30. Little April Shower (Bambi, 1942)
It is not clear if Little April Shower is supposed to sound as sinister and hallucinatory as it does – the middle section of the song, with its wordless, seasick vocal chorus and surging orchestration seems to cast a pall over its cuter moments. In a certain light, it sounds like the kind of thing the acid-addled Brian Wilson dreamed up for the Beach Boys’ Smile album.
29. Why Should I Worry? (Oliver & Company, 1988)
A lost song from Disney’s 80s doldrums. The music is very much of its era, but Billy Joel seems to have interpreted his brief as “write lyrics in the style of Lou Reed”, with references to the Bowery, St Mark’s Place and the Chelsea hotel. And the deadpan “Why should I care? / Even when I cross the line, I got street savoir-faire.”
28. I 2 I (A Goofy Movie, 1995)
An overlooked film released to a lukewarm critical response, A Goofy Movie nevertheless contained one hidden smash in the Tevin Campbell and Rosie Gaines-sung I 2 I, heavy on the breakbeats and synth stabs, and audibly constructed as a homage to Gaines’ sometime collaborator Prince.
Traditional Broadway … Tangled.
27. Mother Knows Best (Tangled, 2010)
For all Disney’s increasing interest in commissioning songs rooted in mainstream pop, its films can still feature stuff that sounds like traditional Broadway, such as this fabulously hammy inventory of the world’s ills, from violence and disease to “large bugs”.
26. Friends on the Other Side (The Princess and the Frog, 2009)
Randy Newman’s soundtrack for The Princess and the Frog offered up a series of wonderful pastiches of New Orleans music, from R&B to zydeco, but its greatest moment may be this paean to voodoo. Dr John appeared elsewhere on the soundtrack, but, produced differently, Friends on the Other Side wouldn’t have sounded out of place on his dark 1968 debut album Gris Gris.
25. Under the Sea (The Little Mermaid, 1989)
The film that kicked off the “Disney renaissance”, The Little Mermaid was more knowing than the organisation’s previous work, complete with a villain inspired by the drag queen Divine and Under the Sea, on which jaunty calypso masked social comment and the thought-provoking lyric: “Darling it’s better, down where it’s wetter.”
24. Be Prepared (The Lion King, 1994)
The big ballads and comedy songs garnered most of the attention, but one of The Lion King’s greatest moments is this alternately witty and chilling evocation of evil, the music’s darkly militaristic take on a tango underlined by the distinct hint of the Nuremberg rally about the scene in the film it scores.
23. Be Our Guest (Beauty and the Beast, 1991)
Sometimes, Disney songs work because they hit their emotional target, and sometimes they work because they’re just infernally catchy, lodging in your brain whether you want them to our not: a cod-Gallic ode to gluttony sung by a candlestick, Be Our Guest fits into the once-heard-never-forgotten-without-extensive-therapy category.
Shady beneath the breeziness … Moana. Photograph: Allstar/Walt Disney Pictures
22. You’re Welcome (Moana, 2016)
The writer of Hamilton, Lin-Manuel Miranda, came up with this homage to the 60s sunshine pop of the Turtles or the Association. And, like the best 60s sunshine pop, something shady lurks beneath the carefree breeziness of its tune: lyrics that offer a masterclass in passive-aggression.
21. A Whole New World (Aladdin, 1992)
A song that can survive being performed a deux by Peter Andre and Katie Price is clearly a song that is exceptionally well constructed. More winningly rerecorded by Peabo Bryson and Regina Belle, Aladdin’s big ballad knocked Whitney Houston’s I Will Always Love You off the top of the US charts – incredibly, the only Disney song ever to make No 1 in the US.
20. Oogie Boogie’s Song (The Nightmare Before Christmas, 1993)
Tom Waits memorably turned Heigh-Ho from Snow White into the stuff of nightmares on the Disney-themed compilation Stay Awake. Meanwhile, Waits in jazz-influenced beatnik mode sounds like an inspiration for this song, from the film that launched a thousand teenage goth backpacks.
19. Gaston (Beauty and the Beast, 1991)
A comic tour de force, Gaston offers a thick bully making a parade of increasingly crazed public boasts – “I’m especially good at expectorating” – backed up by a fawning chorus of admirers: by the time of the 2017 live-action version, it sounded remarkably like political satire.
18. In a World of My Own (Alice in Wonderland, 1951)
It seems amazing that some lysergically informed late 60s band didn’t cover this. The music is pre-rock’n’roll pop, but the cut-glass voice of Kathryn Beaumont and the lyrics – “All the flowers would have very extra special powers / They would sit and talk to me for hours” – are pure, unwitting psychedelia before their time.
17. Goodbye, So Soon (Basil and the Great Mouse Detective, 1986)
The film it came from is frequently held up as an example of Disney’s wilderness years, when their movies seldom clicked, but Goodbye, So Soon – sung with hammy relish by Vincent Price – is a lost gem. It works on two levels: as a villain wishing death on his enemies and as an up-yours kiss-off to a former partner.
16. Oo-De-Lally (Robin Hood, 1973)
At least something of the 60s pop revolution seemed to have touched Disney by the time it made Robin Hood: Roger Miller’s lovely acoustic song has a distinct hint of the coffeehouse folkie about it, the melody oddly reminiscent of Neil Young’s Dance Dance Dance.
Mary Poppins … gets under the listener’s skin. Photograph: Allstar/Cinetext/Disney
15. Stay Awake (Mary Poppins, 1964)
It’s a split decision as to whether Feed the Birds or Stay Awake is Mary Poppins’ greatest song, but Stay Awake just edges it. Less sentimental than Feed the Birds, from its a cappella intro on, the Julie Andrews-sung lullaby has something indefinably creepy about it, which gets under the listener’s skin.
14. You’ve Got a Friend in Me (Toy Story, 1996)
The very adult, and occasionally controversial, singer-songwriter Randy Newman may have seemed an odd fit for Disney, but he has scored nine of its films (although, admittedly, Toy Story’s maker, Pixar, did not become a part of Disney until 2006). The most celebrated of his contributions You’ve Got a Friend in Me is a simple, timeless paean to undying fealty, lent further charm by Newman’s gruff delivery; in subsequent Toy Story films, its use became increasingly ironised.
13. Trust in Me (The Jungle Book, 1967)
Subsequently given a psychy goth makeover by Siouxsie and the Banshees, who correctly identified that the song had a curiously erotic undercurrent, Trust in Me is The Jungle Book’s weirdest moment. Its simple, suitably hypnotic melody – and suitably serpentine flute – makes evil sound strangely appealing.
12. Baby Mine (Dumbo, 1941)
Authentically traumatic and upsetting, the first half of Dumbo tells you a lot about how ideas about kids’ entertainment have changed over the decades. Its loveliest moment is the heartbreaking Baby Mine, which sets its saga of unconditional parental love against a spectacularly grim backdrop: an imprisoned parent attempting to comfort a bullied child.
11. The Bare Necessities (The Jungle Book, 1967)
Originally soundtracked by a set of folky country songs – and a parody of the Beatles – The Jungle Book ended up with what, song-for-song, may be the greatest Disney soundtrack of all. The Bare Necessities pulls off the difficult task of promoting a carefree, don’t-worry-be-happy approach to life without making you want to repeatedly punch whoever wrote it.
10. The Age of Not Believing (Bedknobs and Broomsticks, 1971)
A moving and incisive song about the fading of childhood and the loss of innocence, The Age of Not Believing is almost unbearably sad. It sounds less like something aimed at kids than an existential crisis set to music: “Your dreams are lost up on a shelf / And worst of all, you doubt yourself”.
9. Remember Me (Coco, 2017)
Coco is a film that tackles tough themes, including death and dementia. Its tear-jerking central song could be about either. Written by Roberto Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez, the same team behind Let It Go, it is far more subtle than their biggest hit: its melody – inspired by Chopin – is strong enough to withstand being performed umpteen times in the film.
8. Someday My Prince Will Come (Snow White, 1937)
One of the first Disney songs to cross over into “adult” music, the gorgeous, swooning melody of Someday My Prince Will Come became a jazz standard, apparently first performed as such by the Ghetto Swingers, the jazz band formed in Theresienstadt ghetto/concentration camp, and subsequently by Miles Davis and Dave Brubeck.
One of the greats … Cinderella. Photograph: Sportsphoto/Allstar
7. A Dream Is a Wish Your Heart Makes (Cinderella, 1950)
Less schlocky than you might have imagined a song sung to a crowd of helpful, anthropomorphic birds and mice to be, A Dream Is a Wish Your Heart Makes may be When You Wish Upon a Star’s closest competitor for the title of early Disney’s greatest ballad, subsequently covered by everyone from Brian Wilson to Jessie Ware.
6. Jessie’s Song (Toy Story 2, 1999)
With its accompanying visuals, Jessie’s Song was the latest in a line of Disney songs that acutely skewer the sadness of childhood ending. Without them, Randy Newman had written something even more universal: a poignant, emotionally affecting piano ballad about a lost love affair or friendship, mourned by only one participant.
5. Ev’rybody Wants to Be a Cat (The Aristocats, 1970)
Still not yet hip to pop music – the crows visibly based on the Beatles in The Jungle Book sing barbershop – Disney was on a firmer footing with jazz. Punning on the slang use of the word “cat”, Scatman Crothers’ star turn – complete with a vaguely Eartha Kitt-esque interlude from Eva Gabor – remains irresistible.
Best-written power ballad in years … Frozen. Photograph: AP
4. Let It Go (Frozen, 2013)
Overfamiliarity has dimmed its impact, but there’s a reason Let It Go became so huge. It is, by some distance, the best-written power ballad in years – stitch that, Linda Perry. The lyrics twist the usual self-help platitudes into something darker, a perfect fixing of adolescent angst, with all its accompanying screw-you impetuousness intact: “No right, no wrong, no rules for me.”
3. I Wanna Be Like You (The Jungle Book, 1967)
There’s an argument that Robert and Richard Sherman should be mentioned in the same breath as Lennon and McCartney or Bacharach and David. I Wanna Be Like You is prime evidence: a beautifully written burst of age-defying joy, it was also quietly subversive in its depiction of evolution at a time when teaching it was still illegal in some US states.
2. Circle of Life (The Lion King, 1994)
Can You Feel the Love Tonight? won an Oscar, but it should have been this. No Disney film has a more spectacular opening than The Lion King, which Elton John and Tim Rice’s song matches: the weird hint of melodic and lyrical melancholy that undercuts its epic soar – “There’s more to do than can ever be done” – gives it a real emotional pull.
When You Wish Upon a Star.
1. When You Wish Upon a Star (Pinocchio, 1940)
Disney’s theme tune is the studio’s equivalent of Over the Rainbow: a song from a children’s film that went beyond its intended audience and ended up part of the great American songbook. Understandably so: nothing about When You Wish Upon a Star itself suggests that it is aimed at kids. Certainly, you couldn’t accuse the lyrics – by Ned Washington, also responsible for The Nearness of You and Wild Is the Wind – of talking down to their audience: “Fate is kind – she brings to those that love the sweet fulfilment of your secret longing.” A song about yearning and hope – it could be read as being an allegory for prayer – When You Wish Upon a Star set the gold standard for Disney songs that transcended the reason they were commissioned, and the context in which they were intended to be heard.