Special Reports

The 5 Best Songs From Eurovision 2021

No Broadway? No problem! Eurovision’s got you covered.

These are some of the contestants in the 2021 Eurovision Song Contest.
These are some of the contestants in the 2021 Eurovision Song Contest.

I'm sure you've already heard that Broadway is coming back on July 1. Or is it May 19? No matter what New York's dueling mayor and governor say, the fact is we aren't likely to see Broadway open until after Labor Day. It's going to be a little while until you can enjoy the sight of a full kick-line on a Broadway stage.

Still, those jonesing for musical spectacle will find plenty in this year's Eurovision Song Contest, which will be broadcast live from Rotterdam on Tuesday, May 18, and Thursday, May 20, with a grand finale on Saturday, May 22, at 21:00 CEST (that's 3PM ET).

The contest has been a staple of the European calendar since 1956, when Switzerland's Lys Assia bested a field of six other participating countries with the song "Refrain." Since then, it has grown in size and scope, with artists from 39 countries (some not even in Europe) seeking to have their song recognized as the best of that year.

Ever-more-lavish stage shows and publicity stunts have become a hallmark of the contest, where the key to winning is to stand out. A complicated combination of juries and televoting makes the final determination, and watching the results is often more nerve-racking than seeing an Olympic gymnast on the balance beam. I consider it the unofficial kickoff to Gay Pride month.

With all that in mind, here is my completely subjective, hopelessly biased list of the five best songs in this year's Eurovision Song Contest:

5. Daði og Gagnamagnið – "10 Years" – Iceland
From Silvia Night to Hatari, Iceland routinely sends the most fascinating acts to Eurovision, so much so that Will Ferrell smartly chose to portray an Icelandic contestant in his 2020 film Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga. My theory is that Iceland's physical distance from the continent has fostered a remarkably unique culture and sense of humor in its people. It's like the Galapagos Islands of pop music. Living up to that reputation is Daði Freyr and his band Gagnamagnið with their unique brand of feel-good dance music and awkward choreography — all of which seems tailor-made for extraterrestrials. "10 Years," about Daði's relationship with his wife, captures that nicely, but perhaps not as perfectly as his 2020 entry "Think About Things," which was favored to win last year's competition before Covid-19 let to its cancellation. While Iceland is no longer the odds-on favorite to win, it is still sending one of the best songs to the competition. And even if it doesn't win, we'll always have "Jaja Sing Dong."

4. Eden Alene – "Set Me Free" – Israel
Eden Alene is giving me serious Dua Lipa vibes with this chill yet danceable nu-disco ditty. A flirty underscoring of electric kamanjat makes the tune distinctively Israeli. I could easily see myself grooving to this song at a beachside cafe with a spritz and a plate of pistachios. Israel has won the contest four times, most recently in 2018 for Netta's "Toy." It may be too soon for them to snag another win — then again, that never stopped dominant competitors like Ireland or Sweden, or unlikely heavy-hitter Luxembourg, which has an astounding five wins to its name. Never discount the small countries.

3. Go_A – "Shum" – Ukraine
In the two decades since it joined the competition, Ukraine has sent some of my very favorite acts ever, as well as two winners. This year's entry comes from electro-folk band Go_A, which draws on pre-Christian Ukrainian tradition in their frenetic techno number "Shum." The music video looks like a trailer for Mad Max Beyond Chernobyl, but the lyrics are actually a powerful invocation of springtime following a harsh winter. And who isn't in the market for one of those right about now?

2. Elena Tsagrinou – "El Diablo" – Cyprus
This song is so hot it has been denounced by the Holy Synod of the Church of Cyprus, which issued a strongly worded statement comparing the number to devil worship and "the provocative bulimia of the Turkish conquerors." Rude! But perhaps their eminences have a point. Sounding very much like a collaboration between Lady Gaga and Sia, I suspect some demonic force behind this dance track that I cannot get out of my head. You may have noticed that I have chosen all up-tempo songs in my picks thus far, and there's a reason for that. Eurovision is like a US presidential election: The winner is almost always the polar opposite of the incumbent. Since the reigning champ is still Duncan Laurence for his 2019 bare-bottomed tearjerker "Arcade" we can expect this year's winner to be quite different — which brings us to the best song in the 2021 contest:

1. Destiny – Je Me Casse – Malta
Full disclosure: I am a shameless promoter of Malta, and like everyone connected to the island republic, I have long wanted to see Malta triumph at Eurovision. It never has, despite entering competitions as far back as 1971 (and consistently since 1991). Near-wins in 1998, 2002, and 2005 have contributed to both agita and despair, but 2021 is poised to be Malta's year of destiny — Destiny Chukunyere that is. The 18-year-old powerhouse is already the winner of the 2015 Junior Eurovision and champion of the second season of X Factor Malta, which immediately qualified her to represent Malta in Eurovision 2020. While that contest was a bust due to Covid, Destiny is back in 2021 with an even better number. "Je Me Casse" is the kind of song that will have everyone in the club dancing, which is exactly what we want after this miserable year of privation. Destiny is channeling Lizzo and Beyoncé in this fierce feminist anthem, which has all the ingredients of a Eurovision winner. I'm not the only one who thinks so: Destiny has led the pack in the betting odds ever since the song dropped in March. If she can sustain that momentum, we might just see Malta host its first Eurovision in 2022.

How do I watch?

Eurovision is famously trickly to watch in the USA. Sometimes it is available to stream for free on YouTube, but sometimes it is blocked by the US rights holder (most recently Netflix). However, in the spirit of Maltese hospitality, I'm going to give readers of TheaterMania a special way to watch: Television Malta streams 24/7 and I have never had trouble viewing it stateside. If you can deal with a little Maltese-language side commentary, it's your best bet to watch the contest on May 22 (that's at 3pm ET, noon Pacific).

Update – 5/18/2021: With just hours to go before the first semi-final, it was announced that the full competition will be available to American viewers through Peacock, NBCUniversal's streaming service.