The power of music as it relates to film is immeasurable. What would a scary movie be without its suspenseful orchestral arrangements? How romantic would a love flick feel without its sweeping ballads? A single track can lodge itself in your brain and transport you back to the cinematic scene it was written for anytime it's played, proving that sound is paramount when it comes to a film's success and staying power.
Each year, the Academy recognizes this significant role when it hands out the award for Best Original Song. From anthems by Lady Gaga, Adele, Elton John, and Stevie Wonder to a slew of Disney's greatest hits, the past winners are as varied as they are memorable. Ahead of this year's Oscars ceremony, which will see tracks from Toy Story 4, Rocketman, Breakthrough, Frozen II, and Harriet vying for the honor, we've compiled a ranking of the 20 most iconic original songs from the last four decades. Check them out below and prepare to sing (or belt) along.
“Can You Feel the Love Tonight” (The Lion King) by Elton John, 1995
While the live-action remake of The Lion King certainly boasts a slew of stunning songs (hello, Beyoncé and Pharrell!), the animated movie's score will always reign supreme. The crown jewel of the soundtrack? Elton John's "Can You Feel the Love Tonight," which is a roaring ballad for the ages.
“Shallow” (A Star Is Born) by Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper, 2019
When a song can make the jump from movie tune to mainstream hit, you know it's something special. This duet by Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper not only received its fair share of radio play, but also played a part in launching rumors that the two stars were dating after they performed an especially steamy rendition of it at the 2019 Oscars. To the dismay of literally everyone, the rumors proved false.
“Lose Yourself” (8 Mile) by Eminem 2003
Anyone who was old enough to watch (and re-watch) 8 Mile in 2003 has likely had this track stuck in their head ever since. One of Eminem's most famous lyrical endeavors—and the first hip-hop track to ever win an Oscar—it'll have us singing about mom's spaghetti for a long time to come.
“Let It Go” (Frozen) by Idina Menzel, 2014
While this song might make you want to rip your ears off by now from all the radio play it's gotten, there's a reason its chorus is known by pretty much every human on earth. Undeniably the catchiest contemporary Disney song out there, it's an anthem about freedom, carving your own path, and female empowerment—no wonder it's struck such a chord.
“Jai Ho” (Slumdog Millionaire) by A. R. Rahman, 2009
Few modern movies are as visually and narratively gorgeous as Slumdog Millionaire, which presents the rags-to-riches trope in a wholly unique way. It's star track, "Jai Ho," scores a choreographed dance at the end of the film and helped to bring Indian music to the Western masses. It was such a hit that The Pussycat Dolls, who recently announced a 2020 reunion tour, later released their own rendition of the track.
“Under the Sea” (The Little Mermaid) by Samuel E. Wright, 1990
This song is singularly responsible for making an entire generation of kids wish they were mermaids. A charming sidekick crab singing the praises of the life aquatic? Count everyone in.
“My Heart Will Go On” (Titanic) by Celine Dion, 1998
No matter if you prefer the original version of this famous Titanic song or the rendition that Celine Dion and James Corden filmed while on a boat in the Bellagio Fountains for "Car Pool Karaoke," there's no doubt that "My Heart Will Go On" is one of the most epic love anthems on earth.
“Remember Me (Ernesto de la Cruz)” (Coco) by Benjamin Bratt, 2018
A beautiful depiction of how Dia de los Muertos is celebrated in Mexico and what it means, Coco is a moving story about celebrating lost loved ones through the power of memory—a theme that's encapsulated in "Remember Me." In the movie, the song is used in a number of contexts and appears as a mariachi arrangement, a lullaby, and a pop song. No matter which version you prefer, it's sure to tug at your heartstrings.
“It’s Hard out Here for a Pimp” (Hustle & Flow) by Three 6 Mafia, 2006
Three 6 Mafia became the first hip-hop group to ever win the Oscar for Best Original Song with this track. Performed in Hustle & Flow by Terrence Howard and Taraji P. Henson, it's another hit that transcended cinema and found major mainstream success.
“(I’ve Had) The Time of My Life” (Dirty Dancing) by Bill Medley and Jennifer Warnes, 1988
What would Dirty Dancing be without this definitive tune? An '80s ballad that continues to be a favorite at karaoke nights and weddings alike, it's one of those songs that makes you want to stand up and belt.
“A Whole New World” (Aladdin) by Brad Kane and Lea Salonga, 1993
Magic carpets, friendly genies, talking parrots—Aladdin is nothing short of enchanting, and "A Whole New World," the film's sweeping love song, takes it to enchanting new heights.
“City of Stars” (La La Land) by Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone, 2017
This song was central to what is perhaps one of the most devastating love stories of our time and somehow encapsulates both the jittery excitement of a new relationship and the crushing sadness that arises once it ends.
“Glory” (Selma) by Common and John Legend, 2015
Centering on the 1965 Selma-to-Montgomery voting rights march led by Martin Luther King Jr., James Bevel, Hosea Williams, and John Lewis, Selma is an exceptionally powerful historical film that's made all the more compelling through an incredible soundtrack. Addressing civil rights, human rights, and a desire for true equality and freedom,"Glory," was inspired by the events of 55 years ago yet still feels terribly relevant today.
“I Just Called to Say I Love You” (The Woman in Red) by Stevie Wonder, 1985
This classic Stevie track is about calling someone up and telling them you love them, just because—no special occasion necessary. It reads like a poem, sounds like sunshine, and is one of the sweetest love tunes around.
“Skyfall” (Skyfall) by Adele, 2013
One of the most beautiful and emotive Bond ballads ever, this track stays true to Adele's signature dazzling style.
“Colors of the Wind” (Pocahontas) by Judy Kuhn, 1996
As problematic as Disney's Pocahontas is as a film, its soundtrack, at least, got it right. Praising the beauty of nature and all that Mother Earth has to offer, "Colors of the Wind" serves as a continued reminder that our world is worth treasuring and protecting.
“Writing’s on the Wall” (Spectre) by Sam Smith, 2016
Featuring crystalline vocals and operatic crescendos, this song certainly packs a dramatic enough punch to appropriately score a Bond film. Adele and Smith are two of the most impressive singers of our time—it makes sense they've both been tapped by the 007 franchise.
“We Belong Together” (Toy Story 3) by Randy Newman, 2011
No, this isn't the Mariah Carey song, but it's an equally good one to have stuck in your head. Championing loyalty, friendship, and the people in your life who make it sing, it's an overwhelmingly charming track that embodies the enduring spirit of Toy Story.
“Things Have Changed” (Wonder Boys) by Bob Dylan, 2001
It's a Bob Dylan track. Need we say more? Written and performed by the iconic musician, it features his famously muttering vocals and plenty of masterful guitar riffs.
“Fame” (Fame) by Irena Cara, 1981
Any movie that takes place at the New York High School of Performing Arts better have an ace soundtrack, and Fame's does not disappoint. Its titular track is all about making it big and living forever through art, which is the dream of pretty much every performer ever.
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