Here is a list of my top 15 best Disney soundtracks ever made! My only criteria for making this list was that the soundtrack had to have been produced by Disney and that it contained some form of diegetic music. To judge the music, I used my normal categories: melody, harmony, and timbre, with a variation on the influence category. This took a long time but was certainly a worthwhile project! I hope you enjoy!
15. The Nightmare Before Christmas
Music and Lyrics by Danny Elfman
In case you need a reminder, this list is based on the soundtrack only. Cinematic quality is not discussed here at all. While I don’t particularly think Tim Burton movies are that entertaining, I am extremely impressed by Elfman’s score to The Nightmare Before Christmas. The “Halloweentown” setting is very well established with spooky minor tonalities and percussive timbres that really evoke the images of dancing skeletons and monsters. The sound is dark and scary when the action calls for it, and also very light when the tune needs to be emphasized. There aren’t any powerful or overwhelming songs that really stand out, but the overall tunefulness is quite remarkable. This work would be nothing special without the fun melodic charm throughout. The sung numbers are all quite memorable, especially “This Is Halloween”. It was quite impressive to be able to effectively score such a weird story. The music here truly exemplifies the spirit of Halloween, and it gets stuck in your head quite easily.
Music by Leigh Harline
Lyrics by Ned Washington
Not to be overshadowed by the soundtrack’s timeless hit of “When You Wish Upon a Star”, this music is incredibly playful and, in 1940, was the first example of strong thematic organization in a score for a Disney production. Tiptoeing the line between a Johann Strauss operetta and suave lounge vocals, this work truly embodies the story as a whole by bringing these fictional characters to life. While not terribly exciting, the fun motives and wonderful musical form are delightful to hear. While songs such as “Give A Little Whistle” and “Hi-Diddle-Dee-Dee” have astonishingly survived to this day, that’s most likely due to their feel of historical impact rather than actual compositional brilliance. The melodic delight from the incidental music is really what holds this work together, and it’s one of the few non-pop orchestrations by Disney to really be impactful.
Music by Matthew Wilder
Lyrics by David Zippel
Instrumental Score by Jerry Goldsmith
The music to the movie Mulan makes a great story even greater by connecting it to a modern audience and making these powerful themes very relatable. I admire the fact that Goldsmith was able to accomplish this without coming across as too cheesy or fake. The songs are fun and enjoyable, and yet there’s still a strong sense of maturity that permeates through the soundtrack. Saying that there are 12 Disney soundtracks better than this one may seem unbelievable to a lot of people, given the immense popularity and affection it has in the world. I see this fact as more of a testament to just how strong Disney music had been throughout the years and not necessarily as a knock on Mulan. However, my main concern with this soundtrack is that the few legitimate songs aren’t very amazing. To me, “I’ll Make a Man Out Of You” is quite overrated, with many staple songs from other Disney soundtracks easily surpassing it in ingenuity and brilliance. “Reflection” is my favorite song, but that still isn’t anything to be extremely excited about. What really makes this soundtrack great is its combination of traditional Asian and pop timbres. The scenes are all set incredibly well, and this particular orchestration is very unique and unmistakable. The movie is rather inseparable from the soundtrack, and it tells the story very well.
Music by Alan Menken
Lyrics by David Zippel
This is a truly astonishing gospel/pop setting to an ancient Greek myth. Disney has always spoken to kids very well (it’s basically their livelihood to do so), but music like this is also so creative and likeable that it can be fully appreciated by anyone. The soundtrack’s marquee song, “Go The Distance”, has a great memorable tune with a powerful message, even though it’s a bit thin and can easily be butchered outside the context of the movie if you don’t have Michael Bolton to sing it. While the sound seems a little too over the top and theatrical at times, I still appreciate the level of energy and excitement it brings to the experience. There’s no dull spot within the music, and catchiness is found everywhere. Sure, characterization may suffer a bit, and Menken has done better in this regard. With music as cool as this, though, it doesn’t matter too much.
Music by Alan Menken
Lyrics by Howard Ashman and Tim Rice
Here is yet another Disney soundtrack with expertly used musical elements to set the scene and sound unique. This time, it comes from a nice harmonic language that uses lots of augmented seconds, reminiscent of Middle Eastern pentatonic scales, as well as a strong emphasis on melodic shape. While the melodies in Aladdin’s sung tunes, especially in the staple song “A Whole New World”, are comparatively weak and unfulfilling, most every other song has an invigorated and fun melodic line. Musically, the Genie may be one of the best characters in Disney movie history. I don’t want to bash on the weaker melodies here too much, because they are pretty well made up for by strong, energetic builds in sound that have a surprising amount of emotion. The music also does very well with portraying the circumstances of the story. The heavily used minor tonalities and darker motives really depict the fear in Aladdin and the power that the opposition has. Other soundtracks have accomplished all of this but to a more extreme end, which leaves Aladdin just outside of the top 10 Disney soundtracks for me.
10. The Aristocats
Music and Lyrics by Richard and Robert Sherman, Al Rinker, and Terry Gilkyson
Instrumental Score by George Bruns
On the opposite end of the Disney music spectrum, here’s a soundtrack that doesn’t need pompous and bombastic exertion in order to be a successful work. The music for The Aristocats takes a heavy influence from jazz, and it is silky smooth from start to finish. Also, while many Disney movies wouldn’t be half as good without the soundtrack, this movie literally wouldn’t exist without it. The story and the overall experience revolve so heavily around the music that it seems so natural for these cats to be singing smooth jazz. In fact, this seems to really be more of a musical art installation than a feature film soundtrack. What gives this soundtrack a big boost is the incredible composition “Ev’rybody Wants to Be a Cat”. There’s an awesome form that takes you through a bunch of great musical moments, all with a very catchy melody and an irresistible New Orleans jazz sound. The rest of the soundtrack is rather quaint and subdued, which does very well for the work as a whole but may not quite stand up to the all-time Disney greats. Nevertheless, it’s of significant quality, and its simplicity is beautiful.
9. The Hunchback of Notre Dame
Music is Alan Menken
Lyrics by Stephen Schwartz
This has to be one of Disney’s most mature and grandiose soundtracks for an animated feature, and it also happens to be one of the most underrated. From its quoting and dependence on early Notre Dame chant to its romantic orchestral burliness, this soundtrack stands very well on its own as a powerful work of music. While there are no incredibly catchy motives, the motivic arrangement throughout the soundtrack is quietly an incredible feat. On top of that, the passionate solo songs, such as “Out There”, “God Help the Outcasts”, and “Hellfire”, have wonderfully strong melodies and great builds to important moments. With that, the soundtrack is rather disparate from those sung songs to the incidental music, so a bit of musical cohesiveness is lost for the story. While it may not be a very distinguishable sound, the power and gravity of the music make this one of the best Disney soundtracks ever. It’s almost an opera, which may not help Disney’s overall objectives so much, but I certainly enjoy it as a listener.
Music is Alan Menken
Lyrics by Stephen Schwartz
It was a difficult task to set music to such a dramatic story while still sounding accessible and relatable for children. This is no fairy tale, but it still needed to be innocent enough for Disney’s audience. The end result meets and surpasses those expectations, being a work that’s powerful for all ages. “Colors of the Wind” is perhaps Disney’s most invigorating and passionate solo song. While that alone is enough to call this soundtrack one of Disney’s best, there are a plethora of other songs that are expertly set with very appropriate drama and atmosphere. The melodies were left to be the icing on the cake on an already powerful sound, and they went above and beyond to make the music truly memorable. Incredible use of winds and harp really evoke the setting of the story, and characterization was very well developed throughout the music. Even though its success in creating memorable timbres is nothing that other Disney soundtracks haven’t accomplished, the principal song and the stimulating choruses are what put this soundtrack above most of them.
Music and Lyrics by Phil Collins
Instrumental Score by Mark Mancina
This soundtrack almost didn’t meet the requirements for this list, since a case can be made that there isn’t really any diegetic music in it. I would argue that the characters inside the film do make the song “Trashin’ the Camp”, though, and if one can think of Phil Collins as the film’s narrator rather than just a singer, then it becomes easier to accept for these purposes. Indeed, when discussing the best Disney soundtracks ever, Tarzan has to be mentioned for its ingenious pop tunes that capture attention and imagination. In the outside music world, Collins may have not done anything great as a songwriter, but his overall voice and style was quite perfect in this setting. His energy and playfulness spoke very well within this context, where simplicity was welcomed and melodic prominence was essential. “Strangers Like Me” is the best song Collins ever wrote, with “You’ll Be In My Heart” and “Son of Man” also some of his best work. Aside from Elton John (for obvious reasons), this was the best musical collaboration Disney has had with an established songwriter outside of their company. While it doesn’t quite have the emotional strength or story-telling impact that other Disney soundtracks have, this work has some incredibly well-written tunes that survive well beyond the film and can be enjoyed in everyday life.
6. Beauty and the Beast
Music by Alan Menken
Lyrics by Howard Ashman
Of all the fairy tales that Disney took to make their own, no soundtrack added as much heightened emotion and impact as the one for Beauty and the Beast. Within its timeless melodies, musical organization, and wonderful flows of energy, it tells a brilliant story that words alone could not represent. From the pace-setting opening of “Belle” to the extravagant delight of “Be Our Guest” to the lovely and emotional title track, every song is purposeful and powerful in its own unique way. The whole orchestral score is secretly very important from start to finish. Motives were used extremely well throughout the work in very timely places. What barely keeps it out of the top 5 best Disney soundtracks to me is the difference in quality between important songs. The songs I mentioned earlier, as well as the song “Gaston”, are amazing in their composition and some of the best Disney songs ever. Other songs such as “Something There” and “Human Again”, though, don’t quite match the same spirit and appeal that the others do. Still, they are good character-driven songs that serve an important purpose. The soundtrack’s slight inconsistencies do not diminish the overall power and presence that it has. It has the substance that both kids and adults can enjoy. That is truly when Disney music is at its best.
5. The Muppet Christmas Carol
Music and Lyrics by Paul Williams
Instrumental Score by Miles Goodman
Technically, this was only half-produced by Disney (with the other half being Jim Henson Productions), so I understand if one chooses to ignore this soundtrack when discussing Disney’s triumphs. Disney was indeed the sole producer of the soundtrack’s re-release 20 years later. This work is in fact eligible by my criteria for this list, which makes this the most underrated Disney soundtrack ever made. Those who have heard it are sure to know exactly what I mean, and those who are skeptical mostly likely haven’t heard it yet. Songwriter Paul Williams spun a true melodic masterpiece here, just as he did for The Muppets Movie, and this time he had the backing of superb orchestration and brilliant storytelling to shape this as a work of real magnitude. Miles Goodman practically wrote an entire symphony with incredible motivic organization and a wide palette of orchestral colors, all while maintaining a lovely spirit relatable to children. Emotions run surprisingly high throughout the work, from the bouncy and carefree tune of “It Feels Like Christmas” to the heart-breaking sadness of “When Love Is Gone”, and everything in-between. The song “Thankful Heart” is arguably the best finale to a Disney soundtrack ever (I would argue that it is the second best). The consistency throughout this work is also noteworthy; almost every song has a simplistic yet powerful melody that can ignite anyone’s ears and hearts. It is simply a beautiful work, and like all of the Disney greats, it can be loved by all audiences.
4. The Jungle Book
Music and Lyrics by Richard Sherman, Robert Sherman, and Terry Gilkyson
Instrumental Score by George Bruns
The best of Disney’s jazz explorations include some of the most unforgettable songs ever written for a Disney film, as well as a pleasant journey through many emotions while never losing its cool. The story is actually quite mature and scary, and the music does an excellent job at portraying the circumstances and putting the audience into the action. Throughout this riveting story, the music is always being featured and never takes the backseat to try and play directly into the action’s hands. By being as effective and neat as it is, it does so inevitably. It simply doesn’t give any of its natural self up for the purpose of the drama, which means the audience is left with a fully developed work capable of entrancing and exciting anyone at any time. The song “I Wan’na Be Like You” is a wonderful jazz chart that also has a captivating simplistic melody that fits the purpose. Of course, the hit on this soundtrack is “The Bare Necessities”, and for good reason. In truth, though, everything from the haunting overture to the strong finale is incredibly worthwhile music. Beyond a couple of the silly songs, its maturity is surprising for one of Disney’s most successful films. It’s not something I really a have an explanation for, so I guess I’ll chalk that up to the magic of Disney, which is a magic that has yet to run out.
3. The Little Mermaid
Music by Alan Menken
Lyrics by Howard Ashman
Menken’s greatest work for Disney also happened to be his first, and in hearing the music, it’s no surprise that this film was marked as the beginning of the Disney Renaissance. This work is overflowing with important motives, great stylistic harmonies, and broad moments that even the greatest of film composers can be jealous of. This is also perhaps the best orchestration for a score in Disney’s entire repertoire, with unique instrumental decisions that fully represent the characters and setting, just like the best opera composers of the 19th century did. The wide variety of emotion within the work is exceptionally balanced and done well with drastic shifts in styles and tonalities while staying as simply part of the whole. The result is a beautiful, consistent, and engaging soundtrack that holds up an already brilliant rendition of a fairy tale. As if that isn’t enough, the individual songs “Under the Sea” and “Part of Your World” are two of the best songs ever written for any film. Each song has unique and wonderful compositional moments to them, yet they all come together and work as one entire creation in quite a magical way. These songs may only exist at their best within the film as recorded, but the music doesn’t need to be versatile out of context in order to be considered a powerful work. As a composer, my emotional reaction to hearing any part of this soundtrack is that of light melancholy, because although I can’t help but enjoy its existence, it’s a shame that someone else got to it first.
2. The Lion King
Music by Elton John
Lyrics by Tim Rice
Instrumental Score by Hans Zimmer
This is not only Disney’s greatest pop soundtrack, but it’s the greatest pop film soundtrack of all time. Elton John is one of the best melody writers ever, and his usual amusing lines shined through very well. While these melodies may be the best to ever grace a Disney film, that’s only the surface of what gets accomplished here. Countermelodies are rampant, energetic, and brilliant in always creating an interesting texture. Instrumental builds within songs were always timely and invigorating. The stratification of the voices in the backup chorus proved to be very successful when giving additional importance and emotion. Key changes and borrowed chords were excellent surprises and countered well with the simple but useful I, IV, and V chords. Hans Zimmer takes off right where Elton John left off for the instrumental music and kept the strong melodic dominance with great simplistic harmonic surprise throughout. Perhaps the most noteworthy aspect of it all is the amazing way in which traditional African nuances were used all throughout a pop-dominated children’s score. Even when marketing towards a younger audience, the sound stayed perfectly authentic and gorgeous. That’s something that Disney music, and other chart topping pop music, haven’t really found in the new millennia. This work is a wonderful combination of beauty and fun. It’s all quite unbelievable, and it has the largest amount of the intangible Disney magic in any soundtrack. “Circle of Life” is undoubtedly the best opening song for a Disney film ever. The instrumental score is so powerful and genuine. The songs are absolutely delightful. Why don’t I think it’s the best Disney soundtrack? It’s difficult for me to pinpoint any specific musical reason, so I can’t necessarily argue with anyone who thinks that it is the best. While none may match it in it’s weight and magnificence, it falls just short according to my ears based on sheer substantial quantity and attraction beyond its original purpose to one other soundtrack. With that said, this is a work of music to be remembered and revered.
1. Mary Poppins
Music and Lyrics by Richard Sherman and Robert Sherman
The crowning achievement in Walt Disney’s lifetime also happens to have the greatest music ever put to a Disney film. A simple fictional tale about a British nanny has turned into a beloved cultural masterpiece thanks to a soundtrack that fully stimulates the imagination and keeps piling on incredible material at every turn. It provides as much musical elegance as one might experience from an average night out at the symphony orchestra, and as much playfulness and simple delight from singing Christmas carols around the fire. Even the soundtrack’s weakest song, “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious”, is extremely catchy and fun to hear. The entire composition was done on a very grand scale, with no interest in conforming to ordinary song forms in an effort to truly tell a convincing story, but also with incredible amount of intrigue and energy so that beautiful music could actually be in the driver’s seat. Every minute of this soundtrack has something engaging and worthy of recognition out of context, which truly separates it from the rest of Disney music. Of course, no reproduction can beat the film’s original version, especially in such captivating songs like “I Love To Laugh”, “Feed the Birds”, and “Step In Time”, but appreciation for even the most basic tunes here can go well beyond their existence in the film. There’s an absolutely incredible balance of musical exhibitionism and dramatic portrayal. After the song “Let’s Go Fly A Kite”, the best finale in the Disney music history, the audience is left confounded by the utter brilliance to such magnitude in which they experienced.