Five Great New Year’s Songs

Considering just how many speculative and burningly hopeful Christmas records are released every year, it’s quite surprising how little commercial attention has been paid to other holidays. Whether those holidays are secular or religious, there are often some historical traces and a few abortive, petered-out attempts, but there are no gigantic hits, very few dedicated albums, and often people will struggle to name a single track that’s dedicated to the holiday in question.

New Year’s Eve Party, Palais Theatre, Sydney, 1920s. Photograph: Sam Wood

With New Year’s, there’s the additional problem that any songs that mention it are often subsumed into Christmas music, and many artists, from Bing Crosby forward, have included New Year’s material in their Christmas repertoire. Adding a list of New Year’s songs to our Christmas website probably just exacerbates that problem, but in lieu of actual New Year’s albums to review a list of songs that convey the spirit of the holiday seems appropriate enough. (However much it gets mixed in with the other seasonal material.)

Ella Fitzgerald – What are You Doing New Year’s Eve

The ultimate crush song, you can almost taste the sly smile on Ella’s magnificent lips. Her interpretation of this classic and often-recorded standard is much more innocently confident in style than the many glamorous versions, like Nancy Wilson’s 1965 hit recording – and it benefits a song whose central conceit is propositioning someone much more popular. But then, in the middle of the hope, in creep the self-doubting, melancholy notes of ambiguity. Maybe the answer is not obvious after all? It’s a masterfully judged and balanced turn by a true giant.

Judy Garland – Happy New Year

If Ella Fitzerald still struggles with hope, Judy Garland’s has already been crushed, and she’s not afraid to spit its broken remains at the world. Written especially for her massively melodramatic 1957 album Alone, it’s Judy Garland in full bitter diva mode, turning what was probably supposed to be a sorrowful “Gloomy Sunday” pastiche into something amazing bile-filled. Jilted, self-pitying and with a few too many glasses of red under the collar, Judy Garland channels rejection perfectly. “I wish you a Happy New Year, darling/May your new love be bright and fair”, she sings through gritted teeth, and means she hopes it crashes and utterly burns to death.

George Harrison – Ding Dong

A rather different hope is offered by George Harrison’s exceedingly simple invocation, in true New Year’s manner, to “Ring out the old/Ring in the New”. Conjuring up a psychedelic future when things are new, true and ideal, it’s simultaneously about five years out of date, and its very Magical Mystery Tour-era stylings bombed in the charts in supposedly more sophisticated 1974. But its massive production, boisterous bounce and frankly ridiculous chorus are infectuous and fun, and make New Year’s sound like a big hippie party. Which it sometimes needs to be.

June Christy – Sorry To See You Go

Besides hope and despair, another classic New Year’s emotion is introspection – and rarely has introspection been handled as classily as this. From our favourite Christmas album of all time, This Time of Year, it’s a salute to the old year, and one that’s realistic, grown-up and yet ultimately positive. “You brought trouble/Taught me to handle it/Thanks for the lesson, she sings, and it’s a message that resonates. I’m not sure I want to raise my glass as much to 2016 as June Christy did to 1961, but her affection for life’s school of hard knocks is one we could all take with us, going forward.

Prince – 1999

So, if appreciating the departed 2016 is not the right response, perhaps a nihlistic doomsday scenario is? Nuclear war certainly seems as likely 17 years after the nominal apocalypse as it was 17 years before, albeit with the Hollywood actor with the finger on the button updated to a reality star. And the response, at New Year’s, as the world is falling to pieces, as “War is all around us”, is not to despair, but to celebrate the impending doom. As the lyrics say: “Life is just a party/And parties weren’t meant to last” – a spiritual lesson disguised as horror, in turn disguised as a harmless disco anthem. Prince, one of the greatest cruelly snatched from us last year, will be much missed.

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