Here’s a sampling of some of the best songs written for movies released this year. Not all of these are receiving award pushes, but every one is worth listening to. It has been a particularly good year for gorgeous acoustic ballads, but there are also some slick nocturnal grooves, atmospheric-rock trips and in-your-face declarations of independence to liven up the joint.
The following are listed in playlist sequence for flow, not as a ranking. Happy listening!
“Your Song Saved My Life” from “Sing 2” (U2; music by U2, lyrics by Bono): Bono’s interest in the idea of the song is so profound he posted “60 Songs That Saved My Life” on U2’s site for his 60th birthday. His enthusiasm may prove infectious to voters, and the band has two previous nominations.
“Surface Pressure” from “Encanto” (Jessica Darrow; written by Lin-Manuel Miranda): The first of Miranda’s many appearances on this playlist (the guy wrote original songs for three movies out this year) is powered by a muscular contralto from Darrow in a colorful depiction of her supernaturally strong character’s secret struggles. The animated contender features much of Miranda’s trademark lyrical gymnastics, nowhere more so than here: “Under the surface/ Was Hercules ever like, ‘Yo, I don’t want to fight Cerberus’?/ Under the surface/ I’m pretty sure I’m worthless if I can’t be of service.” And the imaginative visualization of the scene includes what the directors told The Envelope may be Disney’s record for “the most donkeys in a scene.”
“Guns Go Bang” from “The Harder They Fall” (Kid Cudi, Jay-Z; written by Jeymes Samuel, Scott Mescudi, Shawn Carter): There’s an undeniable cool to the track, co-written by writer-director Samuel. Its production, with its classic Hollywood-sounding ricochet samples, fits the movie’s slick, updated spaghetti Western vibe.
“No Time to Die” from “No Time to Die” (Billie Eilish; written by Eilish, Miles Ale, Finneas O’Connell): Winner of the premature adulation Grammy in 2020 as the first song to be honored for a film that hadn’t yet been released. Oscar voters have shown a weakness for moody Bond ballads of late (wins for “Skyfall” and “Writing’s on the Wall” while ignoring perhaps the greatest Bond theme, the in-your-face rocker “You Know My Name”), so this one has a shot.
“Beautiful Life” from “Convergence: Courage in a Crisis” (written and performed by Michael Kiwanuka) — Are you ready for the Playlist and chill portion of the evening? The film is a documentary about the global sweep of the COVID-19 pandemic and the structural and social cracks it has exposed, but ... the feel of the song is a noir-groovy, Portisheady soundtrack to a city night.
“Fire in the Sky” from “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” (Anderson .Paak ; written by .Paak, Bruno Mars, Nicholas “Sun Zoo” Race) — The way this ideal, romantic summer groove captures a feeling, a hopeful longing, deserves notice. “I’m callin’ it now/ I’m callin’ it now/ You’ll find love with me somehow.” It also enjoys a sprinkling of that Mars (24K) magic.
“Hablo de ...” from “Language Lessons” (written and performed by Gaby Moreno): Whew, what a charmer. A disarming, lilting, swaying stroll of a tune. It might have an uphill path to an Oscar nomination, but one of the more memorable movie songs of the year.
“Remain” from “Old” (written and performed by Saleka): A delicate piano ballad by filmmaker M. Night Shyamalan’s eldest daughter. Its lovely vocal avoids showiness and the lyrics contain one of the year’s better rhymes: “But cupid’s an archer/ His violent departure ...” In the context of the film, its lines “I’ll wash away some day/ No monuments made in my name/ There is no life I’d trade/ You were my reason to remain” gain touching significance.
“My Father’s Daughter” from “Flag Day” (Olivia Vedder; written by Glen Hansard, Cat Power, Eddie Vedder): Often when writers who are stars in their own right come together, the result is a bit of a mishmash. Not so here. This is a perfectly melded, tender ballad, all the more feeling for its simplicity and guileless vocal by Eddie Vedder’s 17-year-old daughter, Olivia.
“On My Way” from “The Mitchells vs the Machines” (Alex Lahey; written by Lahey, Sophie Louise Payten, Gabriel Strum): Youth-empowerment songs seem a dime a dozen, a prerequisite for studio releases with teen protagonists. Then there are lively examples such as this, that feel like they come from somewhere just as the film’s teen protagonist, Katie Mitchell, feels so specific and authentic despite being in an animated comedy about robots trying to wipe out humanity. Lahey and company have caught a real-feeling wave here — a kind of sympathetic sister to Grace Potter’s “Something That I Want” from “Tangled.” “I’m gonna cross state lines in my first car/ Over and over heal my broken heart.” Right on, right on.
“My Own Drum” from “Vivo” (Ynairaly Simo; written by Lin-Manuel Miranda): Yes, we’re into the loud segment of the playlist, and another chapter in the “Lin-Manuel Miranda is everywhere” saga. It’s a wall of percussive declarations of independence, with an ultra-energetic delivery by young Simo, perfect for the character and moment in the animated feature.
“Dos Oruguitas” from “Encanto” (Sebastian Yatra; written by Lin-Manuel Miranda): Miranda has said his task with this linchpin song from Colombia-set “Encanto” was to write a folk song that sounded as if it had been around forever, and that passed the test of being playable by someone who only knew three chords on a guitar, or could support a full orchestral accompaniment. Safe to say he succeeded on all counts, though campfire singers beware: That chorus gets a mite rangy. Un poquito. It’s entirely in Spanish (there’s an English version in the end credits), but that’s no bar: 10 other non-English-language songs have been nominated in the past.
“Beyond the Shore” from “CODA” (Emilia Jones; written by Nicholai Baxter, Matt Dahan, Sian Heder, Marius de Vries): The flowing-silk beauty of this song, and Jones’ gorgeous vocal performance, had me scrambling to snag the rest of her catalog. Turns out there isn’t any “rest of her catalog”; the actress learned to both communicate in ASL and sing for her role in the Deaf-family drama. Very hard to believe Jones is new to this singing thing. I’ll just have to hope the team of Baxter, Dahan, (“CODA” writer-director) Heder and De Vries reforms to write more songs. Plus, it makes for a perfect segue into ...
“Mercy of Man” from “The Card Counter” (Robert Levon Been feat. S.G. Goodman; written by Been and Goodman): Its dark, atmospheric rock texture is just right for the film, which strolls across brightly lit casino floors, through dank hallways lit with untrustworthy fluorescent tubes, to the blackest back-room final destinations in a blood-blinded quest for redemption. Hard to imagine the academy recognizing it — when was the last time anything like it got a nomination? — but it’s one of the more affecting and appropriate-feeling songs from a movie this year. And, sonically, it’s an ideal setup for this year’s playlist closer ...
“A Little Closer” from “Dear Evan Hansen” (Colton Ryan; written by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul) — Perhaps less well-known than the other original song (“The Anonymous Ones”) for the film version of the massive-hit Broadway musical, it’s a bittersweet emotional payoff for the much-maligned adaptation despite being barely whispered above a (mostly) acoustic-guitar accompaniment. Ryan’s fragile-hopeful delivery couldn’t be more right for the character, the song and the moment in the movie.