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The 2020 Oscars' Best Original Song Nominees, Cruelly Ranked

Elsa sings "Into the Unknown" in <em>Frozen II</em>.
Walt Disney Animation
Elsa sings "Into the Unknown" in Frozen II.

Last year, the Oscar for best original song was preordained: It was going to "Shallow," come hell or high water, in spite of the clear and obvious superiority of Kendrick Lamar's "All the Stars." That was an unusually strong year for movie songs — you could have put together a strong slate using only tracks that didn't get nominated — but the category didn't exactly hold the movie world in suspense.

This year, the overall slate isn't as strong, but there's a bit more mystery as to the winner. So read on for a (not terribly bold) prediction, a cold-blooded ranking of the nominated songs' quality, and another year's worth of cruel nitpicking at the expense of human beings who will always be Oscar nominees, no matter what anyone writes about them. Let's get crackin'!

5. "I'm Standing With You," Breakthrough, performed by Chrissy Metz (Diane Warren, songwriter)

Though she's never won an Oscar, Diane Warren has been nominated for Best Original Song eleven times since 1988, including three consecutive entries in the late '90s that were inescapable to the point of becoming standards: Celine Dion's "Because You Loved Me," LeAnn Rimes' "How Do I Live" (though it was Trisha Yearwood's version that got nominated, for the way it conveyed romantic longing as part of the rich emotional tapestry that was Con Air), and Aerosmith's "I Don't Want to Miss a Thing." Warren just pulled off another hat trick, but her latest trio of songs will almost certainly be remembered for getting Oscar nominations and little else: Common and Andra Day's "Stand Up for Something," Jennifer Hudson's "I'll Fight" and Chrissy Metz's "I'm Standing With You."

Sensing a theme here? Warren has been rewriting the same Song of Proud Defiance and/or Loyalty for a while now, though "I'm Standing With You" sticks out for its sheer turgidity. Metz, the This Is Us star who headlines Breakthrough, sings with lip-quivering fervor — she commits, that's for sure — but the song has virtually nothing to say that's not already in the title. She's standing with you, y'all.

4. "Stand Up (From Harriet)," Harriet, performed by Cynthia Erivo (Cynthia Erivo and Joshuah Campbell, songwriters)

If you were to begin charting out the lyrical themes favored by the Motion Picture Academy of America, you'd quickly note that standing is big. So let's stand up, take a bold stand and proclaim "Stand Up (From Harriet)" — which, yes, is titled "Stand Up (From Harriet)," in case you were to come across "Stand Up (From Harriet)" in a context outside of its inclusion in the closing credits to the movie Harriet, whose original title really should have been Harriet (Featuring the Song "Stand Up") — to be the 2020 Oscars' Best Original Song About Standing.

That said, Cynthia Erivo — who co-wrote the song, sings it and stars in the movie as Harriet Tubman — out-Diane Warrens Diane Warren, crafting "Stand Up (From Harriet)" as a Song of Proud Defiance and/or Loyalty that also conveys the larger themes (and echoes the time period) of the movie it accompanies. A multitalented, doubly Oscar-nominated star with a terrific singing voice, Erivo navigates the song's challenging range with subtlety and power.

3. "I Can't Let You Throw Yourself Away," Toy Story 4, performed by Randy Newman (Randy Newman, songwriter)

Randy Newman contains multitudes. There's the biting satirist who broke through with "Short People" (and continues in that vein to this day), and then there's the heavily decorated composer of film scores and Pixar-sponsored odes to friendship like "I Love to See You Smile" and "You've Got a Friend in Me." As with Erivo, this isn't even Newman's only Oscar nomination this year; he also composed the score for Marriage Story.

In fact, the guy has banked a whopping twenty Oscar nominations in his career, including wins for songs from Monsters, Inc. and Toy Story 3. But "I Can't Let You Throw Yourself Away" feels like a middling entry in his film catalog: Sure, it whomps and clatters amiably while showcasing Toy Story 4's beloved Forky, but at just a shade past two minutes, it's awfully slight. Still, it's nice to see Forky get his due, and the song snags a bonus point for actually advancing the plot of the movie instead of just plodding along over the closing credits.

2. "(I'm Gonna) Love Me Again," Rocketman, performed by Elton John (Elton John and Bernie Taupin, songwriters)

Which song will win the Oscar? Which song should win the Oscar? For both questions, the answer feels like a battle between the top two songs on this list. Elton John's "(I'm Gonna) Love Me Again" has momentum (it won the Golden Globe in this category) and benefits from the degree to which it holds its own in a movie packed with classic songs. It'd be a worthy winner, as well as the first Academy Award for Bernie Taupin — John's Oscar-winning "Can You Feel the Love Tonight," from 1994's The Lion King, was written with Tim Rice — but it still feels more like a strong Elton John song than the stuff of movie magic.

That said, when you're filling out your Oscar pool, this is the box to check.

1. "Into the Unknown," Frozen 2, performed by Idina Menzel with Aurora (Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez, songwriters)

Okay, so "Into the Unknown" is polarizing — at least within the NPR Music team, which has cleaved into warring camps since Frozen 2 came out — but it's an atomic bomb of aspirational bombast, performed with go-for-broke maximalism by the great Idina Menzel. If it's not already thundering through your brain, allow us to refresh your memory:


The most frequent knock on "Into the Unknown" is that it isn't "Let It Go," the doubly ubiquitous (and Oscar-winning) signature song from 2013's Frozen. But the songs serve entirely different purposes in their respective movies — "Let It Go" is a climactic song of revelation, while "Into the Unknown" functions as more of an aspirational tone-setter of the "I wish" variety — and the newer song does a nifty job opening a fresh chapter in Disney's godzillion-dollar franchise. It's not "Let It Go," technically speaking, but it's a show-stopper in its own right. Now, if you'll excuse me ...


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Stephen Thompson is a writer, editor and reviewer for NPR Music, where he speaks into any microphone that will have him and appears as a frequent panelist on All Songs Considered. Since 2010, Thompson has been a fixture on the NPR roundtable podcast Pop Culture Happy Hour, which he created and developed with NPR correspondent Linda Holmes. In 2008, he and Bob Boilen created the NPR Music video series Tiny Desk Concerts, in which musicians perform at Boilen's desk. (To be more specific, Thompson had the idea, which took seconds, while Boilen created the series, which took years. Thompson will insist upon equal billing until the day he dies.)