It’s Eurovision time!
Of course you have Saturday’s final circled in your calendar, but don’t forget that before we can tackle the main event, we have to whittle 31 countries down to 20. With two fewer countries taking part this year, the entrants stand a marginally better chance of making it through to their semi-final – but all the more gutting for the 11 who don’t. The 10 successful countries from each semi-final will join the Big Five – France, Spain, Italy, Germany and the UK – alongside last year’s winner Denmark in the final.
The UK can’t vote in the first semi-final – so don’t even try – but the show will be broadcast live on BBC Three. I won’t be watching on BBC Three though because – touch wood – I’ll be sitting in the Alexander Rybak stand in the hall watching it in person. Oh yes.
- Armenia – And we’re straight in with one of the favourites. If you didn’t know already that this song is called Not Alone, you will once you’ve heard the phrase repeated – and I’ve counted – 32,000 times during three minutes. It’s a builder and its popularity rather rests on a textbook crescendo – although this also means that a third of the song is pretty dramatic, but only a third of it. I’m not a fan of Aram MP3′s voice (or his questionable views) but this will surely make it through to the final.
- Latvia – Eurovision is, of course, famous for its more eccentric entries and you don’t have to wait long to find one of this year’s. It’s called Cake to Bake. It’s about baking a cake, alongside an eclectic range of other activities (including working with Sherlock Holmes and Indiana Jones) that a less charitable commentator might suggest add up to a nonsense song. There’s an outside chance that Cake to Bake could be a euphemism but it genuinely seems to be about baking. The music uses one of the most hackneyed chord progressions there is, giving the overall impression of a song thrown together at the last minute when someone woke up hung over and realised the deadline was about to pass. My jaw dropped when I first heard this. And yet, you’ll still be humming it tomorrow.
- Estonia – An OK, upbeat ditty from Estonia, although you may tire of it before it ends.
- Sweden – Sanna Nielsen’s Undo is another favourite and particularly popular among the Eurovision fan clubs across the continent. It’s an upmarket ballad, performed well and, like so many songs every year, livens up once it gets going. I like it much more now than I did the first time I heard it – but at Eurovision, first impressions count.
- Iceland – There is a specific category of Eurovision song: the well-meaning polemic. There is another category: the “fun” band. Draw the Venn diagram of the two and Iceland’s Pollapönk sit squarely in the intersection. The song is called No Prejudice, which may give you the subtlest of hints what its message is. Its intentions are good and the verses are passable but – after an uncomfortable segue – the chorus makes it sound like a theatre group performing a morality play at a primary school. A disco breaks and a key change can’t make up for that.
- Albania – This is straightforward although the melody comes and goes. There’s a nice if outdated guitar solo then the whole thing goes a bit Evanescence.
- Russia – Ah, Russia. Everyone’s favourite European country at the moment. No surprises that they’re going as clean cut and photogenic as possible with the Tolmachevy Sisters – who would want to boo them? The song itself is gentle and inconsequential – and sounds like a hundred Eurovision entries before it.
- Azerbaijan – Start a Fire is another simple, classy ballad. It’s perfectly pleasant enough but, despite its name, the fire never catches light.
- Ukraine – I really shouldn’t like Ukraine’s Tick-Tock. The lyrics alone – “Tick-Tock, my heart is like a clock” – should be enough to send them packing. And yet it’s a by-the-numbers pop track so it’s difficult not to enjoy despite yourself. There’s a bit of whistling, of which more later in the contest, and a hamster wheel reminiscent of Svetlana’s 2009 entry. Catchy nothingness.
- Belgium – Ah, yes. So, Belgium. Axel Hirsoux seems like a nice chap. He’s got a tailored dinner jacket and a great singing voice. This is a heartfelt ballad. But everyone – and I mean everyone – is going to go away thoroughly disturbed and wondering about the exact nature of the his relationship with his mother. After all, a boy’s best friend is his mother.
- Moldova – “Let the sky fall…” Wild Soul is the first of the contest’s two wannabe Bond themes and it’s lucky for Moldova that the other is in Thursday’s semi-final. Like a good Bond theme, it’s an echoing ballad with some darting strings, a syncopated chorus and a strong female vocal. Like a good Eurovision song, it’s got a cracking key change. It might not be a favourite but I want it to do well.
- San Marino – Valentina’s back, for the third year in a row representing San Marino, a country so small it only has one singer. Received wisdom is that this doesn’t reach the dizzy heights of 2011′s The Social Network Song. It doesn’t exactly stand out but this is actually my favourite of her three songs and it’s about time she finally made it to the final. Despite the spoken bit.
- Portugal – This conjures up the feeling of sipping cocktails on a cheap package tour on the Iberian peninsula, which you can take either way. It might be the lacklustre production but the song doesn’t quite gel – but at least has the decency to end on a high.
- Netherlands – Calm After the Storm is the Netherlands’ answer to Islands in the Stream. Tired now. Next.
- Montenegro – Ethnic flutes. Middle aged man singing lonely ballad. Come on, Balkans, it’s time to break the cycle. And this is one of the better ones.
- Hungary – It might sound facetious but I’m being completely serious when I say that András Kállay-Saunders has pulled off the impossible: a dark, depressing song about domestic abuse that you can dance to. Any questions about the subject matter are dispelled by the official video, which pulls no punches. What’s more, it’s a pretty good song and should do well.
There we go. Only 6 of these well be sent packing. The other 10 we’ll meet again on Saturday. And on Thursday 15 more songs will vie for the last 10 places…