Sounds of the season: Five alternative Christmas albums

For the most part, every Christmas album sounds the same. The formula is simple: Take a few popular standards, add the usual bells and strings, and deviate from the norm as little as possible. As such, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a holiday record that you haven’t pretty much heard a million times before, and frankly, you’ve probably grown sick of them after the first thousand or so times.

Fortunately, we are here to help. We’ve collated some of the most unique, engaging Christmas albums around, from ‘60s teenybopper rock to kitschy British indie pop, even weird alt-folk escapades. As the following five albums show, the Christmas season isn’t just about jingling bells and violins; there are actually many ways to put to music the sounds of the season.

A Christmas Gift for You (1963, various artists)

Despite being widely considered one of the greatest Christmas albums ever recorded, A Christmas Gift for You doesn’t get a lot of airplay these days. Phil Spector’s “Wall of Sound” production style hasn’t translated all that way to modern tastes, nor has it aged enough to be considered a standard. The album, however, remains an immaculately arranged slice of pop perfection. While the best bubblegum acts of the time all lend their talents to the record, A Christmas Gift for You is really Spector’s showcase, and he delivers a sparkling, boppy ode to the most joyous time of the year.

Standout track: Darlene Love’s “White Christmas,” if only for her gorgeous vocal performance.

Songs for Christmas/Silver and Gold (2006/2012, Sufjan Stevens)

No one in the alternative music landscape makes songs quite like Sufjan Stevens’s, and no Sufjan project is more unique than this Christmas duology. While he mostly adapts Christmas staples such as “Silent Night” and “Joy to the World,” he infuses them with an indie-folk spirit that turns these well-worn standards into tracks that sound fresh and genuine. Stevens builds his records like cathedrals; likewise, both albums are grand, sprawling monuments to the majesty of the holiday season.

Standout track: It’s a testament to Sufjan’s consistency that it’s hard to pinpoint a specific standout, but his version of “The Little Drummer Boy” is essentially his style in a four-minute nutshell.

Wintersong (2006, Sarah McLachlan)

Sarah McLachlan is one of the premier purveyors of sadness in all of music, so it isn’t surprising that she chose some of the most heartbreaking songs of the season to cover for this Christmas album. There is an understated beauty to McLachlan’s minor-key orchestral arrangements, and her lush vocals help her songs rise above trite sentimentality and become something altogether more genuine. Put it on when Christmas gets a little blue; it’s the perfect soundtrack.

Standout track: Her cover of Joni Mitchell’s “River,” while not as heart-wrenching as the original, is satisfyingly brutal and definitely a highlight.

A Very Cherry Christmas V (2009, various artists)

While the United Kingdom-based Cherryade Records releases an eclectic Christmas compilation every year, this installment stands out for being the twee-est of the bunch. Assembling a talented roster of under-the-radar indie pop artists such as The School and Allo Darlin, the collection erupts with youthful recklessness and delightful irreverence, and each track is a crystalline slice of twee perfection. Every song is also original—a rarity for Christmas albums—guaranteeing something new for even the most seasoned listeners.

Standout track: The School’s “Let Me Be the Fairy on Your Christmas Tree,” a rambunctiously infectious track that you can’t help but smile to.

The Christmas EP (2013, Daniela Andrade)

Both the shortest and the folksiest album on this list, YouTube artist Daniela Andrade’s Christmas EP is a very stripped-down, no-frills endeavor. Gone are the cheesy strings and backing vocals that saturate 99% of holiday records; in this album, it’s mostly just the vocalist and her guitar. If that sounds too barebones for you, it isn’t, mainly because Andrade’s magnificent voice fills every little crevice of each song with a fragile fullness. It’s a peaceful record—perfect for silent Christmas evenings.

Standout track: “Santa Baby” is delightfully coy, and Andrade’s gorgeous delivery only makes it that much more irresistible.

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