A great many things will be different about the Oscars this year, but it would take more than a world-collapsing pandemic to stop the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences from upholding its proudest tradition of all: Assembling a shortlist of Best Original Song nominees full of faux-inspirational power ballads that were only commissioned for the end credits of their respective movies in order to be considered for an Oscar in this category. As ever, it’s a great year for any musician who lent their talents to extracurricular songs with titles such as “Rise Now,” “Hear Me,” and “Listen to Me Sing (Give Me that Gold Statue),” while artists like “Emma” star Johnny Flynn missed the cut for having the temerity to write something that demanded listeners’ attention. That doesn’t explain why a supernova like Taylor Swift missed the cut for her top-notch voting anthem “Only the Young,” or account for the fact that Han Ye-ri’s little ditty from the end credits of “Minari” has become a surefire contender, but it speaks to a category that feels increasingly motivated by chaos.
At the same time, in this most chaotic of Oscar seasons, this year’s crop of Best Original Song contenders also serves as a hopeful reminder that chaos can be as much of a ladder as it is a pit. Look past the limp Charlie Puth power-ballads and Diane Warren’s annual blood sacrifice and you’ll find a rich mix of work from major Black artists (some of whom are handcuffed by their songs, and others who manage to transcend them), two contenders that are sung in a language other than English, and a pair of joke songs that range from the ridiculous to the sublime.
Here are all 15 songs that are still eligible for the 2021 Best Original Song category, ranked from worst to best.
The best thing that can be said about this miserable dreck — the kind of limply uplifting mid-tempo muzak that should only be heard through the tinny speakers of a sad highway gas station at 3:25am — is that it’s the perfect credits song for a movie that was demoted to Disney+ in order to quench subscribers’ bloodlust for fresh content between seasons of “The Mandalorian.” Like so much of the white noise that’s been pumped out to the world during these early years of the streaming era, Charlie Puth’s “Free” is recycled dross so forgettable that listening to it by choice feels like Neuralyzing yourself through your ears (it works if you press the button hard enough). Even “The One and Only Ivan,” a kids movie about talking animals that only “exists” by the strictest legal definition of that word, deserves better than Puth so clumsily stumbling through lyrics like “Free as the grass that’s right under your feet / Free as the sky underneath your wings” that you can almost hear him doubting his career choices with every uncertain note. This is an embarrassing inclusion, even by the standards of a category that often seems like propaganda for a return to silent films.
John Legend has never met an off-the-rack inspirational anthem that he didn’t want to sing the shit out of, and “Never Break” is about as John Legend-y as it gets. As mellifluously anodyne as the Oscar-winning “Glory” was soul-stirring, the crooner’s latest Oscar contender is the kind of song that you might expect to hear over the closing credits of (a rather good) Netflix documentary about Broadway-bound students auditioning for a spot in the August Wilson Monologue Competition. Legend sleepwalks through the lazy chorus with the grace of an Olympic gymnast, singing “we will never break” over and over and goosing the already-effective “Giving Voice” with a placebo shot of emotional uplift during the 15-second countdown before “Bridgerton” starts auto-playing. Will they ever break? No they will not.
Disney’s ill-fated “Mulan” remake was never going to carry a tune as powerful and timeless as the one that Christina Aguilera contributed to the animated version way back when, but that was never going to stop the Mouse House from trying (neither was the fact that Niki Caro’s live-action “Mulan” isn’t a musical, for that matter). If only they had tried harder. Like the movie for which it was written, “Loyal Brave True” is a pale reflection of what came before, as a thunder of tanggu drums soon give way to a blandly soaring ballad about a warrior princess’ self-doubt. Aguilera’s voice is still unimpeachable, and the guzheng strings lend the song an occasional sense of identity, but that doesn’t last very long. “Reflection” still continues to echo more than 20 years after it was first laid down, but “Loyal Brave True” is barely memorable enough to be forgotten.
It wouldn’t be a Best Original Song shortlist without a throwaway C-side co-written by the legendary Diane Warren (looking for her 12th nomination and first win). The big twist this year? Her annual contribution is sung in Italian. And truth be told, that ain’t nothing. After striking out with “Stand Up for Something” in 2018, “I’ll Fight” in 2019, and “I’m Standing with You” in 2020, Warren sorely needed a change of pace, and making the lyrics unintelligible for most of the AMPAS voting body might be just what the doctor ordered. At the very least, this basic yet heartfelt ballad — written for Netflix’s Sophia Loren vehicle “The Life Ahead” — forgoes the language of prefab resistance in favor of a song about the power of feeling seen, and Italian singer Laura Pausini loads enough oomph into every line to ensure that nothing gets lost in translation. Yet as much as we hope that Warren gets to win an Oscar one day, this isn’t the song that should end her losing streak.
26-year-old British singer-songwriter Celeste Epiphany Waite is an outrageous talent at the precipice of a career that should make her a force in this category (among other, more illustrious places) for decades to come. Alas, the limp “Hear My Voice” — a cooing plea that’s just as generic as its Oscar-ready title, and poorly served by its attachment to a bad film that never stops talking — shouldn’t earn Waite the first of her many future nominations. Co-written with composer Daniel Pemberton, “Hear My Voice” swirls coffee shop vibes with decaf lyrics (“Hear my voice / Hear my dreams / Let us make a world / In which I believe”) to create a pleasant bit of background noise that sounds as much like a parody of recent Oscar-nominated songs as it does a candidate to become one. A nod might help win Celeste some new American fans and speed up her inevitable ascension, but “Hear My Voice” loses all of what little value it has once you’ve been lucky enough to hear her album.
“Green” is a far cry from the cacophonous percussion you might anticipate at the end of a movie about a noise-metal drummer who loses his hearing — the fuzzy and soothingly cathartic ballad landing closer to Coldplay than the hardcore likes of Jucifer or Jesu — but Darius Marder’s surprisingly tranquil “Sound of Metal” defies expectations at every turn, and that includes the song that his brother Abraham penned for the closing credits. Spare, simple, and just the tiniest bit distorted, “Green” is a bit too slight to stand on its own, but it works as an effective coda for the gracefully implosive 140-minute drama it follows by sublimating the movie’s hard-luck hero into a piece of music that mines volumes of feeling from the quiet.
In terms of the value they add to a film versus the attention they bring to it, end title songs are basically just the new executive producer credits. But as much as they can clog an Oscar category like this with promotional music and reveal the awards game as the advertising machine that it really is, sometimes those songs actually manage to get the job done and call attention to films that might otherwise have fallen through the cracks. Erika Cohn’s urgent “Belly of the Beast” — a documentary exposé about the treatment of incarcerated women as seen through the lens of one ex-convict’s lawsuit against the prison doctors who performed her unauthorized hysterectomy — barely made a peep when it was released online in October, but the slinky, damning protest song that Mary J. Blige recorded for the film might just push it all the way onto the virtual stage of the Dolby Theatre.
Blige’s verses question the system over a forceful, syncopated beat that allows the music to push for justice even when the lyrics fall back on clichés (“What’s goin’ on / When the world can decide if a caged bird flies or ever gets a chance to grow?”). The chorus hits with more of a kick, as Blige lays the blame at the feet of a broken system while underlining the irreparable damage that it’s caused (“Some wounds never heal / do you see what you’ve done?”). By the time “See What You’ve Done” arrives at its reflectively twinkling outro, you just want to flip it over an play it again — louder this time for the people who are trying so hard not to hear it.
In January 2020, most Americans had never heard of the now-80-year-old immunologist who serves as the director of the National Institute of Allergies and Infectious Diseases. By September of that same year, Dr. Anthony Fauci had become so famous that Sasha Baron Cohen was able to reference him in a Borat song with absolute confidence that everyone would get the joke. That may not be the most helpful metric for measuring how COVID-19 turned the world upside down, but it certainly paints the right picture.
Even by the grim standards of movie gimmick songs, “Wuhan Flu” doesn’t rate as a piece of music —“Blame Canada” might as well be Tchaikovsky by comparison — and it wouldn’t sit right if Borat’s sing-a-long about injecting Obama with COVID earned a nomination over the more technically accomplished likes of “Husavik” from “Eurovision.” But few songs on this shortlist do quite as much for their respective films, as the jaw-dropping scene in which Cohen disguises himself in Newsmax chic and coerces a Q-friendly Olympia, WA Qrowd into singing about “chopping up WHO like the Saudis do” is a textbook-worthy illustration of Trump-era brain rot. The song may sting a bit too hard in the wake of the Capital Insurrection, but that’s all the more reason for the Academy to acknowledge that the joke is as much on “us” (people who merely wish Mike Pence had never been born) as it is on “them” (people who actively tried to murder him on the floor of the Senate).
The worst thing you can say about H.E.R.’s Marvin Gaye-inspired slice of politically-minded soul-funk is that it sounds a little too smooth and polite for the end credits of a movie as ferocious as “Judas and the Black Messiah”; it’s a small miracle that Shaka King was able to squeeze such a tortured and vividly self-conflicted historical drama about Fred Hampton and the fight for Black liberation out of a major studio in 2021, and the angelic groove of Gabriella Sarmiento Wilson’s voice almost makes you disbelieve the raw power of what you just watched. But “Fight for You” is also a great song — one that blends the sounds of the late ’60s with the kind of modern production so clean you could breathe it in without a mask on (H.E.R. and Dernst “D’Mile” Emile II share the credit for that), and the lyrics channel the persevering spirit of a movement that has managed to outlive so many of its greatest leaders.
Much like the landmark PBS series that it was made to spotlight, Melissa Haizlip and Sam Pollard’s “Mr. Soul!” — relegated to VOD more than two years after its well-received premiere at the 2018 Tribeca Film Festival — never got the attention it deserved. And much like “SOUL!” — the television show by, for, and about Black people that showcased Black culture on the public airwaves from 1968 to 1973 — the music in Haizlip and Pollard’s documentary is poised to resonate for years to come regardless. A jazzy collaboration between multi-instrumentalist Robert Glasper and Muhammad Ayers, “Show Me Your Soul” is a smooth and catchy tribute to both the history of “SOUL!,” and also Ellis Haizlip (Melissa’s uncle), the singularly instrumental host who willed the show into existence. The chorus alone is catchy enough to make this song a worthy contender, but it finds even more power down the home stretch as Glasper and Ayers begin to circle around a sample of the late Haizlip’s voice. “Although it’s over, it’s not the end. Black seeds keep on growing — there is no alternative to soul.”
You can listen to “Show Me Your Soul” on Soundcloud, but the song doesn’t appear to be available on YouTube at this time. For the sake of visual continuity, we offer you Red Hot Chili Peppers’ “Show Me Your Soul” as a placeholder.
The highest praise you could possibly give Janelle Monáe’s “Turntables” — yet another uplifting documentary credits song, albeit one infused with an unusual amount of swagger and clear-eyed political rage — is that it’s an anthem worthy of the work that Stacey Abrams has done over the last few years. “All in: The Fight for Democracy” accurately positions Abrams as a central figure in the war against voter suppression, and Monáe’s body-moving song matches the Georgia State Representative’s “this is our moment” attitude every step of the way. Rapping over a classic funk groove that shoots the moon whenever the chorus drops, Monáe drops massive truth-bombs (“America, you a lie”) with the matter-of-factness these self-evident truths demand, and then eagerly sifts through the rubble left behind by each verse in order to spin a better tomorrow (“but the whole world ’bout to testify”). Monáe has always been obsessed with the future, but listening to “Turntables” in the aftermath of the Georgia run-offs is enough to convince you that she and Abrams have actually seen it and are ready to show us the way there.
Forest Whitaker studied classical voice and performed in a chamber music group back in college, but when he signed on to play the toymaker Jeronicus Jangle in the Netflix musical “Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey” a few decades later, he was petrified that his singing talents wouldn’t come back to him. He needn’t have worried: “Jingle Jangle” has a few screws loose here and there, but Whitaker’s big number isn’t one of them. A back-on-your-feet banger of a duet between Jeronicus and his estranged daughter (Anika Noni Rose), “Make it Work” stomps into the third act of David E. Talbert’s film and settles into a crunchy groove somewhere between classic gospel and the industrial percussiveness of Björk’s “I’ve Seen it All” from “Dancer in the Dark.” Whitaker might as well be giving his own vocal cords a pep talk as his sweet baritone swears that Jeronicus is going to “make it work again,” and the song reaches new heights when Rose starts flexing over a chorus that churns with the power of a steam piston. You can hear Jeronicus’ factory roar back to life, a Christmas miracle that’s carried by the harmonious sounds of a character finding his strength, an actor rediscovering his voice, and a father doubling down on his family all at the same time.
Songs that play over the closing credits should be ineligible for an Oscar on principle, but the tender lullaby that Han Ye-ri sings over the end titles of “Minari” is the rare exception that proves the rule, and not just because it clearly wasn’t written for the sole purpose of landing an easy nomination. Even if this unassuming little ditty is only part of the movie in a peripheral sense, it adds lyrics to the piece of music that opens the film (one of the loveliest tracks on Emile Mosseri’s outstanding score) in a way that makes the couplet feel like a holy call-and-response and brings Lee Isaac Chung’s bittersweet story to an end with the sense of someone literally finding their voice. Han’s singing layers over the summer haze of Mosseri’s airy instrumental in a hard-won harmony between different worlds, and even those who don’t speak Korean can intuit “the whispers of the heart all coming together.”
Songs with algorithm-worthy titles like “Speak Now” are exactly what has made this category such a punchline in recent years, but any movie that casts golden-throated “Hamilton” breakout Leslie Odom, Jr. as Sam Cooke gets a free pass to do whatever the hell it wants with that divine match-up, and the urgent original that Odom co-wrote with Sam Ashworth for the end credits of Regina King’s “One Night in Miami…” is so stirring and effective that it manages to follow Odom’s climactic performance of “A Change Is Gonna Come” without feeling like too much of a step down. The trenchant, slinky guitar hook gives Odom the room he needs to flex his singular voice — a voice capable of churning even the most obvious lyrics into a more powerful expression of hope and solidarity. “Speak Now” only grows more commanding as it layers in a church organ and some faint choral overtures in its second half. The song’s title might make you roll your eyes, but everything else about it will have you hanging on its every word.
It’s not even close. In a strange field shaped by throwbacks and throwaways, one absolute banger so obviously stands out from the pack that all of the other songs on this list sound like “Jaja Ding Dong” by comparison (on second thought, that comparison is far too generous towards Charlie Puth, and “Jaja Ding Dong” was robbed. Play “Jaja Ding Dong,” AMPAS!). “Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga” may be a silly comedy, but the Netflix Original works — perhaps even better than this critic was able to appreciate at the time of its release — because the movie takes its music as seriously as Iceland takes its puffins.
And nothing on the “Eurovision” soundtrack hammers that point home quite like “Husavik,” a climactic hyper-ballad that has to establish the lead characters’ feelings for each other, celebrate the sleepy fishing village they may not have outgrown, honor the the story’s general silliness, and hit you in the gut hard enough that you believe it might actually be worthy of winning Eurovision. “Husavik (My Hometown)” does all that and more, as former Eurovision contestant Molly My Marianne Sandén — who serves as Rachel McAdams’ singing voice throughout the film — belts out a full-bellied monster that wouldn’t have been out of place in “The Greatest Showman” if not for subtle/funny lyrics about how “the mountains sing through the screams of seagulls” and Will Ferrell’s semi-harmonious appearance on the song’s second half. But even that sounds beautiful somehow, as the comedian’s nasal whine threads around My Marianne’s soaring lead vocals in a way that complements them both even when they seem violently incompatible. Kind of like fire and ice. Hmm. Anyway, it’s a masterpiece. Oscars all around.