. The hip-hop icon took the brash young striver under his wing and paved the way for his rapping career, but as with many friendships and collaborations between ambitious people, a certain degree of resentment and competition lurked just below the surface. On “Big Brother,” West wrestles with his conflicted feelings about his mentor and friend, rapping candidly and forthrightly about various personal and professional slights that cast his hero-worship of Jay-Z in a darker light. At one point, West expects to be invited onstage for a guest verse at Jay’s Madison Square Garden show, only to be told that he could buy tickets to the gig if he wanted to come.
10. Bob Dylan, “Oh, Sister”
A few years before his high-profile conversion to Christianity in the late ’70s, Bob Dylan had already begun incorporating Christian imagery into his music. Co-written by Jacques Levy, and featuring Emmylou Harris vocals that make it a duet in all but name, “Oh, Sister” mixes sensual and religious themes in a song of yearning sung to a woman Dylan repeatedly refers to as “sister.” Is he speaking metaphorically or literally? Does he seek earthly companionship, spiritual comfort, or a forbidden relationship? The lyrics remain vague, but Dylan’s voice suggests a man with a deep, hurtful need. The peculiar, personal song has inspired several covers, including one by Andrew Bird, who adds hauntingly cheerful whistling to the mix.
11. Robert Earl Keen, “Corpus Christi Bay”
The narrator of “Corpus Christi Bay” spins a tale of brotherly camaraderie and devotion, as two boys spend their time getting stoned and drunk, crashing cars, and flirting with girls. As time goes on, however, their recklessness begins to have consequences. His brother’s wife leaves with the kids, and he and the brother cope with by going to the pier, getting drunk, and throwing her belongings into the water. At some point after that, the brother finally grows up—stops drinking, remarries, moves away, and gets a steady job. Our narrator, however, stays the same, still employed at his evening job at the rigs, still getting drunk every night, still going nowhere. When his brother finally comes back to visit, it’s hard to know who to feel sorry for: the brother who’s given up his wild youth for a humdrum normal life, or the brother who’s wasting his life on booze and lack of ambition.
12. The Kinks, “Two Sisters”
Ray Davies knew a thing or two about sibling rivalry, having famously fought with his younger brother Dave throughout the tumultuous history of The Kinks. In an unusual twist, he swapped genders in “Two Sisters,” his most trenchant song about the lingering jealousies and resentments that poison familial relationships. The song begins by economically setting up the dichotomy between its titular subjects—“Sylvilla looked into her mirror, Percilla looked into the washing machine”—and proceeds to outline Percilla’s envy of her sister’s seemingly free and glamorous lifestyle, with “her smart young friends” and “her luxury flat.” Percilla yearns “to be free again,” but dirty dishes, women’s magazines, and children in the nursery fence her in. Her only respite is self-denial—by the end of “Two Sisters,” Percilla concludes that’s she’s better off than the “wayward lass” after all, and she dances victoriously around the house with her curlers on.
13. 7 Seconds, “Sister”
Rites Of Spring usually gets all the credit for inventing emo in the ’80s, but the band’s contemporary, 7 Seconds, had a hand in it too, as heard on the hardcore outfit’s 1988 song “Sister.” Even during the band’s harder, faster days, leader Kevin Seconds had a sensitive spot when it came to gender issues, but in “Sister,” he made it more personal. “Please believe me, I’m on your side / Though I know I can’t do what you do, can’t see what you see,” Seconds sings, addressing an estranged sibling. Then he adds “But my respect and love is deeper than you’ll ever really know / And I know it may be hard for me to ever really show / what’s here inside.” Such touchy-feely sentiments ran counter to the tough-guy posturing of much of the ’80s hardcore scene, but Seconds was never afraid to let his wimp flag fly.
14. Richard And Linda Thompson, “Sisters”
The bonds between siblings can fray until they’re scarcely bonds at all. On this Sunnyvista track, Linda Thompson sings from the perspective of a working-class woman who left her sister where “people were drab and defeated like slaves.” She discovers she can go home, but that isn’t the same as being forgiven, and her sister’s smiles turn into “slander” the moment she’s out of earshot. Concluding that their relationship hardly counts as a sisterhood anymore, she brings the song’s chorus to a harsh conclusion: “Don’t call me your sister and put a knife through my heart.”
15. The Divine Comedy, “Three Sisters”
Per his performer name, the highly literate The Divine Comedy, Neil Hannon includes not one but two literary adaptations on 1993’s Liberation before ending with three Wordsworth poems set to jangle. F. Scott Fitzgerald is lovingly summarized, in great detail, on “Bernice Bobs Her Hair,” and Chekhov gets a more impressionistic treatment for the play Three Sisters. Hannon strips away the plot and sticks to act one, with three pensive sisters who “tease their lonely brother so” day after day. The typically Russian mood comes out in “this autumn breeze.” Years later, looking back, the narrator says, “That autumn chill is with me still.” There the sisters sit in memory, just messing with their brother to fend off the cold.
16. Damien Jurado, “Medication”
Jackie, the central character of Damien Jurado’s eerie “Medication,” juggles two messy relationships: one with a married woman, one with a mentally unstable brother. In constant, frantic phone calls, his brother’s delusions include “spies in the closet / bugs in the attic / He screams bloody murder saying / ‘We’re all gonna die.’” After a failed suicide attempt, Jackie commits his brother to a mental hospital, where he spends his time strapped to a table and fitted with electrodes. A portrait of the pain and confusion of severe mental disorder, “Medication” ends with a disturbing, but understandable, prayer from Jackie after seeing a televangelist: “Lord, do me a favor / it’s wrong, but I ask you / take my brother’s life.”
17. The Tyde, “Blood Brothers”
Sometimes the feeling of brotherhood comes from sharing tough experiences. “Do you know what it feels like to be a man? / Try spending 25 years in a band,” frontman Darren Rademaker sings on the standout track from The Tyde’s second album. Then what? “And then you’ll be a kind of brother to me.” But that brotherhood doesn’t come easily. Much of the sunnily played, gruffly sung “Blood Brothers” involves Rademaker castigating a band member for letting a drug habit derail him, disappearing to score while the music suffers. Nobody said brotherhood was easy.
18. Clem Snide, “Estranged Half Brother”
It’s right there in the title—not so much in the lyrics. In this spare, early Clem Snide track (available as a bonus track on later editions of 1998’s You Were A Diamond), singer Eef Barzelay urges his “estranged half brother” to return a stolen bike, and to show his sensitive side. Then, strangely, the narrator watches the title character take off his shirt, then kisses his nipple. Perhaps the reason for their estrangement is best left between the lines.