Sparks, Beyoncé, and U2 lead an all-star group of legendary musicians who will lose to Billie Eilish’s Bond song at the Oscars next year.
This year’s crop of potential Best Original Song nominees may be as mediocre as ever, but certainly not for lack of star power. Unlike last season — when the worthiest tune was a sweeping (and sincerely beautiful) joke anthem from a Will Ferrell movie — the current shortlist is electrified by the mega-watt likes of Ariana Grande, U2, returning champion H.E.R., and Beyoncé and Jay-Z. And then there’s Billie Eilish, who capped off her teens by co-writing one of the greatest Bond themes in the long history of that spy franchise, and belting it with enough heartfelt force to make Shirley Bassey proud.
Other big names didn’t fare quite as well — and this year’s joke song is barely worth a smirk — but any category that puts Sparks in the same conversation as Reba McEntire while still making room for the acoustic indie sweetness of “CODA” can’t be all bad.
Here are all 15 songs still eligible for Best Original Song at the Oscars next March, ranked from worst to best.
15. “Somehow You Do” — Diane Warren (from “Four Good Days”)
I’d hate to sound like a broken record when dismissing the latest Diane Warren song in contention for an Oscar (she’s been nominated 12 times, without a single win to show for even her worthiest efforts), but she certainly didn’t spare us that same courtesy while writing it. Every year the legendary tunesmith submits another assembly-line fight song called “Stand Up for Something” or “I’ll Fight” or “Standing With You” or “Stand Up I’ll Fight Something With You,” only with different singers and a slightly different arrangement of verbs and pronouns. Sometimes it feels as if Warren’s annual contributions to the end credits of would-be awards bait are simply new strains of the same old song. The 2021 variant was penned for the tone-deaf Glenn Close and Mila Kunis opioid drama “Four Good Days,” it’s called “Somehow You Do,” and while the lack of “standing” or “fighting” suggests Warren might be newly inspired, anyone well-versed in recent Oscar history knows better than to fall into that trap.
A sleepy lite country ode to resilience performed by Reba McEntire (whose voice is as rich and soulful as ever), “Somehow You Do” is a flavorless strum-and-bass ditty full of bot-worthy lyrics like “You’ve been brought to your knees / But there’s better days ahead / You’ll be back on your feet again.” At this point, the perseverance shown in Warren’s forever quest for an Oscar is more visceral and convincing than anything in her songs. Nominating her for yet another mall ballad with no chance of winning would be an exercise in cruelty — something the Academy can almost never resist.
14. “Down to Joy” — Van Morrison (from “Belfast”)
Not only is Kenneth Branagh’s ode to his Troubled childhood in late ’60s Ireland bursting with Van Morrison classics like “Days Like This” and whatever the other ones are called, but the film also opens with a new song that sounds exactly like them. It’s a warm and pleasant “welcome back” that plays over footage of contemporary Belfast, and Van Morrison would absolutely love to perform it for you in a crowded theater at the height of the Omicron outbreak (perhaps the outspoken singer’s grievances over government-imposed health measures explain why “Down to Joy” is not available to listen to on YouTube, iTunes, Spotify, Tidal, or anywhere outside of the first minutes of Branagh’s movie. Don’t expect to hear it on TV next March, either).
13. “Your Song Saved My Life” — U2 (from “Sing 2”)
I’ve got some bad news for anyone who thought an animated movie about a showbiz-obsessed koala voiced by Matthew McConaughey would be the thing to finally reignite U2’s creative spark (but, on a semi-related note, I have some excellent news for everyone who’s been itching to watch teenage porcupine Scarlett Johansson cover the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ “Heads Will Roll”).
12. “Dream Girl” — Idina Menzel & Laura Veltz (from “Cinderella”)
The closest thing this year gave us to a Disney Princess anthem (if largely because Idina Menzel is belting it out), “Dream Girl” isn’t a song about seizing your moment so much as about letting it go. The most and only memorable original track from Amazon’s already forgotten #GirlBoss “Cinderella,” “Dream Girl” is a jagged and sometimes menacing slice of Broadway-accented power pop in which the wicked stepmother tells our fairy tale heroine to get her head out of the clouds; Vivian once surrendered her ambitions to the demands of a patriarchal society, and now her only thrill in life is encouraging young Cinderella to do the same.
With a rollicking cheese-rock chorus that’s slathered around a sharp lyric (“This treasure you found, bury it / The only way out, marry it / That shadow of doubt, carry it / Carry it down to your grave”), “Dream Girl” is a lot zestier and more self-possessed than anything else in the movie. Menzel’s voice is obviously unassailable, and she flexes it more than I would’ve thought possible during a song that lasts for a mere two minutes before it turns into a pumpkin. It’s potent stuff, distended piano outro and all, but attitude only gets you so far. And when it comes to this disappointing “Cinderella,” attitude is pretty much the only thing it’s got.
11. “Just Look Up” — Nicholas Britell, Ariana Grande, Scott Mescudi, Taura Stinson (from “Don’t Look Up”)
A semi-amusing “ha” of a song that wastes a galaxy’s worth of star power on a single middling joke, the Ariana Grande and Kid Cudi duet “Just Look Up” is nothing if not perfectly in sync with the Adam McKay movie for which it was written. In “Don’t Look Up” — a smoking mad but semi-resigned metaphor for our collective failure to grapple with climate change — the hook is that a planet-killing comet is hurtling toward the Earth and most people refuse to believe it. Even after the space rock enters our atmosphere. In “Just Look Up,” a duet performed onscreen at a Live Aid-like concert in the film’s third act, the punchline comes when Grande translates Kudi’s standard-issue R&B lyrics (“Time is oh so precious / we don’t really have much left / Take my hand, baby / I’ll never leave you”) for their true meaning: “Look up / what he’s really trying to say / Is get your head out of your ass / Listen to the goddamn qualified scientists,” etc.
Grande understands the assignment perfectly well. The song wouldn’t evoke so much as a smile if not for the legitimacy her unassailable vocals lend to each verse. Kudi’s rap is able to keep things flowing between his co-star’s parts, and the whole thing scores extra points for actually being a part of McKay’s plot. But the bait-and-switch needed to be sharper for “Just Look Up” to exist as anything more than a background gag in a movie. The song approximates the sort of lovelorn pop aria that Grande has perfected, but it’s not catchy enough to be mistaken for a serious new single, and not funny enough to feel like an overachieving joke track. If a nomination seems assured regardless, it’ll be worth it just to hear Grande belt out “Just look up / Turn off that shit Fox News” onstage at the Oscars.
10. “Here I Am (Singing My Way Home)” — Jamie Alexander Hartman, Jennifer Hudson, Carole King (from “Respect”)
It’s risky business writing an original song for a musical about one of the most famous singers who ever lived, let alone one who became so famous by singing eternal staples of the American songbook. But there’s no use making a down-the-middle Aretha Franklin biopic like “Respect” if you’re not going to try and milk a free Oscar nomination out of the closing credits. On the one hand, you could certainly do worse than pairing lead actress (and Aretha-worthy powerhouse) Jennifer Hudson with legendary songwriter Carole King. On the other hand, it’s hard to imagine if such mega-talents could do much worse together. “Here I Am (Singing My Way Home)” isn’t a bad song — nothing that opens with Hudson reaching for the heavens like a gospel star on Sunday morning could even be classified in the same universe as a bad song — but it’s still a far cry from a good one. A simple melody dotted with even simpler lyrics (“You are strong / Won’t be left behind anymore / Head up high / Spread your wings and own the sky”), it’s an eight-octave flex of personal affirmation that evokes Franklin’s historic power without daring to pull focus toward the present. It’s professional, it’s harmless, it’s a song that wouldn’t exist if not for this category, and one that no one will remember once the Oscars have come and gone.
9. “The Anonymous Ones” — Benj Pasek, Justin Paul, Amandla Stenberg (from “Dear Evan Hansen”)
It’s hard to believe that “Dear Evan Hansen” might still be nominated for an Oscar after the critical drubbing it just took. But if the movie was dinged for its fidelity to the Broadway musical on which it’s based (down to full-ass adult Ben Platt reprising the high school-age title role as if no one would notice the “Strangers with Candy” of it all), it stands to reason that its last awards hope would be for the one new thing about it. Like most of the pre-existing songs in this softest of softboy musicals, “The Anonymous Ones” is an ultra-sincere ditty about a teenager realizing that they aren’t lost or uniquely broken; admirably inserted right into the heart of the first act, this operatic pop song (carried by Dan Romer’s signature percussive stir) finds Amandla Stenberg’s character confiding to Evan that she too suffers from social anxiety (“Ever look at all the people who seem to know exactly how to be? / You think ‘They don’t need piles of prescriptions to function naturally’”).
Stenberg is a hell of a singer, and she pumps urgency into every breath of this overinflated lifeline. That’s enough to push through the Broadway-safe body of the song. But it’s during the bridge — a soaringly dramatic shift that takes things a bit closer to the land of top 40 radio — that she really gets to flex her talents and justify the decision to make “Dear Evan Hansen” almost five minutes longer. What might seem like a throwaway in a stronger year for this category instead feels like a valuable middle-of-the-road contender, and one that might infuse an actual sense of drama into the Oscar telecast if Stenberg is asked to perform it on stage.
8. “Beyond the Shore” — Nicholai Baxter, Matt Dahan, Sian Heder, Marius deVries (from “CODA”)
It’s been a minute since an acoustic indie ballad has charmed its way into the Oscar race for Best Original Song — it happens about “Once” a decade, with Sufjan Stevens’ “Mystery of Love” being the most recent example. But virtually everyone loves Sian Heder’s Sundance-winning “CODA,” and the lilting coffee shop ballad that star Emilia Jones sings over the end credits is a welcome reprieve from the bombast and big emotions that have come to define this category. A simple ode to the wonders of family and the wistfulness of leaving them behind, “Beyond the Shore” isn’t the earworm it needs to be to compete with the likes of Beyoncé and Billie Eilish (the lyrics eschew the magical specificity of Heder’s film in favor of more generic Hallmark tropes), and it doesn’t help that the end credits song isn’t involved in any of the movie’s tear-jerking musical setpieces. Still, Jones has a heart-stopping voice made all the more powerful by its natural timbre, and you can believe that her music college-bound character might write something just like it during her first semester away from home.
7. “Right Where I Belong” — Jim James, Brian Wilson (from “Brian Wilson: Long Promised Road)
Until now, the closest that Beach Boys godhead Brian Wilson has ever gotten to a Little Gold Man was when Paul Dano earned a (very well-deserved) Golden Globe nomination for playing him in “Love & Mercy.” That’s not a reflection on the quality of the music — the Academy Award for Best Original Song rarely is — so much as a reminder that Wilson and the Oscars seem to travel along completely different orbits. It’s only because of Wilson’s eccentric participation in the driving-based 2021 documentary “Brian Wilson: Long Promised Road” that those orbits might finally overlap, as the musician was inspired to write an original track for the film.
“Write” may be overstating the case when it comes to “Right Where I Belong,” as My Morning Jacket frontman Jim James did most of the heavy lifting while the 79-year-old pop maestro recovered from back surgery. But this kooky and diaristic tune about the latter’s teenage love affair with music still manages to sound like a vintage, “Smile”-era Wilson groove every time it slingshots from James’ falsetto to Wilson’s belly voice like a slide whistle. Is it worthy of being mentioned in the same breath as songs like “Good Vibrations” and “God Only Knows”? No, but that’s an unfair standard to set for any competition, let alone for a movie awards show that sometimes takes place in a train station. “Right Where I Belong” is mid-tier Wilson at best, but in four elastic minutes it manages to offer almost as much insight into Wilson’s formative years and faraway genius as “Long Promised Road” does with the rest of its running time.
6. “Dos Orugitas” — Lin-Manuel Miranda (from “Encanto”)
Yet another end-credits song, the Spanish-language sweetener that Colombian singer Sebastián Yatra croons after “Encanto” may not add much to an animated movie that’s already full of rollicking numbers. Still, it perfectly crystallizes the warm and fuzzy local charm of this South American fairy tale, as well as the lightly syncopated touch with which Lin-Manuel Miranda has low-key transformed the sound of Disney’s recent musical. Performed entirely in Spanish (its title translates as “Two Caterpillars”), the buoyant closing track offers a CliffsNotes-like crash course on the movie’s lessons about what it means to be a family and share a home in a world constantly changing its shape. It’s a toe-tapping ode to perseverance and self-discovery, one made that much stronger by its embrace of the film’s specific cultural flavor. It’s also an ode to grandparents, which worked out just fine for the (much stronger) “Remember Me” a few years back.
5. “Be Alive” — Beyoncé Knowles-Carter, Dixson (from “King Richard”)
The fact that Beyoncé wrote a song for a major studio’s Richard Williams biopic and it didn’t become an absolutely inescapable part of the soundtrack for 2021 itself would seem to be a fatal body blow against “Be Alive.” But even the “Goldmember” star’s weaker tracks have always been good enough to ace the average Best Original Song contender into oblivion, and that holds true here. A pulsing anthem for the Black pride and perseverance embodied in Williams’ story (and perhaps even more so in that of his daughters), “Be Alive” combines a squelchy R&B beat with the guitar crunch of classic rock to create the inter-generational sound of sweat equity; close your eyes and you can almost hear Venus and Serena running suicides on a tennis court when the rest of their competition is still asleep. As Beyoncé sings, “This is hustle personified.” “Be Alive” gets funkier and more self-assured as it goes along, and that confidence proves contagious, even if the song as a whole has yet to catch on to the extent predicted by its pedigree.
4 . “Guns Go Bang” — Jeymes Samuel, Scott Mescudi, Shawn Carter (from “The Harder They Fall”)
Okay, now we’re cooking with gas. Not only is “Guns Go Bang” one of the best original movie songs on this shortlist, it’s the year’s most ballistic mission statement. From the moment Kid Cudi starts invoking “Avalon” and “violent feasts” atop a clapping beat and a bed of strings, Jeymes Samuel’s “The Harder They Fall” announces itself as a blazing Black Western more interested in restoring history than revising it. Splitting the difference between Jay-Z and John Ford (though sadly only one of those men raps on the track), this opening credits mood-setter cuts between Cudi’s windswept drawl and Jay’s revolver-like rhymes with the surgical precision of a Sergio Leone scene. The auto-tune is additive rather than distracting, the bullets that punctuate the track make every shot count, and while it’s true that Hova isn’t exactly spitting Wyatt Earp-worthy game on his guest verse (“Stain glass windows on the church, I hope they stain proof / Cause when the tides change, I’m tryna stain you”), he still manages to pack a militia’s worth of firepower into every line. Add a splash of orchestral reggae, an angelic outro, and enough ricochets to evoke the gunfight at the O.K. Corral, and you’ve got a song that stands out from a soundtrack full of bangers. This seems like a shoo-in for a nomination — and means the Oscars might luck itself into live performances from both parts of the Knowles-Carter household.
3. “Automatic Woman” — H.E.R., Van Hunt, Starrah (from “Bruised”)
The reigning champion in this category (she won last year for the “Judas and the Black Messiah” track “Fight for You”) isn’t resting on her laurels, as H.E.R. is back in the mix with one of the strongest songs on the shortlist — a pugilistic uppercut that punches well above the weight class of the Halle Berry boxing drama that inspired it. “Automatic Woman” is such a spry and percussive take on the kind of fight song that has made this category such a chore that you don’t even notice how easily it could have been a Diane Warren song in lesser hands (amazing as it would be if Warren ever wrote a couplet like “Motherfuck a dream, I don’t even sleep / Tryna live your life, I got the recipe”). H.E.R.’s voice floats like a butterfly and stings like a bee over a plucky string beat, the singer changing speeds with the fluidity of a world champion and combining a chorus of staccato jabs (“I don’t talk I just do-do-do-do-do-do-do”) into a knockout blow.
2. “So May We Start” — Ron Mael & Russell Mael (from “Annette”)
Leos Carax’s modern opera about Adam Driver as a sociopathic comedian who murders his wife and grooms their marionette baby into a musical superstar may be a bit too weird for Academy tastes, but if most of the songs that avant-pop wizards Ron and Russell Mael concocted for “Annette” are perversely atonal, the euphoric opening number makes for such a broadly arresting intro that you can almost imagine Hugh Jackman (or whoever the hell is hosting the Oscars) kicking off the show with a star-studded singalong. Like so many of the best Sparks songs, “So May We Start” is sneaky-sincere even when its tongue is planted firmly in its cheek, and liable to wriggle off its hook at a moment’s notice; it’s a “welcome to the show!” number that throws shade at the writers in one verse and tells the audience to shut up in the next. “So May We Start” begins with a Motown shake that gradually swells into the same orgiastic bombast that Carax used for the accordion break in “Holy Motors,” as horns pile on top of each and the chorus builds into a rowdy call for art for art’s sake. The rest of the movie couldn’t possibly hope to maintain this level of exuberance, and Carax is smart enough not to even try.
1. “No Time to Die” — Billie Eilish & Finneas O’Connell (from “No Time to Die”)
2021 may not be a particularly strong year for Best Original Songs, but the best track on the Oscar shortlist is a legitimate all-timer that would tower over most of the competition in even this category’s most heated races. Unsurprisingly, it’s from a James Bond movie — the spy franchise now a more reliable source for iconic singles than for transcendent action movies (the last few installments alone have given us a shout-from-the-rafters Adele classic and a funereal Radiohead dirge so good that it was scrapped before it could embarrass the rest of “Spectre”). Far more surprisingly, the boomer series’ latest home run was co-written and performed by someone born during the Pierce Brosnan administration. People weren’t sure what to make of Barbara Broccoli’s decision to hire teenage superstar Billie Eilish and her slightly older brother Finneas O’Connell to set the tone for Daniel Craig’s last ride, but the musicians took to the task at hand with the clarity and enthusiasm of two people who’d been preparing for it since they obsessed over “Skyfall” as kids. As… kids. Oy.
Anyway, if we can ignore the creeping shadow of mortality for a moment, the truth is that “No Time to Die” communes with the spirit of its film as well or better than any Bond theme has before it, which is crucial, because it’s asked to carry more water than all of those songs combined. Resonating with the same intimate disquiet that kisses off the film’s epic prologue, the track braids a palpable knot of insecurity and disquiet around the bombast at its core. Those coiled opening chords waltz around each other like a slow-moving poison as it creeps towards the heart, only for Eilish’s voice to breathe in with the wounded force of someone three times her age and the urgency of a young person whose scars are still bleeding fresh. Eilish and O’Connell didn’t know that Bond was going to bite the dust when they wrote their silky and self-questioning track, but lyrics like “Fool me once, fool me twice / Are you death or paradise?” so perfectly soak into the song’s buried undercurrents of Shirley Bassey-like grandeur that “No Time to Die” gels into an immaculate requiem for 007 all the same.