Since 1934, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS) has awarded an Oscar for Best Original Song. Most of the winners over the years have been terrific songs. Many of them have been hits. Some have fallen into irrelevance.
All of them, at some point, moved moviegoers enough to become Oscar winning songs. Here are some of the very best ones.
“Shallow” by Lady Gaga feat. Bradley Cooper
Song Year: 2018
As renowned for Cooper’s and Gaga’s performance at the Oscars ceremony as for the song itself, “Shallow” took the charts— and the world— by storm. Cooper embodied his portrayal of an aging rocker in the repressed and spare melody he sings, while Lady Gaga’s soaring voice outshines him, a metaphor for the film’s events.
“Lose Yourself” by Eminem
Song Year: 2002
Eminem was already a big name when he appeared in the lead role in “8 Mile,” but his performance as both an actor and a rapper in the film won him new fans, and that had a lot to do with “Lose Yourself,” now widely considered the artist’s signature song.
Driving guitars give the song additional urgency as if the frenetic rhymes from Eminem don’t do enough of that.
“Under the Sea” by Samuel E. Wright
Song Year: 1989
Although there remains some problematic messaging in “The Little Mermaid”—if you think about it, Ursula’s only real crime is that she’s unattractive— it remains a favorite, mostly because of an Alan Menken score filled with catchy tunes and lovely melodies.
Samuel E. Wright’s performance of “Under the Sea” is joyous as he pleads with Ariel to stay in her lane. It’s hard not to smile when listening to it. It’s easy to ignore the overt sexualization of Ariel, a 16-year-old child. Yikes.
“Over the Rainbow” by Judy Garland
Song Year: 1939
The definitive song from a watershed moment in cinema, “Over the Rainbow” won an Oscar for Best Original Song in 1939. It was, surprisingly, one of only two trophies the film “The Wizard of Oz” won that evening.
The song’s message of hope resonated at the time in the face of rising fascism and the specter of a second world war, and people still love it today. Myriad artists have covered it, from pop superstar Arianna Grande to guitar virtuoso Tommy Emmanuel to The Flaming Lips.
“Purple Rain” by Prince
Song Year: 1985
If anyone ever needs an explanation of what an anthem sounds like, play “Purple Rain.” The title track and most powerful piece of music from the soundtrack of Prince’s semi-autobiographical film is the ultimate power ballad.
Does it matter that it’s hard to know what it’s about? Or that the acting in the film is less than stellar? Nope.
“Theme from Shaft” by Isaac Hayes
Song Year: 1971
A better example of how to use a wah-wah pedal effectively likely doesn’t exist. The chicka-chicka guitar that wahs through the piece drives it, making it all the more shocking when Hayes enters with his ultra-hip, bassy-est voice ever. This was from the days before he voiced Chef in South Park.
As Oscar winning songs go, it’s out of the ordinary and may sound a bit outdated to younger ears, but it was written for and fit perfectly the film “Shaft” in the 70s.
“Let It Go” written by Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez
Song Year: 2013
In the film “Frozen,” Idina Menzel sings “Let It Go,” and Disney also released a single version of the song sung by Demi Lovato. It won its Oscar in 2014 and a Grammy in 2015. But if you have children of a certain age, you probably know of this song all too well.
“My Heart Will Go On” by Celine Dion
Song Year: 1997
“Titanic” film’s composer James Horner has been a heavy hitter in Hollywood for years, and if there was ever any doubt as to why, this song alone dispelled it. The haunting quality of the song, paired with its sense of perseverance in the face of disaster, made it a hit people loved.
“Can You Feel the Love Tonight” by Elton John
Song Year: 1994
Sir Elton sang a single version of this song for the “Lion King’s” closing credits, but Kristle Edwards, Joseph Williams, Sally Dworsky, Nathan Lane, and Ernie Sabella sang it in the movie.
The song was one of three from “The Lion King” nominated for Best Original Song in 1994, and since there are only five nominees, Sir Elton had pretty good odds of winning.
“A Whole New World” by Brad Kane and Lea Salonga
Song Year: 1992
The Walt Disney Corporation has provided a seemingly endless supply of well-crafted songs for its films, and, as this list reflects, many of them become Oscar winning songs.
“A Whole New World” fit perfectly Disney’s highly successful animated feature film “Aladdin.” The song was its generation’s version of “Let It Go” in that it was everywhere. It remains a karaoke favorite, and country star Collin Raye even turned in a version in 1996.
“(I’m Gonna) Love Me Again” by Elton John and Taron Egerton
Song Year: 2019
At the end of the Elton John biopic “Rocketman,” the piano superstar leaves rehab determined to love himself and keep it together from now on.
The film was a smash hit, and while Taron Egerton, the actor portraying Sir Elton, sang most of the songs in the film, he shares vocal duties with Elton John in this Motown-inspired song. Though written in the 21st century, “(I’m Gonna) Love Me Again” sounds like the Elton hits of the 70s, which is to say, “like Elton’s very best work.”
“Flashdance… What a Feeling” by Irene Cara
Song Year: 1983
Irene Cara appeared in the film “Flashdance” and co-wrote the song that won the film its only Academy Award. It also won the a few other trophies from different honors organizations.
At the beginning of the MTV era, pop songs in movies that weren't’ musicals started becoming more common, and “Flashdance… What a Feeling” led that charge.
“Chim Chim Cher-ee” by Dick Van Dyke and Julie Andrews
Song Year: 1964
It’s not often you hear a cheery song in a minor key, but Bert and Mary pull it off here. At least it sounds cheery. It’s all irony, though, as the lyrics paint a picture of a chimney sweep— Bert— who has a pretty terrible life but doesn’t seem to know it.
Then again, he knows Mary Poppins, so he’s got more going for him than most of us. Dick Van Dyke performed brilliantly in this song and the film “Mary Poppins” in general.
“The Way You Look Tonight” by Fred Astaire
Song Year: 1936
A song destined to become part of the Great American Songbook even if it hadn’t won an Oscar, “The Way You Look Tonight” has some serious credibility.
Jerome Kern and Dorothy Field wrote it, and it had to beat out other nominees that have become just as classic:
- “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” by Cole Porter
- “Pennies from Heaven” by Arthur Johnston
The song was an immediate success which prompted its addition to the film “Swing Time.”
“White Christmas” by Bing Crosby
Song Year: 1942
First featured in the film “Holiday Inn,” hardly a single person in the Western Hemisphere hasn’t heard this song at least once, and most of us know it by heart whether we meant to learn it or not.
Combine the treacly string arrangement with nostalgic lyrics and Bing’s buttery baritone voice, and you’ve got an instant classic.
Also, there may have been an unwritten rule: when Irvin “God Bless America” Berlin writes a song for a movie, it probably should win an Oscar.
“Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah” by James Baskett
Song Year: 1947
Social norms change. Sometimes, those changes make us reevaluate things we used to love. “Song of the South” is one of those things. Disney has kept the film, widely considered to be antiquated and racist, out of circulation for decades.
However, two vestiges of it remain: Disney’s Splash Mountain ride, and “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah,” a joyful, simple, couldn’t-be-Disney-er song that everybody knows, even if they don’t know who Uncle Remus was.
“Moon River” by Henry Mancini & His Orchestra
Song Year: 1961
It’s unusual for a song without a chorus to become a hit. That didn’t stop “Moon River,” which, when sung by Audrey Hepburn on a fire escape in the film “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” lasts just over two minutes. In that short span, she captured George Peppard’s heart onscreen and won over an entire country.
“Moon River” not only won the Oscar for Best Original Song, but it also brought Mancini and lyricist Johnny Mercer an armload of Grammy Awards.
“Fame” by Irene Cara
Song Year: 1980
Nothing against Irene Cara, but this second appearance by her on this list seems to put her in the company of Sir Elton John. Who’d have thought?
Just three years before writing and recording the theme to “Flashdance,” Cara appeared in the lead role of “Fame,” the tale of hardworking dreamers— students at a fictional New York performing arts school.
“Beauty and the Beast” by Angela Lansbury
Song Year: 1991
Disney knows how to make a hit film, and “Beauty and the Beast” showed the company’s skills as well as any other. But the standout performance in the film comes not from the animation or the acting skills of the voice actors.
Instead, Broadway legend Angela Lansbury, in the role of Mrs. Potts sings the film’s most famous song. It’s pretty, it’s sweet, and she did it in one take.
“It’s Hard Out Here for a Pimp” written by Juicy J, Frayser Boy, and DJ Paul
Song Year: 2005
The songwriting team for “It’s Hard Out Here for a Pimp” consisted of members of the rap group Three 6 Mafia. However, Terence Howard and Taraji P. Henson performed it in the film “Hustle & Flow.”
When the song won its Oscar for Best Orignal Song, filmmaking legend Martin Scorcese hadn’t yet won an Oscar. When that year’s host Jon Stewart returned to the mic after the award’s acceptance, he quipped that the Oscar tally was Three 6 Mafia, one; Martin Scorsese, zero.
“Skyfall” by Adele
Song Year: 2012
A good James Bond song needs to have some mystery to it, and it needs the signature harmonic progressions James Bond soundtracks have. “Skyfall” has both in spades.
It also has the powerful voice of Adele, whose performance propelled the same-named film’s soundtrack to sell better than any other Bond film in nearly three decades.
“Take My Breath Away” by Berlin
Song Year: 1986
Berlin had a minor hit, “No More Words,” in 1984, but “Take My Breath Away” rocketed them to stardom. The song is well written, and the band does it well, but let’s be honest— connecting a song to a blockbuster action flick “Top Gun” with Tom Cruise is kind of a recipe for success.
“Take My Breath Away” was a worldwide number-one hit.
“(I’ve Had) the Time of My Life” by Bill Medley and Jennifer Warnes
Song Year: 1987
As if Bill Medley didn’t have a large enough impact on pop culture due to his time with The Righteous Brothers, he joined with Jennifer Warnes to record this mega-hit from “Dirty Dancing,” itself a hugely successful film.
The movie and the song were omnipresent in our lives in the late 1980s, even though many consider the film contains the worst line of dialogue in the history of cinema.
“Arthur’s Theme (Best That You Can Do)” by Christopher Cross
Song Year: 1981
Christopher Cross had a number-one hit with “Sailing,” and “Arthur’s Theme” brought him his second (and last). He wrote it for the movie”Arthur” with Burt Bacharach and Bacharach's wife Carole Bayer Sager.
When you write a movie song with a pair of legends, if you don’t win an Oscar, you’re doing something wrong.
“Mona Lisa” by Nat King Cole
Song Year: 1950
While the Alan Ladd vehicle “Captain Carey, U.S.A.” hasn’t exactly had staying power as a film over the decades, “Mona Lisa” has stood the test of time.
Performed in the film by bandleader Charlie Spivak, the song won an Oscar even before Nat King Cole recorded his iconic cover of it— a cover so good most people have forgotten all about Spivak and Captian Carey.
“Remember Me” by Miguel
Song Year: 2017
Pixar, of late, has given Disney a run for its money in terms of making heartfelt, lasting, wonderful films, and “Coco” stands as part of the legacy. “Remember Me” recurs throughout the film, sung by different performers, but Miguel’s version plays over the end credits.
Perhaps the most remarkable thing about “Remember Me,” though, is that it made songwriter Robert Lopez (who co-wrote it with his wife Kristen Anderson-Lopez, both of whom also wrote “Let It Go”) the first-ever double EGOT:
- Emmys: “The Wonder Pets,” 2008; “The Wonder Pets,” 2010
- Grammys: “The Book of Mormon,” 2012 (two awards); “Frozen,” 2015
- Oscars: “Let it Go,” 2014; “Remember Me,” 2018
- Tonys: “Avenue Q,” 2004; “The Book of Mormon,” 2011.
“Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head” by B. J. Thomas
Song Year: 1969
“Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” was an odd sort of western. For one thing, it had a Burt Bacharach song in it (this one), and film execs and co-star Robert Redford hated it. They thought it didn’t fit the movie, but posterity and the Oscars have proved them wrong.
Thomas‘ song’s sweet overtones belie the film’s violent end, contributing to its power.
Top Oscar Winning Songs, Final Thoughts
We’ve had almost 100 winners in the Best Original Song category at the Oscars. This list is a subjective collection of the best Oscar winning songs. Since we had to leave some out, what favorite movie song of yours did we omit? What songs on this list would you drop?