The countdown to the Eurovision Song Contest Final has begun, with Ireland competing in the second semi-final on Thursday night. John O'Driscoll takes a look at the top countries to watch in this year's musical extravaganza.

While nobody could ever claim that something with as much sequins and improbable key changes as the Eurovision is to be the most serious of events, this year the build up to the competition has been overshadowed by a deluge of political controversy.

Israel's hosting of the event has led to much publicised calls by Palestinian human rights organisations for countries, performers and fans to stage a boycott. Despite this, no countries have heeded the call, with only fan-favourite Ukraine withdrawing due to an entirely separate issue (basically a contract row with the winner barring her from performing in Russia). 

So now that it's all full steam ahead, what about the songs taking part this year? A grand total of thirty-five countries will battle in out over two semi-finals on Tuesday and Thursday this week. Those that make it through will join the so called 'big five' (the countries with the biggest Eurovision chequebooks) as well as hosts Israel for the final on Saturday.

Here are the songs to watch out for during the week.

Escort your Nan from the room...

Country: Iceland
Artist: Hatari
Hatrið mun sigra

How often have you lamented the lack of industrial-synth protest songs with a dash of BDSM at Eurovision? Thankfully Iceland have heard your cries and Hatari here to slay with the most eye-popping song and outré image in the competition (lashings of pvc and spikes).

Put it this way, Hatrið mun sigra makes Lordi's Hard Rock Hallelujah sound like a lullaby sung by Barney the Dinosaur. Roughly translated as 'Hate will prevail' it's either an anti-capitalism manifesto that pokes two fingers at rising populism in Europe or else they are epically trolling the contest. You decide. A definite dark horse.

Second time lucky? 

Country: Russia
Artist: Sergey Lazarev
Song: Scream

Pipped at the post in 2016 by Ukraine despite some fairly mind blowing staging, singer Sergey Lazarev is back with another tilt at the crown. Mind you, returnees rarely fare that well. For every Johnny Logan there's an Alexander Rybak or two (the former winner could only manage a fifteenth place finish last year).

Instead he'll be hoping to emulate fellow Russian Dima Bilan who failed on his first outing but lifted the trophy a couple years later. Based on the hologram-heavy rehearsals and the bookies odds, this looks like it'll finish comfortably near the top.

Beware. Art students

Country: Portugal
Artist: Conan Osiris

The first time you hear this it does sound like a xylophone being flung down a stairs. And that's even before we get to the pair of spoons singer Conan Osiris appears to have attached to his face or the high-camp outfits or even the backing dancer's moves that will have hipsters throwing their stovepipe hats in the air to. Love it or hate it, this slice of contemporary Fado folk certainly wins for originality. 

Who remembers the 90s?

Country: Finland
Darude feat. Sebastian Rejman
Song: Look Away

It's your man with that hit Sandstorm from back in the day. The next time someone asks "What ever happened to Darude?" you can show them this. Yes the DJ is behind the decks for this fairly mediocre dance effort, with a very repetitive chorus, though the name recognition might bag a few votes. 

Preaching the gospel

Country: Sweden
Artist: John Lundvik
Song: Too Late For Love

Sweden are a bit like the Kilkenny hurlers of the Eurovision. You can never rule them out and they love winning. This year they've gone for a gospel infused number, Too Late For Love written and sung by John Lundvik and once again, they will be in the final shake up when the voting ends. You can also dazzle with your friends with the information that he also wrote this year's UK entry Bigger Than Us though when you give it a listen you'll understand why he was glad to part with it. 

Naked ambition

Country: Netherlands
Artist: Duncan Laurence
Song: Arcade

Keeping an analogy (of sorts) going - now we're into senior hurling! The Netherlands haven't won the contest since way back in 1975 but the past few years they've really upped their game including a surprise second finish in 2014 with a charming country 'n' western ditty of all things. This year they're in it to win it with the most Eurovisiony of songs - a big soaring ballad that somehow manages to feel very modern. The promotional video has racked up an impressive tally of views - Duncan Lawrence's decision to appear naked had nothing to do with it. Amsterdam 2020 is the safest of bets.

Yo! Olé, not Yodel

Country: Switzerland
Artist: Luca Hänni 
Song: She Got Me

Poor old Spain. For the first time in years they've entered a decent song only to be upstaged with an epic Latin flavoured number from....Switzerland of all places. This is great fun and it will have you thinking about booking a summer holiday as you re-arrange the living room furniture attempting to emulate Luca Hänni's slick dance moves. This will hoover up public votes and rightly so.

On the money

Country: Italy
Artist: Mahmood
Song: Soldi

Italy is another country which has consistently being entering great songs of late and this year is no different. Probably the coolest song in the competition, Soldi ("money") is written and performed by Mahmood. Giving off plenty of "current" vibes, this semi-autobiographical tune apparently deals with the relationship with his absent father and wouldn't sound out of place on the current hit parade. It also gets bonus points for being performed in a language other than English.

Come dine with me

Country: Ireland
Artist: Sarah McTernan
Song: 22

Last year Ireland finally broke the duck after a very bad run of it in the Eurovision and made it to the final. Ryan O'Shaughnessy's tender ballad and clever staging charmed voters and saw us finish in sixteenth place overall. This year getting out of Thursday's semi-final is a bit of a taller order for Sarah McTernan. Firstly, the second semi-final is a bit of a challenge which has most of the strongest songs vying for a place in the final. Secondly, and most crucially, the producers haven't done us any favours by giving Ireland the poisoned second slot in the running order.

But on the positive side, the song 22 is very contemporary and doesn't sound like anything else in the competition. The staging, which sees the Co. Clare singer performing  in a mock 1950s diner against the back-drop of very colourful pop art imagery, will also help it stand out. Her vocals too are on point. Best of luck to her!

John O'Driscoll

Eurovision Semi Final 1, Tuesday, May 14, RTÉ2, 8pm

Eurovision Semi Final 2, Thursday, May 16, RTÉ2, 8pm

Eurovision Grand Final, Saturday, May 18, RTÉ One, 8pm