The Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences has announced the 15 tracks in contention for the Oscar for Best Original Song with the release of the year’s shortlist. Historically, this tends to be a fun and divisive category. The most successful tunes written for the screen enhance the themes, tones, characters, and settings of their movies, but they also work as good songs in their own right. Recent winners have actually managed to become cultural touchstones — think “Let It Go” from Frozen. Several songs on this year’s shortlist adhere to these basic criteria, while others fall flat. Let’s go through them all:
“When A Cowboy Trades His Spurs For Wings”
From The Ballad of Buster Scruggs
Written by: David Rawlings and Gillian Welch
Performed by: Willie Watson and Tim Blake Nelson
The reflective “When A Cowboy Trades His Spurs for Wings” closes the hilarious titular segment of the Coen brothers’ latest great film, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs. Beautifully sung by actor Tim Blake Nelson, who plays the eponymous Scruggs, and Willie Watson, the harmonica-heavy tune imbues the absurd short with striking pathos. With its equal parts acerbic and bleak lyrics, the moving song captures the Coen brothers’ sensibilities down to a tee.
From Beautiful Boy
Written and performed by: Sampha
“Treasure” is a welcome return from Sampha, one of pop music’s most unique crooners who hasn’t released any output since his stunning 2017 debut, Process. Even with Sampha’s luscious vocals and bare-bones instrumentation, a sense of anxiety permeates the song, with its blunt and strident strings and neurotic piano. In that sense, “Treasure” suits the upheaval and turmoil depicted in Beautiful Boy, though it lacks the urgency and climax needed for made-for-film songs.
“All The Stars”
From Black Panther
Written by: Kendrick Lamar, Mark Spears, Al Shuckburgh, SZA, and Anthony Tiffith
Performed by: Kendrick Lamar and SZA
An insanely accomplished (and catchy!) song in its own right, “All the Stars” plays during the closing credits of Black Panther and, in doing so, wonderfully encapsulates the film’s themes of love, empowerment, and heroism. Between SZA’s sleek pop-infused hook, Kendrick’s usual defiant charisma, and the elegant yet slightly wonky instrumental, the song stands as one of definite standouts of the shortlist.
From Boy Erased
Written by: Jónsi and Troye Sivan
Performed by: Jónsi and Troye Sivan
As a plaintive, tearjerker-of-a-ballad, “Revelation” features some of Sivan’s best lyrics (“How the tides are changing as you liberate me now, and the walls come down”), which not only suit Boy Erased’s starkly emotional tone but also cement the song as an anthem for those who have been disempowered by religious institutions. We’re not crying, you’re crying!
“Girl In The Movies”
Written by: Dolly Parton and Linda Perry
Performed by: Dolly Parton
Dolly Parton can do no wrong. As a tribute to the theater-going experience and the wide-eyed artists who pursue their dreams, “Girl In The Movies” is equal parts poignant and uplifting; the song’s tender backing acoustic guitar and Darton’s gentle yet forceful croon all the more heighten its catharsis.
“We Won’t Move”
From The Hate U Give
Written and performed by: Arlissa
Powerfully set to the moving final scenes of The Hate U Give, “We Won’t Move” is the rare protest song that inspires hope rather than discouragement. With a slow buildup leading to a commanding climax, Arlissa earnestly captures Starr’s (Amandla Stenberg) journey on an empowering final note. With simple yet galvanizing lyrics like “Hands up, we’re ’bout to take this down / It’s gonna change, oh yeah / With love and humanity,” the singer-songwriter urges communities to combat injustices with courage, unity, and empathy.
“The Place Where Lost Things Go”
From Mary Poppins Returns
Written by: Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman
Performed by: Emily Blunt
Mary Poppins Returns is the only film with two songs included on the shortlist — an honor that doesn’t quite feel deserved. Sure, “The Place Where Lost Things Go” is a perfectly adequate lullaby amplified by Blunt’s compelling performance and the touching lyrics, which ruminate on grief and painful reminiscence. It works for the film, but the lackluster instrumental and aimless melody prevent the song from fully standing on its own.
“Trip a Little Light Fantastic”
From Mary Poppins Returns
Written by: Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman
Performed by: Lin-Manuel Miranda, Emily Blunt, Tarik Frimpong, Pixie Davies, Joel Dawson, Nathanael Saleh, and the Leeries
Oh boy, this song. Between Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Cockney accent, the unabashedly upbeat lyrics, and overdone, sweeping use of horns, “Trip A Little Light Fantastic” evokes the optimistic feel of Mary Poppins, but nonetheless remains 100% grating and tiresome. Maybe I’m just a grump.
Written by: Quincy Jones, Andrew Wyatt, Mark Ronson, Jeff Bhasker, and Chaka Khan
Performed by: Quincy Jones, Mark Ronson, and Chaka Khan
All hail Quincy Jones. At 85 years old, the icon continues to deliver the goods, as exemplified by the groovy “Keep Reachin’” heard in Jones’ hagiographical documentary. Also featuring Chaka Khan and the indelible Mark Ronson, “Keep Reachin’” is a certified banger complete with bouncy horns, funky riffs, and stirring lyrics.
Written by: Diane Warren
Performed by: Jennifer Hudson
Hudson has some serious pipes, but not even she can save the trite, overblown production of “I’ll Fight.” The song isn’t terrible, but there’s plenty of better, more evocative anthems about perseverance and empowerment cited on the shortlist. Ruth Bader Ginsburg deserves better!
“A Place Called Slaughter Race”
From Ralph Breaks the Internet
Written by: Phil Johnston and Tom MacDougal (lyrics), Alan Menken (composition)
Performed by: Sarah Silverman and Gal Gadot
With a sweeping arrangement done by Alan Menken, “A Place Called Slaughter Race” lightheartedly and pointedly parodies “I Want” songs featured in classic Disney animated films, from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs to The Little Mermaid. “Slaughter Race” is charming and whimsical, and Sarah Silverman gives a wonderful vocal performance, but it lacks the appeal and instant memorability of top-tier Disney songs.
From Sorry to Bother You
Written by: The Coup
Performed by: The Coup and Lakeith Stanfield
To see Sorry to Bother You represented on the shortlist is a surprising delight. The film derives much of its boundless, infectious energy from its soundtrack (which makes sense, considering Boots Riley’s musical background in the illustrious hip-hop outfit The Coup, the writers and performers of “OYAHHYT”), of which this tune remains the highlight. With its fuzzy and strident guitar tone and unforgettable hook (“Oh yeah, alright / Hell yeah, that’s tight / Oh yeah, alright / Hell yeah, that’s tight”), “OYAHHYT” reproduces the punk attitude pervasive in the revelatory anti-capitalist film. Bonus points for Lakeith Stanfield’s verse. I know this will probably not happen, but how amazingly bonkers it would be to see “OYAHHYT” performed live on Oscars night.
From A Star Is Born
Written by: Lady Gaga, Mark Ronson, Anthony Rossomando, and Andrew Wyatt.
Performed by: Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper
Surprisingly, the sublime “Shallow” is the only song from the rapturously acclaimed A Star Is Born cited on the shortlist. The song, however, is a guaranteed lock to be nominated for, if not win, Best Original Song, and I’m absolutely okay with that. Lady Gaga’s primal wails enable the song’s transformation from a charming if restrained ballad to a full-on transcendent, unrelenting anthem about jumping headfirst into romance. As the centerpiece for A Star Is Born’s best scene, “Shallow” is a tribute to the grandiose, unabashedly fantastical, sweep you off your feet kind of stuff — and it works flawlessly both in and without the context of the film. It’s no wonder why audiences have also fallen off the deep end.
Written and performed by: Thom Yorke
Ok, it’s time to get this off my chest: I’m not a fan of Radiohead. I have always found Thom Yorke’s explorations and declarations of angst irritating. So, I was admittedly dreading to hear Yorke’s first foray into film music (fellow Radiohead member Jonny Greenhood has already proven himself to be an excellent composer). However, Yorke’s score for Suspiria and original song “Suspirium” make a promising debut. As a harrowing piano ballad, “Suspirium” mirrors Luca Guadagnino’s sinister, fragile directorial vision for the “remake” of Dario Argento’s Suspiria. I’m not head-over-heels for Yorke’s voice, nor was I entirely won over by the song’s inclusion in the film, but I can appreciate its tender, low-key artistry.
“The Big Unknown”
Written by: Ben Travers and Sade
Performed by: Sade
The incredible singer-songwriter Sade sounds more wounded and vulnerable than ever in “The Big Unknown,” so the song’s inclusion in the moody, melancholic heist thriller Widows feels pretty apt. The titular widows pursue sheer survival rather than personal comeuppance, and the quiet desperation permeating in “The Big Unknown” complements their journeys and strength.
As we can see, there aren’t too many surprises or upsets on the Academy’s shortlist. In spite of a couple questionable inclusions, most of the year’s best songs are represented — except for Post Malone and Swae Lee’s dreamy, heroic “Sunflower” from Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, which could easily replace some of the list’s more underwhelming tracks.
At this point, the Oscar will be Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper’s to lose, though the official nominations for Best Original Song — and all other Oscar categories — will be announced on January 22nd. Oh yeah, alright, hell yeah, that’s tight!