Over the past century, great pop songwriters and performers have always been adept at expressing universal truths about the human condition, and songs about family can truly resonate with people from all walks of life.
Here are ten of the best songs about those closest to us, and why these remarkable pieces of music about family have stood the test of time. For music lovers, listening to these wonderful songs can be a life-changing experience.
1. Elton John, “Daniel”
Describing the emotional distance that has grown between two siblings after one returns from the Vietnam War, “Daniel” is truly a remarkable ballad and one of the best songwriting collaborations to emerge from Elton John’s and Bernie Taupin’s musical partnership.
On a wider level, the song also comments on the relationship between military veterans and the communities in which they live. Pop music is rarely as profound as it is here; nearly 50 years on, the song can still bring listeners to tears.
2. Luther Vandross, “Dance With My Father”
Undoubtedly one of the best songs about the loss of a parent ever recorded, Luther Vandross’s “Dance With My Father” is a touching portrayal of the love we can feel for our fathers.
Cowritten with noted songwriter Richard Marx, the tune centers around Vandross’s own personal experience with loss; Vandross’s father died from complications arising from diabetes when the singer was only a child. A pop music aficionado favorite to this day, the song remains Vandross’s best composition and a standout on any radio playlist.
3. Jeff Buckley, “Dream Brother”
The son of legendary singer-songwriter Tim Buckley, Jeff Buckley always seemed to be trying to escape from beneath the shadow of his estranged father’s music career.
Ironically, Jeff had only met his famous father once by the time his own musical star was rising; having barely known the man, Jeff nonetheless put his emotional frustrations about his absent father into the artistic form on this standout track from his debut album “Grace.”
Indeed, “Dream Brother” sees Jeff Buckley lamenting the fate of a father who would remain little more than a mystery to him: Divided by circumstance, the song shows that the two were nonetheless joined by their musical talents.
4. Elliott Smith, “Wouldn’t Mama Be Proud”
Released in 2000 to critical acclaim, “Wouldn’t Mama Be Proud” sees Elliott Smith at his most personal and profound. Never one to relish the spotlight, the pathologically shy Smith was nonetheless happy with the attention that he received as a singer-songwriter in large part because his mother could be proud of his success.
A standout on the “Figure 8” album, the tune features the kind of sunny, Beatles-esque pop harmonies and lush instrumentation that Smith excelled at over the course of his short career.
5. Harry Chapin, “Cat’s in the Cradle”
Filled with dramatic lyrical irony and lovingly-crafted melodies, Harry Chapin’s signature song “Cat’s in the Cradle” remains an example of pop storytelling at its finest and most touching.
The tune describes a father who is too busy with his career to spend time with his growing son; tragically, the folly of the father’s ways are soon made apparent in the son’s behavior as an adult. But it’s Chapin’s soulful delivery on his signature song that has turned “Cat’s in the Cradle” into a bonafide classic and a pop radio fixture for generations.
6. Cat Stevens, “Father and Son”
As everyone knows, bridging a generation gap can almost seem impossible at times. On “Father and Son,” Cat Stevens deftly describes a form of communication breakdown between two family members. Having experienced the difficulties of the real world, a boy’s father advises him to seek out the comforts of a respectable life and a reliable job.
Charmed by the attractions of a music career and swayed by his own dreams of stardom, however, the son wants to discover for himself what life is all about. It’s a drama that has played out perhaps billions of times in human history; but the deep emotional resonance and universal truth that Stevens captures here gives “Father and Son” its powerful musical punch.
7. The Beatles, “Hey Jude”
Being John Lennon’s son wasn’t easy: By the time The Beatles were recording “The White Album,” Lennon was experiencing serious upheaval in his personal affairs and had by then left his wife for the rebellious conceptual artist Yoko Ono.
Written by Paul McCartney to comfort Lennon’s son Julian during this difficult time, “Hey Jude” remains one of the artist’s best songs. It would also serve as one of McCartney’s last musical offerings to The Beatles: Less than two years after the release of “Hey Jude,” in fact, the band broke up due to irreconcilable creative differences.
8. Madonna, “Papa Don’t Preach”
In family situations, it is often true that parents can be overbearing in the extreme when providing guidance to their children, and this standout Madonna song shows that even the best parental advice can go unheeded by an independent-minded person.
One of the great pop ballads from the 1980s, moreover, “Papa Don’t Preach” shows Madonna at her songwriting best, and subsequent generations have used the song as a rallying cry for emotional independence.
9. The Kinks, “Two Sisters”
While the bond between two siblings can remain remarkably strong in the face of personal conflict, the English pop group The Kinks realized that jealousy can often come between even the closest of family members in a big way.
“Two Sisters” describes a pair of family members who lead very different lives: One sister has wealth, status, and a group of jet-setting friends; the other sister leads a plain, workaday existence in a nondescript neighborhood.
As the less-successful sister discovers, however, jealousy is not the answer to our problems in life. This is a great song for anyone who has ever experienced sibling rivalry well into adulthood.
10. The Beach Boys, “Hold On Dear Brother”
By 1972, The Beach Boys were in a serious state of transition as a musical outfit. Principle Beach Boys songwriter Brian Wilson had long since given up his quest to push the band’s capacity for creative expression forward, and Carl Wilson was intent on revamping the band’s sound after the commercially disappointing “Pet Sounds” record failed to make a splash with audiences.
In fact, “Hold On Dear Brother” can almost be read as a plea from Carl to Brian; the song’s feeling of goodwill towards a wayward sibling is palpable in this lovely tune.