No music is as equally loved and loathed as holiday music. It can accentuate a foul mood just as easily as it can elate, and despite the fact that many people claim to hate it, Christmas albums are an annual seller. Each year, new artists seek to bolster their income with one. Part of the reason this music is disliked is its familiarity. Lines about chestnuts and fires and fa-la-las have become intertwined with the stress of the season as much as with the joy. At the same time, holiday music can enhance a time of heightened emotions and remains a worthwhile tradition. Here are a few albums that (for the most part) sidestep the same old songs and the crooner approach, adding more to the season without feeling as tired as that dusty, old box of ornaments.

Tracey Thorn, “Tinsel and Lights”

Many songwriters, from the Pogues to Tom Waits, have attempted to put their own sardonic spin on the holiday season, shining a light on the lonely during the yule. Tracey Thorn, the veteran British singer most famous for fronting Everything But the Girl, pulled together several such songs for this 2011 album. She tackles the White Stripes’ “In the Cold, Cold Night” and Randy Newman’s “Snow,” along with the godmother of all lonely-on-Christmas songs, Joni Mitchell’s “River.” The smoothly polished songs reflect myriad emotions, but none of them are as strong as her original compositions, which include a duet with Scritti Politti’s Green Gartside, the New-York-set title song, and the introspective “Joy,” which opens the album by plainly reflecting on that particular feeling: “You loved it as a kid, and now you need it more than you ever did.”

Sufjan Stevens, “Songs for Christmas”

Sufjan Stevens rose to prominence in the mid-2000s, at a time when a lot of indie rock sounded curiously like Christmas music, full of xylophones, Dickensian flourishes and outsized exuberance. Stevens’ music was no exception, and therefore he was singularly suited to this 2006 box set of Christmas EPs, which boast the lush production and opulent arrangements that he was best known for at the time. It also strangely seemed to be his most honest album – the one that’s closest to who he is as a person – until his 2015 release, “Carrie & Lowell.” The holiday genre gives him opportunity to be more open about his Christian faith than he typically is with his indie-rock audience, as on “O Come O Come Emmanuel.” He delicately performs familiar standards such as “Joy to the World” in such a way as to draw out the emotion and faith. Occasional bursts of silliness (“Come On! Let’s Boogey to the Elf Dance!”) keep the mood light, and this remains a varied and lovely collection.

Bootsy Collins, “Christmas is 4 Ever”

Nearly all Christmas albums, practically by definition, are novelty albums. None is an artistic statement that reveals the depth of the human experience. Rarely, even, can you dance to this music. These are records to bake tree-shaped cookies to and that offer background music while you shop for sweaters. This 2006 album, by funk god and former Parliament bassist Bootsy Collins, embraces the novelty. He refers to himself as “Booty Claus” in the third person, encourages merriment, and says things like “ho dee ho ho ho” and “jingle jangle, baby.” He brings along family such as rapper Snoop Dogg and trombonist Fred Wesley. He takes just enough of the familiar elements of traditional carols and marries them to his bootzilla sound, as on the walking funk and swinging singalong of his “Winter Funky Land.”

John Denver & the Muppets, “A Christmas Together”

In the 1970s, John Denver broke songwriting down to its most straightforward core (just try to write a line as plainly evocative as “sunshine on my shoulders makes me happy”), while the Muppets took something as simple as a puppet show and added layers of complexity. They met each other halfway on several collaborations, the best of which is this 1979 Christmas special, which yielded a wonderful album that veers from the madcap (“The Twelve Days of Christmas”) to the moving (“When the River Meets the Sea”). The results remain touching and sincere, transcending the “Me” generation era and the Sesame-Street audience and living vividly today. The highlight is undoubtedly “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” a gentle duet between Rowlf the Dog (the most soulful Muppet) and Denver. The song achieved deeper poignancy after both singers, Jim Henson and Denver, died too young.

Vince Guaraldi Trio, “A Charlie Brown Christmas”

OK, so not all of these albums are obscure. “A Charlie Brown Christmas” is not only the finest Christmas album, but for a lot of Scrooges out there, it is the only tolerable one. The Vince Guaraldi Trio hits just the right amount of warmth without in-your-face cheer. If you’re in your 50s or younger, it likely prompts memories of staying up past your bedtime to watch the annual airing of the TV special. In compositions such as “Skating,” the piano twinkles like snowflakes in a streetlight, while “O Tannenbaum” evokes the sympathy of the skeletal, unloved Christmas tree of the animated special. The children’s choir and gentle brushstrokes of drumming in “Christmas Time is Here” is quietly romantic, and the evergreen bounce of “Linus and Lucy” help make this the rare Christmas album that sounds terrific any time of the year.

Robert Ker is a freelance music writer in Portland, where he and his wife own the vintage store Find. Contact him at:

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Twitter: @bobbker