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Michael Bublé/Photo by Dean Freeman

'Tis the season

Music | This year's Christmas albums-from Bieber to Bublé

Issue: "Border bandits," Dec. 3, 2011

Despite its status as the United States holiday that dare not speak its name, Christmas continues to resist death by multiculturalism. And where there's Christmas, there's Christmas music.

But, as with recordings of Bach, the more Christmas recordings there are, the harder it becomes to make new Christmas recordings that seem to have been worth the trouble.

Consider, for instance, Under the Mistletoe (Island), the latest album by Justin Bieber. Even leaving aside the fact that it's a paternity suit and not a festive sprig currently hanging over the 17-year-old singer's head, the music is about as likely to inspire holiday cheer as a gallon of eggnog past its expiration date.

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In fact, it's so aurally gimmick-laden and self-consciously trendy, from the mood-ruining cameo raps (Usher on "The Christmas Song," Busta Rhymes on "Little Drummer Boy") to Bieber's own preciously breathy, Auto-Tuned vocals, that in some ways it already sounds dated.

This year's Christian offerings aren't exactly gold, frankincense, and myrrh either, although for anyone whose Advent would be incomplete without a 2011 EP issued by the youth-targeting BEC Recordings, Kutless' This Is Christmas rather than Hawk Nelson's Christmas is the way to go.

Both EPs adhere to the letter of the season, but only Kutless' adheres to its spirit-i.e., it rocks but not to distraction. Hawk Nelson, on the other hand, can't resist goofing off. "Joy to the World," in which the fellas upwardly modulate until they're shouting, would've made an OK outtake. But as a two-minute "intake" on a 15-minute program that by virtue of its pop-punky nature is already borderline irreverent, it'll have sensitive grandmas preferring to get run over by a reindeer.

At least TobyMac's Christmas in Diverse City (EMI) lives up to its title. By including six traditional songs (nine if you count the musical allusions to "God Rest Ye Merry, Gentleman," "Carol of the Bells" and "We Three Kings" in "Carol of the Kings"), a child-rapped James 1:27 ("This Christmas"), and wit ("We're thankful for gifts and the presents, but give us the gift of Your presence"), it has something for everybody young enough to consider New Jack Swing-inflected, electronic R&B compatible with deep emotion.

On Winter Moon (101 Distribution), Mindy Gledhill sidesteps the challenge of blending the old with the new by all but avoiding the latter and performing eight songs' worth of the former (10 if you count the "Patapan/O Come, O Come Emmanuel" and "Toyland/White Christmas" medleys) in a stylistically varied, acoustic setting.

The centerpiece, however, is Gledhill's own "Little Soldier," a hauntingly disarming expression of sorrow over unredeemed holiday time with one's loved ones. "Father Time comes creeping in," she sings, accompanied by a piano so soft its keys may as well be depressed by falling tears. "We fight back, but he will win." It's a sentiment to which anyone who has ever found it hard to put away childish things will relate.

Outselling every Christmas album this year is Michael Bublé's Christmas (Reprise). And it's no wonder. If he hasn't plumbed as emotionally deeply as Gledhill or as biblically deeply as TobyMac ("Silent Night" and "Ave Maria" are his only genuflective offerings), he has provided a yuletide soundtrack bursting with goodwill toward men.

In a sense, Bublé's overreliance on secular standards ("White Christmas," "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas") minted by his stylistic forerunners (Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra) renders him vulnerable to less-than-favorable comparisons. But, for the most part, he sounds to the manner-if not quite the manger-born.

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