Semifinal One Results!

With one sad exception, all the songs I was quite certain of came through and made the finals.  I am told that the great performance of Greta for Iceland didn’t really come across on television, with her backdrop projections making the whole stage show look too dark on screen.  She didn’t proceed to the finals, with most of the fans and journalists agreeing that Iceland was far more worthy than a few of the countries that made it through.semi winners

From best to worst, here are the top ten qualifiers in the order I would rank them:

1.Armenia — looks and sounds great! Top contender on Saturday

2.Malta — excellent song, nicely performed

3. The Netherlands — cool, fun countryish pop with a comfortable, relaxed stage presence

4. Russia — the overwhelming odds-on favorite, though I find it artificial and cold.

5. Czech Republic –nice song, fantastic singer.  Glad they qualified for the first time!

6. Cyprus — best of the rock numbers this year.

7. Croatia — haunting melody and strange but cool visuals

8. Austria — sweet French pop, delivered with more confidence than I expected

9. Azerbaijan — fine radiopop teen-level song, with a less-than perfect singer

10. Hungary — ok song, good-looking but not charismatic singer

 (Click the photo below to see a full album of the semifinal’s photos on flickr.)

ESC2016 First Seminfinal

ESC 2016 Entries – The Modern Songs

This spring, as usual, the fans started out complaining that the entries for 2016 would make this year’s contest in Stockholm the worst edition EVER.  Now that the 44 entries have had some reworkings and been performed around Europe in such events at Eurovision in Concert last month in Amsterdam and the annual London Eurovision Party, everyone is starting to realize that the range of offerings is actually pretty strong.  Personally I am looking forward to seeing and hearing all these entries on the big stage at Globen (with a few exceptions for bathroom breaks etc.). I’m breaking down this year’s notable entries into a few genres for purposes of comparison.theme_eurovision_2016_small

First up, the modern songs.  Last year, diehard fans were surprised to discover how many of the most popular entries with the voting public were the songs that would fit in perfectly to any current radio station’s playlist. So we can expect the best of these to fight for position at the top of the scoreboard May 14.

First up Austria.  Last year as host, Austria offered up a pleasant pop-rock entry that vanished without a trace, the Makemakes and “I’m Yours” which tied for last plaace in the finals with Germany, both not receiving a single point on the scoreboard.  This year, Austria is back with a light breezy pop song in French.  It is not anywhere near a winner, but is very pleasant and could qualify for the finals.

Azerbaijan had a big showpiece last year that was predicted to do very well but then barely qualified from the semis.  This year they have gone to their usual Swedish songwriters and come up with a catchy radio-friendly bit of almost teen-pop with “Miracle”.

Australia was the one-time invited guest last year that did so well (finishing fifth) that they were invited back again this year for an encore.  Dami Im is an Australian X-Factor winner with an appealing big voice and a current sounding midtempo ballad.

The Baltic states did well in 2015, all qualifying to the finals where Latvia and Estonia both achieved top ten status.  This year Estonia has a gravelly voiced male singer with a modern song that deserves to make the finals, Juri Pootsman and “Play”.

France has had a string of poorly received entries this decade, but that should change with their strong, country-flavored hit for this year, French/Israeli Amir with his “J’ai Cherche”.

Latvia also did extremely well in 2015, and their  artist Aminata came back this year as a songwriter.  The singer, Justs, has a rough,warm voice that suits their strong, radio-friendly entry, “Heartbeat”. If there is any justice this should sail into the top five this May.

Malta brought back former second-place Eurovision star Ira Losco, and then switched out her song to a stronger Swedish-composed entry that has them top five in the betting for 2016.  “Walk On Water” has Melodifestivalen veteran Molly Petterson Hammar listed as a co-writer, and you can hear her influence in the song’s bluesy soul flavor.

Norway did well three years ago with a cool, Bond-theme-esque entry with a sleek blond female singer. They are repeating that formula in 2016 with Agnete and “Icebreaker”, which probably won’t reach the top of the scoreboard but should qualify.

Host country Sweden decided to buck their own trend of dazzing, tech-heavy stage productions and instead go with a scaled-down indie singer/songwriter style number with 17-year old Frans and “If I Were Sorry”, which has buring up the Spotify charts since March.

Will we see a winner from this list of modern, current pop hits? Not necessarily, though I think we are sure to see several of them near the top of the board May 14th at the Finals.

The Top Official Entries… So far

There have been 11 songs announced so far for ESC 2015, of which 9 are available in a more-or-less finished form for us to listen.  Of those 9 there are about 6 that are contenders for a decent placing in the finals.  Here they are, with the most recently chosen first:

Saturday Cyprus chose their entry, Giannis Karagiannis with the subtle indie love song “One Thing I Should Have Done”.  If Hungary placed well with Bye Alex‘s “Kedvesem” in 2013, this could fit into a similar niche and also get votes.

Also Switzerland chose their entry this weekend, and though “Time to Shine” is a hackneyed Eurovision cliche of a title, Mélanie René and her song both show promise.  It may need a makeover to “punch it up” between now and May.

Last week France announced its entry as “N’Oubliez Pas”, the song that Lisa Angell will perform in the Eurovision Finals (as a guaranteed Big Six finalist).  In a traditional French Chanson style, it should perform well if there is a decent staging:

Malta has emerged as a Eurovision finalist in the last few years, and though Amber‘s “Warrior” needs a bit of work still, by contest time it could comfortably fit into the finals.

Macedonia has had a rocky history in Eurovision, not always squeaking in to qualification.  This year they have a strong singer, and again, if their staging can make a decent impression, Daniel Kajmakoski and “Esenski Lisja” could make it to the Saturday night Grand Finals.

Albania has a habit of sending very talented singers that unfortunately don’t always find their audience when it comes down to the voting.  That could be the case again this year, depending upon the form that Elhaida Dani‘s powerful “Diell” comes to ESC in.  In a good translation this could be a qualifier.

One of the first announced singers this year was Trintje Oosterhuis, an experienced soul singer from the Netherlands.  Her song was presented shortly after, and here Trintje is in a live performance on the Dutch version of The Voice with her ESC entry “Walk Along”:

Next up, we should be hearing the Thomas G:Son-composed entry for Spain, “Amanecer” by Spanish pop superstar Edurne, and “Hope Never Dies”, the (possibly) strong duet from Czech Republic’s Marta Jandová & Václav Noid Bárta.  Since Czech Republic is back in ESC this year after a break (and three years of an abysmal record of no qualifications), let’s hope they have returned with something great…

State of ESC2014: 7 Entries Chosen So Far

Last year, several countries had early selections and we had some heavy hitters by now–what happened to 2014? The exciting part this year is that with almost every country opting for a late selection, it seems every weekend we have a super Saturday.  And the national entries are slowly starting to fill in the board.

New logo for the 2014 contest (copyright EBU)

New logo for the 2014 contest (copyright EBU)

So far we have seven confirmed artists with their chosen songs: Albania, Belarus, Finland, Italy, Malta, Switzerland and Ukraine. Though it’s early in the game and these songs will see some minor makeovers on the way to København, can I just say that I don’t see any winners in the bunch?

Albania has chosen Herciana Matmuja and “Zemërimi i Një Nate”, a good singer and an ok song.  I just don’t see this standing out of the crowd.

Belarus is at least entertaining, as Teo does a bit of a Robin Thicke imitation with his “Cheesecake” song.

Finland loves rock, and this year chose an indie rock band in Softengine with “Something Better”.

Italy went back and corrected an old error by giving former San Remo winner Emma Marrone her belated chance to represent her country with “La Mia Cittá”: 

Malta just made their decision today, and it was not without controversy.  Pre-contest gossip was that the TV network wanted Firelight and their song “Coming Home”.  When the Maltese public put that entry in fourth place, the chosen jury obediently put Firelight at the head of the pack and overruled the televoters.

Switzerland also went folksy country rock with their selection, opting for Sebalter and his “Hunter of Stars”

Most surprisingly, Ukraine (always known for the quality of their entries) has chosen something pretty lightweight this year. “Tick Tock” is like something that a small Eastern European country would send with a 16-year old singer. Ukraine already seems to be trying to revamp this, but the chorus is still just as pathetic as ever.

Of all these, I think Italy will do its usual top ten placing.  But are any of the other chosen so far even good enough to make it out of the semis? Time will tell…

Second Semifinal, First Half

The second night of semis is harder to predict than the first this year. It isn’t really that the quality is higher (four of the top five contenders in the betting odds are in the first semi, after all). It’s more that there isn’t such a big distinction between the top contenders and the rest in this semi. With the right set of circumstances, you could make a case for almost any of these entries qualifying. Some of the borderline entries have also been helped by the running order, evening things out even more.

Kicking things off Thursday evening is PeR from Latvia, with their upbeat party anthem “Here We Go”. This is squarely at the bottom of the betting odds, but number one in the running order is the best starting position the boys from PeR could hope for. Could it qualify? I will be interested to hear the reactions from their first rehearsal onstage tomorrow.

Next up is fan favorite San Marino, also known as Valentina Monetta and Ralph Siegel 2.0. After last year’s ridiculous “Social Network Song”, it’s actually kind of heartwarming to see Ralph and Valentina come back with something so different and… GOOD! Currently at 10th to win the whole shebang in the latest odds, it’s a fairly safe bet that San Marino will finally break out of the semis this year.

On the other hand, F.Y.R. of Macedonia started out with a good song this year, but has slowly making things worse with every change. Esma even mentioned that Macedonia would have done better to pull out of the contest this year than switch to “Pred da se Razdeni”. Lozano has an honestly good voice, though his part of the song reminds me a bit too much of Donny Montell’s “Love is Blind”. But Esma’s wailing in Romany feels so inauthentic and grafted-on that I find it hard to imagine this qualifying.

Next up, the little country that could, Azerbaijan. Will Farid keep up his country’s flawless string of top ten entries? Probably so, though I think his English pronunciation really needs some work. “Hold Me” sounds a bit like a Dima Bilan cast-off, circa 2006, but it should definitely qualify.

The big fun change of pace in this half comes when we get this year’s only bit of harmless, silly 80s-style pop. Krista Siegfrieds bubbly “Marry Me” is definitely a breath of fresh, bubblegum-scented air in the second semi. Will she put in the girl-on-girl kiss and its implicit statement in favor of same sex marriage? Can’t wait to find out!

Malta’s simple singalong “Tomorrow” is sweet and harmless. Gianluca is pleasant and charming, and this year Malta’s fortunes could go either way. The right staging would do a lot to help sell a little love song like this; let’s hope they do something catchy to get viewers to remember “Tomorrow” come voting time.

Bulgaria brought back their only succesful artists, Elitsa and Stoyan, to hopefully bring back the fine placing they achieved in 2007. “Voda” was a lot better than “Samo Shampioni”, so it’s anyone’s guess whether lightning will strike twice for the percussive Balkan ethno-folk duo.

Iceland is serving up their first entry in Icelandic since Páll Oskar’s “Min Hinsti Dans” in 1997. This year it’s Eythor Ingi with the lovely unadorned ballad “Ég á Líf”. Eythor is a solid vocalist, and his native language is one of the loveliest to sing. The bettors don’t think much of Iceland’s chances this year, but I think it could surprise.

Greece chose an entry that I initially HATED, “Alcohol Is Free”. It’s the kind of manic zaniness that we expect to hear from Moldova, and makes not a lick of sense. But Koza Mostra have been one of the most popular acts every time they perform this song at any of the Eurovision concert showcases this year, and EVERYONE expects it to sail through to the finals. I am still not in love with it, but I grudgingly see its appeal.

From this group on Thursday, I expect Greece, Azerbaijan, Finland and San Marino, plus maybe Malta or Iceland to pass through to the finals. Latvia, Bulgaria, and F.Y.R.O Macedonia will have a tougher time.

Iceland and Malta Chose Wisely for ESC

Two of the island nations made their choices this Saturday, and came up with solid entries that recall classic Eurovision styles.  Iceland did NOT choose favorite Birgitta Haukdal, but opted for the simple, anthemic  “Ég á líf”, well-sung by blond Viking rock vocalist Eyþór. Though no decision has been announced whether he will sing in Icelandic or switch to an English translation for Malmö, many observers noted that Estonia’s success last year with “Kuula” makes it more likely that the song can stay in its original language for the ESC stage.

Malta also relegated its presumptive winner to the sidelines Saturday, as former Swedish Idol Kevin Borg saw his bombastic ballad “Needing You” place second to Gianluca Bezzina’s happy singalong “Tomorrow”, a song that could have fit quite nicely into any Eurovision final of the 60s or 70s:

Choosing simple, scaled down entries that recall the glory days of past Eurovisions may well suit the new, small is beautiful approach ESC is taking this year.  Though neither Iceland nor Malta stands out as winner material yet, both should do well enough to pass the semifinal hurdle.

Rehearsal, Day 3: Second Semi Entries

So the third day of rehearsals in Baku concludes, and our first onstage look at 8 semifinalists from the second semi. From the strong rehearsals again today, we can see that the second semi will be another tough group to choose from.

First up, SERBIA, one of this year’s returning veterans and a top contender for victory. Željko brought his A-game today with a flawless vocal rendition of “Nije Ljubav Stvar”. The stage show is good, as expected, but nothing new or surprising. A very solid entry that should reach top five in the Saturday finals.

Next was F.Y.R.MACEDONIA, Serbia’s ex-Yugo neighbor, with a similarly strong performance. Kaliopi is a veteran singer with a long career atop the Macedonian music charts, and her rocky/operatic/ballad was solid (with an almost shocking belted-out high note) and puts her in a good position to make the top ten in her semi.

NETHERLANDS has had a tough time in Eurovision since the introduction of the semifinal system, and this year could have been the year they broke through to success. But from reports in Baku, Joan Franka was not quite as confident onstage as hoped, and retained her unfortunate Native American feather headdress from the Dutch national finals. Her chances are now down to borderline qualifier.

MALTA also has not had an easy climb from the semis recently, and the betting odds this year have them near the bottom. But Kurt Calleja and his crew of band and DJ do their best to create a party atmosphere onstage for “This Is the Night”. His vocals are fine, and if the song were just a bit stronger he would have a decent chance…

BELARUS brings a techno pop sheen to their formerly straight-ahead rock song, “We Are the Heroes”. The boys from Litesound perform very well and look great onstage, and this seems as good as anyone expected or probably a notch better. A certain number of rock songs make the finals every year, and this has a good chance to be one of them.

PORTUGAL has a habit of missing the mark on what ESC viewers and voters are looking for, and this year doesn’t seem to be the exception. Many hardcore fans love the “classy, authentic” fado ballad “Vida Minha” and its singer, Filipa Sousa. But a slow, unadorned ballad without a strong visual element is probably hopeless in the modern Eurovision Song Contest.

Nobody accuses UKRAINE of being too subtle and boring for Eurovision, and the contrast between Gaitana’s “Be My Guest” and the song before could not be greater. Fans had accused “Be My Guest” of being too cheesy and obvious, but its strong singer and kinetic, colorful presentation have lifted it into the ranks of certain qualifiers.

BULGARIA brings to ESC a Balkan dancefloor stomper with Sofi Marinova’s “Love Unlimited”, and viewers expected something as bright and colorful as Ukraine’s in Baku. Unfortunately, their presentation is a solo performer onstage without any strong visuals, and so Sofi’s chances have to be taken down a notch or two.

So eight of the second semi’s 17 have taken the stage, and we are that much closer to figuring out who will make the finals. Serbia, Macedonia, Belarus and Ukraine seem to be probable qualifiers, Netherlands, Malta, and Bulgaria borderline entries, and Portugal has a remote chance of reaching top ten.