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Michael W. Smith's Debut Album Turns 40
J.J. Francesco reflects on the iconic artist's 40-year career and debut album

AN NRT WAYBACK EDITORIAL, Michael W. Smith's Debut Album Turns 40
Posted: February 16, 2023 | By: JJFrancesco_NRT
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Editor's Note 2/23/23: Thanks to reader Jeff who pointed out the original album cover was not included. It's now updated!

Iconic contemporary artist Michael W. Smith, commonly known as Smitty, was synonymous with Christian music to me growing up.
His remarkable career spans four decades, beginning with the release of his debut album 40 years ago and continuing to the present day.

Whether you're familiar with the iconic artist's synth-laden pop of the 1980s, his grittier rock sounds of the 1990s, his contemporary pop of the latter half of that decade, his influence on the modern worship scene, or even his cinematic Christmas offerings, it's likely that you've encountered at least some of his prolific catalog. As his debut album turns a whopping 40 years old, we look back at the album that started it all and the subsequent astonishing career that followed.

A Project to Begin Them All

Smitty's first album, Project, was an exciting start to his career.
Starting and ending with classically-influenced instrumentals, Michael W. Smith's early sound often incorporated an orchestral, anthem-like quality. Songs like "You Need A Savior" and "Could He Be the Messiah" showcased the beginnings of what would later become his signature sound: the Smitty anthem, with its big chorus meditating on relationships and Christ. In these early works, Smitty's voice sounds younger and cleaner than in his later works, and the slick sounds of the '80s more heavily influence the production. Nevertheless, the unmistakable essence of Smitty shines through.

Unlike many albums, the most notable cuts of his debut are tucked toward the end. The straightforward and anthemic approach to the signature worship song "Great is the Lord" makes it memorable and accessible. "Friends" is perhaps one of the most popular Michael W. Smith songs, as shown by its multiple rerecordings and regular performance at his shows even after all these years.

The song's impact is a testament to its strength. Serving as a love letter to our fellow brothers and sisters in Christ, the song poignantly remarks how "a lifetime's not too long to live as friends." Over the years, the song has been embraced as a theme for wedding parties and graduations, bringing tears to many eyes.


Leader of the Industry

In the '80s, Michael W. Smith and frequent collaborator Amy Grant helped guide the still-coming-of-age Christian music industry into a legitimate force. Smitty regularly released albums producing multiple chart-topping hits. His signature hit, "Rockettown," would be the namesake of a record label that gave many up-and-coming artists their start. Iconic ballads like "Place in this World" and "I Will Be Here For You" were among the industry's first songs to cross over and achieve massive success in the mainstream music market.

Smitty has always been at the forefront of relevance in Christian music, with rockers like "Secret Ambition" setting a high bar for what a music video can achieve and somber reflections on world events such as "This is Your Time" and "There She Stands." "Secret Ambition" remains one of the best songs ever penned on the crucifixion. Smitty even worshiped plenty, such as "Great is the Lord" from Project.

Released on September 11, 2001, Michael W. Smith's album, Worship, came at a very important time (God's timing is perfect, after all). In the wake of the worst attack on American soil, his songs, particularly "Angus Dei," provided solace and became a worship anthem for many in the church. Smitty's ability to connect with humanity made him a fitting candidate to lead worship and point to the divine. Though his later releases would incorporate elements from his past work, Smith's role as a worship leader has become the defining feature of his recent career.

The Respected Veteran

No one can maintain dominance in an industry forever. As the 2000s and 2010s rolled along, Smitty transitioned into a more supportive role within the industry. He has become a familiar figure, akin to an old friend from childhood, as his mentorship and influence continue to shape a new generation of musicians.

Despite this transition, Smitty continues to release music, and though the intervals between his releases have lengthened, the quality of his work remains strong. In recent years, he has delivered notable hits, such as "Sky Spills Over," "You Won't Let Go," and "A Million Lights."

On the worship side, Smitty's cover of the modern classic "Waymaker" was a massive success with listeners. His rendition gained widespread recognition and was certified Gold by the Recording Industry Association of America, marking his first certification in many years.

Smitty has released five Christmas projects. His most recent is the EP, Christmas at Home, which he dropped this past holiday season. The artist's cinematic holiday offerings have become synonymous with the Christmas music season. Hits such as "Gloria," "Christmastime," and "Christmas Day" are often included on holiday playlists in both Christian and mainstream markets. His new EP consists of the nostalgia-tinged tracks "Freeze the Frame" and "Christmas is Here," which are sure to become classics.

It's no simple task to summarize a career as illustrious and vast as Michael W. Smith's in a single article. At every turn, a song or accomplishment could be highlighted, but then we'd be looking at a novel-length piece. Beyond the big hits like "Missing Person," "Cry for Love," and "Cross of Gold," there are lesser-known gems like "In My Arms Again," originally written for director James Cameron's epic film, Titanic, or the underrated "The Throne" from his 1988 album, I 2 Eye.

To celebrate Michael W. Smith's 40-year career in music, I recommend that you explore his extensive discography, as any song you choose is bound to showcase the finest music of its time. Here's hoping for many more years of music and new chapters from this talented artist.

J.J. Francesco is a longtime contributor to the NRT Staff. He's published the novel 'Because of Austin' and regularly seeks new ways to engage faith, life, and community. His new novel, 'When Miracles Can Dream,' is out NOW!

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