The Best Non-Traditional Christmas Albums

While Mariah Carey and Wham! are common staples in anyone’s holiday playlist, here are some of the best original projects that have aimed to subvert the conventional Christmas carol.

Story by Zoe Judilla

For many artists, the creation of the quintessential Christmas album is a rite of passage. However, few are successful in leaving a unique mark within a genre that has managed to cover just about every festive theme, from “chestnuts roasting on an open fire” to simply “letting it snow, letting it snow, letting it snow.” Here are some of the more unique projects that have made successful attempts at subverting the conventional Christmas carol.

Tyler, the Creator – Music Inspired by Illumination & Dr. Seuss’ “The Grinch”

When it was announced that Tyler, the Creator would be contributing original songs for “Illumination & Dr. Seuss’ The Grinch,” fans found the marriage between the rapper and the animated children’s film surprising – yet somewhat sensible, albeit in an eccentric way.

Tyler’s release of an additional 10-minute EP inspired by the film is a small, yet impressive, gift; his experimentation with sprightly instrumentals and addictive, jolly hooks make for a uniquely festive sound. Whether he’s noting his preference for 2% milk in his hot chocolate or utilizing Santigold’s elfish vocals for a cheery chorus, Tyler’s EP would make anyone want to linger in merry ol’ Whoville, far past the Christmas season.

Photo courtesy of Pitchfork

Kacey Musgraves – “A Very Kacey Christmas”

Kacey Musgraves’ holiday gem is an eclectic compilation of classic renditions, tinged with vintage-pop nostalgia. Musgraves’ lean into the ‘60s-esque style with clean vocals and lively instrumentation creates a timeless feel, allowing the country artist to transcend past her signature genre. With appearances from a cool-as-can-be Willie Nelson and an effortlessly smooth Leon Bridges, the original songs are arguably more notable than her covers. Regardless, Musgraves’ attempt to “bring you songs of yuletide joy” do just that.

Photo courtesy of Spotify

John Legend – “A Legendary Christmas”

Is it possible that John Legend could give Michael Buble a run for his money as king of the Christmas album? While it’s ultimately up to personal preference, it seems more likely than you’d think. The EGOT-winner’s release of “A Legendary Christmas” as early as before Halloween is somewhat of a testament to Legend’s dedication to the holiday, a sentiment that translates fully on the album. His R&B-driven spin on various classic carols provides a joyously modern alternative to the traditional cover. With soulful vocals and robust production, the singer-songwriter’s Christmas project is packed with festive fun.

Photo courtesy of FYE

Jeremih and Chance the Rapper – “Merry Christmas Lil’ Mama: Rewrapped”

The reissue of the two-part Christmas album from Chance the Rapper and Jeremih was a much-needed present in response to lasting political anxiety. With the first part released in 2016 towards the end of the Obama administration, Chance and Jeremih address a somber year of fallen idols and the fear of an unknown future. With the reissue released a year later featuring an additional nine new songs, the uncertainty remained still.

The mixtapes are about maintaining hope and joy in a period where it seems increasingly more impossible to do so. While tracks such as “Family For” and “The Tragedy” (featuring a stunningly candid Noname) respectively focus on decrying the Trump administration or observing the blight of the overlooked during the holidays, others aim to reignite themes of hope in classic Christmas tropes (even utilizing Jackson 5 in an attempt to do so).

Photo courtesy of Soundcloud

Sufjan Stevens – “Songs for Christmas” (Vol. 1-5)

Stevens’ earnestly eccentric Christmas album is a tour de force when it comes to genre subversion. The whopping two-hour-long project is a compilation of five EPs recorded over five years, with absurd titles such as “Did I Make You Cry On Christmas Day? (Well, You Deserved It!)” and “What Child Is This Anyway?” suggesting its lilted nature.

But while the outlandish originals intersect with more unconventional covers, Stevens’ Christmas album manages to not only breathe life into the holiday genre, but further expand the boundaries of what it means to be in the holiday spirit. The whimsy of “Songs for Christmas” is a sincere portrayal of the spirited season in a way that is rarely seen, impressively balancing fun with frailty in a way that is beautifully all-encompassing.

Photo courtesy of Sufjan Stevens