One night during my sophomore year of college, I came back to my small fraternity bedroom to find my dirtbag roommate hosting a random assortment of barflies, sorority girls and general layabouts he’d been out drinking with earlier that evening. (He didn’t tell me he was bringing people over, let alone ask. He never asked.)
Stone cold sober after a night of studying — this must have been one of those periods when I was dangerously close to flunking out, and in a fit of panic, decided to become studious for a short period of time — I was in no mood to entertain a bunch of drunks who wanted to use my room to smoke weed and listen to late-1990s gangster rap into the wee hours. (My roommate had very specific taste.) I needed some fucking sleep, man, but no one, least of all my roommate, would listen to my pleas for quiet.
Still, these people needed to leave, so I took the most extreme measure possible: I commandeered the music and played “Closing Time” (loudly). Like hogs to the slaughter, everyone in the room quickly and dutifully filed out of the room. I felt like a wizard.
Such is the power of the bar-closing song — the tune that a given bar plays every night at last call, and reminds patrons that while they don’t have to go home, they can’t, in fact, stay “here.”
Attend the same bar enough, and you’ll develop a Pavlovian relationship with its chosen closing song. Hear it and you mindlessly shuffle to the exit, refocusing on after-hours plans. And for people working at the bar, the bar-closing song is a welcome signal that their work is nearly done, and that soon these drunken assholes will be temporarily out of their lives.
Yet, despite what some people say, you don’t want to play a song that’s so repulsive that it causes people to flee like madmen. You want a song that will bring patrons down smoothly and lovingly herds them toward the door. In that vein, here are the best bar-closing songs, ranked:
12. Journey, “Don’t Stop Believin’”
There was a brief — I repeat, brief — moment in 2005 when this song’s reemergence in the culture was fun. The Chicago White Sox adopted the tune as their team anthem during their improbable World Series championship run that year, vaulting it back onto the charts 24 years after its release. A.J. Pierzynski, a man voted the most-hated player in Major League Baseball in 2012 by his peers, liked to sing Journey at karaoke, and it took off from there.
But more than a dozen years later, this song has once again been overplayed to the point that it’s been stripped of every ounce of nostalgic joy. Now every uninspired wedding DJ in the country thinks it’s a contractual requirement to play this song at least once during the reception. And to appease who? Wedding DJs are painfully unoriginal.
11. Neil Diamond, “Sweet Caroline”
This song will definitely help clear out any bar, as there’s nothing that makes me want to leave an area faster than hearing a group of people scream “So good! So good! So good!” in unison.
Neil Diamond sucks. He’s a wannabe Elvis who found a curious niche crooning schmaltzy lounge tunes that only 60-year-old divorcees enjoy. And he’s been dining out on “Sweet Caroline” for nearly 50 years now, and it’s all because of that gimmicky call-and-response in the chorus. People are such suckers.
10. Red Peters, “The Closing Song”
9. Eddie Money, “Take Me Home Tonight”
Money’s drunk and horny plea to a woman to take him home because he’s sad and lonely strikes the ear as pathetic and manipulative, especially in the current social climate. It’s made all the stranger by the woman who coos “Be my little bay-bee” in the refrain. If she already wants Eddie to be her baby, why the fuck is he spending three and half minutes trying to convince her to shack up?
There is the off-chance that this song will come on at the end of the night, and you and the person you’ve been speaking to will sing it together, and the highly suggestive lyrics will convince you that yes, you should take each other home tonight. (Note: This will never happen.)
8. David Allen Coe, “You Never Even Called Me By My Name”
It only recently came to my attention that this is the de facto bar-closing song of many parts of the Deep South, and I understand why — it perfectly encapsulates the despair that sets in when last call is announced. The song’s narrator is so desperate for love, that he’s willing to go home with a woman who confuses him with other, more famous musicians. Too real.
7. Michael Jackson, “Will You Be There”
Better known as the theme to the kid-friendly, orca liberation propaganda film Free Willy, this Michael Jackson diddy is the best, feel-good bar sing-along that absolutely no one knows the words to. This late-career Jackson hit was one of the last truly pleasant memories we have of the former King of Pop and will have you leaving the bar on a high note. But be forewarned that you may have several sobbing millennials on your hands. That last scene in Free Willy — when the boy teaches the whale to jump to its freedom, and the rousing violin music swells in the background — really plucks at the heartstrings.
The whale [sniffles] he’s finally free! But now the boy is friendless again! Life is a cruel joke.
6. Willie Nelson, “The Party’s Over”
As you’ll notice, there are an abundance of country bar-closing songs, which makes sense since it tends to be the most literal of all music genres. Country songs convey their points directly and explicitly — an important quality when you’re trying to get a bar full of drunks to leave.
5. Garth Brooks, “Friends in Low Places”
This was the go-to bar-closing song for 80 percent of the campus bars I frequented as a freshman at the University of Illinois, and it was great. Brooks’ anthem about the joys of being unabashedly unrefined is good listening when you and your friends are blasted on the cheapest booze the world has to offer.
But then, all those same bars inexplicably stopped playing this song, almost as if in unison. I never heard it again, and the source for this collusion against Garth was never uncovered. (By the way, if someone tells you they like “everything but country,” tell them they’re a classist philistine.)
4. John Denver, “Take Me Home, Country Roads”
This peculiar choice for a bar-closing song comes to us from r/bartenders, the Reddit community for and by bartenders, but it’s an obvious choice, as it checks all the requisite boxes for a quality bar-close song:
- It has a chorus everyone can sing to (“Country roads, take me home / To the place I belong”).
- It’s about going home (the place you belong).
- It mentions booze (moonshine).
- And even it suggests a mode of transportation (country roads).
That’s really all you need to get you through that depressing transition from fun at the bar to a lonely Uber ride home.
3. Semisonic, “Closing Time”
Contrary to popular belief, this song isn’t written about drinking until bar close. Semisonic frontman Dan Wilson says he wrote the song about the birth of his first child. Normally, I hate it when artists tell me how to interpret their art — looking at you, Darren Aronofsky — but this gave me a newfound appreciation for the song. I thought “Closing Time” was a perfectly likeable post-grunge, pre-Coldplay arena rock ballad when I first heard it as an 11-year-old. But the song seemed hokey and overly literal as I got older. (The music video remains as great today as it was then, however, and serves as a relic of a bygone era when trying to meet someone out meant using a payphone to leave a message on their answering machine.)
Wilson’s explanation gives the song some much-needed heft, though. Knowing Wilson’s motivations, “Closing Time” reads as a man lamenting the end of his life as a hard-drinking young man and transitioning into fatherhood — and not a song about trying to convince some drunken stranger to go home with you.
Last year, Wilson released a cover of “Closing Time” that strips the song of the power chords and features only his voice and the piano part, and it’s absolutely lovely.
2. George Thorogood, “One Bourbon, One Scotch, One Beer”
It never occurred to me to use this song as a bar-closing song until I saw it suggested on this Reddit thread, but upon closer inspection, it’s genius. Thorogood’s cover of the blues-drinking epic is the ultimate ode to self-medicating with booze, which makes it ideal to kick off a night of focused inebriation. But it functions as a perfect closer, too. The song is eight minutes long, giving people ample warning to settle up before the bar indeed closes. Not to mention, it gives them just enough time to say fuck it and order one more shot for the road. Just hearing that riff makes me want to guzzle booze like Janis Joplin.
1. Lynyrd Skynyrd, “Tuesday’s Gone”
How this song came to be overshadowed by “Freebird” is truly baffling. Malcolm Gladwell could devote 500 pages and a dozen, bullshit social psychology theories to figuring it out.
Skynyrd’s fondness for the Confederate flag makes enjoying them a deeply problematic experience, but Dazed and Confused cemented “Tuesday’s Gone” as the ultimate end-of-the-party anthem. After all, the slide guitar sounds like how the last throes of a party feel.
And if a song can convince Wooderson to leave, then it’ll do just fine at your local haunt.