The bond between siblings is a rich and complicated one that varies from family to family. Brothers and sisters can be friends, rivals, confidants, coconspirators, and bitter enemies—possibly all at the same time. No wonder there have been so many brilliant songs on the subject. Read on for the 15 finest tunes about brotherly love, sisterly solidarity, and the type of taboo familial loving that only Prince would dare sing about.
"Come Dancing," The Kinks
With brass and organ reminiscent of Britain’s pre-rock music-hall days, “Come Dancing” is a sweet song about how time passes and people change but certain things stay the same. It’s all about Kinks leader Ray Davies’ sister—a onetime teenage heartbreaker who’s now all grown up, worrying about her daughter smooching boys on the front steps. This being a Kinks tune, there’s a whiff of melancholy, and it comes in the final verse: “She knows they get away with things she never could,” Davies sings of his big sis. “But if I asked her, I wonder if she would.”
Chart Peak: Billboard Hot 100 No. 6, 7/16/83
The Purple One has a gas courting controversy on this infamous ode to incest. “I was only 16 but I guess that’s no excuse,” goes the opening line, and it’s all downhill from there. The only thing even remotely clean on this Dirty Mind gem is Prince’s guitar sound. Otherwise: filthy.
"He Ain't Heavy, He's My Brother," The Hollies
The harmonica is but one of many heartwarming elements in this song about brothers helping brothers, no matter the cost. The title phrase comes from a slogan for Boys Town, a famed community for homeless youth, and the piano comes compliments of Elton John, who falls in with the tastefully saccharine strings to deliver an emotional knockout.
Chart Peak: Billboard Hot 100 No. 7, 3/21/70
"My Sister," Juliana Hatfield Three
So many emotions in this alt-rock favorite—the first one being anger, which Hatfield spells out rather plainly in the first verse: “I hate my sister / she’s such a bitch.” Juliana also respects her big sis for being cool, envies her for being good at everything, and misses her because she left home before she could take her to see the Violent Femmes.
Chart Peak: Alternative Songs No. 1, 9/11/93
"My Sister Says the Saddest Things," Grimes
The words aren’t intelligible unless you read along with the lyric sheet and use some imagination, but this ghostly 2010 electro-pop jam is all about feeling. It finds Grimes on a late-night stroll with her only friend, the sister who’ll keep all her secrets—like why she needs to “cry on the 4th of July,” or why she sings like a mystical nymph who’s wandered into the world of Twin Peaks.
"We Are Family," Sister Sledge
Penned by Bernard Edwards and Nile Rodgers of Chic, this disco-soul solidarity anthem applies to all kinds of families—not just the ones united by blood. “Just let me state for the record,” the ladies of Sister Sledge sing, “we’re giving love in a family dose.” Guaranteed to make even the most dysfunctional siblings butt-bump on the dance floor.
Chart Peak: Billboard Hot 100 No. 2, 6/16/79
"Sister Christian," Night Ranger
As the drummer in a major rock band, this song’s author, Kelly Keagy, knows exactly what’s on guys’ minds when they offer to take a young girl “motoring.” That’s why he delivers this warning to his kid sister—Christy in real life, Christian in this schlocky power ballad, thanks to a bandmate mishearing the lyric. Ironically, it’s a great song to blast in your Camaro if you want to look sensitive to the chicks.
Chart Peak: Billboard Hot 100 No. 5, 6/9/84
"What's Happening, Brother?" Marvin Gaye
After taking a big-picture view of the world's troubles on "What's Going On," the leadoff track on his 1972 masterpiece of the same name, Gaye sharpens his focus and hits even harder with track two. Inspired by his brother who'd just returned from Vietnam, "What's Happening Brother" centers on a soldier readjusting to civilian life in a divided America he no longer recognizes. ”Are they still getting down where we used to dance?" sings Gaye, capturing how badly this vet wants a return to normalcy. ”Will our ball club win the pennant—do you think they have a chance?"
"My Little Brother" Art Brut
Art Brut lead talker Eddie Argos can only sit back and watch while his 22-year-old brother goes mental for indie rock. “There’s a noise in his head and he’s out of control,” a frazzled Argos says over precisely the kind of punky guitars his troubled sibling probably fancies. If Argos were really concerned, he’d have made this a jazz song.
"Martha," Rufus Wainwright
Despite the slightly flippant tone he takes with his little sister, Martha, Rufus sings this gorgeous piano ballad straight from the heart. Their mother is sick, he’s out of town, and now more than ever, they need to put aside petty grievances and help each other out. The way he stretches out the final quavering “call me back” is enough to make anyone with a sibling reach for the phone.
"When We Grow Up," Diana Ross
Some kids dream of being astronauts or pop stars or the first woman president. On this sweet piece of ‘70s pop, Diana Ross tells her best friend—presumably her brother, though not necessarily—that all she wants in the future is for them to remain close. Note the feminist subtext in the second verse: She’s already figuring society will make him an engineer and her a perfumed lady in gloves.
"Boss of Me," They Might Be Giants
Best remembered as the theme to TV’s Malcolm in the Middle, “Boss of Me” is a punk-ska anthem for nerdy younger brothers and sisters everywhere. While the lyrics don’t explicitly mention sibling squabbling, it’s about refusing to be pushed around by someone just because they’ve got a few years and/or inches on you. The lesson: “Life is unfair.”
Chart Peak: No. 40 Modern AC, 2/10/01
"Little Sister," Elvis
When the King gets cheated on, he doesn’t throw in the towel. He simply works his way down the sibling chain and gives his two-timing ex’s kid sister a try. “Little sister don’t you do what your big sister done,” Elvis warns over twangy guitars with just a hint of menace in his voice. Or else what—he goes after the mother?
Chart Peak: Billboard Hot 100 No. 5, 10/2/61
"My Brother's a Basehead," De La Soul
Despite the lighthearted vibe of the music—based around a sample of the ‘60s classic “Game of Love”—this tale of addiction is no joke. De La rhymer Pos is angry and frustrated as he watches his brother graduate from weed to crack, with predictably disastrous results. “Unlike the other drugs where you had control,” he raps, “this substance has engulfed your body and soul.”
"Highway Patrolman," Bruce Springsteen
A cop has certain responsibilities to his community, but they don’t trump the obligations he has to his family. That’s the moral of this story—a real heartbreaker about a mostly honest policeman and his no-good brother, Franky. It all ends at the Canadian border, where Bruce’s beautifully sketched lawman character realizes there are some messes he can’t clean up.