For me, a great album is about the journey from start to finish. Sure, it’s nice if the music is good, but the arc of the entire album is what really makes it memorable for me. Hence why I love Michael W. Smith’s Christmas so much.
Let me preface this by saying that I’ve never loved Michael W. Smith’s voice. What I love is that the music he writes/arranges/sometimes plays is almost always something special. This particular album is heavy on the orchestra and choir, from the slow, sunrise-like opening of the overture to the big, climactic penultimate “Gloria.” The ensemble forces are featured in almost every song, and the choir only gets a couple of breaks. For this classical music lover, those contributions are a big plus (and it helps that Amy Grant also makes an appearance in “No Eye Had Seen”).
Now let me paint a word picture for you of the album’s musical arc.
It begins with a track titled “Overture/O Come All Ye Faithful.” The very use of the word “overture” instantly suggests that there will be a storyline to follow. It’s a slow build over the first couple of minutes, when then suddenly dives into “O Come All Ye Faithful,” one of the most joyous Christmas carols there is, sung by the choir and joined towards the end by Michael. The song builds to a big dramatic ending with High Notes (if you’ve ever sung in a choir, especially at Christmas, you can ear-picture it). This is immediately followed by “Lux Venit” (meaning “Light Comes”), a much lighter Latin carol, to bring the drama back down to about a level two. Gotta have room to build.
Next come two very classical tracks, featuring the choir and orchestra and some solo piano as well (possibly played by Michael), respectively called “Anthem for Christmas” and “First Snowfall.” In the latter in particular, you can picture the gentle falling of the season’s first snow… or at least you can if you live somewhere where it snows, unlike me. You also get the sense that something much bigger is coming, both musically as well as in the Christmas story.
“First Snowfall” transitions into “Christ the Messiah,” where we get another appearance of the choir and Michael’s vocals. The text is simple: “Christ the Messiah, Savior, Jesus, Emmanuel, our God is with us now.” We know who he is and we know he is coming. After an abrupt ending, we hear Amy Grant’s lovely voice begin “No Eye Had Seen,” a song about the wonder and mystery of Jesus’ birth. A child continues the story in the next track, “All is Well,” reminding us that the Savior is born and we can rejoice.
After these very calm tracks, the orchestra and piano take the focus once again in “Memoirs: A Trilogy,” where we hear three different carols that slowly build in texture, tempo, and dynamics (I promise this is not a music theory paper). The final carol is “Hark! the Herald Angels Sing,” which leads straight into the climactic “Gloria.” It is an innovative arrangement of “Angels We Have Heard On High” that can only be understood and appreciated by hearing it.
The album doesn’t end there, however. With very little dead time, the final track, “Silent Night” on solo piano, begins. After the long instrumental build into “Gloria” and its even bigger finish, this finale is absolutely haunting. I’ve listened to the album probably hundreds of times and it still gives me chills every time.
Overall, this is absolutely one of the best Christmas albums out there, in my opinion. It tells the greatest story ever in a way that few others have quite managed.
- Day 8: Kelly Clarkson – Wrapped In Red
- Day 7: Pentatonix – That’s Christmas To Me
- Day 6: Amy Grant – Home For Christmas
- Day 5: Renée Fleming – Christmas in New York
- Day 4: Neil Diamond – The Christmas Album
- Day 3: Vince Guaraldi Trio – A Charlie Brown Christmas
- Day 2: Sufjan Stevens – Songs For Christmas
- Day 1: Bing Crosby – Christmas Classics