A lot of debate always surges about who should have won the Academy Award for Best Picture. But for this list, we’re turning our attention to the Best Original Song category. There have been plenty of classics and just as many duds over the years, but which one do you think should top the list as the best original movie song of all time?
Does Lady Gaga’s performance in A Star is Born overtake that of Barbara Streisand’s? Which Disney song do you think ranks highest? When you look at the Best Original Song winners & nominees, is there a different tune you think should’ve earned the top prize? Get ready for a debate because you’re bound to have some strong opinions on these rankings.
Best Songs Written for Movies
Ranking the Best Original Song Winners
For this list, we listened to every song. Inevitably, that meant enjoying a lot of hits that went on to become critical aspects of the zeitgeist. Other songs have not held up well to the hands of time.
Practically every genre of music is represented here from rock to folk to country to hip-hop. We looked at how well the song represented the film itself and how it influenced movie music in the years to follow.
You may not agree with the rankings on this list, and that’s all right. Hopefully, this list sparks a discussion on what makes Oscar winning songs unique and enjoyable. Without further ado, let’s dive right in.
Song of the South (1946)
It may be hard to imagine, but in 1947, the Best Original Song Oscar went to “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah.” It would take several decades for people to realize how uncomfortably racist the film is, but that hasn’t stopped the song from continuously being played in Disney theme parks. Now, whenever you hear the song, you can’t help but flinch in discomfort.
Waikiki Wedding (1937)
83. “Sweet Leilani”Bing Crosby performed “Sweet Leilani” in the film Waikiki Wedding, a film that really faded into obscurity over the years. It comes in at barely over a minute in length. Its win was even more remarkable when you consider Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs came out the same year and had plenty of more memorable songs.
82. “You’ll Be in My Heart”
Phil Collins took a page out of Elton John’s playbook by writing the music for an animated Disney film. Most of them work all right, but the song that won an Oscar, “You’ll Be in My Heart,” is as cheesy as it gets.
Born Free (1966)
81. “Born Free”There’s only room on this list for one song from a movie about lions, and no offense to anyone who worked on “Born Free,” but you can’t really top The Lion King. The unearned grandiosity makes it overly melodramatic, and the impact it should have is just missing.
The Poseidon Adventure (1972)
80. “The Morning After”
“The Morning After” just might be one of the most pretentious pieces to win the Academy Awards Best Song, and that’s saying something. It’s an overblown track that promises of better tomorrows, which doesn’t quite gel with a film about people dying on a capsizing boat.
Neptune’s Daughter (1949)
79. “Baby It’s Cold Outside”
A lot of people don’t realize that the now infamous Christmas song originally came from the film “Neptune’s Daughter.” Regardless of how you feel about the song, there’s no denying the actual scene it comes from doesn’t do it any favors.
78. “Gigi”Gigi is a fairly mediocre musical about a man grooming a woman to become a courtesan. The titular song is supposed to be a declaration of love, but it’s just Gaston talking with rhythm. It’s lazy and forgettable.
Here Comes the Groom (1951)
77. “In the Cool, Cool, Cool of the Evening”
If there was one word to describe “In the Cool, Cool, Cool of the Evening,” it would be “extra.” Bing Crosby and Jane Wyman do their best with the song, but it’s far too much and goes on for much too long.
Doctor Dolittle (1967)
76. “Talk to the Animals”
It’s hard to imagine how this song could ever rank among Oscar winning songs. For starters, Rex Harrison doesn’t actually sing; he talks the whole way through. It’s silly, which makes it appropriate for the film but not for our hearts and minds.
You Light Up My Life (1977)
75. “You Light Up My Life”The Saturday Night Fever soundtrack was right there for the Academy. Not only was it not even nominated, the award ultimately went to “You Light Up My Life.” It’s a soft rock ballad that makes for a nice sleeping aid if you struggle from insomnia.
An Inconvenient Truth (2006)
74. “I Need to Wake Up”Good intentions can’t save a bad song. The message of An Inconvenient Truth really could’ve been amplified with a great protest song urging people to take action. Unfortunately, what we got was an uninspired song filled with clichés.
Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing (1955)
73. “Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing”
The Academy has a tendency to reward easy listening. That’s on full display with the over-the-top and schmaltzy “Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing” winning the Best Original Song Oscar in 1955.
The Towering Inferno (1974)
72. “We May Never Love Like This Again”
Listen to “We May Never Love Like This Again” and then “The Morning After.” You could pretty much swap them out of their respective movies, and it really wouldn’t make much of a difference.
Captain Carey, U.S.A. (1950)
71. “Mona Lisa”
“Mona Lisa” became a hit when Nat King Cole covered it. The original version is limp in comparison.
A Hole in the Head (1959)
70. “High Hopes”
“High Hopes” is a song about good, old-fashioned American can-do attitude. John F. Kennedy actually used the piece as his campaign song, which becomes a bit ironic when you look at what movie the song comes from.
69. “Writing’s on the Wall”
There have been plenty of fantastic James Bond theme songs over the years. “Writing’s on the Wall” kind of isn’t one of them. We suspect it won because the Academy was riding high off of Adele’s song years earlier, but this one just lacks that same punch.
The Prince of Egypt (1998)
68. “When You Believe”
It’s easy to see why “When You Believe” won the Academy Award for Best Original Song. It combines the talents of two of the greatest singers of the 90s, and honestly, it should be a lot better than what it is. It starts slow and builds to something that should have felt far more epic in scope.
67. “You Must Love Me”Here’s another song featuring an iconic pop star from the 90s that fails to live up to expectations years later. The film adaptation of Evita featured all of the songs from the hit Broadway musical, but they wrote this one specifically for the film. It’s the weakest of the bunch by far and feels more like it was an award for the great music in the film overall.
A Star Is Born (1976)
66. “Evergreen (Love Theme From A Star Is Born)”
Barbra Streisand knows how to make a song melodramatic. Unfortunately, any kind of tragic sadness that could have been infused in “Evergreen” is sorely missing, making this a forgettable recipient of the Oscar statue.
The Harvey Girls (1946)
65. “On the Atchison, Topeka and the Santa-Fe”
Judy Garland makes a valiant effort, and it’s incredibly impressive how she filmed the entire song in one take. However, a song about public transportation means this song was destined to get lost in the zeitgeist a long time ago.
Three Coins in the Fountain (1954)
64. “Three Coins in the Fountain”
This Frank Sinatra song is truly inseparable from the film sharing the same name if for no other reason that you have to watch the movie to know exactly what he’s singing about. Still, it’s a catchy tune Ol’ Blue Eyes does well with.
Crazy Heart (2009)
63. “The Weary Kind”
It’s a nice song on its own. However, in the context of the film, it’s a bit hard to believe such a restrained song would go on to become a smash hit.
The Sandpiper (1965)
62. “The Shadow of Your Smile”
“The Shadow of Your Smile” is a short, sweet little song. It may not be the most memorable song on the list, but it gets the job done.
The Woman in Red (1984)
61. “I Just Called to Say I Love You”
c“I Just Called to Say I Love You” is a great song from Stevie Wonder. It just doesn’t rank any higher when you see the other Oscar nominated songs that year like “Footloose” and “Ghostbusters.” It was clearly a case of the Academy playing it safe, but it’s a good song nonetheless.
White Nights (1985)
60. “Say You Say Me”
“Say You Say Me” is a very 80s song for better and worse. The synths are incredible, but the lyrics really lack However, that tempo change really makes up for it.
Days of Wine and Roses (1962)
59. “Days of Wine and Roses”
The right song can tell you everything you need about a film. The 1962 film Days of Wine and Roses opens with this slow, melancholic song. It may be slow to get going, but it prepares you emotionally for what’s to come.
Toy Story 3 (2010)
58. “We Belong Together”Randy Newman finally won a Best Original Song Oscar for a Toy Story film with “We Belong Together.” While it’s not as memorable as “You’ve Got a Friend in Me,” it’s still a wonderful ode to friendship.
State Fair (1945)
57. “It Might as Well Be Spring”
“It Might as Well Be Spring” is your standard declaration from a woman wanting more. The words themselves are beautiful, but it could’ve been far more impactful had there been more emotion behind the singing to show how sad she is.
Norma Rae (1979)
56. “It Goes Like It Goes”
A song all about American determinism. It’s one of the more underrated Best Original Song winners. Although it tends to be overlooked, it’s worth a re-listen every now and then.
Never on Sunday (1960)
55. “Never on Sunday”
One of the rare foreign language songs to win Best Original Song at the Academy Awards. It’s a beautiful song in the native Greek, but in the English translation, you realize it’s a song about a woman who’s okay with getting kissed every day of the week except Sunday. Whatever. It’s still pretty.
Norma Rae (1979)
56. “It Goes Like It Goes”
A song all about American determinism. It’s one of the more underrated Oscar winning songs. Although it tends to be overlooked, it’s worth a re-listen every now and then.
The Paleface (1948)
54. “Buttons and Bows”Bob Hope was a national treasure, and nowhere was that on better display than The Paleface. He led a jolly, accordion-driven song you can’t help but smile along to.
The Muppets (2011)
53. “Man or Muppet”
“Man or Muppet” is hilarious, and it earns its spot among the Muppet musical hall of fame. However, it didn’t have much competition in the ceremony with only one other song earning a nomination alongside it.
High Noon (1952)
52. “The Ballad of High Noon (Do Not Foresake Me Oh My Darling)”
This Oscar winner straight-up describes the plot of the movie. Amazingly, it doesn’t ruin the experience, and it provides the sensation you’re listening to the final death march of our hero.
51. “Arthur’s Theme (The Best That You Can Do)”
“Arthur’s Theme” was a big hit when it was released. It’s a good song, but it sounds more like the opening of a sitcom than an Oscar-winning hit.
Lady Be Good (1941)
50. “The Last Time I Saw Paris”
“The Last Time I Saw Paris” is a bittersweet song. You can hear the sadness in the singer’s voice, appropriate considering the song and film it came from were released during the height of Nazi occupation. It doesn’t really have anything to do with the film it’s in, but it’s great nonetheless.
Dick Tracy (1990)
49. “Sooner or Later (I Always Get My Man)”
Madonna gives “Sooner or Later” just enough jazzy influence to feel like the song truly came out of the 1940s. It’s a much-appreciated throwback that puts you right into the world of the film.
Hello, Frisco, Hello (1943)
48. “You’ll Never Know”
A love song that soars despite its simplicity. Alice Faye was an incredible talent during this time in Hollywood, and “You’ll Never Know” gave her a chance to shine.
Wonder Boys (2000)
47. “Things Have Changed”
Bob Dylan still making awesome songs 40 years after entering the music industry is impressive in and of itself. “Things Have Changed” has all of the hallmarks you have come to expect out of a Dylan song, and it’s just great.
Monsters, Inc. (2001)
46. “If I Didn’t Have You”
“If I Didn’t Have You” is another Randy Newman song about friendship written for a Pixar film. However, the chemistry between John Goodman and Billy Crystal is an absolute delight.
The Joker Is Wild (1957)
45. “All the Way”
“All the Way” is Frank Sinatra at his best. It’s a song about the commitment you make when you decide to love someone. It opens with some classic Sinatra flair and goes into a ditty that exemplified everything great about music in the 50s.
The Motorcycle Diaries (2004)
44. “Al otro lado del rio”
It’s a soft, sweet little song. It’s a song that sets the mood, and even if you don’t know what he’s singing, you’ll have a smile on your face.
“Fame” is a fun, funky song. However, it’s a bit deceptive. While it’s fun, which no doubt helped it win the Academy Award for Best Original Song, it doesn’t quite represent the darkness you find in the film. Still, it’s great to dance to.
Working Girl (1988)
42. “Let the River Run”Working Girl might be one of the most 80s movies ever made, and “Let the River Run” is the most appropriate song they could have made for it. All it takes is one listen, and you will want to pull yourself up to ascend the corporate ladder.
Gold Diggers of 1935 (1935)
41. “The Lullaby of Broadway”
“The Lullaby of Broadway” is a Hollywood classic. Although the song itself may be missing some key components, the shot itself is a cinematic feat. It opens with a two-minute one-shot take of Wini Shaw that every cinematographer should study.
An Officer and a Gentleman (1982)
40. “Up Where We Belong”
The 80s were never short of love ballads. It may be overly sentimental, but “Up Where We Belong” still knows how to pluck at your heartstrings. It doesn’t hurt that it’s sung by Joe Cocker putting emotion into every note.
The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956)
39. “Whatever Will Be, Will Be (Qué Será, Será)”
It’s a cheery song on first listen. Dig deeper and it can be a bit of a bummer to dwell on. The chorus has endured through the decades, but no parody will ever be able to top Doris Day’s performance.
Papa’s Delicate Condition (1963)
38. “Call Me Irresponsible”
“Call Me Irresponsible” is jovial enough. What is lacks in actual singing talent is made up for in Jackie Gleason’s performance who goes from angry to sweet one second to the next. You can’t help but feel for the man in this scene.
Slumdog Millionaire (2008)
37. “Jai Ho”
With an infectious beat, it’s easy to see why “Jai Ho” became a hit in 2008. The song captures Indian culture so well, and even if you don’t know the words, you’ll chime in when it gets to the “Jai ho.”
The Lion King (1994)
36. “Can You Feel the Love Tonight?”The Lion King actually had a few Oscar nominated songs. “Can You Feel the Love Tonight?” ultimately took home the prize. In the decades since, it has become a staple in Disney’s catalog even if “Hakuna Matata” is more of a crowd-pleaser.
The Big Broadcast of 1938 (1938)
35. “Thanks for the Memory”
“Thanks for the Memory” winning the Academy Award for Best Original Song is all the more impressive when you consider it’s a duet between divorcees. The song may have an undertone of bitterness, but ultimately, you can feel the love the two lovers share. It makes sense later when they get back together.
Thank God It’s Friday (1978)
34. “Last Dance”
“Last Dance” went on to become a disco staple. It’s the kind of song that transports you to a very specific time and place, and as long as you’re willing to go along for the ride, it’s a treat. Donna Summers may not show off that vocal range we all know she’s capable of, but the song makes everyone in the house boogie.
Going My Way (1944)
33. “Swinging on a Star”
The lyrics and music come together to create a nice slice of old-fashioned Americana in “Swinging on a Star.” The song talks about how if you don’t do what you’re supposed to, you’ll turn into an animal. It’s catchy, and once you hear it once, it’ll be stuck in your head for the rest of the day.
Swing Time (1936)
32. “The Way You Look Tonight”
“The Way You Look Tonight” is delightfully complex. It’s a love song, but it also despairs at the acknowledgement that this one perfect moment will one day be a memory. It avoids sap and delivers a heartfelt message about how you wish you could hang onto the version of the person you love just one moment longer.
Beauty and the Beast (1991)
31. “Beauty and the Beast”
Disney had a resurgence in the early 90s in no small part due to the incredible songs that accompanied their new films. It’s a simple, loving ode for characters who made their way into millions of hearts.
Holiday Inn (1942)
30. “White Christmas”
It’s arguably the most American Christmas song ever written. You may be sick of it by this point, but you can’t deny the original sung by Bing Crosby brings to mind all those memories of Christmases past.
29. “Colors of the Wind”
No pun intended, but “Colors of the Wind” really soars. Some may think it oversimplifies Native American’s belief systems, but you can’t beat Judy Kuhn’s magnificent voice. And it spreads a nice environmentalist message long before it was popular.
Calamity Jane (1953)
28. “Secret Love”
Secrets usually have a negative connotation, but when you have Doris Day singing about them, you’ll find how magical they can be. The look in her eyes as she’s singing tells you all you need to know. The song has visions of awe and just a touch of melancholy, making it easy to see why it continues to resonate with people from all over.
Lovers and Other Strangers (1970)
27. “For All We Know”“For All We Know” punctuates the wedding scene at the end of Lovers and Other Strangers. It’s so sweet, it’s easy to see why it was a staple at wedding receptions throughout the 70s. Upon another listen, it deserves a resurgence in popularity.
“Skyfall” may just be the best Bond theme ever written. It’s a slow burn, but once you hear Adele belting out, “Let the sky fall,” the goosebumps appear. She set a bar for Bond themes that is practically near impossible to get over.
It’s rare a socially relevant song goes on to join the ranks of Oscar winning songs. Fortunately, that’s precisely what happened with “Glory.” The song brings in current events to tie into the message of Martin Luther King, Jr., enhancing the impact of an already powerful film.
Dirty Dancing (1987)
24. “(I’ve Had) The Time of My Life”
If you want to make a woman swoon, take her hands and take her into dance when this song plays. It plays next to the most iconic dance sequence in film history. It’s easy to see why it’s been sampled so many times in the years since its release.
23. “Flashdance… What a Feeling”
Is it quintessentially 80s? Yes, but in the best way. It has synths galore and lyrics about following your passion, and when you watch it with that final dance scene, a tear will roll down your cheek as she’s made it. She’s really made it.
Lord of the Rings: Return of the King (2003)
22. “Into the West”Lord of the Rings: Return of the King won so many Oscars, you probably forgot it also won the Academy Awards Best Song. It’s incredible for no other reason that it manages to capture both the sadness of the series ending while also reaching the epic heights the films were capable of. It served as a fitting end to one of the most famous and influential film trilogies of all time.
Mary Poppins (1964)
21. “Chim Chim Cher-ee”
Yes, Dick Van Dyke’s cockney accent is ridiculous, but when he goes into “Chim Chim Cher-ee,” you forget all about it. It’s catchy but melancholic at the same sending you into good and bad humors, sometimes simultaneously.
La La Land (2017)
20. “City of Stars”
It may have lost Best Picture, but La La Land still has some Oscars to its name, including the Best Original Song Oscar in 2018 for “City of Stars.” Despite their best efforts, they both long for a Hollywood that seems just out of their reach. In fact, the song makes it clear they wonder if their dreams have any hope of becoming reality.
Hustle and Flow (2005)
19. “It’s Hard Out Here for a Pimp”Three-Six Mafia won an Oscar before Martin Scorsese. To be fair, Scorsese never wrote a song as catchy as “It’s Hard Out Here for a Pimp.” It’s a fun break in the film as they record the single, and it’s a song perfectly suited for the themes present in Hustle and Flow.
18. “I’m Easy”
“I’m Easy” works perfectly in the scene it’s in. Three women listen intently, all believing the song is about them. Outside of the film, it’s a beautiful love song that would make any woman melt.
17. “Falling Slowly”
“Falling Slowly” is a different kind of love song. While it sounds sweet enough, both partners want to convince the other everything will be alright even in the face of utter diversity.
The Gay Divorcee (1934)
16. “The Continental”
“The Continental” was the first ever winner in the category, and it set a high bar for future Oscar winning songs. It still stands as one of the most impressive musical moments in film. The song itself is simple enough, but it really earns a leg-up when watching the nearly 16-minute scene it’s in. It’s a dance number old Hollywood was famous for, and watching it is bound to put a smile on anyone’s face.
15. “Remember Me”Anyone who didn’t cry in this scene in Coco has a heart of stone. It’s not just a great song about remembering those you love, but in the film, it’s an earnest attempt to get Mamá Coco to remember her father. It’s devastating but ultimately leads to a happy ending.
14. “Streets of Philadelphia”
Speaking of heartbreaking songs, Bruce Springsteen’s “Streets of Philadelphia” is about as dark as they come. It captures the isolation those suffering from AIDS felt, being abandoned by those they thought they could trust. Bruce was the perfect choice for this song as his “everyman” attitude conveys how anyone could be impacted by this deadly disease.
The Way We Were (1973)
13. “The Way We Were”Forget Robert Redford. The real star of The Way We Were is the song of the same name sung by Barbra Streisand. The song itself isn’t subtle, but when you have Streisand reach for those highs and delving into those lows, who needs subtlety?
12. “A Whole New World”
“A Whole New World” seems like it came out of the sky as the perfect song for a children’s movie. It instills a sense of awe as Aladdin and Jasmine travel across the world, seeing one locale after the next. All you need is a magic carpet.
A Star Is Born (2018)
A lot of the time you can tell what song will win the Oscar when you hear it in the film. For “Shallow,” you knew from the trailer. It’s not every day an Oscar contender ends up being played on the radio incessantly, but “Shallow” transcends those labels and became a bonafide pop hit in its own right and winning the Best Original Song Oscar in 2019.
Top Gun (1986)
10. “Take My Breath Away”It’s easy to forget the ultra-masculine Top Gun brought us Berlin’s “Take My Breath Away.” It’s a love song that feels right at home during romantic dances and steamy sex scenes. It’s a pure and perfect song for bringing couples together, and it certainly ranks as one of the best songs written for movies.
9. “Let It Go”
In 2013, you couldn’t go anywhere without hearing kids belt out, “Let it go!” It’s a great piece of musical craftsmanship, and it captures a unique part of the film, namely when the antagonist comes into her own. The song itself packs so much narrative development into it, and when it’s accompanied by those beautiful visuals, even adults have to admit they love it.
8. “My Heart Will Go On”Titanic probably became the highest-grossing film at the time in part due to this song. It’s overplayed and excessively earnest, but when Celine Dion sings those high notes, boy, she really nails them. Now that we're far away from Titanic mania, it’s safe to admit you like this song again.
The Little Mermaid (1989)
7. “Under the Sea”
Unlike other songs on this list, “Under the Sea” isn’t about love or lead to some giant proclamation that moves forward the plot. It’s just fun, and when you have a film about mermaids, fun is all you want. The Caribbean influences are perfectly utilized, making it stand out from the rest of Disney’s catalog.
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969)
6. “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head”
Few songs are as comforting as “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head.” What’s truly remarkable is how the song feels conventional even though it’s anything but. It leads into a raucous trumpet solo before going back into the lyrics, and somehow, it works.
8 Mile (2002)
5. “Lose Yourself”
Nearly 20 years after it came out, and you can still hear a Best Original Song winner on the radio. It’s an impressive feat, but “Lose Yourself” absolutely deserves the honor. In a film about music, the song perfectly captures what it feels like when you have butterflies in your stomach and impossible expectations to exceed. But you do it anyway.
4. “When You Wish Upon a Star”
No song captures Disney’s mythos better than “When You Wish Upon a Star.” It truly has that indescribable “Disney magic” that harkens back to everyone’s childhoods. You’ll believe in magic again when listening.
Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961)
3. “Moon River”“Moon River” is the true heart of Breakfast at Tiffany’s. It’s a song perfectly tailored for a character like Holly Golightly. It’s an ode to an era long gone but still fondly remembered.
2. “Theme From Shaft”“Theme From Shaft” was ahead of its name. It combines numerous musical genres in a way only Isaac Hayes could muster. The call and response later in the song is the epitome of cool that literally tells you everything you need to know before the plot starts, and in addition to being one of the best songs written for movies, it’s also very fun.
The Wizard of Oz (1939)
1. “Over the Rainbow”
The #1 spot may have been predictable, but it’s legacy can’t be denied. People know the lyrics to “Over the Rainbow” as well as they remember their names. It has stood the test of time thanks to its ever-prescient lyrics about dreaming for something more out of life, which is why your grandkids will also sing this song.
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