Review: Michael W. Smith’s “Christmas” (1989)

Michael W. Smith is the Christian king of the Christmas season, and this is the album that gave him his crown. Christmas was Smith’s first holiday-themed album, and was the soundtrack of my childhood Christmas.

About 6 years ago, I would’ve naively told you that this album is garbage because Smith is a washed out, cheesy 90s worship leader with no musical talent to offer (and I would say this without actually bothering to listen to the album). However, as I’ve gotten older, I’ve come to sincerely appreciate it. It also makes me happy when I think about how the primary vision and voice behind the music looked like this:

Why I (Actually) Like This Album

1. The album cover is amazing, perfectly setting the tone for what the album is musically. It features Christian nativity iconography, composed in a collage with what appears to be magazine clippings set on an array of different canvases and fabrics. I love the blending of ancient iconography with an almost post-modern aesthetic. Absolutely stunning.

2. Michael either arranged or wrote each song on this album. He also provided vocals, keyboard, and percussions. Even if I don’t enjoy the music, I always have respect for an artist that invested this much in his or her work. I think this deep level of investment really pays off for Michael because it gives the album such a coherent feeling. It hits you more like a symphony movement than an album — and I mean that in the best way.

3. Musically, this album feels like a contemporary take on Handel’s Messiah — the famous symptoms piece that is a foundational aspect of Christmas classical music. Whether or not this was deliberate, the music feels like Michael is directly channeling Handel and mixing this inspiration with his own artistry. The result is a fantastic piece of contemporary quasi-classical music.

Disclaimer:

If you a priori will not listen to religious music by virtue of it being religious, you would probably not enjoy this album. It is intensely worshipful and explicitly religious.

Furthermore, if you are not someone who enjoys classical music or choirs, you will probably also not enjoy this album.

Favorite songs:

-“Anthem for Christmas.” This is the second track. Admittedly, the first half of this song is somewhat sluggish, but when Michael ups the octave in the second half and the choir kicks in, I’m sold.

-“Christ the Messiah.” Fifth track. I love the tempo and instrumental portions of this song.

-“MEMOIRS.” Eighth track. This is entirely an instrumental song. Around 2:45 is when I think the song especially takes off.

Conclusion

Admittedly, this isn’t the greatest album of all time, and it’s not without certain flaws. However, I sincerely appreciate the effort and vision behind what Michael W. Smith was trying to accomplish. Making a contemporary twist on classical style is something I’d personally like to see more of. Furthermore, this is isn’t like the “modern” covers of old hymns that make them worse. There is something within the sophistication of this album that really stands out when compared to other religious music of our day.

What do you think? Is there anything you like about this album beyond what I mentioned? Are there things you didn’t like about it? Did you have any experiences with this album growing up? Please let me know in the comments. I’d love to hear from you.

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