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Eurovision 2018: Semi-final 2 May 10

The Altice Arena

So 7 of my 10 chosen qualifiers made it through on Tuesday night, and it probably would have been 8 if I hadn’t accidentally missed out dead cert Estonia when writing up the list. The biggest surprise for me was Ireland, whose staging really lifted the song and gave them a deserved place in the final for the first time since 2013.

Tonight, 18 songs battle for the 10 remaining spots. Let’s meet them.

Norway: That’s How You Write A Song by Alexander Rybak

Alexander won for Norway 9 years ago with Fairytale and he’s back for another stab. This wasn’t the best of Norway’s song options but probably the most likely to win the Contest so in that sense it was the right choice. It’s cheesy as hell but slickly and cleverly (if not cynically) executed, ticking every box it needs.

Verdict: One of the favourites even if that’s not how you write a song.

Romania: Goodbye by The Humans

The first of several rockier numbers in this semi arrives from Romania and it’s a cracker. The quiet opening is electrifying before it bursts into life with electric guitar and power ballad vocals. I fear that its early position in the running order and competition from similar songs may scupper it but this deserves to qualify.

Verdict: Triumph of the Autons.

Serbia: Nova Deca by Sanja Ilić & Balkanika

This is the most traditional song we’ve seen so far this year and it’s a bit start-stop, the male vocals markedly more interesting than the female melody with which they alternate. The staging feels a little chaotic despite very little happening and I suspect this will be forgotten about as soon as the singers leave the stage.

Verdict: Already forgotten.

San Marino: Who We Are by Jessica feat. Jenifer Brening

This one won’t be forgotten though – at least it’s staging won’t, thanks to a selection of dancing (well, slowly moving) robots. You read that right: this has a “feat” in the credits as we’re treated to a Wannabe-style rap break mid song. The rest of it takes an inspiration from Heroes, which isn’t a bad place to start, but it’s nowhere near the same level.

Verdict: A guilty pleasure.

Denmark: Higher Ground by Rasmussen

The Vikings have arrived. This is a stompy Scandi anthem, complete with ships’ sails and huge beards. Everything about the way it looks says the group are coming to pillage your village but the lyrics are deceptively pacifist, all about being the first to lay down your weapons. It’s hard to pigeonhole this in a genre but it works well.

Verdict: All Aboard the longboat.

Russia: I Won’t Break by Julia Samoylova

There has been talk of a shock failure to qualify for Russia and it’s a real chance, although this seems to have improved in both singing and staging. The song is fine is unexciting but the visuals pull frustratingly away from Julia, lost atop of meringue mountain, who should be the centre of attention.

Verdict: Not Russia’s finest hour.

Moldova: My Lucky Day by DoReDoS

The spirit of Bucks Fizz is alive and well and living in Moldova. The words and music and at the lighter end of pop but this is all about the staging, the harmonies and the performers’ undeniable charisma. We have brightly coloured costumes and random body parts populating a Whitehall farce transported to the Eurovision stage. Their biggest risk is not pulling off the challenging dooreography.

Verdict: If Ray Cooney had produced Making Your Mind Up.

Netherlands: Outlaw in ‘Em by Waylon

Waylon almost won the Contest four years ago as half of The Common Linnets with their inexplicably popular Calm After the Storm. Now he’s back with a frankly better song which I mostly enjoy despite not being a fan of country music, of which this is at the rockier end. I heard someone on the Tube last night criticise him for being too slick, which is simultaneously fair and unfair.

Verdict: One to like but not to love.

Australia: We Got Love by Jessica Mauboy

Jessica represented her home country in 2014 when Australia were invited as guest performers and now she’s back to compete. We Got Love is a solid pop song supported by simple and elegant staging: all flashing lights and cheerful prancing. She’s an engaging performer who sounds great when she hits her stride, which she did in jury rehearsal – the result will depend on whether she does tonight.

Verdict: Australia continue to more than justify their inclusion.

Georgia: For You by Ethno-Jazz Band Iriao

The worst named act of the show turn up to give you your much-needed mid-show loo break. They are impressive singers but this is not engaging and the look of it only adds to the feeling that Georgia have accidentally sent a team of accountants.

Verdict: More loss than profit.

Poland: Light Me Up by Gromee feat. Lukas Meijer

It’s another “feat” but this time Lukas is the lead singer and Gromee the goofy DJ. We’re going into club anthem territory with this one, which they sell with a lot of energy. On the one hand, there are moments in the live vocals that always let this down a little; on the other, there are some great vocals too and this is a song where that’s not the most important element.

Verdict: Wave that glowstick.

Malta: Taboo by Christabelle

Dark and broody with an upbeat line through it, Christabelle sells dystopian warnings with the help of an LED chamber. This feels different and interesting and it’s a strong performance but I’m not sure who’s going to vote for it.

Verdict: Could be Mad Max; could be Waterworld

Hungary: Viszlát Nyár by AWS

If you like the sound of screeching metal, this is for you. It’s loud, brash and energetic and well executed, although the singer’s long hair gets in the way of fully engaging with the audience. If you don’t like this genre, though, it’s unlikely to win you over.

Verdict: The heaviest rock but probably won’t sink.

Latvia: Funny Girl by Laura Rizzotto

I really like this song. The lyrics are interesting, the music is sultry and her vocals are pleasant on the ears. But the staging is wrong, wrong, wrong. Even though she’s alone on stage, what should feel heartfelt and spontaneous looks choreographed and contrived. Arm movements that should come from the passion of the music instead look rehearsed, and that takes away so much from the song.

Verdict: Deserves better.

Sweden: Dance You Off by Benjamin Ingrosso

There have been a few tweaks to warm up Benjamin’s relationship with the audience but this is otherwise the same polished performance we saw in Melodifestivalen – and there was little reason to change it. It’s a Michael Jackson/Justin Timberlake number performed on the set of Tron.

Verdict: Sweden know what they’re doing.

Montenegro: Inje by Vanja Radovanović

Vanja has the oddest stage persona. He looks like a nerdy guy who has accidentally wondered into a huge international arena and is asking the ladies surrounding him for directions. However, he also has a good pair of lungs to deliver this slightly dull song.

Verdict: There’s only room for one of this and Serbia at most and it should be this.

Slovenia: Hvala, Ne! by Lea Sirk

The best part of this is the very beginning. The worst is an unnecessary gimmick towards the end that just gets in the way of the song, which has run out of steam a little at that point.

Verdict: Just sing the song.

Ukraine: Under the Ladder by Mélovin

As in semi-final 1, we end with fire. This is emo, gothic, overblown and theatrical and all the better for it. The staging is dramatic but it’s all in support of the song and Mélovin’s engaging performance.

Verdict: Bring me to life.

So which 10 am I sending through? The winners are less clear this time even though fewer songs will miss out but here’s my list:

  • Norway
  • Denmark
  • Moldova
  • Netherlands
  • Australia
  • Poland
  • Hungary
  • Sweden
  • Montenegro
  • Ukraine

I came up with 11 so I’ve bitten the bullet and taken Russia out. We’ll find out tonight if that was right.

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Eurovision 2018: Semi-final 1 May 08

Eurovision poster in LisbonLike clockwork come the seasons: winter follows autumn, spring follows winter and now we rejoice as the greatest season of all follows spring: Eurovision.

You can expect bangers from the ladies and ballads from the boys as well as a glut of songs about dead family members. There are hardly any video screens but lots of lights and pyro, and an enormous stage.

Following Salvador Sobral’s victory in Ukraine last year, we find ourselves in sunny Lisbon where 43 countries do battle for the Eurovision Song Contest title. First we must whittle those 43 down to just (just!) 26, so we begin with the first semi-final, from which 10 of 19 songs will qualify.

If you’re in the UK, you can watch the BBC coverage on BBC Four or livestream the show free from commentary on the official Eurovision YouTube channel from 8pm. Although the United Kingdom qualifies for the final automatically, this is the semi-final in which we can vote, so get that dialling wand ready.

Enough with the preliminaries; on with the songs!

Azerbaijan: X My Heart by Aisel

It’s a strong opening to the show with a banger from Baku. The staging reflects the Contest’s nautical theme (slogan: “All Aboard!”), Aisel has a great voice and there’s a clear Euphoria influence. The weak links are the lyrics, which are weirdly infantile at points and include some unwise advice about not using firewalls. Also it’s spelt “Cross” not “X”.

Verdict: Good start, poor cybersecurity.

Iceland: Our Choice by Ari Ólafsson

One of the hosts at the London Preview Party commented on Ari’s visual similarity to Johnny Logan and once you’ve had it pointed out it’s hard not see it every time. But whereas Johnny Logan lifted the Eurovision trophy more than once, Ari will be lucky to qualify. He’s a talented singer but this is the epitome of worthy peace and love dirges and should be sent to Davy Jones’ locker.

Verdict: Not our choice.

Albania: Mall by Eugent Bushpepa

Eugent is an experienced performer with an effective stage presence but however many times I listen to this it just doesn’t stick in my head. It’s being in Albanian doesn’t help – of course people should sing in their native languages if they want but it’s a fact of life that English language entries do better. I’m assuming this isn’t about shopping but I don’t like it enough to look it up.

Verdict: Touch and go for qualification.

Belgium: A Matter of Time by Sennek

It’s a law of Eurovision that there must be at least one Bond theme and this has a heavy Tomorrow Never Dies vibe about it. But while the recording sounds great, the arena version has failed to bring it to life in any of the clips I’ve seen so it might well be heading out tonight.

Verdict: From Brussels with Love.

Czech Republic: Lie to Me by Mikolas Josef

An early favourite thanks to a charismatic singer, eccentric lyrics and contemporary music, its chances have suffered since Mikolas injured himself during rehearsals. The song is fun but needs an energetic performance to sell it, so if Mikolas is back to strength, this should sail to the final.

Verdict: Gets my camel in the mood.

Lithuania: When We’re Old by Ieva Zasimauskaitė

I discounted this for a long time. It’s deceptively simple, soft vocals delivering a gentle melody and personal lyrics, but complemented by some emotive staging this dark horse could find its way through.

Verdict: The sweetest ballad in the Contest.

Israel: Toy by Netta

It’s fair to say that Netta has a unique performance style. This is bold, brash and stands out – maybe like a sore thumb for some but for others it is a potential winner. There are chicken sounds, vocal loops and vibrant costumes but Netta is so idiosyncratic that it all fits together rather than feeling like a gimmick. The feminist lyrics are timely too. Send it to the final.

Verdict: A Eurovision classic.

Belarus: Forever by Alekseev

This has been tinkered with a lot and I’m not sure the changes have all improved it. There’s now a slower opening and more of a build, but that could work if it’s staged well – and this definitely does have some attention grabbing floral stage gimmicks. I love the way Alekseev’s vocals move between octaves although clips of his live performances have made me a little sceptical of how well he’ll pull it off on the night.

Verdict: One of my favourites but the performance needs to live up to the song.

Estonia: La Forza by Elina Nechayeva

Estonia haven’t had the success their songs deserved of late but that will all change in 2018. La Forza is operatic in music and in scale. Elina’s vocals alone will take this to the final but an eye-catching dress of epic proportions can only help. The song itself is not especially memorable but it’s another entry that is totally different from anything else in the competition and that’s never a bad thing.

Verdict: A dead cert for the final and a potential winner.

Bulgaria: Bones by Equinox

Bulgaria held back revealing this until late in the day and hyped it a bit too much. It’s good but it’s not as good as it thinks it is and Equinox still feel more like a cobbled together group of disparate talents than a coherent whole. They can definitely sing though and having a large group of strong vocalists gives this an oomph.

Verdict: This will feel either weighty and meaningful or just gloomy.

FYR Macedonia: Lost & Found by Eye Cue

This skips around between time signatures and styles which keeps your interest, building to a super catchy chorus – only to revert back to the ska opening and do it all again, which feels both creative and mildly frustrating. Macedonia’s Achilles heel with this is the staging: they’ve struggled to translate the song into an effective live version that gives it an extra push.

Verdict: Fun but frustrating.

Croatia: Crazy by Franka

A classy number backed up by quality vocals and an engaging live performance, albeit with some slightly cringeworthy spoken lines halfway through. It doesn’t really go anywhere, though, which is dangerous in this semi final.

Verdict: Could easily get lost among strong competition.

Austria: Nobody But You by Cesár Sampson

Like the UK’s SuRie, Cesár has a Eurovision pedigree, having been a backing singer and dancer in previous years. Now he’s front and centre giving a strong account of himself supported by some effective gospel backing vocals. The rehearsal clips have held back the main element of his staging so it’s hard to predict how that will look on TV.

Verdict: Deserves to qualify.

Greece: Oniro Mou by Yianna Terzi

A low key entry from Greece that won’t be helped by being sandwiched between Austria and Finland. It’s melodic and feels very… Greek. At least it’s fortunate to be in the same semi final as Cyprus when it comes to the voting.

Verdict: Only the most memorable of performances will see it through to the final.

Finland: Monsters by Saara Aalto

X-Factor finalist Saara Aalto performed three songs for UMK, the Finnish selection show, all of them contenders, and this is the one the public went with. I’ve seen her do this live in person a couple of times as well as in rehearsal clips and she nails it every time. It’s generic pop but no less good for it and there’s quite the heart stopping moment at the end of her performance.

Verdict: Love it.

Armenia: Qami by Sevak Khanagyan

Sixteen songs in the audience may be starting to lose track, so Armenia have not chosen a good moment to serve up a forgettable ballad in Armenian.

Verdict: A forgettable ballad.

Switzerland: Stones by ZIBBZ

On first listen, I didn’t like this. Then I did. Then I didn’t. Then I saw it at the London Preview Party and was sold. This is a rocky number (with a bit of politics in the lyrics) that really comes alive in performance, as Coco prowls energetic around the arena.

Verdict: Stones over Bones.

Ireland: Together by Ryan O’Shaughnessy

While Ryan can pull it off, I still don’t know why he’s put so much of his song right at the top of his vocal range. Anyhoo, this is a pleasant, borderline insipid ballad lifted by some beautiful staging, complete with ye olde streetlamp.

Verdict: Ryan will be on Ryanair tomorrow morning.

Cyprus: Fuego – Eleni Foureira

It’s the last entry of the night. You’ve got your scores sorted. You know who you’re voting for but might as well see what the last country brings. And BOOM! It’s back to the scoring board courtesy of Cyprus. If you were wondering where the big pop number was hiding, wonder no more. The studio version was good but Eleni explodes with the staging. It’s an unashamedly big Eurovision performance from the dance routine to the memorable costume to the fire. FUEGO!

Verdict: Five pelicans out of five.

Predicting the qualifiers is a fool’s errand but here we the ones I’d be putting through to Saturday’s final:

  • Azerbaijan
  • Czech Republic
  • Lithuania
  • Israel
  • Belarus
  • Bulgaria
  • Austria
  • Finland
  • Switzerland
  • Cyprus

Will the wise voters of Europe agree? I’m off to the Altice Arena to find out.

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Eurovision 2017: The Final May 13

The day is here and, excitingly, it looks like anyone could win! And by anyone, I mean Italy, Portugal, Bulgaria or the UK. Of course, probably not the UK but it really is the best of the bunch and Lucie Jones has been nailing it. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Twenty countries have made it through from the semi-finals to join the six pre-qualifiers: the Big Five who put the big money in and Ukraine, last year’s winner and this year’s host.

The running order was decided after the second semi-final so here they are in order with my comments. I’ve revised my views on a few after the semis, in particular dark horse Bulgaria.

Israel
The contest opens with one of the few full-on uptempo bangers. It’s one of the weaker vocal performances, which is traded for energetic choreography.

Poland
Poland shouldn’t be in the final and are hogging a place that could have gone to someone more deserving, like Finland or Estonia. They need to take their hackneyed love song, go and sit in the corner and think about what they’ve done.

Belarus
There are a lot of white outfits in this year’s contest, even with some of them having been evicted earlier in the week. One of the few duets to make it through, both singers are in white. The song is jangly nonsense but they seem to be having a lovely time, possibly because they are not in Belarus.

Austria
It’s another white ensemble for Nathan Trent, who is also sporting this year’s fashionable but awful too-short trousers with no socks. It’s a recipe for cold ankles, folks. Nathan himself is charismatic and clearly loves being part of the contest but the song is weak. If the dry ice machine is turned up any higher, he’ll disappear completely.

Armenia
Visually interesting with strong singing and a doinky backing track. Here it helpfully breaks up the ballads.

Netherlands
This Dutch trio could put the rest of the competition to shame with their tight harmonies, which lift what could be quite a mediocre track. I was one of apparently hundreds on Twitter during their semi-final to comment on the similarity between their sound and 1990s Beach Boys/Mamas and the Papas offspring mash-up Wilson Phillips.

Moldova
One of the most fun songs and performances in the show, marking the Eurovision return of Epic Sax Guy (and his Sunstroke Project bandmates). Get that leg wiggle on.

Hungary
Time for that classic Eurovision folk music moment – and, fittingly, in Hungarian rather than English. There’s rapping too, and then the song kind of just stops at the end. Points added for good pyro. Points deducted for the top knot.

Italy
Yes, there’s a man in a gorilla suit doing a dance routine. We get it. Very clever. This was the early favourite (thanks to the gorilla) but it remains to be seen how it will come across with the revisions they’ve made to the staging since it won the Italian national selection. Performed in Italian with plenty of energy, the song itself isn’t bad but it’s by no means my favourite in the competition.

Denmark
We pop briefly back into English for Anja’s Where I Am, which seems to have got stronger with each performance. It’s one of the better of the night’s ballads, especially when it kicks up a gear towards the end.

Portugal
Salvador performs from the small satellite stage, giving this a low key, intimate feel that matches the song and the singer. It’s a piano bar ballad with a timeless elegance that defies you to dislike it even though you won’t understand the words (unless you speak Portguese, obviously). It could be twee as hell but it’s genuinely endearing and a return to the final for Portgual after six years of failing to qualify. If it makes the top five – which is likely – it will be their best result ever, and it could even be their first win.

Azerbaijan
This is in danger of geting lost given the songs on either side. It includes a man with a horse’s head standing on a stepladder, but this might feel like a cop out after a dancing gorilla.

Croatia
I find myself irrationally annoyed by this one. Jacques is talented. He can sing high pitched pop. He can sing bassy opera. Alternating between them both? Urgh. This would be great in cabaret; at Eurovision it feels like a gimmick, and I say that as someone who liked Cezar and Malena Ernman. I expect the juries to score it highly.

Australia
Another bed blocker. Shouldn’t be in the final. Take a toilet break during this one.

Greece
This feels like it’s improved over the course of the week but I’m afraid we’re now in the weakest section of the show. A pair from Men’s Health casting performing a cheesy dance routine do little to make this more interesting.

Spain
Spain are the second of the Big Five in the final and boy are they lucky to qualify automatically. This is embarrassingly bad. You will be in no danger of forgetting the title – your man sings it about 200 times in the space of three minutes. As My Lovely Horse as this year gets.

Norway
For those counting, it’s another white shirt, although set off by an ill-advised hat. It looks like it’s going to be awful but it’s actually a good package: lyric-packed verses, fun (and controversial!) vocal samples, an unusual middle eight and a strong chorus. None of it’s innovative but if there’s a weakness it’s likely to be the performance. Probably won’t stand out from the crowd.

United Kingdom
This is a juicy spot in the running order for Lucie Jones and rightly so: Never Give Up On You is the UK’s best entry in donkeys’ years. I didn’t even like it much among the various bland options the BBC gave us to choose from but it’s been reworked into something terrific. Add to that a great vocal performance (touch wood) and some absolutely stunning staging and this deserves to do really well. The juries will like it but will the phone voters? I’m set to see it rising up the table and then come crashing down when the televotes are added – but there’s still a part of me that thinks it could win. It’s certainly our best chance of the 2010s so far by miles.

Cyprus
Now that I’ve seen this in place with the video backdrops, the choreography makes much more sense. The track jumped out at me when I first listened to this year’s Eurovision album and I still like it. It’s upbeat and catchy with a good bridge. Probably competing for votes with Israel.

Romania
Strap yourself in for the classic Eurovision event of the night. Yodelling and rapping come together at last in what I believe is referred to as “a hot mess”. Naff choreography, nonsense lyrics and a video background drawn by a three-year-old child all make it stand out – and that’s even without the glittery cannons that are tragically forbidden from firing glitter. It’s dreadful but in all the ways UK audiences love.

Germany
“Oh, hi, Germany here. We just thought we’d saunter in at the end and drop a female soloist with an upbeat pop number on you when you were least expecting it.” I like this and Levina has an interesting voice, not hindered at all by plenty of support from unseen backing vocalists.

Ukraine
There’s not much danger of Ukraine hosting the contest again in 2018. That said, Time is the only guitar rock number of the show so it could attract its own section of televoters. Switzerland in 2015 might be wanting their “time to shine” lyric back, please.

Belgium
Blanche has a gloriously deep voice but it’s still unclear whether her stage presence is selling vulnerability or incredible discomfort. A tough result to call.

Sweden
Robin Bengtsson has been performing this for months but he and his team of Debenhams stylists have continued to polish I Can’t Go On since arriving in Kyiv. It’s a catchy song that no longer has the f-word in the chorus (replaced by “freakin'”) and five treadmills. Great for fans of Waterloo Underground station or City boys who like to spend three minutes on cardio between important meetings.

Bulgaria
Danger, Will Robinson! The dark horse of the second semi-final has got a prime place penultimate in the running order. I had this down as just “OK” and I’m still not a fan but I can see the appeal and a flagging audience could be won over. Sofia 2018 is not out of the question.

France
It’s a pleasant closer to the show from France (in French with a smattering of English). The video screen graphics are almost too engaging: a found my attention almost constantly drawn to them rather than to Alma and her song.

So that’s 26 countries and 26 songs. Plenty of contenders, a few potential surprise successes and some crowd pleasing silliness to keep things light. Portugal, Italy and Bulgaria still seem the most likely winners, but the UK definitely deserve a top 5 finish.

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Hello, Kyiv! May 13

A man in a hamster wheel

Ukraine have been in Eurovision since 2003 and have reached the final every year, save 2015 where they weren’t able to take part in the contest because *cough* reasons.

In that time, they’ve won the contest twice and have also been responsible for some of the most memorable staging of the last 20 years.

In honour of their hosting this year’s contest, here are my top 5 entries from Ukraine.

5. Ani Lorak – Shady Lady

This is what Ukraine entries have excelled at over the years: three-minute power pop brought alive on stage. Ani Lorak came second with her gaggle of energetic dancers and light-up fridges – and this is only number five.

4. Verka Serduchka – Dancing Lasha Tumbai

Verka’s 2007 entry is a load of nonsense but it’s also unashamedly fun and pretty unforgettable. The tin foil Timmy Mallett lost out to Serbia’s Molitva but remains an enduring fan favourite.

3. Ruslana – Wild Dances

This was the country’s second time in the competition and they only went and won! Ruslana subsequently spent a year as an MP in the Ukrainian parliament and continues to be politically, supporting ties between Ukraine and the EU and campaigning on human rights. The song’s good, too.

2. Maria Yaremchuk – Tick-Tock

The man in a hamster wheel in Love, Love, Peace, Peace? This is where that’s from. It’s a simple idea that works brilliantly and fits the song perfectly. Mariya came sixth in the 2014 final.

1. Svetlana Loboda – Be My Valentine (Anti-Crisis Girl)

It might have been the least successful of the five, coming 12th in 2009, but this is my winner. What a first glance look like hamster wheels rotate outwards for Svetlana and her dancers, who are dressed like a Barbarella version of Roman centurions – someone in Ukraine really likes silver. The backing track is funky, Svetlana bangs the drums in the bridge, and the song has the best chorus of the lot. And then there’s the dance move at 1m40s. Anti-crisis BOM.

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