We’ve reached the end of 2023 at last. And with that, an excuse to explore one of the singular songs in recorded music history: ‘At Last.’

Soul and R&B titan Etta James released it in 1961 and thereafter it became her signature song as well as a staple of the Great American Songbook.

In 2008 the movie Cadillac Records brought another indelible version, this one by none other than Beyoncé, singing it while playing James in the film. Beyoncé, of course, became still better known for another performance of it a short time after, a goose bump-inducing live rendition she gave for Barack and Michelle Obama’s first dance at the newly elected president’s Inaugural Ball on Jan. 20, 2009.

Many others have also interpreted this extraordinary song – Etta James, in fact, was not even the tune’s originator; ‘At Last’ first appeared in 1942 as done by the Glenn Miller orchestra. But to me those two, Etta James and Beyoncé, would objectively have to be the indisputable standard-bearers for this truly unforgettable song.

Until this week, when I heard it sung by the amazing Raul Malo on a recording from his solo album You’re Only Lonely (released in 2006 — how the hell did I miss this?!). For the uninitiated, Malo is the lovable lead singer and frontman for one of the great genre-spanning bands of the last 30 years, The Mavericks, a unit once described in So Much Great Music as “earth’s happiest band.” His radiant, almost operatic voice would be among my short list of pure perfection in pop music history (don’t make me detail them all, but he’d be in the top echelon among at least James Taylor, Steve Winwood and Vince Gill).

Now I’m not crazy enough to call Malo’s version better than either Etta James or Beyoncé; this is one time where I’m not going to try to rank good, better and best. Suffice to say, however, that in the throes of hectic holiday-making preparations it literally made me stop what I was doing to just sit there and listen with my jaw hanging open, joyously transported. The beautiful, swirling string arrangements, a sanguine, mood-stamping trombone interlude, Malo’s at once understated then absolutely gorgeous soaring vocals, and the song – man, what an incredible damn song.

It all felt, well, beyond mere excellence and into the sublime. Even inspirational. Like, even in the midst of the harrowing issues facing the world at the close of another tumultuous, too often tragic, year, if something this exquisite still exists among us, there must still be a reason for some degree of optimism. And that, as much as anything else I can think of, seems like as good of an end-of-year message as one could hope to find.

Happy new year, all. May it be the one you want, at last.

Couldn’t resist: here’s Beyoncé at the Inaugural (who’s beaming more, Queen Bey or the Obamas?)