I’ve been a big fan of the Eurovision Song Contest since the late 90’s; I got to experience, for instance, the historic language rule change that has allowed English to remain the hegemonic force for the years to come, which has curiously taken Sweden, not the UK or Ireland, to the top of the European Pop game, creating three winners (1999, 2012, 2015) for the Nordic nation, and winning entries from other countries that include Swedish songwriter/production credits. I’ve also experienced the rise of the semi-finals, which turned the contest into a lovely week-long event, and the inclusion of televoting, that has caused, among other things, a string of winners from Eastern Europe (2001-2008), and several changes in the voting system (pretty much to counter Eastern European nations’ alleged “bloc voting”). However messy, dramatic, or even problematic it could be, Eurovision continues giving the public an exciting ride, introducing us to different cultures and interesting new artists in the process. And most importantly, despite the recent backlash from more conservative fans, it’s still all about the songs and the live performances.
2018 marks the first year where the contest goes to the Iberian nation of Portugal, right after last year’s landmark win by Salvador Sobral’s jazzy tune “Amar Pelos Dois”. This win is just the second by a non-anglo song since the language rule change, but Sobral’s victory has encouraged a trend of native-language songs, which is something absolutely welcome in the contest, as well as a ballad trend, with varying levels of success. The set of ESC entries this year is quite a diverse bunch, so we took a closer look and decided to rate and review all 43 of them. Enjoy!
43. San Marino: Jessika feat. Jennifer Brening – Who We Are
It’s a bit mean to say that early 2010’s EDM sounds already dated in the hands of lesser performers, but it’s exactly what happens here. This song tries too hard at being 2015 winner “Heroes” (down to the actual phrasing of the hook), and even when Jessika’s voice is quite pleasant, the performance comes off very bland. And the inclusion of Jeni B’s rap section is just sad.
42. Ireland: Ryan O’Shaughnessy – Together
Mid-tempo, restrained, “safe” songs don’t work on a stage like Eurovision unless you can find an element that is universally charming. Unfortunately, there’s not much to write about O’Shaughnessy dull entry, and Ireland seems to have learned nothing from past years’ total failures. I guess this is another missed final for the Celtic nation.
41. Germany: Michael Schulte – You Let Me Walk Alone
This is a prime example of a song with very good intentions and a powerful subject matter completely ruined by a mediocre performance. “You Let Me Walk Alone” is about the death of Michael’s father, and coming to terms with loss, but the way Schulte delivers these lines feels more like an attack than a tribute; and even if that was his intention, the lack of an attention-grabbing moment in the production or the melody muddles the whole message.
40. Georgia: Ethno Jazz Band Iriao – For You
The vocal layering and the traditional ethnic elements in this composition are wonderful, but when it comes to Eurovision, a pop show by heart, these elements generally work only when they’re at the service of verses and hooks. Yes, Sobral won last year with a traditional jazz number, but there was still a lot of pop magic in it. This will get lost in the recap for most of us in the semi-final.
39. United Kingdom – SuRie – Storm
Sometimes I wonder why, in international Football, we get to see teams from the various nations that make the United Kingdom — England, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland –, yet in the Eurovision Song Contest, the union decides to share the misery as one entity. SuRie is an experienced performer with lots of stage presence, but there’s hardly any song here. Once again, the UK has gone with something that’s just painfully safe, making a case for those who think the Big 5 countries just have it too easy and should face the hard scrutiny of a semi-final elimination.
38. Iceland: Ari Ólafsson – Our Choice
Despite Ari Ólafsson’s clean-cut performance and those great high notes at the end, “Our Choice” is not only dated, but its “Peace anthem” schtick feels incredibly forced. Songs that might work in the show 25 years ago don’t necessarily work today, no matter how much some fans insist upon the contest’s resistance to change. It’s not 1993 anymore, folks.
37. Armenia: Sevak Khanagyan – Qami
There is some potential here, and the Armenian language itself possesses a kind of spiritual quality to it, but the way Sevak delivers the melody falls a bit short, and when the production overstuffs the track with unnecessary trap hi-hats and synth risers, he just can’t match the growth of the track. Good staging might save this one from elimination, but it’s definitely in danger.
36. Lithuania: Ieva Zasimauskaite – When We’re Old
It’s a shame that we’re getting introduced to the warm, tender voice of Ieva Zasimauskaite in the hyper-competitive, monumental Eurovision stage; songs like “When We’re Old” pretty much work anywhere but here. There’s an emotional punch to Ieva’s delivery that might get some degree of attention on the semi, but without any particularly memorable musical or visual moment, it will most likely get lost in the bunch.
35. Latvia: Laura Rizzotto – Funny Girl
The ingredients are there; the sultry delivery, the modern touch of the dark synths, the bratty brass, even the fierce beats, yet the song never quite hit the spot. Perhaps it all gets a bit drowned by the Latvian delegation’s fear of sending something too provocative, but it’s a pity that a tune with the elements of a surefire qualifier will struggle to capture any hearts.
34. Portugal: Cláudia Pascoal – O Jardim
Delicate, subtle, somber, beautifully restrained. Also, too restrained for its own good. “O Jardim” is the rare entry whose strength is also its weakness; the haunting understated instrumental creates a great contrast with Cláudia’s voice, but this is a song that requires several listens in order to appreciate its charms. And in a night that’s all about immediacy and impact, it will definitely need some really clever staging.
33. Croatia: Franka Batelic – Crazy
While I can certainly get on board with a soul tune wrapped in an ethno-pop envelope, Franka’s “Crazy” never takes that extra step, never offers anything its title suggests. Instead, we get a serviceable lounge number with a lovely, unfulfilled promise and a tired Bonnie and Clyde-referencing spoken-word interlude.
32. Montenegro: Vanja Radovanovic – Inje
Eurovision is not complete without its breathtaking Balkan ballad, but this entry by Montenegrin Vanja Radovanovic sounds way too… Familiar. The first thing that comes to mind is 2006’s Bosnian classic “Lejla“, one of the greatest ESC entries of all-time, and that is a big problem for a song format that, in the past years, has actively tried to avoid sounding stuck in time.
31. Moldova: DoReDos – My Lucky Day
Moldova had a historic third-place finish last year with none other than the Sunstroke Project — the group with the “epic sax guy” –, and this year they’re attempting a similar feat with another upbeat, bouncy, slightly ethnic tune. However, “Hey Mamma” sounded completely current, while “My Lucky Day” already feels like a rehash of countless other ethno-pop entries in the past, most notably 2009’s “The Balkan Girls“. Still, let’s not count them out; countries like Moldova often benefit from impactful staging.
30. Greece: Yianna Terzi – Oniro Mou
Reflective songs rarely work on the ESC stage, and even great voices get trampled underneath the mass of more immediate entries. “Oniro Mou” is introspective, and the traditional instruments offer an extra depth, but how can a song qualify to a final without, you know, an actual hook? And it’s a shame because the atmospheric production is marvelous.
29. Russia: Julia Samoylova – I Won’t Break
When it comes to Russia, there’s no such thing as “too much controversy”. After not being able to participate in last year’s contest due to Russia’s complicated relationship with host nation Ukraine, and being endlessly dealing with accusers calling her a geopolitical pawn, Julia Samoylova will finally grace the Eurovision stage with “I Won’t Break”, a song that yes, makes reference of her disability (spinal muscular atrophy), but also carries a message of empowerment. The production — even the reggaeton-lite pre-hooks — anchors the song quite well, yet the track never reaches its full potential. Besides, she really needs to work on her English enunciation for the big nights ahead. Even non-native speakers — like myself — notice her shortcomings.
28. Azerbaijan: Aisel – X My Heart
What we have here is a solid electro-pop song with a convincing, charismatic vocal performance, which would be amazing news for Azerbaijan if it wasn’t for the not-so-small problem that “X My Heart” sounds so damn generic. This is the kind of track that several countries desperately want to release, it brings them closer to a spot in the final, but we’ve heard so much of this lately that it’s starting to become a “safe” bet. And “solid, but unremarkable” gets severely punished in Eurovision.
27. Poland: Gromee feat. Lukas Meijer – Light Me Up
This is a slice of electro-pop with incredible commercial potential; so radio-friendly it may feel a bit alien to the Eurovision stage, yet so inoffensive it’s offensive. While so many people will dismiss it as the kind of “fast-food” music Salvador Sobral warned us about in his victory speech, others will find the charm of how current it sounds. Perhaps it will all come down to the presentation, but let’s not discard this for now.
26. Romania: The Humans – Goodbye
The retro pop-rock sound of The Humans’ “Goodbye” may be their big hook. There are no similar songs in the rest of the show, which will make Cristina Caramarcu’s powerful voice stand out in the crowd during their semi-final, but on the other hand, the dark subject matter — suicidal thoughts and how to overcome them — may scare off those who turn on the TV for something more uplifting in the contest. Romania is one of those countries that have Saturday night potential regardless of what they send, but where exactly will they place remains uncertain.
25. Australia: Jessica Mauboy – We Got Love
Australia’s song is a letdown starting from the fact that such a vast, diverse, exciting pop market is coming to this show with a song so unremarkable it hurts. Jessica Mauboy is a great vocalist, but even she can’t make miracles; the hook in “We Got Love” falls short, and even when she’s trying to oversell it with an intense performance, the track doesn’t go anywhere. Add this to the list of songs that desperately need brilliant staging and a bit of luck on the night.
24. Norway: Alexander Rybak – That’s How You Write A Song
Scat-singing, funky interplay and swift dance moves are not for everyone, and that sadly includes 2009’s legendary Eurovision winner Alexander Rybak. Many things about his performance feel messy and shoehorned, and not even his natural charisma save “That’s How You Write A Song” from giving us an impression of disjoint. One thing is true, Rybak is an incredible musician/composer, and the instrumental dynamic in this track is brilliant. Let’s see how it goes when he takes the stage.
23. Denmark: Rasmussen – Higher Ground
At first, I didn’t quite get the appeal of this track — a 3/4 tune with cold dark synths and an “epic”, almost Game of Thrones-like vibe — but then it hit me: Rasmussen is trying to use these Nordic themes and elements in the same way that former Yugoslavian countries do with Balkan musical traditions in their grandiose, elegantly arranged ballads. Or in simpler terms, this is just the Europop equivalent of Viking metal. Either way, this has great potential if they take this exact performance to Lisbon.
22. Ukraine: Mélovin – Under The Ladder
Mélovin is a great performer with a unique voice; a singer so magnetic, it makes you forget the kind of hot mess this song really is. “Under The Ladder” shows a serious disconnect between verses, hooks, and bridge, but Mélovin manages to overcome this by sheer force of the performance. It might not be enough on the big night, but we’re open to surprises. Sometimes big displays of power go further than we imagine.
21. Serbia: Sanja Ilic & Balkanika – Nova Deca
This ensemble is kind of a one-trick pony, but they’re definitely the masters of combining traditional Serbian folk with modern electronics. “Nova deca”, however, doesn’t feel as consistent, even considering its magnificent beast of an intro, in which Sanja Ilic gives us an immersive emotional experience. To their credit, Balkanika are great live performers, so they may have something enthralling in store for us in Portugal.
20. Malta: Christabelle – Taboo
Christabelle is a powerhouse of an artist — she’s got a strong, distinct voice as her musical output is versatile and consistent –, which is really what saves “Taboo” from total irrelevance. You see, the production is electro-pop by-the-numbers and its attempt at a power bridge is pitiful, but there’s still a lot about it to make it to the final. It’s a bad track saved by a good chorus, and a good chorus made great by virtue of a great Christabelle.
19. Switzerland: Zibbz – Stones
Yes, “Stones” screams Twenty One Pilots and/or Imagine Dragons, down to the stomping drums and the echo chamber production, but being the only one to hop on to that particular trend in the contest may pay off for the Swiss. Besides, it’s good to hear this kind of song from a passionate female perspective, instead of just anxious dudes. Even the national final staging is good enough as it is — they’ve got the whole package figured out.
18. Slovenia: Lea Sirk – Hvala, ne!
It’s gritty, it’s messy, it’s a bit chaotic, but you know what? Lea Sirk is so convincing, so magnetic, so big a personality, it all works in her universe. “Hvala, Ne!” is all over the place, in a beautiful way, and fortunately for the Slovenian delegation, it’s the kind of tune that comes alive, well, live. It’s the most soul we’ve found in a Slovenian entry since “Straight Into Love“. Let’s just hope it doesn’t share its horrible fate.
17. FYR Macedonia: Eye Cue – Lost And Found
Make no mistake — I did flip the hell out the first I heard the reggae break in Eye Cue’s “Lost And Found”, and these particular sections, paired with Bojan Trajkovski’s guitar work and Marija Ivanovska’s splendid vocals are the song’s biggest strengths. The song loses a bit of its consistency during the more straightforward, EDM-tinged sections, but Marija melodicism makes up for these shortcomings. It’s kind of a breath of fresh air in the contest to hear reggae or dub elements used so well; let’s hope they get a good staging in which they can bring the best out of their song.
16. Italy: Ermal Meta & Fabrizio Moro – Non mi avete fatto niente
Italian Pop, especially in the last few years, is known for offering a fair share of emotion, social commentary, and even philosophical insight, and this kind of wordiness is kind of a curse for the Italian delegation — it certainly was last year; the witty, early favorite “Occidentali’s Karma” ended up losing to Portugal because the message it tried to convey was just too much for a three-minute performance. Ermal Meta & Fabrizio Moro are gifted singer-songwriters, and “Non mi avete fatto niente” does have something huge in its favor: their voices work well as a duo, and the feeling behind the lyrics can be transmitted by their sheer performance. There’s true chemistry in here.
15. Hungary: AWS – Viszlát Nyár
This is such a surprise, not only for the sake of diversity but for how necessary a song like this is in the specific 2018 ESC. First, it’s a metal song in a native language, which corresponds to both a trend from 10 years ago making its triumphant return and a trend inspired by a recent winner respectively. Second, the song itself is really great; heavy, but with a melodic edge, graced by a monstrous bridge, yet returning to an anthemic, multi-layered chorus, and containing the most Eurovision of features, a key change in the end. It also sounds like the opening theme of an anime series, which may be the root of its entire appeal. Either way, thanks a lot, Hungary!
14. France: Madame Monsieur – Mercy
A simple, serviceable, mid-tempo number that just… works. “Mercy” ticks all those accessibility boxes we kind of expect from a non-anglo entry, and even when that is just too obvious, Madame Monsieur’s tune still possesses a contemporary quality that places them above so many other past French entries. Maybe it’s the French delegation finally embracing artists with pan-European crossover potential, or maybe “Mercy” is just so damn effective in itself.
13. Czech Republic: Mikolas Josef – Lie To Me
The bounce, the horns, and the innuendo-filled lyrics suggest a strong Jason Derulo influence, but the most pervasive element in “Lie To Me” is the Timberlake-lite, post-Bieber freshness in Mikolas Josef’s performance. This is a track that can be easily ruined by lesser personalities, whether by under-selling its natural swagger or by coming off as arrogant, but Josef gives us a balanced take, where his innate charisma shines through. Pop is supposed to be fun, and the Czech entry truly delivers.
12. Belarus: Alekseev – Forever
There’s a timeless quality to both the melody and the harmonic progression in Alekseev’s “Forever”, even when the production places it firmly in today’s musical landscape. But there’s also an inherent darkness to the songwriting, an air of uneasiness and mystery that modern production can easily kill, but the clever use of atmospheric backing vocals and goth-like synth risers instead heightens this potent feeling. Yes, the Russian version had a bigger impact, but Alekseev is still going to Lisbon with a sturdy contender.
11. Albania: Eugent Bushpepa –Mall
Ever since I heard this in Festival I Kënges last year, I knew it was perfect for Europe’s biggest music night. The pop-rock track has an anthemic quality, and the way it goes in crescendo is ideal for an impassioned performance, but it’s Eugent’s vocal intensity what gives “Mall” its big chances in Portugal. Big belters don’t usually come from dudes, but if Bushpepa plays his cards right, we’re in the presence of top 10 material.
10. Cyprus: Eleni Foureira – Fuego
Finally, an ethno-pop banger that works in all three levels; it’s club-ready, which increases its commercial possibilities, it displays the Cypriot musical elements well, which contributes to its uniqueness, and most importantly, Eleni’s fierce vocals make every moment memorable. “Fuego” has raised the bar for dance numbers in 2018’s contest; it is exactly what the title suggests.
9. Spain: Alfred & Amaia – Tu Canción
It seems like everyone wanted to write a song like this for Eurovision 2018; a tender ballad where you can actually feel the love in every note, where that sensation of sweetness is displayed in every word, and their interaction irradiates that exact emotion. Alfred & Amaia feel so natural together they don’t need any fancy arrangements or elaborate staging to get their message across, and even when they’re singing in Spanish, “Tu Canción” certainly transcends all language barriers.
8. Finland: Sara Aalto – Monsters
Out of all the women doing bouncy, slightly dark electropop in Eurovision this year, by far the most accomplished is the Finnish Saara Aalto. “Monsters” is a track that benefits from her natural combination of Gothic mystery and technicolor pop exuberance, and its skeletal production offers a vast canvas on which to build a visually stunning presentation.
7. Austria: Cesár Sampson – Nobody But You
Let’s give all credit to the songwriting team of Boris Milanov, Sebastian Arman, and Joacim Persson; they have managed a consistent track record, working with a host of interesting new artists in the process. Austrian participant Cesár Sampson is, without a doubt, their most important discovery — a remarkably expressive voice, with enough soul and gospel flavor to give any pop song an extra depth. “Nobody But You” is completely driven by his vocal offering. After a couple of years as the backing vocalist to Bulgarian artists Poli Genova and Kristian Kostov, 2018 is the time for him to take the lead role. He’s got the song to back it all up.
6. The Netherlands: Waylon – Outlaw in ‘Em
Country music is one of those styles you definitely wouldn’t associate with the Eurovision Song Contest, but artists like The Netherlands’ Waylon are here to challenge those notions. Besides, the guy is so talented, and such a superb live act, that he can easily pull off this country-rock period-piece concept with gusto and respect for the format. He already gave us a classic in 2014’s runner-up “Calm After The Storm”, now he’s looking for the crown.
5. Sweden: Benjamin Ingrosso – Dance You Off
Don’t you get a bit pissed about how damn good the Swedes are when it comes to Eurovision? They have dominated the contest, and the general panorama of pop music, for a reason; a song like Benjamin Ingrosso’s “Dance You Off”, for instance, contains all the elements that make a true banger — bouncy rhythms, an incredibly slick production, undeniable bass lines — and it’s driven by a capable performer with a catchy, clean falsetto and an appealing personality. Sweden’s got this thing right almost to a science, that’s why they always appear among the favorites.
4. Estonia: Elina Nechayeva – La Forza
Eurovision is a show about big gestures, monumental performances, ambitious staging and as much passion as you can cram into a three-minute track, which means it’s perfect for opera to shine here. Elina Nechayeva’s “La Forza” has it all; a classical yet accessible song, a HUGE vocal range, a hook built on high drama, and a memorable visual setting — just look at that dress. Yes, opera acts like Amaury Vassili and Malena Ernman have flopped horribly, but if Nechayeva’s recent live history is any indication, Estonia is poised to at least take a spot in the top 10.
3. Belgium: Sennek – A Matter Of Time
Belgium keeps surprising us with elegant, carefully constructed, sophisticated entries, but what they have sent this year goes way beyond the expectations. “A Matter of Time”, with its sumptuous strings, organic drums, and sinister-sounding chord progressions, feels like some of the best James Bond soundtrack themes, but there’s also a hint of mysterious coolness that reminds us of 90’s trip-hop/indie-pop acts like Catatonia or Portishead. Sennek is in a class of her own this year.
2. Bulgaria: EQUINOX – Bones
After the great success of Poli Genova’s “If Love Was A Crime” and Kristian Kostov’s “Beautiful Mess”, the Bulgarian delegation is aiming at greatness and they have given us a true anthem. Vocal ensemble EQUINOX takes this dark, minimalistic track and crafts an impressive song around simple yet hard-hitting motifs. Besides having diverse tones and vocal capacities, the five members are gifted melodists, and if this wonderful dynamic is evident in the confines of a studio version, one can only imagine what’s in store for us on the big night.
1. Israel: Netta – Toy
Oh my God, there’s so much going on in here, and it’s all so freakin’ exciting, I don’t know exactly where to begin. Okay, the song is built around a vocal looper, and Netta’s incredible acrobatics, chicken noises, percussive clicks and sheer rhythmic brilliance, but there’s also a bonafide ethno-pop banger underneath, in which we can hear her deliver all sorts of ear-catching melodies (even going full Migos flow for a while). And just because she’s that much of a badass, there’s a full-on dabke break in the second verse, a homage to the rich musical traditions of the Levant. “Toy” is a work of genius; both accessible and experimental, both ethnic and cosmopolitan, in line with contemporary trends, but compositionally in a league of its own. It’s by far the best song in the contest; it’s light years ahead of the pack and it should win. Even the betting houses agree.