Sunday, April 28, 2013

Music Review: The Christmas Collection by Michael W. Smith

Stars: 5 out of 5
Pros: Both of these discs are great
Cons: Styles are very different
The Bottom Line:
Whether together
Or if bought separately
Make Christmas magic

Two Great but Different Christmas CDs Collected Together

When Michael W. Smith's The Christmas Collection came out in 2004, it was a good deal.  This boxed set contained both of his then released Christmas CDs for the price of one.  Anyone who didn't have either, or just had one for that matter, would get a great bargain.

And you can't go wrong with either of these discs.  True, they both took a little time to grow on me, but once they did they both became musts of the Christmas season.

Up first is 1989's Christmas.  At the time, this disc was quite a departure from the soft 80's rock of his previous release I 2 (eye).  Instead of the guitar, keyboard, and synthesizer, he went with a full orchestra and a choral sound.  In fact, I often say that this disc really needs to be listened to from start to finish to fully appreciate it.  For example, on the "Overture" there are strains of "Gloria," which comes much later in the disc.

The songs also build on each other thematically.  While "Lux Venit" and "Anthem for Christmas" focus more on the desire for Messiah to come, "Christ the Messiah" and "All is Well" praise God for sending us His Son.  On all these songs, Michael is back by a choir of some sort.  Most of the time it is a regular choir, but listen for the boy's choir on "Lux Venit."  And Amy Grant puts in a guest appearance for "No Eye Had Seen."

Because most of the songs are originals, the disc took several years before it felt like Christmas music to me.  But there are some familiar songs in these 10 tracks.  The first track includes "O Come All Ye Faithful."  There is a medley that includes "Good King Wenceslaus" and "Hark the Herald Angels Sing" in instrumental form.  And the disc closes with a quiet, instrumental take on "Silent Night."

But for me, the climax of the disc comes with track 9, "Gloria."  This is the most like anything he was producing at the time, but without destroying the mood of the disc.  You'll hear keyboard mixed in with the full orchestra here for a rocky take on "Angels We Have Heard on High."  The words are the same, but the tune is completely different and tons of fun.

What I think I find most interesting about this disc is it foreshadows where Michael would go with his current worship focus more then representing where he was at the time of its release.

The second disc in this collection in 1998's Christmastime.  Now if the first represented a choral piece, this one is an attempt at a popish release, albeit a mellow one.  But Michael mixes so many styles in here it's hard to really get a handle on it at first.  Like the first disc, this one took a year or two to grow on me.

Several of the songs here were older songs I was unfamiliar with.  "The Happiest Christmas" is a mellow introduction with a full orchestra as Michael sings of the best Christmases.  The passion in his voice just wraps me in a warm blanket.  But he really speeds things up with the next track.  "Kay Thompson's Jingle Bells" starts with the familiar chorus but quickly dives into fresh territory.  It puts a smile on my face.  The other upbeat song here is "Christmas Waltz," a duet with Sandi Patty.  It's lots of fun, too.  We also get the first Christmas recording of Chris Rice's classic "Welcome to Our World."  And watch for a slightly different but still beautiful version of his classic "Sing We Now of Christmas."

But Michael can't quite leave behind the choral sound.  In fact, my church did "Christmastime" in a program one year.  Michael does the solo parts, but the choir sings plenty of it.  And "Carol Sing" is completely sung by a choir.

And like the first disc, the most familiar of the 12 tracks are instrumental pieces.  I will admit I was disappointed at first because I was looking forward to the words to under recorded "O Christmas Tree" and "We Three Kings."  But the results are so good I got over it.  "We Three Kings" is just Michael on the piano, and you really have to listen to hear the melody, but it is in there eventually.  "O Christmas Tree" features guitar in with the piano and eventually an orchestra.  And I dare you not to feel like dancing to the disc closer, a medley of "Joy to the World" and "I Saw Three Ships."  When the pipes get going on "I Saw Three Ships," it really is infectious.

After having been available for several Christmases, this two disc set has been discontinued.  Frankly, that's not too big a deal.  For one things, with the release last year of It's a Wonderful Christmas, the set was now outdated.  And the only thing that made this set any different from getting the two CDs together was the cardboard box that held them together.  Since both discs are still in print individually, it's easy enough to get them that way.

So whether you can find a bargain on The Christmas Collection or just opt to get Michael W. Smith's Christmas CDs separately, be sure you do.  You'll need to give them some time, but you'll begin to look forward to pulling them out every year.

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