A-List: Top Five Oscar Songs

By J. Don Birnam

March 17, 2016

Let's get together, yeah yeah yeah.

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Some of the most iconic songs in American pop culture were written originally for movies. The Best Original Song category at the Oscars is no longer what it used to be (a few years back, only two nominees made it in, in a sign that the branch was exasperated with the quality of the songs being made for movies). Once upon a time, however, it was very common to have large numbers of songs by popular and respected artists showing up on the lists. Indeed, in the 1940s, as many as 13 songs could be nominated in any given year.

The rules for today are simple: I’m only going to consider songs that have won the Academy Award for Best Original Song, with the caveat that I’m going to exclude any song associated with a Disney movie from consideration. Otherwise, the list would write itself, and classics from Under the Sea to A Whole New World would of course emerge victorious.

In selecting these songs, I’m trying to weigh both the quality of the song, its enduring value in the annals of pop culture, and also how much, if any, it advanced or played into the plot of the movie. Today, to be considered for the category, the song cannot simply be played in the closing credits, but must have another role (although I don’t think it’s very defined, and James Bond songs get in with the opening, not rolling end credits).


It turns out that the 1980s and early 1990s were perhaps the heyday for songs made for movies. In some years, several of the nominees could make the list. Indeed, five classic songs that lost the award deserve mention: Philadelphia, by Neil Young, which lost to The Streets of Philadelphia, by Bruce Springsteen. It’s pretty amazing that a straight-up drama had not one but two songs written for it and nominated. We also have I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing, from Armageddon as performed by Aerosmith;Maniac, from Flashdance (which also lost to another song from that movie, the amazing What a Feeling; The Power of Love, from Back to the Future; and Let’s Hear it for the Boy, from Footlose, loser to the classic song I Just Called to Say I Love You .

As for the eligible honorable mentions, I have to start with Eminem’s Lose Yourself from 8 Mile. Winner in 2002, it is perhaps the last of winners destined to become classics (although, I suspect Let It Go from Frozen will join that list), and signaled one of the first times the Academy went away from the typical love theme or the catchy pop song into the 21st Century of music. Kudos also have to go out to Carly Simon’s Let the River Run, from Working Girl, which won in a year with only three nominees but nevertheless cemented the movie from the opening credits. The Way We Were, from the eponymous movie, is also an honorable mention, mostly because the song has become so well-liked and is so emblematic of the deeply emotional movie. In seventh place is probably Whatever Will Be, Will Be, from Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much. That song plays a key role in the climatic moments of the movie, and builds and adds to the suspense with its eerie repetitiveness and melancholy. Few movies use a song in that effective a way.

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