What are the best and worst Best Original Songs in Oscars history?

(Silver Screen Collection/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

This post originally appeared on FiveThirtyEight and is reprinted with permission.

The Academy Awards strive to highlight the most significant annual achievements in acting, the craft of making movies and, for some reason, which song from the last year was pretty good. Yes, the Oscar for best original song is a chance to look back on the small batch of tunes explicitly written for the medium of film. But that's the problem; it's a relatively small batch compared with the almost endless number of movies and actors the academy can choose from. It's not a recipe for consistent excellence.

There are a few kinds of songs that show up repeatedly over the years. You've got the mediocre song added to the film adaptation of a beloved stage musical;(1) one of the Disney, Pixar or Bond songs; or the song that wins but isn't even the best tune from that movie.(2) There are many years when the obviously superior song - "I Don't Want to Miss a Thing," "The Power of Love," "Eye of the Tiger" or "The Bare Necessities" - loses. My favorite nominees of all are the C to C-minus ballads from extremely popular musicians grasping their best chance to win Oscar gold, such as Bono,(3) Paul McCartney,(4) Bruce Springsteen,(5) Jon Bon Jovi,(6) Justin Timberlake(7) or, most of all, Sting.(8)

In other words, I find the best original song category fascinating because its nominees span such a wide range in quality - the most timeless songs in cinema history and songs that prove the music branch will nominate a ham sandwich if Bono or Randy Newman was involved in making it.

So let's find out the worst best original song. (OK, we'll find the best one too.) We took a 30-second clip from every best original song winner in Academy Award history and loaded the samples into a random matchup generator. Then we asked people to select which song they preferred. We promoted this across FiveThirtyEight's social channels over several weeks. It's not a scientific sample, but with more than 50,000 individual matchups evaluated, I'm confident that this ranking approximates prevailing attitudes toward the winners.(9) We can then rank each song by the percent of matchups it won.

I was originally worried that the biases of the audience would penalize older songs over more recent songs, but that wasn't the case; more to the point, it appears that we're in a bit of a dark age when it comes to movie songs.



The best era for movie songs appears to be the 1980s and 1990s - bracketed by "Fame" in 1980 and "My Heart Will Go On" in 1997. The best 10 consecutive years of best original songs ran from 1986 through 1995, with Disney Renaissance hits combining with bangers like "Take My Breath Away" from "Top Gun" and "Time of My Life" from "Dirty Dancing" to make for an unmatched stretch of good winners.(10)

But which individual songs could be called the best or worst? At the bottom of the pile, there's "Sweet Leilani" in 1937, "Buttons and Bows" in 1948 and "On the Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe" in 1946 (which Judy Garland sang). The worst performing songs of the past 20 years were "I Need to Wake Up" from "An Inconvenient Truth" (2006) and "Man or Muppet" from "The Muppets" (2011).


There's a large clump of songs that won around 70 percent of their matchups, give or take 3 percentage points. Call this the great-but-not-best cluster. Then there's a gap before you get to the truly differentiated tunes. The fourth- and third-ranked songs - "Flashdance (What a Feeling)" from "Flashdance" (1983) and "Can You Feel the Love Tonight" from "The Lion King" (1994), respectively - both won 77 percent of their matchups. The No. 2 song, "When You Wish Upon a Star" from "Pinocchio" (1940), won 80 percent.



But they're no match for the best best original song of all time: Judy Garland's rendition of "Somewhere Over the Rainbow," from 1939's "The Wizard of Oz," won 91 percent of its matchups. That's head and shoulders over the competition.

What's the best best original song?
Oscar-winning songs and this year's nominees by win percentage in a random matchup simulation

1. "Somewhere Over the Rainbow," 1939, won 91 percent of matchups
2. "When You Wish Upon a Star," 1940, 80% win
3. "Can You Feel the Love Tonight," 1994, 77% win
3. "Flashdance (What a Feeling)," 1983, 77% win
5. "The Way You Look Tonight," 1936, 73% win
6. "Fame," 1980, 71% win
6. "Lose Yourself," 2002, 71% win
6. "Rain Drops Keep Falling on My Head," 1969, 71% win
9. "White Christmas," 1942, 70% win
10. "My Heart Will Go On," 1997, 69% win
10. "Que Sera Sera," 1956, 69% win
10. "Under the Sea," 1989, 69% win
13. "A Whole New World," 1992, 6% win
13. "Let It Go," 2013, 68% win
13. "Moon River," 1961, 68% win
13. "Time of My Life," 1987, 68% win
17. "Take My Breath Away," 1986, 67% win
18. "Beauty and the Beast," 1991, 66% win
18. "Skyfall," 2012, 66% win
20. "Colours of the Wind," 1995, 65% win
21. "Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah," 1947, 64% win
22. "Streets of Philadelphia," 1993, 63% win
22. "Theme From Shaft," 1971, 63% win
24. "The Way We Were," 1973, 62% win
25. "Last Dance," 1978, 61% win
26. "Chim Chim Cher-ee," 1964, 60% win
27. "Glory," 2014, 59% win
28. "Baby, It's Cold Outside," 1949, 57% win
29. "Falling Slowly," 2007, 54% win
29. "Up Where We Belong," 1982, 54% win
29. "You'll Be in My Heart," 1999, 54% win
32."I Just Called to Say I Love You," 1984, 53% win
33. "All the Way," 1957, 52% win
33. "Arthur's Theme (Best That You Can Do)," 1981, 52% win
35. "Born Free," 1966, 50% win
35. "Swinging on a Star," 1944, 50% win
37. "High Hopes," 1959, 49% win
37. "I'm Easy," 1975, 49% win
39. "Jai Ho," 2008, 48% win
39. "Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing," 1955, 48% win
41. "Mona Lisa," 1950, 46% win
41. "You Light Up My Life," 1977, 46% win
42. "It's Hard Out Here for a Pimp," 2005, 45% win
42. "Sooner or Later," 1990, 45% win
42. "The Windmills of Your Mind," 1968, 45% win
42. "Things Have Changed," 2000, 45% win
47. "City of Stars," 2016, 44% win
47. "If I Didn't Have You," 2001, 44% win
47. "Remember Me," 2017, 44% win
47. "Thanks for the Memory," 1938, 44% win
51. "Call Me Irresponsible," 1963, 43% win
51. "Say You, Say Me," 1985, 43% win
51. "The Morning After," 1972, 43% win
54. "The Weary Kind," 2009, 42% win
54. "We May Never Love Like This Again," 1974 42% win
54. "Writing's on the Wall," 2015, 42% win
57. "Al Otro Lado del Rio," 2004, 41% win
57. "Into the West," 2003, 41% win
58. "Evergreen (Love Theme From A Star Is Born)," 1976, 40% win
58. "We Belong Together," 2010, 40% win
58. "When You Believe," 1998, 40% win
62. "Days of Wine and Roses," 1962, 38% win
62. "It Goes Like It Goes," 1979, 38% win
62. "Let the River Run," 1988, 38% win
62. "Lullaby of Broadway," 1935, 38% win
62. "Three Coins in the Fountain," 1954, 38% win
62. "You'll Never Know," 1943, 38% win
68. "Gigi," 1958, 37% win
68. "It Might as Well Be Spring," 1945, 37% win
68. "Stand Up for Something," 2017, 37% win
71. "For All We Know," 1970, 36% win
71. "Man or Muppet," 2011, 36% win
71. "Secret Love," 1953, 36% win
74. "Mystery of Love," 2017, 35% win
74. "Talk to the Animals," 1967, 35% win
74. "This Is Me," 2017, 35% win
77. "Never on Sunday," 1960, 34% win
78. "The Shadow of Your Smile," 1965, 33% win
79. "You Must Love Me," 1996, 33% win
80. "The Last Time I Saw Paris," 1941, 32% win
81. "The Ballad of High Noon," 1952, 31% win
81. "The Continental," 1934, 31% win
83. "Cool Cool Cool of the Evening," 1951, 30% win
83. "Mighty River," 2017, 30% win
85. "I Need to Wake Up," 2006, 29% win
86. "On the Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe," 1946, 28% win
87. "Buttons and Bows," 1948, 22% win
87. "Sweet Leilani," 1937, 22% win

Footnotes:
1. "Suddenly" from "Les Miserables," "Learn to Be Lonely" from "The Phantom of the Opera," "I Move On" from "Chicago," "Hopelessly Devoted to You" from "Grease" and "Mean Green Mother From Outer Space" from "Little Shop of Horrors."

2. Looking at you, "La La Land."

3. "The Hands That Built America"

4. "Vanilla Sky"

5. "Dead Man Walkin'," and "Streets of Philadelphia"

6. "Blaze of Glory"

7. "Can't Stop the Feeling"

8. "My Funny Friend and Me," "Until," "You Will Be My Ain True Love" and "The Empty Chair"

9. Among our readers, at least.

10. Note: FiveThirtyEight is owned by ESPN, which is partially owned by Disney.
Related Topics:
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