Oscar best song possibilities: Can one of these tunes score?
When the 2013 Oscars opened in February, host Seth MacFarlane declared that the show had a theme. The Academy Awards, MacFarlane said, would be celebrating the marriage of film and music. Though such a thesis may have been obscured by the ensuing song-and-dance number that commemorated toplessness in cinema, it was, at least, a noble cause.
After years of being an also-ran, the Oscar original song category received a full five nominations. Selections ranged from the too big to ignore (Adele’s theme from “Skyfall”) to little-known songs that deserved a wider audience (the J. Ralph-penned “Before My Time” from the documentary “Chasing Ice”).
That should be good news for songwriters this Oscar season, as the last 12 months in film have given us plenty of songs to cheer. Here is a shortlist of some that may catch voters’ ears.
The animated front-runner: Ice sculpting gets its Broadway moment in Disney’s “Frozen,” courtesy of “Let It Go.” The grandest song in a film full of big musical numbers, “Let It Go” arrives when Princess Elsa runs from her home to construct a palace amid the snow. From the husband-and-wife songwriting team of Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez, the song starts with a light flurry of piano notes and gets stronger, tougher and more chaotic with each verse until, finally, the orchestra hushes and vocalist Idina Menzel declares the “past is in the past.” The song then levels out in its final moments, a sigh of relief as much as a statement of independence.
Then there’s “Happy” from “Despicable Me 2” with its silky-cool clap-along vibe delivered by hit maker Pharrell Williams, who decorated the song with a low-key Philly-soul groove and understated keyboard shading. And “Shine Your Way” from “The Croods” merges synthy dance-pop with deft cinematic overtures.
The superstars: U2’s first new song in four years, “Ordinary Love,” graces the biopic “Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom,” and it sees Bono & Co. in fine, anthemic form. The song opens sparsely and waits until it crosses the minute mark before ascending keyboard notes lead it to more forceful ground. Taylor Swift’s “Sweeter Than Fiction” from the feel-good “One Chance” is the artist at her most genre-hopping approachable. Co-written with Jack Antonoff of the band fun., “Sweeter Than Fiction” shifts from frenetic beats to mid-tempo strumming and is built around the repeatable, hook-first vocals from Swift.
The fantasy one: The world of Peter Jackson’s “The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug” may be a fantastical one, but the one conjured by Ed Sheeran adheres a little closer to home. His “I See Fire” is a delicate, airy ballad full of soft vocal harmonies, spare violins and echoing drums — the calm before the action. Similarly, Coldplay largely keeps things delicate for its closer to “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire.” From Chris Martin’s comforting vocals and just a solitary, melancholic piano melody, the song soon gets more mystical as digital effects are subtly worked in.
The best picture contender: A work song, a spiritual, a blues lament, a communal statement — “My Lord Sunshine (Sunrise)” is all of the above and more. Nicholas Britell’s studious composition of rhythm and vocals opens “12 Years a Slave,” scoring a moment when a group of slaves is chopping sugar cane. There’s function in the song, as the beat and the vocal call-and-response are timed to doing a job, but there’s far more desperation and salvation in these 70-plus seconds.
TIMELINE: The Academy Awards through the years
The story told through a rap: When Keith Stanfield’s Marcus lets the viewer in on his furious yet heart-wrenching lyric book in “Short Term 12,” audiences receive a bracingly exposed look into a character’s soul as well as a way of life. In less than two minutes, and rapped over a wide-open, simple beat, Stanfield’s “So You Know What It’s Like” communicates how it feels “to live a life not knowing what a normal life’s like.”
The perennial: Don’t ever discount the prolific Diane Warren, whose power ballads from the likes of “Pearl Harbor” and “Armageddon” are among her six prior Oscar nominations. Warren composed songs this year for “Unfinished Song” and “Winnie Mandela.” The latter’s “Bleed for Love” is a Jennifer Hudson-sung slow builder with slight gospel undertones while the Celine Dion-voiced “Unfinished Songs” is an uplifting, beat-happy number that gives Dion a sleek electronic sheen.
The underdogs: Spike Jonze and Yeah Yeah Yeahs singer Karen O have gone this route before, having worked together on the soundtrack to “Where the Wild Things Are.” That film’s delightfully whimsical “All Is Love” was ignored by Oscar voters, but “The Moon Song” from “Her” plays it more serious. It’s odd, lonely and distant, as emergency sirens are heard in the background and O sounds as if she’s singing in an empty warehouse, all of it making the case that weird is beautiful. And few end-of-film songs are as ornately detailed as M83’s “Oblivion” from the Tom Cruise sci-fi flick, a track marked by melodic gusts, luminous electronics and a grand-finale-like eruption of rhythms.
And don’t forget: There’s an overabundance of musical contenders this year. Some other songs in the running include Lana Del Rey’s moody and orchestral “Young and Beautiful” from “The Great Gatbsy,” the Gladys Knight-sung soul kiss-off “You and I Ain’t Nothin’ No More” from “Lee Daniels’ The Butler” and the rolling piano notes of Alex Ebert’s emotional “Amen” from “All Is Lost.”
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