This year’s national final season has been one of the easiest ones to cover. The normal volume of music often makes my quest to dig up gems more like finding needles in too many haystacks. Having just 12 national finals and three song selection shows is a luxury. Maybe I could complain about not having the richest vein of music to mine, but I still hit plenty of pay dirt.
Italy: Madame – “Voce”
I picked a really good year to take up Sanremo marathon running. There were so many good songs on offer. The one I’ve listened to almost as much as “Zitti e Buoni” is “Voce.” Madame is only 19, but she is already a full-fledged, fashion-forward pop icon. First off, she had the guts to perform Adriano Celentano’s “Prisencolinensinainciusol” on Sanremo’s cover night, and she was able to make it her own. Impressive.
As for “Voce” itself, it is sumptuous and forlorn. Madame embodies so much hurt and so much pining in the song that I can’t help but feel as heartbroken as she is. What a gorgeous achievement.
Portugal: Karetus & Romeu Bairos – “Saudade”
Like Sanremo, Festival da Cançāo was particularly strong in 2021, and I am sure that every Eurovision fan who watched would struggle to narrow their list of favorite songs to an arbitrary limit. But I have no doubt that most of them would include “Saudade.” As artistically uncompromising as Conan Osiris’s “Telemóveis,” it was also silky and hauntingly melodic. The visuals in both the semifinal and final performances were striking, but the song itself can be fully enjoyed without the spectacle.
Bulgaria: Victoria – “The Funeral Song”
Maybe a tune called “The Funeral Song” is not particularly appropriate for the first Eurovision Song Contest of the COVID-19 era. But I’ll be damned and doomed if Victoria’s song about existential bliss isn’t one of the most life-affirming songs I’ve heard this year. The quirky musical touches just emphasize the boldness of the song. Both “The Funeral Song” and “Growing Up Is Getting Old” are the perfect songs for me at this time of my life for various reasons, and I can’t help but smile through the tears every time I listen to them.
Sweden: Danny Saucedo – “Dandi Dansa”
Danny Saucedo is first and foremost a showman. The playful and catchy “Dandi Dansa” could have very easily gotten cheesy, but his charm and confidence makes it entertaining. The staging leans into its Jamiroquai influences a bit too heavily, yet it’s hard to complain when Danny and his dance crew pull it off almost flawlessly every time.
Estonia: Jüri Pootsmann – “Magus Melanhoolia”
When last I saw Jüri Pootsmann, he was struggling to get Eurovision audiences to understand how much smoldering stage presence he actually has. He came back to Eesti Laul this year with a wicked cool song that reestablished him as a brooding, sultry pop artist. “Magus Melanhoolia” fit his vocal tone perfectly, and it didn’t need to pander to stand out.
Norway: Blåsemafian – “Let Loose”
I have a soft spot in my heart for brass band pop, which is why I’ve been missing Washington, DC during the pandemic. If there’s a brass band busking by Dupont Circle station, I’m suddenly not in a huge rush to get where I need to go to next. These days, if I’m feeling a bit low, I will crank up La BrassBanda and dance around the house. So obviously, I was very receptive to “Let Loose” when Blåsemafian performed it at Melodi Grand Prix. It’s a stomping, romping good time, and I was thrilled to see it make the top four in the final.
Italy: Extraliscio feat. Davide Toffolo – “Bianca luce nera”
How to explain “Bianca luce nera,” especially now that Sanremo only exists in brief clips on the official RAI website? Extraliscio is an eclectic neo-traditional folk-pop band whose singer Mirco Mariani looks like a mad scientist. Another member, Mauro Ferrara, looks like the father of the bride who wandered into the wrong party. Meanwhile, special guest Davide Toffolo is a comic book artist and performer who wears a skull mask, evoking the late, great MF Doom at a Day of the Dead celebration.
Together, they created a song that works like a perpetual motion machine, constantly building and building. Their performances at Sanremo were fun chaotic parties I never wanted to end, and the studio version of “Bianca luce nera” shows the tightly-constructed method to their madness.
Lithuania: Black Spikes with Indre Launikonyte – “Don’t Tell Me”
I spent a lot of time over the past year exploring my heavy metal roots and getting caught up on where the genre has gone, and gosh am I glad I did, because I was primed to gush over “Don’t Tell Me.” Black Spikes’ song is an emo-numetal pop song with flashes of guttural vocals and a flair for over-the-top stage costumes. It is the culmination of metal history in a fab little three minute package.
Portugal: Miguel Marôco – “Girassol”
This is going to be a hard one for me to explain. I have a huge fondness for certain styles and rhythms of the 1970s. “Girassol” fires all the synapses in my brain that store that affection. I love swimming around in Miguel Marôco’s song because it takes me back to a time in my life that never really existed, but lingers inside me anyway.