The history of the Best Original Song category at the Oscars (the latest incarnation of which will be broadcast across the globe this weekend) is a checkered one, to say the least. For every “White Christmas,” there’s an “I Don’t Wanna Miss A Thing,” a song for which the otherwise actually likable Aerosmith has refused to apologize. Having said that, there are many diamonds in the rough, and I had to leave some great songs off this list, not least the wonderful double whammy of Aimee Mann’s “Save Me” from the Magnolia soundtrack and the still amazing “Blame Canada” from South Park: Bigger Longer and Uncut. Those two were actually nominated in the same year, but lost out to Phil Collins for his song from the Tarzan soundtrack. PHIL COLLINS. I mean really…
Judy Garland – “Over the Rainbow” (The Wizard Of Oz)
This one was a winner in 1939 and has been pretty much done to death, but listening through fresh ears reveals just how extraordinary this song is. A timeless ode to longing for a better life, delivered by a young actress whose voice possessed the necessary richness of tone to break your heart. There are many reasons The Wizard of Oz remains a favorite so many generations later. This song is one of the most enduring, and still it has the power to make you abandon all cynicism and melt a little bit.
Isaac Hayes – “Theme from Shaft” (Shaft)
Has there ever been a more recognizable hi-hat tap in the history of music? Even for people who have never seen the film, that intro is unmistakable. It also goes on for a good two minutes, making it the most gloriously over-the-top intro imaginable to an over-the-top cult classic. Richard Roundtree needed a great soundtrack for which to introduce the ice-cool John Shaft. Isaac Hayes, who would of course later go on to fame as Chef in South Park, provided it. The 1971 Oscar winner will still make you feel like a black private dick who’s a sex machine with all the chicks, every time you put it on in the car.
Phil Harris and Bruce Reitherman – “The Bare Necessities” (The Jungle Book)
Disney gets a nomination in the Best Original Song category pretty much any time they release a movie, and the company often walks away with the award. The defining tune from The Jungle Book was nominated in 1967 but actually didn’t win, even though its laid-back, easy charm remains irresistible as the song’s gentle swing inevitably got audiences bopping in theaters the world over. If the arrangement sounds a little sophisticated for a children’s movie, bear in mind that it was done by the great Van Dyke Parks, who would later become a key collaborator of Brian Wilson, especially on the legendary Smile album. This was his first paid gig in California. What a way to cut your teeth.
Carly Simon – “Nobody Does It Better” (The Spy Who Loved Me)
Thom Yorke once described this as the sexiest song ever written. He might not be wrong. Carly Simon’s seductive voice is perfect for a song that’s far too good to simply be a Bond theme. Not only that, it’s a Roger Moore Bond theme. A man whose entire acting range was contained in his eyebrows didn’t deserve to have this love letter to a great lover as his entrance music. Nevertheless, this 1977 Oscar nominee has transcended its origins and become a bona-fide classic.
Elliott Smith – “Miss Misery” (Good Will Hunting)
The only time in my life I have been genuinely sad at the death of a musician was when Elliott Smith passed away. So the world was robbed of a truly beautiful songwriter, one who grew from his indie roots to flourish with a major label budget and bigger arrangements. The 1997 nominee was one of many Elliott Smith songs used in Good Will Hunting, bringing the singer to a new audience and assuring that his legacy would not be restricted to those who caught him in tiny bars early in his career. It was beaten to the Oscar by Celine Dion for that Titanic song, which is proof if any were needed that Academy members don’t even listen to music really…