The 8 Ball 02.23.13: The Top 8 Oscar-Winning Songs
Welcome, one and all, to the 8 Ball in the Music Zone! I’m your host Jeremy Thomas and as always, I will be tackling a topic and providing you the top eight selections of that particular category. Keep in mind that this list is meant to be my personal opinion and not a definitive list. You’re free to disagree; you can even say my list is wrong, but stating that an opinion is “wrong” is just silly. With that in mind, let’s get right in to it!
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As you probably know, the Academy Awards are this Sunday. I know what you’re thinking: “Jeremy, this is the Music Zone; why are you talking about movies?” The answer is simple: while the Oscars are the time to honor the best in Hollywood, there is also an important musical aspect in the Best Original Song category. The award has been given out since 1934, giving us seventy-nine songs (not including
“Skyfall” whoever wins this year) that are the best that the Academy has chosen from film for each year. This week I thought I would celebrate the musical side of Oscar by looking at the greatest songs to win an Oscar.
Caveat: I think this criteria is fairly obvious; to qualify, the song had to have won the Oscar for Best Original Song. There is one thing to note since I know that someone will bring it up; yes, it is true that the majority of my song selections are later ones, particularly within the last fifteen years or so. There is a simple reason for that and it’s not because I think new songs are automatically better ones; rather, I feel that the Academy has gone through a change in the last twenty to twenty-five years to not only become less traditional in their musical tastes, but to pick songs that work as well on their own as they do within the context of a film. In other words, you listen to even a great song like “White Christmas” and you think of it primarily within the context of Holiday Inn because it is integrated within the plot and framework of the film so strongly that you can’t possibly not associate it with thus. On the other hand, a song like (spoiler alert, this is on the list) Bob Dylan’s “Things Have Changed” can be thought of without immediately going to Wonder Boys because it stands on its own outside of the song.
Madonna – “Sooner or Later (I Always Get My Man)” (Dick Tracy, 1990)
B.J. Thomas – “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head” (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, 1969)
James Baskett – “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah” — (Song of the South, 1947)
First on our list this week is one of the first songs to ever win and still to this date one of the best. The Wizard of Oz remains one of the most highly-regarded fantasy films ever made and while it is actually not one of my favorites, you cannot deny the staying power of its signature song. Judy Garland’s iconic turn as Dorothy Gale is probably most remembered for her performance of this number, which was written by the greats Harold Arlen and Yip Harburg. As I said in my caveat, older songs often had a difficult time breaking out to be remembered as more than just “that song from that movie” which is why it is so impressive that “Over the Rainbow” is remembered on its own merits as strongly, if not more so, than it is as a Wizard of Oz song. Where many earlier songs feel very dated in their sound and content, “Rainbow” has a more timeless quality to it and Garland’s performance is very powerful. Whether within or outside of the film’s context, this is an amazing piece of work that has stood the test of time.
The 1970s and 1980s were not good decades for Oscar songs. Favoring sappy sentimentality over quality, we had such duds win Best Original Song as “The Way We Were,” “Up Where We Belong,” “Say You, Say Me” and one of Stevie Wonder’s worst songs ever in “I Just Called to Say I Love You.” Before all that got started though, the Academy opened up the ’70s with the very non-Oscar-like selection of Isaac Hayes. The theme song from Shaft was everything that the Academy didn’t typically vote for but it was perfect for the film and easily the best-nominated song that year. The funk/soul sound makes it an easy standout among Oscar songs and Hayes’ famous lines became synonymous with not only the film, but with blaxploitation films in general. It’s playful and risqué enough to stand out, with attitude to spare. It also doesn’t hurt that the song goes down smoothly. Although it is a song firmly set within the ’70s, it stands as a great song even today.
It’s probably not the first song that would come to peoples’ mind and it certainly isn’t the kind of song that normally appeals to me. “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” is a Christmas song (a genre that I usually despise) from the MGM musical romantic comedy Neptune’s Daughter, a film that gets lost in the shuffle among the bigger, better and brighter musicals of Hollywood’s Golden Age and transition into the ’50s. And yet, there is something incredibly catchy and endearing about Loesser’s song. Unlike the rest of the songs on this list I have listed the songwriter as the song itself was performed by two couples in the film; the first version is sung by Ricardo Montalbán and Esther Williams and the second by Red Skelton and Betty Garrett. The song is remarkably risqué for the time period, with the story of the tune being a man trying to convince a woman (obviously not his wife) to stay the night and overcoming all of her protestations. Add in lines like “I simply must go…the answer is no” when the male singer keeps trying or, more blatantly, “Say, what’s in this drink?” give the song a very creepy edge to risqué elements. This song has been covered by countless duets over the years and stands as one the best Oscar winner of the ’40s and ’50s.
The first rap song to win Best Original Song, “Lose Yourself” marked a pivotal change in the Oscars. For the longest time it seemed like the Academy was stubbornly resistant to changes within the culture of popular music and it was holding out until a song simply made itself impossible not to award. That song was the theme track off of Eminem’s semi-autobiographical feature film debut in 8 Mile. You can say what you like about the film itself (I quite like it, despite some flaws) but the song is one that even the notoriously stuffy Academy couldn’t refuse. It is not Eminem’s best track of all time but it is an impressive piece of work. The urgency within the track slowly builds with the beat and Em’s flow adds to that with a tone to his voice that leans forward into the next lyric and propels the song forward relentlessly. The song works perfectly within the scope of the film but also stands on its own; people who just hear the song on the radio can get just as much enjoyment from it as those who know and love the film. It’s not only historic in terms of being the first rap song to win, it is memorable for being one of the most well-constructed Best Original Song winners in Oscar history.
One of the big changes that have come into play for films over the last twenty years or so is the use of higher-quality singers and songwriters in films. Before that point film soundtracks would generally preferred to license previous hits from the top artists instead of commission them to write new songs. More importantly, the Academy started taking those artists seriously as potential Oscar winners. Take Bob Dylan, for example. Dylan had contributed soundtrack music before, such as the Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid soundtrack in 1973 and other songs here and there on the likes of Natural Born Killers and Hearts of Fire, but it wasn’t until his contribution to Curtis Hanson’s underrated film Wonder Boys that he was nominated for and won an Oscar, for “Things Have Changed.” (Incidentally, this is Hanson’s second film on this list; he also directed 8 Mile). Riding on the back of Dylan’s 1997 comeback album Time Out of Mind, song has all of Dylan’s hallmarks; evocative lyrics, a timeless and mood-setting sound and the ability to sweep you away both intellectually and emotionally. It is sad that it took Dylan as long as it did for him to be honored for his film contributions but by the time he did, it was with a song that earned it and then some.
“The Weary Kind” was performed by Jeff Bridges and Colin Farrell in Crazy Heart but it was Ryan Bingham’s performance that was nominated for the Oscar and won in fairly dominating fashion. “The Weary Kind” has a fantastic country sound that eschews the modern country-pop-rock sensibility for a more traditional feel that works very well. It sounds like the kind of song that would have been perfectly at home on a Johnny Cash album and won not only the Oscar, but a Grammy and Golden Globe as well. The arrangement finds power within its simplicity and Bingham finds the titular weariness in his voice to properly capture the mood and feel of the piece. It is resigned and yet has an element of hope to it in the final line of the chorus, “Pick up your crazy heart/give it one more try.” Much like any great film song should do, it not only captures the theme of its movie perfectly but also works independently of it. It is one of those songs that stands out from the often gaudy and overdramatic songs Oscar seems to love and I have little to no doubt that it will sound just as good fifteen or twenty years from now as a result.
Speaking of songs that stand out and will sound just as good down the road as it does now, we have the theme song from the startlingly good musical film Once. Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová, who play the lead characters in the film, were singers and songwriters before they were cast to deliver great performances in the film and they collaborated with writer/director John Carney in the making of the film by writing and performing all the songs within the film. “Falling Slowly” is not a radio-friendly song but it is an incredibly powerful one in terms of emotional resonance. Much like “The Weary Kind” the arrangement is fairly simple but the string use gives it a fuller sound without going over the top. It is rare that a song can really drive me into a truly emotional reaction every time that I hear it, but somehow Hansard and Irglová always leave a lump in my throat with this one. Ironically the song almost didn’t qualify as between the film’s conception and its release Hansard released the song and Academy rules stipulate that a song be written specifically for the film. Once it was established that it was in fact created for the movie however, this was a no-brainer and it stands tall among Best Original Song winners.
I don’t think this is probably a surprise to too many people. Bruce Springsteen’s semi-title track from Philadelphia is one of the most highly-regarded songs in film history and for good reason. It’s actually one of my favorite Bruce Springsteen songs of all time, soundtrack or not. It is one of the “older, wiser” style Springsteen songs and his voice carries an incredibly good weary tone while the lyrics capture the essence of the film without needing to box itself in by the narrative. It is an incredibly powerful song written by one of the masters of American rock. It won a host of awards that were capped off with a Best Original Song win, thus earning its spot at the top of my list. I daresay that it will be quite a while before anything comes close to knocking it from the perch.
MUSIC VIDEO A-GO-GO
This week I thought I would list who I thought will win this year, which is of course Adele’s “Skyfall.” Let’s be honest, this one is in the bag. Check it out below:
And that will do it for us this week! Join me next week for another edition of the 8-Ball! Until then, have a good week and don’t forget to read the many other great columns, news articles and more here at 411mania.com! JT out.