The Carpenters’ 20 greatest songs – ranked!

As their self-titled, third album and biggest hit turns 50, we pick their best work

20. Road Ode (1972)

The Carpenters’ greatest album remains the compilation Singles 1969-1973, on which the duo remixed, re-recorded and segued their hits into one glorious gush of sound, but 1972’s A Song for You runs it close, because the album tracks are as good as the singles, as on this gorgeous portrait of a tour-weary musician.

19. Another Song (1971)

Plenty of early-70s albums ended with a free-form jam, but of all the exponents of said form, the Carpenters were the most improbable: Another Song unexpectedly and rather thrillingly unravels into psychedelic guitar and occasionally atonal electric piano improv, underpinned by frantic drums. They never recorded anything like it again.

18. If I Had You (recorded 1980, released 1989)

The day before she died, in February 1983, Karen Carpenter rang producer Phil Ramone to discuss “our fucking record” – the 1980 solo album her label refused to release. When its contents were unveiled on posthumous Carpenters’ albums, their decision appeared baffling, as evidenced by I Had You: her patent brand of melancholy given a smooth, shiny funk makeover.

17. Touch Me When We’re Dancing (1981)

Made in America (1981) was a cautious return after a hiatus provoked by Richard Carpenter’s drug addiction and the anorexia that would eventually kill his sister, but the single Touch Me When We’re Dancing was great, very gently beckoning a hint of disco into the Carpenter’s luxurious sound world.

16. It’s Going to Take Some Time (1972)

Co-written by Carole King – at the time a noticeably hipper songwriter than the Carpenters usually worked with – It’s Going to Take Some Time offers the delightful, if seldom-heard sound of Karen picking herself up and dusting herself down after a failed romance, rather than describing its agonies in heartrending detail.

15. Aurora/Eventide (1975)

By the mid-70s, the Carpenters’ albums had begun to sound formulaic and stuffed with filler, but they still occasionally pulled out something great in between the hits. The fragile loveliness of Aurora and Eventide – two versions of the same song that bookended 1975’s Horizon – is a perfect case in point.

14. I Won’t Last a Day Without You (1972)

Paul Williams – later to write Evergreen, score Bugsy Malone and work on Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories – was the Carpenters’ great songwriting discovery, co-authoring a string of great songs for them after they covered his ad soundtrack We’ve Only Just Begun, the superb, bittersweet I Won’t Last A Day Without You among them.

13. All I Can Do (1969)

You can hear the Carpenters’ jazz roots on All I Can Do, a song unlike anything else they recorded: layers of Swingle Singers-ish harmonies and an electric piano solo over a 5/4 rhythm, powered by Karen’s hyperactive drumming. Incredibly, it sounds remarkably like late-90s Stereolab.

12. There’s a Kind of Hush (1976)

Karen protested the duo’s image “would be impossible for Mickey Mouse to maintain”: if they were seen as cutesy, it was down to their up-tempo songs, which seldom had the emotional heft of their ballads. But sometimes they were so beguiling they were hard to resist: There’s a Kind of Hush has rounded edges, but it’s really charming.

11. This Masquerade (1973)

The Carpenters were seldom mediocre: 1973’s Now and Then was either unspeakable (the gruesome children’s choir-assisted Sing; a cover of Hank Williams’ Jambalaya, a song about as appropriate for the Carpenters as the Dead Kennedys’ Holiday in Cambodia) or exquisite, as on this gorgeous, drowsy-but-dark version of Leon Russell’s song about a failing relationship.

10. (They Long to Be) Close to You (1970)

It’s easy to overlook Richard’s skill as an arranger – audibly influenced by the soundscapes of Pet Sounds-era Brian Wilson, he was nevertheless always going to be in the shadow of his sister’s singing – but (They Long To Be) Close to You is fantastically done: a gentle epic of swelling harmonies and cinematic strings

9. Calling Occupants of Interplanetary Craft (The Recognized Anthem of World Contact Day) (1977)

Perhaps the Carpenters covering an eight-minute song about an alien invasion – by forgotten Canadian Beatles impersonators Klaatu – seemed less WTF? in 1977 than it does now: it was the year of Star Wars fever and Close Encounters. It is richly melodic and completely ridiculous: Karen’s voice also makes it weirdly moving.

Ticket to Ride.

8. Ticket to Ride (1969)

The Carpenters slowed the tempo of Ticket to Ride, changing its mood from breezy bitterness to languid sorrow. Today, it sounds weirdly – and completely unintentionally – like a hushed eulogy for the 60s to rank alongside Let It Be or Bridge Over Troubled Water, a song that ushered in that decade’s period of thrilling musical innovation transformed into wistful melancholy.

7. For All We Know (1971)

A song that took a more tentative view of blossoming romance than its predecessor We’ve Only Just Begun – there’s an odd shrug of the shoulders about the chorus line “love may grow, for all we know” – this is both beautiful and beautifully arranged, a cor anglais weaving around the vocal.

6. We’ve Only Just Begun (1970)

A song with a curiously circular life: originally commissioned for a US bank ad and sung by Smokey Roberds, then opportunistically covered by the Carpenters, it’s currently on … a UK bank ad, albeit rendered in the usual latterday sad-acoustic-indie-ad soundtrack style – one that pales next to the Carpenters’ alternately joyous and tender version.

5. Hurting Each Other (1971)

Perhaps the greatest expression of Karen’s extraordinary voice – unshowy, velvet-smooth but ineffably sorrowful – was on Hurting Each Other. She fills the ostensibly upbeat opening lines with sadness, the drop in temperature at the end of the chorus – as she slowly sings “without ever knowing why” – is authentically shiver-inducing.

4. Yesterday Once More (1973)

There’s a sense in which this utterly sublime paean to oldies radio is the Carpenters’ less wordy answer to Don McLean’s American Pie, a song about both enduring fandom and US pop’s loss of innocence over the course of the 60s: the new decade feels “rather sad, so much has changed”.

Rainy Days and Mondays

3. Rainy Days and Mondays (1971)

Rainy Days and Mondays sounds like a beautiful, empathic portrait of what the feminist Betty Friedan called “the problem that has no name”: the fatigued emptiness that 70s housewives were prescribed Valium for. The vocal shifts from resigned misery to glassy indifference (“nice to know somebody loves me”), at odds with the warm, cosseting sound.

2. Superstar (1971)

Karen was an unlikely candidate for the role of lovelorn groupie, but her performance on Superstar is astonishing: she inhabited the lyric’s troubled mediation on the boundaries between artist and fan so completely that every previous version of the song – including Delaney and Bonnie’s more raffish original – was immediately rendered void.

1. Goodbye to Love (1972)

Such was the Carpenters’ saccharine image that the distorted guitar solo that plays over Goodbye to Love’s closing burst of harmonies was considered a risky move. But then, Goodbye to Love itself seems like a risky move. Much of the Carpenters’ appeal came from wrapping sadness in super-smooth arrangements, but the sheer despondency of Goodbye to Love’s lyric would have given Joy Division pause: “No one ever cared if I should live or die … all I know of love is how to live without it.” Karen’s vocal is a masterclass in restraint, its eerie calmness only amplifying the song’s emotional punch. Scoff about easy listening at your peril: this is an awesome record.

Contributor

Alexis Petridis

The GuardianTramp

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