Here is a look at the nominees for Best Original Score:

John Powell has never been nominated before, despite noteworthy efforts on United 93 and The Bourne Ultimatum. To have cracked the list this time despite his limited résumé, and to have done so on a non-Pixar animated film, speaks volumes about the undeniable quality of his How to Train Your Dragon score. Dragon is one of 2010’s biggest surprises, having exceeded expectations in pretty much every area, and score is no exception. For capturing splendor and dragon flight so effectively, Powell is well deserving of this accolade. Listen to the adrenaline-inducing excitement in this sample:

Hans Zimmer is back with perhaps his most intriguing score yet: Inception. In last year’s Best Score piece, I said this about his career:

“Hans Zimmer is no stranger to the Academy Awards, having won once and been nominated seven times.  It has been a bit of a drought for Zimmer; the last nomination was in 2000 for Gladiator.  Maybe that is why he pulled out all the stops for Sherlock Holmes, employing all sorts of modified instruments, like out-of-tune pianos, banjos, and squeaky violins.”

Now, with two straight nominations, we can officially declare this a mid-life renaissance. What makes his Inception work so spectacular is how perfectly it fits Christopher Nolan’s film. Listen to the blend of dark gravity and momentous intensity:

And now for the “kicker.” You might enjoy this explanation for how Zimmer incorporated Edith Piaf into the kick theme. Absolutely magnificent:

For the reasons above, along with the fact that his chords have resonated most with viewers this year, Zimmer would be my personal endorsement for Best Original Score.

These days, you simply cannot go an Academy Awards without giving Alexandre Desplat a nomination. He may be still without statuette, but he has clearly become the most consistently sought-after composer around. We can safely assume Desplat is immune to this recession, as he not only suffers no work shortages but continues to take on a healthy diet of five projects a year. More incredible than his prolificacy is the quality of each effort. Quality does meet quantity here.

The King’s Speech is riding a hurricane of momentum entering the Oscars, and that bodes well for Monsieur Desplat’s chances. Past results have shown a strong solidarity between Best Picture winners and Best Original Score winners, so the fate of Desplat could well come down to that.

Desplat certainly displays some fine work in The King’s Speech, electing for a lighter, subtler approach which fits the English monarchy well. Enjoy a sip of tea, with a few spots of spice interspersed:

If I had my pick, I actually would have nominated Desplat for his Tamara Drewe score, since it was far more inventive. Still, every Desplat work is so inherently superlative that one needn’t exhaust a voice in slandering one at the expense of another.

You may recall A.R. Rahman from Slumdog Millionaire in 2008, when he claimed two golden statues for Best Original Score and Best Song. That was his inaugural appearance, so he enters the 2010 sweepstakes with an undefeated record. This time, the challenge will be far steeper, as he has a dark horse’s chance – at best. There is great versatility in his 127 Hours compositions, as shown by this raucous theme:

and this calmer, tribal construction:

Perhaps Rahman deserved the nomination, but a victory would be an injustice to his competitors.

Lastly, we have the favorites in Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross from The Social Network. As mentioned above, this duo’s prospects may hinge directly on the Best Picture battle. Will The Social Network ride the Golden Globe and earlier prognostications to down-the-board triumphs, or has The Kings’ Speech’s late surge transformed the landscape?

Reznor and Ross have truly put the Academy in an unfamiliar spot, as this might be the most unconventional score to garner top odds. Voters who crave the sweeping melodies of pianos and strings may shun its candidacy, preferring the far more traditional expositions of The King’s Speech, but those more accepting of new-age concepts could punch a winning ticket. Let’s also not forget the propensity for geriatric and Baby Boomer voters to try and appear hip. They may not have Facebook accounts, but they want you to know they can appreciate “that stuff kids are listening to.”

What stands out about The Social Network score is how seamlessly it corresponds with the tenor of the film. Scene for scene, this smorgasbord of tracks fully encapsulates Mark Zuckerberg’s – and Aaron Sorkin’s – vision. Listen closely to the profound simplicity atop the turbulent background: this is Mark Zuckerberg the genius, developing a brilliant idea over ominous undertones:

At the same time, Reznor and Ross give inventive modernity to other settings, such as a fraternity party that coincides with Zuckerberg’s “inception:”

Much like last year, a strong quintet of nominees bolster the Best Original Score category to lofty heights. Although none of the five matches the extraordinary nature of Michael Giacchino’s Up score from last year, the voters have several choices to feel genuinely good about. I give The Social Network a 45% chance of winning, The King’s Speech a 40% chance, and Inception a 10% shot. Powell and Rahman would do well to sit comfortably and let the seat-fillers settle elsewhere, though nothing is ever certain at the Oscars.

Adam Spunberg is a senior writer at Picktainment and founder of the Austen Twitter Project. Email him at adam@picktainment.com or tweet @AdamSpunberg.

Road to the Oscars Series:

January 27: Live Action Short – Kit Bowen

January 29: Animated Short – Savanna New

January 31: Documentary Short Subject – Christa Youngpeter

February 1: Documentary Feature – Rebecca Rose

February 3: Foreign Language Film – Savanna New

February 4: Animated Film – Nate Freiberg

February 7: Visual Effects – Ani Khashadoorian

February 9: Sound Mixing – Dennis Callahan

February 10: Sound Editing – Sasha Mitchell

February 11: Original Score – Adam Spunberg

February 12: Original Song – Adam Spunberg and Savanna New

February 13: Makeup – Katie Mae Peters

February 14: Costume – Jax Russo

February 15: Art Direction – Steve Neumann

February 16: Film Editing – Hannah Depew

February 17: Cinematography – William Paul Jones

February 18: Original Screenplay – Jeremy Martin

February 19: Adapted Screenplay – Sasha Mitchell

February 20: Supporting Actress – Kacy Boccumini

February 21: Supporting Actor – Rebecca Rose

February 22: Actress – Rebecca Rose

February 23: Actor – Kit Bowen

February 24: Director – Adam Spunberg

February 25: Picture – Kit Bowen

February 27: The Academy Awards