It’s that time of year again, Blerdies! Halloween has come and gone, and Thanksgiving is upon us, or as department stores across the nation call it, pre-Christmas. Pretty soon, we’ll all be putting up artificial Christmas trees while complaining that real ones smell so much better, swearing loudly at drivers in mall parking lots as “I’ll Be Home For Christmas” hums serenely on our stereos, and sitting down with the family for Christmas dinner, where grandmom will inevitably say something unintentionally racist.

And with this season, of course, comes the late-in-the-year parade of Christmas recordings. Fortunately, we’ve got people willing to listen to this sort of thing so you don’t have to, so welcome to our first annual Christmas Album Round-up. Before we get things rolling, I’ll briefly defer you to my colleague Tom, who has graciously taken the burden of reviewing Justin Bieber’s Under the Mistletoe from my shoulders, for which I find myself indebted to him. Go on and check it out – the list’ll be here when you return.

She & Him’s A Very She & Him Christmas
The cutesy pairing of Zooey Deschanel and M. Ward has yielded a pair of pleasant studio albums, if never anything particularly exciting. Their union is strictly coffee-house pop, all husky vocals and unhurried arrangements; Christmas doesn’t stray too far from this formula, although it strips its production down considerably. It’s a hushed affair, but never a depressing one; Deschanel and Ward haven’t gone all Oberst on us here, they’ve merely offered a pleasantly low-key alternative to the bells and whistles traditionally afforded holiday classics. It’s not nearly as hipster-yuletide as one might expect, although the short arrangements and lack of variety makes choosing standouts difficult. They start strong with “The Christmas Waltz”, falter with a surprisingly rushed take on festive date-rape standard “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” (a shame, since it’s the one song here that showcases both sets of vocals equally) and a stilted “Little Saint Nick”, but win with a cheery, winningly amiable “Sleigh Ride”. It’s ultimately background music, and rarely manages to actively excite – one can’t help but wish these two would indulge their potential for crisp vocal harmonies once in a while, but this group is far more “She” than “Him” – but it’s a breezy listen for a night of tree-trimming. Grade: B

Michael Buble, Christmas
Anachronistic crooner Michael Buble seems well-suited to the likes of a Christmas album – particularly one like Christmas, where Buble applies his smooth baritone to, nearly literally, every popular Christmas song of all time.  Buble seems poised to craft a similarly anachronistic holiday record, one that conjures the festive mood of the Andy Williams and Frank Sinatra Christmas albums of yore, but he’s rarely able to transcend his own white-bread nature. His exhausting trip through Christmas pop boasts all of the excitement of watching a local holiday showcase; he gets the mood right, sure, but at the end of the day there’s no literally no reason to listen to his workaday renditions of “I’ll Be Home For Christmas” or a take on “White Christmas” that Xeroxes The Drifters’ excellent arrangement into oblivion. Credit where it’s due, though – when Buble gets it right, as he does on a startlingly well-performed version of Mariah Carey’s “All I Want For Christmas Is You” or a smooth, heartwarming duet with Spanish-language star Thalia on perhaps the only version of “Feliz Navidad” to dial down the song’s boundless cheese, he proves to be an emotionally engaging performer. Ultimately, his record is far too perfunctory to make waves. Grade: C

Hawk Nelson, Christmas
Christian pop-punkers Hawk Nelson are up next, and besides hotly contesting Michael Buble in the “most interesting Christmas album title” category, they’re offering a quick, rip-roaring, effervescent Christmas EP for the holidays. Despite eliciting shrugs with their own songs, Hawk Nelson prove surprisingly adept at delivering energetic, often conceptually fun standards; a Celtic rock take on the ancient “I Saw Three Ships” recasts the traditional in a delightfully lively new light, and lively blasts through “Angels We Have Heard on High” and “The Wassail Song” are seasonally-appropriate in their ramshackle glee. Even more interesting is an atypically irreverent “Joy to the World”, which begins as a pleasant, bouncy round before lead singer Jason Dunn indulges in an increasingly (intentionally) comic series of modulations. It’s not rocket science, but Hawk Nelson deliver a fun, super-quick collection of tunes with Christmas. Grade: B

TobyMac, Christmas In Diverse City
Ex-hilariously-bad DC Talk rapper-turned-hilariously-bad solo singer Toby Mac and his hilariously clunkily-named backing band Diverse City are on deck to provide some freewheeling genre ping-ponging to the 2011 deluge of Christmas releases; Christmas In Diverse City starts strong with “Christmas This Year”, a seasonably agreeable pop duet with Sixpence None the Richer frontlady Leigh Nash, but quickly flies off the rails due to Toby’s insistence on lobbing every genre under the sun at the board to see what sticks. This kitchen-sink approach could be charming in the right hands, but Toby’s hilariously outdated hip-hop slang (“bring the noise!”) bricks every time without fail, and Diverse City soon devolves into a cacophony of OneRepublic-esque backing tracks, lead vocals immersed in enough Autotune to drain T-Pain’s budget, and startlingly bad rap verses dropped smack into the middle of Christmas classics like “The First Noel” and “Carol of the Bells” reimagining “Carol of the Kings”. Even the breaks from formula elicit condescending chuckles, such as the po-faced psychedelic funk the ensemble attempts to tackle on “Santa’s Comin’ Baka’round!” (Ayup.) It’s worth a laugh or two, but, unfortunately, the old “at, not with” adage applies here in spades. Grade: D

Ginuwine, A Ginuwine Christmas
You can’t fault Ginuwine for trying, but the r&b loverman’s Christmas album reads like just that – an album about sexin’ the ladies that seems to have Christmas themes shoehorned in as an afterthought. Album opener “Mistletoe” alone illustrates this curious intersection between yuletide and baby-makin’ music, an uproarious slow jam that finds Ginuwine delivering lyrical faux pas like “I know my name ain’t Santa Claus, but come sit on my lap” and even resorting to the dastardly “ecstasy/next to me” during the song’s coda. Even when Ginuwine isn’t explicitly referencing his yule log, his transformation of standards like “Silent Night” and “12 Days of Christmas” (here merely “12 Days”) are exercises in silky, synth-drenched, utterly inappropriate seduction. If A Ginuwine Christmas were ever anything but another rote Ginuwine album with a vague holiday theme woven in there somewhere, it might be a bit more palatable, but as a Christmas record it fails to set any mood other than “why don’tcha dim the lights and jingle my bells, baby?”, and as a Ginuwine record, offers all the legitimate charm and distinction of a Lloyd album. That pass I issued Ginuwine for “Pony” so many years ago is starting to wear thin, Elgin. Grade: C-

Once again, this year’s crop of Christmas releases yields few returns; She & Him’s A Very Starbucks She & Him Christmas offers the most pleasant chillout of the holiday season, while the low-flying Hawk Nelson make up for their shortcomings with sheer enthusiasm. So, my Christmas Bleves, I hope this helps you weed out tunes for your 2011 holiday playlist; and, if nothing else, leave with the knowledge that no one covered “Christmas Shoes” this year, and that if you’d like to lay your woman down by the fire on Christmas Eve, Ginuwine’s record is available to help you get tender. Until next year!

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