1. “Simple Song #3” (“Youth”): Pulitzer Prize-winning composer David Lang looked inward at his minimalistic roots to compose this song that summarizes the life of a retired conductor (Michael Caine) forced to confront his mortality at a Fellini-esque Swiss spa. He also found inspiration in Igor Stravinsky’s mathematical precision but at the same time was emotionally demonstrative. The result is that the entire movie hangs on a song that’s anything but simple.
2. “Writing’s on the Wall” (“Spectre”): Despite some sniping from hardcore fans, Sam Smith’s melancholy ballad became the first James Bond theme to reach #1 in the UK. He captures the essence of Bond’s POV, which is a rarity: he’s lonely and trapped and looking for a way out. In fact, Smith, who was touched by Bond’s vulnerability, admitted that Sam Mendes instructed him to write a love song about 007 calling it quits.
3. “Til It Happens to You” (“The Hunting Ground”): From the acclaimed doc about campus rape, Lady Gaga sings with vulnerability and defiance, complemented by soaring strings. It’s co-written by seven-time Oscar nominee Diane Warren, and the song was also part of a PSA video directed by Catherine Hardwicke, which depicts a series of violent assaults against women.
4. “So Long” (“Concussion”): Texas R&B singer/songwriter Leon Bridges captures just the right tone in this poignant song about Dr. Bennet Omalu (Will Smith) and his crusade against the NFL in exposing head trauma and degenerative brain disease. Bridges was naturally inspired by Omalu’s persistence and outsider status, but found a deeply personal message about hometown jealousy when you become successful and feel unwelcome and the need to maybe move on.
5. “See You Again” (“Furious 7”): This hip-hop tribute to the late Paul Walker by rapper Wiz Khalifa and singer/songwriter Charlie Puth stands apart as a heartwarming summary song. But for Puth, it has a deeper meaning because of a friend who also died in a car accident, which comes across in his emotional vocal performance. Meanwhile, the Khalifa music video is one of the most viewed of all time, with 1.2 billion views on YouTube.
6. “The Light That Never Fails” (“Meru”): R&B star Andra Day co-composed and performed this uplifting song for the Sundance Audience Award-winning doc, in which renowned alpinists Conrad Anker, Jimmy Chin and Renan Ozturk tried a second time to successfully climb The Shark’s Fin on Mount Meru. The San Diego native, discovered by Stevie Wonder, passionately captures what it’s like to achieve the insurmountable.