The Best Original Songs of 2016 Were All Musical Numbers

By  · Published on January 26th, 2017

Maybe it’s time for the Academy to add a little bit to the mix.

No day in the calendar year gives me quite as much cinematic whiplash as the day that the Academy Award nominations are released. As our own Tomris Lafly has noted, there’s something about the nominations that causes otherwise disinterested people to perk up and freak out. In just a few short hours, people go from decrying the very notion of artistic competition to complaining about the selections and the selection complaints. Meanwhile, one of the largest independent film festivals in the world rages on amidst the emptiest month of the theatrical release schedule. If you were to only pay attention in January, you might think that art film was dead, dying, or in a period of unparalleled strength. It’s a lot to take in.

And while I don’t typically get outraged about Oscar selections – after all, the end results always manage to be both more and less commercial than either side would have you believe – I have to admit that one category threw me for a bit of a loss yesterday. I can’t quite figure out the nominees for Best Original Song. This past year’s Song of the Summer? A new release by Sting? Two songs from La La Land? I’m not saying that they’re bad, really, just that they’re so… bland, especially in a year where unconventional Hollywood musical numbers blew our collective minds. And with all due respect to the AMPAS, here’s a few songs I’d like to throw back into the mix.

The first obvious miss was “No Dames,” the rousing song and dance number from the Coen Brothers’ generally overlooked Hail, Caeser! Much like the classical movie musicals it lovingly sends up, “No Dames” is a mishmash of exuberant physicality and tongue-in-cheek homoeroticism. Channing Tatum’s Burt Gurney is a seemingly dim-witted hoofer whose handsomeness disguises a dark core as a covert communist operative in Hollywood; in this way, Gurney is the kind of character that caused Joe McCarthy to wake up at night in a not-altogether-unpleasant sweat. It’s a pretty straight-forward musical number, but the use of tap as syncopation – and the endless possibilities for a live performance at this year’s Academy Awards – should have made “No Dames” a shoo-in for Oscar consideration. Alas.

There’s also any of the fine tracks from Sing Street, the follow-up quasi-musical by Once director Joe Carney. Sing Street tells the story of a group of Irish primary students who decide, like most boys their age, decide that a popular musical group will help them meet girls and escape the mundanity of their lower-middle class lives. While the film does wobble a little bit throughout – there does seem to be a slight disconnect between the period setting of the film and its charmingly naïve approach to love – the songs contained within are absolutely delights. I’ve seen plenty of moviegoers who gravitate towards “Drive It Like You Stole It” as the movie’s big show-stopper and closing number, but it’s the sweet fumbling of “The Riddle of the Model” that won me over initially. It’s an endearingly bad song (or perhaps a kitschy good one) and the perfect first attempt by a group of wannabe pop stars.

And speaking of pop stars, what about the Lonely Island? While I’m not typically one to get outraged about Oscar selections –the end results are somehow never quite as artistic or commercial as either side would have you believe – even I have to admit I’m not quite sure how the MPAA missed out on “Finest Girl (Bin Laden Song)” during voting. The Academy has something of a spotty history when it comes to musical biopic parodies; while they did see fit to give Christopher Guest a nomination for 2004’s A Mighty Wind, Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story — a film that pretty much single-handed killed the musical biopic – was ignored by voters in 2007. Popstar will likely go down as another big miss. For years, the trio behind Lonely Island have been releasing albums that both parody to the current state of pop music while also being catchy as hell. And with all due respect to “Jack Sparrow,” “Finest Girl (Bin Laden Song)” might just be their crowning achievement.

Part pseudo-patriotic anthem a la Team America: World Police, part Top 40 dance floor sensation, “Finest Girl (Bin Laden Song)” is the perfect song for Trump’s America: misinformed and wildly enthusiastic. This is a song about people who literally climax to the idea of America’s military industrial complex but cannot be bothered to get the details of Bin Laden’s assassination correct; there are undoubtedly those who play this song at parties and scream along with all sincerity. I can’t even really be that mad at them, either. Have you heard that hook? There may have been a better verse of music in 2016 than hearing Andy Samberg – never comedy’s strongest singer – scream, “Terrorize that pussy!” at the top of his lungs. It’s a song I must’ve listened to a hundred times this past year, and for that reason alone, it will always be the Academy Award-winner in my heart.

Look, it’s not a knock at the many fine songs that found their way onto Hollywood soundtracks, but with three nominations split between La La Land and Moana, it’s clear that the Academy is as enamored as I am by bold – and diegetic! – musical numbers. Maybe what we learned in 2016 is that we need to carve out a separate little space for songs sung on the screen. You can keep your Stings and your Timberlakes if you must and I’ll stick to songs performed on camera that played an integral part of the movie. The selections this past year were too good to pass up, and in case you forgot, Edgar Wright’s Baby Driver is going to hit theaters later this year. It’ll be good if we could have the Oscars all sorted out in time to give them all to him.

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Matthew Monagle is an Austin-based film and culture critic. His work has appeared in a true hodgepodge of regional and national film publications. He is also the editor and co-founder of Certified Forgotten, an independent horror publication. Follow him on Twitter at @labsplice. (He/Him)