Last year's original song Oscar race seemed like the slowest Iditarod in history as we all waited for "Frozen's" "Let It Go" to collect its ice sculpture. This year, there is no slam-dunk front-runner … except perhaps the heartbreaking famous last words of a real-life country-music icon as the sun sets on his mind.
The Special Achievement Slot
It seems every year, there's a song that proves transcendent. This year's has to be "I'm Not Gonna Miss You," surely one of the final recordings ever to be produced by country and pop icon Glen Campbell, from "I'll Be Me," the film documenting his response to his Alzheimer's diagnosis. Co-written by Campbell and producer Julian Raymond, it's ornate and brutally frank. It includes such haunting lines as: I'm still here, but yet I'm gone / I don't play guitar or sing my songs … You're never gonna see it in my eyes / It's not gonna hurt me when you cry. "He would say things and I would write them down," says Raymond. "He was so open about what he was going through. He was upset about it on one hand, but had a great sense of humor about it too: 'I don't wanna remember that stuff anyway.'"
The 'Once' Slot
Can it really be seven years since Oscar host Jon Stewart had to bring out Markéta Irglová after a commercial break because the orchestra had prematurely played her off? The charming Czech and her partner Glen Hansard had just won with the delicate ballad "Falling Slowly" from writer-director John Carney's "Once." Carney's latest, "Begin Again," yields another gorgeous, delicate ballad: "Lost Stars," the heart of the film that offers the chance to get Keira Knightley singing at the ceremony. Composer Gregg Alexander says of the key line, "Don't you dare let our best memories bring you sorrow": "I'm going to get choked up talking about it because it reflects how you feel when you look back on your life: The loss of your parents … your childhood or a romance, wherever you are in your life. We owe it to ourselves to reflect on the best part of it. Otherwise, it makes the journey less worthwhile."
The Socially Important Slot
Why it took so long for a Martin Luther King Jr. picture to be made is a mystery. "Selma" may be marching toward Oscar love, perhaps most likely for "Glory." John Legend's simple gospel call-and-response frame is stirring, and Common's rap is forceful and so current that it includes the line, "That's why we walk through Ferguson with our hands up."
The Diane Warren Slot
Warren has six nominations (and as she points out with a big laugh, six losses). She knows how to hook voters' ears and this year contributes the inspirational summation to the well-reviewed "Beyond the Lights." Of her song "Grateful," the composer says, "The worst … you can go through, but you're not angry — you're grateful for it because it made you strong, it made you better. 'I'm grateful for the storm; made me appreciate the sun / I'm grateful for the pain, everything that made me break.' I have friends who are in recovery groups; one said she wanted it to be the AA theme."
The Absurd Slot
"South Park's" "Blame Canada" was nominated in 2000 and "Man or Muppet" won in 2012, so why not the forcefully catchy "Everything Is Awesome" from "The Lego Movie"? Just as the Police song "Every Breath You Take" sometimes plays at weddings (Sting acknowledges the song is about surveillance), this is a gleefully Orwellian ditty on surrendering one's individuality to the hive. Co-composer Shawn Patterson says, "The lead character, Emmet, is so happy to be a part of a group that nothing else matters. I took that idea and ran with it: Like bees in a hive, where there's little-to-no identity." Still, it delivers on the filmmakers' mandate for something "ridiculously catchy": "My own daughter told me on Tuesday that a bunch of kids in her class broke out singing it."
The Weird Pop Slot
There isn't such a slot, which is the point. The academy usually avoids nominating unconventional efforts but this year, two rising young stars have offerings — "Yellow Flicker Beat" (Lorde, from "The Hunger Games: Mockingjay — Part I") and "Big Eyes" (Lana Del Rey and Daniel Heath, from "Big Eyes"). They're both off-kilter, dark and worthy of note, especially for Lorde's poetry in the "Hunger Games" song.
The Light Romantic Slot
The vivacious animated fable "The Book of Life" boasts a cheeky song score by two-time Oscar winner Gustavo Santaolalla and Grammy and Oscar winner Paul Williams. It proved to be the beginning of a happy partnership, as the two are now working on the musical version of "Pan's Labyrinth." Among "Book's" tunes are the mariachi serenade "I Love You Too Much" and the mea culpa to a bull, "The Apology Song": "I believe when songs are good, they're universal. I think the bull can be, out of the context of the movie, anybody. It could even be yourself — forgiving yourself. I think that's a bull we all fight."
The Also Slot
A number of other songs deserve some mention: "Summer Noon," Jeff Tweedy of Wilco's lovely, wistful tune that matches the feeling of appreciating time as it passes that permeates "Boyhood"; Coldplay's "Miracle," which could benefit if there's a groundswell for "Unbroken," and J. Ralph's "Until the End," from the documentary "Garnet's Gold" — it could get some votes if members get excited about having Wynton Marsalis and Liza Minnelli perform.