Every Oscar Winner for Best Original Song, Ranked
Looking back at the best and worst of 82 years of statue-winning movie themes
40. “Fame” (Fame, 1980)
Written By: Michael Gore & Dean Pitchford
Performed By: Irene Cara
“Fame” is a damn good song, and one of the funkiest Best Original Song winners, but it’s also an incredibly deceptive representation of the movie it comes from: In its pursuit of ’80s pop vim, it seems to ignore the challenging, dark material of the parent film. Still, if any song is better at conjuring up dance studios, exercise gear, and determination than this, I’d like to hear it. I want to start doing synchronized aerobics just hearing those opening notes. D.L.
Also Nominated From ’80: Dolly Parton’s “9 to 5″ theme, a great workplace anthem from a great workplace comedy, and “On the Road Again,” a touring standard for Willie Nelson from Honeysuckle Rose.
Snubbed: The first great soundtrack single from Kenny Loggins (“I’m Alright,” Caddyshack), a new-wave chart-topper from Blondie and Giorgio Moroder (“Call Me,” American Gigolo) and the entirety of the Xanadu soundtrack, featuring countless camp classics from Olivia Newton-John and Electric Light Orchestra.
39. “It’s Hard Out Here for a Pimp” (Hustle and Flow, 2005)
Written By: Juicy J, Fraser Boy and DJ Paul
Performed By: Terence Howard & Taraji P. Henson
One of the all-time great “WTF?” Oscar wins, though as any old-school fan of the group will tell you, it hardly came with one of Three 6 Mafia’s best songs. As performed by Terrence Howard or themselves, “Hard Out Here” has far more in common with one of those nondescriptly motivational T.I. singles than the malevolent debauchery of Juicy J, DJ Paul, Crunchy Black, and Co.’s definitive club hits. Still, any song that makes “THREE SIX MA-FI-A!! ACADEMY AWARD WINNERS!!!“ possible has to at least make the top half of this list. A.U.
Also Nominated From ’05: Just a Dolly Parton song from TransAmerica, and a Kathleen York song from Crash. These were not halcyon days for the Best Original Song race.
Snubbed: “A Love That Will Never Grow Old,” Emmylou Harris’ Brokeback Mountain ballad, and 50 Cent’s “Hustler’s Ambition,” the best of the new songs from Curtis’ vanity vehicle Get Rich or Die Tryin’ (none of which were exactly “Lose Yourself”).
38. “Colors of the Wind” (Pocahontas, 1995)
Written By: Alan Menken & Steven Schwartz
Performed By: Judy Kuhn
Sure, when you really look at it, this song reduces the beliefs of Native Americans to a broad, almost patronizing form of animism, and the lyrics’ reliance on parallelism stops being cute after a while. (“You think the only people who are people / Are the people who look and think like you,” ugh.) But man… Judy Kuhn’s voice soars, with those little trills and sweeping highs. It makes it much easier to get behind what’s ultimately an agreeable message of environmental awareness and acceptance. J.G.
Also Nominated From ’95: “You’ve Got a Friend in Me,” the first of three nominations picked up by Randy Newman for the Toy Story series.
Snubbed: This was one of the all-time great years for soundtrack singles, though several of biggest (Seal’s “Kiss From a Rose” from Batman Forever, Coolio’s “Gangsta’s Paradise” from Dangerous Minds, Edwyn Collins’ “A Girl Like You” from Empire Records) were ineligible for various reasons. U2’s “Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me, Kill Me,” also from Batman Forever, would’ve worked, as would most of the hit-strewn soundtrack to Waiting to Exhale, including Whitney Houston’s “Exhale (Shoop Shoop),” one of the first singles to debut at No. 1 on the Hot 100.
37. “Whatever Will Be, Will Be (Qué Será, Será)” (The Man Who Knew Too Much, 1956)
Written By: Jay Livingston & Ray Evans
Performed By: Doris Day
One of the enduring sing-along choruses in film history, lasting enough to be prominently featured in both Heathers and The Simpsons several decades on. The song’s borderline-deterministic message can be a little bit of a bummer if you think about it too much, but then again, so are most of the great drinking songs of the 20th century. A.U.
Also Nominated From ’56: “True Love,” the Cole Porter-composed duet sung by Grace Kelly and Bing Crosby in the Philadelphia Story musical remake, High Society.
Snubbed: “Love Me Tender,” the first great Elvis soundtrack single (from the first Elvis movie, of the same name).
36. “Let the River Run” (Working Girl, 1988)
Written By: Carly Simon
Performed By: Carly Simon
Carly Simon’s ’80s anthem might bring up images of shoulder pads, power suits, and sheer pantyhose, but the lyrics (“Let all the dreamers / Wake the nation / Come, the new Jerusalem”) may as well be carved on the Statue of Liberty — a sight most Staten Island ferry-riders grow used to as they commute to the shinier shores of Manhattan. And with Simon as your accompanist, any working girl or boy can feel inspired to pull themselves up by the Reeboks and ascend the corporate ladder. R.B.
Also Nominated From ’88: “Two Hearts,” easily the best-remembered part of Phil Collins’ crime comedy flop, Buster.
Snubbed: Cocktail soundtrack smash “Kokomo,” the Beach Boys’ last will and testament as popular recording artists, for better or worse.
35. “Skyfall” (Skyfall, 2012)
Written By: Adele & Paul Epworth
Performed By: Adele
On the only official musical output the Grammy-winning superstar has released since her mind-bogglingly successful 21, Adele flippantly parades her silky chops around on this most-recent (and first Oscar-winning!!) Bond theme. The orchestral slow burn takes a moment to get to the point, but Adele likes prolonging the release. “Put your hand in my hand, and we’ll stand,” she hollers. Whatever she says. BRENNAN CARLEY
Also Nominated From ’12: “Everybody Needs a Best Friend” from Ted, to date the only Academy Award nomination for that year’s host, Seth McFarlane.
Snubbed: “Safe and Sound,” Taylor Swift and the Civil Wars’ eerie contribution to the first Hunger Games soundtrack. Despite doing a whole host of movie songs over her career and cleaning up at just about every other award show imaginable, still no Oscar nods yet for Taylor.
34. “Thanks for the Memory” (The Big Broadcast of 1938, 1938)
Written By: Ralph Rainger & Leo Robin
Performed By: Bob Hope & Shirley Ross
One of the more disarming Best Original Song winners, the rarely heard divorcée duet. “Memory” radiates sweet nostalgia, with poignantly evocative remembrances “of lingerie with lace, and Pilsner by the case” and “motor trips and burning lips and burning toast and prunes,” and just enough bad times thrown in (“The night you worked and then came home with lipstick on your tie”) to avoid overdosing on undue saccharine. In the movie, the couple gets back together; in real life, it’s probably more touching if they stay apart. A.U.
Also Nominated From ’38: “Jeepers Creepers,” a jazz-pop standard sung by Louis Armstrong in the Dick Powell musical comedy Going Places, still getting interpolated by Siouxsie and the Banshees a half-century later.
Snubbed: Speaking of Dick Powell, he also introduced the oft-covered Harry Warren and Johnny Mercer tune “You Must Have Been a Beautiful Baby” in 1938, in the rom-com Hard to Get.
33. “For All We Know” (Lovers and Other Strangers, 1970)
Written By: Fred Karlin, Robb Royer & Jimmy Griffin
Performed By: Larry Meredith
Before it became a top-five hit for the Carpenters, “For All We Know” was the nuptial theme for the hit comedy Lovers and Other Strangers, as performed by forgotten ’70s singer Larry Meredith. Karen and Richard’s cover may be superior, but it’s clear why they were originally enraptured by Meredith’s frayed rendition. Written by members of soft-rock superstars Bread, “Know” serves as a sort of dry run for that group’s “If,” though today it sounds even more exquisite than that eventual smash. (And at under two minutes, it’s too short to threaten treacliness.) Definitely not for Zeppelin fans, but they weren’t licensing “Whole Lotta Love” for wedding comedies much those days anyway. A.U.
Also Nominated From ’70: Nothing memorable, though at least Mancini gets in there with Julie Andrews’ “Whistling in the Dark,” from Darling Lili.
Snubbed: “Suicide Is Painless,” the indelibly bizarre theme to Best Picture-nominated Korean War comedy M*A*S*H, with lyrics written by Mike Altman, director Robert Altman’s 14-year-old son, in five minutes.
32. “Secret Love” (Calamity Jane, 1953)
Written By: Sammy Fain & Paul Francis Webster
Performed By: Doris Day
Intentionally or not, a perfect contradiction: a coming-out anthem in code. A song about the freedom of having no secrets that has a secret itself. A song with a vision of bliss —”At last my heart’s an open door / And my secret love’s no secret anymore” —that doesn’t actually come true. (She tells “a friendly star,” “the highest hills,” and “the golden daffodils” the truth about her love, but it’s not clear whether she tells any people.) A melancholy exultation. Crypto-pride. T.W.
Also Nominated From ’53: “That’s Amore,” the cheeseball signature tune for Dean Martin, from the Martin-and-Lewis golf comedy The Caddy.
Snubbed: “That’s Entertainment!” from The Band Wagon, definitive enough to the musical genre to title a famous MGM song-and-dance compilation film in the ’70s.
31. “Call Me Irresponsible” (Papa’s Delicate Condition, 1963)
Written By: James Van Heusen & Sammy Cahn
Performed By: Jackie Gleason
An eventual performance fixture for Frank Sinatra, and originally written for Judy Garland to sing as a self-referential laugh, “Call Me Irresponsible” unfortunately came to sung-spoken life via Jackie Gleason in the poorly aged family comedy Papa’s Delicate Condition. Still, the song is amiable enough to outshine Gleason’s amateurish delivery, and lyricist Sammy Cahn called it the best song he’d ever written, in large part due to the song’s high concentration of five-syllable words. A.U.
Also Nominated From ’63: Henry Mancini’s title song to Charade, and the impossibly loony (“A Japanese named Louie / Says the Chinese hate chop suey”) theme to “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World.”
Snubbed: Anything from The Sword and the Stone, one of the less well-remembered Disney musicals of the second half of the 20th century.
30. “Beauty and the Beast” (Beauty and the Beast, 1991)
Written By: Alan Menken & Howard Ashman
Performed By: Angela Lansbury
The song that set the template for the quivering love theme in ’90s Disney movies, sentimental and grand with big chord changes and with no shortage off woodwinds. It’s been bettered since, but at least it’s far more likeable here in its humbler Angela Lansbury rendition than its almost unbearably cloying pop rendition by Celine Dion and Peabo Bryson. A.U.
Also Nominated From ’91: Two more songs from Beauty (“Belle” and the arguably superior “Be Our Guest”), as well as Bryan Adams’ definitive ’90s power ballad, “(Everything I Do) I Do It For You” from Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves.
Snubbed: Eric Clapton’s “Tears in Heaven,” the devastating ode to his son Conor following the 4-year-old’s tragic death earlier in the year, which was featured in the crime drama Rush.
29. “Buttons and Bows” (The Paleface, 1948)
Written By: Jay Livingston & Ray Evans
Performed By: Bob Hope
A short, jolly, accordion-led romp with a cleverly overstuffed chorus and verses that have an almost Dylanesque chuckle to them (“East is east and west is west / And the wrong one I have chose”), delivered with perfectly aloof irreverence by Hope. Also featured in perhaps the funniest scene from the entirety of Frasier’s 11-season run. A.U.
Also Nominated From ’48: The, um, ageless “Woody Woodpecker Song,” the only-ever Best Song Oscar nominee to come from an animated short.
Snubbed: Irving Berlin’s “Steppin’ Out With My Baby,” introduced by Fred Astaire in the musical Easter Parade.
28. “Jai Ho” (Slumdog Millionaire, 2008)
Written By: A.R. Rahman & Guizar
Performed By: A.R. Rahman
One of the most rapturous movie themes of the 21st century, all furious drums, pulse-racing strings and guitars, and of course, the clarion-call title phrase. It’s exciting enough that it could be featured as a closing musical number independent from the movie’s romance-adventure plot and still not even feel like an export from a different film culture. A thoroughly unnecessary single version was released with the Pussycat Dolls, but they couldn’t even pronounce the title right. A.U.
Also Nominated From ’08: “Down to Earth,” Peter Gabriel’s contribution to the Wall-E soundtrack, and “O…Saya,” the second Slumdog nominee, co-written by M.I.A. And that’s it.
Snubbed: Bruce Springsteen’s closing theme to The Wrestler was the surprise omission of this year, though more galling was the lack of “Pineapple Express,” the ’80s-styled title track to the Seth Rogen and James Franco stoner comedy, delivered with just the right amount of wink by those most consummate of film-music professionals, Huey Lewis and the News.
27. “A Whole New World” (Aladdin, 1992)
Written By: Alan Menken & Tim Rice
Performed By: Brad Kane & Lea Salonga
In a musical of astoundingly catchy numbers, “A Whole New World” might do little more than provide a series of teasers for future Disney movie settings — oh look, Africa! Oh look, China! — but it does it so wonderfully that you can’t really blame it. The only Disney animation song to ever top the Billboard Hot 100 (as covered by Peabo Bryson and Regina Belle), the original performance by Brad Kane and the absolute queen Lea Salonga is an ideal for kiddie movie love themes, and some of Tim Rice’s finest work as the grand lyricist of schmaltz. D.L.
Also Nominated From ’92: Whitney Houston’s battering ram of a Bodyguard ballad, “I Have Nothing.” (Having been originally performed by Dolly Parton decades earlier, “I Will Always Love You” was ineligible.)
Snubbed: One of Madonna’s million soundtrack smashes, the wistful “This Used to Be My Playground” from A League of Their Own, as well as Arrested Development’s Malcolm X contribution, “Revolution.” And maybe Alice in Chains and Mudhoney wouldn’t have had much a chance of getting nominated for their Singles work, but a nod for Paul Westerberg’s “Dyslexic Heart” or “Waiting for Somebody” might not have been beyond the pale.
26. “You’ll Never Know” (Hello, Frisco, Hello, 1943)
Written By: Harry Warren & Mack Gordon
Performed By: Alice Faye
A textbook love song that stuns in its simplicity, where verse, chorus, and bridge are all folded into the titular, universally comprehensible lyrical sentiment, delivered with serene matter-of-factness by Alice Faye. The song’s timelessness is reflected in its dozens of successful covers, including renditions by Vera Lynn and Frank Sinatra, and on the first recording ever made by a 13-year-old aspiring star named Barbra Streisand. A.U.
Also Nominated From ’43: “You’d Be So Nice to Come Home To,” a Cole Porter standard from Something to Shout About. (Porter never won one of these, by the way, going 0 for 4 in his decades-spanning career.)
Snubbed: “One For My Baby,” an eventual Sinatra staple, originally sung by Fred Astaire in the musical The Sky’s the Limit.
25. “When You Wish Upon a Star” (Pinocchio, 1940)
Written By: Leigh Harline & Ned Washington
Performed By: Cliff Edwards
In 2015, this Pinocchio classic rings a bit shallow and unrealistic: “If your heart is in your dream / No request is too extreme,” Cliff Edwards sings as the eagerly optimistic Jiminy Cricket. But there’s an unwaveringly believable timbre in his voice that’s hard to ignore; he warbles and slurs some of his words in this wholesome way as a choir echoes his words. Disney still uses “Wish” in many of its current ads and theme parks, and for good reason: It makes you want to believe in fantasies again. B.C.
Also Nominated From ’40: Eight forgotten songs from eight forgotten movies.
Snubbed: Unsurprisingly little.
24. “Never on Sunday” (Never on Sunday, 1960)
Written By: Manos Hajidakis
Performed By: Melina Mercouri
The first-ever entirely foreign-language winner for Best Song, “Never on Sunday” was alluring enough in its breathy coo, performed by Greek film star Melina Mercouri in the film of the same name, to cross over to American audiences, and become so popular that seemingly every relevant recording artist of the pre-Beatles ’60s attempted a hit cover of it. A number of them were excellent, but the seductive nonchalance of the Mercouri’s irresisitble original, delivered in bed in between drags on her cigarette, makes it almost impossible to top. Watch the video and you’ll be air-bouzoukiing by song’s end. A.U.
Also Nominated From ’60: “The Facts of Life,” from the Lucille Ball and Fred Astaire rom-com The Facts of Life. Nothing to do with the ’80s TV show or its theme, sadly, but it does come with a nifty Saul Bass credit sequence, at least.
Snubbed: The title song to coming-of-age comedy Where the Boys Are, a top-five hit and definitive number for ’50s and ’60s pop icon Connie Francis.
23. “Chim Chim Cher-ee” (Mary Poppins, 1964)
Written By: Richard M. Sherman & Robert B. Sherman
Performed By: Dick Van Dyke & Julie Andrews
The Sherman Brothers were recently reduced to comedic sidenotes in Saving Mr. Banks, but back in the real world, the pair were two of the best songwriters of their eras. On “Chim Chim Cher-ee,” chimney sweep Burt (Dick Van Dyke) charmingly bumbles his way through a cockney accent on an entrancingly melancholic song that purports to be about mysteriously good fortune (“Good luck will rub off when I shakes hands with you”) but often dips into a minor key (“When there’s hardly no day / And hardly no night”). B.C.
Also Nominated From ’64: “My Kind of Town,” Frank Sinatra’s ode to how great Chicago is, which originally appeared in the ridiculous gangster musical Robin and the Seven Hoods.
Snubbed: Shirley Bassey’s “Goldfinger,” very likely the all-time greatest Bond theme, and anything from A Hard Day’s Night, the Beatles’ first movie and accompanying soundtrack, nominated for Best Original Score but shut-out entirely for Best Original Song.
22. “White Christmas” (Holiday Inn, 1942)
Written By: Irving Berlin
Performed By: Bing Crosby
A song written in Southern California by a Russian Jew from New York City about the beautiful Christmases of a rural U.S. boyhood, played every ten seconds in every supermarket from November 1 to December 31: possibly the most American song that has ever been. A+. T.W.
Also Nominated From ’42: “Love Is a Song,” the opening credits song to the formative Disney flick Bambi, sung by Donald Novis.
Snubbed: “Road to Morocco,” another one of the more memorable themes to the Crosby / Hope Road To… musical series, and one memorably parodied in the “Road to Rhode Island” episode from the second season of Family Guy.
21. “Can You Feel the Love Tonight?” (The Lion King, 1994)
Written By: Elton John & Tim Rice
Performed By: Elton John
Absolutely some of Disney’s most stirring piffle, from their most retrograde and royalist (and exciting) movie of the ’90s, and Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire Sir Elton John rumbles and groans those kings, vagabonds, and REEEESTLESSSS WAR-RI-ORS for all they’re worth. Vivid and only slightly hilarious autocracy porn: more explicit than any other Disney ballad about the pillowy rush of being a prince and f–king a princess. T.W.
Also Nominated: Two other Lion King jams, “Hakuna Matata” and opening number “Circle of Life,” the latter of which was also sung by Sir Elton.
Snubbed: The peerless “Stay (I Missed You),” performed and written by a then-unknown Lisa Loeb for the soundtrack to her buddy Ethan Hawke’s Gen X dramedy, Reality Bites.