After ‘Auld Lang Syne’: New Year’s Songs

guyChristmas has the market sewn up when it comes to holiday songs.

But there are enough New Year’s songs around to fill up a mixtape, if indeed people still fill out mixtapes.

One or two songs stand out historically among the rest, but let’s face it “Auld Lang Syne” is getting a little auld!

The 18th century Scottish toast to nostalgia written by Robert Burns himself never mentions the holiday, and yet has been tied to it tightly through the years. That was especially true in the U.S. in the 20th century when it became theme Guy Lombardo and his Royal Canadians — broadcasting’s face of the calendar change from 1926 at least until Dick Clark’s New Year’s Rockin’ Eve got into the act (Lombardo died in 1977).

It’s still a very pervasive purveyor of the season and current favorite and varied versions of the song come from Andrew Bird, Colbie Cailla, James Taylor, Sufjan Stevens, The Beach Boys, Esquivel, The Reducers, Los Straightjackets and even Keyboard Cat. There are some lovely variants as well, as Susan McKeown’s weaves in a Celtic counter melody and Bobby Darin swings it into the rest of Yuletide in “Christmas Auld Lang Syne.”

The second most popular song for the end of the year has to do with planning. “What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve?,” written by Frank Loesser, is the kind of ballad that is usually sung in a melancholy tone because the singer instinctively knows the answer (you’re probably busy).

The Orioles were the first group to make it a hit in 1949. It has since been performed by all manner of people from Ella Fitzgerald, Lou Rawls and Ramsey Lewis to The Carpenters, King Curtis and last year, the group The Head and the Heart.

After those two classics, it’s really a grabbag of also-ran New Years numbers, unknown gems and occasional ringers.

The one that stands out, of course, is U2’s 1983 anthem from their second album “War,” “New Year’s Day,” which is sort of a vague drawing of battle lines mixed with a love song. It remains a bracing antidote to gooey nostalgia.

One of the older blues tunes about the holiday was Mary Harris’ “Happy New Year Blues,” in which she admits, “I’m still feeling the same old way” despite the calendar change to 1936. With influential bluesman Peetie Wheatstraw backing her on piano, she finally admits, “I’m changing my way of living, that’s all I have to say.”

Come 1953 Lightning Hopkins was jumpin’ with “Happy New Year,” the logical flipside to his single “Merry Christmas.” “Don’t think about Christmas,” he sings in it, “cause Christmas just has left.”

What makes a classic and what makes a forgotten holiday song? Irving Berlin wrote both “White Christmas” and “”Let’s Start the New Year Right” for Bing Crosby to sing in the 1942 movie “Holiday Inn.”

The former was a No. 1 song for 11 weeks that became a perennial classic; the other barely hit No. 18 in 1943 and certainly seems forgotten these days. Still, it’s a decent mid-tempo number that begins with a countdown: “Five minutes to midnight…”

Likewise, bluesman Charles Brown will forever be linked to his “Merry Christmas Baby” but not so much for his 1961 follow-up, “Bringing in a Brand New Year.”

When Spike Jones & His City Slickers had a hit in 1948 with “All I Want for Christmas is my Two Front Teeth,” they put another novelty song, “Happy New Year,” on the flipside. The lively recording features all three of Jones’ comedy voices: Earl Bennett (as Sir Frederick Gas), George Rock and Doodles Weaver. The party,  with complicated clanking bells and sound effects, was all recorded live in one take, according to Dr. Demento, who anthologized it for his “Holidays in Dementia.”

That 1995 collection closed with Los Angeles parodist Scary Gary Alan, “New Year’s Resolutions,” with the tune of “Auld Lang Syne” that incorporates some rapped gags.

Of the other songs of the season, the Coolbreezers, living up to their name, gave a swingin’ greeting on their 1957 “Hello Mr. New Year,” backed by Al White and his band.

The Heartbeats, whose “A Thousand Miles Away” was stolen for “Daddy’s Home” by Shep & the Limelights, has some of the same vibe in 1957’s “After New Year’s Eve,” a single that asks, “Did you have a ball on New Year’s Eve?”

In 1967, Otis Redding and Carla Thomas pledged to “finish what we started” on “New Year’s Resolution,” which kicked off side two to their “King & Queen” collaboration that also included “Tramp” and “Knock on Wood.”

The Eagles concocted the throwaway “Funky New Year” as a B-side to their 1981 holiday single, a cover of “Please Come Home for Christmas,” but they did play the song on one of their comeback tours.

Likewise “New Year’s Eve Party” was the flipside to George Thorogood’s more enduring 1983 single “Rock and Roll Christmas”

The Bottle Rockets called their 1999 album “Brand New Year” and had two versions of the title song on it – metalloid and mandolin-backed; both with the same lament: “Brand new year, same old troubles.”

A similarly country-tinged ditty from 2004, Charlie Robison’s agreeable “New Year’s Day” acknowledged the calendar change but doubted it would affect things much on the border, since “it’s always been this way.”

Judy Garland, for her well-regarded 1957 album “Alone” recorded the ultimate song about being dateless on New Year’s Eve. And yet, in the ironically-titled “Happy New Year” she seems to give an inadvertent shout out to a future audience when she notes, “The gay ones don their silly paper hats/ And blow their stupid little horns.”

A number of songs thought to be about the New Year, though, are really not. And I’m not just talking about Europe’s ever-recurring  “The Final Countdown.”

In the rap field, Snoop Dogg’s “New Years Eve,” for example, uses the day as merely a metaphor for a fine lady. “Every time I see you shine it’s like the lights at midnight on New Year’s Eve,” collaborator Marty James sings.

Van Morrison’s “Celtic New Year,” from his 2005 “Magic Time” album may qualify as a perfect holiday song until you realize that the Celtic New Year actually falls on Nov. 1.

Great Lake Swimmers’ 2011 track “Gonna Make It Through This Year” is not specific about the date either. Singer Tony Dekker could be talking about the fiscal year except for the six feet of snow.

Foo Fighters’ “Next Year,” the final single from their 2000 album “There is Nothing Left to Lose,” talks about vague plans for homecoming in a single chorus lyric: “I’ll be coming home next year.” No promise that it’s Jan. 1 (Indeed, the song was vague enough to serve as theme song to TV’s “Ed” for one season).

But there’s something both specific and very European about Abba’s 1980 “Happy New Year,” a cut from their “Super Trouper” album, and it may be the yodel-like Alpine trill to the chorus.

Death Cab for Cutie’s “The New Year,” which kicks off their 2003 album “Transatlanticism,” shows some disillusion with the distinction of Jan. 1 immediately after midnight strikes. “I don’t feel any different,” Ben Gibbard sings.

Former Semisonic frontman Dan Wilson wrote a strong anthem for the holiday with his “What a Year for a New Year,” widely heard on the swell 2002 multiple-artist holiday collection “Maybe This Christmas.”

And Regina Spektor also revived a nice holiday tune in 2007 with the seemingly overly polite “My Dear Acquaintance (A Happy New Year),” a song co-written by Peggy Lee and Paul Horner for her failed 1983 Broadway show “Peg.”

Lee’s original recording (minus the sirens and gunfire sound effects) can be found on the 2006 compilation “Christmas with Peggy Lee.”

Azure Ray’s 2002 “The New Year,” from their “Burn and Shiver” album has them singing in high notes about the promise of the new year to a tinkly electronic backing.

In “New Year,” one of the catchiest songs from the latest album from Beach House, “Bloom,” the Baltimore duo talks about hopes and promises and and “a portrait of a young girl waiting for a New Year.”

Tori Amos’ “Our New Year,” capping her 2009 holiday collection “Midwinter Graces” album, the protagonist keeps thinking she is seeing a loved one at a party, though she is wrong. Some assumed it was inspired by the death of her brother in a car accident in 2005, but she’s said she’d rather keep the subject of the song private.

There are a few New Year’s Eve songs that never mention those words.

Pink’s “Raise Your Glass” may be associated with the last day of the year because it was used in the movie “New Year’s Eve,” and of course involves toasting and drinking (the soundtrack to that movie did include a song called “New Year” by Kate York).

George Harrison’s “Ding Dong, Ding Dong,” the second single from his 1974 “Dark Horse” album, is all about the New Year without ever saying so, from its opening “Ring out the old, ring in the new,” to its wry commentary on time itself: “Yesterday, today was tomorrow/ And tomorrow, today will be yesterday.”

The Breeders 1983 “New Year,” from their hit album “Last Splash,” is unlikely to make it to party mixes. In it, Kim Deal sings, “I am the new year” just as she sings “I am the rain” and “I am the sun.” A new video of it, “New Year XX” heralded their 2013 tour marking the 20th anniversary of “Last Splash.”

One nice addition to the end of year set of songs was Tom Waits’ “New Year’s Eve,” which closes his 2011 collection “Bad as Me.” In it, he describes the end of a raucous evening just before someone dashes it all and moves to Vegas.

And just as he had used the melody to open “A Sight for Sore Eyes” in 1977, this one also ends with the old words of Robert Burns: “Should auld acquaintance be forgot and never brought to mind…”

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