Hollywood has incorporated pop songs in its movies ever since the advent of sound, but it only started formally recognizing their significance when they got their own Oscar category in 1934. In the 80 years since, hundreds of tracks have vied for the title of "Best Original Song", and many of them have been genuinely unforgettable. (A lot of them have been emphatically forgotten, too, mind you.)
And, not just the winners; scores of hugely famous and enduring masterpieces were also-rans. From "I've Got You Under My Skin" to "Unchained Melody," "Rainbow Connection" to "On the Road Again," and "Eye of the Tiger" to "Footloose," you could make a killer mixtape of just the "losers" over the past 80 years.
But, what of the winners? Here’s a list of the best of the best, great songs that have endured with grace and timelessness (or have so far, anyway), and which have become essential touchstones in American music history.
You will no doubt note that the list does not include several tunes that might have fit those criteria. Leaving off "White Christmas," "Flashdance," "Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head," "The Way You Look Tonight," and "Under the Sea" was a matter of careful thought and hair-pullery. But, in the end, we chose to stick to ten songs that not only served their respective films by reflecting and complimenting their themes, but which stand as songwriting benchmarks in their various decades (and even genres).
So let us know in the comments if we left off your fave songs, and why you think they deserved to be included.
10. "Take My Breath Away" (Writers: Giorgio Moroder and Tom Whitlock)
At the height of the big, glossy 1980s came the biggest, glossiest movie of them all, 1986's "Top Gun." At once a bizarre macho fantasy of American exceptionalism, a celebration of male homosocial (<a href="http://reelchange.net/2013/02/12/why-the-homoeroticism-in-top-gun-matters/" target="_blank">if not outright homoerotic</a>) camaraderie, and a reaffirmation of the need for rebels in a free society, "Top Gun" was a massive hit and has remained a cultural touchstone ever since. Its soundtrack spawned several hits, but the most memorable is this gorgeous synthpop love theme performed by Berlin. Written and produced by the legendary Giorgio Moroder, "Take My Breath Away" is built on a lush soundscape of synthesizers and drum machines. Dreamy and languid in its pacing, the song floats around you, all seduction and gloss. "Watching in slow motion…"
9. "Over the Rainbow" (Writers: Harold Arlen and E. Y. Harburg)
An ode to fantasy, to the very dream factory of Hollywood itself, this theme song from 1939's "Wizard of Oz" has become like a standard's standard. Who on earth at this point doesn't recognize this melody, these sentiments? In Judy Garland's hands, the song is sweet, sentimental, and yet yearning. The wishing doesn't make it so, she reminds us (without having to say it): it's only in that unreal land over the rainbow that "the dreams that you dare to dream really do come true." Back on earth, life is what it is. Coming as it did at the tail end of the Great Depression and two years before America would enter the meat-grinder of the Second World War, such realism amid the dreaminess spoke volumes.
8. "Streets of Philadelphia" (Writer: Bruce Springsteen)
Jonathan Demme's "Philadelphia" (1994) had a tremendous effect on the mainstreaming of awareness about American prejudice toward the victims of the HIV/AIDS epidemic. But rather than tackling this issue directly, Bruce Springsteen chose to broaden the discussion to all Americans who are left behind, forgotten, overlooked by their society. What he wound up with was this lonesome tale of a man adrift. “I was bruised and battered, I couldn't tell what I felt, I was unrecognizable to myself,” he begins, and we follow. Always interested in telling stories about the plight of the average American, here Springsteen reaches as far into the shadows as he had ever done, even eschewing the help of God in the bleak bridge, before reminding us of our responsibility to look out for one another. "It's just you and I, my friend," he concludes. A masterpiece.
7. "It Might As Well Be Spring" (Writers: Oscar Hammerstein II and Richard Rodgers)
"I feel so gay, in a melancholy way…" This Oscar-winning song from 1945's "State Fair" is so gorgeous it became a standard right out of the gate. A favourite of jazz vocalists and instrumentalists alike, this aching song about boredom, about the discomfort of in-between-ness, is as confessional as a Laurel Canyon singer-songwriter. As lip-synched in the film by star Jeanne Crain (from vocals by Louanne Hogan), the song takes on a kind of late-teenage restlessness, but over the decades since (after being performed by Frank Sinatra, Nina Simone, among many others) "It Might As Well Be Spring" has taken on a more general sense of existential disappointment. "I'm starry-eyed and vaguely discontented," indeed.
6. "Lose Yourself" (Writers: Marshall Mathers with Luis Resto, Jeff Bass)
The first hip hop song ever to win the Best Original Song Oscar is also one of the finest hip-hop songs ever recorded. Eminem, letting fall his trickster tendencies to play the song from the perspective of B-Rabbit (his character in the film "8 Mile"), sounds muscular, invigorated and motivational, admonishing us to chase our dreams. Mirroring the themes of the gritty film, this response to "When You Wish Upon A Star" refuses the wishing and emphasizes the doing. Push past your anxiety, get up there, perform, succeed. The soundtrack to a hundred million exercise routines and pre-game warm-ups for more than a decade, it's also the song that closes Eminem's live shows. Irresistible and unforgettable.
5. "Skyfall" (Writers: Adele Adkins and Paul Epworth)
Sexy, brooding, passionate, mysterious, and thrillingly climactic, Adele's full-throated cheer for 50 years of James Bond mythology is a triumph. Pulling from decades of previous Bond themes, 2012's "Skyfall" was a film very much conscious of its franchise's history, and willing to both celebrate and subvert its provenance. The brilliance of this theme song is that it matches the film's approach at every turn. Moving forward while looking backward, Adele's "Skyfall" feels like a pastiche of all the James Bond themes that preceded it, while sending a sure signal that there is yet some water left in the well.
4. "Baby, It’s Cold Outside" (Writer: Frank Loesser)
Time has mostly forgotten the 1949 Esther Williams vehicle "Neptune's Daughter," but the same can't be said for its standout musical number. Sung twice in the film (first by Ricardo Montalban and Williams, and the second time by Red Skelton and Betty Garrett with the gender roles reversed), this now-unavoidable Yuletide soundtrack was not originally intended to have anything to do with Christmas. Rather, it was simply designed as a slightly naughty ditty about the courtship of a reluctant partner. The sinister (OK, kind of <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2014/02/11/valentines-day-love-songs_n_4764095.html#slide=3413502" target="_blank">"rapey"</a>) overtones notwithstanding, this theatrical duet has been performed countless times in the 60+ years since, generating discomfort and warm glowy feelings in equal measure. "At least I'm going to say that I tried…"
3. "Theme From Shaft" (Writer: Isaac Hayes)
Even if this 1971 smash hit wasn't a flat-out essential funk-soul record, its Oscar would still be remembered as a moment when the Academy Awards got it right. The win was historic for two key reasons. First, "Theme From Shaft" marked the first time a Best Original Song was written and performed by the same artist. And second, perhaps more importantly, it also marked the first time that an African American won any Academy Award at all in a non-acting category. But, "Theme From Shaft" totally was a flat-out essential funk-soul record, so that may be all that matters, posterity-wise. Amazingly, even before the tense 2.5-minute intro was over, Hayes had found a way to capture street-smart swagger, teenage macho fantasy, and the rebel spirit of Blaxploitation films in one, ultra-hip piece of music.
2. "Things Have Changed" (Writer: Bob Dylan)
Among the darkest songs ever to be honoured with an Oscar, Bob Dylan's extraordinary portrait of a broken man incapable of understanding the world around him was a perfect match for Curtis Hanson's "Wonder Boys" (2000). "I hurt easy, I just don't show it," sings Dylan in his late-period rasp as the one-two of the drum pulses like an empty heartbeat. "I've been trying to get as far away from myself as I can." Among Dylan's most desolate and frightening pieces of work, a shattering spiritual ennui snakes through the song. "All the truth in the world adds up to one big lie," he concludes. "I used to care, but things have changed." Disaffection perfected.
1. "When You Wish Upon A Star" (Writers: Leigh Harline & Ned Washington)
The dreamiest song the dream factory ever produced. A gorgeous lullaby performed by Cliff Edwards (as Jiminy Cricket), the theme song to Disney's "Pinocchio" (1940) has gone on to become the anthem for the entire Walt Disney brand. Not only is this the best song ever to win the Oscar for Best Original Song, it is one of the most beautiful songs ever written. A jazz standard – and reportedly the inspiration for the Beach Boys' "Surfer Girl" – it is as inspirational as it is timeless. Sure, it's relentlessly Pollyannaish and perhaps even insanely so, but isn't that childhood all over? What kid doesn't have the naïve expectation that "if your heart is in your dream" your dream will be realized? It's not exactly Sartre, but maybe we could all use a dose of unrestrained optimism every once in a while.
Best Picture — "American Hustle"
Best Picture — "Captain Phillips"
Best Picture — "Dallas Buyers Club"
Best Picture — "Gravity"
Best Picture — "Her"
Best Picture — "Nebraska"
Best Picture — "Philomena"
Best Picture — "12 Years a Slave"
Best Picture — "The Wolf of Wall Street"
Best Actor — Christian Bale, "American Hustle"
Best Actor — Bruce Dern, "Nebraska"
Best Actor — Leonardo DiCaprio, "The Wolf of Wall Street"
Best Actor — Chiwetel Ejiofor, "12 Years a Slave"
Best Actor — Matthew McConaughey, "Dallas Buyers Club"
Best Actress — Amy Adams, "American Hustle"
Best Actress — Cate Blanchett, "Blue Jasmine"
Best Actress — Sandra Bullock, "Gravity"
Best Actress — Judi Dench, "Philomena"
Best Actress — Meryl Streep, "August: Osage County"
Best Supporting Actor — Barkhad Abdi, "Captain Phillips"
Best Supporting Actor — Bradley Cooper, "American Hustle"
Best Supporting Actor — Michael Fassbender, "12 Years a Slave"
Best Supporting Actor — Jonah Hill, "The Wolf of Wall Street"
Best Supporting Actor — Jared Leto, "Dallas Buyers Club"
Best Supporting Actress — Sally Hawkins, "Blue Jasmine"
Best Supporting Actress — Jennifer Lawrence, "American Hustle"
Best Supporting Actress — Lupita Nyong'o, "12 Years a Slave"
Best Supporting Actress — Julia Roberts, "August: Osage County"
Best Supporting Actress — June Squibb, "Nebraska"
Best Animated Feature — "The Croods"
Best Animated Feature — "Despicable Me 2"
Best Animated Feature — "Ernest and Celestine"
Best Animated Feature — "Frozen"
Best Animated Feature — "The Wind Rises"
Best Director — David O. Russell, "American Hustle"
Best Director — Alfonso Cuarón, "Gravity"
Best Director — Alexander Payne, "Nebraska"
Best Director — Steve McQueen, "12 Years a Slave"
Best Director — Martin Scorsese, "The Wolf of Wall Street"
Best Foreign Language Film — "The Broken Circle Breakdown" (Belgium)
Best Foreign Language Film — "The Great Beauty" (Italy)
Best Foreign Language Film — "The Hunt" (Denmark)
Best Foreign Language Film — "The Missing Picture" (Cambodia)
Best Foreign Language Film — "Omar" (Palestine)