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The 2019 Oscars' Best Original Song Nominees, Cruelly Ranked

Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga perform "Shallow" in <em>A Star Is Born</em>. It's likely to win Best Original Song at the Academy Awards this Sunday, but should it?
Warner Bros. Pictures
Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga perform "Shallow" in A Star Is Born. It's likely to win Best Original Song at the Academy Awards this Sunday, but should it?

When you're filling out your Oscar pool, there are always a few boxes everyone checks. Maybe it's a performance that's swept every other awards show, or maybe it's a movie that seems to have every possible metric on its side. But when you check that box, you know you're virtually guaranteed to get at least one right.

A few of those picks dot the ballot this year. Strongly in the running for Best Picture, Roma would seem to have Best Foreign Language Film locked down. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse seems like an awfully good bet to win Best Animated Feature. But no category seems more firmly decided than Best Original Song. "Shallow," the piece of music at the core of A Star Is Born, has every possible form of momentum: It won a Golden Globe and a pair of Grammy Awards, it's performed by huge stars (that'd be Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper), it provides the biggest moment of a heavily decorated film and it's a radio hit. It's almost certainly going to win.

So it may seem unnecessary to rank this year's stacked field of Best Original Song nominees — and besides, it feels wrong to use the Academy Awards' celebration of excellence as an excuse to nitpick others' creative output. So let's do this!

5. "I'll Fight," RBG, performed by Jennifer Hudson (Diane Warren, songwriter)

There's nothing wrong with "I'll Fight," the stirring Jennifer Hudson anthem that rolls over the closing credits of RBG. It's certainly got an impressive-enough Oscars pedigree behind it: This is the 10th nomination (without a win!) for songwriter Diane Warren, singer Jennifer Hudson won an Oscar for her performance in Dreamgirls and RBG itself is nominated for Best Documentary Feature. But "I'll Fight" itself feels like it could have been written by an app; it hits all its marks (defiance, uplift) without evoking much personality.

It doesn't help that a cursory glance at this year's shortlisted songs shows you some of the superior material that was in the running, including songs by Sade, Jonsi & Troye Sivan, Sampha, Dolly Parton, Thom Yorke and The Coup, whose "OYAHYTT" could have fed the Oscars telecast a much-needed jolt of ferocity and joy.

4. "The Place Where Lost Things Go," Mary Poppins Returns, performed by Emily Blunt (Marc Shaiman & Scott Whitman, songwriters)

For those of us who left Mary Poppins Returns wondering why it needed to exist, here's at least one answer: the sweet ballad "The Place Where Lost Things Go," in which Emily Blunt puts a terrible loss in perspective with characteristically useful wisdom. Where many of Mary Poppins Returns' songs felt weighted down with the sweaty effort of Disney Magic, this one got at something deeper: a spare and tunefully melancholy life lesson, dispensed with kindness and aided by an orchestra that knows just when to hang back and when to hit the gas pedal.

3. "Shallow," A Star Is Born, performed by Lada Gaga & Bradley Cooper (Lady Gaga, Mark Ronson, Anthony Rossomando & Andrew Wyatt, songwriters)

Okay, sure: "Shallow" is going to win. And it would truly deserve to win, if "Best Original Song" translated to "Best Moment When A String Of Ahh-Ahh-Ahhs Smashes Into A Massive Chorus." Because that moment is absolutely epic, especially as a scene within A Star Is Born itself. But it's preceded by a string of thudding, plodding verses — "Ain't it hard keepin' it so hardcore?" — that basically lie around for almost two minutes, waiting impatiently for the first chorus to land. Best song moment, though, for sure.

2. "When a Cowboy Trades His Spurs for Wings," The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, performed by Willie Watson & Tim Blake Nelson (Gillian Welch & David Rawlings, songwriters)

This one gets bonus points for shining the Oscars spotlight on the great Gillian Welch and David Rawlings, who'll perform the song on Sunday night's telecast. What could have been a corny old-time lament — it's literally a song about a cowboy going to the Great Beyond — reads as plainspoken poetry, with a subtle radiance to it that's only enhanced when Welch and Rawlings perform it themselves. (That said, it speaks to their distinct songwriting voices that it's recognizably their composition even when Willie Watson and Tim Blake Nelson perform it.)

1. "All the Stars," Black Panther, performed by Kendrick Lamar feat. SZA (Kendrick Lamar, Sounwave, Anthony Tiffith & SZA, songwriters)

In a year without "Shallow," "All the Stars" would be a frontrunner. In a year with "Shallow," "All the Stars" ought to win anyway. With two of music's most charismatic young stars working at the height of their considerable powers, "All the Stars" is an exhilarating cocktail of uplift and paranoia, with a SZA-led hook to die for and the year's top-grossing, game-changing blockbuster as its canvas. Kendrick Lamar has 13 Grammys and a Pulitzer Prize; he might as well take home an Oscar, too.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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.)