December 21, 2016

A Little Carpenters for Christmas: Top Ten Songs

Christmas music and Karen Carpenter were made for each other. Clearly, a match made for the ages, a classic combination of artist and song as can be imagined. The first album of seasonal songs - one of two- a timeless work. Unfortunately, it was also the last great album recorded by the duo in a career tragically cut short. 

Much like when Nat King recorded his album of holiday tunes, when Richard and Karen Carpenter released Christmas Portrait in 1978, it became the must have Christmas album for a new generation. 

The original version is not found on any Carpenters Christmas disc.

The origins of the album begin with the release of Merry Christmas Darling in 1970 at the beginnings of their chart success. Fans and critics instantly realized it to be a powerful combination, wondering when more holiday themed songs would arrive. Darling was an instant classic. The Richard Carpenter / Frank Pooler song was followed by a mid-decade release of a jazz version of Santa Claus is Coming to Town. 

When a full length album was finally released, a new version of The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire) became the newest 45 rpm release. It further cemented Karen's position as the female vocalist who owned the Christmas season. The album was originally planned to be a double disc, but for some reason, that was tossed aside by the executives at A&M Records. 

Karen's untimely death in 1983 left fans wondering what was left in the vault to be released. Following the fall release of the excellent Voice of the Heart, Richard answered the question by giving fans An Old Fashioned Christmas. It only brought seven new songs by Karen, but it was well worth it. Both discs get much play during the season in our house, and the Christmas music always begins when Karen croons "Frosted window panes"- even when we lived in temperate Southern California. 

On the set of the first Christmas television special.

With such a wealth of great songs to choose from, here are my Top Ten Carpenters Christmas songs in no particular order other than my memory:

1- Merry Christmas Darling
It may be a sacrilege to some fans, but this listener prefers the newer, sultry, and softer version found on Christmas Portrait over the huskier original. The multi-layered ending caps off the song perfectly. It's been recorded by many artists, but none compare.

2- I'll Be Home for Christmas
Admittedly, this one was hard to listen to after Karen's death. (Can you just imagine what emotions Richard goes through every Christmas season when their songs are constantly played? Pray for the man!) Wistful, sorrowful, and melancholy but perfect in execution.

3- Christmas Waltz
I had never heard this one on the radio prior to Christmas Portrait. As I mentioned, the opening lines are the "official" kickoff to playing Christmas music in our home. A romantic Christmas tune if there ever was one. Always made me want to dance with my wife or my daughters when they were little.

4- What Are You Doing New Year's Eve?
Speaking of romance, I find this to be the standout track on the second album, and it's one of my favorites by any artist. Her tender performance isn't as commanding as on the next song I mention, but there's something about the 40's big band sound with Karen's incredible voice that is just hits all the right notes.

5- Do You Hear What I Hear?
After a very effective opening by Richard, Karen comes in on this old classic with such presence, the listener remembers once again how powerful her voice was. Shades of Superstar and Rainy Days and Mondays. It's a majestic vocal performance befitting the pronouncement of the arrival of the Little King. 

6- Santa Claus is Coming to Town
Two versions exist. The first features an upbeat saxophone solo by Bob Messenger. It's terrific, but it has yet to make it's way to a Carpenters Christmas collection. The second one premiered on An Old Fashioned Christmas with the sax replaced by another with Tom Scott. This way feels very different, and it depends on my mood as to which I prefer. Either way, Richard outdid himself with the arrangement. The audio versions are great, but watching Karen and Richard perform this on the Perry Como Christmas Show is even better. 

7-  Tie: Carol of the Bells / Nutcracker Suite / O Holy Night
Showing his skill on the piano, Richard takes the spotlight on both these pieces, and he absolutely shines. It only makes me wish Karen had sung O Holy Night, my favorite Christmas song. 

8- First Snowfall / Let It Snow
A couple of playful tunes to break up the serious tone found in much of Christmas Portrait. There are two pieces to this medley that grab me: First the doubled vocal on Snowfall, "Folks put runners on their surreys and forget about their worries". Then on Let It Snow, when Karen coos "but if you'd really hold me tight", she melts the snow on a winter's day. 

9- The Christmas Song
The Mel Torme classic perfectly presented in arrangement and execution. It really doesn't get much better than this. There's a reason this one remains on the radio year after year.

10- Silent Night
The real meaning of Christmas comes through. Hearing Karen sing "Christ the Savior is Born" still brings me chills after almost 40 years. How could it not? My favorite vocalist singing about the One True Son of God and using her God-given incredible lower register. 

It's been said many times by Richard that Karen loved Christmas and its music. You can certainly hear the dedication to their craft in this music. By risking to record and release a Christmas album when it was out of vogue to do so, Karen and Richard continued to take risks as throughout their career- and in the midst created an enduring classic. 


RightBlocker91 said...

My Top Carpenters Christmas Songs

1. “Merry Christmas, Darling”
Both versions of this song are perfect, but there’s something about the original recording that gets me every time.
2. “Christ is Born”
This song begins quietly, like the miracle of Christ’s birth on that cold winter’s night. The song builds as the angels proclaim their glorious “Alleluias” inviting all to “adore Him.” This song takes me to the manger scene in a way that few hymns can.
3. “It’s Christmas Time” and “Sleep Well, Little Children”
Accompanied only by Richard’s complex work on the keyboards, Karen sings of celebrating the birth of the “Little King” as well as the traditional joys of meeting friends for caroling and spreading “good cheer.” “Sleep Well, Little Children” is simply lovely, and I sung it to my godchildren and to my own sons when they were small.
4. “The Christmas Waltz”
I read once that listening to the overture and waiting for Karen’s voice on “The Christmas Waltz” was akin to the anticipation a child feels on Christmas Eve. I must concur. From Karen’s first quiet breath to her “wish to you and yours” at the end of the song, “The Christmas Waltz” is lovely, sincere, and warm. In short, it’s everything a Christmas song should be.
5. “Home for the Holidays”
A music critic once commented that one of Karen’s strengths was the underlying sense of melancholy she expressed so well. He also noted that she lacked the ability to capture happiness in her voice. I disagree completely. “Home for the Holidays” showcases a lightness, a spontaneous sense of whimsy in Karen’s intelligent reading of the lyrics that clearly shows Karen’s unparalleled range.
6. “The Christmas Song”
While the quintessential version of this classic will always belong to Nat King Cole, Karen’s version is simply amazing. From the little-heard introduction to the soaring high notes at the end, Karen’s ability to make a song her own cannot be disputed here.
7. “White Christmas”
This arrangement includes the introduction (sung in a conversation manner) that builds to a sentimental depth rarely achieved in music. From the opening notes to Karen’s final little hum, “White Christmas” makes real the way most of us feel about the Christmases of our past.
8. “Silent Night”
Karen’s reading is pitch-perfect, and the lovely background harmonies add depth and meaning to this familiar tune. Like “Christ is Born,” this song captures the mystery of Christ’s birth and takes me to the cold night in a manger so long ago.
9. “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”
Andy Williams’ version of this classic may be the best, but Karen’s is close. Once again, by including the introduction, Karen makes the song her own. The way Karen holds the final notes is heart-breaking.
10. “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day”
This was a difficult song to include for several reasons. The lyrics, penned by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, are very powerful and at times, painful. The fact that this song is the final track on the final Carpenters Christmas album is also very sad. Nonetheless, this song makes my top ten for several reasons. Karen takes us with Longfellow to the brink of despair, ruing the fact that our “quite imperfect world” mocks the song of the peaceful Christmas bells. There is no peace on earth,” Karen sings. In light of this year’s national events, I, too, feel that “hate is strong” and “mocks the song of ‘Peace on Earth goodwill to men.’” And yet . . . as the final verse soars, the bells “peal more load and deep” that eventually, “wrong shall fail, right prevail.” A cautiously hopeful ending to a song written in a time of national crisis – as timely today as it was in the 1800s. Patience, faith, hope, and love – the message of Christmas now and forever

Mark Taft said...

VERY nice list. Just a comment- I would say "in light of this year's INTERNATIONAL events" as man's hate goes far beyond our country. I've read and know first hand of stories where those who love Jesus are killed, tortured or otherwise persecuted for their faith. As a global community, we've seen terrorist bombings, famine, the ongoing slaughter of pre-born children, racial unrest fanned into flame by governmental leadership both national and international and more. The faith-based songs on the Carpenters albums point to the only true way for our world to have real and lasting peace. Merry Christmas to you, and thank you for reading!