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Oscar’s Best Original Songs: The Rightful Winners and the Snubbed Losers

Songs like ‘Once’ and ‘Lose Yourself’ deserved to win. But how could the Academy have overlooked ‘(Don’t You) Forget About Me?’

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Songs like 'Once' and 'Lose Yourself' deserved to win. But how could the Academy have overlooked '(Don't You) Forget About Me?'

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2008

Won the Oscar: "Falling Slowly," Once (music and lyrics: Glen Hansard, Markéta Irglová)

Indie music lovers were heartened when Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová, the duo behind The Swell Season and the stars of Once, won an Oscar for Best Original Song in 2008. Sometimes, the Academy gets it right. But since the first ceremony in 1929, it has also made some extremely dubious selections for the accolade–occasionally head-scratching, often infuriating.

Here are 15 other tracks that deserved to win – or were robbed of a Hollywood holy grail.

Related:
Oscar Guide: What Should Win, What Will Win and Your Play-at-Home Ballot

By Sharon Steel

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2005

Won the Oscar: "It’s Hard Out Here For A Pimp," Hustle & Flow (music and lyrics: Three 6 Mafia)

In order to perform this glowing crunk masterpiece during the Oscars without offending the nation’s impressionable youth, Three 6 Mafia substituted the word “bitches” for “witches.” But they still wore hooded sweatsuits and gold grills on stage — and the latter matched their golden trophies.

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2002

“Lose Yourself,” 8 Mile (music: Eminem, Jeff Bass, Luis Resto; lyrics: Eminem)

Eminem’s “Lose Yourself” was B-Rabbit’s calling card in the biopic loosely based around the rapper’s life; it remains the most successful song of his career and was listed in Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Songs of All Time list. In an upset, the single beat out U2’s “The Hands That Built America” (from Gangs of New York), making this the first hip-hop track to ever win an Academy Award. U2 hasn’t been nominated since. 

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2000

Won the Oscar: “Things Have Changed,” Wonder Boys (music and lyrics: Bob Dylan)

Wonder Boys director Curtis Hanson used several Dylan songs in this writerly drama, and commissioned one this standalone original track. It took home the Oscar, snubbing Sting’s “My Funny Friend and Me” and Björk’s “I’ve Seen It All.” In his acceptance speech, Dylan referred to the song as one that “doesn’t pussyfoot around or turn a blind eye to human nature.”

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1999

Won the Oscar: “You’ll Be in My Heart,” Tarzan (music and lyrics: Phil Collins)

Should have won: "Save Me,” Magnolia (music and lyrics: Aimee Mann)

This was the year that several powerful somebodies, paralyzed by their wimpy fears of the new millennium, decided that a phoned-in Phil Collins song from a crappy movie about a cartoon monkey was superior to Aimee Mann’s shivering, gorgeous Magnolia closer. That was really dumb.

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1997

Won the Oscar: “My Heart Will Go On,” Titanic (music: James Horner; lyrics: Will Jennings; recorded by: Celine Dion)

Should have won: "The Perfect Drug," Lost Highway (music and lyrics: Nine Inch Nails)

It’s too traumatizing to forget: Celine Dion’s titular piece of audio birth control wormed its way into James Cameron’s epic flick about some ship that sank, then accidentally warmed the place where the Academy’s collective, stone-cold heart used to be. Nine Inch Nails' industrial avalanche “The Perfect Drug” (which, by the way, Trent Reznor said he hated) was robbed, as was Elliott Smith’s haunting “Miss Misery,” from Good Will Hunting.

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1996

Won the Oscar: “You Must Love Me,” Evita (music: Andrew Lloyd Webber; lyrics: Tim Rice; recorded by: Madonna)

Should have won: “Exit Music (For A Film),” Romeo + Juliet (music and lyrics: Radiohead)

If Thom Yorke and Madonna ever got into a physical fight, Madge would beat the living shit out of Radiohead’s slight, diminutive frontman. (She works out; he just philosophizes about it.) But to favor Evita’s absurdly maudlin “You Must Love Me” over Radiohead’s soul-shattering “Exit Music (For A Film)," which Yorke composed for the credits of Baz Lehrman’s Romeo + Juliet, is a sad-making joke. And we just might continue to cry about it.

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1993

Won the Oscar: “Streets of Philadelphia,” Philadelphia (music and lyrics: Bruce Springsteen)

After three triumphs for the Disney behemoth in 1989, 1991 and 1992, Springsteen knocked Alan Menken and his G-rated cronies off the podium with this raw, emotionally intense track — the perfect backdrop to Jonathan Demme’s drama, one of the first mainstream films to focus on HIV, AIDS and homosexuality. The song also took home four Grammies.

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1987

Won the Oscar: “(I’ve Had) The Time of My Life,” Dirty Dancing (music: Franke Previte, John DeNicola, Donald Markowitz; recorded by: Bill Medley and Jennifer Warnes)

This is Billy Medley’s dance space. That is Jennifer Warnes’ dance space. You don’t go into either of their dance spaces. You just vote to give them a gold statue and feel pleased with yourself.

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1986

Won the Oscar: “Take My Breath Away,” Top Gun (music: Giorgio Moroder; lyrics: Tom Whitlock; recorded by: Berlin)

There’s something downright magical about watching a young, hearthrobby Tom Cruise, grinning wildly in aviator sunglasses and flying planes like he’s never heard of a Thetan in his life. Berlin’s tender Top Gun love theme score one of the hottest sex scenes of the eighties. And Terri Nunn sure looked killer in that baby blue flight suit. 

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1984

Won the Oscar: “I Just Called To Say I Love You,” The Woman In Red (music and lyrics: Stevie Wonder)

There’s an episode of the Cosby Show in which Stevie Wonder crashes in Denise’s car and she can't believe that Stevie Wonder wrecked her ride. But he’s totally sorry, so he invites the Huxtables to his recording studio to bask in his awesomeness and sing with him. It’s amazing. Even more amazing is “I Just Called to Say I Love You.” How fortunate that this was recorded in 1984, because today the song would be called “I Just Stalked You On Facebook And Left An Ambiguous Post On Your Wall With An Emoticon That Could Be Considered Loving But Is Probably Just Casually Ironic.”

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1985

Won the Oscar: “Say You, Say Me,” White Nights (music and lyrics: Lionel Richie)

Should have won: “Don’t You (Forget About Me),” The Breakfast Club (music and lyrics: Simple Minds)

Nothing against “Say You, Say Me,” the R&B slow-burner Lionel Richie wrote for White Nights. But this was 1985, and New Wave, alongside the defiant Brat Pack, ruled the Zeitgeist. The opening salutation “Hey! Hey! Hey! Hey!” of Simple Minds' melancholy “Don’t You (Forget About Me)” tenderly evokes all the bitter triumphs of being a 16-year-old asshole. It’s self-deprecating and self-congratulatory all at once, not unlike John Hughes' iconic canon of teen angst films.

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1980

Should have won: “Call Me,” American Gigolo (music and lyrics: Debbie Harry, Girgio Moroder; recorded by: Blondie)

Won the Oscar: “Fame,” Fame (music: Michael Gore; lyrics: Dean Pitchford)

Yes, okay, terrific, we’re all going to live forever. We’re fucking immortal. Nobody’s questioning how good the Fame theme is — it’s still a touchstone for struggling artists and anyone whose social calendar revolves around Glee. But to slight Blondie’s iconic lady anthem “Call Me” (a song Rolling Stone deemed one of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time) for a title track that has led generations of musical theater-obsessed high school students to believe that they won’t piss anyone off if they break into song in the cafeteria while they consume a hot lunch? Tragic.

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1977

Won the Oscar: “You Light Up My Life,” You Light Up My Life (music and lyrics: Joseph Brooks; recorded by: Debby Boone)

Should have won: “Nobody Does It Better,” James Bond 007: The Spy Who Loved Me (music: Marvin Hamlisch; lyrics: Carole Bayer Sager; recorded by: Carly Simon)

Carly Simon’s soaring spy power ballad should have taken the prize in 1977. Instead, the sappy country pop single “You Light Up My Life” stole it away. Pat Boone’s daughter Debby recorded the song for the critically panned eponymous romantic comedy. Aimee Mann, who was also shunned by the Academy in 1999, recorded her own version of the song for a 1997 James Bond tribute album, The Bond Project.

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1971

Won the Oscar: “Theme from Shaft,” Shaft (music and lyrics: Isaac Hayes)

Who else is the black private dick that’s a sex machine to all the chicks? If this fly theme didn’t beat out the other nominees this year — including “The Age of Not Believing” from Bedknobs and Broomsticks and “Bless the Beasts and Children” from Bless the Beasts and Children — the Academy would have had to shut its own mouth. With duct-tape. And Isaac Hayes’ basket-weave vest. A wocka-wocka rhythm guitar never sounded so cool, and hasn’t since.

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1939

Won the Oscar: “Over the Rainbow,” The Wizard of Oz (music: Harold Arlen; lyrics: E.Y. Harburg; recorded by: Judy Garland)

In this perennially classic celluloid ballad, Dorothy Gale obsesses over an optical phenomenon. Unlike Paul Vasquez, the man behind the infamous Double Rainbow meme, Dorothy’s imagined bright and vivid rainbow doesn’t inspire a sloppy cryfest. But she does brag that she can fly. (And later passes out in an opium-laden poppy field.) Good show.

 

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