Best Original Songs had enjoyed success on the radio before the 1980s, but this is where the floodgates opened and popular stars on the music scene made their presence known, creating greater synergy between the two forms of entertainment. As a result, almost every song on this list is easily recognizable–even thirty-odd years later.
10. “Arthur’s Theme (Best That You Can Do),” Arthur (1981)
As last place songs go, this one isn’t actually that bad. It does, however, have a distinctly ‘elevator music’ vibe from a modern perspective. “When you get caught between the moon and New York City” has a resonant quality, and the chorus is on the catchy side, but there’s no denying that this feels like music you would hear on hold with Con Ed.
9. “Say You, Say Me,” White Nights (1985)
Yes, Lionel Richie has an Oscar. Like “Arthur’s Theme,” this has an 80’s easy listening vibe that reads like hold music from hell nowadays, but there’s a dramatic urgency to the song that makes it come across better.
8. “Up Where We Belong,” An Officer and a Gentleman (1982)
Cheesy? Absolutely. Do you love it? Hell yes.
7. “Let the River Run,” Working Girl (1988)
I love Carly Simon, but I aggressively dislike this song. Putting my own feelings aside, I can admit that it has a very movie-appropriate message of empowerment, progress, and standing up for oneself. It’s also the first song on this list that could never be called boring.
6. “I Just Called to Say I Love You,” The Woman in Red (1984)
When I saw “I Just Called to Say I Love You” on the list of Best Original Song Oscar winners my immediate reaction was “that song was from a movie?” A great song should be able to stand on its own, but for me a Best Original Song winner should still act as a great companion piece for its movie. When you hear the top four songs on this list, you immediately get taken back to the movie. There’s power in that. While this is a great song, the movie has been completely lost.
5. “Fame,” Fame (1980)
In any other decade this iconic disco celebration of following your dreams would score a lot higher. Some might argue that the disco is dated, but it’s catchy, fun, and insanely memorable.
4. “Under the Sea,” The Little Mermaid (1989)
“Part of Your World” has steadily become the most iconic song from Mermaid, and it fits best with the big Disney songs from the later movies, but it wasn’t even nominated. In 1989 “Under the Sea,” a joyous showpiece transporting the audience to an underwater world, was the much bigger hit anyway. But even though “Part of Your World” gained momentum later, “Under the Sea” remains one of Disney’s biggest tunes thanks to its playful lyrics.
3. “Take My Breath Away,” Top Gun (1986)
This song has one of the most recognizable opening notes of all time. It’s also a double threat in that it’s both a great song that gets a lot of radio play even today and it is still easily identifiable with the movie it came from. But the 80s had two other songs that do that…
2. “Flashdance… What a Feeling,” Flashdance (1983)
Of the songs on this list, this is the one I listen to the most. It appeals to the gay man in me. It’s just a great song where in a world made of steel, made of stone, I hear the music, close my eyes, and feel the rhythm. Then I take my passion and make it happen. Given that, and that this song is so perfectly tied to its move that they literally share the same name, it may seem surprising that this isn’t number 1. To be honest, it surprised me, too.
1. “(I’ve Had) The Time of My Life,” Dirty Dancing (1987)
There’s a reason Dirty Dancing has one of the most transcendent, popular finales of all time, and it isn’t just the chemistry between Patrick Swayze and Jennifer Grey. I listen to each song as I type this out, and every time I put this clip on I had to stop and watch it beginning to end. That’s how great this song is and how entwined it is to its movie. You really can’t help but get swept away by it.
Next, we’ll go back to the Best Original Song winners of the 1970s, but in the meantime you can also look at my Academy Awards page for much more content.