For some artists, Christmas albums are simply a one-off way to appease their fans, generate some extra income, and keep their name in the headlines before the release of their next project. Yet, for others like Michael W. Smith, the recording of a Christmas project has become something of an art form in and of itself, the artist having recorded three such records over the course of his long running career, each album offering up something different. And with the release of The Spirit of Christmas, Smith maintains that trend and offers up what might be his best holiday offering yet.
Inspired by the artist’s performance with country star, Jennifer Nettles, during last year’s “CMA Country Christmas” telecast, producer Robert Deaton approached Smith with the idea of co-producing a Christmas album together. Smith welcomed the idea and with the addition of musical arranger and conductor David Hamilton, who oversaw the album’s work with the London Symphony Orchestra and served as a third producer, the deal was sealed.
In addition to a strong production crew, the album also boasts a virtual who’s who list of guest stars. The guest list is largely drawn from the country music world, with artists like Vince Gill, Carrie Underwood, and Jennifer Nettles offering up their talents as well as work by Michael McDonald and rock legend, Bono, who provides a haunting spoken word addition on “The Darkest Midnight.” And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
The record is built upon a three-tiered sequence of progression, beginning with the childlike wonder and majesty of the Christmas season, instantly registering a nostalgic hit for just about any listener that then morphs into an exploration of songs that delve into the deeper meaning of the holiday, celebrating the base of family and faith. Lastly, the record concludes with the true gift of Christmas, celebrating the birth of the Christ child in its fullness.
“The Miracle of Christmas” opens the record up, the bright tones and tinkling chimes, buoyed by joyous horns invoking instant thoughts of snowy days and the anticipation of Christmas morning before segueing into “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year,” Smith doing his best Andy Williams impression. A rich, orchestral backed rendition of “Happy Holidays/Holiday Season” finds Smith offering up a Buble-flavored vocal while Vince Gill joins the artist for a smooth, jazz-tinged “Christmas Time is Here,” Gill’s amazing guitar work always a welcome addition.
Lady Antebellum are up next, providing guest vocals on “White Christmas,” the trio trading vocals with Smith beautifully, supported by swelling strings and a rich horn section before the familiar strains of the “Home Alone” ballad “Somewhere In My Memory,” complete with vocals from Smith’s granddaughter. The instrumental title track, a medley composed of a litany of classic Christmas carols provides the perfect backdrop to any Christmas night and serves as a fitting segue into the next thematic segment of the album.
Here listeners are treated to the powerful harmonies of Little Big Town who join Smith for the classic “Silent Night.” It’s appropriately subdued and subtle, Smith’s piano arrangement accented by some solid guitar work as well. Martina McBride steps in as the next guest, adding her powerhouse vocals to a show-stopping performance of “What Child Is This,” the composition bold and theatrical, giving new life to the classic track before longtime friend and collaborator Amy Grant guests on the medieval-flavored “Almost There.”
The last round of tracks is just as great as the first as Carrie Underwood steps in to help on Smith’s stunning original “All Is Well,” the two harmonizing with ease and creating something truly beautiful while Smith and Jennifer Nettles recreate the magic of “Christmas Day” with passion and power. Bono’s spoken word piece provides some poetic depth before Smith closes the record out with Michael McDonald and a soulful rendering of “Peace.”
Michael W. Smith has made an art form out of creating Christmas records and The Spirit of Christmas is perhaps his finest offering of holiday cheer to date. Studded with plenty of guest spots and big, musical moments, the album is still very much a Michael W. Smith record, allowing the artist to maintain his creative control while sharing the reins with a myriad of producers and performers in order to create something simply beautiful, nostalgic, and yes, worshipful, perfect for this holiday season and those to come.
Download The Spirit of Christmas on iTunes here.
This review was first published at Soul-Audio.com.