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20 Greatest Best Song Oscar Performances

From Springsteen to Southern hip-hop and hot-buttered soul, Oscars’ grandest, grooviest musical showstoppers.

A prepubescent King of Pop, singing a love song to a rat; a Southern rap trio, paying tribute to the trials and tribulations of being in “the game”; a Canadian chart-topping superstar crooning hard enough to shatter glass chandeliers; a Portland, Oregon indie troubadour gently singing his way through an acoustic ditty. Look back at the Best Song Oscars of the last four-plus decades, and you’ll find an oddball mix of pop, rock, R&B, hip-hop, old-school showtunes, old-fashioned showstoppers and a few unclassifiable gems. We’ve grabbed 20 of our favorite Academy Award broadcast performances and ranked them from good to jaw-droppingly great. You think it’s hard out there for a pimp? Try choosing between Adele, Bjork, Springsteen and “Everything Is Awesome” for your top slot.

By David Ehrlich, David Fear and Jerry Portwood.

20. Irene Cara, ‘What a Feeling’ (1983)

The Cuban-American actress became famous for her role as Coco Hernandez in the 1980 film Fame, but it was “Flashdance … What a Feeling,” co-written with Keith Forsey and disco legend Giorgio Moroder, that marked the pinnacle of her career. The title song for the movie that ripped a thousand sweatshirts became a hit for Cara and cemented her status as an Eighties pop diva, winning her an Oscar, Grammy and Golden Globe, and later reaching Number One on the Billboard Hot 100 in May 1983. What a feeling indeed. JP

19. Diana Ross and Lionel Richie, ‘Endless Love’ (1982)

Question: What do you get when you pair the smooth-as-silk singer from the Commodores with the diva di tutti divas of the Supremes? Answer: A duo who can successfully sell what may be the single schmaltziest song of the Eighties. Descending from dual staircases, Lionel and Diana stare soulfully into each others’ eyes and coo about how no one else will do; by the time they’re trading lung-bursting declarations, their faces mere inches away, the heat on stage is palpable. Judging from this performance, you’d think the tune was called Endless Lust. DF

18. Joe Cocker and Jennifer Warren, ‘Up Where We Belong’ (1983)

Bring on the military procession! Lest you had forgotten that this nominated song was the theme to An Officer and a Gentleman, a host of dancers in dress white start doing drills on stage before a single note is sung. So far, so very cheesy — then Jennifer Warren starts singing angelically, Joe Cocker adds his addled rasp to the mix, and the beauty-and-the-beast mojo for this hit genuinely finds its groove. The only thing that would have made this better was if Louis Gossett Jr. came out and made them both do 100 push-ups. DF

17. Madonna, ‘Sooner of Later’ (1991)

This was Dick Tracy-era Madonna, in all her Marilyn-inspired bombshell beauty. Since host Billy Crystal introduced the Queen of Pop as “the NC-17 portion of our really big show” for her glittery burlesque number, people may have expected more than a simple strip tease. But Madge kept it classy, vamping through her number, tossing off her fur boa while channeling Old Hollywood. She did manage to offend some of the conservatives in the audience, however, by ad-libbing the lyric “talk to me General Schwarzkopf,” referencing the current U.S. invasion of Kuwait. JP

16. Lou Rawls and Melba Moore, ‘Take My Breath Away’ (1987)

Back in the days when nominated songs weren’t always regularly performed by the musicians who made them famous, Berlin’s synth-tastic standout from the Top Gun soundtrack was given one hell of a makeover. Lou Rawls and Melba Moore joined forces to cover it during the broadcast, and after an iffy start in which the two singers were nearly lost in a web of lasers, these legendary performers showed the film industry how it’s done. Making a meal of every note, this short duet elevated an enjoyably cheesy love theme into a number that soared higher than even Maverick himself would ever dare to fly.DE

15. Celine Dion, ‘My Heart Will Go On’ (1998)

Amid a heavenly orchestra decked out in white tuxedos and enough dry ice to blanket an ocean liner’s poop deck, Canada’s reigning songbird gave her all to the “Love Theme from Titanic” and reminded audiences why this was one of the biggest hit singles of all time. Like the blockbuster itself, Dion’s ode to romantic endurance and perpetually beating cardiovascular organs was inescapable by the time the Oscars rolled around, but that treacly power-ballad you were sick of hearing eveywhere turns into something triumphant on stage. Listen as she goes into that final go-for-broke stretch: Dion is hitting those notes so hard that you swear she could knock down a cruise ship all by herself. DF

14. U2, ‘Hands That Built America’ (2003)

The band’s original song for Martin Scorsese’s epic Gangs of New York may have lost to Eminem’s “Lose Yourself” that year, but it was a big win for Irish-Americans, with presenter Colin Farrell stating that it “honors new Americans who left Ireland in search of a better life, willing to fight for it at any expense.” The live performance was a moving rock & roll tribute that included projected footage of immigrants entering Ellis Island while Bono crooned “Hallelujah” over and over again. JP

13. Beyonce and Jennifer Hudson, ‘Dreamgirls’ Medley (2007)

The Queen B herself joined her Dreamgirls costars Jennifer Hudson, Anika Noni Rose and Keith Robinson for an incendiary medley of hits from the movie adaptation of the hit Broadway musical: “Love You I Do,” Listen” and “Patience.” (All three were nominated for Best Song; none of them took home the gold.) A rumored feud between the former Destiny’s Child frontwoman and the nominated actress didn’t stop them from shimmying next to each other as they ripped into this trio of tunes. Hudson would win the Best Supporting Actress award; Beyoncé, of course, was never heard from again. JP

12. Elton John, ‘Can You Feel the Love Tonight’ (1995)

Only Elton John could take a song about cartoon lions fucking and turn it into a power ballad for the ages — the simple but spectacular rendition he delivered at the 1995 Oscars was a reminder of why he’s one of a kind. “Can You Feel the Love Tonight” became a kitschy earworm as soon as The Lion Kinghit theaters, but a quick listen to this note-perfect performance is enough to remind you that the track is even bigger than the movie itself. Watching John sit at the piano and fill every inch of the cavernous auditorium with his studio-ready vocals, it’s clear that this Disney tune will always belong to the man who sang it. DE

11. Glen & Marketa, ‘Falling Slowly’ (2007)

Even when the whole world was watching, Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglová sang as if they were the only two people in the room. Undoubtedly the most intimate musical performance that’s ever graced the Oscar stage, this showstopper is what happens when you get an earnest 37-year-old rocker and his 19-year-old girlfriend to belt out the mega-ballad inspired by their relationship. He sat on a stool, she tucked herself behind a piano, and the two of them sneaked looks at each other on the downbeats as they bared their hearts for an audience of millions. The moment was so transporting that you quickly forgot how incongruous it was for Hollywood’s biggest night — until Jack Nicholson sauntered up to the microphone to announce the next category. DE

10. Adele, ‘Skyfall’ (2013)

“This is the end … hold your breath, and count to 10.” Adele had already taken home a Golden Globe and Grammy for the film’s opening number, by the time she graced the Oscars’ stage, crooning that opening line in a glittery dress as elegant as the song itself. By the time she unleashes that climactic “Sky-faaaaaa-AAAAALLL,” the British singer had entered the Pantheon of Bond-Theme Belters; you half-expected Shirley Bassey to walk onstage and high-five her. JP

9. Three 6 Mafia and Taraji P. Henson, ‘Hard Out Here for a Pimp’ (2006)

There are the traditional, understated renditions of Best Song nominees — and then there was the raucous live performance that Southern rappers Three 6 Mafia provided for their Hustle & Flow breakout hit. Future Empire MVP Taraji P. Henson sang the chorus, including the modified line “a whole lot of ‘witches’ talkin’ shit”; a slew of extras dancing in a fake living-room set; and enough strobe lights to cause coast-to-coast grand mal seizures. The song was an infectious trap-music highlight of the evening; even Queen Latifah gave her own brief rendition at the podium when she presented the group with the Best Song award. JP

8. Bjork, ‘I’ve Seen It All’ (2001)

For three glorious minutes in March 2001, the whole planet paused to watch Björk perform a song about a nearly blind woman accepting that she’ll never be able to save her sight. Swanning around the stage with the same commitment that scared Academy voters away from nominating her for Best Actress, the Icelandic chanteuse delivered a singular rendition of Dancer in the Dark’s signature tune, as small and alone in the spotlight as her character was in the world. The song may be called “I’ve Seen It All,” but most Oscar attendees and television viewers had never seen anything like it. DE

7. Isaac Hayes, ‘Theme from Shaft’ (1972)

It starts with a funky-as-hell high-hat and metronomic hip-shaking, and only gets groovier from there — once those interpretive dancers start doing the chicken-walk as the wah-wah pedal riff kicks in, you know there’s something brewing right around the corner. Then … wait, is that Isaac Hayes in a chain-mail shirt, playing the keyboards? Daaaaamn right. The Oscars have never shied away from serious spectacle du Velveeta (remember that Rob Lowe/Snow White debacle?), but this blend of time-capsule showbiz goofiness and hot buttered soul is the perfect combination of sweet and salty. This would have ranked higher were it not lip-synced. DF

6. Michael Jackson, ‘Ben’ (1973)

Check out that 13-year-old with the killer afro and that dope red sweater vest: Yes, that’s really the future King of Pop singing that sweet, sad song about the rat who got away. As “one-fifth of the Jackson Five,” per presenter Charlton Heston’s introduction, Michael Jackson could be a dynamic performer; the fact that he could mesmerize you all by his lonesome, and by showing his tender side via an ode to his a horror film’s titular killer vermin, was something altogether unique. It may have been past his bed time, as Heston joked, but this rendition suggested that the young Mr. Jackson was indeed capable of solo career — a tiny hint of the power ballads and pop-chart juggernauts to come. DF

5. Tegan and Sara and the Lonely Island, ‘Everything is Awesome’ (2015)

Arguably the single most optimistic movie-theme song ever written, this sonic equivalent of a sugar high — written and sung by lesbian Canadian duo Tegan and Sara — could have brought down the house on its own. But they pulled out all the stops for this showstopping live performance: Andy Samberg and his Lonely Island cohorts rapping the lyrics while dressed in powder blue tuxedos; Will Arnett rocking out as Batman with Questlove; DayGlo construction workers and campy cowboy extras handing out Lego Oscar statuettes to the audience (including a smiley Oprah). Future generations will study this as the ne plus ultra of poptastic pastiche spectacles; it was, in a word, awesome. JP

4. John Legend and Common, ‘Glory’ (2015)

Holy shit, John Legend can sing. Of course, the music star’s incredible pipes are hardly the only reason why this performance of Selma‘s stirring anthem injected a rare feeling of urgency into Hollywood’s most self-congratulatory spectacle. It’s the rare case where the Oscars’ staging helped make something special — as Common rapped to the audience, a largely black crowd gathered behind him in front of a mock-up of Alabama’s Edmund Pettus Bridge and chanted the song’s title as a refrain. Even a consummate pro like Legend couldn’t keep his voice from cracking with emotion. DE

3. Robin Williams, ‘Blame Canada’ (1999)

Thanks to one of the most unlikely nominations in the history of the Academy Awards, South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut‘s foul-mouthed ode to our neighbors to the North would be performed live for a crowd of millions — the question was, what to do with the repeated uses of the word “fuck”? Luckily, a galloping chorus gasped whenever Robin Williams hit the curse word (with the comedian strategically turning and mouthing the phrase). He did yelp “and that bitch Ann Murray, too!” with glee, however, while surrounded by a dance line of scantily clad women dressed as mounties. When the song lost to Phil Collins’ “You’ll Be in My Heart,” Trey Parker and Matt Stone later parodied the singer in a South Park episode the following year (and an Oscar eventually gets stuck up Collins’ butt). JP

2. Elliott Smith, ‘Miss Misery’ (1997)

Late singer-songwriter Elliott Smith was never much for the spotlight, and watching him croon in front of the entire world feels like shining a flashlight through a ghost. Performing the acoustic stunner that Gus Van Sant commissioned him to write for the closing credits of Good Will Hunting, Smith warbles through the verses with the same bittersweet resolve that his voice brings to the film’s touching final moments. His evident (though admirably well-contained) nerves highlight the song’s beautiful fragility, and the moment has come to serve as a wonderful remembrance of this tragic musician — not even the Oscars could prevent Smith from being himself. DE

1. Bruce Springsteen, ‘Streets of Philadelphia’ (1994)

Nobody on Earth is more comfortable singing for large crowds than Bruce Springsteen, and he took to the Oscar stage with the same steely confidence that he’s always brought to every other arena-sized venue on the planet. Still, The Boss was palpably vulnerable as he quivered behind the microphone on that March night in 1994, digging deep to deliver this soul-stirring elegy to the victims of the AIDS epidemic. Captured in a delicate close-up that slowly zooms tighter on Springsteen’s face, the performance is made all the more powerful for how it seems to weigh down one of our most irrepressible showmen. DE