By Alan Hurst
Trying to take 87 years of Oscar winning songs and pick the best is ultimately a futile task.
I started the process by making a Spotify mix of every Oscar winning tune, but I admittedly lost the interest to listen once I got to the tail end of the 1990s. My own musical tastes are even more dated than I am, and any top 10 list was heavily skewed toward the previous century – the classic American songbook tunes of the Gershwins, Harold Arlen, Irving Berlin, Henry Mancini and Alan and Marilyn Bergman. It was also frustrating looking at the songs that didn’t win or weren’t even nominated, such as “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” from Meet Me in St. Louise (1944), “That’s Entertainment” from The Band Wagon (1953), the theme from Goldfinger (1964), “A Hard Day’s Night” from A Hard Day’s Night (1964), the title tune from To Sir With Love (1967), the theme from New York, New York (1977) and anything from Saturday Night Fever (1977) to name just a few.
My subjective solution? Pick the best Oscar winning song from each decade since the Academy began the category in 1934, thereby honouring the great tunes that have become entrenched as standards and not giving short shrift to the winners of the last 20 plus years.
So, by decade, my picks for Oscar’s best songs from the last nine decades
The easy choice here would be the “Over the Rainbow” the iconic, yearning ballad so perfectly performed by Judy Garland in The Wizard of Oz (1939). It deservedly won that year’s Oscar and usually tops any list of great American songs. Another good choice is the Jerome Kern/Dorothy Fields classic “The Way You Look Tonight” from Swing Time (1936), one of the all-time great ballads and brought to life by Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. But my choice is a song that became identified with Bob Hope who introduced it in The Big Broadcast of 1938, and it underscored every cheesy TV appearance he made in his later years: “Thanks for the Memory”. Written by the little-known Ralph Ranger and Leo Robin, the song was used in the film to show the spark that still existed between a divorced couple as the lyrics recalled the ups and downs of their (or any) relationship. It’s a beautiful, wistful song. My favourite version is by Rosemary Clooney on her 1985 album “Rosemary Clooney Sings Ballads”. It’s worth checking out.
This was a great decade for the American songbook. Oscar winners included the Bing Crosby classic “White Christmas” from Holiday Inn (1942), the Alice Faye standard “You’ll Never Know” from Hello, Frisco, Hello (1943), the Rodgers and Hammerstein ballad “It Might as Well Be Spring” from State Fair (1945) and “Baby It’s Cold Outside” from Neptune’s Daughter (1949) which has now become a holiday classic (although in the film it has nothing do with Christmas). But my favourite of the decade is “When You Wish Upon a Star” from Pinocchio (1940), the song that has become synonymous with the Disney brand as the ultimate ode to dreams. It’s a beautiful moment in the animated classic, sung perfectly by Cliff Edwards voicing the character of Jiminy Cricket. For a perfect cover version of the song, listen to Linda Ronstadt’s soaring vocals with arrangements by Nelson Riddle on the 1986 album “For Sentimental Reasons”
Another good decade, with Oscar going from the gorgeous melody of “Mona Lisa” from Captain Carey, U.S.A. (1950) to the cute, lightweight Doris Day signature song “Que Sera, Sera” from The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956) to the plaintive, yearning Frank Sinatra classic “All the Way” from The Joker is Wild (1957). My choice for the best of decade is “Secret Love” from Calamity Jane (1953), another Doris Day classic. The song comes towards the end of the film when the character of Calamity Jane finally figures out she was in love with Wild Bill Hickock (Howard Keel) all along. “Secret Love” provided Day with the opportunity to show her unparalleled way with a ballad, but also allowed her to show her skill as a belter. And the song also made complete sense within the framework of the story, not always the case with many Oscar winning tunes throughout the years. Although Day’s version is perfect, another wonderful version is included on George Michael’s 1999 album “Songs from the Last Century”.
Things start to get a little wonky in the sixties, with the Academy’s music branch willfully ignoring the influence of rock and modern pop, never more embarrassingly obvious than when they awarded 1967’s Best Song Oscar to the insipid “Talk to the Animals” from Doctor Doolittle. Of those nominated that year, the best of the bunch was the sexy Burt Bacharach/Hal David song “The Look of Love” from the silly Bond spoof Casino Royale. Not nominated were “Mrs. Robinson” from The Graduate and “To Sir with Love” from To Sir with Love. Thankfully the Academy got it right a few times and “Moon River” from Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961) gets my vote as the best of the decade, with the haunting “The Windmills of Your Mind” from The Thomas Crown Affair (1968) just a hair behind. “Moon River” by Henry Mancini and Johnny Mercer is a beautiful ballad about dreaming and love (a common theme for movie music) that serves as the perfect fit for the character of Holly Golightly (Audrey Hepburn). Hepburn’s simple rendition while strumming a guitar is a highlight of the film. Andy Williams had a hit with the song in the early sixties and Barbra Streisand also does a delicate interpretation that works beautifully on “The Movie Album” from 2003.
The music branch of the Academy was still struggling to get itself up to date with music trends and tastes in the seventies, but the decade did see some progress in the integration of more current styles with the traditional. The bigger challenge in the seventies was the basic lack of good film songs. With musicals on the downward trend, we were treated to a lot of schlocky songs under the opening or closing credits of films, songs that seemed to be there with the sole purpose of getting some Oscar attention. Or the song was some background piece of music that made no impression whatsoever but still ended up in the running for an Oscar. I’m thinking specifically of The Towering Inferno (1974) and the song “We May Never Love Like This Again”. It won that year. I didn’t remember it in the film, and I know I didn’t fall asleep. Thankfully Barbra Streisand – the biggest female star of the decade – came to the rescue with two Oscar winning songs that were integral to the mood and tone of two of her films: Marilyn and Alan Bergman’s “The Way We Were” from the 1973 film of the same name with Streisand and Robert Redford, and “Evergreen” which Streisand wrote with Paul Williams for A Star Is Born (1976). With apologies to Isaac Hayes and his ground-breaking theme from Shaft (1971), I’m picking “Evergreen” from A Star Is Born as the best of the decade. Although I’m not an uber fan of this version of that often filmed story, that song still takes me back in an emotional way to the ultimately tragic love story. Streisand’s vocals are perfect, and I don’t think anybody has covered that song any better.
Interestingly almost all the Best Song winners from the eighties had considerable success on the Billboard charts. Songs like “Flashdance” from Flashdance (1983) and Lionel Richie’s “Say You, Say Me” from White Nights (1985) helped drive the box office. Were all the songs that hit the charts integral to the story? Did they establish a mood or underscore what was happening in the film? Some did, but not many. What this decade’s Oscar winning songs had in common was injecting their films with a shot of energy. My favourite nominated song of the decade didn’t win, but it has since become an anthem for workplace equality – Dolly Parton’s “9 to 5” from Nine to Five (1980). It was bested by “Fame” Michael Gore and Dean Pitchford from the 1980 film of the same name, and it gets my vote as the best of the decade. It’s a fun, catchy, disco influenced tune that helps break the tension of life in a performing arts school by taking things to the streets as a proud dad starts playing the song from a speaker on his cab. Irene Cara’s vocals are urgent and exciting, the scene is one of the film’s highlights and it’s one of the great musical moments of the decade.
The 1989 success of Disney’s The Little Mermaid put that studio on a successful trajectory of creating animated musicals that dominated Oscar’s musical categories and the box office for most of the decade. Five of the decades Best Song Oscars went to Disney films. It was also the decade when two Madonna songs won Oscars – “Sooner or Later” by Stephen Sondheim from Dick Tracy (1990) and “You Must Love Me” by Andrew Lloyd Weber and Tim Rice from Evita (1996) – and Celine Dion led the juggernaut hit “My Love Will Go On” from Titanic (1997). It’s a surprisingly rich decade for songs when you look back over the list of nominees from each year. But my choice for the best of the decade is a little grittier – it’s Bruce Springsteen’s plaintive and haunting “Street’s of Philadelphia” from Philadelphia (1993), a song that perfectly captures the essence of frustration and helplessness of someone who is dying from AIDS.
This decade is a bit of a struggle for me. The one Oscar winner that stands out is “Jai Ho” from Slumdog Millionaire (2008), which provides a rousing and engaging song for an energetic finale to the film. I admit to being a fan of “Believe” from The Polar Express (2004), but it didn’t win. I also liked the slyly titled Disney parody “Happy Working Song” from Enchanted (2007), but again it didn’t win. Although there’s definitely room for debate, my choice for the best of the decade is Bob Dylan’s “Times Have Changed” from Wonder Boys (2000). The inclusion of the famously rumpled Dylan on the soundtrack for this film made sense as it enhanced the rumpled imperfection of Michael Douglas’ professor who is struggling with his writing and his relationships. And it was nice to see the legend honoured with an Oscar.
The last decade saw a bit of an upswing in the quality of the Best Song Oscar winners. Among the winners, Disney hit another homerun with “Let it Go” from Frozen (2013), with “City of Stars” we were treated to a lovely, melancholy love song from the innovative La La Land (2016), and the latest remake of A Star Is Born (2018) was back in the running with the passionate “Shallow” penned by Lada Gaga. All good songs. But my choice is a bit more retro with “Skyfall”, Adele’s entry in the James Bond cannon of theme songs from Skyfall (2012). Although the gold standard for Bond songs will always be “Goldfinger” (no pun intended) from the 1964 film of the same name, Adele’s haunting and soaring theme for Skyfall comes very close, perfectly echoing Bond’s journey to his past in one of the best installments of the series.
This year’s nominees include:
- “Husavik” from Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga
- “Fight for You” from Judas and the Black Messiah
- “Io sì (Seen)” from The Life Ahead
- “Speak Now” from One Night in Miami …
- “Hear My Voice” from The Trial of the Chicago 7
As of this writing I’d like to see Diane Warren (with her twelfth nomination) and lyricist Laura Pausini take the award for the beautiful ballad from The Life Ahead, the Sophia Loren Netflix drama. We’ll just have to see if that happens.
Hooked from a first viewing of Mary Poppins at four and after school reruns of I Love Lucy, Alan has been a movie and TV enthusiast ever since. A particular aficionado of films from the late thirties through the seventies, he enjoys helping others discover the joys of those films, directors and stars. His career has careened from journalism to public relations to marketing, always with one foot in the arts and with a unique ability to relate all work and life experiences back to a movie. Alan’s top five desert island films are Bonnie and Clyde, Sunset Boulevard, Cabaret, Mildred Pierce and, with no apologies, Mary Poppins. Alan’s focus will be on films from Hollywood’s first golden era (and a little beyond) as well as TV.