Moms rock as much as dads, but tend to do it with more precision and curation. Dads rock with reckless abandon, but moms have taste. They don’t waste time with frivolity, they don’t mess around with near-novelty acts like Meat Loaf. They eschew the bloat and bombast of “Don’t Stop Believin’” and “Smoke on the Water.” If it’s a karaoke go-to, it’s distinctly dad rock.
This list obviously isn’t indicative of what every single mom loved. Jazz-literate, politically minded moms might have introduced their kids to Nina Simone, European immigrants often share an un-ironic love for ABBA. And that’s to say nothing of the sounds exhibited by the below picks — the rock acts we associate with moms seem to play into the silly notion that women stay away from louder, faster sounds (it also, like dad rock before it, skews heavily WASP). But if we work within the same parameters of Dad Rock — a little bit dated, not quite classic, but great at a barbecue — an essential canon can be built.
As the most obvious entry point to the wider mom rock canon, moms almost listen to Joni Mitchell out of obligation. Though, in sound, she barely qualifies as rock — rock has a prerequisite danger, a certain swagger that polite Canadian Mitchell exhibited little of. But most moms have a favorite Mitchell song: The casual storytelling of “California” or the politics of “Big Yellow Taxi.” Mitchell also proved a gateway to the Laurel Canyon crew — Neil Young, Carole King, et al. — who exist in and around this list.
Essential Mom Album: Court and Spark (1974)
He’s about as gentle and imperturbable as Mitchell, and again, doesn’t really count as rock and roll. But Tea for the Tillerman wound up in every mom’s collection you rooted through as a kid. Not much else to say except that you still know every word to that record, all thanks to your mom.
Essential Mom Album: Tea for the Tillerman (1970)
Jackson Browne / James Taylor
We’re counting these as one, because honestly: Can anyone prove to us they’re not the same person? Brown hair, emotive eyes, first names that start with “J.” Mom has a soft spot for sensitive white-boy singer-songwriters, and Jackson and James not only fit that bill, they practically defined it in the ’70s.
But your mom doesn’t skip to “Fire and Rain” as often as she does “The Load-Out.” She came into both of them a little late.
Carole King / Carly Simon
Again… have we ever seen these two in the same room? Carole King’s popularly thought of as the cerebral-songwriter type of the two, but Carly Simon’s just as skilled in music industry know-how and armed with a similar fuck-it-all attitude. Mom could get behind both.
Fleetwood Mac is for when mom feels like rocking out. Not just some of the greatest windows-down blasting music ever written, your mom understands the strain of Stevie Nicks’ struggle to be taken seriously in her own damn band. In the battle between Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd and Fleetwood Mac for “Mystically-Influenced Rock Band with Internal Drama of Now-Mythic Proportions,” Fleetwood Mac wins every time.
Even Paul Simon’s most sincere work is a little maudlin, but no mom is immune to his feats of songwriting. From the vivid storytelling of “Duncan” to the buoyant rhythms of “Kodachrome,” Simon was a constant. It helped that a lot of his singles, particularly “You Can Call Me Al,” were bouncy enough to sound like they came from the soundtrack to a kid’s movie. She followed Simon all the way through his career — his 1986 classic Graceland was definitely a cassette you saw pressed into the car stereo frequently.
Essential Mom Album: The Essential Paul Simon (2007) (What? It’s a good bang for your buck.)
Not just the Beatles, but one particular Beatle, usually George
First of all: Let’s be done with this idea that the Beatles are the domain of dads. For the majority of their existence, the Beatles’ fan base was made up of teenage girls. In recent years, music writers like Ann Powers and Jessica Hopper have elaborated on the essentiality of female fandom, and they’re right — The Beatles would be nowhere without young women.
So it makes sense that your mom was most likely the one that introduced you to the Fab Four. But probably not by bumping Meet the Beatles in the minivan. She probably has some records, purchased in her last years of having enough free time to browse the stacks at Tower before taking on a full-time job, from a Beatle’s solo career. Is it John? Nah, too full of himself. Paul? Too obvious. Ringo? Too… Ringo. George is the underdog, the mysterious new kid in school. You probably heard his later efforts like “Got My Mind Set On You” without really wondering who it was by.
Essential Mom Album: All Things Must Pass (1970)
The Eagles are the one true crossover between mom and dad rock. They were noisy enough to get the party started but had enough musical sense to know when to take it down a notch. Throughout the first decade of their career, the Eagles were rock and roll danger and good-time country-rock peppered with introspective lyrics, all rolled into the perfect pan-parent band.
Essential Mom Album: On The Border (1974), for some reason
OK, Dolly isn’t rock. But maybe you once swept a cassette of Trio, Dolly Parton’s collaboration with Linda Ronstadt and Emmylou Harris, from under the driver’s seat in your family’s Ford Taurus and wondered how it got there. Rock moms usually think country is too sappy, but Parton snuck past your mom’s rock snob filter with attitude. Your mom was able to see past all the jokes about big hair and bra size the men in her life were making and appreciate Parton’s ambition.
Essential Mom Album: Jolene (1974)
Linda Ronstadt is the dividing line between mom and dad rock. She’s the taste and class that dad rock is missing. Sure, her public image was a bit doe-eyed and cloying, and she kinda got lumped in with the country-adjacent movement of the mid-’70s. But her wider catalog is a feat of musicianship. She opened your mom’s eyes up to styles she never would have considered before. Ronstadt is little under-the-radar, a little underappreciated, but approved of by those in the know.
Ronstadt embodies the spirit of mom rock, and confirms what you already knew: your mom is adventurous, a bit of a maverick and actually kind of cool.
Essential Mom Album: Simple Dreams (1977)
Honorable Mention: The Monkees
These were your mom’s Backstreet Boys, her Jonas Brothers. Gimmicky though they were, they formed your mom’s understanding of rock as a genre with hits like “Daydream Believer” and “Pleasant Valley Sunday.” She still thinks they haven’t gotten the respect they deserve.
Essential Mom Album: The Monkees (1966)
Honorable Mention: Wilson Phillips
By the time you came around, the rock stars of your mom’s youth had started having kids of their own, some of whom tried their hand at the family business. Your mom gave them a fair shake — pretty good, but not as good as their predecessors.
Essential Mom Album: Wilson Phillips (1990)