Every Oscar Winner for Best Original Song, Ranked
Looking back at the best and worst of 82 years of statue-winning movie themes
20. “I’m Easy” (Nashville, 1975)
Written By: Keith Carradine
Performed By: Keith Carradine
In Nashville’s million-character perpetual-motion machine, this laid-back love song is a resting point, a center, a few minutes of what would feel like calm and purity if three different women listening to it hadn’t been promised Keith Carradine was singing it to them. What’s caustically undermined on film is straightforward on the radio, and Carradine’s womanizer would say that’s why you should forgive him: because even if he’s faking his own love, the song is free of him and real. Unfortunately, it contains the inadvertently mood-breaking line “Loving you would have to be a sometime thing,” a sentiment eventually echoed, tragically, by a neutered Cookie Monster. T.W.
Also Nominated: Not the most memorable of her hits, but “Theme From ‘Mahogany’ (Do You Know Where You’re Going To)” did give Diana Ross her second No. 1 as a solo artist.
Snubbed: The “Knights of the Round Table” song from Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Hey, they made a hit Broadway musical out of it.
19. “Last Dance” (Thank God It’s Friday, 1978)
Written By: Paul Jabara
Performed By: Donna Summer
Donna Summer’s performance as sneaky wannabe club singer Nicole is not great, let’s be honest, but “Last Dance” is one of the best songs by the Queen of Disco. When Summer hits that stage in Thank God It’s Friday the audience goes wild, and who can blame them? Bulldozing in on that amazing funk chorus, building into a song that sounds as dramatic and catchy as one would hope the last dance ever would be, “Last Dance” is a tour de force jam that teleports you into an episode of Soul Train. D.L.
Also Nominated From ’78: “Hopelessly Devoted to You,” the heartbreak throwback ballad from Grease that became a smash for Olivia Newton-John.
Snubbed: The other megahits from Grease, including the Newton-John / John Travolta bubblegum duet “You’re the One That I Want” and Frankie Valli’s disco-flavored title theme, both Hot 100-topping hits.
18. “Streets of Philadelphia” (Philadelphia, 1993)
Written By: Bruce Springsteen
Performed By: Bruce Springsteen
Rock’s favorite everyman effectively captures the social and physical isolation an AIDS diagnosis brought in the early ’90s with this evocative track. Crooning over mid-tempo synths, the Boss articulates Andrew Beckett’s (Tom Hanks, in an Oscar-winning performance) emotional condition while simultaneously challenging the titular metropolis’ family-minded motto, asking, “Oh brother, are you gonna leave me wastin’ away / On the streets of Philadelphia?” Well? R.B.
Also Nominated: “Philadelphia,” the Neil Young ballad from the same movie, and “Again,” the tearjerking Poetic Justice ballad that conquered pop music for Janet Jackson in the fall of ’93.
Snubbed: “This Is Halloween,” and any of the other Danny Elfman-composed musical numbers from Tim Burton’s cult holiday favorite, The Nightmare Before Christmas.
17. “Flashdance…What a Feeling” (Flashdance, 1983)
Written By: Giorgio Moroder, Keith Forsey and Irene Cara
Performed By: Irene Cara
Even if its corny opening synth percolations might otherwise signal it as something of a relic, by the time the beat unexpectedly kicks in and the Giorgio Moroder electronics go into hyperdrive, “Flashdance” blossoms into a heartfelt, hard-fought ballad buoyed by Cara’s hot-blooded belting. Is it dated? Sure, but why is your foot tapping so hard? B.C.
Also Nominated From ’83: “Maniac,” the second nominee from Flashdance, and also the soundtrack’s second No. 1, for former guitarist for Stevie Wonder (and eventual solo one-hit wonder) Michael Sembello.
Snubbed: A busy year for Moroder, who also scored the ultra-iconic gangster flick Scarface, and co-wrote the movie’s epochally over-the-top mo’ money, mo’ problems montage soundtrack “Push It to the Limit.”
16. “The Windmills of Your Mind” (The Thomas Crown Affair, 1968)
Written By: Michael Legrand, Alan Bergman & Marilyn Bergman
Performed By: Noel Harrison
One of the more enigmatic Best Original Song winners, “Windmills” marries down-the-rabbit-hole lyrics (“Like a tunnel that you follow to a tunnel of its own / Down a hollow to a cavern where the sun has never shone”) with a mysteriously sweeping and off-kilter arrangement, like a theme to a Bond movie directed by Brian de Palma. The song was given greater coherence in later, higher-charting renditions by Dusty Springfield and Petula Clark, but the oddness of Harrison’s delivery, nervously ahead of the beat at all times, makes it the far more indelible version, and the one most appropriate for a movie whose sexiest scene takes place across a chess board. A.U.
Also Nominated: “Funny Girl,” the newly written theme to the musical film adaptation that won Barbra Streisand her only acting Oscar. (Coincidentally, Streisand would later cover “Windmills of Your Mind” herself.)
Snubbed: “Springtime for Hitler,” the hilariously gauche title number from the fictional play at the center of Mel Brooks’ The Producers.
15. “Things Have Changed” (Wonder Boys, 2000)
Written By: Bob Dylan
Performed By: Bob Dylan
A lot of the time the difference between good Dylan and bad Dylan is the difference between making lofty alienation, suspicion of women, and a poet’s boyish lust for the apocalypse sound cool and making it sound lame. Here it sounds really cool. As usual, it’s not so much the words — though we’ll always be partial to “Lot of water under the bridge / Lot of other stuff too” — as the quavering weirdo snarl that animates them. For a while it’s funny (“Don’t get up, gentlemen! I’m only! Passing. Thruuuuuuuuuuuuhhghgh”) and then all of a sudden it’s turning-time elastic and yawning open a sheer drop into space: “Mr. Jinx and Miss Lucy, they jumped in a lake / I’m not that eager to. Make a. Mist. Aaaayyyykk.” T.W.
Also Nominated From ’00: “I’ve Seen it All,” one of the technicolor musical numbers from the otherwise brutally grey Dancer in the Dark, and the reason why Björk and her infamous swan dress were allowed past the velvet rope at the ’00 ceremonies.
Snubbed: A trio of R&B Hot 100-toppers: Destiny’s Child’s “Independent Women Pt. 1″ (Charlie’s Angels), Aaliyah’s “Try Again” (Romeo Must Die), and Janet Jackson’s “Doesn’t Really Matter” (The Nutty Professor II: The Klumps), making 2000 the last year soundtrack singles would have such chart dominance. Would have been cool to see some love thrown Air’s way for “Playground Love,” the highlight from the duo’s Virgin Suicides score, as well.
14. “Swinging on a Star” (Going My Way, 1944)
Written By: James Van Heusen & Johnny Burke
Performed By: Bing Crosby
A surreal and supremely lithe tune for kiddies that’s up there with “Walking on Sunshine” and the theme to I Dream of Jeannie on the shortlist of catchiest musical compositions of the 20th century. The lyrical suggestion that kids will go to school and start washing up before dinner to avoid transformation into a mule, pig, or fish is an arrogant and insulting one, but getting to carry moonbeams home in a jar sounds pretty goddamn choice. A.U.
Also Nominated From ’44: “The Trolley Song,” one of Judy Garland’s most famous musical numbers, from Meet Me in St. Louis.
Snubbed: “How Little We Know,” performed by its writer Hoagy Carmichael on piano (with the legendary Lauren Bacall on vocals) in the loose Hemingway adaptation To Have and Have Not.
13. “The Ballad of High Noon (Do Not Foresake Me Oh My Darling)” (High Noon, 1952)
Written By: Dmitri Tiomkin & Ned Washington
Performed By: Tex Ritter
It’s risky for a theme song to just straight up describe the plot of its film, not so much because of spoilers as because it’s the only thing that makes people wince more than someone’s dialogue coming down too hard on the title. But this stark little ballad for a stark little movie is just right, as loping and dreadful as the plot’s funeral procession towards its noontime showdown. (“Look at that big hand move along.”) The song on this list most like, and least separable from, its source. T.W.
Also Nominated From ’52: “Because You’re Mine,” the final million-seller for the once absurdly popular tenor Mario Lanza, from the similarly titled Lanza musical.
Snubbed: The theme to Best Picture winner The Greatest Show on Earth, a bigtop perennial, if such a thing exists.
12. “Let It Go” (Frozen, 2013)
Written By: Kristen Anderson-Lopez & Robert Lopez
Performed By: Idina Menzel
“Let It Go” could not have more going for it as a song: It captures an unusual narrative moment (the villain’s self-discovery), it’s a damn fine piece of musical writing, and it is expertly warbled by Idina Menzel, a woman who can turn anything into an anthem. It has also — whether through shrewd Disney marketing or not — already become a standard by using YouTube instead of a slew of jazz singers performing scatty reduxes. For a song with so much story-specific content and a cheeky use of the word “fractals,” it has already become as universally poignant as a Hamlet soliloquy. D.L.
Also Nominated From ’13: Hey, remember Pharrell’s “Happy”?
Snubbed: Lana Del Rey’s big ballad from the Great Gatsby, “Young and Beautiful” — Lana’s first Top-40 hit, turning around her commercial fortunes after the underperformance of the Born to Die singles.
11. “The Way We Were” (The Way We Were, 1973)
Written By: Marvin Hamlisch, Alan Bergman & Marilyn Bergman
Performed By: Barbra Streisand
Easily the best of Barbra Streisand’s big movie numbers, as purposeful and devastating as a missile in its all-consuming wistfulness and melancholy. Subtlety is hardly the name of the game here, but Marty Paich’s production is sturdy enough in its surprisingly funky rhythmic base that Streisand doesn’t have to do all of the heavy lifting herself, giving her the freedom to balance the song’s lows and highs as needed. “The Way” was cool enough for Gladys Knight (and by extension, the Wu-Tang Clan and Lauryn Hill), so it damn well better be cool enough for you. A.U.
Also Nominated From ’73: Paul McCartney’s “Live and Let Die,” a singular entry in the rock legend’s discography and one of the all-time most exciting Bond themes.
Snubbed: You couldn’t really call it a snub, but man, would it have been something if “Willow’s Song,” the ballad from that crazy-ass (and super NSFW) temptation scene in the original Wicker Man, had been nominated.
10. “My Heart Will Go On” (Titanic, 1997)
Written By: James Horner & Will Jennings
Performed By: Celine Dion
Yes, this was the only song you heard on Top-40 and easy-listening radio for the entirety of ’97 (sometimes with those nauseating movie dialogue snippets thrown in for good measure), but put all of that aside for a moment and remember: Celine Dion can wail. Such a voice is surely worth defending 18 years later, and the track — a #feelings bonanza ballad written by James Horner and Will Jennings — is so ridiculously earnest, that it will almost certainly go on in Adult Contemporary radio settings for decades to come. R.B.
Also Nominated From ’97: “How Do I Live,” a textbook Dianne Warren power ballad sung by LeAnn Rimes for Con Air, which would have been a slam-dunk award winner in nearly any other year of the ’90s.
Snubbed: “Miss Misery,” Elliott Smith’s Good Will Hunting ballad of quiet devastation. Wait, s–t, that song actually got recognized?? That’s definitely one of the rare moments where it truly is an honor just to be nominated.
9. “Lose Yourself” (8 Mile, 2002)
Written By: Eminem, Jeff Bass & Luis Resto
Performed By: Eminem
The best thing about “Lose Yourself” — better than the single moment of pre-stage butterflies it distends into five stream-of-consciousness minutes; better than the tightening spiral of destitute Detroit details from which there is no escape but skill — is the assonance: Eminem’s primary weapon, taken here to such high-wire extremes the verses sound like a single syllable over and over again. “Oh” or “ai” or “dah”, in relentless rat-a-tat, bloom with shifting, vertiginous meaning. Then Em lets that last sound dribble away to unite with the beat — “dah dah dum dah dum dah dah.” A torrentially verbal song about disappearing into music: this contradiction brought to you by hip-hop. T.W.
Also Nominated From ’02: U2’s crappy song from The Gangs of New York. Eminem essentially ran for this thing unopposed.
Snubbed: “Die Another Day,” the last big soundtrack single for Madonna to date, and the last Bond theme to go Top 40 for another decade. Also, from Austin Powers in Goldmember: “Work It Out,” the world’s introduction to solo Beyoncé.
8. “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head” (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, 1969)
Written By: Burt Bacharach & Hal David
Performed By: B.J. Thomas
A song as lighthearted and extemporaneous-sounding as frolicking in the rain should feel. Only Hal David and Burt Bacharach would dare start a pop lyric with its title phrase, then take four paitently hopscotched syllables longer than expected to land on the rhyme, while twisting up the song’s entire melodic framing in the process. Not only does it work, it feels natural to the point of feeling easy. Never has a hit song been this musically unconventional, with no real chorus, a trumpet solo break and a double-time horn outro, while also feeling this familiar, this comforting, this sublime. B.J. Thomas is smart to stay casual enough with his vocal to let the song to get him where he’s going. Like Katherine Ross being couriered around on two wheels by Paul Newman, he’s just along for the ride, and loving every second of it. A.U.
Also Nominated From ’69: Glen Campbell’s theme to the John Wayne Western True Grit, and “Jean,” a No. 2 hit for the insipid Oliver from the Maggie Smith school drama The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.
Snubbed: The obvious choice would be Harry Nilsson’s “Everybody’s Talkin’,” a crossover smash off the soundtrack to Best Picture-winner Midnight Cowboy. However, the song began life several years earlier as written and performed by folkie Fred Neil for his debut album, and was thus ineligible.
7. “Falling Slowly” (Once, 2007)
Written By: Glen Hansard & Marketa Irglova
Performed By: Glen Hansard & Marketa Iglova
In Once, Hansard and Irglova play partners who fall into a storybook musical relationship, though one inevitably complicated by reality. In the gorgeous duet “Falling Slowly,” the first song the duo perform together, there’s an intrinsically shattered sense of self. Never before have two humans tried so desperately to convince the other that there’s hope where there’s none: “Take this sinking boat and point it home / We’ve still got time.” B.C.
Also Nominated From ’07: Three songs from Enchanted, which must have split the vote, since “That’s How You Know” is about as natural an Oscar-winner as gets nominated for this category in recent years.
Snubbed: Two of the great fictional songs of the 21st century: John C. Reilly’s title theme to the satirical musician biopic Walk Hard, and Andrew Wyatt and Hugh Grant’s “Pop! Goes My Heart,” the brilliant, new wavy pastiche from Music and Lyrics.
6. “Over the Rainbow” (The Wizard of Oz, 1939)
Written By: Harold Arlen & Yip Harburg
Performed By: Judy Garland
A generations-spanning ballad that hardly needs an introduction, this Judy Garland standard is one that most know the words to as well as or better than “Happy Birthday”. Though its grainy recording has all the mothbally charm of your favorite high-end vintage clothing store, the theme to “Over the Rainbow” remains as classic as a smart Chanel suit: the desire for freedom. “Birds fly, over the rainbow / Oh why, oh why can’t I?” asks Garland, who, uncomfortably ensconced in sepia-toned Middle America, yearns to explore the great blue-skied beyond. Who among us hasn’t? R.B.
Also Nominated From ’39: Uhhh, “Wishing” from Love Story? Nothing was taking down Dorothy this year.
Snubbed: Todd from Breaking Bad might’ve voted for the sing-along shanty “Lydia the Tattooed Lady,” introduced by Groucho Marx in At the Circus. And those would certainly go to bat for “South of the Border,” an oft-covered hit first delivered by singing cowboy Gene Autry in the movie of the same name.
5. “Moon River” (Breakfast at Tiffany’s, 1961)
Written By: Henry Mancini & James Mercer
Performed By: Audrey Hepburn
If you asked someone to turn the character Holly Golightly into a song, you would want a lazy folk tune with something jazzy and metropolitan rippling through it. “Moon River” is exactly that: It feels at home being performed by Audrey Hepburn languidly on the fire escape and equally appropriate performed throughout the movie by composer Henry Mancini’s band. It fits perfectly when Holly harks back to being Lula Mae, it seems bespoke for a fabulous party when it’s spun as Bossa Nova, and it has all the lilting romance George and Holly exude. D.L.
Also Nominated From ’61: Bad timing for Gene Pitney, whose “Town Without Pity” theme is a golden example of early-’60s pop schlock.
Snubbed: “Cruella de Vil,” exemplar among Disney villain themes, sung by Bill Lee for the eponymous big bad from 101 Dalmatians, and “Can’t Help Falling in Love,” one of the greatest American Songbook entries of the 20th century, first crooned by Elvis Presley in Blue Hawaii.
4. “Under the Sea” (The Little Mermaid, 1989)
Written By: Alan Menken & Howard Ashman
Performed By: Samuel E. Wright
“Under the Sea” is different from the rest of Disney’s many winning songs in that it’s not The Important Song from its parent movie. There’s no heartfelt proclamation or big sweeping message. It’s just fun. The marine musical swims along thanks to the strength of its unabashedly gleeful calypso beat and bubbly, freewheeling lyrics (“When the sardine / Begin the beguine / It’s music to me”). It’s just a refreshingly uncomplicated three-and-a-half minutes, and crustacean singer aside, it’s nearly impossible to listen to this song and still feel crabby. J.G.
Also Nominated From ’89: Fellow Sebastian Mermaid jam “Kiss the Girl,” close to the equal of “Under the Sea.”
Snubbed: “Fight the Power,” probably the greatest hip-hop song ever written for a movie, inextricable with Spike Lee’s generally Oscar-snubbed classic Do the Right Thing. On much, much less serious notes, Prince and Bobby Brown had silly pop smashes from a couple blockbuster flicks — “Batdance” (from Batman) and “On Our Own” (from Ghostbusters 2), respectively — that would’ve been more fun than any of the other non-Little Mermaid nominees.
3. “Take My Breath Away” (Top Gun, 1986)
Written By: Giorgio Moroder & Tom Whitlock
Performed By: Berlin
For a song supposedly about breathlessness, the most notable thing about this Top Gun chartbuster is the way every part of the song seems to respire. Every four-note pattern of that alien-bass riff, every eternally reverberating, “Be My Baby”-swiping drum hit, every synth wash cresting in the background, and certainly every double-tracked vocal line cried ecstatically by singer Terri Nunn — all alive, all pulsating. “Breath” sounds like Dianne Warren writing for Han Solo and Princess Leia’s first sex scene, except way cooler: ’80s love themes were not supposed to be this electric, sonically or emotionally, and they certainly haven’t gotten more so since. The song was so big that Berlin, who were not previously in the business of writing songs that could soundtrack Tom Cruise and Kelly McGillis sweatfests, basically had to break up immediately thereafter. But most artists would sacrifice a whole lot more than these guys did to have one career moment as pure and perfect as the key change in the third verse here. A.U.
Also Nominated From ’86: The Karate Kid Pt. II’s “The Glory of Love,” a canonical ballad of ’80s soft-rock cheese from one of the genre’s kings, Peter Cetera.
Snubbed: OMD’s “If You Leave,” pivotal prom theme from Pretty in Pink, and one of the few synth-pop ballads of its time that could go 12 rounds with “Take My Breath Away.” And as many times as Madonna was snubbed for Academy Awards, the most galling of all might’ve been “Live to Tell” from At Close Range being ignored.
2. “The Way You Look Tonight” (Swing Time, 1936)
Written By: Jerome Kern & Dorothy Fields
Performed By: Fred Astaire
Notice how sad this song sounds, for something about looking at a person you love: “When the world is cold.” It’s a love song and a breakup song at the same time, about a moment of perfection that will be endlessly recalled but will also end, a little scrap of bliss the experienced human instinctively squirrels away for winter. After enough experience the bliss itself makes you think of winter. The song leads with “Someday / When I’m awfully low” because it wants you to know it gets all this, so that when it gets to “Don’t you ever change” you won’t confuse it with a sap. Of course she’s gonna change. It’s inside the permanence of this moment — one and indivisible. Bittersweet is the only taste there is, and over 75 years later, this still might be the only song. T.W.
Also Nominated From ’36: Another one of the greatest popular songs of the 20th century, “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” — made timeless by Frank Sinatra a ways later, but introduced by Virginia Bruce in Born to Dance.
Snubbed: The nominations were strong enough that it’s hard to complain about snubs, but the theme to disaster flick San Francisco — a Bay Area regular — coulda happened.
1. “Theme From Shaft” (Shaft, 1971)
Written By: Isaac Hayes
Performed By: Isaac Hayes
Genres predicted in the first 15 seconds of “Theme From Shaft“: house, disco, big beat, hip-hop, trip-hop, rap-metal. Sometimes a song is so far ahead of its time that its time decides to embrace it immediately and save any worry about catching up for the decade or so to come: The two Best Original Song winners before “Shaft” were “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head” and “For All We Know,” the two after were “The Morning After” and “The Way We Were.” To chart the level of cool among Best Original Song recipients of the 20th century would be like graphing Tracy McGrady’s scoring per minute in the season where he put up 13 in 35 seconds at the end of one game: a whole bunch of anthills with one Everest-sized spike.
“Theme From Shaft” is iconic for two things: Its rippling slow-build intro and definitively superbad call-and-response first verse (“Who is the man who would risk his next for his brotherman?” “Shaft!“). Incidentally, those two things comprise the entire song — the intro lasts over two-and-a-half minutes, and there only is one verse. “Shaft” could have gone for two minutes or 25 and it would have been equally essential; in some alternate timeline, Isaac Hayes is still adding on new instrumental layers to that opening and it still sounds exhilarating. It comes from a movie, obviously and is certainly inextricable from it, but to say that it’s outlived Richard Roundtree and Gordon Parks is like saying that Superman has outlived Jerry Siegel and George Shuster. It’s one of the essential recordings of the rock era, contains more drama and suspense than the overwhelming excitement of full-length films, and remains one of the Academy’s all-time best defenses that they’re not totally ignorant to progress. A.U.
Also Nominated: The Carpenters’ title theme to “Bless the Beasts and Children” — pretty much the exact inverse of “Shaft,” but pretty nonetheless.
Snubbed: Not like it would’ve mattered, but Gene Wilder’s fantastical “Pure Imagination” from Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, and Cat Stevens’ twee favorite “If You Want to Sing Out, Sing Out,” from the cult classic Harold and Maude.