Over the festive period, the playlists of those who celebrate Christmas (and Mariah Carey) burst with seasonal classics in the manner of a stocking bulging with oranges. There’s Frosty the Snowman! There’s The Little Drummer Boy! There’s Cyndi Lauper going down on Pelle Almqvist from the Hives’s mother!
But new year is too often neglected when it comes to musical curation. So here, in no particular order, are some of the greatest cuts to kick off the next 366 (I checked) days.
Sugababes – New Year (2000)
Overload might be the OG Sugababes’ seminal track, but I’d put New Year – the second single from their debut album, One Touch – alongside it. Written in part by Siobhán Donaghy, Mutya Buena and Keisha Buchanan, the song details a Christmas break-up one year on – and the potential revival of the relationship (“Sitting here stressing at 2:30am …”).
A pop-R&B ballad with lush harmonies showcasing the original members’ precociously soulful vocals, it combines acoustic guitar with a thunking drumbeat and ambient crackling sounds that conjure a winter log-fire – or perhaps a needle lowered on to vinyl. On its release, the Guardian compared the song with Wham!’s Last Christmas. High praise indeed.
The Zombies – This Will Be Our Year (1968)
Opening with an upbeat piano melody before the snare kicks in (and the trumpets), This Will Be Our Year, with its warm 60s sounds and optimistic messaging (“all your worried days are gone”), has been covered by everyone from Cher to the Beautiful South to … er, OK Go, as well as being used on shows such as Mad Men. At two minutes, this is a short and sweet effort from St Albans’s perennially underrated answer to the Beach Boys. Perfect for some gentle dancefloor twirling.
Taylor Swift – New Year’s Day (2017)
Probably the greatest millennial chronicler of parties and drunkenness (“How’d we end up on the floor anyway? / You say ‘your roommate’s cheap-ass screw-top rosé’”), Taylor Swift’s contribution to the New Year canon is this beautifully observed piano ballad – from the otherwise electronic- and synth-heavy Reputation – about the aftermath of the night before. “There’s glitter on the floor after the party / Girls carrying their shoes down in the lobby”, she sings, before employing a party-themed analogy for sticking with the object of one’s affections through good times and bad, explaining she’s happy to help “clean up bottles with you on New Year’s Day”.
“Who’s willing to give you Advil and clean up the house? I think that states more of a permanence”, Swift said about the lyrics. Written with collaborator Jack Antonoff, the pair said its sound and emotional vulnerability were inspired by Joni Mitchell. Whether Travis Kelce is the hangover-soothing kind is TBC.
Death Cab for Cutie – The New Year (2003)
With an opening lyric of “So this is the New Year / And I don’t feel any different”, Ben Gibbard and co empathise with those who find 1 January less than inspiring – and can’t be arsed with the concept of seasonal self-improvement. “I have no resolutions / Or self assigned penance / For problems with easy solutions,” Gibbard continues, against a background of crashing drums (from then-newbie Jason McGerr) and strobing guitar, with various ambient sounds poking through. Taken from Transatlanticism, an album without a bum track on it, The New Year briefly tows the celebratory line (“so everybody put your best suit and dress on”) before reverting to the album’s overall pensiveness and central themes of distance and longing.
Jeff Buckley – New Year’s Prayer (1998)
Based on a poem Jeff Buckley wrote and read on New Year’s Eve in New York, 1995 (and the next day at a separate poetry event), the musical adaptation of New Year’s Prayer eschews a lot of the original’s brilliant seasonal storytelling (“You, my love, are allowed to forget about the Christmas / You just spent stressed out in your parents’ house”) and pares down the lyrics to a repeated call for freedom and promise of a fresh start (“feel no shame for what you are”). But it’s too good – too mesmerising – not to make this list. Originally recorded in 1996-1997, the track was unfinished at the time of Buckley’s death, and was released posthumously on Sketches for My Sweetheart the Drunk (1998); one of Buckley’s more percussion-focused songs, it has become a cult favourite thanks to its hypnotic, trance-like and ethereal vocals. Buckley was a fan of the Pakistani singer Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and his qawwali music, and the influences are clear here.
U2 – New Year’s Day (1983)
Released as the first single from their 1983 album War, New Year’s Day was inspired by Poland’s Solidarity movement. Bono said that he initially intended New Year’s Day to be a love song, but that he “must have been thinking of Lech Wałęsa [then a Polish dissident] being interned” as he went on to write lines which referenced the uprising explicitly (“The newspapers say it’s true / And we can break through”). Propelled by the Edge’s instantly recognisable riffs and Adam Clayton’s pulsating bassline, the track was the band’s first UK Top 10 hit.
The Breeders – New Year (1993)
One minute and 56 seconds of a gloriously thrashing Breeders, taken from alt-rock classic Last Splash AKA one of the best LPs of the 90s. Beginning with languid, woozy vocals, New Year changes pace abruptly with Jim MacPherson’s hyperactive drums and an insanely chaotic guitar riff. You also can’t really argue with Kim Deal when she sings “I am the new year, I am the rain / I am the sun, I am the new year” because she does it so determinedly, despite the fact she is anthropomorphising actual weather and the Gregorian calendar. I recommend this rehearsal performance of the track in Deal’s basement (complete with fairy lights) preceding the band’s 2013 reunion tour, and filmed on an iPhone.
Abba – Happy New Year (1980)
With a working title of Daddy Don’t Get Drunk on Christmas Day, which doesn’t make a lot of sense given no father nor Christmas Day is mentioned, the Swedish power group’s New Year song – from their iconic Super Trouper album – is initially wistful. Though it boasts a trademark big, splashy chorus, the lyrics are doleful. “No more champagne / And the fireworks are through”, sings Agnetha Fältskog, before mulling over the state of the world and other existential questions. But there remains a hope shimmering through: “May we all have a vision now and then / Of a world where every neighbour is a friend”.
The song was recorded in Barbados in January 1980 (“it’s the end of the decade”) and was initially part of an idea Björn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson had about a musical revolving around New Year’s Eve (which they, randomly, pitched to John Cleese). The musical didn’t happen, but the song made the later album (a Spanish language version proved particularly popular in South American territories).
Otis Redding and Carla Thomas – New Year’s Resolution (1967)
From Otis Redding’s humbly titled duet album with Carla Thomas (King & Queen), New Year’s Resolution is a sultry slow jam focusing on dialogue between a pair of lovers promising to change their ways. “Let’s turn over a new leaf / And baby let’s make promises that we can keep,” suggests Redding. Thomas magnanimously concedes that “women make mistakes too”.
Unfortunately, Redding didn’t get to witness the song make its New Year debut – he died in a plane crash in early December the year of its release.
Mariah Carey – Auld Lang Syne (The New Year’s Anthem) (2010)
Plenty of people have covered Auld Lang Syne (originally a poem by Robert Burns, and a folk song before that) but what is particularly special about La Carey’s interpretation from her Merry Christmas II You album is its incredibly low-budget green screen video which looks as if she filmed it in front of a Windows XP screensaver.
Set against a cod-house backing track that could come preloaded on an old Casio keyboard, a pregnant Carey dances from the waist up only, and circa the two and half minute mark exclaims: “Does anybody really know the words?” Then casually knocks out a whistle note before ending on a chorus countdown. It’s genuinely awful but brilliant in its awfulness. We didn’t, however, need the nine remixes Island released.
Camera Obscura – Happy New Year (2001)
Taken from the Glaswegian band’s Stuart Murdoch-produced debut LP, Biggest Bluest Hi-Fi, Happy New Year is perhaps the lesser-known New Year-referencing Camera Obscura cut, with the group’s New Year’s Resolution from 2013’s Desire Lines proving popular. (Carey Lander, you are missed.) But it’s hard for me not to pick a song which opens with the line: “Did the ironing in a cowboy hat.”
A perfect, simple slice of breezy pop crafted with a jangly guitar hook and backing harmonies, it’s also a strikingly original, emotionally honest – and funny – love song about trying to make a relationship work (“I’m coming round to take a stand / Going to put us together with glue or an elastic band.”) Lovely stuff – and the band are returning next year, too.
The Orioles – What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve? (1949)
Written by Frank Loesser (of Guys and Dolls fame) in 1947, this soulful lament was first recorded by Margaret Whiting and has been covered by virtually every singer in existence since (Ella Fitzgerald’s rendition is probably the best known). But it will always be the Baltimore doo-wop pioneers’ version for me.
The spare arrangement and uncomplicated harmonies which ask the title question, as well as flatter (“out of the thousand invitations you receive”) are typical of a band that went on to influence myriad R&B vocal groups.
And though 1 January might seem too late to be focusing on a New Year’s Eve song, there’s an argument it isn’t. Loesser is said to have been frustrated by its frequent performance in December, because the besotted narrator is supposed to be propositioning his love interest way ahead of time (“maybe it’s much too early in the game …”). Pencil me in for the countdown to 2025.
Eagles – Funky New Year (1978)
For “funky” here, read: hungover as hell. This is probably the greatest ever “morning after the egregiously boozy night before” song, regardless of whether the night was New Year’s Eve. Opening with ambient noises of party-blowers and partygoers, the track soon launches into dirty, Wild Cherry-style riffs; licks so sexy they would make Nile Rodgers feel prudish; and some hardcore clavinet action. “Woke up this morning / I don’t know how / Last night I was a happy man / But the way I feel right now,” sings Don Henley on lead vocals, before, in classic house party scenes, going on to enquire as to the owner of a pair of shoes. Released as the B-side to the band’s cover version of Charles Brown’s Please Come Home for Christmas, it wasn’t until the band played the song at a huge 1999 concert in Los Angeles to usher in the new millennium that it was truly – rightly – appreciated.
Peggy Lee – My Dear Acquaintance (A Happy New Year) (2006)
In a solid example of good things coming to those who wait, Peggy Lee’s My Dear Acquaintance was first written (alongside Paul Horner) in 1983 for her musical Peg, but it didn’t make the cut, eventually being released in 2006. A melancholy piano and strings affair, it has a “good tidings to all” message of community spirit, but with a rather mournful vocal the actual vibe is heartbreaking rather than uplifting. A few years after its release, Regina Spektor performed a cover – with the heavily ironic addition of the sounds of war (gunfire, sirens, helicopters) over the lines “All that is gentle / Kind and forgiving” – for compilation album Gift Wrapped. (Spektor also takes a stab at her own New Year song here.)
Beach House – New Year (2012)
An intro of breathy, swirling vocals and shimmering synths: it can only be Beach House. New Year starts off gentle before becoming more abstract and darker in its muddy bass and the fuzzy guitars of Alex Scally come in to play. It changes direction a number of times, from that ethereal opening to a slice of shiny pop to Twin Peaks-esque atmospheric muddle and back again. The lack of a linear narrative and a sense of uncertainty is echoed in the lyrics which question certain ambitions and goals. “All you ever wanted / Is it getting away?”, muses Victoria Legrand. One to pensively stick on during your journey back from Christmas at your parents’ house, where you slept in your teenage bedroom. Life, eh?
Bing Crosby – Let’s Start the New Year Right (1942)
Bing Crosby’s 1942 croon-fest is a kind of blues wellness anthem (with a romantic slant). The song was composed by Irving Berlin and released by Crosby and his orchestra to soundtrack a scene in Holiday Inn, in which Crosby starred opposite Fred Astaire. (Berlin also wrote White Christmas for the same film.) With its hopeful and wholesome lyrics, Berlin’s brass-heavy creation is a far cry from the Eagles with their heads in a waste paper bin, probably.
Van Morrison – Celtic New Year (2005)
I’m not sure if there is a creepier opening line to a song than “If I don’t see you through the week / See you through the window,” so it’s just as well the following six minutes of gorgeous, plaintive blues almost make up for it. The Celtic New Year is in fact the first day of November, but we won’t let that get in the way of appreciating this long-distance love story, from the viewpoint of a nomadic troubadour, on 1 January. With Morrison calling to an absent lover in his signature, emotive growl, strings by the Irish Film Orchestra and Paddy Moloney’s whistle-playing outro combine to make this one of the most accomplished and back-on-form songs from Morrison’s 31st studio album Magic Time.
Charles Brown – Bringing in a Brand New Year (1961)
With a number of damn fine instrumental solos (Sax! Electric guitar! Cello!) and an epic finger-clicking, handclapping beat alongside tinkling jazz piano, Charles Brown really does know how to bring in a brand new year – with this bags-of-fun jam written for his hit Christmas album. Brown, a former gas worker and high school teacher from Texas, rather faded from view with the advent of the more boisterous rock’n’roll era, but he maintained a prolific recording output as a solo artist and member of the Three Blazers. Brown’s lyrical optimism and ambition here know no bounds. “I got my resolution made / Gonna ride above the stars / We might even take a trip to Mars,” he sings. Which rather puts the goal of Dry January into perspective.