The Ten Best Oscar-Winning Songs of the Past Fifty Years.


The “Best Original Song” category – usually an Oscar snoozer – has been the subject this year of more controversy than usual.

First, the Academy inexplicably snubbed all the songs from “Inside Llewyn Davis,” the Coen Brothers depiction of a folk singer in pre-Dylan Greenwich Village.   I can only assume the problem is that there were SO MANY good songs in the movie they canceled each other out.  Because the soundtrack produced by T-Bone Burnett is crammed with great music, including my favorite “Fare Thee Well,” sung by Oscar Isaac and Marcus Mumford.   (By the way, this song is credited as being a traditional folk ballad but Mumford rewrote it so significantly that I think it could have qualified as an original song.  Here’s the traditional version for the sake of comparison. )

Then there’s the controversy over the title song from the Christian-based movie “Alone Yet Not Alone,”  which was first nominated  and then declared ineligible on the grounds of inappropriate campaigning.  Charges of anti-Christian bias flew.  Obviously I’m not in a position to judge any rule violations that but I do note that it is a lovely song.

With the two best songs out of contention, it looks like the path is clear for “Frozen” to deliver Disney its tenth Best Song Oscar for “Let it Go”. This is not a type of song I usually like, coming out of the modern Broadway tradition of big big big big quavering singing and I don’t like this one either. It’s fitting that the song is performed by Idina Menzel, who plays Rachel’s birth mother on “Glee” because a lot of the Glee songs are belted out like anthems: “Here I am, look at me, I can SIIIIIINNNGGG!!!”

Back in the day, the “Best Original Song” category was almost as competitive as the best actor and actress races.  Some of the losers from the 1930s and 1940s include some of the most beautiful songs ever written (e.g., “They Can’t Take that Away From Me,” “Cheek to Cheek,” “I’ve got You Under My Skin.”)  Modern filmmakers are less likely to use original songs to advance a plot or set a mood, but the occasional great song does slip through.  With that in mind, here are my choices for the ten best Oscar-winning songs of the past 50 years.  (I don’t want to go back further because if I included films from the early days of Hollywood, this list would be made up of solely of songs from before I was born.)

10. Jai Ho (Slumdog Millionaire – 2008)

This is VERY original for an “original song.” It’s both exotic and westernized, providing an emotional release at the end of a generally depressing movie.  The lyrics are a combination of Hindi, Urdu and Punjab (i.e., unintelligible for a Western audience) which makes it all the more remarkable that it won.  Clearly the impulse to get up and dance transcends cultures and languages.  By the way, this particular video is from a 2009 concert in Argentina, which among everything available on YouTube, best seemed to capture the dynamism of the song.

9. “Flashdance” (Flashdance – 1983)

Sometimes I have trouble keeping the dance-themed movies the 1980s straight. There was “Fame,” “Dirty Dancing,” Footloose” and of course “Flashdance.”  What a feeling, indeed!  Hewing closely to a post-Disco vibe, the song seems a little corny now, and of course the movie itself is terribly corny – working class girl just wants to dance!! This was “Billy Elliott “before “Billy Elliott.”  In any event, I have to confess that I love the soundtracks to all the aforementioned 80’s dance movies, but “Flashdance” is my favorite song from all of them.

8. “Falling Slowly” (Once – 2007)

“Falling Slowly” is a very simple love song from “Once,” a movie about a street singer who connects with a Czech flower girl (Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová wrote and performed the songs).  They make beautiful music together, but that’s all they do together because she has a husband and he has an ex-girlfriend with whom he is reconciling.  Alas, their love remains unconsummated. Well, at least they have the Oscar and now a hit Broadway show.

7. Last Dance (Thank God It’s Friday – 1978)

I make no apologies in being a Donna Summer fan.  I even saw her perform this song at a corporate event the year before she died and she was fantastic.  Until I assembled, this list, though, I didn’t realize “Last Dance” came from a movie.  I can’t imagine how I missed Thank God It’s Friday.

6. “The Streets of Philadelphia” (Philadelphia – 1993)

You have to say this for the Academy, they do occasionally reflect the musical tastes of popular culture.  Disco in the 1970s, Rap in the 2000’s and eventually even Rock with this award to Bruce Springsteen.  It’s hard to believe it’s been 20 years since the movie “Philadelphia” came out; and even harder to believe there was a time when Springsteen deigned to appear at the Academy Awards. But then, this is the greatest AIDS awareness song of all time and I’m sure he wanted to use the Oscar platform to further raise awareness.

5. “The Windmills of Your Mind” (The Thomas Crown Affair – 1968)

“The Windmills of Your Mind” is one of the great sultry pop songs of the last 1960s, especially as performed by the always soulful Dusty Springfield.  Yet it’s actually Noel Harrison who performs the song in the movie “The Thomas Crown Affair.”  Hearing his rushed and careless rendition makes you wonder how this song was even nominated, much less a winner.  I’m including both versions below to demonstrate how two singers can achieve dramatically different effects with the same song.

4. “Skyfall” (Skyfall – 2012)

It’s really amazing that no song from a James Bond movie had ever won an Academy Award until last year when “Skyfall” finally delivered one.  Not “Goldfinger,” which is the best of them all, nor “Live and Let Die,”  “Nobody Does it Better” or even “You Only Live Twice.”   It would have pretty hard to deny Adele anything in 2013 and she certainly deserved it.

3. “I’m Easy” (Nashville – 1975)

Of all the movies mentioned in this list, Robert Altman’s masterpiece “Nashville” is unquestionably the greatest.  A story of ambition, corruption and backstabbing in the Country music industry, the film delivered several great songs, including this Oscar winner by Keith Carradine, who plays a selfish womanizer who somehow manages to make every woman in the audience think he’s singing directly to her.

2. “I just called to Say I Love You” (The Woman in Red – 1984)

Huh, this classic Stevie Wonder song comes from a pretty mediocre movie called “The Woman in Red?”  Who knew?

1 “Shaft” (Shaft 1971)

The most electric moment in the history of the Academy Awards arguably occurred in 1971 when a bare-chested, heavily chained Isaac Hayes and his synthesizer were rolled onto the stage during a wild performance of the theme from Shaft. (The only video I could find was in this Oscar wrap-up for the year. Scroll down to find it.)   This was the era when Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis and Dean Martin were considered the cool cats.  Not after this.

So what’s missing from the list?  Well, for starters, I really can’t stand any song by Barbra Streisand,  including “The Way We Were” and “Evergreen” (the theme from “A Star is Born” so they’re off the list.  I also don’t like big loud anthems with a lot of booming vocalism, such as “You Light Up My Life” and “My Heart Will Go On.” Never been a fan of “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head,” which was inexplicably a huge hit.  Having said that, have my perverse music tastes caused me to overlook anything that really should be included on the “best of” list?  Let me know.

  1. great post. You beat me to it. I’m posting something like this later this week as part of my Oscars week 🙂

  2. Thanks. I saw your great post on soundtracks and look forward to your picks for best songs.

    • and i love that you picked ‘shaft’ as number one. 🙂

  3. I’m betraying my age, but I was watching that night and it was thrilling. It was great to find the clip and see that it was as cool as I remembered.

  4. Kourakos, Nyssa said:

    I’m your new biggest fan, loved this!

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