Judging the Oscar Nominees for Best Song

With today’s announcement of the nominees for this year’s Academy Awards, now is the perfect time to debate who should win the most prestigious prize of the entire show: “Best Achievement in Music Written for Motion Pictures, Original Song.”  Now it used to be that the song that would win this award would be immortalized and become a part of our shared cultural canon.  Who could forget such classics as “Theme from ‘Shaft'”, “Born Free”, or…”Under the Sea”?*  However, in recent years Oscar has selected some real duds that even the songwriters’ parents would be hard-pressed to remember that they had won the Academy’s top prize.

So is there a song in this year’s crop that has a chance of achieving a place alongside such classics as “It’s Hard Out There For A Pimp”?  In order to answer this question, we’re going to analyze each of the nominees and judge their relative merits, just as you would expect.  But since we’re listening to these songs for the first time, we’ll be presenting our snap judgments and relying solely on our first impressions for this analysis, keeping an informal running diary as we listen to each song.  And that is probably more listens than what most of the Academy will do when they fill out their ballots.

John Legend ft. Common – “Glory” (Selma).  John Legend is providing quite the uplifting framework….Common’s entrance was a bit abrupt, and featured what you would expect from a Common verse in 2015…Oh, so this song is going to incorporate the present day…Legend comes back…The “Glory” hook is good, but when it deviates from this it meanders…Common’s rapping would be perfect for a high school history class project…This song has a nice build to it, but it better pay off…I don’t think it will…Nice variation with this outro, but doesn’t quite finish.

Analysis: It seems to fit well with the movie and helps evoke some uplifting feelings, but there is no memorable hook and no climactic payoff.

Kiera Knightley – “Lost Stars” (Begin Again).  I was definitely not going to select the Adam Levine version, so we’ll go with the one presumably from the movie…Knightley has a better than expected voice, with the right amount of fragility and delicate touch…nice dash of strings…subtle shift into the chorus…ooh, appreciate the tinkling piano…the pre-chorus is really quite good, though the lyrics I’m picking out are a bit ridiculous…nice bridge…evocative overall build…good job with the slight pullback in the chorus, oh and great walking bassline counterpoint….pleasant.

Analysis: A good fit for the traditional folk/indie slot; it would probably be a solid addition to a mixtape (or probably a “playlist” these days), but it’s hard to imagine it will be particularly noteworthy.

Rita Ora – “Grateful” (Beyond the Lights).  Oh, Diane Warren wrote this, I’m sure it’ll be lovely…what the hell are these strings…Rita Ora does not have the voice I expected…those are some dramatic drum hits…oh, hey, some restraint…this does sound like a Pop/R&B torch song that you would hear on the radio in real life, so it has that going for it…Oh OK, now I know why the song is called “Grateful”…more of the same, but it makes sense…I don’t think I ever want to hear whatever program that created these instruments again in my life…I kind of wish Toni Braxton was singing this song instead…oh this bridge is ridiculous…is this song almost over, I think it made its point…I think she might be grateful.

Analysis: I’ve heard good things about Beyond the Lights and claims that it is underrated, but I hope it’s not on the basis of this song.

Tegan & Sara ft. The Lonely Island – “Everything Is Awesome” (The Lego® Movie).  OH HEY, I REMEMBER THIS SONG.  I ACTUALLY WATCHED THIS MOVIE.  AND THIS SONG REALLY IS AWESOME.  THIS SONG IS SO MUCH FUN THAT I FORGET ABOUT HOW MUCH I DISLIKE TEGAN & SARA.  EVERYTHING REALLY IS AWESOME!!!!!!!!!!!

Analysis: Oh fuck yes.  Though I think that Batman’s song (“Untitled Self Portrait”) may be even better, though it worked so well mainly because it stood in contrast to the superfun “Everything Is Awesome.”

Glen Campbell – “I’m Not Gonna Miss You” (Glen Campbell: I’ll Be Me).  Oh man, knowing that this song comes from the documentary about Glen Campbell’s struggle with Alzheimer’s and how he goes on a final farewell tour already has me choked up…that is a a great chord progression from the piano…lovely backing vocals…oh those are some devastating lines, Glen…the sudden influx provided by the rest of the orchestra is reminiscent of Beck during his Sea Change era…that’s a fantastic reply, responding with “I’m not gonna miss you”….this is absolutely gorgeous…here is proof once again that modern country is a total abomination, when it’s a genre that can create wonderful songs like this.

Analysis: That is one beautiful song.

FINAL DECISION: It’s a two-horse race, between “Everything Is Awesome” and “I’m Not Gonna Miss You”.  Both are excellent songs, though completely diametrically opposed.  The final winner will be determined by the mood of the voter as they cast their vote, and that’s hard to predict–sometimes they go for the carefree, happy tune while other times they prefer to honor the somber, respectful songs.  We have the feeling that the Academy is going to give Glen one last honor, if only because they seem to think it’s beneath them to honor a movie about a children’s toy.

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