It was a good year for movie music, but that doesn’t mean it was a good year for movie songs.
In fact, judging by the list of the 41 songs competing for the Academy Award for Best Original Song, it was a bad year for film songs – a year full of competent but hardly distinctive pop songs, with nothing having anywhere near the emotional impact of 2007's "Falling Slowly" from "Once" (left) or last year's "The Weary Kind" from "Crazy Heart," to name two recent winners.
Of course, that may be unfairly stacking the deck – if I were to make a list of my favorite Oscar songs of the last two decades, those two would sit comfortably alongside Springsteen's "Streets of Philadelphia" and Dylan's "Things Have Changed" and Eminem's "Lose Yourself."
But in a year in which film scores included Rachel Portman's haunting, delicate "Never Let Me Go," Carter Burwell's evocative "True Grit," Trent Reznor's and Atticus Ross' tense, imaginative "The Social Network" and a trio of wonderfully big and assertive scores in Hans Zimmer's "Inception," Clint Mansell's "Black Swan" and Daft Punk's "Tron: Legacy," the Best Song competitors are a pallid bunch, reeking of professionalism but showing little beyond that.
Film clips of the movie scenes that feature the 41 eligible songs will now be compiled in random order, and voters from the music branch will view and score each of the contenders, either at a screening on January 6 or at their homes on a special DVD. I've tracked down all 41 songs – so in honor of that process, I put all of them on my iPod, hit shuffle, and scored them as if I were a voter.
I used the Academy's 6-to-10 judging scale, which allows .5 votes.
I've found a number of worthy songs, though none I'd place within spitting distance of last year's winner. And I actually like some of the likeliest nominees, including Randy Newman's "Toy Story 3" song and Diane Warren's "Burlesque" power ballad. But it was hardly an inspiring year, and I wouldn't be at all surprised if voters don't come up with a full slate of five nominees.
"Despicable Me" from "Despicable Me"
Written and performed by Pharrell Williams
An enervated rap song in which Pharrell barely works up the energy to complain about his "bad bad day." Moody but dull. 7
"Chanson Illusionist" from "The Illusionist"
Written and performed by Sylvain Chomet
The two French-language songs in contention are both from animated films. This one's a playful cabaret number, pleasantly languid but not as lively or memorable as Chomet's 2003 nominee "Bellville Rendez-vous." 8
"Nothing" from "Tyler Perry's Why Did I Get Married Too"
Written by Janet Jackson and Jermaine Dupri, performed by Janet Jackson
Janet sounds more like her brother Michael than he does on his posthumous new single, but that hardly excuses a limp love song that uses "you're more than adequate" as a compliment 7.
"Me and Tennessee" from "Country Strong"
Written by Chris Martin, performed by Tim McGraw and Gwyneth Paltrow
The better of two entries from "Country Strong" is mostly a pro-forma midtempo country song, though Paltrow's hubby, Coldplay's Chris Martin, has a way with a rolling melody. 7.5
"If I Rise" from "127 Hours"
Written by A.R. Rahman, Dido Armstrong and Rollo Armstrong, performed by Dido and A.R. Rahman
For my money one of the best songs in the running, Oscar-winner Rahman's atmospheric reverie has a touch of mystery and a ghostly resonance that's only partly derailed by a children's chorus. 9
"Shine" from "Waiting for 'Superman'"
Written and performed by John Legend
I know it's considered one of the frontrunners, and it's a serious work from an important movie, but am I allowed to say that this gospel-inflected anthem of uplift is kind of boring? 7.5
"Eclipse (All Yours)" from "The Twilight Saga: Eclipse"
Written by Howard Shore and Metric, performed by Metric
One of the more energetic and persuasive rock songs in contention, if voters don't hold its movie against it. 7.5
"You Haven't Seen the Last of Me," from "Burlesque"
Written by Diane Warren, performed by Cher
Nobody can write a power ballad like Warren – and for better or worse, nobody can sing one like Cher. Not exactly my cup of tea, but undeniable in its own way. 8
"Pretty Girls" from "Despicable Me"
Written and performed by Pharrell Williams
Williams' second "Despicable Me" entry replaces the title song's rapping with singing and its lethargy with sprightliness, but it's still pretty routine. 7
"How I Love You" from "Ramona and Beezus"
Written by Rob Laufer and Andy Dorfman, performed by Rob Laufer
A straightforward, charming folk-pop love song with a nice plaintive feel; it's a modest concoction, but one of the more appealing of the pop love songs that seem to make up the bulk of the entries. 8
"Alice" from "Alice in Wonderland"
Written and performed by Avril Lavigne
Our waifish would-be pop-punk princess certainly gets herself all worked up as she tumbles down the Rabbit Hole to the accompaniment of a big, pounding production, but a little tune-deficient melodrama goes a long way. 6.5
"The Reasons Why" from "Wretches & Jabberers"
Written and performed by J. Ralph
A documentary about autism yields a gentle, evocative ballad about understanding, with the most Dylanesque harmonica solo in a great many years. 8
"Life During Wartime"
Written by Todd Soldonz and Marc Shaiman, performed by Devendra Banhart and Beck
If you can get beyond the audacity of writing a new song with the title of the Talking Heads classic, you'll find a beguiling alt-folk summit meeting on this cool, tense and ghostly meditation on regret 8.
"We Belong Together" from "Toy Story 3"
Written and performed by Randy Newman
With a Crescent City bounce, an understated horn arrangement and a Pixar-perfect melody, Newman doesn't explore any new territory, but he delivers an exemplary toe-tapper nonetheless. 8.5
"Made in Dagenham" from "Made in Dagenham"
Written by David Arnold and Billy Bragg, performed by Sandie Shaw
The movie gets the period details right, and so does the music, trotting out '60s pop star Shaw ("(There's) Always Something There to Remind Me") for a lilting (and purposely clichéd) Brit-pop song that sounds like it came from a 1968 movie. 8
"Dream Big" from "Pure Country 2: The Gift"
Written by Steve Dorff, performed by Katrina Elam
Sometimes, country music can turn cliché into poetry. I'm afraid this painfully obvious anthem isn't one of those times. 6
"This Is a Low" from "Tamara Drewe"
Written by Benjamin Cobb and Nathan Cooper, performed by Swipe
A nifty simulacrum of one of those '80s British post-punk pop-rock bands that acted as if they wanted anarchy when they were really more interested in melody. 7.5
"Darling I Do" from "Shrek Forever After"
Performed by Landon Pigg and Lucy Schwartz
This forlorn little pop duet has its charms … just not enough of them to escape the sense that it's basically insubstantial. 7
"Noka Oi" from "Six Days in Paradise"
Performed by Eddie Wakes
An odd Hawaiian song, with quavery, melodramatic vocals and a herky-jerky rhythm that stops and starts before it settles into a semblance of a light island groove. A curiosity at best. 6.5
"Welcome to Burlesque" from "Burlesque"
Written by Charlie Midnight, John Patrick Shanley, Matthew Gerard and Steve Lindsey, performed by Cher
As "Burlesque" is to "Cabaret," this efficient but one-dimensional curtain-raiser is to "Wilkommen." 6.5
"Never Say Never" from "The Karate Kid"
Written by Adam Messinger, Nasri Atweh, Justin Bieber, Kuk Harrell, Jaden Smith and Omarr Rambert, performed by Justin Bieber with Jaden Smith
It's the title track from the upcoming Justin Bieber documentary, but first another movie got to claim this bouncy compendium of inspirational clichés. It's entirely forgettable and vaguely annoying – unless you're one of Bieber's fans, approximately none of whom are Oscar voters. 6
"When You See Forever" from "The Perfect Game"
Performed by Kendra Law
And speaking of clichés, here's an inspirational ballad to go with what appears to be an inspirational sports movie. I hope the film is a lot subtler than the song. 6
"Dear Laughing Doubters" from "Dinner for Schmucks"
Written and performed by Sondre Lerch
One of the most lighthearted entries is a cheerful ditty distinguished mostly by its regular shifts into passages taken almost directly from the Beatles "Fool on the Hill" 6.5.
"Better Days" from "Eat Pray Love"
Written and performed by Eddie Vedder
They make strange bedfellows indeed, the Pearl Jam frontman and a standard-issue romantic comedy. Vedder whips up a nice percussive head of steam on a song that doesn't really go anywhere. 7.5
"There's a Place for Us" from "The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader"
Written by Carrie Underwood, David Hodges and Hillary Lindsey, performed by Carrie Underwood
I'm pretty sure the Leonard Bernstein/Stephen Sondheim standard "Somewhere" didn't really need a rewrite, but Underwood gives it a big, flat, countrified one anyway. 6
"Le Gris" from "Idiots and Angels"
Written and performed by Nicole Renaud
The other French entry from an animated movie is an ethereal, austere, string-based art song. It's all atmosphere, but nicely transporting. 8
"Coming Home" from "Country Strong"
Written by Bob DiPiero, Tom Douglas, Hillary Lindsey and Troy Verges, performed by Gwyneth Paltrow
On her character's climactic big ballad, Paltrow sounds like a legitimate, serviceable country singer – just not like a singer who can take her music anywhere too fresh and interesting. 7.5
"Darkness Before the Dawn" from "Holy Rollers"
Written and performed by MJ Mynarski and Paul Comaskey
One of the nice surprises of the lineup is this evocative, slow-burning midtempo song, modest but attractively pained. 7.5
"Be the One" from "The Next Three Days"
Written and performed by Moby
Moby's a master of electronic textures, but often not much of a conventional songwriter. This chant over an accelerating techno arrangement is propulsive and invigorating, even if there's not enough of a song underneath those layers to interest voters. 8
"To the Sky" from "Legends of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga'Hoole"
Written by Adam Young, performed by Owl City
Bouncy. Frothy. Inoffensive. Mildly irritating. Did I mention bouncy? 7
"I See the Light" from "Tangled"
Written by Alan Menken and Glenn Slater, performed by Mandy Moore and Zachary Levi
Once upon a time this would have been a slam dunk, a seamless Alan Menken Disney ballad that plays during one of the movie's signature sequences. Who needs to break new ground when you can trot out the old standbys so seamlessly and effectively? 8
"I Remain" from "Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time"
Written and performed by Alanis Morissette
The smaller, more intimate moments work, but the big crescendos come across as a touch frantic, and the nods to Middle Eastern music a bit cheesy. 7
"If You Run" from "Going the Distance"
Performed by the Boxer Rebellion
Members of the British/American/Australian alternative band have significant roles (as themselves) in the Drew Barrymore romantic comedy, which can't hurt the chances for this driving Coldplay-style rocker 7.5.
"Sticks and Stones" from "How to Train Your Dragon"
Written and performed by Jonsi
Who knew? On his own, Sigur Ros guitarist/vocalist Jonsi abandons atmospheric Icelandic weirdness for frothy falsetto pop, trying really hard but falling short of the kind of transcendence he's shooting for 7.5.
"Freedom Song" from "Black Tulip"
Written by Natalie Cole and Christopher Young, performed by Natalie Cole
Go figure: an Afghanistan-set movie uses an African-sounding song from an American soul singer. The song's choral sections are buoyant and moving … but the English lyrics are so hamfisted that they almost undermine those glorious textures. 8
"Bound to You" from "Burlesque"
Written by Christina Aguilera, Samuel Dixon and Sia Furler, performed by Christina Aguilera
A straightforward, attractive ballad is swamped by Aguilera's insistence that any note worth hitting is worth over-embellishing until it begs for mercy. 7
"What If" from "Letters to Juliet"
Written by Colbie Caillat, Rick Nowels and Jason Reeves, performed by Colbie Caillat
Call it rom-com pop, as giddy and friendly and predictable as the movie genre that spawned it. 7
"Little One" from "Mother and Child"
Written and performed by Lucy Schwartz
This gentle, rolling, overly repetitive pop-folk ballad is really not much more than an excuse for Schwartz to riff as the song plays out. 7.5
"Rise" from "3 Million and Counting"
Performed by Debbie Gibson
You can tell Gibson is serious about malaria in Africa, because she's got a gospel choir behind her and she sings real hard. Good intentions do not an entirely convincing song make. 7
"Forever One Love" from "Black Tulip"
Written by Christopher Young and Natalie Cole, performed by Natalie Cole
The second Cole song from "Black Tulip" is a middle-of-the-road ballad performed with an Afghan singer. The multicultural blend helps a little, but not nearly enough, to counterbalance the easy-listening blandness. 6.5
"A Better Life" from "Unbeaten"
Written and performed by Clint Black
A straightforward slow-burner with a little instrumental bite, the song from a little-seen doc might be the best of the country-oriented entries. Not that that's saying a lot. 7.5