The semi finals for the 2017 Eurovision Song Contest begins today in Kyiv, in the Eastern European nation of Ukraine, where 42 countries come together to battle it out with song and performance like they've done since 1956. This year's competition found a little bit of drama as Russia will not participate, after their artist, Yuliya Samoylova, was banned from entering Ukraine because she toured in Crimea, the area of the country that Russia took over in 2014. That ongoing military action had already tainted last year's event, as Russia's Sergei Lazarev lost out to Ukraine's Jamala, for her song "1944" which was about the forced migration of Crimean Tatar people by the Russians in World War II. But now, since Russia is out, the "bloc voting" math is turned on its head, and anything can happen. Last year I reviewed the finalists after their performace - this time I'll give a taste of all 42 in my own personal order, then after the competition come back to the performances...
#42. "Do It For Your Lover" - Manuel Navarro [Spain]
Lobotomized Jack Johnson, by this dubious entry from Spain (there was a question of judge preferences), but as one of the "big five", this is going to the final no matter what.
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#41. "Spirit Of The Night" - Valentina Monetta & Jimmie Wilson [San Marino]
I guess there's no other singers in San Marino, since Monetta does her fourth turn, bringing American Jimmie Wilson. And while this isn't as horrid as "Social Network Song", it sounds like a toss-off from a Pia Zadora album from 1984.
#40. "My Friend" - Jacques Houdek [Croatia]
This is what I feel Dennis DeYoung's wet dreams are made of. Throwing everything including the kitchen sink into this, instead of one solid record we have four different songs clashing with each other. Coupled with his past statements on gay rights (which he's since denounced), this is one big mess.
#39. "Perfect Life"- Levina [Germany]
Germany's still paying for their back-to-back wins awhile back with consistently crappy entries the last few years, including this one, which plagiarizes David Guetta & Sia's "Titanium" and imposes an inspirational poster-quality lyric on. But like Spain, as a "big-fiver" this is automatically in the finals.
#38. "Grab The Moment" - JOWST [Norway]
Sing-song rap leading to a mild EDM chorus. Too "cool" in the production to translate to the stage. But he's cute.
#37. "Yodel It" - Ilinca featuring Alex Florea [Romania]
One of three big campy numbers in the competition (along with Moldova and Montenegro), this may become a fan favorite. I personally can't deal with the rap/yodel thing (didn't we already get rid of Rednex?), but admit their voices are way above the material.
#36. "Flashlight" - Kasia Mos [Poland]
There's a shitload of ballads this year - the result of the importance of the jury vote in the competition, and this is the most forgettable of the lot. That's two vapid blondes in two years.
#35. "Line" - Triana Park [Latvia]
The music video is 10x more entertaining than this sparsely written song, which is like tripping on old rave drugs from 1993.
#34. "Dying To Try" - Brendan Murray [Ireland]
Ex-boyband member Murray tries the paint-by-numbers X Factor/Idol - winning template for this entry. His high-ass tenor is his gimmick, but there's not much more than chord-changes in this schlager-style song.
#33. "In Too Deep" - Tijana Bogicevic [Serbia]
In other years this may have stood out more, but this EDM-lite number gets lost in the shuffle. A great performance may change that.
#32. "Breathlessly" - Claudia Faniello [Malta]
Malta has a history of really strong songs in this competition, so maybe in contrast this doesn't shine like it should. Claudia gives a good show, but this is 90s power-ballad material.
#31. "Time" - O. Torvald [Ukraine]
Strangely, there's only one true "rock" act this year, and its from the host country, so it's already going to the finals. It's a bit "busy" and seems like the lead singer is chasing the tempo of the guitar in the chorus. But it is different.
#30. "Never Give Up On You" - Lucie Jones [United Kingdom]
Lucie's also in the finals as one of the "big five" countries, which has only led to the UK being consistently at or near the bottom. This probably won't do any better; she has a good voice, but its lyrics are soooo damn bland - curse the X Factor franchise. And Brexit ain't gonna help.
#29. "Rain Of Revolution" - Fusedmarc [Lithuania]
Somebody fused Lisa Stansfield with Bjork to make the lead singer of this dance-pop band. Peppier number for the genre out of those competing...
#28. "This Is Love" - Demy [Greece]
I'm really not sure about all the buzz about this song - it's so English as a Second Language writing, but Demy gives it her all in this, and hey, it's a positive song you can shake your booty to. Like a Hallmark ad.
#27. "Running On Air" - Nathan Trent [Austria]
The country that won with the amazing Conchita Wurst clones Jason Mraz this year and goes for the audience that adored Sweden's entry last year which did much better than I thought it should have.
#26. "Apollo" - Timebelle [Switzerland]
Middle-of-the-road alternative pop from this trio, which is admittedly radio-friendly, though relies on her high register.
#25. "On My Way" - Omar Naber [Slovenia]
Omar may have one of the best male voices of the competition, but the song does not help him more that give him a handful of power-notes. If Ross from Friends wrote a movie song, I guess.
#24. "Skeletons" -Dihaj [Azerbaijan]
Possibly the beneficiary of the loss of Russia in the show, this brooding number (inspired probs by the sound from last year's winner) has a lot of fans already, and looking at the rehearsal footage, this is certainly one of those that stood out the most.
#23. "Hey Mamma" - Sunstroke Project [Moldova]
Returning after representing their country in 2010, I'm still trying to figure how this is an "Epic Sax Guy", but a meme's a meme, and these small countries need as much help as they can get. The second of the three big campy numbers...
#22. "I Feel Alive" - Imri [Israel]
IMHO the hottest guy here, he throws out a party anthem that does incorporate some nice nuances (like the strings and folk-style touches) that bring it out from being EDM fodder.
#21. "Keep The Faith" - Tamara Gachechiladze [Georgia]
This James Bond movie outtake is sold by this powerhouse singer, and builds quite nicely. The jury will love that. And the music video does win if they had an award for keeping with the theme ("Celebrate Diversity").
#20. "Paper" - Svala [Iceland]
Iceland, who were criminally kept out of the finals last year, are back with this one which reminds me of a Depeche Mode track from their Some Great Reward era, if sung by Robyn.
#19. "Lights And Shadows" - OG3NE [The Netherlands]
Holland's answer to Wilson Phillips have three stop-the-clock voices but will that be enough to take us back to 1990 in this show?
#18. "Blackbird" - Norma John [Finland]
This delicate ballad has been better live, so Norma's got a real shot here. It stands out nicely from the other ballads, which will be good both for the jury and televote.
#17. "Story Of My Life" - Naviband [Belarus]
I have no idea of what they're singing, but hell, this is the most "happy" of the entries that I can see. I love an entry in the country's native tongue, and this folky number is sublime. Possibly a repeat of the Netherlands' second-placer from a couple years back.
#16. "Where I Am" - Anja Nissen [Denmark]
With the large amount of power-ballads this year, it comes down to who can hit those notes live, and Danish singer Anja proved that in making this song shine. And boobies.
#15. "City Lights" - Blanche [Belgium]
Her low voice as the gimmick may prove disastrous if she can't reproduce it on stage (the rehearsal footage scares me), but the Belgians have been so close for so many years that it's time they take a victory.
#14. "Origo" - Joci Papai [Hungary]
The entry most influenced by last year's winner, the Gypsy song is one of the most interesting songs of the set, making me want to seek out the translation.
#13. "Don't Come Easy" - Isaiah Firebrace [Australia]
This is the third year competing for Australia, who came in second last year (and first in the jury voting), and like fans who end up going on Amazing Race, the country knows its way around the contest, with this simple but not dumb mid-tempo anthem that again features an amazing voice.
#12. "My Turn" - Martina Barta [Czech Republic]
Out of the traditional pop ballads, this one has the sweetest of lyrics, one I could imagine playing at my own wedding. A sleeper smash.
#11. "Gravity" - Hovig [Cyprus]
Sparse blues-rock-like song (think Rag N' Bone's "Human"), this one implant itself on my brain, and the rehearsal footage is very promising.
#10. "Beautiful Mess" - Kristian Kostov [Bulgaria]
One of the most "buzziest" of the entries is this Troye Sivan-style number from this seventeen-year-old singer that is everything that Ireland's Brendan Murray isn't.
#9. "I Can't Go On" - Robin Bengtsson [Sweden]
It's almost like I have to grade Sweden on a curve since they're the pop capital of the world, and this Justin Timberlake-ish nugget doesn't disappoint, though possibly everybody voting has seen the treadmill gig. And after the alt-right has soured me on the "OK" sign, the repeated use here gives me the "Pepe" chills.
#8. "Dance Alone" - Jana Burcheska [FYR Macedonia]
If Kylie Minogue did a Berlin song; this mixture of melancholy and joy makes for an amazing dance track. The video is also quite touching.
#7. "Amar Pelos Dois" - Salvador Sobral [Portugal]
Now this is old-school. This unassuming Portuguese singer pulls off a Serge Gainsbourg and becomes a favorite for a lot of people. This may catch all the anti-bombast votes and take the crown, believe me.
#6. "Space" - Slavko Kalezic [Montenegro]
Okay now, this ranking is sooooooooo inflated because as a studio recording I'm infatuated with this. But of course, I was a big Army of Lovers fan. This campiest of the camp from the gender-bending looker is possibly in big trouble looking at his rehearsal footage. Oofdah. But enjoy the disco while you can. And the lyrics, which include wet dreams and having people inside him? He knows his target audience. And the country's new Euro status may help. Who knows.
#5. "World" - Lindita [Albania]
This young singer from the Balkans has the strongest of the power-ballads, going all Celine Dion in this record which builds and builds, and her voice matches every step. Breathtaking.
#4. "Requiem" - Alma [France]
Another of the "big five" that mostly finance the contest which gives them an EZ-Pass to the finals, France had until recently been dismissive of their participation, with obtuse entries that alienate everybody but their own (who can't vote for themselves). Last year's song from Amir changed that, and this French but fun number from Alma is one of their best, keeping their identity yet immediately inclusive to the world. Dance along.
#3. "Verona" - Koit Toomi & Laura [Estonia]
It's like ABBA all over again with this callback to Shakespeare that is all the fun and emotion that makes Eurovision so good. Koit and Laura compliment each other perfectly, with Koit's high tenor a good change-up, and it ends up sounding like Lady Antebellum going disco.
#2. "Fly With Me" - Artsvik [Armenia]
The entry that has grown the most with me, this song from the Armenian songstress is beautiful and powerful without overpowering, and is so left-field it matches the mold of "1944" from last year. And her voice is stunning.
#1. "Occidentali's Karma" - Francesco Gabbani [Italy]
But in the end, it's the Italians that have my heart, with this fun poke at cultural appropriation that has some soured, but I totally get it. And in these times, we need a bit of crazy stupid fun, and this has the best chance. Namaste, allez!
The first of two semi-finals is tonight, then the other on Thursday, then the whole she-bang on Saturday, after which I'll go down the finalists... Good luck, everyone!