Music Review: Michael W. Smith “The Spirit of Christmas”

MWS SPirit of ChristmasYou may have noticed Christmas CDs showing up at your favorite coffee shop, or bookstore (yes, some places still have those…) Me? I’ve been playing Christmas music since April. When I saw Michael W. Smith’s latest release, I ordered (no, not downloaded, I want the CD booklet with all the information), immediately. There are some really stunning orchestral arrangements combined with some dramatic studio magic on this, Smith’s fourth Christmas albums. Watch the teaser video of recording sessions.

Christmas CDs are a cash cow for most artists. They sing these songs like they are reading the Yellow Pages and still be able to get away scot free simply because these carols by themselves are already seasonal successes. Michael W. Smith avoids this completely. “The Spirit of Christmas” isn’t elevator muzak – this album is a story…a story worth listening to.

Smith put a lot of creativity and focus into this record, and the stars have shown up for this CD -all 9 of the renowned artists have had at least one #1 hit on the charts. From the country music world, Carrie Underwood, Jennifer Nettles, Little Big Town, Lady Antebellum, Martina McBride and Vince Gill. We have Smith’s lifelong friend Amy Grant and from the pop/rock genre we have two legends, U2’s Bono and Doobie Brothers’ crooner Michael McDonald. My favorite guest artist is the London Symphony Orchestra who sounds spectacular on the entire disc.

This album isn’t like other Yuletide recordings where songs are just thrown together randomly. The sequencing of the songs I tell a story. The London Symphony starts us off with a childlike awe of the magical beauty of Christmas playing Smith’s composition of “The Miracle of Christmas”, followed by classic tunes “It’s The Most Wonderful Time of the Year”“Happy Holidays/Holiday Season”“Christmas Time Is Here”featuring Vince Gill sounding quasi angelic. “White Christmas”has Lady Antebellum joining MWS.

Smith’s granddaughter joins him and the Nashville Children’s Choir on “Somewhere In My Memory”. It is the poignant melody that most will remember from “Home Alone”the movie. It is breathtaking in its simplicity and emotion. The Symphony sets up the next section with “The Spirit of Christmas”a medley of carols; Deck the Halls, Good King Wenceslas, O Little Town of Bethlehem, Feels Like Christmas and, O Come All Ye Faithful. Brilliant programming here, it is impossible not to find a favorite among these chestnuts (had to do it…).

Little Big Town sings a traditional“Silent Night”, while Martina McBride joins Michael with an ethereal sounding“What Child Is This”. “Almost There” features Amy Grant starts with an almost medieval tone with its instrumentation and harmonies. These two sound the same as when they started singing together thirty years ago. Their harmonies blend so well its like they are the same person.

The most dramatic musical moments come in the last section of the album. Carrie Underwood’s rendition of Smith’s “All is Well,” is sensational. This CD s worth every penny for this song alone! I’m very familiar with “Christmas Day,” having performed it with the Edmonton Singing Christmas Tree in 2012. Here Jennifer Nettles almost overshadows Smith on this timeless MWS seasonal ballad.

I’m not sure what the vision was for “Darkest Night”, U2’s Bono delivers a breathy narrative on how evil and good clash on the day of Christ’s birth. It feels like this was a way to get a legend on the album with little effort. “Peace” is one of my favorite tunes on the disc. While Michael McDonald and Smith have such different tones, they come together to create a beautifully haunting version of this song.

Smith’s no stranger to Christmas music. With such a star-studded line up of guests, well-chosen songs, and the rich sounds provided by the London Symphony Orchestra, “The Spirit of Christmas” is his best Yuletide album to date.

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