An Opinionated Guide to a Wild Year for Oscar Songs

We listened to all 70 eligible songs, from Iggy Pop and Elvis Costello to Taylor Swift and Mariah Carey, so you don’t have to

Here are some of the things that could happen in the Oscars’ Best Original Song category this year:

  • Diane Warren could win her first Oscar after eight nominations over the last 30 years.
  • Benj Pasek and Justin Paul could get back-to-back wins, only the third time that will have ever happened in the category. (The others were Henry Mancini and Johnny Mercer in 1961-62 and Alan Menken in 1991-92.)
  • Speaking of Alan Menken, he could add to his current total of eight wins, which already makes him the living person with the most Oscars.
  • Mary J. Blige could become the first person nominated for acting and for songwriting in the same movie.
  • Kenneth Branagh, who has already been nominated for Oscars in five different categories (Best Actor, Best Supporting Actor, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Live Action Short), could get his first win in his sixth different category.
  • Iggy Pop could win an Academy Award.
  • And so could Elvis Costello, Taylor Swift, Sufjan Stevens, Nick Jonas or Weird Al Yankovic.

But first, those people would have to get nominated. A full 70 songs are in the running in what is a wild year in the Oscar song category. That’s not as many as last year’s record 91 songs, but still a lot for Music Branch voters to consider.

As I do every year, I tracked down and listened to all the eligible songs, to deliver my opinionated take on the massive field. Obviously, many of the songs could be slotted into more than one category.

I’m going to start with a plea that might be fruitless: Please, voters, nominate “The Pure And The Damned,” a brilliantly doom-laden song by Oneohtrix Point Never and Iggy Pop from the Safdie brothers film “Good Time.” A dark, atmospheric gem that is the perfect capper to a grim but riveting film — this is how end-credits songs are supposed to work, folks — it also sums up a grim year as well as anything can when Iggy intones, in his voice of sepulchral dread, “Every day I think about untwisting and untangling these strings I’m in / And to lead a pure life and look ahead in a clear sky / Ain’t gonna get there, but it’s a nice dream.”

It’s my own nice dream to see this song performed on the Oscar stage, though I imagine that’s another place about which Iggy can say, “ain’t gonna get there.”

Also timely, and probably more to the Music Branch voters’ liking, is “Stand Up For Something,” the collaboration between Diane Warren and Common from “Marshall.” Performed by Andra Day with Common, it’s socially-conscious pop-soul deliberately in the vein of “People Get Ready” and “A Change Is Gonna Come,” with Common adding the kind of jolt he provided to his Oscar-winning collaboration with John Legend, “Glory.”

There’s a similar mix of gospel, soul and hip-hop in “It Ain’t Fair” from “Detroit,” Questlove’s epic-length mash-up that goes from yearning soul passages with Bilal to incendiary state-of-the-union denunciations from the Roots’ Black Thought. And Mary J. Blige’s entry, “Mighty River” from “Mudbound,” is a rousing gospel-style song that she wrote with Raphael Saadiq and Taura Stinson while also starring in the Dee Rees film.

Another person doing acting/songwriting double duty is Kenneth Branagh, though he also throws in directing and producing “Murder on the Orient Express.” Composer Patrick Doyle wrote the music and Branagh supplied the lyrics to the film’s end-credits song, “Never Forget,” an elegant piano-based ballad of loss. One of the film’s stars, Michelle Pfeiffer, supplies a marvelously tremulous vocal.

Elvis Costello also trafficks in elegance as he croons his way through “You Shouldn’t Look at Me That Way,” a stylish exercise in classic pop and a nod to the ambiguous relationship at the heart of “Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool.” The song is set to a string arrangement that wouldn’t be out of place on one of his collaborations with Burt Bacharach (though Elvis says Burt’s arrangement would have been subtler than his).

Indie icon Sufjan Stevens’ luminescent music is at the heart of Luca Guadagnino’s romance “Call Me by Your Name,” with the two gentle ballads “Mystery of Love” and “Visions of Gideon” serving key roles in the film. The former song landed a Critics’ Choice nomination and probably has a better chance to advance than the more repetitive “Visions of Gideon,” though both are lovely.

Pop-rock chanteuse and Broadway star Sara Bareilles collaborated with composer Nicholas Britell (“Moonlight”) for the sprightly but affecting “If I Dare” from “Battle of the Sexes,” in which an a capella vocal rhythm sets the tone for her tribute to the chances Billie Jean King took personally and professionally.

The first “Fifty Shades of Grey” movie produced a nominee in The Weeknd’s “Earned It,” and Taylor Swift and Jack Antonoff are looking to make it two-for-two with “I Don’t Wanna Live Forever,” a perky if more forgettable uptempo tune performed by Swift and Zayn in “Fifty Shades Darker.”

Two members of the Northern Irish/Scottish band Snow Patrol, Gary Lightbody and Johnny McDaid, collaborated on a terrific song from “Gifted.” “This Is How You Walk On,” a statement of commitment and devotion, has a real sense of propulsion and lift. And finally, rock stalwarts Stevie Nicks and the late Chris Cornell enter the race with Nicks’ “Your Hand I Will Never Let It Go” from “The Book of Henry,” a slow-burn lullaby that keeps her in a low-key mood, and Cornell’s “The Promise,” a dark and haunting lament from the film of the same name, and the last song the Soundgarden singer recorded before his death.

Benj Pasek and Justin Paul are the category’s reigning champs for “City of Stars” from “La La Land,” on which they collaborated as lyricists with Justin Hurwitz. But they also composed the music for nine songs in “The Greatest Showman,” including the showstopping “This Is Me.” A showcase for Keala Settle as the bearded lady, it is a big, brassy statement of purpose that already won the Golden Globe and has to be considered one of the favorites to do the same at the Oscars.

The biggest competition for “Beauty and the Beast” songwriters Alan Menken and Tim Rice may not be the songs from other films, but the memory of the songs from the original, animated film. Those songs, including the Oscar-winning title track, still provide the high points of Bill Condon’s live-action remake, although the gentle recurring question “How Does a Moment Last Forever” and especially the Beast’s grand lament “Evermore” do hold their own.

Two more songs come from very different, less overtly theatrical musicals. “How a Heart Unbreaks” from “Pitch Perfect 3” has the same problem that John Legend’s “Start a Fire” had in “La La Land” — in the film, it’s supposed to represent the kind of music our a capella-singing heroines don’t like. But since far fewer voters have probably seen “PP3” than saw “LLL,” maybe that won’t work against this tough-minded pop song performed by the fictional girl group Evermoist, whose lead singer is played by singer-actress Ruby Rose.

“Love and Lies” is also performed by a fictional group, the Dirty Dishes, in Zoe Lister-Jones’ marvelous indie comedy about a couple who turn their arguments into songs, “Band Aid.” The delightful soundtrack include this sharp, funny song that starts out, “Please do not ask me if you’ve gained weight/Especially when we’re going out on a date.”

Over the last 20 years, 25 songs from animated movies have been nominated for Oscars; five of them have won, and at least one animated song has been in 16 of the 20 years. So it makes sense that a dozen more songs are hoping to join that roster.

Foremost among them might be “Remember Me” from “Coco,” a new song from the songwriting team of Robert and Kristen Anderson-Lopez, who won the Oscar (and, for him, the EGOT) three years ago with the “Frozen” sensation “Let It Go.” “Remember Me” is subtler, a plaintive ballad with a Mexican lilt that is heard in several different versions throughout the Pixar film, and will no doubt benefit from its position as the musical heart of a beloved film.

Pharrell Williams is also following up an Oscar-nominated sensation in the huge hit “Happy” from “Despicable Me 2.” But “There’s Something Special” from “Despicable Me 3” couldn’t be more different from its insanely catchy predecessor; it’s a slow groove sung mostly in falsetto that never quite manages to be engaging. Meanwhile, Nick Jonas’ “Home,” from “Ferdinand,” cranks up the catchiness impressively. And Mariah Carey’s “The Star,” co-written with Marc Shaiman for the film of the same name, is a big, soaring, gooey Christmas song.

The two Lego movies, “The Lego Batman Movie” and “The Lego Ninjago Movie,” both have peppy theme songs performed by Oh, Hush! The “Batman” entry, “Friends Are Family,” might be the more distinctive of the two, largely because of Will Arnett’s interjections as a defiantly unsentimental Batman, but the “Ninjago” song “Found My Place” is probably a tougher, slinkier pop song.

Pixar’s “Cars 3” entered a pair of songs, both of them tough and functional blues-rockers with a country tinge. “Ride” is by ZZ Ward, “Run That Race” by Black Keys guitarist/singer Dan Auerbach, and neither are quite as compelling as the artists’ non-soundtrack material.

If you have a movie called “Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie” and you need a theme song, you might as well hire “Weird Al” Yankovic. “Captain Underpants Theme Song” is silly in that Weird Al way, though let’s just say that the assignment didn’t necessarily challenge or bring out the best in the crazy pop satirist. (Then again, you could say the same thing about Randy Newman’s soundtrack songs, and he’s won two Oscars for them.)

Three foreign-made animated films also feature eligible songs. “The Crown Sleeps” from “The Breadwinner” is an ethereal and fragile mix of Western and Afghan music. “Rain” from “Mary and the Witch’s Flower” is a Japanese pop song, peppy and slight. And “Longing For Summer” from the Scandinavian film “Moomins and the Winter Wonderland” is a big ballad that aims to soar but just isn’t very distinctive.

The holy grail for songs from documentaries is Melissa Etheridge’s “I Need to Wake Up” from “An Inconvenient Truth,” which won the 2006 Oscar. This year, Ryan Tedder and Oscar winner T Bone Burnett (for “The Weary Kind” from “Crazy Heart”) have taken on the task of writing a song for “An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power.” But they’ve stayed away from her raw rock to create a rousing gospel-tinged anthem, “Truth to Power,” in which the earth addresses mankind. But the song that really plays like a sequel to Etheridge’s song is “Tell Me How Long” from “Chasing Coral.” It’s poppy and plaintive rather than bold and angry, particularly as sung by the considerably sweeter Kristen Bell, but it turns Etheridge’s demand (“I need to wake up”) into a question (“how long ’till we wake up?”).

“Jump,” which was written by Laura Karpman, Raphael Saadiq and Taura Stinson for the documentary “Step,” is a slow-building soul song that manages to be truly inspirational in a way that lots of songs aim for but can’t quite reach.
“Prayers For This World” from “Cries from Syria,” another Diane Warren song in the mix, aims to do no less than heal the world — and if you want to do that, it’s probably not a bad idea to enlist Cher and a children’s choir. Another Syria-set documentary, “City of Ghosts,” includes the song “Broken Wings.” It takes a different approach; it’s a mournful mood piece featuring singer Wasfi Massarani. And “Tickling Giants,” from the documentary of the same name about “the Egyptian Jon Stewart,” satirist Bassem Youssef, is a bilingual rap call to arms over a persuasive groove.

Pat Benatar is best known for ’80s rock anthems like “Hit Me With Your Best Shot” and “Love Is a Battlefield,” but “Dancing Through The Wreckage,” which she wrote with Linda Perry for “Served Like a Girl,” is a relatively restrained midtempo rocker that still packs a real punch. Alice Phoebe Lou, an artier South African indie singer-songwriter, supplied one of the field’s most adventurous entries in “She,” a dramatic and idiosyncratic celebration from “Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story.”

Finally, veteran songwriter Alan Bergman, who won three best-song Oscars with his wife Marilyn, is now 92, which made him the perfect person to write a theme song to “If You’re Not in the Obit, Eat Breakfast,” Danny Gold’s film about Hollywood folks in their 90s. “Just Getting Started” is old-fashioned, but of course it should be — and those looking for possible dark-horse nominees should know that Bergman was a longtime governor of the Academy’s Music Branch, and he has lots of friends in the branch.

Ryan Bingham, who won an Oscar for Scott Cooper’s “Crazy Heart” eight years ago, was first hired to play a small role in Cooper’s elegiac western “Hostiles,” but his character has a scene where he sits around a campfire and sings a song. So rather than find a tune that fit the film’s 1892 setting, Bingham wrote a haunting lament, “How Shall a Sparrow Fly,” that could pass as an ageless folk ballad. (His problem may be that only one verse of the song appears in the film, and voters are supposed to judge on what’s on screen rather than what is on iTunes.)

Another acoustic gem is Keegan Dewitt’s “The Hero” from the film of the same name. If I had a ballot, this haunting and evocative acoustic ballad of regret would get serious consideration.

A few mainstream country stars have also entered the race. For the film “Only the Brave,” Dierks Bentley co-wrote and performs “Hold The Light,” an understated, meditative mood piece that never quite clicks. Brad Paisley sings “Stubborn Angel” in “Same Kind of Different as Me”; the mid-tempo song tries very hard to be an inspirational anthem, but it’s musically full-bodied but lyrically one-dimensional. And for “The Shack,” Tim McGraw and Faith Hill duet on “Keep Your Eyes On Me,” an affecting song that gets downright grandiose, though it also gets awfully repetitive.

“The Glass Castle” gives us Joel P. West’s “Summer Storm,” which is essentially a rhythmic chant. And “Elizabeth Blue,” an indie drama about schizophrenia, is one of two movies that submitted three songs to the Oscar race. All of its songs are from August Roads: “All in My Head” is a sad acoustic song that quite deliberately sounds stuck, “Dying For Ya” starts similarly but then gets lush with the introduction of a string section, and “Green” is a formless ballad.

The movie “Brawl in Cell Block 99” goes for old school R&B with the O’Jays, classic hitmakers from the ’70s who revive their sound for “Buddy’s Business,” a song about the inner city that wouldn’t have been out of place during the heyday of Blaxploitation films.

The Sundance sensation “Patti Cake$” hopes to follow in the footsteps of “8 Mile” and “Hustle & Flow,” two films about aspiring rappers that not only were nominated in the song category but won for “Lose Yourself” and “It’s Hard Out Here for a Pimp,” respectively. Geremy Jasper’s film submitted a pair of songs: “PBNJ” is a profane rap introduction (it’s about a crew, not a sandwich), while the hard-hitting “Tuff Love (Finale)” is a widescreen feminist hip-hop statement of purpose.

“Lake of Fire,” which like “Elizabeth Blue” submitted three songs, is a curious cross-cultural collaboration, with an Indian-American director, Raj Thiruselvan, a cast and crew from both countries and music by Qutub E. Kripa, Indian composer AR Rahman’s ensemble from his conservatory in India. The songs, all in English, are “We’ll Party All Night,” a disco-style anthem to partying that is peppy and inconsequential; “I’ll Be Gone,” a pretty pop ballad; and “Have You Ever Wondered,” a very wimpy and uninteresting pop duet between Arjun Chandy and Lavita M. Lobo that nonetheless manages to pick up momentum and get lush.

The Malayalam-language Indian film “Pulimurugan,” about a man who hunts and kills rogue tigers, was a big hit in its home country and entered two songs in the Oscar race. “Kaadaniyum Kalchilambe” is a bouncy male-female duet between K.J. Yesudas and K.S. Chithra; Western listeners will have to take it on faith that it’s a tribute to marriage. “Manathe Marikurumbe,” performed by Vani Jairam, is moodier and more interesting musically, though again it’s a stretch to think it’ll connect with voters.

The Bryan Buckley film “The Pirates of Somalia” makes use of a lot of existing songs, but the influential Iranian singer-composer Sussan Deyhim is showcased in the new song “Lost Souls.” The atmospheric song is largely made up of wordless moans, with occasional vocals buried in the mix; it’s impressive as a mood piece and a sound collage.

Will voters go for a 53-second Adam Sandler ditty from “The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected)” that sounds as if it was improvised in about as long as it took to sing it? Well, “Myron/Byron” will answer that question.

More substantial but also on the tongue-in-cheek side is the “Downsizing” song “A Little Change In The Weather,” a faux love song that touches on the movie’s theme in its first line: “Now that you’re with me nothing makes me feel small.” The long-running vocal group the Swingles, formed in Paris in 1962, makes it all sound delicious but cheesy, which is basically the point.

Judy Collins has been performing as long as the Swingles, and she makes the graceful pop ballad “Stars In My Eyes (Theme From Drawing Home),” from “Drawing Home,” appropriately elegant.

“World Gone Mad” from “Bright” and “Speak To Me” from “Voice from the Stone” both reach for grandiosity with impressive results. The former song is from the British band Bastille, and it’s big pop with a sadly timely message: “The world’s gone mad and there’s nothing you can do about it.” The latter song, from Evanescence’s Amy Lee, is more elusive lyrically and grander musically, hitting symphonic heights. Also big and bold: “The Devil & The Huntsman” from “King Arthur: Legend of the Sword,” a Daniel Pemberton/Sam Lee collaboration that essentially uses a menacing, doomy chant to tell a tale of woe.

The less impressive entries include “On The Music Goes,” from “Slipaway,” a big, nondescript would-be anthem performed by Crystal Starr; David Longoria’s “Now Or Never,” from “Bloodline: Now or Never,” a Latin-flavored dance track whose most notable element is an insistent trumpeter; Jason Mraz’s “Can’t Hold Out On Love” from “Father Figures,” in which a relatively persuasive mid-tempo groove is undercut by lyrics that define sappy; and “Next Stop, The Stars” from “Kepler’s Dream,” whose cringeworthy lyrics offer earnest, sing-songy advice that boils down to “don’t worry, everything will be great.”

Two contemporary Christian performers represented on the list are Ginny Owens, whose song “Fly Away” from “Trafficked” is an artsy, meandering ballad, and Bruce Rawling, whose “Walk on Faith” from “Year by the Sea” is another song that tells us not worry that everything will be OK, though at least there’s a prescription beyond think happy thoughts: Walk on faith.

Finally, we have to give this one a category all to itself. Geoffrey Moore, the son of the late Roger Moore, wrote a song for charity called “U.N.I. (You and I).” Then he decided that he wanted to give his song a chance at winning an Oscar. The problem is, a song can only win an Oscar if it’s in a movie — so Moore got together with director Nik Panic and actually made a tongue-in-cheek documentary about trying to qualify a song for the Oscars, “And the Winner Isn’t.”

The song itself is about the most generic charity song you could imagine, seemingly composed entirely of variations on “we’ve got to love each other” and “we can make it better.” But hey, the guy made a movie about qualifying a song for the Oscars in order to qualify his song for the Oscars, so you gotta give him major points for chutzpah.