In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.
When the Carpenters first got to #1, with 1970’s “(They Long To Be) Close To You,” the duo were the exception — wholesomely gloopy kids singing a nice love song in the midst of the wild and chaotic psychedelic era. But over the next few years, the Carpenters’ starry-eyed take on easy listening more or less colonized pop music. And three years later, when they returned to #1, the Carpenters were the rule.
This column is on the precipice of 1974, a dark time for popular music. To judge by the pop charts, this was the time when the record-buying public needed to be soothed, not challenged. It makes sense. After Vietnam and Watergate and a whole lot of assassinations, the world must’ve seemed like a dangerous and unpredictable place, so safe and predictable music probably felt like a balm. And this was the era when many baby boomers were graduating college and joining the workforce. They weren’t rebellious kids anymore, but they were still buying records.
I think it’s striking that most of the artists with #1 singles in the ’60s were in their teens and 20s, while the people making hits in the ’70s tended to be in their 20s and 30s. Even when the people making hits were different, they still came from that same generation. This generation was changing, and its music was changing, too. All of this makes logical sense, but it also means that a whole lot of extremely boring music did well on the charts.
So the Carpenters were pioneers in the field of making boring and unthreatening music extremely popular. But compared to many of the imitators who followed them, the Carpenters’ music was often rich and layered and thoughtful. The Carpenters didn’t suddenly make any huge leaps into the unknown in the early ’70s, but they did find ways to subtly push their sound, adding occasional flourishes to their warm, welcoming little jingles. And “Top Of The World” has something that a whole lot of that ’70s soft rock lacks: A genuine hook.
Richard Carpenter co-wrote “Top Of The World” with John Bettis, a lyricist who worked with him on a whole lot of Carpenters songs. Like “(They Long To Be) Close To You,” it’s a broad and unconflicted love song, simple to the point of being simplistic. When they wrote it, Bettis and Carpenter figured they’d written an album track, and they didn’t have any plans to release it as a single. But after the Carpenters’ 1972 album A Song For You came out, the country singer Lynn Anderson had a huge hit with a cover of “Top Of The World” — something that the Carpenters probably invited when they put pedal steel all over the original. So the Carpenters made “Top Of The World” a single, and it hit #1 after the album had already been out for a year and a half.
“Top Of The World” isn’t a ballad; it’s a solid midtempo jam, with Hal Blaine drums that seem like they’re itching to speed up even further. It’s got a lush and confectionary arrangement, full of strings and organs and milky backup singers. There’s a bland confidence to the song that’s almost admirable. But there’s something else, too. There’s Karen Carpenter.
Karen Carpenter had a way of finding a slight tinge of melancholy in songs that otherwise actively resisted the very existence of sadness. Her voice is warm and controlled, and there’s an intelligent sparkle in it. On “Top Of The World,” she sings about finding some transporting level of happiness: “Not a cloud in the sky, got the sun in my eyes / And I won’t be surprised if it’s a dream.” But Karen’s voice holds on the word “dream,” like she’s seizing on that as the likeliest possible explanation. And Karen also sinks her teeth into the central chorus hook, which is a lot more immediate than much of what her group was offering up.
Almost everything about “Top Of The World” speaks to a basic, surface-level idea of sophistication. But Karen Carpenter’s vocal work is what ultimately saves “Top Of The World” from simper status. She’s what gives the song its richness. She doesn’t turn it into a masterpiece or anything, but she does what she can.
BONUS BEATS: Here’s the vaguely reggae “Top Of The World” cover that Björk’s old band the Sugarcubes released as the B-side to their 1992 single “Walkabout”:
BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Shonen Knife’s pretty-great “Top Of The World” cover, a highlight from the 1994 tribute compilation If I Were A Carpenter and probably the only time in history that a punk cover version is longer than the original:
And here’s the bit from 1998’s The Parent Trap where Shonen Knife’s “Top Of The World” cover plays on the soundtrack:
BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s another punk cover of “Top Of The World,” from Me First And The Gimme Gimmes’ 2014 album Are We Not Men? We Are Diva!: