Bolton slipped to bottom of the Premier League after goals from Marc Albrighton and Stiliyan Petrov helped Aston Villa bounce back to form at the Reebok.
Albrighton steered home a cross from the left and Petrov scored from 30 yards out in a one-sided first half.
Ivan Klasnic's turn and finish gave hope of a comeback but a late injury to the striker ended Bolton's chances.
Wigan's victory over West Brom leapfrogs them over Wanderers, while Villa are up to eighth.
The Midlanders will hope the victory will kickstart a campaign that looked to have hit the buffers, but the sense of trepidation enveloping the Reebok Stadium heading into the new year underlines the seriousness of the predicament facing Owen Coyle's men.
After a dreadful performance in the opening 45 minutes, they upped their game after the break and might have taken at least a point from the match.
Alex McLeish, perhaps mindful of the flak he has been taking from sections of the Villa support for a perceived negative style of play, handed starts to wingers Charles N'Zogbia and Albrighton.
Bolton had conceded 34 goals in 14 games before this - the worst defensive record in the Premier League - so it was perhaps a sound judgement by McLeish.
Did you know?
Marc Albrighton's last Premier League goal was in the fixture at Bolton last season, in the 3-2 defeat in March.
Petrov and Darren Bent had already gone close by the time Albrighton opened the scoring in the 33rd minute.
Gabriel Agbonlahor got free down the left and his cross was converted by the unmarked Albrighton.
Just six minutes later, Petrov picked up the ball 30 yards from goal and, with nobody closing him down, the Villa skipper tried his luck from range and his shot, which took a deflection off Gary Cahill, nestled into the bottom corner.
The deflection might have been a stroke of luck for the Villans, but it was one they fully deserved.
Wanderers were finally woken from their slumber when Kevin Davies brought a fine save out of Brad Guzan while, minutes after the restart, Klasnic was blocked out by a bank of Villa defenders.
That should have served as a warning to the visitors, who saw their lead halved after 55 minutes when Zat Knight fired towards Klasnic and the Croatian swivelled and scored from six yards out.
But Bolton were still poor at the back and Bent could have restored the two-goal advantage when he fired wide, unmarked from eight yards.
Chris Eagles looked dangerous for the home team but the momentum was lost as Klasnic was taken off injured after twisting his knee in an innocuous-looking challenge, with the Croatian's replacement David Ngog failing to offer the same threat.
Bolton manager Owen Coyle:
"At half-time I asked, if nothing else, for them to show that they care for the club in the second half, and they did that.
"There were still some mistakes, but it was a much better performance and much more like ourselves.
"But it is not good enough to just do it for the duration of a second half, it has to be for the entirety of a match."
Aston Villa manager Alex McLeish:
"I'm delighted to get the first away win of the season.
"It's been a long time coming - we have thrown away a couple of opportunities, so well done to the players for digging deep at the end under a barrage of Bolton attacks.
"It is credit to their mental toughness, and hopefully that is improving after capitulating at a couple of other away venues."
Live Text Commentary
Full Time The final whistle is blown by the referee.90:00 +2:46
Jussi Jaaskelainen takes the direct free kick.90:00 +2:46 Booking
Booking Marc Albrighton is cautioned.90:00 +2:30
Marc Albrighton gives away a free kick for an unfair challenge on Paul Robinson.90:00 +2:13
Gabriel Agbonlahor takes a shot. Gary Cahill gets a block in.90:00 +1:40
Marc Albrighton takes a shot. Save made by Jussi Jaaskelainen.90:00 +1:17
Corner from the right by-line taken by Stiliyan Petrov, Zat Knight manages to make a clearance.90:00 +0:29 Booking
Booking Gabriel Agbonlahor is cautioned.90:00 +0:15
Unfair challenge on Jussi Jaaskelainen by Gabriel Agbonlahor results in a free kick. Direct free kick taken by Jussi Jaaskelainen.88:58
Corner taken right-footed by Chris Eagles from the left by-line to the near post, James Collins makes a clearance.88:52
The ball is crossed by Paul Robinson, blocked by Stiliyan Petrov.88:16
The referee blows for offside against Gabriel Agbonlahor. Jussi Jaaskelainen restarts play with the free kick.87:38
Gael Kakuta produces a left-footed shot from deep inside the area which goes wide of the left-hand post.86:02
Chris Eagles takes a shot. Stiliyan Petrov gets a block in.85:07
Foul by Zat Knight on Gabriel Agbonlahor, free kick awarded. Richard Dunne takes the free kick.80:14
James Collins restarts play with the free kick.80:14 Substitution
Substitution Darren Bent goes off and Emile Heskey comes on.80:14
Foul by Darren Pratley on Chris Herd, free kick awarded.79:33
The official flags Darren Bent offside. Jussi Jaaskelainen restarts play with the free kick.77:51
Corner taken right-footed by Marc Albrighton from the right by-line, Header from close in by James Collins misses to the right of the goal.
Substitution David Ngog joins the action as a substitute, replacing Ivan Klasnic.74:06
Darren Bent is flagged offside by the assistant referee. Jussi Jaaskelainen takes the free kick.70:42
Mark Davies takes a shot. Save by Bradley Guzan.69:55 Substitution
Substitution Gael Kakuta comes on in place of Tuncay Sanli.69:13
Gary Cahill challenges Charles N'Zogbia unfairly and gives away a free kick. Stiliyan Petrov takes the direct free kick.64:41
Kevin Davies is caught offside. Indirect free kick taken by Bradley Guzan.63:50
Effort from the edge of the area by Mark Davies goes wide of the right-hand upright.63:20
Stiliyan Petrov produces a right-footed shot from outside the penalty box and misses left.62:23
Gabriel Agbonlahor crosses the ball, Zat Knight gets a block in. Outswinging corner taken by Marc Albrighton, Zat Knight makes a clearance.61:24
Kevin Davies takes a shot. Save by Bradley Guzan.61:04
The ball is sent over by Chris Eagles.59:07
Shot from just outside the area by Chris Eagles misses to the left of the target.55:59
Mark Davies fouled by Stiliyan Petrov, the ref awards a free kick. Direct free kick taken by Zat Knight. Darren Bent takes a shot. Gary Cahill gets a block in. Short corner taken by Charles N'Zogbia from the right by-line.54:04
Zat Knight has a drilled shot.54:04 Goal scored
Goal! - Ivan Klasnic - Bolton 1 - 2 A Villa A goal is scored by Ivan Klasnic from inside the six-yard box to the bottom left corner of the goal. Bolton 1-2 Aston Villa.53:54
Inswinging corner taken by Tuncay Sanli, clearance made by Stiliyan Petrov.53:34
Chris Eagles takes a shot. Save by Bradley Guzan.52:24
The ball is sent over by Marc Albrighton, Headed effort from inside the area by Darren Bent misses to the right of the goal.49:31
Free kick awarded for an unfair challenge on Charles N'Zogbia by Darren Pratley. Free kick taken by Richard Dunne.48:59
Mark Davies takes the chance to get an effort at goal. James Collins gets a block in.48:04
Corner taken by Chris Eagles from the left by-line, Stiliyan Petrov makes a clearance. Gary Cahill takes a shot. Richard Dunne gets a block in.47:32
Stiliyan Petrov concedes a free kick for a foul on Mark Davies. Free kick taken by Paul Robinson.45:01
The second half begins.45:00 +2:19 Half time
Half Time The first half comes to an end.45:00 +1:37
Zat Knight gives away a free kick for an unfair challenge on Darren Bent. Stephen Warnock takes the free kick.43:16
Close range headed effort by Ivan Klasnic goes wide of the left-hand post.42:46
The assistant referee flags for offside against Darren Bent. Free kick taken by Jussi Jaaskelainen.41:38
Kevin Davies crosses the ball. Richard Dunne is penalised for a handball. Direct free kick taken by Chris Eagles, Gary Cahill takes a shot. Bradley Guzan makes a save.40:14
Marc Albrighton takes a shot. Save made by Jussi Jaaskelainen.38:36
The assist for the goal came from Charles N'Zogbia.38:36 Goal scored
Goal! - Stiliyan Petrov - Bolton 0 - 2 A Villa Stiliyan Petrov finds the back of the net with a goal from outside the penalty box to the bottom right corner of the goal. Bolton 0-2 Aston Villa.37:03
Outswinging corner taken left-footed by Charles N'Zogbia from the left by-line, Kevin Davies makes a clearance.36:38
The ball is sent over by Marc Albrighton.35:07
Charles N'Zogbia has a volleyed shot. Dedryck Boyata gets a block in. Corner taken right-footed by Stiliyan Petrov from the left by-line to the near post, Dedryck Boyata makes a clearance.34:13
Stiliyan Petrov takes a outswinging corner from the right by-line to the near post, Effort from close in by James Collins goes wide left of the target.32:33
Gabriel Agbonlahor provided the assist for the goal.32:33 Goal scored
Goal! - Marc Albrighton - Bolton 0 - 1 A Villa Marc Albrighton gets on the score sheet with a goal from close in to the bottom left corner of the goal. Bolton 0-1 Aston Villa.30:26
Charles N'Zogbia takes a shot. Zat Knight gets a block in.30:16
The ball is sent over by Jussi Jaaskelainen.29:26
Short corner worked by Marc Albrighton, Effort from inside the area by Charles N'Zogbia misses to the left of the goal.28:50
Corner taken by Chris Eagles from the left by-line to the near post, clearance made by Darren Bent.28:43
A cross is delivered by Ivan Klasnic, blocked by James Collins.27:08
Chris Herd takes a shot. Save by Jussi Jaaskelainen.26:36
Direct free kick taken by Richard Dunne.26:36 Booking
Booking Mark Davies is cautioned.26:30
Mark Davies challenges Charles N'Zogbia unfairly and gives away a free kick.24:57
Mark Davies gives away a free kick for an unfair challenge on Alan Hutton. James Collins restarts play with the free kick.24:31
Darren Bent is ruled offside. Jussi Jaaskelainen restarts play with the free kick.23:48
Corner taken by Chris Eagles, Gary Cahill concedes a free kick for a foul on James Collins. Direct free kick taken by Bradley Guzan.22:24
Kevin Davies fouled by Alan Hutton, the ref awards a free kick. Direct effort from the free kick comes in from Ivan Klasnic, Richard Dunne makes a clearance.21:01
The offside flag is raised against Darren Bent. Indirect free kick taken by Jussi Jaaskelainen.20:22
Handball decision goes against Tuncay Sanli. Stephen Warnock delivers the ball from the free kick left-footed from left wing.19:24
Darren Bent takes a shot. Save by Jussi Jaaskelainen.18:47
Tuncay Sanli takes a shot. Save by Bradley Guzan.17:47
Unfair challenge on Chris Eagles by Alan Hutton results in a free kick. Free kick taken by Ivan Klasnic.16:58
Kevin Davies challenges Chris Herd unfairly and gives away a free kick. Stephen Warnock takes the direct free kick.15:38
Close range effort by Stiliyan Petrov misses to the left of the goal.14:14
Stephen Warnock fouled by Tuncay Sanli, the ref awards a free kick. Direct free kick taken by Richard Dunne.11:04
Chris Eagles takes a shot. Bradley Guzan makes a save.9:28
Inswinging corner taken by Charles N'Zogbia from the left by-line played to the near post, clearance by Tuncay Sanli.8:33
Inswinging corner taken left-footed by Charles N'Zogbia played to the near post, Tuncay Sanli makes a clearance.7:06
Chris Eagles takes a inswinging corner from the left by-line to the near post, Alan Hutton manages to make a clearance.4:46
Free kick awarded for a foul by Stephen Warnock on Kevin Davies. Free kick taken by Chris Eagles, Gary Cahill takes a shot. Save by Bradley Guzan.4:14
Marc Albrighton takes a shot. Gary Cahill gets a block in.1:25
Tuncay Sanli is ruled offside. Bradley Guzan takes the indirect free kick.0:00
The game begins.
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