The Five Best Oscar Nominated Songs of the Past 20 Years

Posted by Rachel

oscars9-300x300Oscar week is here and with it comes a lot of buzz about the movies, the actors, the directors and creators of the year’s best in cinema. What often gets left in the shadows, or at best lightly glossed over, is the soul of the movie – the music. The soundtracks and scores to movies are what creates the mood, solidifies the theme, and glues the audience to the emotional core of the movie long after the credits start rolling. In fact, in the long history of the Academy Awards, winners such as “The Way We Were” and “Take My Breath Away” have grown to become the center of the movie when referenced in popular culture and collective memory.

Coming up with the best songs that have been nominated for the Academy Award for Best Original Song may seem like an obvious list when looking through the past nominees in its entirety. All the usual choices would be there (including the two mentioned above). So here is a fresher take. In the past 20 years, original songs in movies have been pushed to a whole new level in quality and sonic achievement. Out of those 20 years, coming up with five was downright difficult. They were all good. Some were great. All of them had a strategic place in the movie and some have already been permanently defined as the centerpiece of the movie in society and cultural reference.

So after a lot of thought (perhaps far too much thought) and for a myriad of other important and semi-important reasons here are the five best in Oscar nominated music:

“Streets of Philadelphia”  – Bruce Springsteen, 1993 

Not only did this song win the Academy Award this year, it made mince meat out of the competition by snagging the Golden Globe, four Grammy Awards including Song of the Year, and an MTV award for the music video. Streets of Philadelphia proved to be more than a voice for those who were cast out and alienated because of stigmas attached to AIDS, it was a gritty emotional tribute to life’s downtrodden.


“Circle of Life”  – The Lion King , 1994 

Circle of Life didn’t even win the year it was nominated. But, since three out of the five nominations were songs from The Lion King, they probably just played rock paper scissors to decide on the winner – in this case “Can You Feel the Love Tonight” got the nod. It is definitely a toss up on which song should have won, but since this is the best Oscar nominated songs, the winner here is the iconic main title track from this universal favorite – which is to this day one of the best opening scene montages from a movie ever. Disney just does it right. The music seems to turn their movies into beloved classics for every age group. It is no surprise they pretty much dominate the music category in Oscar nominations. Elton John and Tim Rice were the masterminds behind The Lion King. If you take those two and Disney’s other dynamic duo – Alan Menken and Tim Rice – there are over 15 nominated songs between them, which is surpassed only by Randy Newman.


“Vanilla Sky” – Vanilla Sky , 2001 

Cameron Crowe has always been known for creating movies where the music is more than a soundtrack – it is often the very heartbeat of the story. When Crowe asked Sir Paul to create the title track, Vanilla Sky, for his cult favorite brain twister, Paul happily obliged. But in true Crowe fashion, when it comes to his music choices for his movies, there is more than meets the eye.

According to production notes, Crowe said, “We constructed the movie, visually and story-wise, to reveal more and more the closer you look at it. As deep as you want to go with it, my desire was for the movie to meet you there.” His choice for the title track was a nice homage to Paul being the inspiration in the clues and hidden messages that the movie revealed. Crowe referred to these “clues” as his own version of the infamous “Paul is Dead” rumor from the 60s where fans became convinced through clues in song lyrics, sounds and album art that Paul McCartney was dead and had been replaced by a lookalike.


“The Hands that Built America” – Gangs of New York, 2002 

The lyrical tribute to New York  is not U2s best, but it is a standard U2 track by all accounts, which still puts it well above most.  But what makes this track so amazing is how it moves through milestones in New York history, from the mass immigrations of the Irish and resulting demographics to more modern milestones such as September 11th, to paint a true picture of the the country built by immigrants who all believed in the “American Dream”  – a universal belief that has never really faltered despite what has been thrown at it. Gangs of New York was originally scheduled to premiere in December of 2001 but got delayed because of September 11th. Some say Bono went back and edited the song to include what is the obvious tribute to the day.

“It’s early fall, there’s a cloud on the New York skyline. Innocence, dragged across a yellow line…” Beautiful song for what was a beautiful movie.


“Jai Ho” – Slumdog Millionaire, 2008 

“Jai Ho”  was an exuberant Bollywood dance number that encapsulated Slumdog Millionaire’s feel-good factor and gave it a much needed reminder of the underlying positive theme and happy ending during the films more somber parts. The beautiful thing about the track, composed by AR Rahman who was already a sensation in India, was that it had a rich global texture that embodied traditional Bollywood sounds but was embraced by the western community in the same way a popular dance song would in America. YouTube videos of imitations, covers, and kids and babies doing the dance popped up at warp speed – and keep in mind this was a couple years before the meme phenomenon grew to what it is today. “Jai Ho” is the perfect example of how music has moved beyond local boundaries into a more global scale.


Head over to Oscar Movie Music on Slacker Radio to hear more music, themes and scores from greatest cinematic masterpieces.

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