This Christmas
by 98°, pop/R&B (1999)
Universal/Motown, $18.98, ASIN B000021XQ2

Usually I'll buy a traditional Christmas album this time of the year. In fact I've been thinking of getting Charlotte Church, but this CD finds its way into my CD bag after a last-moment shopping spree at Tower Records. And do I regret it?

No way. I'm not going to feel embarrassed to admit I adore 98° anymore. This album shows that the boys can sure strut great stuff alongside their booties. Indeed, there's something in Nick Lachey's voice that reminds me of thick, smooth, hot chocolate. Jeff Timmons has a voice that reminds me of a singing cherub, and what do you know, Justin Jaffre has a really sexy bass voice. What I wouldn't give to have these boys caroling at my door.

It's not the throwaway pop songs like This Gift and Christmas Wish that make me salute them. No, it's the beautiful way the boys blend melancholy with celebration of Christmas. In I'll Be Home For Christmas, when they sing I'll be home for Christmas even if it's only in my dreams, it hurts, it really does. And God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen, there is an acute pain behind every note. It is not hard to sigh at the way they go Tidings of great joy - there is an underlying layer of darkness that screams of loneliness, homesickness, and a yearning to be loved and be surrounded by loved ones. Even more glorious is their almost perfect, four-harmony acapella rendition of Ave Maria, beautiful really. They sound like cathedral bells, and my friend and fusspot music conductor Thomas swears that the boys made only three mistakes, and those were in the r's. "The breathing is just right," he marveled. Who is this tone-deaf granny to disagree?

And on Oh Holy Night and Little Drummer Boy, they sound uncannily like the King's Singers. In the former (my favorite), I am amazed at the way Mr Jaffre's easy tenor glides over Mr Lachey's second tenor, and Drew's alto and Mr Jaffre's bass only provide great anchor to the whole melancholic yet rejoicing theme. And bass singers are never sexier-sounding than Justin on Little Drummer Boy. And the nicest icing on the cake is Jeff's gentle rendition of Silent Night.

Take a bow, boys. You deserve that after the really magical hour of out-of-this-world music you've given me. You boys do caroling?

Rating: 93

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