Music

Oscars best original song winners – ranked!

They span nine decades and cover umpteen genres, from power ballads to gangsta rap, and the Top 40 winners are …

18 min read

40. Randy Newman – If I Didn’t Have You (Monsters, Inc, 2001)

Monsters, Inc. Photograph: HO/Reuters

Better Randy Newman songs were nominated for Oscars without winning – the decision to overlook Toy Story 2’s astonishing When She Loved Me is particularly baffling – but If I Didn’t Have You is still incredibly charming: a paean to friendship sung by Billy Crystal and John Goodman.

39. Alan Menken and Howard Ashman – Under the Sea (The Little Mermaid, 1989)

The Little Mermaid was the film that began the Disney renaissance, which would go on to dominate the Academy’s best-song category in the 1990s. Under the Sea is an early demonstration of how: beneath its perky, kid-friendly calypso lurks a set of lyrics that do more than your average children’s song, dabbling in social comment.

38. Alan Menken and Tim Rice – A Whole New World (Aladdin, 1992)

The only Disney song to reach No 1 in the US – a fairly incredible state of affairs in itself – knocked Whitney Houston’s I Will Always Love You off the top of the charts and similarly prevented The Bodyguard’s frenzied epic I Have Nothing from scooping the Oscar for best song.

37. Common and John Legend – Glory (Selma, 2014)

 David Oyelowo and Carmen Ejogo in Selma, 2014. Photograph: Allstar/PATHE

Common and John Legend’s theme from the civil-rights epic Selma is one of the less celebrated recent Oscar-winners. It became only a minor hit, which seems surprising: it serves up tension and euphoria in equal measure, and Legend’s closing burst of extemporised vocals is spine-tingling.

36. Dimitri Tiomkin and Ned Washington – The Ballad of High Noon (High Noon, 1952)

Frankie Laine’s version of The Ballad of High Noon – sung in the movie by Tex Ritter – was on the first ever British chart. It was a rare hint of brooding darkness amid a set of songs big on cosy sentimentality. But Ritter’s version is darker and more brooding still, set to a stark arrangement of drums and guitar, full of foreboding: quite unlike any previous Oscar winner.

35. Stephen Sondheim – Sooner or Later (Dick Tracy, 1990)

Madonna in Dick Tracy. Photograph: Allstar/Touchstone/Sportsphoto

The Dick Tracy soundtrack album I’m Breathless is a largely overlooked moment in Madonna’s back catalogue, but Sooner or Later is genuinely great. It is a Stephen Sondheim-penned 30s jazz pastiche, far outside of the singer’s musical and vocal comfort zone, but she pulls it off with considerable style.

34. Three 6 Mafia – It’s Hard Out Here for a Pimp (Hustle & Flow, 2005)

Certainly the most strikingly titled Oscar-winning song of all time, Three 6 Mafia’s unflinching gangsta rap track also appears to pay gentle homage to a previous best original song triumph: there is a distinct hint of the blaxploitation soundtrack style minted by Isaac Hayes’ Theme From Shaft about the music.

33. Giorgio Moroder and Tom Whitlock – Take My Breath Away (Top Gun, 1986)

Tom Cruise in Top Gun. Photograph: Allstar/PARAMOUNT

After Flashdance’s 1983 victory, ballads – especially power ballads – reigned supreme at the Oscars for the rest of the decade: devotees of Up Where We Belong or, indeed, I’ve Had the Time of My Life might disagree, but the pick is Berlin’s Moroder-produced, synth-heavy Top Gun smash: a song as evocative of its era as the smell of Studio Line hair mousse.

32. Michael Gore and Dean Pitchford – Fame (Fame, 1980)

Bizarrely, Fame only became a UK hit two years after winning an Oscar: it was the spin-off TV series, not the movie, that turned it into a No 1. It has never since quite escaped the tag of being the sound of a million early 80s school discos, masking what a smartly constructed disco-rock hybrid it was.

31 Harry Warren and Al Dubin – Lullaby of Broadway (Gold Diggers of 1935, 1935)

The second winner of the best original song Oscar was used in three separate films in 1935. Seventy-five years later, you can still see why: the melody is hard to resist and its depiction of New York nightlife makes staggering home at dawn sound like the most fun it is possible to have.

30. Adele and Paul Epworth – Skyfall (Skyfall, 2012)

Incredibly, Skyfall was the first Bond theme to win an Oscar – most of the legendary 60s and 70s themes didn’t warrant a nomination. It does a fantastic job of updating the traditional high-drama approach of the series, with a particular nod to Shirley Bassey’s explosive approach: Adele’s vocal is similarly brassy and effective.

29. Fred Carlin, Jimmy Griffin and Robb Royer – For All We Know (Lovers and Other Strangers, 1970)

A huge hit at the time, the romantic comedy Lovers and Other Strangers isn’t much remembered 50 years on. For All We Know, a ballad written by two members of Bread, is, largely because of the Carpenters’ definitive version. Karen Carpenter’s astonishing voice, as ever, teases out a sense of doubt and unease under the romantic exterior and easy-listening gloss.

28. AR Rahman and Gulzar – Jai Ho (Slumdog Millionaire, 2008)

Dev Patel in Slumdog Millionaire. Photograph: c.FoxSearch/Everett / Rex Features/c FoxSearch/Everett /Rex Features

The Oscars have mostly shied away from songs not sung in English, which makes AR Rahman’s intense, Auto-Tune-heavy Bollywood track something of an anomaly. After its success it variously ended up covered by the Pussycat Dolls, as an internet meme and the Indian National Congress’ 2009 general election theme.

27. Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez – Remember Me (Coco, 2017)

Coco, 2107. Photograph: Allstar/Pixar/Disney

Remember Me recurs in different versions throughout Pixar’s Day of the Dead-inspired Coco, from mariachi to Miguel-fronted pop. Every version carries emotional weight, such is the song’s subtle, delicate treatment of the subject of loss. Not the easiest topic to essay in an animated children’s film, but it does it beautifully.

26. Jimmy Van Heusen and Sammy Cahn – All the Way (The Joker Is Wild, 1957)

One of umpteen Frank Sinatra hits penned by Jimmy Van Heusen and Sammy Khan, All the Way became so popular that it overshadowed the film in which it was featured; indeed, it overshadowed it to such an extent that The Joker Is Wild – a downbeat drama about an alcoholic nightclub entertainer, Joe E Lewis – ended up being briefly renamed after the song.

25. Lady Gaga, Mark Ronson, Anthony Rossomando and Andrew Wyatt – Shallow (A Star Is Born, 2018)

In a sense, Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper’s Shallow is a return to the kind of songs that won Oscars in the 80s: it is in effect an old-fashioned power ballad that shifts from fragility to belting-it-out intensity. But the old tricks still work, as evidenced by its rapturous critical reception.

24. Peter Allen, Burt Bacharach, Christopher Cross & Carole Bayer Sager – Arthur’s Theme (Best That You Can Do) (Arthur, 1981)

A perennial staple on late-night smooth radio, the years have been kind to Arthur’s Theme. As naff as pop could get on release – the rise of MTV killed the singer Christopher Cross’s burgeoning career overnight – the latter-day soft-rock amnesty has allowed people to look beyond the gloss and admit what a fantastic, oddly moving bit of songwriting lies at its centre.

23. Barbra Streisand and Paul Williams – Evergreen (A Star Is Born, 1976)

Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson in A Star Is Born, 1976. Photograph: Moviestore/Rex/Shutterstock

Barbra Streisand’s second Oscar triumph of the decade: another show-stopping ballad that quickly became an MOR standard, this time from the third remake of A Star Is Born, Evergreen boasted a melody written by Streisand that pulled off the trick of sounding instantly familiar, as if it had always existed.

22. Harry Warren and Mack Gordon – You’ll Never Know (Hello, Frisco, Hello, 1943)

By now, it was obvious that the second world war – and the United State’s involvement therein – was having a profound effect on the country’s songwriting: despite coming from a musical set in 1915, You’ll Never Know was a gorgeous balled steeped in a very pertinent kind of longing and trepidation: “You went away and my heart went with you, I speak your name in every prayer.”

21. Paul Jabara – Last Dance (Thank God It’s Friday, 1978)

The first disco Oscar-winner – nothing from Saturday Night Fever was even nominated – is a prime example of the Donna Summer-Giorgio Moroder partnership at its peak: a ballad that turns into an ecstatic floor-filler and exemplifies the tension between euphoric music and melancholy lyrics almost invariably at the heart of the best disco.

20. Johnny Mandel and Paul Francis Webster – The Shadow of Your Smile (The Sandpiper, 1965)

 Elisabeth Taylor and Richard Burton in The Sandpiper. Photograph: Everett Collection/Rex Features

By the mid-60s, the songs that won Oscars could seem a little stodgy compared with the popular music erupting elsewhere. But Johnny Mandel and Paul Francis Webster’s love theme from The Sandpiper is such a beautiful song it transcends the middle of the road. If you want to hear a hipper version than that of Andy Williams or Tony Bennett, check out the Delfonics’ stunning 1968 soft-soul take.

19. Rodgers and Hammerstein – It Might As Well Be Spring (State Fair, 1945)

Originally from Rogers and Hammerstein’s musical State Fair, there is a compelling argument that It Might As Well Be Spring really came into its own when uncoupled from the soundtrack and reworked as a jazz standard: Sarah Vaughan’s slow, small-hours version on her 1955 album Sarah Vaughan In Hi-Fi wipes the floor with the original, revealing the song in its full glory.

18. Burt Bacharach and Hal David – Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, 1969)

According to the singer BJ Thomas, Bacharach and David’s song initially received a muted response: released as a single in October 1969, it didn’t become a hit until Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid was released two months later, its gentle optimism understandably popular as the 60s drew to a messy end.

17. Ralph Rainger and Leo Robin – Thanks for the Memory (The Big Broadcast of 1938, 1938)

A fond recollection of failed marriage – “parted by a slight thing, I wonder if we did the right thing” – Bob Hope’s signature tune strikes a beautiful note of wistful melancholy. Note that the apparently risqué line about enjoying “hash with Dinty Moore” alas refers only to potatoes: a Dinty Moore is a corned-beef sandwich popular in Detroit.

16. James Horner and Will Jennings – My Heart Will Go On (Titanic, 1997)

Leonardo Dicaprio and Kate Winslet in Titanic. Photograph: 20thC Fox/Everett/Rex Features

Céline Dion hated it and was beset by menstrual cramps while recording it, and Ministry fan James Cameron didn’t want a pop song at the end of Titanic, yet My Heart Will Go On became the powerhouse movie theme to end them all. Not so much a song, as the climax of a song that lasts for five minutes.

15. Ray Evans and Jay Livingston – Que Sera Sera (The Man Who Knew Too Much, 1956)

Alfred Hitchock’s films are seldom celebrated for their abundance of catchy songs, but Que Sera Sera might be the catchiest Oscar-winner of all: it turned its title into a commonly used expression in English and ended up transformed into everything from a football chant to a soul song, the latter by Sly Stone.

14. Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez – Let It Go (Frozen, 2013)

After Can You Feel the Love Tonight, a lot of Disney’s Oscar-winning songs felt anti-climactic. Let It Go, however, ticked every box: it avoided schmaltz, packed a huge, karaoke-friendly chorus, was variously claimed as an LGBTQ+ anthem and an affirmation of autism. Ubiquity followed.

13. Bruce Springsteen – Streets of Philadelphia (Philadelphia, 1993)

The Aids drama Philadelphia spawned two Oscar-nominated songs. It’s a moot point whether Neil Young’s desolate title track should have lost out to Streets of Philadelphia, but Bruce Springsteen’s song, perhaps an easier listen, is magnificent nonetheless: a subtle, brooding examination of illness and loss.

12. Irving Berlin – White Christmas (Holiday Inn, 1942)

It’s hard to imagine now how groundbreaking White Christmas was. It more-or-less invented the modern secular Christmas song, its success revealing a vast market for nostalgic depictions of the festive season. Remarkably, it originally came with a hint of cynicism attached: its opening verse depicted its protagonist sunning himself beneath the palm trees of LA.

11. Marvin Hamlisch, Alan Bergman and Marilyn Bergman – The Way We Were (The Way We Were, 1973)

MOR ballads dominated the Oscars in the 1970s: some are largely forgotten, others became standards. The Way We Were, a heartstring-tugging depiction of a failed relationship that became Barbra Streisand’s theme song, belongs in the latter category. Intriguingly, some critics suggested its regretful tone chimed with America’s post-Vietnam mood.

10. Bob Dylan – Things Have Changed (Wonder Boys, 2000)

No Oscar-winning song has been subjected to as much analysis as Things Have Changed. Dylanologists have picked apart its lyrical allusions and claimed it as everything from a commentary on the actual movie to a prophecy of Armageddon. Whatever, its weary, bewildered tone is supremely affecting and one of Dylan’s greatest contemporary moments.

9. Eminem – Lose Yourself (8 Mile, 2002)

Nashawn Breedlove and Eminem in 8 Mile. Photograph: Allstar/UNIVERSAL/Sportsphoto Ltd./Allstar

The first hip-hop Oscar-winner might also be Eminem’s best single, focusing his aggression and lyrical talent away from the shock value of bad-taste gags to a beautifully detailed depiction of an amateur rapper at the end of his tether heading into a freestyle battle: “Success is my only motherfucking option.”

8. Elton John and Tim Rice – Can You Feel the Love Tonight? (The Lion King, 1994)

One of three nominations from The Lion King. Elton John thought Circle Of Life should have won; you can see his point, but until Let It Go came along, Can You Feel the Love Tonight? was the unchallenged Disney blockbuster ballad for a reason: it strikes exactly the right balance between tenderness and air-punch-inducing grandiosity.

7. Sammy Fain and Paul Francis Webster – Secret Love (Calamity Jane, 1953)

Recorded by Doris Day in one take and subsequently covered by everyone from Count Basie to George Michael – the latter alighting on its potential as an LGBTQ coming-out anthem – the love theme from Calamity Jane is impossibly sumptuous, its dreamy quality perfectly capturing the mood of lyrics, in which a love presumed unrequited turns out to be requited after all.

6. Michel Legrand, Alan Bergman and Marilyn Bergman – The Windmills of Your Mind (The Thomas Crown Affair, 1968)

The Oscars ignored pop throughout the 60s, dominated instead by songs that could have been written before the second world war. If The Windmills of Your Mind wasn’t pop per se – its roots are in French chanson – it still carries a vague hint of voguish psychedelic weirdness in its lyrics. The vocal by Noel Harrison – a moderately better singer than his father Rex, which isn’t saying much – adds a certain rawness to the sumptuous arrangement.

5. Leigh Harline and Ned Washington – When You Wish Upon a Star (Pinocchio, 1940)

Pinocchio, 1940. Photograph: Walt Disney Pictures/Ronald Grant Archive

A year after Over the Rainbow came Disney’s equivalent. When You Wish Upon a Star makes for a very weird children’s song indeed – a kind of secular prayer that insists “fate is kind – she brings to those who love the sweet fulfilment of your secret longing” – and it quickly transcended its cartoon origins and reached an adult audience: the model for most of Disney’s big hits since.

4. Isaac Hayes – Theme from Shaft (Shaft, 1971)

Richard Roundtree in Shaft. Photograph: Mgm/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock

In the context of previous Oscar winners, Theme from Shaft feels like a bomb going off: nothing this tough, this funky, this black had ever been nominated, let alone won. A flatly brilliant, vastly influential example of Isaac Hayes’ manifold talents, it’s both cinematic – the lush string arrangement – and unapologetically edgy. A bad mother, as Hayes himself put it.

3. Jerome Kern and Dorothy Fields – The Way You Look Tonight (Swing Time, 1936)

One of the zeniths of the Great American Songbook, The Way You Look Tonight is exquisite; Jerome Kern’s melody reduced his co-writer Dorothy Fields to tears on first hearing, and she responded with a lyric that’s both emotionally complex – there’s a poignant underlying sadness amid the romance – and strikingly simple.

2. Harold Arlen and Yip Harburg – Over the Rainbow (The Wizard of Oz, 1939)

Amazingly, Over the Rainbow was initially cut from The Wizard of Oz in the belief it slowed down the film, which would have been a bizarre fate for a song that subsequently took on a life of its own as an all-purpose anthem of possibility. Incredibly, given its ubiquity, it has never lost its ability to move, evidence that its writers hit on something far deeper and more universal than simply a melody and lyric.

1. Henry Mancini and Johnny Mercer – Moon River (Breakfast at Tiffany’s, 1961)

Audrey Hepburn as Holly Golightly, Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Photograph: Allstar/Paramount Pictures

Trying to make a qualitative judgment about the best Oscar-winning original song is a thankless task. The winners span nine decades, take in umpteen genres and frequently defy comparison of any kind, their sound and their purpose varies so wildly. But Henry Mancini and Johnny Mercer’s Moon River is something else: it’s so perfectly crafted, so melodically rich, its lyrics so simple and evocative, its themes – wanderlust, the passing of time, friendship – so universal and beautifully rendered, it feels about as close to no-further-questions perfection as songwriting gets. It has also proved infinitely malleable – whether performed as jazz, alt-rock, or in the simple guitar and vocal arrangement heard in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, it never fails.

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Oscars best original song winners – ranked!
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