My perfect festive playlist, by Self Esteem, Kathryn Williams and Years & Years

Pop stars who lit up 2021 share mixes for Christmas drinks, New Year’s Eve and the big day itself – scroll down to hear their choices

Self Esteem

Indie musician turned pop star whose Prioritise Pleasure is one of 2021’s albums of the year

Rebecca Lucy Taylor, AKA Self Esteem, began the year hungover after hosting a New Year’s Eve charity raffle for Women’s Aid online, “getting privately pissed, alone in my room, locked down with my poor parents”. She ended it with multiple album of the year prizes for her brilliant second solo LP, Prioritise Pleasure, a pop statement broiling with rage, humour, truth and tunes. “All the things I’ve ever wanted to do seem to be happening. At last!”

Taylor’s breakthrough was her album’s lead single, I Do This All the Time, released in April. A half-spoken, half-sung battlecry against self-doubt that mixed sexist statements she has had thrown at her with uplifting mantras, it created a new landscape for honesty in pop, and had a stark, self-directed video to match. “I’d spent so many years worried about so many things, that perversely I was like: what happens if I face these worries or name them or show them? So I did. It makes you bulletproof in a way.” The feedback to the single “was amazing”, but Taylor thought that would be it. The excitement kept going for the album, and her shows started selling out. “I was like: oh my fucking God. Things are really changing.”

As a result, her bucket-list started getting ticked off. She performed on Jools Holland (“all my peers had, so at last I could get rid of the jealousy and sadness!”), sparkled on mainstream TV shows such as Never Mind the Buzzcocks, and became a star on social media (her Twitter and Instagram posts and videos are frequently hilarious). A member of the critically acclaimed indie duo Slow Club from 2006 before going solo in 2018, she calls her 15-year rise to fame “a weird underdog tale”, but credits her band, and their friendship, for helping her through.

“I didn’t really have many mates before the last few years – I didn’t go to uni, and I lost touch with my schoolmates and didn’t make the kind of friendships you do in your 20s because I was always on tour. But I’m now in a gang, talking absolute shit, speaking to one another about everything, and I love it.” Her band are “like what you hoped the Spice Girls would be,” she says. “We should have a reality show, really.”

This playlist is full of songs that speak to what Taylor calls the “non-sexual romance you have with friends you really love”, songs you want to “share and to sing along to with them”. For Christmas, she will be “up north with my first- and second-wave housemates – my parents. I’m cooking the Christmas dinner so I’m already drawing up the extensive ingredients list!”

Self Esteem’s playlist for Christmas drinks with friends

1. Niki & the Dove Ode to Dance Floor
“Perfect music for being with friends – danceable, emotional, with incredible lyrics.”

2. Deacon Blue Real Gone Kid
“Me and one of my best friends, Jess, had a proper movie friendship moment pissed up and dancing in a living room together to this.”

3. Jamelia Thank You
“You can’t go wrong with an early 2000s R&B vibe. It’s also good to squat to.”

4. Truth Hurts ft Rakim Addictive
“And another one, the sexiest song ever, with a fantastic south Asian vocal sample [from Indian singer Lata Mangeshkar’s 1981 song Thoda Resham Lagta Hai].”

5. Alexandra Burke ft Flo Rida Bad Boys
“A really talented pop star let down by racism and sexism. That chorus is like an Abba chorus!”

6. Whitney Houston It’s Not Right But It’s Okay
“A great one for singing along to with friends – the narrative, the beat, the way it builds.”

7. Lauryn Hill Doo Wop (That Thing)
“Hear that intro and you’re running back from the bathroom, aren’t you?”

8. Rod Stewart Baby Jane
“My wild card! I love the melody to this. I should do a contemplative version of this for next Christmas. Come on, John Lewis, let’s have it!”

9. Peter Gabriel Sledgehammer
“I’m embarrassingly obsessed by Peter Gabriel. This is a gateway track for my friends.”

10. New Radicals You Get What You Give
“It’s such a beautiful song, a proper one to wind down to, when you want to put your arms around everyone.”

Self-Esteem’s Prioritise Pleasure is out now on Fiction Records

Kathryn Williams

English singer-songwriter whose new Christmas album with Carol Ann Duffy is out now

A debut novel and a Christmas album with a former poet laureate: it’s been a year of big projects for Kathryn Williams. The Ormering Tide, her gorgeous coming-of-age tale about a girl unravelling the foreboding secrets of an island community, came out in March and was a bestseller in the north, where Williams lives (a Liverpudlian, she has long lived in Newcastle with her husband and sons). From home, Williams also stitched together her festive LP with Carol Ann Duffy on Zoom sessions during the early 2021 lockdown, before taking Midnight Chorus to the studio this summer.

Out now, its songs are a glorious mixture of sweetness and strangeness, like Dear Lord, which features a whisky-swigging woman after midnight mass dreaming of meeting Dolly Parton, and Cariad (“cariad” being Welsh for “beloved”) which hymns the magical arrival of a child. Williams found Duffy “formidable” when they first met a few years ago. “But she is one of the kindest, warmest, most down-to-earth people I know, and, of course, she loves Christmas [Duffy wrote festive poems every year as poet laureate]. She also saved me from a ditch once when I was drunk, holding my guitar in one hand and my iPhone in the other, so she’s all right by me.”

Making music online has been revelatory for Williams in 2021. She’d avoided it completely in the first lockdown, but in the second, she learned her much-missed parents’ favourite song, Dr Hook’s Sylvia’s Mother, and performed it to them over Zoom, which was “incredibly emotional”. Then came weekly Instagram gigs in her fairy light-strewn garage; she loved chatting to fans, friends and collaborators in the comment thread between songs. “It made me realise that music is about connection more than anything else.”

Post-lockdown, Williams headed out to Ed Harcourt’s woodland cabin studio to record her next solo album, due in the spring, and prepare her “best of” collection for next year. But first, we go to Williams’s house for Christmas, where the music starts the day they “put up the tree with hot chocolate and mince pies … but Christmas Day is full of it too.” The Phil Spector and Vince Guaraldi Charlie Brown albums are “absolute staples” before other assortments drift in. “We love music that immediately sprinkles magic into the room.”

Kathryn Williams’s Christmas Day playlist

1. Joe Hisaishi My Neighbor Totoro (unreleased Crystal Clear Sound instrumental)
“From the absolutely gorgeous and magical 2019 Studio Ghibli seven-inch box set: it reminds me of our little family watching all those films together at home.”

2. Modern Jazz Quartet God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen (Live in Cologne)
“I love how the tune spirals away, as if it’s going off into a daydream.”

3. Ane Brun Silent Night Before the First Day of Christmas
“Her voice is like Dolly Parton meets Sigur Rós.”

4. Simon and Garfunkel Silent Night/Seven O’Clock News
“The juxtaposition of these songs is about the heartache of humanity, but it’s also a beautiful spell, reminding you of the good in the world.”

5. Burl Ives Silver and Gold
“An old Christmas song that reminds me of my grandpa, like old-fashioned Christmas wrapping paper.”

6. Bifrost Arts (feat Devon Sproule) Joy, Joy!!!
“This is full of wonder. Devon Sproule isn’t known enough – she’s one of my favourite singers.”

7. Sufjan Stevens That Was the Worst Christmas Ever!
“We’re all obsessed with him in our house. All his Christmas music is magical, tender and mellow.”

8. Birdy Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas
“Her voice is just like her name, a tiny, gentle creature.”

9. Aimee Mann I Was Thinking I Could Clean Up for Christmas
“Another hero of mine – but this one’s a bit more grown up…”

10. Joni Mitchell River
“Like a perfect snowglobe capturing a time in a person’s life. Joni’s still the star to aim towards.”

Midnight Chorus by Kathryn Williams and Carol Ann Duffy is out now on One Little Independent Records. The Ormering Tide is published by Wrecking Ball Press

Olly Alexander

British musician and actor who records as Years & Years, and who started 2021 starring in the hit Channel 4 drama It’s a Sin

In January, Olly Alexander was locked down in his London flat, eagerly anticipating the broadcast of a Channel 4 series he’d made as an actor, Russell T Davies’s Aids drama It’s a Sin. “I was so excited for it to come out and for the world to see it,” he says, “but I absolutely had no idea it would resonate with people in the way that it did.”

It was an instant commercial and critical hit, becoming the most binge-watched show in All 4’s history before winning the National TV awards new drama prize in September. It also established Alexander – as the charismatic, heartbreaking Ritchie Tozer – as a brilliant lead actor. He’s definitely not the new lead in Dr Who, though, he says, despite recent rumours. “Not me!”

He’s proud of the fact that the show’s success drove a surge in HIV testing (a record 8,200 were ordered from the Terrence Higgins Trust in one day: the previous record was 2,800). “That real-world impact was so powerful, realising the impact of a story in the conversations that it can create.” Alexander has also stayed close to the cast – “we all know it was a very special thing” – and they’re even doing a celebrity Bake Off special this month. “I’ve discovered I can make shortcrust pastry! That was quite the revelation.”

Then there are his musical achievements as Years & Years (formerly a band, it became a solo project in March). In February, he covered the Pet Shop Boys’ It’s a Sin at the Brits, sprawling on a piano played by Elton John (“[he asked] me to perform with him… it was my dream to play the Brits so I owe him my life!”). Four singles followed, including A Second to Midnight with another one of his heroes, Kylie Minogue (“she’s the sweetest, funniest, most genuine person”). His new album, Night Call, arrives on 7 January.

Kylie will perform with Alexander again when he hosts the BBC One’s star-spangled New Year’s Eve coverage, as will the Pet Shop Boys and other special guests. It’s no surprise, then, that Alexander’s New Year’s Eve playlist is celebratory, inspired by his teenage years in the Forest of Dean “sneaking into Bristol clubs and Monmouth pubs” discovering dance music. “It’s all party floor-fillers that you know everyone’s going to love.”

The Years & Years New Year’s Eve playlist

1. Cheryl Lynn Got to Be Real
“One of the greatest songs ever and a queer classic on the Paris Is Burning soundtrack and the Sex and the City series.”

2. Whitney Houston Million Dollar Bill (Frankie Knuckles remix)
“An anthem from a legendary LGBT venue that’s no longer with us, The Joiners Arms on [London’s] Hackney Road. Fun times!”

3. Amerie 1 Thing
“Any time I play this at any party it just gets everyone going.”

4. Mis-Teeq All I Want
“I can sing all the parts! This makes me nostalgic for UK garage, which was a huge scene when I was at Monmouth Comp, which is hysterical, really.”

5. Lucy Pearl Don’t Mess With My Man
“I love this so much – I don’t understand why it wasn’t a huge global hit.”

6. Beyoncé Check On It
“It’s so hard to pick one Beyoncé song!”

7. Booty Luv Boogie 2Nite (Seamus Haji Big Love Edit)
“This reminds me of sneaking into clubs in Bristol when I was 17.”

8. Sylvester You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)
“Sylvester was breaking the boundaries before we were even talking about the boundaries.”

9. Kylie Minogue Love at First Sight
“She has to be on every playlist.”

10. Aaliyah (feat Slick Rick) Got to Give It Up
“I rediscovered this in lockdown. It’s a great closer, and it’s always good to hear Aaliyah’s voice.”

The Big New Years & Years Eve Party is on BBC One on New Year’s Eve from 11.25pm (except Scotland). Night Call is out in January 2022 on Polydor Records


Jude Rogers

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
‘I’m addicted a bit to saying what I think’: Self Esteem and Lucy Prebble in conversation
The musician and screenwriter became friends four years ago. They discuss finding your voice as a female artist and the appeal of Twitter

Ammar Kalia

24, Oct, 2021 @9:00 AM

Article image
Kathryn Williams: ‘Sylvia was a big shadow over my writing’
Singer-songwriter Kathryn Williams talks about how Sylvia Plath inspired her new album, and why she is determined to rescue the poet from the ‘sexy, depressing writer poster girl’ cliche she has become

Jude Rogers

14, Jun, 2015 @10:30 AM

Article image
Self Esteem review – rallying cries from a woman reborn
With huge choruses and head-flicking 90s dance moves, Rebecca Lucy Taylor’s performance is a maximalist pop triumph

Kitty Empire

13, Nov, 2021 @2:00 PM

Article image
Observer readers’ alternative Christmas playlist
We asked readers to share their favourite schmaltz-free festive hidden gems. Here, from Shane MacGowan’s other Christmas classic to goth metallers Type O Negative, we compile the best tips

Observer readers

23, Dec, 2019 @9:00 AM

Article image
The Observer’s TV quiz of the year
Think you know your Line of Duty from your White Lotus, your Strictly from your Bake Off? Test your knowledge of the past 12 months of TV trivia with our Christmas quiz

Michael Hogan

19, Dec, 2021 @8:30 AM

Article image
My perfect Christmas playlist, by Michael Kiwanuka, Sophie Ellis-Bextor and Tim Burgess
Pop stars who lit up 2020 talk about their Christmas routines and share the tracks they turn to on the big day – scroll down to hear their choices

Jude Rogers

20, Dec, 2020 @10:00 AM

Article image
My perfect Christmas music playlist, by Jarvis Cocker, Tony Bennett, Sarah Cracknell, Mabel, Natalie Prass and John Grant
Pop stars talk about their Christmas routines and share the playlists they turn to on the big day – scroll down to hear their choices

Interviews by Jude Rogers

23, Dec, 2018 @9:00 AM

Article image
Stephen Mangan: ‘My strangest Christmas present? An aubergine’
The actor, who is playing Scrooge on stage, is a fan of Christmas quizzes. But there’s one question he can’t answer: why are cracker jokes so bad?

Kate Kellaway

19, Dec, 2021 @10:00 AM

Article image
‘A truly special spot’: arts insiders’ top tips for free cultural places in Britain
From Russell Tovey to Gemma Cairney, cultural figures pick their favourite hangouts – from Edinburgh to Aberystwyth – with no entry charge

19, Mar, 2023 @12:00 PM

Article image
Years & Years: Palo Santo review – let’s talk about sex
The electro-pop trio’s second album is in love with the 90s sound of Britney, but it’s singer Olly Alexander’s private life that’s front and centre

Kitty Empire

08, Jul, 2018 @8:00 AM