By Grady Smith
Updated December 07, 2010 at 11:54 AM EST
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Image Credit: Harper Smith/NBCSeason 2 of The Sing Off is here, which means so is the constant supply of a cappella puns courtesy of host Nick Lachey. If we learned anything from last night, it’s that musical puns are key to The Sing Off‘s style. Along with cheesy facial expressions. And semi-coordinated sweater ensembles. And firmly defined group roles! But even amongst the ridiculousness, The Sing Off‘s heart is in the right place — it really does focus on the singing, which is why it’s actually a pretty enjoyable couple hours of television.

The night started off on the right note with a hugely exciting group performance of “I’ve Got the Music in Me” that gave us a little taste of the 10 groups competing for the $100,000 prize and Sony recording contract. Pun-Master Lachey introduced our three returning judges: indie-popster turned a cappella-aficionado, Ben Folds, former Pussycat Dolls’ only lead singer, Nicole Scherzinger, and suddenly un-frumpy “R&B icon,” Shawn Stockman. The theme of the night was signature songs. Each group was asked to sing something that showed off both their musical ability and personal style, and by the end of the night, after two separate eliminations by the judges, only eight groups would remain. Let’s take a look at each performance:

Eleventh Hour (a.k.a. The Breakfast Club) — “Baby” by Justin Bieber

Look how different all these high schoolers are! There’s a jock, and an artsy person, and a computer nerd, AND a homecoming queen! And they sing in the library! “It’s like real-life Glee here on Sing Off,” remarked Nicole, just in case the producers hadn’t made that clear. The Ohio natives did a fine job with their song (I won’t comment on the idea of a Justin Bieber tune being anyone’s signature), but the choreography was rather boring, and the lead singer’s normally nice voice didn’t quite work when she tried to growl. Ben loved the passing chords in the song, while Shawn thought they brought “a fresh look to a cappella music.” B

On The Rocks (a.k.a. Animal House) — “Bad Romance” by Lady Gaga

This “singing fraternity” loves three things: food, toga parties, and Lady Gaga. The viral-vid sensations brought the stage to life with great choreography, impressive high harmonies, and some seriously cool, seriously deep “MA MA MA MA”s. The judges were pretty impressed overall — especially Nicole, who wanted whatever the guys were having “on the rocks.” ZING! A-

Groove for Thought — “I Wish” by Stevie Wonder

This jazz-style group has a cool, funky sound but the arrangement of their song sounded fairly muddled. The performance felt dated, and the young studio audience wasn’t feeling it. Luckily, the judges were more enthusiastic. Ben praised them for their energy and bass lines, which were undeniably impressive. B

Pitch-Slapped (a.k.a. Fame) — “Good Girls God Bad” by Cobra Starship

This co-ed group of Berklee music students brought some major attitude to The Sing Off stage. Between the sexy dancing, the trendy styling, and the T-Swift hair flips, Pitch Slapped seemed to fully embrace the goofy, theatrical side of a cappella. Unfortunately, their singing wasn’t quite so cool. Shawn rightly pointed out that the arrangement’s top and bottom parts stood out, and that their group lacked a full, middle sound. B- (but an A for attitude)

Jerry Lawson and Talk of the Town – “Save the Last Dance” by The Drifters

These old soul singers are led by the lovable Jerry Lawson, former member of The Persuasions. These days, he’s singing with the self-proclaimed “godfathers of a cappella,” Talk of the Town. The elderly men looked dapper in their purple shirts and suits, and they sounded very solid overall, though no one called Jerry out for his two voice crack moments. I appreciated that they didn’t try to slam us over the head with big notes, but their performance, while classy, was fairly boring. B

The Whiffenpoofs – “Grace Kelly” by Mika

Bow down to the Whiffenpoofs of Yale—they are the descendants of the ORIGINAL INVENTORS OF A CAPPELLA. Naturally, these preppy students revel in their royal status by playing golf, singing in giant cathedrals, and wearing tuxedos, which helps one member “feel inordinately powerful.” They’re pretty much completely annoying, but they do have good singing on their side. Their audacious, beatbox-free take on Mika was elaborate and appropriately flamboyant. The judges loved them, but they’d benefit from loosening up just a tad. B+

Men of Note — “The Longest Time” by Billy Joel

These guys had a confusing package. The show introduced them as competitive athletes, but they didn’t look the part of typical lax bros, and they were repeatedly shown singing in a shopping mall. Strange. Their performance was rather bland, though I appreciated their clock noises/motions on the word “time.” Nicole and Ben both felt that the high number of tenors gave them a thin sound. B-

Street Corner Symphony — “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” by Tears for Fears

Welcome to Nashville, a strange Southern land where all anyone does is sit on the porch, drink beer, and go fishin’. It’s also home to Street Corner Symphony, a group of southern gospel-loving gentlemen with an irresistibly rich, warm sound. I loved the group’s tone, but between the sloppy styling and stilted choreography, the performance felt sort of lazy. The judges were generally enthusiastic, though. B

The Backbeats — “If I Were A Boy” by Beyoncé

This newly assembled group had to transcend intense rivalries (as a former member of the collegiate a cappella scene myself, I can verify that these inter-group rivalries are very real) and practice singing Beyoncé around a campfire on the beach at night to unite as one. Their singing sounded great, but I totally disagree with the judges about soloist Joanna’s performance. Yes, she is a tuneful belter, but also passionless. In fact, the whole group just stood there somberly the whole performance. BORING! B+ (but C- for missing the point)

Committed (pictured) — “This Love” by Maroon 5

Hands down the best performance of the night. These gospel singers combined their serious vocal chops with a surprising, funky arrangement and turned out one amazing song. They swayed, they smiled, and they switched soloists, which was an unexpected treat. Shawn told Terry that his voice was so “butter.” Nicole, meanwhile, started talking about “musical orgasms.” Then, realizing she was addressing a group of gospel singers, told them, “God is good, and He shines His light through your group.” The crowd went wild for this one. A+

In the end, the right acts went home. Pitch-Slapped and Men of Note got the judges’ axe and sang their “swan songs,” while the eight remaining groups took their seats in the esteemed opera boxes until the next show, which airs Wednesday. To tide you over all the way until then, take a moment and enjoy some of The Sing Off’s stunning humor below:

Some awesomely bad puns by Nick Lachey:

“For the youngest group on the show, class is now in session.” (Talking about high school students, Eleventh Hour)

“Five groups have rocked the mic, but only four can roll onto our next show.”

“We’ll see if that was good enough to keep you in the game.” (Addressing the athletes in Men of Note)

“Later on, we’ll find out if they graduate to the next episode.” (Talking about the Ivy Leaguers in the Whiffenpoofs)

“Who will hit a high note, and who will fall flat?”

“I’m Nick Lachey, signing off from The Sing Off.” (Okay, not a pun, but delightfully cheesy wordplay nonetheless!)

What did you think of last night’s premiere? Which group left you singing their praises? Will you be swingin’ back to the Sing Off on Wednesday to see who goes home?

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