Going along with yesterday’s feature on my favorite lyricist, Howard Ashman, today I’ll turn a spotlight onto my top ten favorite Disney soundtracks – including both live action and animated films. But don’t be surprised if Ashman’s contributions appear along with his musical partner Alan Menken!
While such lists are by nature subjective, this one was challenging to settle on as several of the most classic Disney songs – “Someday My Prince Will Come” (Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs), “When You Wish Upon a Star” (Pinocchio), “A Dream is a Wish Your Heart Makes” (Cinderella) and “Once Upon a Dream” (Sleeping Beauty) – come from otherwise less memorable overall soundtracks. Although granted, Cinderella did have two other fun contributions of “Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo” and “The Work Song” and Snow White had “Heigh-Ho” and “Whistle While You Work”. But really, other than in Disney movies, who enjoys work so much that it makes them want to sing?!
Some of the other classic Disney soundtracks that were hard to exclude were Dumbo with its charming tunes “When I See an Elephant Fly” and especially the heartbreaking “Baby Mine” – and The Jungle Book with its irresistible catchy numbers “Bare Necessities” and “I Wanna Be Like You (The Monkey Song)”. But if I had to narrow it to ten favorites, here’s how the list turned out – and yes, I know it leans heavily to modern pop…
10) Tarzan (1999)
- When Disney joins with rock stars to make music, the results can be terrific – such as this pop-infused soundtrack from Phil Collins that produced radio hits including “You’ll Be in My Heart”. But really, every song from this film is worth singing along with! “Trashin’ the Camp” is far more fun than housework, right?
9) Enchanted (2007)
- With just a few songs, this Alan Menken soundtrack (with Stephen Schwartz lyrics) takes you on a journey of the history of Disney princesses, starting with the Snow White-era “True Love’s Kiss” to the Cinderella-style “Happy Working Song” to the Ariel-like “That’s How You Know” and ending with that modern ode to happiness “Ever Ever After”. But the real winner for me on this soundtrack is “So Close”, the ballroom dance number – I can never ever get enough of listening to this song!
8) Aladdin (1992)
- The last of Howard Ashman’s contributions to a Disney film still delivered great songs with his musical partner Alan Menken such as the scene-setting (though ultimately edited for political correctness) “Arabian Nights” as well as the upbeat “Friend Like Me” and “Prince Ali”. And while I found the Tim Rice lyrics a bit on-the-nose, there is no denying the beauty of “A Whole New World” or the fun of “One Jump Ahead”. However, the best song as far as I’m concerned was one of Ashman’s that never made it to the original film but was later released as archival material and covered by such artists as Clay Aiken and John Barrowman – “Proud of Your Boy”.
7) Mulan (1998)
- Though the music was composed by pop singer Matthew Wilder (with lyrics by David Zippel) and generated the sensational “Reflection” (a major career breakthrough for former Mouseketeer Christina Aguilera) and bouncy “True to Your Heart” (from 98 Degrees featuring Stevie Wonder), it is the story-driving songs such as “Honor To Us All“, and “I’ll Make a Man Out of You” that help also to explain Mulan’s character and make this soundtrack such a moving emotional and musical experience.
6) Pocahontas (1995)
- Another wonderful Alan Menken soundtrack (with Stephen Schwartz lyrics – in some of his best writing ever in my opinion!) is highlighted with the award-winning “Colors of the Wind”, but for me every song is wonderful in its place-setting (i.e. “The Virginia Company”), its character-defining numbers (“Just Around the Riverbend” – a personal all-time Disney favorite – and “Mine, Mine Mine”) as well as its compelling cultural commentary (“Savages”).
5) Beauty and the Beast (1991)
- It may be a toss-up between which Ashman/Menken creation is the better soundtrack between this and The Little Mermaid, however, there is no argument that it is one of the best ever produced for a Disney film. The title song is simply an eternal classic, while the cleverness of “Belle”, the wit of “Gaston” and the genius of “Be Our Guest” are all unforgettable, too.
4) The Little Mermaid (1989)
- The first of the Disney collaborations with Howard Ashman and Alan Menken yielded what to me, are still some of the most powerful lyrics of longing ever written in the brilliant “Part of Your World” – which to me is the greatest Disney princess “I Want” song. But they are nearly matched by the sheer joy of “Under the Sea” – which quickly became a Disney staple, the songs of seduction “Poor Unfortunate Souls” and “Kiss the Girl”, and the twisted but hilarious “Les Poissons”.
3) The Lion King (1994)
- This soundtrack could easily have been number one on my list. It’s pretty much perfect. Pop icon Elton John’s music and Tim Rice’s lyrics in combination with the critical musical augmentation and orchestration by Lebo M. created a hugely successful album with the massive hits “Circle of Life” and “Can You Feel the Love Tonight?” which still give chills no matter how many times you watch the scenes in the film or hear the music. Feel-good songs such as “I Just Can’t Wait to Be King” and “Hakuna Matata” also became regulars in Disney-themed performances. Though my personal favorite may actually be the marvelous villain number “Be Prepared” simply for the fantastic lyrical wordplay such as “My words are a matter of pride” and “Yes, my teeth and ambitions are bared – Be prepared!” Just. Love. It.
2) Pete’s Dragon (1977)
- This one is simply a deeply personal selection and could have also topped my list. This soundtrack (songs by Al Kasha and Joel Hirschhorn) has been an emotional touchstone for me for decades and to this day just hearing the opening notes of “Candle on the Water” or “It’s Not Easy” or especially “There’s Room for Everyone” will get me tearing up every single time. Add to that the joyous “Brazzle Dazzle Day” or “Bee Bop Bop Bop Bop (I Love You, Too)” or the comedic “I Saw a Dragon”, “Every Little Piece” and “Passamaquoddy” (both of the latter performed by the superb Jim Dale) and this soundtrack is just… everything… for me.
1) Mary Poppins (1964)
- Another soundtrack that, like its namesake, is practically perfect in every way! This, the greatest of the Sherman Brothers’ contributions to Disney musical history, is simply the ultimate Disney soundtrack. Richard Sherman still tells the tale of how Walt Disney would call he and his brother, Robert, into the office regularly to play and sing for him “Feed the Birds”. However, there’s not one unsuccessful song (out of nearly 20!) in this film – from “A Spoonful of Sugar” to “Chim Chim Cheree” to “Let’s Go Fly a Kite”. They’re simply Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious!
So that is my list of favorites!
I could have put half a dozen different soundtracks in the number ten spot as that was the toughest to decide. But ultimately I went with the soundtrack I would listen to the most – which was my general determining factor overall.
There were some exceptions to this rule, however.
Like, well, everyone, I own and have listened to the Frozen soundtrack repeatedly (excessively?). However, I’m so overloaded on Frozen thanks to its overrepresentation in Disney parks over the past few years that frankly I’m sick of it. However, if I approach this list again in a few years, Frozen might be a contender for that tenth spot.
Another soundtrack I am a huge fan of is Lilo & Stitch. However, as that is predominantly Elvis Presley tunes aside from the AMAZING “Hawaiian Roller Coaster Ride” , I didn’t think it was fair to rank it with the composed-for-Disney soundtracks. Though as far as I’m concerned, Wynonna Judd’s cover of “Burning Love” is every bit as good as the Elvis original!
As to the other favorites that didn’t make the list –
Since childhood, I have enjoyed the soundtracks to both Alice in Wonderland and Peter Pan, but they’re not ones I’ve listened to nearly as much as an adult.
One that very narrowly missed the list was the soundtrack to Hercules. “Go the Distance” is one of my all time favorite Disney songs and I love the gospel flavor of the other music, as well as Meg’s fantastic refusal to admit her feelings in “I Won’t Say (I’m in Love)”. But ultimately, Tarzan’s soundtrack is one I would listen to more often as an album, so it had to make the list.
But the hardest one to leave off was the one I kept going back and forth on where it belonged – and that was the soundtrack to The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Ironically, I think in a way, this Alan Menken/Stephen Schwartz soundtrack is too good for this list! To me, this is a Broadway musical on par with Les Miserables (also based on a Victor Hugo novel) and Phantom of the Opera. It’s that emotional and that powerful and that good (except for the poor comedic effort “A Guy Like You”, whose tonal deafness to the rest of the soundtrack always makes me cringe). Seriously, to me, the Hunchback music is the perfect complement to the other two I just mentioned. Its setting matches Les Mis and its tragic Beauty and the Beast storyline matches Phantom. Its songs from “The Bells of Notre Dame” to “Hellfire” are soaring and majestic, but it is Esmeralda’s plea in “God Bless the Outcasts” that reduces me to tears at just the thought of it. I finally decided not to include it on my list, as it is so dark and difficult to listen to in its subject matter, despite its utter brilliance as a musical soundtrack, that it is one I wouldn’t be able to enjoy repeatedly without a whole box of tissues sitting next to me! However, it is also the one that I think is the greatest missed opportunity for the Disney Theatrical Group to make into a Broadway production. There have been staged versions of it, including one in San Diego in 2014 that I very much wanted to see but didn’t make it there. However, they don’t seem to have been able to push it to a Broadway-level production just yet.
This is my list – I’m sure many people’s would differ. Although any list like this that didn’t at a minimum include Mary Poppins, The Lion King, and The Little Mermaid, I wouldn’t even bother to contemplate!
Is there a Disney soundtrack you think should have made the list but didn’t? Do you agree with the majority of selections here?