An Opinionated Guide to an Annoying Year for Oscar Songs

When it comes to the eligible songs for the Academy Awards, excess ruled in 2013

Paul McCartney is on the list. So are U2 and Coldplay, Taylor Swift and Beyonce, Jay-Z and Snoop Dogg, Steven Tyler and Will Ferrell, Lana Del Rey and Alicia Keys, several past Oscar winners and a guy looking to complete the last leg of the EGOT.

All have written or performed songs eligible for the Academy Award in the Best Original Song category, which this year, for the second year in a row, sports a formidable 75 entries.

Because of the entirely sensible rule that songs must be newly written for their films, you won’t find the most indelible movie-music moments of 2013 on the list. So there’s no “Fare Thee Well,” “Please Mr. President” or the other songs from “Inside Llewyn Davis”; no “Gimme Shelter” from “20 Feet From Stardom”; no Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love” from “American Hustle,” “Gloria” and “Behind the Candelabra.” Still, enough songs qualified to fill a three-hour-and-14-minute DVD that was sent to all Music Branch members.

For the fifth consecutive year, I went through every one of the eligible songs, a task that was particularly annoying in a year in which so many marginal songs entered. This year, I supplemented listening to recordings of the songs by watching the screener DVD that was sent to voters, a grueling experience that suggests it’s difficult for many songs to get a fair shake under the current system.

(In most cases, the videos in this story are not the footage seen by voters.)

Also read: Why the Oscar Song Process Has Me Singing the Blues

Here’s my take:

If there’s a favorite in the race this year, it’s clearly “Let It Go” from the Disney animated film “Frozen.”
 Alan Menken has won so many Oscars for songs from Disney films that they changed the rules – and by entering only one of the songs from the musical, composer Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez have put the focus on this roof-rattling power ballad that serves as the basis of one of the film’s most lavish and beautiful sequences, the building of an enormous ice palace.

Broadway vet Idina Menzel belts it out with fervor – and while it’d be nice if the song had some of the wit and personality of Lopez’s work on the Broadway shows “The Book of Mormon” and “Avenue Q,” the composer is clearly going for the gold (and the last leg of the Emmy-Grammy-Oscar-Tony grand slam known as the EGOT) by sticking to the middle of the road.

U2’s “Ordinary Love” is less of a sure thing because of its placement in the end credits of “Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom,” but the love song flows seamlessly out of the final scene and adds drama to the end credits even as it brings the story back from the political to the personal. It’s not a big statement, but a thorny and affecting love song based on letters between Nelson and Winnie Mandela.

Also read: Why U2’s Bono Considered Nelson Mandela His ‘Bandleader’

The film formerly known as “Song for Marion,” meanwhile, was retitled “Unfinished Song” after Diane Warren’s end-credits number “Unfinished Songs,” a big-beat inspirational anthem given a rousing performance by Celine Dion. The Canadian diva certainly has a shot at thumping her chest on the Oscar stage again.

Lana Del Rey’s “Young and Beautiful” prompted an anonymous mailing to voters claiming it wasn’t specifically written for the movie – but the music branch qualified it, and the lush, soaring ballad serves as the fitting backdrop to the showcase sequence in “The Great Gatsby” in which Gatsby shows off his estate and his lifestyle to Daisy.

And “Lee Daniels’ The Butler” has a pair of songs whose use in significant montages give them a leg up. Fantasia brings forth echoes of Civil Rights-era anthems with the gospel-y “In The Middle Of The Night,” which plays in the tense and sorrowful aftermath of Martin Luther King’s assassination. And Gladys Knight’s “You And I Ain’t Nothin’ No More” is a fitting tune about disconnection and loss that backs a series of images from the ’70s and ’80s, as Forest Whitaker‘s title character becomes estranged from his son.

The test of how brave the Music Branch can be is “So You Know What It’s Like” from “Short Term 12,” a tough, profane but powerfully moving rap from star Keith Stanfield. “There’s a lot of f—s in it,” Stanfield’s troubled-teen character tells a counselor before ripping into the dark, hard and deeply revealing rap, which in two brutal minutes may do more to reveal character and backstory than any other song in the competition.

The chances of a nomination for Ed Sheeran’s “I See Fire,” from “The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug,”
 might be badly hurt by its end-credits placement, but the song needs to be there. Sheeran eases audience members into an acceptance of the abrupt, cliffhanger-heavy ending, which has the potential to be infuriating without the grace note provided by his song.

The song’s chances are also hurt by the fact that it doesn’t pick up steam until the fourth minute – which is to say, after the clip ends on the DVD, which limits each song to three minutes.

Similarly, “Amen,” a lament from Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeroes singer-composer Alex Ebert, begins as soon as “All Is Lost” fades to black. It provides the first words heard in some time, and nicely breaks the spell with a slighty cracked, subtly odd ballad that is pretty much the definition of plaintive. It’s strange, lovely and difficult.

“The Moon Song,” a collaboration between Karen O and “Her” director Spike Jonze, is also strange and lovely, a gently evocative ballad performed in the movie by Joaquin Phoenix‘s operating system, Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson). The off-kilter tune captures the odd dynamic of the central relationship; the screener for voters shows the Johansson version in the film, not the fuller Karen O version over the end credits.

TheWrap’s Jeff Sneider called M83’s title track from “Oblivion” the best movie song of the year, and it is a richly textured, driving rock song. But it’s also over the end credits (strike one), and it’s six minutes long (strike two), which means voters only hear half of it on their DVDs.

Finally, the other Mandela movie, “Winnie Mandela,” also has a worthy end-credits song, “Bleed For Love.” The big pop-soul ballad, performed by Jennifer Hudson, has more panache than most songs of its ilk, and it becomes legitimately stirring by the time a choir kicks in.

As I point out here, very few end-credits songs have been nominated under the current system used by the Music Branch. Among the contenders trying to break that record of futility this year are Coldplay, whose “Atlas” is a typically moody, slow-building and reasonably attractive number at the end of “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire.”

Other end-credits contenders include Taylor Swift with “Sweeter Than Fiction” from “One Chance.” The movie may be dominated by opera, but Swift comes in with a poppy and peppy love song (written with Jack Antonoff from the band fun) that is energetic and attractive, though a significant step down from the film’s climax with Puccini’s aria “Nessun Dorma.”

Alicia Keys ends “The Inevitable Defeat of Mister and Pete” with the classy pop-soul-jazz tune “Better You, Better Me,” all breathy vocals and slinky rhythms. And Jessica Mauboy offers a sultry vocal on “Get Used to Me,” which ends “The Sapphires” with a big beat and a nice groove.

Finally, Jose Gonzalez’s “Stay Alive” plays over the credits to “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.” A delicate pop song with a high, quavery vocal, the track builds up a nice head of steam – though no sooner does it reach high gear than it hits the three-minute mark and the screener DVD ends.

The surprise song nominee last year was from the documentary “Chasing Ice,” and plenty more doc songs are in the running this year. The big guns come out for Dave Grohl’s “Sound City,” which includes a new song, “Cut Me Some Slack,” which is noteworthy for the fact that it’s coming from Paul McCartney performing with the surviving members of Nirvana. That ought to be enough to overcome the fact that he’s performing a song that sounds thrown together than carefully crafted, right?

“Sound City” also features “You Can’t Fix This,” a nicely spooky new slow burner from Stevie Nicks.

“Spark: A Burning Man Story” includes Michael Franti and Spearhead’s “Let It Go,” which rides an inviting, loping groove but gets a little cheesy. Missy Higgins’ contemplative “We Ride,” from the same film, is more nuanced and substantial, actually helping the Burning Man festival seem as spiritual and transformative as adherents claim.

Another doc that makes good use of music is “For No Good Reason,” the story of illustrator Ralph Steadman, best-known for his work with Hunter S. Thompson. While “Bones” is a jazzy acoustic ballad that nicely scores some of Steadman’s drawings, and “Going Nowhere” has a Tom Waits-style chamber blues sound that fits well with his drawings of Skid Row, the All American Rejects’ “Gonzo” is the boldest and most rocking of the songs. The song kicks into high gear when Steadman points out that Thompson “caused mayhem,” and proves to be a good match for Steadman’s mayhem-inspired artwork.

Actress Q’orianka Kilcher received some awards attention when she starred as Pocahontas in Terrence Malick’s 2005 film “The New World” – and it turns out that she’s a singer as well, delivering the lush, formal ballad “The Courage To Believe” from “Free China: The Courage to Believe.”

Another activist, issue-oriented doc is “Brave New World,” which deals with women recovering from the stigma of rape. The film includes the Natalie Maines/Ben Harper collaboration “Forgiveness,” a slow-building, affecting acoustic tune of hope that is unfortunately drowned out by voiceover for much of its running time on the screener DVD — though it eventually asserts itself and includes video footage of the recording session.

Also drowned out during its first verse, “Sacrifice (I Am Here)” is a touching country-rock ballad from “Murph: The Protector,” a doc about the Navy SEAL who led the doomed mission chronicled in “Lone Survivor.”

“Make It Love” is a fairly one-dimensional mid-tempo song that helps introduce the gay couple and their two children at the heart of “Two: The Story of Roman & Nyro.” And on a completely different front, “The Muslims Are Coming!” is an amusing but terribly slight big-band-style overture that plays over the colorful opening credits to the comedy concert film of the same title.

Finally, “There’s No Black Or White” is a quiet, jazzy ballad that plays behind scenes of harvesting grapes in “Somm,” and belabors the wine metaphors as it does.

As usual, animated films are well represented on the list – which makes sense, because the Academy has nominated seven toon tunes in the last eight years.

This year’s entries include “Shine Your Way” from “The Croods”
(bouncy and slight), “What Matters Most” from “Escape From Planet Earth” (yearning but insubstantial), “Nothing Can Stop Me Now” from “Planes” (a movie originally envisioned as made for video, sporting a made-for-video rock song over its opening scene) and two-time winner Randy Newman’s “Monsters University” (a brief school song that fits the bill but isn’t meant to be anything but a genre exercise).

Pharrell Williams’ “Happy,” from “Despicable Me 2,” is more substantial, underscoring a scene of the movie’s hero frolicking and cavorting in the aftermath of a first date; it’s bouncily, giddily appropriate.

“Epic” offers a pair of songs: Steven Tyler’s “Gonna Be Alright,” a bouncy big-band number that comes to an abrupt end before it has a chance to develop, and Beyonce’s “Rise Up,” a big if nondescript pop anthem with a gospel-style chorus.

And “Turbo” entered a trio of songs. Neither the auto-tuned assemblage “The Snail Is Fast” or the derivative rocker “Speedin’” make much impression, but Snoop Dogg’s “Let the Bass Go” is an end-credits number with style and energy, though Snoop is pretty much borrowing the sound of any number of Afrika Bambaata hits from the ’80s.

“Turbo” is not far from alone in entering a number of songs: two movies entered five, one entered four and two others entered three.

The biggest puzzle among the submitting films is the Indian musical “Kamasutra 3D,” which submitted five separate songs, apparently under the impression that the Academy likes Indian songs because it nominated ones from “Slumdog Millionaire,” “127 Hours” and “Life of Pi.”

(Hint: Those were all Best Picture nominees. “Kamasutra 3D” will not be.)

I have no idea what the rest of the movie is like, since it only played for a week in Encino to qualify – but three of the five songs take place on what seems to be a pirate ship full of shirtless men and scantily-clad women who like to dance and writhe on deck. “Sawariya” is lively enough, with a surreal music-video feel; “Har Har Mahadeva” is more of the same, but it ups the homoerotic angle by focusing on shirtless men painted white and wagging their tongues while a guy with braids and a trident struts among them; and “I Felt” is what passes for sensitive in these waters, with lots of veils blowing in the wind.

Back on dry land, “Aygiri Nadani” is a mid-tempo song whose visuals have a tacky music video look: dancing women, superimposed drawnings and a whole lot of orange. And “Of The Soil” is the crown jewel of ludicrous Indian love-story videos. There’s a sweaty shirtless guy, a woman walking in slow motion, lots of fire, a bow and arrow, soulful gazes, more slo-mo … It might sound as if it’s so bad that it’s good, but in fact it’s so bad that it’s really, really bad.

Baz Luhrman’s “The Great Gatsby” does much better with its five entries, even if two of them – Jay-Z’s brash ode to consumption “100$ Bill” and Florence + the Machine’s druggy, ethereal “Over the Love” – are little more than effective background presences in their scenes.

“A Little Party Never Killed Nobody (All We Got),” by contrast, is a swing/hip-hop hybrid that serves as the delirious basis of the most elaborate production number in a movie that defines the word elaborate. And “Together” is a slow, moody song that serves as a love theme of sorts; on the AMPAS DVD, it’s heard first in a brief snippet under a Gatsby/Daisy love scene, then in a fuller version over the end credits.

(The fifth “Gatsby” song, “Young and Beautiful,” is in the “frontrunners” section.)

The rom-com parody “Austenland,” meanwhile, submitted four songs of its own, all of them from Emmy the Great. The bouncy “Austenland” and the giddy “L.O.V.E.D.A.R.C.Y.” are fun, the sparse “Comic Books” is gentler and “What Up” builds from sorrowful to peppy – but while they’re reasonably effective chick-flick numbers, it’s hard to imagine any of them really clicking with Academy voters.

Finally, “Black Nativity” is a full-fledged musical that submitted three songs. All of them benefit from the powerhouse vocal presence of Jennifer Hudson, with the absorbing group song “Hush Child (Get U Thru This Silent Night)” coming across more strongly than the more intimate “He Loves Me Still” and the mother-to-son exhortation “Test of Faith.”

It’s a rule of thumb that you have a better shot at a nomination if your song is actually perfomed onscreen during the film – but despite two years in which every single nominee fit that description (2007 and 2009), it’s hardly an automatic ticket to the Oscars.

That means that the two songs from “How Sweet It Is” may find it tough going. Both “Bite Of Our Lives” (an uptempo dance number about the pleasures of chocolate) and “Try” (a male-female duet) are low-rent Broadway-style numbers, but deliberate cheesiness is hardly a ticket to the Oscars.

“Live at the Foxes Den” tries the same thing with three songs, all of them performed on a stage in a dim nightclub and none of them particularly dynamic or original. Jackson Rathbone tackles the Sinatra-style “Let’s Take A Trip” (as you might guess, it’s a “Come Fly With Me” retread) and the brief ballad “The Time of My Life,” while Jocelin Donahue does the torch song “Pour Me Another Dream,” with tentative vocals that aren’t as intoxicating as the other characters in the scene seem to think.

Then there’s “Doby,” the faux-majestic ode to a young shark sung by Will Ferrell on the beach in “Anchorman 2.” The 2011 winner “Man or Muppet” aside, joke songs don’t usually do too well in this category – but because it’s a joke song in a movie that barrels along from joke to joke, the sequence works pretty well as a self-contained two-minute gag out of the context of the movie.

And from the ridiculous to the sublimely dark, “My Lord Sunshine (Sunrise)” is Nicholas Britell’s attempt to create his own pre-Civil-War gospel song to be sung by slaves in the field in the opening scene of “12 Years a Slave.” While it sets the scene effectively, it’s hard to imagine the 40 seconds of chanting making an impact unless music-branch voters are determined to honor the film itself – and if they are, I suspect they’re more likely to do so by nominating Hans Zimmer’s score.

It’s funny that “August: Osage County,” a movie pitched at a level of near emotional hysteria and toxic family melodrama from start to finish, would end with a low-key, restrained ode to coming home – much less one from the Kings of Leon, a Southern rock band not known for its restraint. But that’s what “Last Mile Home” is – pretty, evocative and clearly meant as counterpoint, not illustration.

A pair of creepier movies also have noteworthy songs. In the gothic art film “Stoker,” the unsettling ballad “Becomes The Color” begins as Mia Wasikowska calmly dispatches a guy trying to crawl away from her with a fork in his neck; it’s probably good that most of the song is heard over credits rather than more bloodshed.

And in Danny Boyle’s “Trance,” the trippy workout “Here It Comes” similarly overlaps the end of the movie and the beginning of the credits.

Edie Brickell became known for her hit “What I Am” with Edie Brickell and the New Bohemians back in the ’80s, but she has two songs in “The Way Way Back.” “For The Time Being” is an opening-credits song whose melody has a sing-songy melody a little too reminiscent of part of Sly and the Family Stone’s “Everyday People,” while “Go Where The Love Is” is a jazzier, bluesier number; slight but nicely slinky.

An instructive choice was made by the makers of “Cleaver’s Destiny,” who opted to put the version of “Lullaby Song” that plays over the end credits (absent any visual accompaniment) rather than the version performed by actor-director Karl Lentini in the film. The film itself looks so amateurish that the footage might have hurt the song’s chances – but a fragile male voice singing a rudimentary ballad over a black screen won’t help, either.

Other end-credit songs that are unlikely to interest voters are the nondescript pop-soul ballad “One Life” from “The Ultimate Life,” and the generic duet “We Both Know” from “Safe Haven.” “Alone Yet Not Alone,” from the movie of the same name, starts with a tentative version performed onscreen, then cuts to a slicker, fuller end-credits rendition of the sincere but formulaic middle-of-the-road pop-gospel song.

Far jokier songs come from “3 Geezers!” and “Jewtopia.” The former movie includes a montage of an elderly man getting into mischief in his motorized wheelchair set to the slight ditty “Younger Every Day”; the latter uses the cliched uptempo workout “Bring It On” in a tongue-in-cheek way to make duplicate bridge seem like an exciting sport.

And finally – whew – there’s “When The Darkness Comes” from “The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones,” a fairly one-dimensional Colbie Caillat 
ballad that’s barely audible over scenes of a young girl moving stuff with her mind and listening to the kind of corny lines endemic to teens-with-supernatural-powers movies.

Now, can we please call a moratorium on years of 75 song entries?

CORRECTION: This story originally identified “All Is Lost” songwriter Alex Ebert as being in the Magnetic Fields. He is in Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeroes.