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While primarily known as an animation studio as well as a franchise-gobbling conglomerate, Disney has also had quite the impact on music as well. A Disney song has a very recognisable style, borrowing influences as varied as Broadway, hip-hop, pop and classical music to create a genre all of its own. And while some have enjoyed success on the pop charts both here and in the US thanks to performers like Elton John, Phil Collins, Celine Dion, Idina Menzel and Vanessa Williams, some of the older tunes have become cultural stables for generations of listeners. It's no surprise that a number of their films have been adapted for the stage including The Lion King, Frozen, Beauty And The Beast and Aladdin, to great success. Trying to identify their best song is quite a tricky task - with almost ninety years of history and countless tunes to choose from, narrowing the list down to just twenty is no easy feat. But rest assured, I've given it a go.
For this list, I have focused mainly on all of Disney's animated and live-action output up to the end of August, 2022. This means that other films distributed by Buena Vista (Disney's distribution arm) has been missed off, meaning that Danny Elfman's wonderful score to The Nightmare Before Christmas misses out. Even with this restriction, this has meant that a number of cracking tunes have just missed out and some of these were heartbreaking. "Part Of Your World" from The Little Mermaid, "Friend Like Me" from Aladdin, "I've Got No Strings" from Pinocchio and one of my personal favourites - "The Beautiful Briny" from Bedknobs And Broomsticks - all just missed out on featuring on this list but I hope that you'll agree that the following twenty songs are all fully justified in appearing here. So if you're ready... a-one, two, three, four!
Number 20: "He's A Tramp" (Lady And The Tramp, 1955)
While the famous spaghetti dinner scene in Lady And The Tramp is rightfully hailed as iconic, it's this song that is probably more famous than that scene's song, "Bella Notte". Sung by Peggy Lee who voiced the song's performer (an abandoned Pekingese called Peg), the song is a smooth jazzy number that is perfectly suited to Lee's sultry vocals. It also hints at a previous relationship between Peg and the titular Tramp, effortlessly telling the film's story as all good musical interludes should. Lee was actually heavily involved in the film, co-writing many of the film's songs as well as voicing a total of four characters in the movie. The song was nominated as one of the 100 best songs from a century of cinema by the American Film Institute and was popular enough to be re-recorded by Janelle Monáe for the 2019 remake.
Number 19: "Be Our Guest" (Beauty And The Beast, 1991)
If a song gets parodied by the likes of The Simpsons then you know it's done something right. "Be Our Guest" was part of the historic soundtrack to Beauty And The Beast which became the first film in history to secure three separate nominations for the same film in the Best Song category alongside the songs "Belle" and the film's title track. Written by composer Alan Menken and lyricist Howard Ashman, the song is a stand-out moment in the film as its a massive Broadway-style number as the castle's staff of enchanted objects prepare to welcome Belle to Beast's castle. The song was reprised for both the Broadway adaptation and the 2017 live-action remake and has also leant its name to the Be Our Guest restaurant at Disney's theme parks. It also provided the tagline for the remake. The song has been universally hailed as one of the very best songs Disney has ever produced with the performance of Jerry Orbach (utilising a heavy French accent as Lumiere) and Angela Lansbury combined with the Busby Berkeley-style choreography helping to make the song an unforgettable experience.
Number 18: "Hakuna Matata" (The Lion King, 1994)
The first of a number of entries on this list from The Lion King, this song - which translates as 'no worries' in Swahili - was written by Elton John and lyricist Tim Rice and was largely sung by characters Timon and Pumbaa (voiced by Nathan Lane and Ernie Sabella respectively). The song is performed as a young Simba is mourning the loss of his father and it encourages him to move on from his past and leave his worries behind as he grows up during the song's progression, as well as detailing Pumbaa's ostracization from his society due to excessive flatulence. One of three from the film to be nominated for Best Song at the Academy Awards, this up-tempo number is celebrated as one of Disney's best. It was ranked 99th on the AFI's list of the greatest songs from American movies and was reprised for the 2019 remake and both of the TV spin-offs. And I can personally attest that the phrase "hakuna matata" became one of the Nineties' many catchphrases among kids my age!
Number 17: "Do You Want To Build A Snowman?" (Frozen, 2013)
Frozen has a number of songs that make it one of Disney's best films in recent years - I especially like the song 'Love Is An Open Door' which is so feel good that it hurts. But this song, with its melancholic build and layered story-telling, that really stands out from the film besides another which we'll get to later. Starting off with a cheeky glint in her eye, the young Anna tries to encourage her sister Elsa to join her but is repeatedly shunned for reasons unknown to her. As the years go by and the two of them get older, they drift apart until the unexpected demise of their parents bring them back together again, albeit as virtual strangers. Despite the nature of the song, it can't help but put a smile on my face every time I hear it. It's the promise of wintery fun and the possibility of getting into mischief that sets the film up nicely while the latter half of the song demonstrates Anna's inner strength, refusing to quit or give in to the loneliness of living effectively by herself. Such is the song's appeal that it is the second most downloaded Christmas song in history behind Mariah Carey's 'All I Want For Christmas Is You', despite the fact that it isn't even a Christmas song.
Number 16: "A Whole New World" (Aladdin, 1992)
The signature song from Aladdin is a powerful ballad sung by Aladdin and Jasmine as they fly through the night on a magical carpet. As they travel the land, Jasmine is exposed to a world beyond her palace walls as the two of them fall in love. It's as corny and sweet as a bucket of popcorn but the song was a huge success. A single version performed by Peabo Bryson and Regina Belle (replacing the film's voice actors Brad Kane and Lea Salonga) reached the top of the US charts in 1993, ending the then-record 14-week run of Whitney Houston's cover of 'I Will Always Love You' from The Bodyguard. It also won an Academy Award, a Golden Globe and two Grammys including Song Of The Year, the only Disney song to date to ever do so. Until 2022, it remained the only Disney song to ever top the US charts. Unsurprisingly, the song has been covered a number of times including for the 2019 remake with Zayn Malik and Zhavia Ward providing the vocals on this occasion.
Number 15: "We Don't Talk About Bruno" (Encanto, 2021)
This is, to date, the only other Disney song to ever top the charts in the US - a mid-tempo Latin number with elements of salsa, cha-cha-cha, hip-hop and Broadway. Taken from the film Encanto, the song is performed by many members of the cast and is ostensibly used to introduce Bruno, a fortune-telling mystic linked to misfortune and bad luck. The song quickly earned praise for its originality and the music and lyrics of its writer, Lin-Manuel Miranda. It soon became a viral sensation thanks to its blending of genres and even topped the UK charts, the only original Disney song ever to achieve this level of success. The song continues to be one of the biggest hits of 2022 so far and unlike other songs on this list, the song's context within the film is crucial instead of being a generic pop song to appeal to a mass audience. Unlike poor Bruno, we'll be talking about this tune for some time to come.
Number 14: "Under The Sea" (The Little Mermaid, 1989)
Written by Howard Ashman and composed by Alan Menken (names you'll be familiar with by the end of this article), 'Under The Sea' is the jaunty Calypso number from The Little Mermaid. Sang by Samuel E. Wright who voiced the character Sebastian, the song is a heartfelt plea to Ariel to forget trying to live on land with humans and remain underwater with her own kind living a more care-free life. Winning the Academy Award for Best Original Song (the first Disney song to do so since 1964), it also won a Grammy as well and has remained in near constant use at the various Disney theme parks ever since. It can also be heard on Disney's cruise ships and even in the background of the long-running Kingdom Hearts series of video games. As well as being covered by artists like Shaggy, Raven-Symone and heavy metal band D-Metal Stars, it was also parodied on shows like The Simpsons and Saturday Night Live. Despite being thematically similar to 'The Beautiful Briny', it also partly inspired another song - 'That's How You Know' from the Disney musical comedy Enchanted.
Number 13: "You'll Be In My Heart" (Tarzan, 1999)
Taken from the 1999 film Tarzan, this tender up-tempo ballad was written and performed by Phil Collins. During the film's production, it was decided that none of the characters should sing in the film - this song, one of five Collins wrote for the film, plays when Tarzan's adoptive mother cradles the infant Tarzan in her arms, trying to get him to stop crying. Collins originally wrote the song for his daughter Lily who was ten at the time and is essentially about love being a bond that is unbreakable. While it wasn't a chart topper, it did win the Academy Award and Golden Globe for Best Original Song. It also became Collins' only song to chart on Billboard's Latin charts - he performed the song in English, French, German, Spanish and Italian. Talented guy!
Number 12: "I Just Can't Wait To Be King" (The Lion King, 1994)
Often dismissed as another example of Disney's penchant for so-called "I Want" songs, this upbeat and comic number provided the film its central musical hook which has been associated with The Lion King ever since. Written and composed by Tim Rice and Elton John, the song is a brazen ode to youthful arrogance and impatience sung by the young Simba (Jason Weaver) and his friend Nala (Laura Williams) while Mufasa's advisor Zazu (Rowan Atkinson) voices his displeasure at the young prince's attitude. Like much of the film's soundtrack, it retains its African roots and influences and also signals a change in the film's visuals - muted colours suddenly give way to a much brighter palette and inject some humour before things take a turn for the worse. The song has been covered by artists as diverse as Brian Wilson, Aaron Carter and Brazilian vocal group Exaltasamba and has been featured in the stage adaptation, the straight-to-video sequel The Lion King 1½ and was reprised for the 2019 remake featuring the vocals of JD McCrary, Shahadi Wright Joseph and John Oliver. With the possible exception of the opening Swahili shout at the beginning of 'Circle Of Life', no other piece of music is more associated with this film than the catchy melody heard in this song.
Number 11: "I Wan'na Be Like You" (The Jungle Book, 1967)
Arguably one of the most famous Disney songs of all time, this jazzy number comes from the songwriting genius of Robert & Richard Sherman - the duo behind the film scores for the likes of Mary Poppins, The Aristocats, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and Bedknobs And Broomsticks. Featuring the legendary bandleader Louis Prima on vocals as King Louis, the song is sung by the self-proclaimed King of the Swingers as an appeal to the young Mowgli to teach him what he believes to be the secret to being human - fire. Joined by Phil Harris as Baloo, the song is another jaunty and upbeat number with lyrics that have become iconic and a free-style scat section towards the end. The song's status as one of Disney's most beloved numbers is illustrated by the list of artists who have covered the song - Smash Mouth, the Jonas Brothers, Paolo Nutini, Fall Out Boy, Craig David, J-pop band Little Glee Monster, Robbie Williams and even actor Christopher Walken, who performed the song as King Louis for the 2016 remake.
Number 10: "A Spoonful Of Sugar" (Mary Poppins, 1964)
Speaking of the Sherman brothers, it's high time we talked about the score to one of the most innovative and cherished films of all time. Disney's Mary Poppins has several songs that could have easily featured on this list including 'Let's Go Fly A Kite' and the Oscar-winning 'Chim-Chim-Cheree'. But thankfully, this inspired song hasn't a suspect Cockney accent in sight as Julie Andrews' magical nanny (who delivers a faultless performance of the song) encourages her two wards Jane and Michael to tidy their rooms in a way to make it fun. Lyricist Robert Sherman was inspired after hearing about his children getting their polio vaccine via a sugar cube which they then swallowed. The song has been a staple of popular culture ever since, appearing in the 2004 stage version and various other TV shows and films as well. The song also provides the character of Mary Poppins with her own theme or leitmotif which is heard throughout the film. As usual, the song has also been covered by different artists in various styles - Harry Connick Jr released a jazz version in 2001 while Kacey Musgraves recorded a country version of the song in 2015.
Number 9: "Whistle While You Work" (Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs, 1937)
Walt Disney's very first feature-length animation was this ground-breaking musical fairy tale from 1937, the first feature-length film in history and also one of their best. This song was performed by Snow White (voiced by an uncredited Adriana Caselotti) as she tidied up the messy abode of the titular dwarves together with the help of numerous forest animals, no doubt as bewitched by her singing as audiences were. It's perhaps easy to overlook the song these days for its twee simplicity - after all, there isn't a great deal of difference thematically between this and the aforementioned 'A Spoonful Of Sugar' from Mary Poppins - but Whistle While You Work became hugely popular in the wake of the film's success. It spawned cover versions and several parodies almost immediately and was often heard sung in the trenches of the Second World War, albeit with some vulgar and adjusted lyrics. It's even been sampled by the Ying Yang Twins in their 2000 crunk classic 'Whistle While You Twurk' (their spelling, not mine!). The song was one of many written and composed by Larry Morey and Frank Churchill in the very early days of Disney and among their other efforts is another classic tune...
Number 8: "Heigh-Ho" (Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs, 1937)
This is arguably the best known song from Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs and one which had an equally impressive impact on pop culture. It is sung by the dwarves as they head off for another busy day down the mines, digging up gold and other precious treasure. Like 'Whistle While You Work', the song was an instant hit - it even popped up in other Disney efforts such as two separate Donald Duck cartoons and the much later Disney film Oliver & Company. Originally sung by the film's voice actors (all of whom were uncredited), it was also recorded by Horace Heidt and his band in 1938 and that version peaked at number 4 on the Your Hit Parade chart (the precursor to the Billboard 100 chart in the US), staying on the chart for ten weeks. These days, it's meaning has been subverted somewhat to suggest a tiresome slog or a never-ending, thankless task but back then, the song served as a rousing call-to-arms for the dwarves as they almost march to their mine. It's Disney at its most positive, where a day underground toiling away in absolute darkness can still be fun with the right mindset.
Number 7: "The Bare Necessities" (The Jungle Book, 1967)
Although The Jungle Book was ultimately scored by the Sherman Brothers, it was originally scored by another composer - folk singer Terry Gilkyson. However, the Shermans liked it so much that this is the only bit of Gilkyson's work to survive in the finished product. It's another up-beat, jazzy number sung by Phil Harris as Baloo and Bruce Reitherman as Mowgli as Baloo extolls the virtues of a care-free life amidst the jungle, where food is plentiful and there is no need to worry, Baloo possibly overlooking the fact that Mowgli isn't an enormous bear with a very small list of natural predators. The song is also reprised at the end of the film, this time Harris is joined by Sebastian Cabot as Bagheera. The song remains ever popular with lyrics that are unforgettable and a beat that is impossibly catchy. It was also covered by none other than Louis Armstrong and was even nominated for an Academy Award, ultimately losing out to the song 'Talk To The Animals' from Doctor Dolittle. It was one of only three songs from the original version that were reprised for the 2016 remake, initially performed by Dr John and the Nite Trippers before returning at the end performed by Bill Murray (as Baloo) and trumpeter Kermit Ruffins.
Number 6: "You've Got A Friend In Me" (Toy Story, 1995)
A song so good that it became the theme for the entire franchise, 'You've Got A Friend In Me' has become arguably the signature tune for composer and performer Randy Newman. First heard in 1995's Toy Story, the song has been a leitmotif for the series ever since and appeared in every sequel so far. The song introduces us to the relationship between Andy and his favourite toy Woody before later meaning the relationship between Woody, Buzz and the other toys. In Toy Story 2, the song is performed by Wheezy as a Sinatra-style showstopper while in Toy Story 3, the song is reprised once again but in a more Latino flavour, performed by the Gipsy Kings. The song would be nominated for an Academy Award and a Golden Globe for Best Original Song but lost on both occasions to another Disney tune, 'Colors Of The Wind' from the otherwise forgettable Pocahontas which is why it doesn't feature on this list. Maybe if I do another one...
Number 5: "Beauty And The Beast" (Beauty And The Beast, 1991)
Written by lyricist Howard Ashman and composed by Alan Menken, this stirring ballad is a genuinely touching love song that perfectly encapsulates the sometimes difficult relationship between Belle and her beastly beau, how they can overcome their differences and celebrate love as a "tale as old as time". Sung by Angela Lansbury as the character Mrs Potts, the song accompanies footage of the couple dancing in a vast ballroom in what was Disney's first use of computer-generated animation in one of their films. Disney also released a single version performed by Celine Dion and Peabo Bryson but both versions were massively popular. Lansbury's version is considered the better of the two but regardless, the song itself won two Grammys (and was nominated for another two, Record & Song Of The Year), a Golden Globe and the Oscar for Best Original Song. It also featured on the AFI's list of the 100 greatest songs from the movies but sadly, Ashman never lived to see the song's success as he succumbed to AIDS mere months before the film was released. This is why Beauty And The Beast was dedicated to him, a man who many consider to be the driving force behind Disney's renaissance in the late Eighties and early Nineties.
Number 4: "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious" (Mary Poppins, 1964)
The Sherman Brothers struck gold once again with this classic number, a happy-go-lucky showtune sung by Julie Andrews (as Mary Poppins) and Dick Van Dyke (as her friend Bert). The song is performed during the sequence where Mary, Bert and the two children are absorbed into one of Bert's pieces of street art. After Mary has won a horse race, she is surrounded by reporters who barrage her with questions. Refuting claims that she is at a loss for words, she says that she knows one word and thus begins the song. Listed as the 36th best song to come from movies by the AFI, the song remains iconic and instantly recognisable and has been referenced and parodied multiple times through the years. The song was actually the subject of a plagiarism lawsuit by songwriters Gloria Parker and Barney Young in 1965 but Disney won the case after proving that variations of the word had existed long before 1949. The song is indelibly linked to Mary Poppins, bringing to mind the magical blending of animation and live-action from that sequence as well as the film's setting of post-Victorian London.
Number 3: "Can You Feel The Love Tonight?" (The Lion King, 1994)
The final song on this list from The Lion King, this moving love song was as wildly successful as the film itself. Winning the Academy Award for Best Song and performer Elton John the Grammy for Best Male Vocal Performance, the song is heard in the film when Simba and Nala, both now having grown up, realise that they are falling in love. It was originally planned to be sung by Timon and Pumbaa (voiced by Nathan Lane and Ernie Sabella respectively) but John felt that their previous comic behaviour would undermine the song's romantic feel. The song peaked at number 14 in the UK chart, number 4 in the US and top the charts in Canada and France. The song remains one of Elton's more popular hits and makes a popular choice for first dances at weddings. The song has since been covered by the likes of S Club 7, Christina Aguilera, Sara Paxton while Beyoncé and Donald Glover recorded the song as Nala and Simba for the 2019 remake.
Number 2: "Let It Go" (Frozen, 2013)
You knew that this song would appear in this article at some point! Yes, I know this tune became about as ubitquitous as Covid-19 but there are plenty of reasons why. Written by the husband-and-wife team of Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez, the song is a powerful showtune initially performed by Idina Menzel as Queen Elsa (later recorded by Demi Lovato to a bit less fanfare) and is about no longer suppressing yourself and allowing your true self to be free. Often interpreted as a positive anthem for LGBT promotion and a metaphor for coming out, the song became massively popular very quickly and was the fifth biggest selling single in 2014 with more than 10.9 million copies sold. It was Disney's first chart success since 1995 and also gave Mendel her first Top Ten hit. It remains internationally recognised having been translated into 25 different languages and naturally, it won the Academy Award for Best Original Song and the Grammy for Best Song Written For Visual Media which, if we're honest, isn't quite as catchy a title.
Number One: "When You Wish Upon A Star" (Pinocchio, 1940)
It's perhaps easy to overlook this classic tune - after all, we hear its familiar melody at the start of every Disney film as the logo is shown. But this song, written by Leigh Harline and Ned Washington for the 1940 film Pinocchio, has rightfully been adopted as the theme for the entire Disney corporation for its themes of magic, longing and hope. Originally performed by Cliff Edwards in his role of Jiminy Cricket, the tune would become the very first Disney song to win the Academy Award for Best Song and is the highest ranked Disney song (one of only four) on the AFI's list of best songs from the movies, ranked at number 7. It's also the only Disney song from their films archived in the US National Recording Registry alongside the likes of Thomas Edison's early experiments with recording sound, Neil Armstrong's comments during the Moon landings and Martin Luther King's "I Have A Dream" speech. It's been covered countless times from artists as varied as Glenn Miller and Beyoncé and even inspired other artists to follow their dreams such as Gene Simmons from KISS. These days, it has become synonymous with Christmas in many countries and continues to be featured heavily across all things Disney, from its theme parks to its cruise liners. What else could be the best Disney song than the one they themselves have continued to stand by after all this time? If you disagree, feel free to contact me and share their thoughts and opinions. Thanks for reading!
© 2022 Benjamin Cox