Just before the rehearsal period starts in Bakú on the 13th of May, I summarise here my impressions on the 42 entries for the Eurovision Song Contest (ESC) in 2012. The comments below reflect how I felt about the entries at the time they were selected, even if, with time and repeated hearings, my opinions about some of the songs may have changed (e.g. I'm more benevolent now towards Latvia and Georgia than I used to be and I express below and even less sympathetic towards Denmark and Ireland, for example; and I have warmed a lot more to FYROM now).
I have grouped the 42 entries in four categories: my personal TOP 10; other songs I'd like to see in the final; songs I'd rather not see in the final; and songs that I neither hate nor love.
Here is why…
MY TOP TEN 2012 (in reverse order of preference):
- 1 point: SLOVENIA (Eva Boto, "Verjamenn"): My favourite ex-Yugo song representing an ex-Yugo republic; a very pleasant tune which has some great climactic moments, especially the instrumental passages; and Eva has a really nice voice.
- 2 points: PORTUGAL (Filipa Sousa, "Vida Minha"): This is my favourite ex-Yugo ballad; it just happens to be representing the westernmost country in Europe; Babic has skilfully merged fado and tango elements in a really charming tune performed with gusto by the lovely Filipa.
- 3 points: BULGARIA (Sofi Marinova, "Love Unlimited"): In spite of its multi-lingual "I love yous", this is one of my favourite dance tracks this year; Sofi's vocal abilities are impressive; and I very much enjoy the ethnic beats (which so much remind me of Bollywood soundtracks)
- 4 points: ICELAND (Salome & Jonsi, "Never Forget"): So much to enjoy (visually, musically and vocally) in this reassuringly old-fashioned, medieval flavoured folksy ballad; I love its dramatic in-crescendo development, which - strangely enough - reminds me of 90s Cypriot entries.
- 5 points: FRANCE (Angunn, "Echo") Although not the kind of music I normally go for, this is a powerful dance track with a compelling chorus and a strong verse; I like Angunn's voice and stage presence and I even enjoy the whistling and the strangely abrupt changes of register.
- 6 points: MONTENEGRO (Rambo Amadeus, "Euro Neuro") I like this mad idiosyncratic entry not only because of the diversity it brings to the ESC but also because it is intelligent and genuinely funny and because of its inventive combination of Balkan sounds and electronic music. In my opinion.
- 7 points: ISRAEL (Izabo, "Time") This 70s-inspired indie pop entry is a blow of unpretentious fresh air which evokes the laid back mood of a beachside walk in Tel Aviv in a late summer Saturday evening (after Sabbath); the nods to Bowie's 70s electronica ('Low', anyone?) are a welcome bonus.
- 8 points: TURKEY (Can Bonomo, "Love me back") This is just fantastic: an attractive (if wacky) strong performer who delivers a song which aptly mixes indie rock and Middle Eastern folk, leading to a memorable, effortlessly charming finale that puts one in a very good mood straight away. Great.
- 10 points: ITALY (Nina Zilli, "L'Amore e Femina") Nina is one of the best things that have happened to the ESC in a long time: fabulous looks, gorgeous jazzy voice, amazing stage presence; and the song is absolutely delightful, immediately catchy and classy, with lovely nods to 60s Italian pop. A very modern piece of retro nostalgia.
- 12 points: ALBANIA (Rona Nishliu, "Suus") I can't even start to describe HOW MUCH I love this mesmerising, angst-driven operatic entry, with its nods to Nina Simone or Bjork (imho). Simply stunning. The best Albanian entry ever and one of the best songs in the history of Eurovision. Enthralling.
OTHER SONGS I WOULD LIKE TO SEE IN THE FINAL (in alphabetical order):
- GREECE: Reassuringly Greek, like feta cheese, moussaka, ouzo and the Acropolis, this ethno-pop entry ticks many of the boxes one recently associates with Greek Eurovision entries: pretty girl (flashing her knickers), sexy backing dancers, Greek ethnic beats, simplistic lyrics,… Eurotrashy and déjà vu, but a lot of fun.
- MOLDOVA: Cute cheeky boy singing about love and trumpets. And lots of Balkan trumpets. What's there not to like? OK. This entry may not have the most sophisticated or accomplished song composition of the contest - or the best singer. But the light-hearted touch and the delightful Balkan sounds make this year's Moldovan entry very enjoyable.
- NORWAY: I find the composition of this song is a bit messy and not that memorable but Norway's entry is visually striking (with a very cute singer and - based on the Norwegian final - a spectacular stage presentation) and I find the mix of electronic dance music and Arabic rhythms enjoyable.
- ROMANIA: Caribbean Summer Hits 2012! Lambada from the Balkans with Scottish bagpipes for a busty exotic singer who sings in Spanish. I've never been totally convinced by this exuberantly trashy product and I don't see it as the contender other people seem to think it is but it definitely gets me dancing. Así, así.
- RUSSIA: In a year plagued by largely pretentious and boring ballads and Ibizaesque dance tracks trying to outgaga Lady Gaga, the charming babushki are indeed a blow of fresh air. But the endearing appeal of the Russian grannies is not the only asset of this year's Russian entry; in my opinion, the song is very cleverly composed, with a truly compelling and infectious chorus.
- UKRAINE: Bound to make a big impact in the final in Bakú; the exuberant Gaitana can confidently belt out this very flamboyant Ibiza-esque dance track; very high-energy and infectious; but does it have the catchy simplicity one normally finds in a Eurovision winner?
SONGS I'D RATHER NOT SEE IN THE FINAL (in alphabetical order):
- AUSTRIA: This is SO not my cup of tea on any account… Kudos for the unstoppable enthusiasm; but it is so laddish and adolescent that I can't bear a full listen of the song.
- GEORGIA: Erm, a "joke" entry that it is not funny. Could the singer's remarkable camp "confidence" together with the latest (much improved) arrangements help the song to go through to the final?
- LATVIA: This surely doesn't sound like a "beautiful song". Silly lyrics and an excruciatingly annoying chorus (which may be sticky and ABBA-esque enough to cause an upset, after all?).
- LITHUANIA: He may be one of the cutest male singers in the contest this year but this half-ballad half-up-tempo song is one of the weakest – and don't get me going about the "blindfold gimmick".
- MALTA: No matter how many "Eh, eh, eh, eh, eh, eh"-s are added to it, this bland and nondescript dance track is still very weak, rancid and uninspiring (bad 80s disco?)
- SLOVAKIA: This heavy metal track is not a bad song in its own right and the singer seems to be charming enough but - even if I have enjoyed some rock entries at Eurovision in the past - this kind of anthemic hard rock is not my cup of tea.
- SPAIN: Yet again, a talented singer is wasted on a very mediocre song for Spain. Pastora Soler is proving to be a great representative: gifted, professional and down to earth. So, I find it difficult to understand why she's chosen to sing this second-rate pastiche, which is written by numbers, soulless, vacuous, pretentious and whiny. Will the favourable position in the running order, the song's mindless simplicity, the nods to Leona Lewis/Titanic, the unexpected cathartic moment in the last minute and Pastora's impressive vocal prowess be sufficient to bring many more points to Spain than the country has received in recent years?
- UNITED KINGDOM: This entry gives a new meaning to "retro". But my main concern is not that septuagenarian Engelbert hasn't had a top ten hit in more than 20 years. My main concern is the very mediocre song he's singing. I don't care about the legendary status of the performer or the writing credentials of the song writers; this sounds seriously amateurish to me. The song has a poor structure: it starts as a low key and moderately charming (if unremarkable) retro piece but then it is seriously ruined by a jarring key change and ill-fitting high notes that make Englebert look uncomfortable even when he's miming them. A misguided compilation of Eurovision clichés.
SONGS I AM NOT REALLY BOTHERED AS TO WHETHER THEY ARE IN THE FINAL OR NOT (in alphabetical order):
- AZERBAIJAN: A ballad which starts sounding like it's almost good but, finally, is just dull in spite of the very evocative Middle-Eastern arrangements; I'm disappointed that Azerbaijan is unimaginatively sticking to a tried and tested formula (i.e. pastiche from the same Swedish composers they used for the last two entries); and the singer's poor English diction is very off-putting.
- BELARUS: Although some of the band members are easy in the eye, this generic teenage pop-rock leaves me totally uninterested; they're not my "heroes" and definitely not "the winners".
- BELGIUM: One of the many nondescript ballads in 2012. This is one of the more "Western-sounding" ones; firmly in the "forgettable Disney ballad" category.
- BOSNIA & HERZEGOVINA: There are some really beautiful passages in this delicate Balkan ballad and the voice of the singer is lovely but, in my opinion, the song never really lifts and it ends up being rather dull (together with many other ballads this year).
- CROATIA: Yet again this year I feel disappointed by Croatia, which used to be one of my favourite countries in Eurovision. Nebo, although not at all a bad song (especially if one has the chance to listen to it about 100 times), is far too low key, far too boring… and the last minute arrangements added to the end of the song to pump it up are, in my opinion, counterproductive.
- CYPRUS: La la la la la la la la la la la la la la la la la la la la la la la la la la la la la la la la la la la la la la la la la la la la la la. A bit more modern and international than your usual Cypriot fare but in a cheap summer-hit-wannabe kind of way. Repetitive ad nauseam, it bores me.
- DENMARK: The Danes Should've Known Better and resigned from the contest this year to wait and see if they could find a decent song for 2013, but , no, they're taking part with this forgettable and linguistically challenged Alanis Morrisette/Anything But The Girl rip-off which leaves me so indifferent that I cannot even hate it.
- ESTONIA: Yet one more ballad this year which is very pleasant but ultimately boring and dated; this time from the Baltic. Having said that, Koola is actually rather effective. Some seem to find the singer attractive.
- FINLAND: And yet another pleasant but bland ballad, this time with eerily charming Nordic touches and sung by the kind of a woman you'd expect to find at the desk of a library specialised in Scandinavian studies.
- FYR MACEDONIA: This schizophrenic song doesn't work at all for me in spite of Kaliopi's delightfully distinct voice; whereas its first minute is quite promising in a Balkan ballad kind of way, with an original, appealing and memorable melody, as soon as the guitar riffs kick in and it turns into Balkan rock, I become fatally disengaged.
- GERMANY: So the singer is cute and reasonably competent. But the song sounds like Jamie Cullum was told 'Hey! Would you like to write a song for Eurovision? Here's what won last year' and Jamie decided to directly plagiarise Running Scared making sure the title of his song said exactly the opposite of last year's Azeri song title – just to confuse people. Bland.
- HUNGARY: Not terrible by any means, with great electronic pop arrangements, but fairly subdued; plus the singer's very poor vocal performance in the Hungarian shows was very off-putting
- IRELAND: Whereas I was a big fan of Jedward's entry, Lipstick, last year, I must say this year's US-influenced teenage pop song is rather uninspiring; correct but ultimately bland and the whole product now feels very dejá vu; but… the increasingly popular twins are still cute and charismatic and wear fabulous outfits.
- NETHERLANDS: I'm not a big fan of country music, but after a non-favourable first impression, I was soon surprisingly taken by the memorably catchy simplicity of this year's Dutch song, which is more effective and compelling, in my opinion, than other (better rated) North American influenced entries in this year's contest.
- SAN MARINO: Who would have thought that, of all countries, San Marino was going to have the most controversial entry this year (with the explicit references to facebook in the original version of the song)? Very tacky, it manages to be dated in spite of its very contemporary subject matter; but very catchy and so trashy that I would not mind if it made it to the final just for the fun of it.
- SERBIA: At first hearing, this sounds like it is better than it actually is; it has some powerful moments (especially the ones ripped off from/inspired by Coldplay...) and Zeljko is an unquestionably strong and confident performer with a warm voice – pure charm; but the song seems to go nowhere and I feel a bit cheated at the end of it. Neither as amazing as Lejla nor as special as Lane Moje.
- SWEDEN: An effective pastiche of clubby/druggy 90s dance music, which, nevertheless, for me, runs out of steam by the end of the second minute; the singer looks annoying and has an irritating voice; and the stage presentation, although original, is too dark and ultimately boring. I still enjoy it more than I feel I should, considering that it's the big favourite, but I would be very surprised if it wins as it appeals to a narrow demographic.
- SWITZERLAND: Moderately catchy, powerfully performed homage to 80s anthemic pop-rock (which is not quite my cup of tea). Stronger than last year's Netherlands or San Marino's first attempt. But not as compelling as Turkey 2008 or Georgia 2011, for example.