Around this time of year, people across Europe are glued to the TV screens fixated over an international singing competition–the Eurovision Song Contest.  This annual event has been known to generate some popular international hits in its earlier days, like “Nel Blu Dipinto Di Blu (Volare)”, “Eres Tu”, “Waterloo” and the like, besides also being a springboard to launch into international stardom with the likes of ABBA and Celine Dion.

This year’s edition features as usual a motley array of entries featuring novelty ditties, ethno-pop booty-shakers, sentimental ballads, sleek modern pop songs, dramatic classically-tinged numbers, and dance club jams.  Who will prevail this year?  Let’s start with the first half of the first semi-final that will be conducted on May 22, with:

MONTENEGRO: “Euro Neuro” – Rambo Amadeus.  This entry is an avant-garde rap ditty (if it could be called that) that evokes images of a decadent Russian gangster trying to recite some poetry on a disjointed mix of ethno-pop and funky jams.  It’s nice to see this country return to the competition after an absence of two years, but this non-melodic number is not the way to go if they wanted to advance to the finals–Trojan Horse prop-effect or not.

ICELAND: “Never Forget” – Gréta Salóme & Jónsi.  The Nordic countries fielded a powerhouse field of strong numbers that it might not be surprising to see at least four (or even all) of them seeing action in the finals, and even scoring high in the finals.  Fans and pundits are currently fixated on one Scandinavian entry, but this classically styled epic ballad could garner the much needed jury points to pull off an upset to bring forth Iceland’s first ever victory in this contest.  It might sound more passionate in its original Icelandic incarnation, but the song’s message and dramatic impact barely diminished in its English incarnation.

GREECE: “Aphrodisiac” – Eleftheria Eleftheriou.  If American Idol this season has a singer named Phillip Phillips, Greece fielded an entry with a singer also sharing an almost double-moniker.  I’m not particularly fond of their entries over the past couple of years but this one is a refreshing return-to-form, even if it is in the mold of the upbeat ethno-pop ditties like the Eurovision-winning “My Number One” by Helena Paparizou seven years ago.  If those two horrendous entries were able to manage to land the Top 10 anyway, this should logically end up in the Top Three, though that slot is not assured as there are some strong dance ditties (and a few ballads) that are in strong contention.

LATVIA:  “Beautiful Song” – Anmary.  This country won the contest 10 years ago with a number that featured a wardrobe change gimmick and they seemed likely to employ the same gimmick with this entry, a classically-tinged pop ballad.  Despite the title, I don’t really think this is a “beautiful” song, and neither is it as “beautifully” sung–it’s just about above-average, worthwhile at best.  Its chances of advancing to the finals are iffy, in my opinion, though it remains a possibility (but definitely not a contender to win it all).

ALBANIA:  “Suus [Personal]” – Rona Nishliu.  The title is actually in Latin, though the entire song is sung in Albanian. In its Eurovision form, it’s a string-and-piano-laden classical-styled ballad though with a jazzy song structure and phrasing.  At first listen, I found her repetitive wails of “QAAAAAAAAJJJJ!!!! QAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAJJJJ!!!! QAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAJJJJJJJ!!!!!” (pronounced “chay” each time) as almost akin to one of Yoko Ono’s wailings.  But I have to note that she at least wails tunefully and it seems she can deliver that consistently.  And her wails span several octaves (think Mariah Carey) that could impress the audiences and the jury, and the meaning of that word turns out to be “cry”, which is fitting to the mournful tone of this ballad.  I only got a good sense what this song was about when I listened to the jazzy English version, which actually revealed why her wails actually made a lot of sense.  If she makes the right impression, she can advance to the finals.

ROMANIA: “Zaleilah” – Mandinga.  This group had a Eurovision connection as its original lead singer, Elena Gheorghe, competed three years ago with the poppy “Balkan Girls”.  The current lead singer, Elena Ionescu, is arguably hotter and sexier and that could be one of the key elements that would propel this ditty to the higher rungs of the finals.  Besides the lead singer’s looks, she does have the vocal chops to sing this tune on-key, even though it is not as lilting as it was on the recording.  Another ace factor is the catchy music, an appealing mix of techno and ethnic that is reminiscent of the international hit also from this country, “Stereo Love” by Edward Maya featuring Vika Jigulina, and has the potential to be as successful.  So far it is not favored to land in the Top Three like “Let Me Try” in 2005 or “Playing with Fire” in 2010, but it is of that caliber.  This ditty is my favorite guilty pleasure song from this edition.

SWITZERLAND: “Unbreakable” – Sinplus.  The song reminds me of some songs perform by Las Vegas rock band The Killers, only with weaker English diction (in earlier live performances, they pronounced the word “dream” as “drehm”, but they corrected their diction afterwards in their official versions).  There are Euro-rock fans who dig this song, but I feel in a competitive group, it might fall beneath the cracks and fail to advance to the finals..

BELGIUM:  “Would You” – Iris.  Actually this piano-and-strings-laden pop ballad is a worthwhile listen, but I have a feeling it may not have the standout factor that will help it advance into the finals.

FINLAND: “När jag blundar [When I close my eyes]” – Pernilla Karlsson.  It’s quite odd considering how patriotic native Finns are that they allowed a Swedish language song to represent them, but we have to concede that Swedish is a pretty-sounding language (with a melodic lilt in spoken form), and this is a pretty waltz-style ballad.  It reminds me of some old 1960s videos performed by ABBA’s Anni-Frid Lyngstad.  I like this song, but amongst a powerhouse lineup of Nordic entries, this is the relatively weakest link.  But then again, if the boring ballad by Paradise Oskar was able to make the finals, this lovely ballad deserves more than a fighting chance to advance.

COMING UP: The 2nd half of the first semi-final, and my predictions on who will advance to the finals.

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