Having “fun” on New Year’s Eve is an unjust pressure to put on anyone. The peppier crowd may feel a sense of rejuvenation watching the door close on another whimsical chapter of their lives. For those who are not exactly ready to put the microscope on another year of falling short of their resolutions, staying away from the crowds and keeping the celebration to a minimum is probably for the best.
When compiling a New Year’s playlist for a party, you tend to pick “crowd pleasers” for every occasion. You know, things to keep the mood light and festive. But if we are going to be honest with ourselves, this year deserves a selection of songs that matches the deflated-balloon mood that we all feel as we doggy-paddle away from the sinking cruise line that was 2021.
When The Walkmen were in full stride, they were truly the unparalleled doomsayers of the early-aughts post-punk boom. With songs like “We’ve Been Had” and, of course, “The Rat,” singer Hamilton Leithauser plays the outsider who just wasn’t made for these times. Stretching his vocal cords until they bleed, he shrieks out into the void in lieu of weighing it all down with another shot and a beer at a bar he’d rather not be in. The pinnacle entry for the band was their 2008 world-weary opus You & Me, which included their most heartbreaking song, “In The New Year.” The tragedy of the song comes with the misguided optimism of Leithauser’s protagonist. “I know that it’s true / it’s gonna be a good year,” he sings after describing the flat he’s staying in and the broken heart that has cast him adrift. Even though he resents his friends for marrying his sisters and that he fears testing his loved ones’ patience when he needs a couch to crash on, he’s just like you. He never hears the bad news and he never will. “We won by a landslide,” he yelps with shaky confidence. With how triumphant Leithauser sounds wailing his affirmations back at himself, it breaks your heart knowing how the pieces will add up. “My heart’s in the strangest place / That’s how it started / and that’s how it ends.”
There’s a line in Death Cab for Cutie’s Transatlanticism opener “The New Year” that perfectly encapsulates the childlike naïveté that we lose a little more of each year as we grow older. It’s not Gibbard’s initial proclamation of not feeling any different after the ball drops, or that he has to rally his friends out onto the front lawn to pretend they’re wealthy, lighting some firecrackers and shooting the shit in their best clothes. It’s when he longs for things to go back to a time when the human race had less of an idea of how vast the world was. Teetering on the tightrope of being a flat-earther and just longing for simplicity, Gibbard wishes we could travel just by “folding the map.” Much like a resolution that is nice to hear when said out loud, but harder to actually achieve, he feels like maybe we can forget our shortcomings as the seconds tick by toward midnight. “There’d be no distance that could hold us back,” he says over and over again, until he actually believes it.
John Darnielle never actually mentions New Year’s Eve or New Year’s Day in The Mountain Goats’ motivational anthem “This Year.” For all we know, the day a puberty-plagued Darnielle drove home drunk after hanging out with a girl named Cathy to meet his stepfather’s wrath could have been Feb. 3 or May 14. Bad times are continuous—all that matters is the hope for a better outcome as we rip through another calendar. Even though the song deals with perseverance through abuse, Darnielle’s unbridled optimism in the song’s chorus acts as a bulky sleeve covering a bruise, no matter what caused it: “I am gonna make it through this year / If it kills me.” What may have been the song of the first year of the pandemic for many has become an undying rally cry as we trudge across the finish line into 2022.
We haven’t heard a new record from the poet laureate of the junkyard in over a decade, but Tom Waits left us with one of the best chaotic New Year’s songs on his 2011 album Bad as Me with “New Year’s Eve.” The story revolves around a pack of junkies doing their best to stay warm and to not come apart at the seams. A problematic love interest is the main focus for Waits’ narrator, one who seems to have been egging their behavior on for years, and with each time she scores, someone gets “hauled and handcuffed and booked.” The character describes each of their friends in desperate states on what happens to be New Year’s Eve, and comes to a realization that the time for change is now. He makes black coffee, pours out the rum and thinks about going back to work as a truck driver. The rich character study is like Trainspotting in waltz form. Waits chooses to connect all of these toxic patterns with the familiar chorus of “Auld Lang Syne.” Perhaps some acquaintances need to be forgotten in order for us to move on with our lives.
Mal Blum’s song “New Year’s Eve,” from their 2010 album Every Time You Go Somewhere, plays out like a folk-punk epic in the vein of a time-jumping tragic comedy. Blum eats guacamole and remembers New Year’s past when they and their friends spent the night puking from bad shrimp and deciding to tell the lovers who don’t respect them to hit the bricks. As sorrowful and remorseful as Blum comes off in certain moments, they also offer a resilient resolution that could be useful this year: “Here’s to always ever-changing / Circumstances we’re arranging / Throwing all our cautions to the ground / They only weigh you down.” The way Blum lays past mistakes out across the song’s six minutes before offering that wisdom makes you understand how difficult it can be to walk the walk. But isn’t that the point of resolutions? Trying and failing is a part of the process.
If you google any holiday with “Guided by Voices” next to it, you’re bound to find some warped poetry from one-man songwriting factory Robert Pollard that covers your curiosity. With over 2,400 songs to his name—that we, the public, know about—the beauty to being a fan of Uncle Bob’s work is not only being treated to an unrelenting onslaught of pop nuggets, but also that his large body of work mimics life’s emotional ebbs and flows in an unsparing, free-associative kind of way. His lyrics provide a considerable amount of sobering wisdom once you wade through the playful psychedelic imagery he tends to color his tunes with. On “What Begins on New Year’s Day” from the late-career highlight August by Cake (that’s assuming Pollard will ever stop), he touches upon the hopelessness we feel as another year approaches while we look back on a year of resolutions not kept. In its final verse, Pollard calls it like he sees it and how we all secretly feel once our optimism fades. “For year to year eternities / they wave goodbye,” he sings with a heft behind his words, “To careless gestures gone away / To what begins on New Year’s Day.”
If you’ve seen the recent Kenneth Branagh film Belfast, you know that the outlook of people living in certain areas of conflict in Northern Ireland during “The Troubles’’ was pretty bleak, to say the least. In fact, a lot of that frustration and uncertainty shows through in the early work of Scott Aukerman and Adam Scott’s favorite lovable lads from Dublin, U2. It may outrage punks to say so, but U2 are one of the most influential post-punk and proto-emo bands of all time—when you listen to early albums like 1983’s War, you start to get the picture. These guys were both pissed and filled with so much desire to make a change that it was undeniable. On the War classic “New Year’s Day,” Bono wonders if “all is quiet,” does that mean “nothing changes” on a New Year’s Day? Like all of their best early work, the song is a simplified message of frustration that can either seem like a lightning rod or a vague platitude when read closely. But there’s just no denying how much vigor the band had for the state of the world at that time. That spark to shake the complacent into action still faintly remains in all of U2’s work, whether you look for it or not.
Much like “This Year,” Paul Westerberg’s “Let The Bad Times Roll” isn’t exactly referencing New Year’s, per se. But it’s hard for me not to think of the year we are crawling out of without this song blaring through the PA set up in the back of my empty skull. “The good times hide and so do I,” he sings in a defeated drawl, a feeling that has become all too familiar for those of us who are reaching the bottom of the “ripped from the headlines crime documentary” barrel as we enter year three of the pandemic. The Replacements frontman is normally an expert at crafting haphazard bops that have an evergreen quality to their heartbreak. But damn, who would have guessed how relevant this song from his 2002 double album Stereo / Mono would be 20 years after it was released? There is even a line in the bridge where he says—in his grammar-be-damned style—“I need someone not infection.” It’s like he knew that interactions with others would need some ground rules in the future. While it may not be the best advice to take, with the way things are going, why not “Let The Bad Times Roll”?
“A Long December” by Counting Crows may be the greatest embodiment of giving up on a year that brought nothing but bullshit and wretched vibes aplenty. It’s basically like one five-minute shrug emoji—that feeling that no matter how hard you try, it’s “all a lot of oysters, but no pearls.” Forever the deflated puppy in a window, singer Adam Duritz pulls you into his world as he shivers through the last days of December, whether he’s up in Laurel Canyon or out looking for a connection in Hollywood. He’s alone, but he hasn’t been for all that long. “If you think that I could be forgiven, I wish you would,” he pleads to his lost love before taking a solitary 2 a.m. drive up to Hillside Manor to talk to himself about the things he couldn’t share when they were together. Maybe if she comes back to California, this year “will be better than the last,” or maybe he just needs to drive out to see the ocean and let the dialogue play out in his own head. Either way, there’s always next year.
Sure, I could have written about Prince’s timeless and iconic “1999,” about partying before the end of the year ushers in the apocalypse. But in my mind, the worst nostalgic “vibe” I can remember was when Limp Bizkit decided to cover the song during the last moments of the year 1999 at MTV’s 2lLarge Millenium Countdown” New Year’s Eve Party as we all waited to find out if Y2K would unfold like the world-ending blanket it was touted as. Well, our world didn’t end. But what we did get was this musical equivalent of holding in your bowels for hours, surrounded by queasy tourists on the verge of a blackout. Watching the clip again years removed from that night, you can just feel the hubris rushing out of the band and filling the studio like a toxic fart, casting a spell on those in the audience who just couldn’t get enough hollow rap-rock before the dawning of the new millennium. Or … wait a second. Perhaps this is the moment when the simulation went from its Beta test to humanity’s main operating system. This was simply the theme music for all of us being pulled down softly into our goop-filled charging tubes by our techno-overlords. Agent Fred Durst, the Pied Piper of the Matrix, ringing in New Year’s with that grating whine of his to tell us all that “we’re out of time”—or at least “time” as we once knew it. Either way, when the final seconds of this year start to wind down, it’s worth it to throw on this video to see if conjuring this moment can counteract any bad energy we’ve been dealt over the past two years. Hey, it’s worth a shot!
Pat King is a Philadelphia-based journalist and host of the In Conversation podcast at Ears to Feed. He releases his own music with his project Labrador and is a tireless show-goer and rock doc fanatic. He recently took up long-distance running, which he will not shut up about. You can follow him at @MrPatKing.