Monday, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences revealed the 15 tracks that have been shortlisted for the Best Original Song Oscar this year. And while there were a handful of head-scratching omissions (from heavyweights like Céline Dion’s “Ashes” to soul-stirring dark horses like the title track from “Hearts Beat Loud”), the songs that are still in contention represent one of the strongest fields in recent memory. The remaining tunes represent a wide variety of musical styles, running the gam from country to hip hop, from a Disney ballad to a smirking parody of Disney ballads, and from superhero epics to “A Star Is Born.”
Here are the 15 tracks that are still in the running for Best Original Song, ranked from worst to best.
15. “I’ll Fight” (Diane Warren)
A generic pop anthem that’s only enlivened by Jennifer Hudson’s brilliant vocals, “I’ll Fight” is the kind of bland, inspirational rallying cry that legendary songwriter Diane Warren could write in her sleep; one of the first injustices of the long 2018-2019 Oscar season is that this dull “Fight Song” knockoff got more of a push than “Why Did You Do That?,” the immortal ode to butts that Warren penned for “A Star is Born.” With lyrics like “When each night is like a battle you can’t win / and the pain is like a weight you’re carrying / I will be the one to help you carry it,” “I’ll Fight” is wholly unworthy of soundtracking a documentary about Ruth Bader Ginsburg — hell, it’s barely worthy of soundtracking a documentary about Neil Gorsuch. However, in the unlikely event that it manages to score a nomination, here’s hoping that RBG shows up to sing it herself.
14. “The Place Where Lost Things Go” (Marc Shaiman & Scott Wittman)
Movie: “Mary Poppins Returns”
As a gentle, reassuring lullaby for grieving children — a spoonful of sugar to help the medicine go down, so to speak — “The Place Where Lost Things Go” has all sorts of genuine therapeutic value. As a piece of music about the power of memory, on the other hand, this tuneless ditty that Mary Poppins whispers to the newly motherless Banks children sure is easy to forget. In the context of the movie, the track helps to convey the magical nanny’s gift for getting right to the heart of things, and for speaking to kids with an emotional logic that they might understand. On its own, the melody just isn’t strong enough to hold your attention, which may ultimately be more of a feature than a bug in a song that’s trying to put its target audience to sleep.
13. “A Place Called Slaughter Race” (Phil Johnston, Tom MacDougall, and Alan Menken)
Movie: “Ralph Breaks the Internet”
An amusing and adorably twisted send-up of the “I Want” songs that bedrock every animated musical ever made, “A Place Called Slaughter Race” finds little Venellope von Schweetz (Sarah Silverman) trying to become the center of her very own musical number. Following the advice of the Disney princesses she’s just met, the glitchy little girl stares into a reflective pool of water and reveals her greatest dream: To live in a hyper-violent dystopian video game called “Slaughter Race.” It’s a fun bait-and-switch that allows Silverman — and Gal Gadot, among a small chorus of other voices — to sing a cutesy tune about “fallen wires, dumpster fires, creepy clowns, and burning tires” but the joke wears thin, and it lacks a power chorus worthy of the classic songs it’s meant to parody.
12. “Treasure” (Sampha)
Movie: “Beautiful Boy”
Any and all new music from South London singer-songwriter Sampha is reason to celebrate, even if the thin and directionless “Treasure” feels like a b-side that was rightly left off his essential 2017 debut LP, “Process.” This pretty (if fittingly anxious) song finds a proper home on the soundtrack for “Beautiful Boy,” as Sampha’s breathy vocals flutter above an erratic Nils Frahm-like piano melody, the brewing chaos underneath his words helping to evoke the instability of addiction and the tumult of going through it together. Much like the movie that inspired it, however, “Treasure” doesn’t really go anywhere so much as it runs out of gas, its touching search for catharsis frustrated by a clear lack of direction.
11. “Trip a Little Light Fantastic” (Marc Shaiman & Scott Wittman)
Movie: “Mary Poppins Returns”
Credit where credit is due: “Trip a Little Light Fantastic” is hardly the best song in “Mary Poppins Returns” (that honor goes to the boisterous “A Cover Is not the Book,” inexplicably overlooked in favor of this headache waiting to happen), but it does a fantastic job of capturing the brassy and boisterous optimism of the original movie. Like almost every other song in this sleepy Disney sequel, “Trip a Little Light Fantastic” is a loud and insistently upbeat ode to looking at the bright side of things; in this case, a leerie played by Lin Manuel-Miranda literally helps to light the way home for the Banks children, his cartoon-sized Cockney accent instructing everyone within earshot to ignore their troubles and tapdance the blues away. Starting as a gentle pick-me-up before exploding into a cacophony of horns and shouts, the number does a fine job of channeling Miranda’s goofy charm, and an Academy Award nomination would be a just reward for a song that feels as though it were written to jolt a sleepy Oscar telecast back to life.
10. “We Won’t Move” (Arlissa)
Movie: “The Hate U Give”
An effective showcase for emerging British singer-songwriter Arlissa Ruppert, as well as a galvanizing protest anthem for the climax (and credits) of a movie that more than earns this degree of stoic resolve, “We Won’t Move” is exactly what you want to hear at the end of “The Hate U Give.” It’s earnest from its first note to its last, and builds rather beautifully as Arlissa plaintive voice starts to echo and reverberate like a full chorus is behind her. “We Won’t Move” may not be the most memorable song on the shortlist, but it resonates with the courage of its convictions, and leaves behind a feeling that’s hard to shake.
9. “Revelation” (Troye Sivan & Jónsi)
Movie: “Boy Erased”
The clever thing about this cathartic ballad — a duet between Australian pop star Troye Sivan and Sigur Rós frontman Jónsi, which pops up throughout gay conversion therapy drama “Boy Erased” — is how it subverts the devotional sounds of Christian rock to create an anthem for those who feel dispossessed by religious doctrine. Singing about liberation (and its lack of hellish consequences) with the same kind of hushed and sacred tone that should be instantly familiar to anyone raised on the likes of Lifehouse and Jars of Clay, Sivan aims his message of freedom and encouragement at the people who most need to hear it. Jónsi ensures that some ethereal Sigur Rós vibes simmer under the surface, but the song feels diluted by that extra shimmer in the background, and it’s frustrating that the arena-sized emotional release it anticipates never comes.
8. “Girl in the Movies” (Dolly Parton)
Okay, so let’s forget for a second that Dolly Parton’s ode to the awe and aspiration of sitting in a movie theater was commissioned for a Netflix film — Dolly is too good to be demeaned by semantics (have the streaming wars not caused enough collateral damage!?). With that fine print out of the way, we’re left with a delightful country ballad that channels a lifetime of frustrated dreams into a heartfelt song about candy and coming attractions. There aren’t many artists who could access a deep emotional undercurrent below lyrics like “Popcorn, soda, box of Raisinets / Velvet-cushioned seats and soft armrests / Best seat in my favorite movie house,” but Parton makes it sound oh so easy, and oh so sweet (like, say, eating an entire pack of Red Vines during the opening credits).
7. “Keep Reachin’” (Quincy Jones feat. Chaka Khan & Mark Ronson)
Quincy Jones might be 85 years old, but — to the surprise of absolutely no one — the iconic titan of the music industry still knows how to write a good song. Joined here by Chaka Khan and hitmaker Mark Ronson, the producer delivers a casual and catchy (if kinda repetitive) funk bop about his refusal to throw in the towel. Built atop a snappy groove and chock full of bouncy horn parts (not to mention the hottest sax riff on the Oscar shortlist), “Keep Reachin’” is the best part of the middling documentary that inspired it, and plenty inspirational in its own fun way.
6. “The Big Unknown” (Sade)
After a seven-year hiatus, the incomparable Sade returned to the studio to soundtrack two different movies this year. And while “The Flower of the Universe” was a highlight of “A Wrinkle in Time,” the Academy chose to overlook that proud and achingly beautiful ode from a parent to their child in favor of the slinky original slow-jam that Sade contributed to Steve McQueen’s “Widows.” While it might not boast the same emotional backbone that made Sade’s other new tune such a powerful return, “The Big Unknown” is still a vintage tune from someone whose voice is hot enough to make even the most basic melody catch fire. Taking its cues from the wistful heist thriller that inspired it, “The Big Unknown” is equal parts sexy and wounded; it’s a song about the refusal to surrender, but Sade’s immaculate vulnerability graces every line with a soft touch of desperation. “Widows” proved to be surprisingly divisive, but everyone can agree that Sade deserves to be on that Oscar stage.
5. “OYAHYTT” (The Coup ft. Lakeith Stanfield)
Movie: “Sorry to Bother You”
Oh yeah! Alright! Hell yeah! That’s tight!
A few months ago, if someone had told you that two Best Original Song contenders would be (at least partially) sung by the directors of the films for which they were composed, your first thought probably would have been something like: “I can’t wait to hear Clint Eastwood’s wistful piano ballad about a mule.” Thankfully, Boots Riley had a better idea. The frontman of the incendiary Oakland hip hop group The Coup long before he was a filmmaker, Riley knew that exactly what “Sorry to Bother You” needed to sound like, and that his voice has to come through it in more ways than one. Riding a crunchy guitar riff and a hook that’s as catchy and propulsive as anything in The Coup’s deep back catalogue, “OYAHYTT” captures the revolutionary fire that burns throughout the year’s best anti-capitalist satire. Even before Lakeith Stanfield shows up in the second half (“I got a bullet and I’m willing to bang / Get your ass so benedict you’re willing to get slain”), this song already boasts more raw energy than the rest of the tracks combined.
4. “When a Cowboy Trades His Spurs for Wings” (David Rawlings & Gillian Welch)
Movie: “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs”
One of the unlikeliest songs on the shortlist — and absolutely one of the best — “When a Cowboy Trades His Spurs for Wings” is a perfect, harmonica-inflected encapsulation of the Coen brothers’ cockeyed worldview: It’s funny but not mocking, silly, but not satirical, resigned to death, but not all that sentimental about it. Appearing in “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” as a wonderful grace note at the end of the anthology’s first story, the song manages to feel like both a winking joke about the old West, and also a genuine relic from it. If not for sly lyrical gags (“Unsaddle my pony / She’ll be itching to roam / I’ll be halfway to heaven / Under horsepower of my own”) you could almost be fooled into thinking that the tune has been kicking around the plains like a tumbleweed for the last century or so.
3. “All the Stars” (Kendrick Lamar, SZA, Sounwave, and Al Shux))
Movie: “Black Panther”
“Black Panther” was always going to be more than just another Marvel movie, but it wasn’t until they hired Kendrick Lamar to quarterback the soundtrack that some people started to realize how much more it was really going to be. Beyond the basic credibility that he brought with him, Lamar also contributed a couple of different songs to the album that he curated for the superhero phenomenon, including lead single, “All the Stars,” which has now been stuck in your head for the entire year.
Ridiculously catchy from the moment SZA starts flexing atop a slinky trip-hop beat, the track only gets more addictive when Lamar rolls up with all of the swagger and sensitivity that make T’Challa such a natural born king. Given how corporate this franchise is — and how small the overlap between profits and artistry can be in the Venn Diagram of the Marvel Cinematic Universe — it’s incredible that two of the world’s most exciting artists collaborated in the name of Wakanda to make such vital music together. A live performance is guaranteed to be the highlight of any Oscar telecast.
2. “Suspirium” (Thom Yorke)
Now that Jonny Greenwood has firmly established himself as one of the most exciting film composers in the world today, his Radiohead bandmate Thom Yorke is trying to follow suit. So far, so great. The haunting and eccentric score that Yorke composed for Luca Guadagnino’s “Suspiria” remake is a recurring highlight in a movie that is almost entirely comprised of highlights, and makes us optimistic that Yorke and Guadagnino might forge a musical collaboration as strong as the one between Greenwood and Paul Thomas Anderson.
Unlike Greenwood, however, Yorke is a singer (his ominous falsetto is one of the most affecting instruments in the “Suspiria” score), and several of his contributions to the film meet the Academy’s criteria for Best Original Song. Chief among them: The plaintively beautiful “Suspirium,” which plays over the opening credits and sets the tone for the psychological evisceration to come. Running atop a lilting piano melody, and set to incisive lyrics that cut to the heart of Guadagnino’s remake (“This is waltz thinking about our bodies/what they mean for our salvation”), the song is as fragile and tortured as the movie for which it was written, and it only grows more unnerving once a solo flute starts dancing above the closing sections. It’s one of the best solo tracks that Yorke has ever written, though it’s hard to imagine the attention-averse rock god actually showing up at the Dolby Theatre to sing it.
Movie: “A Star Is Born”
The closest thing to a lock at this year’s Oscars, “Shallow” deserves to be the prohibitive favorite for Best Original Song; indeed, the greatest challenge of Lady Gaga’s nascent acting career will be feigning surprise when this soaring power-ballad brings her one step closer to an EGOT. “Shallow,” a folksy pep talk that erupts into an arena-sized anthem about getting over yourself and diving headfirst into love, was used to such brilliant effect in the trailer for “A Star Is Born” that it became a bonafide phenomenon before the actual movie even hit theaters. Not only is the song a sublime vehicle for Gaga’s voice (and the personality she’s always poured into it), it somehow plays even better in its proper, as Bradley Cooper uses it as both script and soundtrack for one of the most exciting scenes of the year. Galvanizing a performance worthy of the the Best Actress nomination that’s coming its way, Gaga crashes through the surface with such force that you can feel her character shattering every limitation she’s ever set for herself.