For a long time, Best Original Song was a big category at the Academy Awards. Movie soundtracks have always been natural tie-in merchandising, and they used to be big business. In the internet age, the synergy still exists but a lot of the magic has gone away. But while the luster may be faded, the award still has great meaning–so let’s take a look back at the best and worst winners of the last decade. I will update this list as new winners come in through 2019.
9. “Man or Muppet,” The Muppets (2011)
If you want to know how far the Best Original Song category has fallen, look no further than 2011, which only yielded two nominees in the category–the first (and so far only) time that has happened. “Man or Muppet” was the clear winner of the two, but at the end of the day, it’s an utterly forgettable song about being yourself. The main appeal behind the win is that one half of Flight of the Conchords got an Oscar.
8. “We Belong Together,” Toy Story 3 (2010)
Randy Newman is nearly inseparable from the Toy Story franchise, providing a key part of its folksy charm. Still, his signature style is very love-it-or-hate-it, and while this ode to friendship has some appeal, it feels a bit past its expiration date. It’s great for playing behind a montage in a movie, but not for much else.
7. “Writing’s on the Wall,” Spectre (2015)
Lady Gaga and Diane Warren collaboration, “Til It Happens to You,” which provided an emotional highlight for the telecast when Lady Gaga performed it with survivors of sexual abuse, was expected to win. Unfortunately, voters went for Sam Smith and Jimmy Naple’s middling Bond theme-cum-insomnia cure instead. The clichéd flourishes of music are subdued so as not to compete with Smith’s voice. If only the lyrics he’s performing weren’t also riddled with clichés the Bond franchise had already beaten to death long ago (seriously, guys, another song about risking it all for love?). This song is so forgettable and boring it fades right into the wallpaper (no pun intended).
6. “City of Stars,” La La Land (2016)
I called La La Land a garbage movie, so call me biased if you must. The music is fine, but I was surprised “City of Stars” was such a runaway favorite during awards season given how slight it feels. Not that all Original Song winners have to be showstoppers, but this is pretty much the opposite. It functions like an interlude between bigger numbers, although it does capture a lot of the movie’s central themes. It’s also carefully subdued enough to showcase the limited vocal range of stars Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone. I didn’t even notice it when I watched the movie so I had to go back to look for it. It’s fine, but not a heavy hitter by any stretch of the imagination. Instead, Lin-Manuel Miranda should have gotten his EGOT for Moana‘s “How Far I’ll Go.”
5. “Glory,” Selma (2014)
John Legend and Common’s “Glory” feels important, which does mean that it can feel a little full of itself. Even so, with its blend of rap and soaring gospel, it’s also refreshingly about something. It nails the tone and feel of its subject matter so well you could almost picture Civil Rights protestors singing it as they marched.
4. “Skyfall,” Skyfall (2012)
Here’s where we get to the good ones. Adele’s Bond theme, the first to win in this category, has everything “Writing’s on the Wall” was lacking. Namely, it has a haunting score and vocals, with lyrics and a tone that support the movie it comes from. Adele’s restrained performance is pitch perfect. The music is pretty bare but in this case it feels appropriate to let Adele’s haunting tones take the spotlight–and what music is there feels propulsive–adding tone and dimension as well as an underlying dread. I accused “Writing’s on the Wall” of featuring clichéd lyrics the Bond series had done many times before, but “Skyfall” manages to walk the line of paying tribute to those tropes without becoming beholden to them. Instead, it subtly hints at the plot of the movie you’re about to watch to great effect.
3. “Remember Me,” Coco (2017)
This thoroughly charming song about love, loss, and family marked the second Oscar for songwriters Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez–and it made Robert Lopez the first-ever double-EGOT recipient. Forget Randy Newman–Disney/Pixar would be very smart to hold onto these two because they are single-handedly making the Best Original Song category better just for being in it.
2. “Shallow,” A Star is Born (2018)
Before A Star is Born was even released, “Shallow” was well on its way to becoming a bona fide pop cultural landmark. For that, you can thank its key placement in the film’s trailer. “Shallow” helped sell A Star is Born to audiences and kept it relevant during a crazy award season. As an added bonus, the performance stars Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga gave on Oscar night was perhaps the evening’s biggest moment. It’s also a great song. Only one other contender can possibly outdo “Shallow” for cultural relevance…
1. “Let It Go,” Frozen (2013)
“Let It Go” is the only song from a movie in the 2010s that can also claim to be a bona fide cultural phenomenon. A large part of that goes to Idina Menzel’s spectacular performance. She deploys all her Broadway training to imbue the song with emotion when needed, then blows the rafters off when she hits the big notes. But you can’t forget the craft that went into the song itself–the way it deftly takes the peculiar situation of a Queen with magical powers she can’t control and turns it into a universal message about having the courage to be true to who you are. Songwriters Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez knew exactly what they were doing. Not only is this the best song from a movie in this decade, it’s among the best Disney songs ever, and that says a lot.