It’s FiKmas time! The 60th edition of Albania’s premier song contest gets underway on Monday, December 27, 2021, and we at ESC United are, as always, excited to watch this seasonal treat.

Festivali i Këngës 60 will present 20 hopefuls trying out to represent Albania at Eurovision 2022. There will be plenty of drama – a pre-selection favorite who bombs live, an act the fans stan and is ultimately sacrificed by a judge who prefers a more traditional ballad, some dodgy fashion – but before we begin, we at ESC United will give our thoughts on the assembled artists.

A panel of unprofessional reviewers will give their judgments and their scores out of 10. Judging the land of the double-headed eagle is the six-headed angry badger of ESC United, composed of the following ESC United “talent”:

  • Sean Tarbuck, editor-in-chief and co-founder of ESC United. Don’t mention Derby County.
  • Boris Meersman, our resident Discord spectre from that rest stop between France and The Netherlands called Belgium.
  • James Maude, our California correspondent who is the first Son of the American Revolution ESC fan.
  • Roy Postema, our Dutch correspondent and YouTube commentator and patron saint of lost causes at ESC.
  • Tyler Griffith, our far flung Alaska correspondent who can see Tirana from his house.
  • William Carter, our Texas correspondent who can see Southfork Ranch from his front porch.

In Part One, we will review seven acts. The order is alphabetical by first letter of the act’s name. That’s how Wikipedia does it, and as it’s FiKmas, what’s good for the goose is good for the gander.

Alban Ramosaj – “Theje”

Sean – 6 – “Quite a pleasant ethno-ballad with the odd bit of Albanian interest thrown in, but not a massive amount to grab me personally as a listener. There’s a great deal of passion in Alban’s voice and this could certainly be impressive performed live, but from a studio listen this is serviceable yet isn’t a standout ballad for my taste.”

Boris – 9 – “An epic ethnobanger disguised as a balkan ballad. The emotional gravitas of “Theje” collides into your soul like a crashing wave, and every percussion beat is like a mailed fist battering down the mental fortress I built for myself, as Alban booms “CRUSHES” (that’s what “Theje” translates to apparently) in excellently acted agony. I picked up the song’s theme even *before* I checked out the translated lyrics, which is always a great sign. Like all good songs, “Theje” nails its emotional vibe and leaves me thirsting for more. It could win FiK and do very well in ESC as long as Alban doesn’t choke during the live.”

James – 9 – “Just right amount of sturm und drang delivered by a guy who looks like Mumford and Sons’s on call barber. The woodwinds and percussion interplay give “Theje” that emotional turbulence the lyrics require, and if he nails the performance live we could have the new manly balladeer we’ve been craving at Eurovision for years. It sounds unmistakably Albanian thanks to instruments we have to go on Wikipedia to find a name for, and only a true Balkan could sing about his feelings and look like he’ll sock you in the jaw if you make fun of him for it. This will be a solid 10th – 19th place finisher in Turin with a cult following if Alban nails FiK first.”

Roy – 7 – “The song starts off really well and has a mystery surrounding it. It is slowly building to the chorus. Then we reach the pre-chorus where he just kind of shouts on top of kind of a basic beat. That transforms in more of a chorus on that exact same basic beat, but with an added element here and there for a more epic feeling. He does show off his vocals quite well in the end of the chorus and I really like the flute that we hear. The second chorus does the same as the first one, but does sound a bit more epic. And then, it just kind of suddenly ends out of nowhere. I don’t know, I feel like the primary beat that goes through the entire song is just a tad too lacklustre for all the shouty and epic vocals that Alban adds. This definitely needs a major revamp if it wins, but the FiK jury’s do always like an outstanding vocal.”

Tyler – 9 – “Another one of the big contenders for the win, “Theje” is a very interesting ballad that feels difficult to pull off live. If Alban can hit all of the notes and capture the emotions in the studio version of the song, then I think “Theje” has a very strong chance of winning FiK. “Theje” feels rawer than expected for an Eurovision entry, and it’s something I haven’t heard in a very long time. Excited to see what this is like live and if it can live up to the hype.”

William – 8.5 – “If Alban performs this at his best, he will win. Point blank. This song is EPIC, and it builds in really unexpected ways. The notes he’s hitting and holding in this song are showstoppers. In a post-“Shum” world, I have more faith that the Eurovision audience at large could get on board with something this culture-specific and distinct. Ultimately, it’s Alban’s to lose. If he’s on his game on the night, he’ll be undeniable.”

Total: 48.5 points (Average = 8.083)

Denis Skura – “Pse nuk flet, mama?”

Sean – 4 – “Listen, he’s got a great voice and it’s gutsy to go with something that is much more opera than it is pop – but this certainly isn’t aimed at anyone outside of Albania and isn’t destined for any post-FiK Eurovision success. But then hey, why should it? It’s their festival for their music. It’s just really not my thing but I’ll let its target audience enjoy it gladly.”

Boris – 1 – “This is what you would get if you asked Jacques Houdek to remix Axel Hirsoux’s “Mother” into a Chrismas musical. I want it burnt to cinders.”

James – 6 – “The backing track sucks. When the backing choir comes in halfway through, we need the orchestra to come in with some heavy percussion and brass. Denis and the backing vocalists are at sea and need some solid instumentation for this entry to tie together. If you thought Mark Vincent’s popera tilt at Australia Decides a couple years back sounded cheap, you’ll really hate this one. A revamp is desperately needed.”

Roy – 4.5 – “Opera at Festival I Kënges? I don’t know why, but I did not expect that at all. Obviously his voice is amazing. My biggest issue is that he didn’t seem to have a proper direction that he wanted to take with this. It feels like this entire piece is just kind of sloppily thrown together without really thinking about trying to make the best piece possible. It right now comes across as him opera-freestyling to a bit of a beat.”

Tyler – 4 – “Upon a second listen of “Pse nuk flet, mama?”, I’ve found the novelty of the song has worn off very quickly for me. I can appreciate Denis being operatic as it makes the song truly stand out in this field, but it’s also like being the tallest blade of grass as the lawnmower draws closer. I find the song more annoying the second time around than on initial listen when I just shrugged my shoulders and appreciated it being interesting. But that was a mistake! If the song had more variation throughout it, I think it would be a better song, but it’s sort of just one-note for me, so this score it gets.”

William – 6 – “Once I got over the initial shock of this being straight up opera, I warmed up to it. I especially like the blend of his vocals and the more rock instrumentation at certain points. If this were to win, unlikely I know, my hope is they would really lean into that in a revamp. So, yeah, I’m feeling the potential here.”

Total: 25.5 points (Average = 4.250)

Eldis Arrnjeti – “Refuzoj”

Sean – 5 – “I feel like there’s always a song called “Refuzoj” in FiK? Maybe it’s just my imagination. Either way, this is a plodding but generally enjoyable mid-tempo smooth rock number with a zest of Latin flavour. It’s an intriguing mix and Eldis’ voice accentuates the feel of the song. It’s not a standout for me but I can really appreciate what this is about.”

Boris – 4 – “I refuse to talk about boring lounge jazz.”

James – 5 – “Sounds like the house band of one of those dodgy jazz nightclubs in a John Woo film set in Hong Kong in 1992, with the singer professing his love to a femme fatale in the audience before some sociopathic drug lords come in and shoot up the place. The guitar solo is sweet, though. I am not sure who this Latin-tinged rock ballad is for, though. If it sounds out of place in Tirana, it sure as hell will in Turin.”

Roy – 6.5 – “Your typical middling inoffensive FiK rock-ballad. This one actually isn’t a bad one. Usually these songs struggle with their live-vocals and they usually put the bar way too high for themselves. I feel like Eldis might have slightly done the same, but now I am just assuming things. The guitar-solo is very welcome and adds a lot to the song. Overall a very good effort!”

Tyler – 4.5 – “Part of what “Refüzoj” does is have a 20+ second guitar solo that captures my attention and makes me like this entry a bit. The other part of “Refüzoj” is that the song feels like it drags every other time. There doesn’t feel to be enough emotion in what Eldis is saying for me to get invested into the song, so I’m just waiting for the song to end until the solo comes in. I think Eldis has potential, I just wish the song was better and a bit more interesting for me.”

William – 6.5 – “The relative simplicity of this song is refreshing. It’s got a rock edge, but it’s holding back in an intentional way. The emotion in his vocal is really what’s telling the story … with an assist from one electric guitar solo. This isn’t the winner, I don’t think, but it’s one to keep an eye on. Staged right, I could see the jury going for it and giving it a Top 3 placement.”

Total: 31.5 points (Average = 5.250)

Endri and Stefi Prifti – “Triumfi i jetës”

Sean – 6 – “There are some real explosive moments in “Triumfi i jetës”, but just not nearly enough to elevate this into the “great” category. They both have suitably gravelly voices and are surrounded by some meaty guitar lick sounds, but the song’s plodding tempo does little to whet my appetite for something a little heavier. It’s a case of appreciate this but hoping for more, rather than not liking what’s on offer though.”

Boris – 6.5 – “This song’s title translates to “Triumph of life”. With such a topic there are two ways you can go: you can either opt to be self-righteous, sombre and bombastic, or instead be uplifting, positive and happy. Sadly, Endri & Stefi went for the former route. *SIGH* They can recoup some points if they go all out on the stage show though, so fingers crossed for a myriad of pyrotechnics.”

James – 8.5 – “The title don’t lie. This is a triumph. Of the crushing kind. That this contains some unpretentious bombast really works in its favor as I don’t believe subtlety belongs anywhere near a Eurovision or FiK stage. But for fans of variety, it does take you on a journey, the musical equivalent of two guys who go out for a chicken wings at a biker bar in Orlando and end up dislocating the arm of a redneck with a confederate flag tattoo at an arm wrestling tournament. Starts soft, gets violent, but ends on a victorious note. It’s another manly ballad with rock touches at FiK and I am here for it.”

Roy – 8 – “From the first second, the listener is taken on a journey. The instrumentals start insanely small and mysterious. The vocals are very raspy and mysterious as well. A simple windchime instrument is being played, the second voice starts and a tiny bit more is happening. The vocals get a bit more epic and BOOM, we transition into the chorus. This song works well with the rock instrumentals and both of their voices together. I will say that the chorus could have maybe used a bit of a catchier hook and might be going on for a tad too long. I am desperately looking forward to the live-performance of this song, I love it!”

Tyler – 7.5 – “The best way to describe “Triumfi i jetës” is sort of a song that finishes where it starts. I start to think the song is going in a “N’oubliez pas” direction, but then the song immediately swells for the middle two minutes of the song into an orchestral rock show that almost drowns out the vocals from Endri and Stefi. The song is very interesting to listen to, and it’s great to see this on a national final level. I don’t think it should win exactly, but it’s quite interesting musically, and I like it even after the initial surprise has worn off.”

William – 4.5 – “I’m undecided on this one. I appreciate the ethnic touches, and there’s an undeniable energy that the live orchestra will amplify. But it never really hooked me. I reserve the right to change my mind after seeing it performed, but, right now, this is precisely middle-of-the-road.”

Total: 41 points (Average = 6.830)

Ester Zahiri – “Hiena”

Sean – 4 – “Now this one is harmless as a solid, well-produced RnB/pop song, but is another in this line-up that fails to make me sit up and take notice. Hard to judge how this will fare on stage which is a major factor in Eurovision pop songs but I’m not overly impressed with this one unfortunately.

Boris – 7 – “IS THIS ABOUT THE ANIMAL? The above question holds more emotional investment than I could muster about the song “Hijena” itself. Regardless of merely ~mildly liking~ her, I feel like Ester might be a contender to win FiK – She has a midtempo song with a certain (low) flair of drama, vocal flexing and ethnic influences. I think it could turn out good with a proper revamp, but let us first see how well it vibes on a stage before we start doling out the truly high scores, shall we?”

James – 4.5 – “The video thumbnail promised a lot: a Fran Drescher look-alike on a song with a title that sounds like “Hyena.” Could be a Eurovision legend in the making. Alas, it is not. It is middling ’90s-era RnB song with a bass drop here and there set to “bees.” The acoustic guitar coming in and out is clumsily done, as if done at the last second to tack on some Albanian flair.”

Roy – 3 – “This song kind of leaves me cold. I guess it has to do with the singing-style that Ester has. It can sometimes really come across as if she doesn’t fully care, which isn’t the case of course. The chorus just misses an impact for me. Right now it is just a song that kind of exists, but doesn’t stick in your mind. Towards the ending, the chorus also starts to be a bit too repetitive.”

Tyler – 7.5 – “For being a debut participant in FiK, Ester already is proving herself with this song. While “Hiena” is already Eurovision ready, it also feels short at the same time. I like the vibe of the song a lot, but then it doesn’t go as crazy or epic as I would like it to. “Hiena” has a nice hook and I think Ester sings the song well, but not nearly enough for me to think that this song is a winner. Won’t skip it on my NF playlist though! It’s a lot of fun.”

William – 7.5 – “If there’s a dark horse this year, I think this is it. The song’s ethnic flair is transporting, and Ester will be delivering some BIG notes on stage. If she doesn’t win this year, I fully expect to see her at future FiK editions. This is a very impressive contest debut.”

Total: 33.5 points (Average = 5.583)

Evi Reçi – “Më duaj”

Sean – 7 – “Now this is how to do Balkan-inspired pop! The brassy instrumentation tied in with the acoustic guitars really accentuates this fun number and could be one of the summer hits we need at next year’s contest. If Albania wants to send something fun which also showcases their rich culture and traditional music, they could do worse than sending Evi to Turin.”

Boris – 7 – “UNTIL I heard the song, I was convinced she was the woman who gave us “Zjarre im” last year. If only. “Me duaj” is a servicable folk ballad in a field with mostly “alright” songs that hold back punches. It’s one of the better ones in the crop though, even if it’s merely a townsperson in Fest60.”

James – 8 – “A dead simple folk ballad, but it sets a mood I’d like at Eurovision. The backing vocals sound like they were stolen from Leonard Cohen, and the parp of brass at the bridge is a sublime lift the song needed at that point. This will be middle of the pack at FiK, but watch the Albanian nationalist juror FiK gets every year take points from the ESC fan favorite to give to “Me duaj” and allow the actual Albanian favorite to sail through to howls of Twitter outrage. Cohen predicted that in “The Future.””

Roy – 6.5 – “I really liked ‘Tjerr’ last year and I definitely think that this is a nice continuation on that. The brass breakdown after the chorus is something really refreshing. I do think that the vocals sound a bit too much around the same tone all the time, but I hope Evi can play a bit more with this live. It’s a perfectly fine swaying piece that is sure to put a smile on your face.”

Tyler – 7.5 – “Part of the appeal of “Më duaj” is how much it feels like “O meu coração não tem cor‎”‎. Obviously not exactly, but it has the instrumentation and the feeling of that song that makes me quite like it. It’s more stripped down and traditional, so it feels both old-fashioned and timeless in some ways. I suppose I like listening to “Më duaj” for the vibe and how Evi sings it, even if I don’t think this is a winner. It’s a lot of fun though even if there isn’t too much variety in the song.”

William – 6 – “I really appreciate Evi’s vibe. Both of her FiK entries sound ethnic and a little dark-sided, and those are two great tastes that taste great together. If she wins, the horn section has to go, though … or at least be dramatically reconceived. And, I’ll be honest, I’m deducting points for the, “na na na na,” refrain toward the end. In 2021, we can do better, lyrically. Maybe it’s just me.”

Total: 42 points (Average = 7.000)

Gjergj Kaçinari – “Në ëndërr mbete ti”

Sean – 6 – “This isn’t going to go down as one of the FiK greats in its genre but in this year’s selection this is one of the better pop-rock attempts available. It’s well-structured, has potential to grow and lends itself to a hopefully solid performance. Keeping an eye on this one.”

Boris – 6.5 – “It wouldn’t be FiK if it didn’t feature some pleasant balkanic poprock, I guess. :shrugs:”

James – 5 – “RTSH’s thumbnail makes Gjergj look like a henchman from the Sylvester Stallone classic “Cobra,” but this is not the song for that henchman. And it seems too slight for Gjergj himself. It plods along like a dull side quest in Mad Max, promising hand to hand combat with maniacs but ending up with all the thrills of negotiating cabbage prices with nuns. I can’t really get to the point of this song, but neither can the song itself. I hope Gjergj comes back soon with something more suited to his persona, rather than this void of a track where we’re left trying to make up a dystopian future story to make a YouTube thumbnail that doesn’t match the track either.”

Roy – 5.5 – “The verses of the songs aren’t necessarily anything to write about, but I am liking this chorus! It builds in epicness from sentence to sentence in said chorus. The backing track isn’t the most amazing either and the drum/clap in the back is perhaps a bit annoying towards the end, but I do think that can be fixed easily when performed live. This shouldn’t win, but it is a great addition to the show!”

Tyler – 5 – “”Në ëndërr mbete ti” just really doesn’t work for me on a lot of levels. The song itself doesn’t really do much musically for me and feels like a first draft. The instrumentation just doesn’t interest me at all and the lyrics are forgettable to me as well. That isn’t to say I dislike listening to it, but it’s the sort of filler song that serves as a bridge between songs I enjoy, so that’s a good quality to have. Doesn’t stick out for the right reasons, but none of the bad ones either.”

William – 7 – “Listen, I am well aware Gjergj’s vocal is an acquired taste. But I really appreciated it last year, and I still do. His voice has a lot of character. I’m happy he returned to FiK with a song that’s a little more … palatable to the audience at large. Don’t see this as a winner, but it sounds to me like the kind of song that, if staged correctly, could be a surprise Top 3 finisher.”

Total: 35 points (Average = 5.833)

Seven songs in, Alban Ramosaj takes the lead in the ESC United rankings. What is weird is how many reviewers seem to hedge their bets on his live performance, especially since his initial rehearsals suggest Alban may struggle live at the contest. We swear we wrote these reviews before the live rehearsals.

1.) Alban Ramosaj – “Theje”- 48.5 points (Average = 8.083)

2.) Evi Reçi – “Më duaj” – 42 points (Average = 7.000)

3.) Endri and Stefi Prifti – “Triumfi i jetës” – 41 points (Average = 6.830)

4.) Gjergj Kaçinari – “Në ëndërr mbete ti” – 35 points (Average = 5.833)

5.) Ester Zahiri – “Hiena” – 33.5 (Average = 5.583)

6.) Eldis Arrnjeti – “Refuzoj” – 31.5 points (Average = 5.250)

7.) Denis Skura – “Pse nuk flet, mama?”- 25.5 points (Average = 4.250)

Who do #YOU think has what it takes to win FiK and represent Albania at Eurovision 2022? Let us know in the comments below, on social media, and in our forum.

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