EUROVISION 2018 PREVIEW: NATIONAL FINALS FAVORITES (PART 1)

After confirming participation in the Eurovision Song Contest by late September the previous year, the participating countries are given leeway to decide how they will select their entries.  Some chose to select an artist and then reach out to songwriters to come up with a song that will become their entry.  Some would stage a talent search a la the Idol / X Factor franchises to select the artist–one country, though, would craft a song after the winner is determined, while another country which staged such a competition format included a song selection process simultaneously with their talent search (and hence included in this article).  Many countries, though, opted to stage a national final and have the combination of a jury and public vote to select their entries.  This year, 29 out of the 43 participating countries opted for such a selection process, and I have to say, in the first year that I decided to follow various countries’ national finals (normally I tended to focus solely on Sweden’s grand selection called Melodifestivalen), and this year I’m intrigued by the quality of this year’s entries that I decided to do a full-fledged article saluting the songs that weren’t selected but are worthwhile listens and could make you reflect on what could’ve been.  Without further ado, let us begin with…

ALBANIA

This country regularly stages an annual song contest called Festivali i Këngës (literally meaning Song Festival), which had been ongoing for 55 years and counting, typically held at year-end the year prior to the Eurovision contest.  This contest predates its Eurovision participation by 41 years*1.  All entries in this contest were typically performed in the native Albanian language, and after the entry is selected, many times they would translate the entry into English for Eurovision*2.  Though Belgium, the Netherlands and Austria were the first to announce their artists (though not the songs) to represent them in Eurovision, this year Albania is the first country to stage its national final and the only one to stage

*1 It was motivated to participate in Eurovision to drum up waning support for this contest as in years prior to its 2004 debut it was starting to be overshadowed by other song festivals and talent shows).

*2 There was one exception to keeping the same winning song–in the 2014 contest (selecting the 2015 entry), Elhaida Dani won with the ballad “Diell [Sun]“, but officially the songwriters of the original winning song decided to withdraw their song from competing in this contest to pave way to the admittedly far superior rhythmic-pop English language entry “I’m Alive“.  I and many others speculate the reason for this was the Albanian broadcaster was wary of missing the finals after learning the quality of the other entries so most likely the songwriters of the original song were pressured to withdraw so they can come up with a better song–that gambit paid off.

As a fallout from Salvador Sobral‘s victory last year, the winner opted to keep the Albanian language version (though they needed to edit down the sprawling 4:30 minute number to fit the 3:00 maximum requirement).  The winner was a worthy choice, in my opinion.  There were two entries that garnered heavy buzz with the Eurovision fandom, and let’s start with…

“Ngrije Zërin [Speak Up]” – Orgesa Zalmi.  She has a hip, quirky modern avant-garde style, and it befits this entry, a fusion of 1980s New Wave, 1960s French Yéyé music, and skittering drum-and-bass.  It didn’t rank among the Top Three, but me and many fans felt this deserves to be up there instead of the entry that ranked 2nd.

“Piedestal [Pedestal]” – Inis Neziri.  Some fans were enamored by this ingenue and this pretty ballad.  It’s solid and well-sung, but if we pit this against what turns out to be a formidable batch of songs this year, this would be easily drowned out and deemed forgettable.  Still, on its own it’s a good quality entry worth celebrating.  It placed third in this contest.

Now, what about 2nd placer “Ekziston” by Redon Makashi.  To be honest, I found it too old-fashioned and forgettable.  But I can understand why the five-person jury (which was the sole arbiter deciding the winner) may have liked this entry over, say, Orgesa Zalmi.

FRANCE

Normally this country internally selects its entry, but this year it decided to stage a national final.  In the previous few recent occasions they staged a national final, they ended up selecting entries that could be read as “troll” entries, like 2014’s notorious “Moustache” by Twin Twin, which placed last in the Eurovision final that year, as apparently in recent years the French public considered Eurovision to be a joke.  But the recent quality renaissance spearheaded in 2016 by Amir’s J’ai cherché” seems to reflect a refreshing shifting tide, and it reflected in the entries that competed in the national selection.  And this time, many fans agree the public selected the best, most worthy song.  But here are three strong entries from that national final:

“Ciao” – Malo.  Admittedly the vocalist may register as a bit jarring to the ears at initial listen (like a wailing alley cat), but this is a pretty, atmospheric multi-lingual ballad that sounds more interesting upon multiple listens.  The French public indeed dug the atmospherics and it was 2nd in the popular vote and 3rd overall.

“OK ou KO” – Emmy Liyana.  She won the 2017 edition of the French version of The Voice, so her vocal skills are a given.  It’s a fierce rhythmic pop number, and I like this entry though there are fans who felt the song is a bit beneath her formidable talents.  The jury was impressed as they ranked it 2nd, but weak scores in the popular vote made it sink down to 4th overall.

“Eva” – Lisandro Cuxi.  This is a French-English R&B ballad about a single mother.  The jury loved this entry as they ranked this first, but it was third in the popular vote, and the points it amassed in the popular vote were not enough for it to outrank the eventual winner.  I agree with the public’s choice of winner, though I have respect for this entry as it’s well sung and well danced, but I feel it lacked the “French-iness” that the winning entry possessed in spades.  Still, 2nd place is not bad and perhaps we’ll see this artist (or Emmy Liyana) eventually compete for France in the coming years.

SPAIN

This year this country decided to use the revival of the talent reality series Operacion Triunfo to select their Eurovision entry.  They previously did this in 2002 to 2004 but then opted for a mix of a multi-artist national finals and internal selections since then.  The Top Five finalists of that reality show performed nine songs for the public, four of them collaborations among them.  The public solely decided who made the Top Three and and then the public decided again which among those three is the winner.  It’s interesting to note that two entries in the Top Three were performed by the same artist, and that artist eventually finished 2nd in the reality show.

“Arde [Burn]” – Aitana.  This ballad finished second in the popular vote, and it’s a pretty acoustic guitar-laced ballad.  It would’ve been a solid entry for Spain if this was chosen, but admittedly with this year’s formidable slate of entries this would’ve been drowned out a bit in the finals.

“Lo Malo [The Bad]” – Aitana & Ana Guerra.  Interestingly this Reggaeton-style summery dance duet has topped the Spanish charts, with Ana Guerra’s husky and rhythmic vocal providing a lovely contrast to Aitana’s sweet soprano register.  Though Aitana may not have seen action in Eurovision, she has the consolation of making a real-world impact in the music industry first ahead of the champion.

CZECH REPUBLIC

[EDITED] The first two times this country entered this contest (in 2007-2008), it staged a national final but it yielded dismal results, that they then opted for internal selection.  Sure, the internally selected entry that followed those two was also a debacle that made this country sit out for six years after that, though when they returned in 2015, they proved to be a bit more prudent with their choices and it showed with their recent results  But I think they decided to rethink things after they attempted to have this year’s eventual artist to sing the song they chose as the entry last year and the original artist declined as the song doesn’t suit his style at all*3.  This time they decided to have six artists, including the artist they originally wooed last year, to come up with their own songs, and it did elevate the quality that they could choose from.  It’s also notable that this is the only country that did not stage a live final, with the public votes determined by internet votes on the recordings.  The jury was composed of previous entries to Eurovision from other countries.

*3 It probably also happened the previous year in 2016 as they had this classically tinged ballad and requested Gabriela Gunčíková, whose genre is typically hard rock, to sing it.  Fortunately she agreed to switch from her normal musical style and brought this country its first finals finish.

“High on Love” – Debbi.  This is a good rock-funk ditty and a great listen, even if I wouldn’t expect this to make the finals if this was selected as the one to represent the Czech Republic.  The jury ranked this second but it was weaker with the general public as it ranked fourth.  Still it earned enough points to be second place overall.

Never Forget” – Pavel Callta.  There were Eurovision fans (like fan site Wiwibloggs, for example), that were rooting for this entry to win instead of the eventual winner.  I have to say this is indeed a strong entry.  It was third with both the jury and the public, so it’s a respectable finish, and we can always hope that this handsome guy gets to see action on the Eurovision stage in the future.

MALTA

Normally this country stages its national finals the year prior but this time they staged it in the same year as the main contest.  Many fans deemed this years batch of entries to be lackluster and I agree with them.  Still there are a couple of highlights to note.

“Heart of Gold” – Brooke Borg.  She shares the same surname as the winner of the national final–I wonder if they’re sisters or related in some way.  Prior to the national finals, many fans felt this would be the winner, but admittedly this entry was upstaged by the winning entry.  Still this danceable empowerment anthem has strong merits and would’ve been given the same regard as the winner.  If you ask me, this should’ve ranked second instead of…

“Song for Dad” – Richard & Joe Micallef.  Okay, Richard Micallef previously represented this country in Eurovision with his band Firelight four years ago and that act saw action in the finals that year.  This time he went solo and brought his dad to sing with him.  But the problem with this song is that it’s dated, reminiscent of the 2000 Eurovision winning entry from Denmark, the Olsen Brothers‘ “Fly on the Wings of Love“.

SWITZERLAND

I was expecting one entry to win it all but I do respect the eventual winning entry.  The one I expected to win was…

“Compass” – Alejandro Reyes.  His song is reminiscent of a hybrid of Shawn Mendes‘s musical style fused with the tropical EDM style of Jonas Blue, and I thought Eurovision would put these modern hit styles at a high premium.  Televote was the crucial factor as though this placed second, its point gap behind the eventual winner was very large.

UNITED KINGDOM

When the six entries were previewed many fans expected two entries to slug it out, but it seems live performance on the night of the selection was the crucial factor

“Crazy” – RAYA.  This tropical rhythmic pop ditty is actually engaging, and she hits her notes better than the one that was deemed the favorite to win.  Many fans would have pegged this as finishing at a more respectable showing than the one selected as the official entry, but well, the breaks were not in her favor.

“Legends” – Asanda.  Many fans thought she would be a shoo-in as the UK representative based on the recording, but unfortunately she proved to be off-pitch when it counted and a far more experienced singer became the UK entry instead.  It’s such an engagingly fierce pop song that it’s such a shame she didn’t have the breath control to stay on pitch and deliver what could’ve been one of the most competitive UK entries in recent years.

ITALY

As is customary, the traditional Sanremo Song Festival serves as the contest that selects the Eurovision entry, with the winner having the option to accept or decline the honor of representing the country to this contest.  As usual there is an eclectic mix of the traditional and modern, but for most part they select well.  There was one favorite of the fans and observers who didn’t fare as well as expected as it placed ninth.  This entry is:

“Frida (Mai, Mai, Mai)” – The Kolors.  Wonder what caused this fan favorite to end up ninth overall?  The juries seemed to mark this down as the public ranked this fifth.

Here are the two entries that made the Top Three:

“Il mondo primo di te [You’re the first thing in the world]” – Annalisa.  She eventually ranked third, but fans were dubbing this the favorite to win before the finals.  She still fared strong and this rhythmic pop ballad made significant impact in the country’s charts.

“Una vita in vacanza [A life on vacation]” – Lo Stato Sociale.  Imagine the band the Killers performing in Italian and you’ll get this band.  It’s very entertaining number and I can understand how it engaged the audience and jury to finish second overall, but I think the Italians were in the mood for something with a significant more gravitas as otherwise this could’ve been the next “Occidentali’s Karma“, with slightly lowered expectations unlike the hype Francisco Gabbani received last year.

DENMARK

Many fans felt the 10 finalists for the Danish Melodi Grand Prix were mostly lackluster, but the ones that made the Top Three were the most interesting.  I do agree, so let’s talk about them…

“Music for the Road” – Albin Fredy.  Serbia and FYR Macedonia served up bald-headed bearded men this year but they don’t hold a candle to the sexiness of this guy.  He served up sex appeal with a rollicking Avicii-style electro-country fusion.  Though of course the Netherlands’ Waylon plumbs similar territory with more grit and authenticity, this guy would’ve siphoned off a bit of Waylon’s buzz if he was the winner.  Anyway, a third place finish is nothing to sneeze at.

“Starlight” – Anna Ritsmar.  This is a worthy second placer, as her childlike quirkiness has immense charms.  She could’ve stolen some thunder from the big favorite from Israel, Netta.  But let’s face it, the Viking epicness of the winning entry was just too unstoppable.

BELARUS

It was an epic David-and-Goliath battle that took place in this country’s national final, with ten (which eventually turned to nine as one withdrew) upstarts battling against an established superstar in those shores.  But unlike in that Biblical story, the established superstar prevailed, albeit leaving a bad taste in the mouth of those other competitors who noted the superstar performed his winning song live in concert a few months before the supposed cutoff date.  But I have to say, there is justification for the superstar’s win, as the other entries were so lackluster and forgettable.

“Chmarki [Clouds]” – Shuma.  This only placed ninth in the national final, but it’s the only one with interesting atmospheric electronic rock sounds.  France’s Madame Monsieur does this sound better, but this is the only one that kinda qualifies as a worthwhile listen for me.