Note: This list is in alphabetical order, and limited to songs from the past 30 years.
COOLIO, "Gangsta's Paradise"
Coolio’s opus on street life was technically disqualified because it used some previously released samples, but the point remains: This is one of the best made-for-cinema tunes of all time. That it so perfectly aligned with its film, the 1995 Michelle Pfeiffer vehicle Dangerous Minds, only adds to its impact. This was a song about the streets made for a movie depicting the streets and their impact on young minds. More than 20 years after its release, “Gangsta’s Paradise” is still one of those tracks that elicit a positive reaction when they’re played at the club or nearest karaoke bar.
KAREN O AND THE KIDS, "All Is Love"
The lead singer of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs has put out a ton of quality music in her day, but Karen O really outdid herself with this tune from the cinematic adaptation of Where the Wild Things Are. The tune truly complements the mood of the underrated flick, which was a tearjerker in the best way. Some tunes are designed and contrived to generate an emotional reaction, and others do so simply because they are awesome; this track falls squarely under the latter.
LIMP BIZKIT, "Take a Look Around"
Okay, just stay with us on this one. Yeah, Limp Bizkit has reached Nickelback-like punching-bag status, but there was a time around the turn of the century when the band ruled the rock-radio charts. Of course, success doesn’t necessarily equal talent, and Limp Bizkit certainly put out its fair share of trash, but Tom Cruise was onto something when he personally requested Durst et al. provide the theme track for Mission: Impossible II. Yeah, the lyrics achieve a downright Durst-ian level of nonsense, but the band really nailed the theme itself. Sure, “Take a Look Around” had no business winning the Oscar — Bob Dylan’s “Things Have Changed” was more than deserving at the 2001 Oscars — but a nomination wasn’t as long a shot as some might recall in hindsight.
LISA LOEB, "Stay (I Missed You)"
Many forget, but Lisa Loeb’s biggest hit was initially recorded for the Reality Bites soundtrack. Fortunately, the song has held up better than the movie; in hindsight, Ethan Hawke’s character was just kind of an aimless jerk with an axe to grind about pretty much everything. This song is simple and understated, but that’s part of its charm, and it remains a classic breakup song to this day.
PUBLIC ENEMY, "Fight the Power"
Director Spike Lee is still publicly (and rightfully) upset that his Do the Right Thing wasn’t nominated for a Best Picture Oscar in 1990. But even more egregious is that the film’s lead track, Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power,” was shut out of a Best Original Song nomination. In today’s more socially conscious era, it’s likely “Fight the Power” would have at least garnered a nomination, which it certainly deserved.
BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN, "The Wrestler"
The title track from the 2008 film of the same name is as powerful as Mickey Rourke’s performance. Anyone who follows professional wrestling knows how tough it is on the has-beens and never-weres, something perfectly encapsulated by Rourke, who was robbed of an Academy Award for Best Actor. Springsteen’s title track, which took home the prize for Best Original Song at that year’s Golden Globes, is a departure from the Boss's more animated work, and instead calls back classics like Nebraska — and, for that matter, "Streets of Philadelphia," his Oscar-winning song from 1994. This was not only the best made-for-cinema track of 2008; it’s one of the greatest of all time.
U2, "Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me, Kill Me"
Look, something good had to come of the mess that was 1995’s Batman Forever, and this was it. There was no way in hell U2 was overtaking a textbook Disney Oscar winner in “Colors of the Wind” from Pocahontas, but Bono and the boys at least deserved a seat at the nomination table.
EDDIE VEDDER, "Guaranteed"
Eddie Vedder didn’t just contribute a track to the soundtrack for 2007’s Into the Wild — he wrote and recorded the entire soundtrack. That includes the highlight “Guaranteed,” which beautifully tells the story of the late Chris McCandless, the focal point of the true-life tale. I haven’t loved much from Pearl Jam since the mid-'90s, but this soundtrack is Vedder at his low-key finest.