An Opinionated Guide to a Pretty Good Year for Oscar Songs

Wed Jan 4, 2012 4:58pm EST

Either I'm getting softer, or 2011 was a better year for Oscar songs than 2010.

This year, when I did my annual ritual of listening to all of the eligible songs and scoring them on the same scale the Academy uses, the 39 eligible songs averaged a 7.7 score. And I gave out 10 scores of 85 or higher -- the minimum that the Academy requires to secure a nomination is 8.25.

Last year, the 41 eligible songs averaged a measly 7.3 score. And I only ranked two of them higher than the Academy's 8.25 minimum.

(Those two were A.R. Rahman's "If I Rise" and Randy Newman's "We Belong Together"; both were nominated, and the Newman song won.)

Now, this is not to say that the voters from the Academy's Music Branch will agree with me when they meet on Thursday night, view randomly ordered clips of the scenes in which all 39 eligible songs are used, and score each of the contenders.

Those guys are a group of film-music professionals, while I just have a (distant) background in writing about rock and pop music. I'm sure we don't respond to the same things. 

Also, they will be viewing clips of the songs in context; I'm just working from the music, not the visuals, (Question for any Music Branch member who might be reading: May I come over and watch your DVD of the clips?)

Also read: Oscar Song Process Out of Tune

But I put myself in their shoes anyway. I loaded all 39 of this year's contenders onto an iPod playlist, hit shuffle and used the Academy's rules to rate each of the songs on a scale of six to 10.

Here's how it went:

"Hello Hello" from "Gnomeo & Juliet"

Elton John calls this "a Beatles pastiche," and Elton knows what he's talking about. A bouncy duet with a particularly nasally Lady Gaga, it's a pleasant ditty that owes too much to the Fab Four's "Hello Goodbye" to stand out. 7

"Man or Muppet" from "The Muppets"

For this Flight of the Conchords fan who also happens to think that the Muppets are pretty damn cool, this hilarious power ballad is the funniest and most spectacular blend of movie and song since Trey Parker and Matt Stone's  "Pearl Harbor Sucked (And I Miss You)" from "Team America: World Police." 10

"Hell and Back" from "Hell and Back Again"

Stark, acoustic and a little bluesy, J. Ralph's song nicely captures the mood of Danfung Dennis' sobering documentary – and you have to credit a huge assist to Willie Nelson, who knows how to sell some awfully clunky and literal lyrics. But even Willie can't sell a line like "I haven't seen a lemonade stand for years or days." 7.5

"Imaginary Friends" from "Olive"

There's a fine line between plaintive and wimpy, and this acoustic ballad (from an ultra-low-budget movie shot entirely on a smartphone) spends too much time on the wrong side of that line 7.

"Ja Nao Estar" from "Jose and Pilar"

One of several foreign-language songs in contention, this mournful example of the fado genre comes from a Portuguese documentary about Nobel-winning author Jose Saramago. The simple guitar/voice performance by Camané is evocative and understated. 8

"DAM999 Theme Song" from "DAM999"

Perhaps the theory is that since "Slumdog Millionaire" scored a pair of song nominations (and a win for "Jai Ho"), a different film from India might be able to do the same. But "DAM999," about a 1975 dam disaster, is by all reports nowhere near as rousing (or as visible in the U.S.) as "Slumdog," and the three songs it submitted to the Oscars seem unlikely to make the cut.  The theme song is florid, melodramatic and repetitive. 6.5

"When the Heart Dies" from "In the Land of Blood and Honey"

Written by film composer Gabriel Yared, "When the Heart Dies" is a keening lament performed by Bosnian singer Natasa Mirkovic-De Ro. To an English-speaking listener, what mostly comes across is sadness and a heightened sense of drama. 7.5

"The Greatest Song I Ever Heard" from "POM Wonderful Presents the Greatest Movie Ever Sold"

Obviously, the alternative band OK Go is not going to live up to their song title – although they do have the sense to realize that when you're saddled with that title, the Beatles are probably the right band to borrow from. It's as much a pastiche as Elton's song, although the long fade-out is pretty rousing. 8

"Sparking Day" from "One Day"

This is the good-natured side of Elvis Costello: some nice turns of phrase, an attractive melody, a spirited vocal performance … and, to be honest, a sense that the guy is slumming with material like this. 7.5

"It's How We Play" from "I Don't Know How She Does It"

Holly Palmer's bouncy, jazzy pop can be both affected and effective, but in this case the stylistic flourishes don't feel as if they're in the service of anything too substantial. 7

"Think You Can Wait" from "Win Win"

It begins with an echo of Bruce Springsteen's Oscar-winning "Streets of Philadelphia," but the National's song quickly finds its own identity as a moody, moving portrait of a man fighting not to lose himself. Dark, graceful and beautiful.  9.5

"Real in Rio" from "Rio"

Brazilian percussion drives the scene-setting anthem from "Rio," which sits in a buoyant groove as it introduces a cast of characters. More an overture than a song, it sets the scene nicely. 8

"Bridge of Light" from "Happy Feet Two"

The more substantial of the two "Happy Feet Two" songs is a big, booming ballad pumped up by that old standby, the gospel choir. Pink, meanwhile, strives mightily to make a string of keep-on-going bromides sound like hard-earned wisdom, and almost  succeeds.  7

"Life's a Happy Song" from "The Muppets"

The opening number from "The Muppets" is noteworthy mostly as the basis for the film's biggest production number. It's exactly what the title suggests: an ode to happiness that's so sweet it can give you cavities. But that's exactly the point. 8.5

Also read: Oscar Songs: Bret McKenzie Discovers the Secret of Muppet Music

"Pop" from "White Irish Drinkers"

By now, Pogues-style American-Irish bands with gravel-voiced lead singers are practically a genre unto themselves – and Southern California's Shillaly Brothers are typically loose, spirited and raucous. This tale of fatherly advice may not be polished, but it's fun. 8

"Coeur Volant" from "Hugo"

The French singer Zaz sounds right at home with Howard Shore's waltz, with French lyrics and the kind of small combo feel of the band depicted in Martin Scorsese's film.   8.5

"Never Be Daunted" from "happythankyoumoreplease"

Indie queen Jaymay provided more than a dozen songs to be used as a score for Josh Radnor's "happythankyoumoreplease," and entered one in the Oscar race. Lilting and alluring, "Never Be Daunted" offers low-fi words of wisdom to a nervous friend; it's a small gem.  8.5

"Rainbird" from "Dirty Girl"

Veteran singer Melissa Manchester delivers the kind of tune that used to be the norm in the Oscar song category: a lushly orchestrated, piano-based love song, pretty and determinedly old-fashioned. 7.5

"Dakkanaga Dugu Dugu" from "DAM999"

When the chorus kicks in, this is the catchiest of the three "DAM999" songs. But it's still no "Jai Ho." 7

"The Keeper" from "Machine Gun Preacher"

Soundgarden fans might be surprised to hear how comfortable Chris Cornell sounds with an acoustic ballad, though he proved some time ago that there's more to him than hard rock.  At any rate, the simplicity of this song, a statement of purpose from the dark side, is one of the main reasons it's so haunting. 9

Also read: Oscar Songs: Chris Cornell Channels Woody Guthrie for 'The Keeper'

"Mujhe Chod Ke" from "DAM999"

You could call this song understated, at least compared to the other "DAM999" entries. Slick and slinky, it's also very languid and more than five-and-a-half minutes long – a problem, since the three-minute limit on clips means that voters will only hear about half of it. 6.5

"Love Builds a Garden" from "Gnomeo & Juliet"

If "Hello, Hello" is Elton John doing the Beatles, this is Elton doing Elton – specifically, doing another big ballad along the lines of his Oscar-winning "Can You Feel the Love Tonight." He still does it very persuasively. 8

"Pictures in My Head" from "The Muppets"

The last of the three Muppets songs is wistful ballad of friendship, full of a gentle yearning for past times, and no less moving because it’s sung by a frog. (But it's funnier because it's sung by a frog.) Reminiscent in tone of the Muppets classic "The Rainbow Connection," it might be the movie's best shot at an Oscar. 9.5

"Lay Your Head Down" from "Albert Nobbs"

Marriage may not agree with her, but Sinead O'Connor knows her way around a ballad. And Brian Byrne and Glenn Close gave her a beautifully affecting one, which she caresses so gently that she turns it into a haunting Irish lullaby. 9

Also read: And the Oscar for Best Song Goes to ... Glenn Close and Skype?!

"Collision of Worlds" from "Cars 2"

My opinion may be colored by the fact that when I first heard this in a theater, a terrible sound mix made it sound as if Brad Paisley was down the street and Robbie Williams was sitting in my lap. But even a pristine mix couldn't have saved this clunky ode to multi-national cooperation, with hamfisted lyrics that make you wonder why Pixar ever hires any songwriter except Randy Newman. 6

"The Mighty Sven" from "Happy Feet Two"

A disjointed performance piece for Robin Williams and Hank Azaria, this is a song that is serviceable within the movie (where the real musical highlights are the old songs, not the new ones) but silly on its own. 6.5

"Hot Wings" from "Rio"

A groove anthem from the Black Eyed Peas' will.i.am, "Hot Wings" is pretty much a party-by-the-numbers workout. It might work on a dance floor, but there's not much to it. 6.5

"The World I Knew" from "African Cats"

Even before Paul Simon and "Graceland," musicians had figured out that adding African music to American pop songs could give those songs a lift and drive they might not otherwise have. But it helps to be working with Paul Simon songs, not the kind of generic pop-rock that "American Idol" contender Jordin Sparks sings here. 6.5

"Taking You With Me" from "Our Idiot Brother"

A bouncy and collegial alternative-country charmer from Nashville-based musicians Daniel Tashian and Mindy Smith, "Taking You With Me" is all easygoing vibe and sly wit. 8

"The Living Proof" from "The Help"

The lyrics traffic far too heavily in vague inspirational clichés ("so glad the worst is over"), but Mary J. Blige bears down and makes the soul ballad convincing. Like the movie itself, it's a case of mawkish material being redeemed by powerful performance. 8

"The Backson Song" from "Winnie the Pooh"

Like "the Mighty Sven," "The Backson Song" is more about performance than material, providing an excuse for some stylish animation and spirited performances by Craig Ferguson and crew. I'll give it points for a including a lyric nod to the punchline in A.A. Milne's original Backson story (which the movie shamefully ignores), but it's still a pretty annoying song. 6.5

"Shelter" from "Take Shelter"

With a bluesy growl a few cartons short of Tom Waits, Ben Nichols settles into an ominous ballad meant to capture the mindset of the lead character in the film directed by his brother Jeff. In the end, though, it's Michael Shannon's haunted look, not Nichols' vocal histrionics, that tell the story. 6.5

"Star Spangled Man" from "Captain America: The First Avenger"

Alan Menken's faux-USO song is persuasive if you're in the market for a patriotic ditty that sounds like it came straight out of World War II. But an amazing simulation does not a great song make. 7.5

"Where the River Goes" from "Footloose"

The original "Footloose" produced a pair of cheesy but pretty undeniable pop hits (and Oscar nominees), the title track and "Let's Hear It for the Boy." It is not a mark of progress that the remake gives us a slow burner that doesn’t really go anywhere. And you can't dance to it, either. 6.5

"Gathering Stories" from "We Bought a Zoo"

Sigur Rós' Jonsi didn't get a nomination last year with his song from "How to Train Your Dragon," but he's back with a shimmering pop confection that concludes Cameron Crowe's film on a joyous and richly textured note.  8.5

"Summer Song" from "The Music Never Stopped"

A pop confection clearly designed to sound as if it came out of the Summer of Love, "Summer Song" is distinguished mostly by the grain and character in the voice of its lead singer – who, if a rather roundabout Internet search is to be believed, is Chrissy Amphlett, best known in the 1980s for the provocative song "I Touch Myself" with her band the Divinyls. (At least one website claims that the credited band, the Tulips, were actually a Southern California band from the '60s, but Amphlett has taken credit for the song on Facebook.) 7.5

"Keep on Walking" from "The First Grader"

The Oscar field's second African/Western collaboration, "Keep on Walking" pairs British composer Alex Heffes with Ugandan singer Kawesa.  But it's far more African than Westernized, with a light instrumental touch and rich vocals. 8

"Let Me Take You to Rio" from "Rio"

In some ways this is the most Brazilian-sounding of the three "Rio" songs in contention, with a tropical groove and verses in Portuguese. But it’s also the slightest of the songs, a pleasing two-minute romp that doesn't linger. 7

"So Long" from "Winnie the Pooh"

Your reaction to Zooey Deschanel's end-credits song probably depends on your reaction to Deschanel herself: If you think she's fetching you'll probably find this bouncy ditty irresistible, and if you find her annoying you'll find its determined innocence off-putting. Me, I like her. 8.5

Also read: Oscar Songs: Zooey Deschanel Finds Music a (Pooh) Bear Necessity

And yes, I cheated with the "shuffle play" thing by putting 'Hello, Hello" first and "So Long" last.

(Thursday: Elton John talks about gnomes, politics, waiting out Disney and why he wants Justin Timberlake to play him in the movies.)

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