Big choruses. Big beats. And most of all, big ballads — big yearning ballads and big inspirational ballads.
That’s what you’ll find in the 75 songs that qualified in this year’s race for the Academy Award for Best Original Song. The Academy used to release its annual list of eligible songs, but it halted that practice last year, when it instituted a 15-film shortlist in the category for the first time. But TheWrap obtained this year’s list of eligible songs and listened to every one of them.
And while the songwriters and performers range from Beyoncé to Thom Yorke, Elton John to Taylor Swift, Jackson Browne to Pharrell Williams, similar themes and similar sounds abound.
The first round of voting has ended in the category, with all 345 members of the music branch given access to three-minute clips featuring all 75 songs and invited to choose their favorites. On Monday, a shortlist of 15 of those songs will be released by the Academy, along with additional shortlists in eight other categories. A second round of voting in early January will narrow those 15 to the five nominees.
Chances are that while a couple of favorites may be left off the shortlist, there won’t be many surprises showing up on the list. But hope springs eternal, which is why so many films submit their songs for consideration every year.
By the way, the list does not include a number of songs that were thought to be in the running, including Regina Spektor’s “One Little Soldier” from “Bombshell,” Miley Cyrus, Lana Del Rey and Ariana Grande’s “Don’t Call Me Angel” from “Charlie’s Angels,” Sigrid’s “Home to You” from “The Aeronauts” or anything from the music-heavy punk movie “Her Smell.”
If you just want to see the full list of songs that did qualify, it’s at the end of this story. But if you’d like to know what we thought of them all, keep reading.
BIG NAMES & PAST WINNERS
I wouldn’t say that most of the Oscar song shortlist is already determined, but more than a dozen songs definitely have a leg up going into the competition, because the songs or their writers are known and admired by the Music Branch. Take Robert Lopez and Kristin-Anderson Lopez, who have already won in this category twice in the last six years, once for “Remember Me” from “Coco” and once for “Let It Go” from “Frozen.” Now they’re back with “Into the Unknown” from “Frozen II” — and like the pop-culture juggernaut that was “Let It Go,” it’s a giant booming ballad belted out by Idina Menzel. It’s also a slightly odder composition, with a recurring motif borrowed from Scandinavian shepherd calls – but if it doesn’t achieve melodic liftoff the way “Let It Go” did, it’s hard to imagine voters not embracing it anyway.
“The Lion King” has a sterling track record at the Oscars, too, which should be good news for Beyonce, who wrote and performs the new song “Spirit” from this year’s “live-action” remake. The other new song in the film, Elton John’s “Never Too Late,” might be truer to the spirit of the original film, with African musician Lebo M doing vocal arrangements that run through John’s infectious uptempo song. But “Spirit” is Beyonce, it soars at the right time and it’s showcased in a striking sequence.
Besides, Elton has another ace in the hole: “(I’m Gonna) Love Me Again” from the movie about his life, “Rocketman.” The brassy uptempo rocker was written to be more autobiographical than most of his material, and is performed with the movie’s star, Taron Egerton.
Pharrell Williams’ song “Happy” lost to “Let It Go” six years ago, and he may have another shot at the “Frozen” franchise if voters go for his “Letter to My Godfather” from “The Black Godfather,” a tribute to pioneering music-industry executive Clarence Avant. The song is inventive musically, powered by a percussive vocal chorus, but a little undernourished lyrically.
Diane Warren is always in the running, with 10 nominations overall and four in the last five years. “I’m Standing With You,” her new song from the faith-based drama “Breakthrough,” is another inspirational anthem in the vein of Warren’s last three nominated songs, “I’ll Fight,” “Stand Up for Something” and “‘Til It Happens to You.” Warren also has a second song in the mix, the slinky “Forward Motion” from “Late Night,” but “I’m Standing With You” is likelier to get attention.
Speaking of standing, “Harriet” star Cynthia Erivo has done double duty this year by also co-writing and performing that film’s “Stand Up,” a soul-gospel number that begins with a stark chant and builds into something bolder.
Past winners in the running this year include 20-time nominee, two-time winner Randy Newman, who has “I Can’t Let You Throw Yourself Away” from “Toy Story 4.” A bouncy song that stays earnest when you just know that Newman would have veered off into weirdness if he was writing this for one of his own albums, it’s not prime Newman, but it works in the movie and it’s the kind of thing that has won him two Oscars in the past. And Alan Menken, who’s won more competitive Oscars, eight, than any other living person, is in the running with “Speechless” from the new version of “Aladdin,” which he co-wrote with “La La Land” winners Benj Pasek and Justin Paul. Designed to fit alongside the songs from the original Disney musical, it’s effective and Naomi Scott gives it her all, though it won’t make anybody forget “A Whole New World.”
And then there’s “Beautiful Ghosts” from “Cats.” A collaboration between Oscar (and everything else) winner Andrew Lloyd Webber and Taylor Swift, it’s a risky song on the face of it – a sad ballad about looking back at broken dreams to a musical that is already dominated by “Memory,” which is kind of the ultimate song like that. Plus it follows “Memory” and comments on the earlier song. Maybe it’ll serve as a nice bookend, but for me it’s a tough sell.
Indian composer A.R. Rahman, who won an Oscar for his song from “Slumdog Millionaire,” this year provided the score and one new song, “For You My Love (O Bandeya),” for “Blinded by the Light,” Gurinder Chadha’s musical comedy about how Bruce Springsteen changed a Pakistani teen’s life in England in the ’80s. The song is richly melodic and it picks up steam when it shifts into more rhythmic sections, though it’s odd to have a movie about Springsteen represented by Rahman. (Bruce did give the movie an unreleased song, but it wasn’t eligible because he wrote it for “Harry Potter” years ago.)
While we’re talking about rock stars, Radiohead’s Thom Yorke wrote a very non-rock kind of song, “Daily Battles,” for Edward Norton’s “Motherless Brooklyn” — a tense ballad that emphasizes the strain in every note, and is sung in a pained falsetto over a distorted piano. And while we’re talking about real rock stars, “Yesterday” is mostly chock full of Beatles songs, except for the charming but slight “Summer Song.” Before the main character becomes famous singing Beatles songs that almost nobody else on earth remembers, he has a career that is going nowhere — and “Summer Song” is supposed to be the song that was sort of catchy but not good enough to be a hit. And yeah, that’s pretty much what it sounds like.
One thing “Summer Song” has going for it is that we see it performed onscreen in the movie, which often helps boost a song in the eyes of voters who are judging based on film clips. The same goes for “Glasgow” from the wonderful indie “Wild Rose.” The slow-building anthem, co-written by Oscar-winning actress turned songwriter Mary Steenburgen, serves as the marvelous climax to Tom Harper’s story of a young Scottish mother determined to become a country star, and contains a couplet that helps put it at the top of my list of the year’s best movie songs: “Momma, we both know that there’s nothing/ That a little time and Patsy Cline wouldn’t fix.”
“The Lord of the Rings” composer Howard Shore is another former Oscar winner in the running this year, but his entry is way off the beaten track for this category: It’s “The Song of Names (Cantor Prayer)” from “The Song of Names,” a largely a capella Jewish song of prayer sung in Hebrew by a singer, Daniel Mutlu, with a voice full of mourning.
TOON TUNES & KID STUFF
Like the film’s title, the three songs from “The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part” are completely self-conscious decontructions of themselves: Dillon Francis’ “Catchy Song” starts out by boasting, “this song’s gonna get stuck inside your head,” and tries so hard to become an earworm that it ends up being pretty annoying (unlike, say, “Everything Is Awesome” from the first Lego movie, which came by its catchiness a little more honestly); Tiffany Haddish’s “Not Evil” is a portentous animated-villain’s song that in typical “Lego Movie” fashion spends most of its time mocking its own tropes; and Beck’s “Super Cool” is a danceable ditty designed to persuade an audience to stick around and read the credits, which I suppose is an admirable goal but not one designed to give the song much of a life once those credits end.
Given Vic Mizzy’s iconic original “Addams Family” theme song, the songwriters on the new animated feature had a hard act to follow. Christina Aguilera gets brassy and spooky on “Haunted Heart,” which pays tribute to lots of classic Halloween ditties and could well make a few trick-or-treat playlists in the future; as “I Put a Spell on You”-style songs that mix romance and scares go, it’s pretty convincing. Also from that movie is “My Family” from Migos, Karol G., Rock Mafia and Snoop Dogg, who have the good sense to anchor their hip-hop/reggaeton raveup around Mizzy’s theme, which gives it more of an identity than it might otherwise have.
The Icelandic band Sigur Ros’ frontman, Jonsi, in his other job making film music, gets far artier and more atmospheric than most animated-film songs with “Together From Afar” from “How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World,” though it builds to a genuinely rousing climax. And Jonsi’s fellow Nordic musician Zara Larsson, from Sweden, contributed “Invisible” to “Klaus” — and it’s a more typical toon tune, building up a poppy head of steam over an infectious beat without really standing out.
One of the four songwriters who won an Oscar last year for “Shallow” from “A Star Is Born,” Mark Ronson, teamed with the Last Artful, Dodgr, for “Freak of Nature” from “Spies in Disguise,” the only song from an animated feature this year to talk about “freaky love,” and one of the most infectious of the bunch regardless of subject matter. Ronson also collaborated with Anderson .Paak on another song from the same film, “Then There Were Two,” which is a pretty generic hip-hop/pop hybrid.
“Uglydolls” has two songs in the running. “The Ugly Truth” is a fairly irresistible horn-driven funk tune with a spare snap that sounds as if Nick Jonas has been listening to a lot of Prince and Bruno Mars lately (and some James Brown, too). And I’m not sure what separates “Unbreakable” from all the other big songs about triumphing over adversity, but maybe it’s the fact that it has two lung-busting singers, Janelle Monae and Kelly Clarkson, instead of just one. You get the same kind of sentiment in “Wonder” (the Oscars ballot calls it “Wonder Song”) from “Wonder Park,” though this Rachel Platten song is more interesting rhythmically but less potent vocally.
And after all those big, earnest ballads, it’s refreshing to find a song that treats accomplishments as something to be celebrated by a quick dance and an uptempo song, which is what “Hooray! We Did It” from “Dora and the Lost City of Gold” does.
This year’s crop is short on songs that are trying to be funny, but “I Punched Keanu Reeves” from “Always Be My Maybe” certainly qualifies. An awkward rap from star Randall Park that spends three minutes talking about, well, how he punched Keanu Reeves, it doesn’t really have anywhere to go after about the first 15 seconds, but I suppose that’s part of the joke.
Meanwhile, “The Dead Don’t Die” from Jim Jarmusch’s horror comedy of the same name is funny mostly because it’s amusing to hear Sturgill Simpson’s classic country voice singing about the zombies with a completely straight face — the walking deadpan, you might say.
In surveying songs from nonfiction films, we might as well start with the doc about a musician, “David Crosby: Remember My Name.” The new Crosby song “Glory” qualified from that film, and finds Crosby sharing lead vocals with two of his band members, Becca Stevens and Michelle Willis. In a documentary about regret and mortality, the gentle song reaches for grace, which isn’t unusual for Crosby.
Another rocker who came up late in Crosby’s era, Jackson Browne, is represented by “A Human Touch” from the documentary “5B,” about the nurses in the first AIDS ward in San Francisco in the 1980s. The song is an affecting ballad co-written and beautifully performed by Jackson Browne and Leslie Mendelson. And a musician of slightly more recent vintage, Jon Bon Jovi, contributed “Unbroken” to the documentary “To Be of Service,” about military service dogs. Bon Jovi has the occasional knack for a power ballad, but there’s not much subtlety to this guitar-heavy tribute to the military (and, for a couple of lines, to their service dogs). Musically, it walks the line between hamfisted and effective.
The film “The Apollo” is a celebration of Harlem’s famed Apollo Theater, so of course it includes a song that does the same thing. Robert Glasper and Ledisi’s “Don’t Turn Back Now” is a soul song that starts out as a slow-burner and ends up a barnburner, with an energy that helps compensate for a lack of lyrical subtlety. Another song paying tribute to a vital piece of African American (and just plan American) culture is Kathryn Bostic’s “High Above the Water” from “Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am”; this a blues celebration, if that’s not an oxymoron (and it isn’t), updates old gospel songs like “Wade in the Water” and is sultry, playful, eloquent and irresistible.
On the folk side, the Avett Brothers contribute the banjo-driven “Sun, Flood or Drought,” complete with their trademark close harmonies, to “The Biggest Little Farm,” wearing their hearts on their sleeves throughout the song.
The documentary “The Bronx, USA” points out that the Manhattan borough saw the birth of both doo-wop and hip-hop, so it’s naturally heavy with music, including two original songs: “Da Bronx,” written by Paul Williams and Charles Fox, in which Donald Webber Jr. raps and comedian Robert Klein sings (sort of) a cute, spirited tribute to the borough; and “Gonna Be Alright,” a rap-spiked soul-gospel song from the next generation of Bronx kids.
Other songs from nonfiction films include “A Song From a Woman” from “The Cave,” a ballad that sounds a gentle note after the devastation of the doc’s final stretch, and one that is probably most effective in context; “Master of Myself” from “Roll Red Roll,” a Morgan Kibby song in which the ghostly aura occasionally broken by a skittering beat to give it a distinctive but elusive sound; “Tiny Victories” from “Foster,” a piano-based song in which Christina Perri sings about pain in a melodic and stately setting; and “Quasi Una Fantasia” from “Moonlight Sonata: Deafness in Three Movements,” with August von Trapp and Lazerbeak conjuring up a mixture of ethereal vocals and electronic beats that hint at Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata” but are also striking on their own.
R&B & HIP-HOP
The year has brought a strong array of R&B, soul and hip-hop songs, starting with a pair from Chinonye Chukwu’s “Clemency.” “Brighter Dawn” is a stark, gospel-inflected ballad sung by Laura Mvula in a voice and style that clearly owes a debt to Nina Simone, at least until it abruptly shifts gears midway through. And “Slow Train,” by the film’s composer, Kathryn Bostic, is a lonesome acoustic blues that provides suitable atmosphere for a brief, wordless barroom scene.
“Brian Banks” also entered two songs. Gizzle’s “It’s Not Over” is a big, polished song of perseverance, while Romell’s “Pray for a Miracle” has a rougher, grittier sound; it’s loud and angry, which makes it startling when it shifts gears and brings in a gospel chorus.
Instead of the anger you might expect from a song from “Queen & Slim,” the Vince Staples, 6LACK and Mereba collaboration from that film, “Yo Love,” is a slinky jam that runs on currents of sadness, starting with the line “I know you’re probably sick of love songs” and then forging ahead with a pretty moving example of the genre.
Finally, the R&B duo Chloe x Halle are represented by the “Little” tune “Be Yourself,” a peppy, energetic song that rides a percussive guitar riff and occasional shifts into more atmospheric passages.
As usual, a number of songs from films not in English have been entered in the race, none more notable than “A Glass of Soju” from “Parasite.” The lyrics to this closing-credits song are written by the film’s director, Bong Joon Ho, who would be in line for an unusual trifecta if he’s also nominated for Best Picture and Best Director. Sung by actor Choi Woo-Sik, the song is a sprightly, melodic and almost country-sounding ditty whose Korean lyrics go untranslated; like everything else about the movie, it’s simultaneously pleasing and a little subversive
Two more songs from other films competing in the Oscars’ Best International Feature Film race are also in the running, “Apna Time Aayega” from “Gully Boy” and “Bermula Kita” from “M for Malaysia.” If “Gully Boy” is, as many have said, the Indian “8 Mile,” does that make “Apna Time Aayega” India’s version of Eminem’s Oscar-winning “Lose Yourself?” That’s probably expecting too much from an energetic rap song, performed by Ranveer Singh and Dub Sharma, that doesn’t really stand out musically. For its part, “Bermula Kita” is a stately and grandiose anthem performed by Rendra Zawawi featuring Yuna with the Malaysian Philharmonic Youth Orchestra.
“Portrait of a Lady on Fire,” a critical favorite that was not France’s Oscar entry, includes “La Jeune Fille en Feu” by Para One and Arthur Simonini. It makes sense that a film about the female gaze would be set to the sound of the female voice, and the female chorus that drives this song is simultaneously ethereal but punchy. And the Russian singer Lina Milovich is the voice of “Lullaby” from “Kaddish,” a film whose lead character is himself a musician; Milovich’s haunting vocals are set against a piercing violin for this song of healing that is also a lament of sorts.
Songs from films that are set in other countries but are largely in English include “One Little Finger” from the film of the same name, which constantly shifts tempos, bringing both Western and Indian touches until it sounds like it can’t make up its mind; the widescreen pop ballad “I’ll Wait for You,” sung by Ariana George from the epic of Greek history, “Cliffs of Freedom”; and “Quezon’s Theme” from “Quezon’s Game,” a film about Filipino efforts to rescue and take in Jews in World War II, which is a stately orchestral ballad sung by the gifted Hassidic tenor Shulem Lemmer with lyrics that are a little too on-the-nose.
TRIPLE & QUADRUPLE DIPPERS
In addition to “The Lego Movie 2,” which we’ve already covered, one other movie submitted three songs, and two films submitted four each. (The surprise: None of them were Bollywood films, which are known for submitting lots of songs.)
The two with four songs each are the Irish comedy “The Holy Fail” and the U.S. indie “Turnover.” “The Holy Fail” songs, all performed by director Owen Dara and Virginia Williams, include “Magic Made,” a quiet celebration of life’s pleasures that is the standout tune among the four; “Beyond the Path of Compromise,” an uptempo acoustic duet that only gets a single verse and chorus in the film; “Ever Since You’ve Come My Way,” a mournful sounding love song; and “Walk With Me,” a plaintive plea heard behind a comic scene.
The quartet of songs from “Turnover” are “Bon Appetit,” a charming 40-second acoustic ditty; “This Is Your Day,” a wedding song that is also heard briefly in the film; “Little Bit of This,” a rootsy celebration of love and cooking that gets the most substantial placement in the opening credits; “My Silver Lining Is Overdue,” a mildly hopeful acoustic rocker that plays over the closing credits.
Finally, the animated Malaysian film “Upin & Ipin: The Lone Gibbon Kris” submitted three songs: the big ballad “Buai Laju Laju,” which wouldn’t be out of place as a Disney princess song except for occasional Malaysian touches in the arrangement; “Syair,” a slow lullaby from a female singer; and “Keris Sakti,” which sounds like a Malay version of a James Bond song except when the kids chorus comes in near the end.
Among the remaining songs, one of the most quietly stirring is “Inside of Us All” from “Windows on the World.” The song rides on a deliciously rootsy sound with rich acoustic instrumentation, as you might expect from Los Lobos’ David Hidalgo and blues harmonica legend Charlie Musselwhite.
“Knew You for a Moment” is an elegant chamber piece sung by Abby Quinn, who also plays a role in the film “After the Wedding” as Julianne Moore’s daughter. “Running for So Long (House a Home)” from “The Peanut Butter Falcon” is a plaintive, acoustic folk song of healing that gets a little repetitive over four and a half minutes (but voters will only get to hear three on their screener clips). “Not Who We Were” is an arty and alluring chamber song performed by Em in the movie “I’m Not Here.” “Fearless,” from “A Dog’s Journey,” is a big, sentimental ballad sung by young country singer Abby Anderson; it’s pretty but it’s also a pretty standard inspirational anthem. And “Hold On” from the film of the same name puts an overtly religious spin on the inspirational ballad, but stands out because of the power of Micayla de Ette’s voice.
And given its title, we should save “Swan Song” for last. English singer-songwriter Dua Lipa whips up some energy on a catchy but nondescript jam from “Alita: Battle Angel,” the only big action movie to enter the race this year.
And here’s the list of eligible songs as they appear on the Oscar ballot:
“Haunted Heart” from “The Addams Family”
“My Family” from “The Addams Family”
“Knew You for a Moment” from “After the Wedding
“Speechless” from “Aladdin”
“Swan Song” from “Alita: Battle Angel
“I Punched Keanu Reeves” from “Always Be My Maybe”
“Don’t Turn Back Now” from “The Apollo”
“Sun, Flood or Drought” from “The Biggest Little Farm”
“Letter to My Godfather” from “The Black Godfather”
“For You My Love (O Bandeya)” from “Blinded by the Light”
“I’m Standing With You” from “Breakthrough
“It’s Not Over” from “Brian Banks”
“Pray for a Miracle” from “Brian Banks”
“Da Bronx” from “The Bronx USA”
“Gonna Be Alright” from “The Bronx USA”
“Beautiful Ghosts” from “Cats
“A Song From a Woman” from “The Cave”
“Brighter Dawn” from “Clemency”
“Slow Train” from “Clemency”
“I’ll Wait for You” from “Cliffs of Freedom”
“Glory” from “David Crosby: Remember My Name
“The Dead Don’t Die” from “The Dead Don’t Die”
“Fearless” from “A Dog’s Journey”
“Hooray! We Did It” from “Dora and the Lost City of Gold”
“A Human Touch” from “5B”
“Tiny Victories” from “Foster”
“Into the Unknown” from “Frozen II”
“Apna Time Aayega” from “Gully Boy
“Stand Up” from “Harriet”
“Hold On” from “Hold On”
“Beyond the Path of Compromise” from “The Holy Fail”
“Ever Since You’ve Come My Way” from “The Holy Fail”
“Magic Made” from “The Holy Fail”
“Walk With Me” from “The Holy Fail”
“Together From Afar” from “How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World” x
“Not Who We Were” from “I’m Not Here”
“Lullaby” from “Kaddish”
“Invisible” from “Klaus” x
“Forward Motion” from “Late Night”
“Catchy Song” from “The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part”
“Not Evil” from “The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part”
“Super Cool” from “The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part”
“Never Too Late” from “The Lion King”
“Spirit” from “The Lion King”
“Be Yourself” from “Little”
“Bermula Kita” from “M for Malaysia”
“Quasi Una Fantasia” from “Moonlight Sonata: Deafness in Three Movements”
“Daily Battles” from “Motherless Brooklyn
“One Little Finger” from “One Little Finger”
“A Glass of Soju” from “Parasite”
“Running for So Long (House a Home)” from “The Peanut Butter Falcon”
“La Jeune Fille en Feu” from “Portrait of a Lady on Fire”
“Yo Love” from “Queen & Slim”
“Quezon’s Theme” from “Quezon’s Game”
“(I’m Gonna) Love Me Again” from “Rocketman”
“Master of Myself” from “Roll Red Roll”
“The Song of Names (Cantor Prayer)” from “The Song of Names”
“Freak of Nature” from “Spies in Disguise”
“Then There Were Two” from “Spies in Disguise”
“Unbroken” from “To Be of Service”
“High Above the Water” from “Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am”
“I Can’t Let You Throw Yourself Away” from “Toy Story 4”
“Bon Appetit” from “Turnover”
“Little Bit of This” from “Turnover”
“My Silver Lining Is Overdue” from “Turnover”
“This Is Your Day” from “Turnover”
“The Ugly Truth” from “Uglydolls”
“Unbreakable” from “Uglydolls”
“Buai Laju Laju” from “Upin & Ipin: The Lone Gibbon Kris”
“Keris Sakti” from “Upin & Ipin: The Lone Gibbon Kris”
“Syair” from “Upin & Ipin: The Lone Gibbon Kris”
“Glasgow” from “Wild Rose”
“Inside of Us All” from “Windows on the World”
“Wonder Song” from “Wonder Park”
“Summer Song” from “Yesterday”