Top 30 Oscar Winners for Original Song
*Note: the read time does not include the song lengths, if you wish to listen.
Throughout its eighty-six year history, the Academy Award for Best Original Song has gilded a score of genres, artists and commercial hits, along with the questionably obscure. Songs in the genre of jazz, pop (of each era), along with hip hop, country, funk and even disco have been awarded. Oh, and don’t forgot those ballads. Most influential composers and artists have also been recognised. They include, but certainly not limited to: Irving Berlin, Rodgers & Hammerstein, Henry Mancini, Burt Bacharach, Barbra Streisand, Stevie Wonder, Lionel Richie, Stephen Sondheim, Andrew Lloyd Weber, Bruce Springsteen, Elton John, Phil Collins, Annie Lennox and Bob Dylan. Well, you get the point.
Often the more popular choices will fall into the observation of “didn’t know this won an Oscar.” Many blame the Academy for being myopic but when it comes to music, they have tirelessly covered everything. Of those eighty or so, let’s take a look at the top thirty influential, timeless and importantly, most memorable original songs.
30. “Let it Go” from Frozen (2013)
Sick of hearing about this song? Spouse team Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez created this anthem that reignited the sensation of the Disney ballad. The win guaranteed Robert Lopez, who previously wrote Broadway hits Avenue Q and The Book of Mormon, his place as the youngest EGOT winner. I guess that’s the least tread tidbit about the piece.
29. “Fame” from Fame (1980)
From its first beats, Fame’s title song signalled a blinking beacon and gateway into the super kitschy musical expression that defined the 1980s. Sure the film may have concerned itself with show-business but this Irene Cara-sung piece is more interested in pumping the eternal spirit of life and the promise of a new decade. Other interpretations have spotlighted the allusions to drug addiction and failed career ambitions — which ever floats your boat.
28. “Sooner or Later (I Always Get My Man)” from Dick Tracy (1990)
An unlikely collaboration between the “Bard of Broadway” Stephen Sondheim, and Madonna brewed into a silky and timeless jazz ballad. The song is absolutely pastiche, (mimicking 1930s jazz lounges and their sultry midnight singers), but this doesn’t detract the atmosphere it creates and the showcase of range it brought to its lead singer.
27. “The Way You Look Tonight’ from Swing Time (1936)
Credit is due to one of the more sincere Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers songs that didn’t break out into a glorious dance number. Astaire sings as tenderly as ever, and Rogers, though silent throughout, adds her due through this cute piano solo. For those watching the scene play out, Astaire’s silent jab at the way Rogers “looks tonight” saves the piece from too much schmaltz.
26. “It Might as Well Be Spring” from State Fair (1945)
This Rodgers and Hammerstein composition, sung by Louanne Hogan and performed/lipsynced by Jeanne Crain became a jazz standard for its slow tempo and melancholy lyrics. An anthem for those feeling restless, Hammerstein’s lyrics perfectly matches Rodgers' melodic music in a marriage of onomatopoeia. If anything were to take away from the song’s power, it would be the era-specific insistence on dubbing over appropriate casting.
25. “Take My Breath Away” from Top Gun (1986)
Giorgio Moroder, legendary pioneer of disco and writer of “Berlin’s” new wave chart-topper, outlined this song as one of his favourites. Putting aside the recognisable synth medley, the lyrics cleverly coincide with the actions and plot on screen. This song would mark the last big hit for “Berlin,” but has endured as a snippet of nostalgia for the ages.
24. “White Christmas” from Holiday Inn (1942)
The Academy managed to award a set of legends with the infinite “White Christmas” which bestowed Irving Berlin his first Academy Award. Everyone’s favourite blue eyed man (there were a lot of famous blue eyed Hollywood men), Bing Crosby and Marjorie Reynolds perfectly duet one of many staples of the holiday season.
23. “Al otro lada del rio” from The Motorcycle Diaries (2004)
Citing half-reasons like “not recognisable enough,” composer Jorge Drexler, who hails from Uruguay, was not permitted to perform at that year’s ceremony, effectively going against Academy tradition. Drexler sung an excerpt from his song, a cappella, when accepting the award for the first non-English win in the category.
22. “Chim Chim Cher-ee” from Mary Poppins (1964)
The sole song nominated from Disney’s eminent musical of the 1960s is one of the unlikeliest choices from a score of so many classics. Sure, this hummable tune still stands out. It allows Dick Van Dyke’s Bert and his Cockney sensibility to flourish, and being interspersed throughout the rest of the film embeds its presence. Can’t say this often but if you need more “Chim Chim Cher-ee” in your life, check out the similar Yiddish song “Tumbalalaika.” Julie Andrews would win Best Actress that year; in a way this is Van Dyke’s Oscar.
21. “Jai Ho” from Slumdog Millionaire (2008)
Composed by A.R. Rahman, adapted into English by the Pussycat Dolls and the second (and currently last) non-English song to receive this award, Rahman’s triumphant and pulse-punching work remains gracefully close to its Indian roots. While its success could be drawn back to its unequivocal universality — the phrase “jai ho” roughly translates to “prevailing victory,” its win symbolised a victory for the vibrant Bollywood-sphere and for one of India’s most celebrated composers.
20. “My Heart Will Go On” from Titanic (1997)
Has this been included because it’s a good song, or because of another, more objective factor? Celine Dion’s signature piece was certainly a bona fide commercial hit, but the song’s lasting nostalgia and tie to a mega-successful film ensured its legacy. When Madonna announced Titanic’s credit song as the winner, one of eleven wins, she remarked “what a shocker.” Dion’s record, and subsequently James Cameron’s film, perfectly encapsulate the '90s predilection with romantic epics, and the Academy’s obsession with Disney and/or “Disney-esque” power ballads.
19. “Thanks for the Memory” from The Big Broadcast of 1938 (1938)
Aside from practically residing as host at the Academy Awards, Bob Hope could for better or worse hold a tune, and never is that clearer than in this quaint moment of reminiscing. Hope is paired with Shirley Ross, and the back-and-forth play of well-intentioned banter is poignant but also quite affirming.
18. “Love Is a Many-Splendoured Thing” from Love Is a Many-Splendoured Thing (1955)
Who doesn’t love a sappy song about, well, love? Sweet enough in its premise, and capable enough to tell a fantastic tale, Sammy Fain and Paul Francis Webster’s number was released smack-bang in the middle of the 1950s. Like the unrequited love in the film, (unfortunately with the addition of yellow face), this title song found itself caught between the old, more traditional world of pop and the emerging face of rebellious rock.
17. “The Windmills of Your Mind” from The Thomas Crown Affair (1968)
Michel Legrand’s tune is the perfect anecdote to the debonair atmosphere in Norman Jewison’s film. Olympian-turned-singer Noel Harrison lends a fresh perspective with his folk vocals. What sets this song apart is the deceivingly simple wordplay. Delve further into the rich lyrics (courtesy of Alan and Marilyn Bergman), and you will find connotations, and paradoxical emphasis on time, illusions and nature.
16. “It’s Hard Out Here for a Pimp” from Hustle & Flow (2005)
“You know what, I think it just got a little easier out here for a pimp.” That was the quip from host Jon Stewart after Three 6 Mafia became the first hip hop group to win in this category. They were up against Dolly Parton and Kathleen York, the former was the sentimental favourite and expected to win for “Travelin’ Thru” from Transamerica. You might have to squint your eyes for examples of Academy risk-tasking, but picks like this work against the Academy’s often close-minded perspective.
15. “Under the Sea” from The Little Mermaid (1989)
Legendary composers Alan Menken and the late Howard Ashman, or the unsung heroes of the Disney Renaissance composed so many iconic pieces, it’s hard to pin down their greatest work. We could always start with this Calypso-influenced track from The Little Mermaid. It served as the first of four Oscars for Menken and two for Ashman, who passed in 1991. Menken’s music would often mesh multiple world genres, and on a smaller scale, the nature of show tunes, while Ashman’s lyrics would play with double or triple meanings. "Under the Sea’s" popularity, and eventual Oscar win is all the more notable given the vocal absence of mainstays Ariel and Ursula.
14. “Streets of Philadelphia” from Philadelphia (1993)
The Boss’ soft rock hit earned superlative praise, not only from commercial success and this Oscar achievement but at the Grammys where it won four awards including Song of the Year. Springsteen’s song is one of the more touching entries on this list. Even if it addresses the HIV/AIDS epidemic, the heart with which it plays out is endearing. With its call to arms, imagery of sickness and the contrast of misunderstanding in the City of Brotherly Love, Springsteen has conjured up a piece of emotional eloquence, and one that has renewed relevance in this new year of division and illness.
13. “I’m Easy” from Nashville (1975)
Keith Carradine’s profound folk solo arrives at a perfect moment in Robert Altman’s interconnected epic. The ballad follows narrator, womaniser Tom (Carradine’s character) who is struck by love, in a club full of women, past and present. Because multiple audience members believe the song is written for them, in a way it replicates what listeners do in our world. It’s not emotional stealing, perhaps that’s a bit harsh, more like emotional borrowing. The commercial success, like others on this list, maybe misunderstood the original, more darker intentions, but if it sounds good enough... Worth mentioning is the ambiguous but strikingly pained faces in the crowd, namely that of Linnea, played by Lily Tomlin.
12. “Can You Feel the Love Tonight” from The Lion King (1994)
Elton John, this year's recipient, had previously won with this crowd-pleasing anthem. John and his co-writer Tim Rice were nominated against themselves with “Circle of Life” and “Hakuna Matata.” Like Mary Poppins, the Academy favoured the least perceptible of that iconic line up. The least “distinct” of that memorable score still places twelfth on this list.
11. “Shallow” from A Star is Born (2018)
Each rendition of A Star is Born holds a striking harmony, usually tuned to the sound of its era, to accompany the film’s cautionary themes of fame and stardom. Lady Gaga (who should’ve won in 2015 for “'Til It Happens To You”), and Bradley Cooper hold the duet together in a foray that cemented the latest entry in the A Star is Born catalogue. “Shallow” mixes musicality, from the earnest gruff of Bradley Cooper’s Jackson to the uncharacteristic guttural belting by Gaga — and it all works so perfectly well.
10. “Glory” from Selma (2014)
John Legend and Common’s hymn to the Civil Rights Movement and ongoing struggle packs a political and emotional punch. Break down each individual line, thanks to one of those annotative sites like Genius, and you’ll find a rabbit-hole of pensive references. Only a couple of songs on this list aim for a political angle but the wish that bookends the lyrics of Legend and Common’s call takes on another wave of movement with the events of recent memory.
9. “Que Sera, Sera” from The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956)
Doris Day’s signature song premiered in a Hitchcock film, of all places. Day was just off the heels of Calamity Jane, where she was unabashedly high-spirited. On the other hand, “Que Sera, Sera” and its now-famous medley and meaning allowed the seasoned Day to call attention to her more tender and unfeigned side. “Que Sera, Sera” arrives at a dark moment in Hitchcock’s film, but does the kernel of hope amongst events out of our control resonate more than ever, or has this always been a belief that we conveniently forget when things are going our way?
8. “The Weary Kind” from Crazy Heart (2009)
Ryan Bingham and T Bone Burnett’s restrained roots composition speaks to the main character Bad Blake, played by Jeff Bridges in an Oscar-winning role, and the plight in which he finds himself. Blake’s plight, similar to Jackson’s in A Star is Born, revolves around a fall to alcoholism and washed-up status, something which Blake somehow considers virtuous. From that angle, this song serves as a companion piece to the score of that Cooper/Gaga affair. This would all be pretty grim, if it weren’t for the sporadic messages of hope, for confronting love and the future.
7. “Skyfall” from Skyfall (2012)
Considering the multitude of successful Bond songs, it might be a surprise to learn that only two have won this award. Like the composers before, Adele was at a turn in her career when she accepted the gig. These gigs are, as Bond connoisseur Nick Parkhouse states, “About marketing and exposure, not artistic vision.” While that ostensibly rings true for many Bond performers, often at the precipice of global success, Adele and Paul Epworth’s title theme transcends that descriptor. It’s true that their work more or less checks the boxes of what a Bond theme should be: dark, moody and majestic; but the rousing brassiness and top-notch vocals elevates the theme to the top ranks of Adele’s work and creates a new league for Bond songs to follow.
6. “Lose Yourself” from 8 Mile (2002)
The surprise of Eminem’s win -- the first hip hop track awarded, becomes more intriguing when we compare it to the competition. Joining “Lose Yourself” were “I Move On” from Chicago, a show tune, written by the original composers, twenty-five-plus years later. The Academy’s famous “legacy” win would have also favoured U2, nominated for Gangs of New York and Paul Simon, for The Wild Thornberrys Movie, of all things. Unfortunately for those two, their respective songs aren’t the highlights of their careers. A bold alternative would be the vibrant “Burn It Blue” from Frida which merged its Mexican influences with explosive imagery. Eminem would famously sit out the ceremony. Co-writer Luis Resto, decked out in a Detroit Pistons jersey accepted on his behalf… “this all goes to Marshall” would punctuate the short gratitude.
5. “Over the Rainbow” from The Wizard of Oz (1939)
A classic in the purest sense. What more can I add to this timeless rendition that hasn’t already been said? Just the sweetest reminder of belonging and an assuring nod for those yet to find that place.
4. “Theme from Shaft” from Shaft (1971)
With his win, Isaac Hayes became the first African-American to win for a non-acting category. The film has one of the most dynamic scores of all time, and though he was only nominated for Best Song, the admiration for the theme signalled an adulation for funk and soul in the mainstream. Alice Echols, writer of “Hot Stuff: Disco and the Remaking of American Culture,” outlines Shaft’s theme as one of the first examples of the genre that exploded in that decade. She notes, “Those tireless 4/4 hi-hats — was (sic) the prototype for disco’s 4/4 thump.” On top of Hayes’ triumphant performance at the Oscars, his blue, fur-lined ensemble deserves a spot in some fashion hall of fame. The theme has found itself honoured and parodied countless times in succeeding pop culture, from The X-Files to The Simpsons. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery?
3. “Falling Slowly” from Once (2007)
If the Irish Once is a gem of an indie, then its score, composed by Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová is a goldmine. From that score, “Falling Slowly” which summarises the central relationship stands out but recognition should be given to the rest of the soundtrack which includes the poignant “If You Want Me” and the raw “When Your Mind’s Made Up.” Irglová, who was cut off during their acceptance speech later returned to the stage. She used her time to compare the song’s theme to hope. The characters Guy and Girl, played by Hansard and Irglová go through a range of emotions, recounting their first meeting to pondering if the pain of staying together, when they have grown apart, is worth it. The Academy has a soft spot for folk musicians, but this win still stands as a rare triumph for independent artists.
2. “Things Have Changed” from Wonder Boys (2000)
One of Bob Dylan’s greatest contemporary entries has been the subject of intense scrutinising and analysis. What have those deep-dives surfaced? The most common note is that, like many other songs on this list, Dylan’s country-rock stream-of-consciousness is a direct reflection of the film’s proceedings. Wonder Boys follows a novelist and professor dealing with creative block and other human obstacles. Dylan’s lyrics make mention of certain plot points, but also double for Dylan’s own experiences. Perhaps the “autobiographical” nature is where his lyrics thrive: he makes mention of shifting zeitgeists and how they have affected his place in culture, alluding to his unpopular reception in filmmaking and Hollywood. Other interpretations have pointed out the Biblical connotations and omnipresent sense of mortality; all leading to an impending Armageddon. The most underrated moment comes when Dylan announces, gravelly as ever, that the “next sixty-seconds could be like an eternity,” a minute from the song’s conclusion. Classically Bob Dylan.
1. “Moon River” from Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961)
While ranking these songs is like comparing apples and oranges, Henry Mancini and Johnny Mercer’s dreamy solo, sung in a whisper by the divine Audrey Hepburn is in a league of its own. Only eleven lines long, yet infinite in its reach, Mercer’s beautifully poetic lyrics tribute Holly Golightly’s quench for wanderlust. Non-singer Hepburn, (to much protest the studio wanted to either dub or cut the song) soars in the cover; accompanied by a guitar and eventually a subtle orchestra. “Moon River” has been covered by a multitude of prominent musicians and genres. Each have brought their own sensibility to the timeless work, allowing it to travel across generations, but in its simplest form, never does it shine more than on that New York fire escape.
Honourable Songs that Didn’t Win...
“Cheek to Cheek” from Top Hat (1935)
“The Trolley Song” from Meet Me in St. Louis (1944)
“Pass That Peace Pipe” from Good News (1947)
“The Man That Got Away” from A Star Is Born (1954)
“Charade” from Charade (1963)
“I Will Wait for You” from The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1965)
“Whistling Away the Dark” from Darling Lili (1970)
“Gonna Fly Now” from Rocky (1976)
“9 to 5” from 9 to 5 (1980)
“Circle of Life” from The Lion King (1994)
“Save Me” from Magnolia (1999)
“Burn it Blue” from Frida (2002)
“Mystery of Love” from Call Me By Your Name (2017)
“Stand Up” from Harriet (2019)