While releasing a Christmas album is a time-honored commercial tradition, not all artists are up to the task. Thanks to Richard Carpenter’s studio expertise, an oversized studio orchestra and chorus, terrific arrangements and, most of all, Karen Carpenter’s divine vocals, Christmas Portrait is a timeless album that only gets better with each passing holiday.
Christmas Portrait is the first Christmas album recorded by Carpenters, and the only one issued during Karen Carpenter’s lifetime. Originally released on October 13, 1978, it charted on December 9, 1978 and would go on to be the No. 1 Christmas album of that year.
After The Carpenters At Christmas TV special aired on December 9, 1977, the sibling duo decided it was finally the time to record a Christmas album. Spanning most of the seasonal classics, both sacred and secular, they ended up recording more than enough for Christmas Portrait, which tested the limits of how much music could fit on an LP.
The album is quintessentially American, with even the cover modeled after Norman Rockwell’s famous self-portrait. The tracklist traverses through myriad standards backed with arrangements by Peter Knight, Billy May, and Richard Carpenter. The best holiday albums have the Pavlovian effect of evoking a rosy glow of comfort, while the worst of them remind you of being trapped at the mall. Thankfully, Christmas Portrait is of the former, blanketing the audience in strings, horns, bells, and cherubic backup singers that borders on celestial.
While most of the classics are covered, the album follows a narrative structure, with the a cappella O Come, O come Immanuel and ends with / the Bach / Gounod “Ave Maria.” But the most memorable song to come out of the album is inarguably the bittersweet “Merry Christmas Darling,” with music written by Richard in 1966, to lyrics by the duo’s University choir director Frank Pooler, who’d written them two decades before. While it was originally released as a single in 1970, the Christmas album included a new lead vocal by Karen, who was not quite satisfied with her original. The album went platinum not long after its release and has gone on to become a classic.