Release Date: September 30th 2014
Reviewed by Joshua Andre
- The Miracle of Christmas
- It’s The Most Wonderful Time of the Year
- Happy Holidays/Holiday Season
- Christmas Time Is Here (feat. Vince Gill)
- White Christmas (feat. Lady Antebellum)
- Somewhere In My Memory
- The Spirit of Christmas [Deck the Halls, Good King Wenceslas, O Little Town of Bethlehem, Feels Like Christmas, O Come All Ye Faithful]
- Silent Night (feat. Little Big Town)
- What Child Is This (feat. Martina McBride)
- Almost There (feat. Amy Grant)
- All Is Well (feat. Carrie Underwood)
- Christmas Day (feat. Jennifer Nettles)
- The Darkest Midnight (Spoken Word by Bono)
- Peace (with Special Guest Michael McDonald)
It’s that time of year again…where the Christmas celebrations start. Though I believe that Christmas is a wonderful, blessed and probably most special time of the year, as believers are celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ, our Lord and Saviour; it’s a nitpick and a concern of mine that as early as September, the stores light up their establishments with Christmas lights and decorations, and many turkeys, puddings, tinsel, trees and other ornaments are sold. Ads on TV or at the cinemas for Christmas themed movies are released, and even in the CCM industry, Christmas albums release early as well (take the examples of Sidewalk Prophets last year and Jeremy Camp the previous year as well!). Though sometimes I think that thinking of Christmas 3 months early is a bit much, the fact is that it’s a fact of life that has been embraced by and engrained in our culture over the past few years.
Now Michael W. Smith (Smitty) has released a Christmas album- his release The Spirit Of Christmas boasting many guest vocalists popular across both Christian and mainstream music markets undoubtedly the most anticipated Christmas album of the year, and probably the most enjoyable, when you look at the track listing and guest vocalists alone. Having already released Hymns and Sovereign (as a CD, a CD/DVD and a vinyl) this year; The Spirit Of Christmas for me has the right mix of original Smitty Christmas favourites re-recorded, brand new songs, traditional holiday songs and Christ centered tracks. A thoroughly enjoyable journey and brilliant way to transition into the holiday spirit, cheer and atmosphere; there’s even an instrumental medley, a spoken word track by Bono, and a re-recording of the 2007 hit “Christmas Day” to keep us interested too. For me Michael has raised the bar higher than his previous 3 Christmas albums. I am also sure Michael’s effort will draw in non-Christians too, and I think there’s no better time than Christmas to share the gospel about Jesus’ birth to non-believers. Let’s dive into this one-of-a-kind project, shall we?
With guest vocalists on Michael’s album ranging from Carrie Underwood, Lady Antebellum, Bono, and Martina McBride, to Vince Gill, Amy Grant, Little Big Town, Jennifer Nettles and Michael McDonald; there has been a myriad of coverage thus far over the past few weeks- some positive buzz from the mainstream media, as well as some spiteful comments from those who think that Michael should only sing with artists who are known for singing overt Christian songs. However, though some of these artists may not necessarily share Michael’s beliefs, I believe that it is the delivery of these songs that will predominantly bring people to Christ. With well-known carols being sung in a modern setting, it’s clear that these songs transcend time; this is the most mainstream album of Michael’s career, and I believe that it this will definitely work in Michael’s favour in winning sould for the Kingdom!
Starting off with an instrumental piano led orchestral type anthem “The Miracle Of Christmas”, led by piano, and Christmas bells, the perfect way to start a holiday themed album is heard, with the less than two minute track getting me right in the spirit of joy and giving. Culminating with an epic crescendo and a slew of strings; I find myself moving my feet and subconsciously thinking about Christmas movies- that’s how Christmas-y the first song sounds (in a totally good way!). The upbeat buoyant and fun strings led “It’s The Most Wonderful Time Of The Year” is segued in next, as Michael’s distinct vocals makes this fan favourite melody about ‘…the happiest season of all, with those holiday greetings and gay happy meetings when friends come to call…’, a thorough enjoyment and delight to listen to.
The holiday focused songs (some of them more well-known than others) continue with the medley of “Happy Holidays” and “Holiday Season”, an obscure carol that is a tongue in cheek song about how Santa delivers presents to good boys and girls. With plenty of gang vocals present as Michael presents us with a call-and-response song, and brass instruments from the 50’s creating a jazz atmosphere, this song is vintage Smitty. Though somewhat out of left field, the enjoyability of this track reminds me of the joyous Christmas themed “Marshmallow World” from Francesca Battistelli!
The laidback piano prominent “Christmas Time Is Here” is next, with Vince Gill joining Smitty. An inspiring track from the animated cartoon A Charlie Brown Christmas, Vince and Michael sing beautifully in harmony across the acoustic guitar, relaying that ‘…Christmas time is here, happiness and cheer…’, and outlining the great things about Christmas (ranging from presents, spending time with family and the best gift of all- Jesus); while Smitty’s seven year old granddaughter Audrey Smith features on “Somewhere In My Memory”, the theme song from the 1990 film Home Alone, together with the Belmont Children’s Choir. It’s truly magical- something I would listen to again and again, as the uniqueness of Christmas is described, to be a happy time spent with family and friends together in communion and fellowship with each other.
Country trio Lady Antebellum make an appearance on the piano led slow paced ballad “White Christmas”, with Hillary Scott’s stellar vocals on the first verse fitting in beautifully with the big band atmosphere and Michael’s vocals in the second verse. For me out of all the versions of this holiday classic, I like this rendition the best- the band and Michael perform so well together! And as the albums winds down its first half with the vibrant and compelling instrumental medley “The Spirit Of Christmas”, consisting of “Deck The Halls”, “Good King Wenceslas”, “O Little Town Of Bethlehem”, “O Come All Ye Faithful” and “Feels Like Christmas” (with is beautifully recorded yet not as impacting or fascinating as Lincoln Brewster’s “Miraculum”); the second half (considerably more focused on Jesus) winds into gear, with 7 songs filled with 7 different guest vocalists giving us a different yet still Smitty sounding set of Christ centred worship anthems and melodies.
A glance through the final 7 traditional and original Christmas songs for me immediately lands my eye on “Christmas Day”, previously on Smitty’s 2007 album, and this time featuring country singer Jennifer Nettles instead of Mandisa. Sticking close to the original as much as it can (even down to the tempo), Jennifer’s voice is just as transfixing and powerful as Mandisa’s- Smitty picked a great vocalist to re-record a moving and inspiring soon to be holiday classic with him. And judging by the enthusiasm in both their voices, as well as the apparent rise in enjoyability of this song for me over the past 7 years, my conclusion is that this song will be sung around the holiday season for many years to come! While this song once again doesn’t reference Jesus explicitly, there are subtle nudges, hopefully enough to draw a listener closer to Christ, and that is what I love about this particular song!
Both “Silent Night” (featuring Little Big Town) and “What Child Is This?” (featuring Martina McBride) are piano led ballads that we all know and love, and in these tracks, Michael plays a supporting role vocally and lets his guest vocalists shine, which I think is great as these two versions are some of the best I’ve heard in recent times. While “Silent Night” doesn’t build up that much musically or vocally, with some acoustic guitar and strings in the instrumental bridge, and the vocalists singing softly in harmony together, it is “What Child Is This” that epitomises the passion and heart for Jesus of Michael if I had to pick one song on the album. With Martina beautifully complementing Michael to perfection as her angelic voice carries this song to lofty heights, especially in the chorus where the proclamation is heard that ‘…this, this is Christ the king, whom shepherds guard and angels sing, haste, haste to bring him laud, the babe the son of Mary…’; it’s evident that this song is Holy Spirit anointed and a must listen to this festive season.
The piano led slow ballad “All Is Well” is another favourite of mine, with the re-recorded Smitty classic this time being Michael singing with Carrie Underwood, which is strikingly different to the original version sung by a children’s choir. In this re-recording of a 20 something year old classic which basically champions Jesus and sings out praises because of His birth, that ‘…all is well, lift up your voice and sing, born is now Emmanuel, born is our Lord and Saviour…’, Carrie and Michael both magically create an inspiring musical experience that gives me chills every time I listen, especially during the epic crescendo at the end of the bridge as both artists showcase their brilliant vocal abilities. Kudos to Carrie and Michael for a stirring anthem that is one of and will continue to be one of Michael’s Christmas hits!
Amy Grant and Michael McDonald both sing with Michael on “Almost There” and “Peace” respectively. The former song is a piano and string prominent prayer to God from Mary’s perspective as she was riding on a donkey to Bethlehem, wondering how long it would be to arrive at the inn, and as the song progresses, a cry of desperation to God from all of us, asking Him to save us and direct us to where we as people need to be at a certain point in time; while the latter song, the album ender, is a piano focused original Smitty track with both Michael’s praying a prayer of gratitude and thanks, as we are reminded that God is a God of peace. But it is Bono’s inclusion with a spoken word track (“The Darkest Midnight”) that was that most surprising addition to the tracklist. A well thought out surprise, the frontman of the Irish rock band U2 eloquently speaks out the gospel message of Jesus’ birth in the form of a poem. Impacting and potent, moving and encouraging, beautifully worded and life changing to all; this track enhances this already superb and stellar song list by a great amount, and stirs a passion and conviction in us to serve God will all of our heart!
At first glance, an album of this magnitude, with more than half the songs sung with guest vocalists, especially for a festive season, may have been a bit too ambitious, working well on paper but not in reality. Not so. Michael W. Smith and his friends have delivered a Christmas album worthy of a Dove Award and a Grammy Award nomination, and potential accolades and praise from both Christian and mainstream markets. While it’s hard for me to say my favourite songs on this musically diverse and vibrant album full of Christ centred original songs and well-known carols; that is definitely a very good thing! I will definitely keep this album in my iTunes playlist until next Christmas, or even the Christmas after that! Oh, and I might listen to this album during January, February, March…every other month of the year too. Simply because it’s good!
4 songs to listen to: The Spirit Of Christmas, What Child Is This, All Is Well, Christmas Day
RIYL: Steven Curtis Chapman, Matthew West, Newsong, Carman, Natalie Grant