When making a Mother’s Day mix, it can be tempting to prioritize sentiment over quality, as if any old song will suffice as long as it imparts the right feelings about mama. It doesn’t have to be that way.
Below you’ll find a playlist that combines conventional Mother’s Day tunes with others that might not tug at the heartstrings but are still germane to the topic. The selections range from uplifting to heavy, poignant to oblique. Most importantly, all are good-to-great songs, in my opinion.
Happy Mother’s Day!
‘Coat of Many Colors,’ Dolly Parton (1971)
Dolly Parton’s beloved “Coat of Many Colors” is one of those songs so irresistibly sweet and touching that it makes you want to hug the next person you see, call your parents to apologize for anything and everything, and say a prayer of thanksgiving for life’s countless blessings. We the people can’t agree on much these days, but at least we can agree on Dolly.
‘Sylvia’s Mother,’ Dr. Hook & the Medicine Show (1971)
Written by Shel Silverstein, “Sylvia’s Mother” is a solid brick of weepy, over-the-top, melodramatic cheese, but I defy you not to feel something when the song’s booming chorus hits your ears. “Please, Mrs. Avery, I just gotta talk to her!” sings that impenetrable wall of voices. Sometimes schmaltz can simply overwhelm you into happy submission.
‘Mama Couldn’t Be Persuaded,’ Warren Zevon (1976)
If you’re familiar with Warren Zevon’s family background (especially as recounted in the bruising oral history “I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead”), you know it probably would’ve been best had “mama” not married “that gamblin’ man.” But then Zevon never would’ve existed and we wouldn’t have this funny, spirited, and absurdly catchy little rock tune to enjoy again and again.
‘Mother,’ Pink Floyd (1979)
“Mother” hopefully does not resonate with you on a personal level. Hopefully, your mom didn’t wrap you in zealous overprotection or promise that she would “always find out where you’ve been.” Almost every one of David Gilmour’s lines here as “mother” to Roger Waters’ “Pink” character is unsettling. His soaring guitar solo, on the other hand, is pure catharsis.
‘Night Comes On,’ Leonard Cohen (1984)
Nothing says, “Let’s celebrate moms!” like a mystical and meditative Leonard Cohen song, right? Joking aside, “Night Comes On” provides a welcome contrast to “Mother,” as it features a maternal figure who, from beyond the grave, encourages her son to “go back to the world” rather than heed the call of isolation (or worse). In Cohen’s own words, “the mother represents an authentic sense of protection, the life that strengthens.”
‘Promise to Try,’ Madonna (1989)
“Promise to Try” is a reminder that even someone as iconic and world-conquering as Madonna is still just flesh and blood. On this lovely ballad, the Queen of Pop goes to a very vulnerable place as she confronts the anguish of losing her mother to cancer more than two decades prior.
It’s a moving song, due in part to the vocal performance. All of the pomp and circumstance that often surrounds Madonna can easily distract from what a marvelous singer she is.
‘Lemon,’ U2 (1993)
On the one hand, “Lemon” is a gleaming disco ball of a song with odd detours and a louche falsetto from Bono. On the other, it’s a deeply personal reflection on “memory and loss.”
When Bono sings, “She wore lemon,” he’s referring to a Super 8 video of his mother dancing at a wedding while wearing a yellow dress. She’s right there in front of him but permanently beyond his reach (she died in the ‘70s).
Herein lies the brilliance of U2’s large-scale reinvention in the ‘90s: the trappings were thrillingly different, even ironic, but the emotions were still straight from the heart.
‘For Martha,’ The Smashing Pumpkins (1998)
It’s not at all surprising that Billy Corgan would make an epic rock song out of a eulogy for his mother. “For Martha” starts off small, intimate, and piano-based, before swelling and later blasting sky-high on the back of a big, buzzing guitar solo.
By the time the song’s eight-plus minutes are through, it feels like real healing has occurred. Say what you want about Corgan, but the guy can vividly convey emotion both as a singer and a guitarist.
‘The Wish,’ Bruce Springsteen (1998)
How many songs by “the Boss” can accurately be described as “adorable”? “The Wish” qualifies resoundingly. In fact, it’s one of the most heartwarming “mom tributes” in pop music history (on top of being just a fantastic song).
Among several moments I could highlight, the best is when Bruce says that, instead of flowers, a phone call, or any other predictable gesture of affection, he’s going to find “a little rock ‘n’ roll bar” and take his mom out dancing. It’s almost too precious for words.
‘Hey Mama,’ Kanye West (2005)
“Hey Mama” is the old Kanye in all of his joyous, soulful, resplendent glory. Just watch when he debuted the song on “Oprah” with Donda, his mother, in attendance. Or watch when he sang it as a duet with her in this home video. The song and the performances overflow with deeply-felt affection and sincerity.
It’s obvious that Donda was Kanye’s foundation. When she passed away in 2007, it was a shattering experience for him. Some even point to it as the event that eventually spawned the new Kanye, the one who is a frequent target these days of online haters and cancel-culture commissars.
But let’s set aside all the controversy for a moment and focus on the best aspect of 2019 Ye: he’s a devout husband and a doting father of three (going on four). I have to think his mother would be exceedingly proud.