We ranked the 20 best Disney songs ever

From delightful earworms to tearjerker ballads, get ready to relive some childhood favourites.

From delightful earworms to tearjerker ballads, get ready to relive some childhood favourites

What's your all-time favourite Disney song? (Images from Disney/Graphic by CBC)

Any ranked list is contentious, but ranking the best Disney songs? Watch out.

Disney released its first feature-length animated film in 1937, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, which was nominated for best musical score at the 1938 Oscars. It was a strong start, to put it mildly. 

Over the next eight decades, the company would release bigger and bigger musical films, hiring names like Elton John, Phil Collins and Celine Dion alongside hit-making songwriting teams like Alan Menken and the late Howard Ashman.

It's nearly impossible to pick 20 songs out of 82 years of music.

But let's be serious: it all comes down to feelings. Which Disney song have you belted out the most, whether at karaoke, in the car with your kids or to cheer yourself up on a particularly listless day? Which song do you still know every single word to, 30 years later? Which one would you recommend to a Disney newcomer?

In honour of the new live-action Lion King being released this week (can't wait for that Beyoncé soundtrack!), we surveyed the CBC Music staff for their all-time favourite Disney songs. From the legacy-building opening track of Pinocchio to the boom of the '90s (The Lion King, Aladdin, Beauty and the Beast, The Little Mermaid), below are the 20 best Disney songs, ranked.

20. 'Be Our Guest,' Beauty and the Beast

Written by: Howard Ashman, Alan Menken
Performed by: Jerry Orbach, Angela Lansbury
Released: 1991

This number from Beauty and the Beast is the little song that could. Originally written as a "dummy" piece of music by Alan Menken, it ended up being perfect for the scene. "Be Our Guest" is Lumiere's way of coaxing Belle out of her bedroom, and it's a great, Broadway-esque introduction to all the enchanted, not-so-inanimate objects in the castle. It's an ambitious, delightful song, and was nominated for a Golden Globe and an Academy Award only to lose to its fellow soundtrack mate, "Beauty and the Beast." — Holly Gordon

19. 'I've Got No Strings!' Pinocchio

Written by: Ned Washington
Performed by: Dickie Jones
Released: 1940

Pinocchio, a puppet brought to life by a fairy, is told that he will be transformed into a real boy if he proves to be brave, truthful and unselfish, but he is quickly led astray by Honest John the Fox and Gideon the Cat. Instead, Pinocchio joins a puppet show and performs "I've Got No Strings," proudly showing off his ability to sing and dance without a person pulling the strings. It's a liberating song that plays out in a much darker manner in the film, but you can't deny that it's a catchy little tune that's fun to sing along to. Plus, almost eight decades after its release, it still finds relevance in new and interesting ways. For example: try belting it out the next time you walk down the street with your wireless earbuds. — Melody Lau

18. 'The Bells of Notre Dame,' The Hunchback of Notre Dame

Written by: Alan Menken, Stephen Schwartz
Performed by: Paul Kandel
Released: 1996

The Hunchback of Notre Dame hit the ground running with this evocative, heavy opening sequence. "The Bells of Notre Dame" is the vehicle for telling Quasimodo's backstory, where it's quickly revealed that his mother was killed on the steps of the cathedral and a baby Quasimodo is almost thrown down a well. The theatrical song also perfectly sets the cathedral as a central character in the film, with the bells punctuating the telling of Quasimodo's origin story. It all comes to a dramatic end with the appearance of the title credits, as an adult Quasimodo makes the bells ring as loudly as they have all song. And with that, The Hunchback of Notre Dame is off to a strong musical start. — HG

17. 'You'll Be in My Heart,' Tarzan

Written by: Phil Collins
Performed by: Phil Collins
Released: 1999

Disney closed out its 1990s run of films with Tarzan, for which it hired Phil Collins to deliver a drum fill-laden soundtrack. Released in 1999, it was the first project for Collins since 1996's Dance Into the Light, his first album as a primarily solo artist after having left Genesis (though he did have five solo albums previous to that, alongside his work with the band). While Tarzan's soundtrack isn't the most popular of the Disney sing-alongs, it was still heavily awarded: it won both an Oscar and a Golden Globe for best original song, and was nominated for a Grammy. Glenn Close, who did the voice for Kala the gorilla, sings a verse of the song in the film. — HG

16. 'One Jump Ahead,' Aladdin

Written by: Alan Menken, Tim Rice
Performed by: Mena Massoud, Michael Kosarin
Released: 1992

It's tough to keep up with the frenetic energy of "One Jump Ahead," but we've had 30 years of fun trying to do it. The scene the song soundtracks is fast-paced and havoc-ridden, set in the marketplace of Agrabah where Aladdin steals a loaf of bread and tries not to get caught for it. While the plot isn't moved along much by this scene, it does show us what Aladdin's life has been like up to this point which is important before he enters a whole new world. — HG

15. 'Reflection,' Mulan

Written by: Matthew Wilder, David Zippel
Performed by: Lea Salonga
Released: 1998

Mulan is Disney's only Asian princess and her big breakout song, "Reflection," touches on a feeling that young Asian women can relate to. Mulan's family has a certain set of gendered expectations set for her, including an impending marriage, but this is not the life she wants to live. "I may never pass for a perfect bride or a perfect daughter/ can it be, I'm not meant to play this part?" she questions in "Reflection." But she is weighed down by guilt and the potential of breaking her family's heart if she doesn't abide by these rules. This song may not be as triumphant, or even forthcoming with what Mulan actually wants, but it's a meaningful look inside a character's complex feelings with identity and family. — ML

14. 'You're Welcome,' Moana

Written by: Lin-Manuel Miranda
Performed by: Dwayne Johnson
Released: 2016

Dwayne Johnson, a.k.a. the Rock, is best known for being a blockbuster action star, but his turn as Maui in 2016's Moana challenged him to put his strong physique aside and act solely with his voice. The result is admittedly a lot tamer than, say, his Fast and Furious one-liners, but it's still a delightful performance filled with energy and charisma, and that shines through most in his introductory song, "You're Welcome." Maui isn't afraid to boast about his achievements as he sings to Moana: "I know it's a lot: the hair, the bod/ when you're staring at a demigod." But the most memorable part of "You're Welcome" has to be Johnson's rap verse, a section that, to this day, he continues to get requests to do from children as well as adults. "It was one of the best times I've ever had in my career," he told Collider. This performance definitely shows that. — ML

13. 'Remember Me,' Coco

Written by: Kristen Anderson-Lopez, Robert Lopez
Performed by: Benjamin Bratt, Gael García Bernal, Anthony Gonzales, Ana Ofelia Murguía
Released: 2017

Of all the new Disney songs on this list, nothing will make you reach for a box of tissues more than this one. From the songwriters behind Frozen's "Let it Go," this Coco centrepiece takes many shapes within the film, from an upbeat bolero ranchero-style number to a stripped-down ballad that plays an integral part at the end. By the time viewers reach the latter moment, "Remember Me" has already been played a handful of times throughout the film and it could've been tiring to hear once more. But it's in that scene between protagonist Miguel and his great-grandmother Coco, who continued her mother's tradition of banning music in the family over generations, where the song's sentimental lyrics really come to life. It'll hit you like an emotional tidal wave, so prepare yourself before you hit play below. Definitely a worthy winner of the 2018 best original song Oscar. — ML

12. 'When You Wish Upon a Star,' Pinocchio

Written by: Leigh Harline, Ned Washington
Performed by: Cliff Edwards
Released: 1940

The sound of the harp that opens "When You Wish Upon a Star" became synonymous with both the original film it was written for and Walt Disney, as the 1940 Pinocchio recording essentially became the company's theme song, playing over its film logos since the 1980s. While playing a pivotal role in the company, the song is only sung by Jiminy Cricket (Cliff Edwards) in Pinocchio's opening and closing sequences. Being detached from a specific scene didn't stop its popularity, though: "When You Wish Upon a Star" was the first Disney song to win an Oscar. — HG

11. 'How Far I'll Go,' Moana

Written by: Lin-Manuel Miranda
Performed by: Auli'i Cravalho
Released: 2016

Lin-Manuel Miranda was so close to achieving an EGOT (Emmy, Grammy Oscar and Tony) with this Moana hit. Alas, "How Far I'll Go," which was up for a 2017 Oscar for best original song, didn't take home the award but it still stands as one of the best new additions to the Disney musical canon ofthe "I Want" song genre. Much like the protagonists of The Little Mermaid and The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Moana just wants to explore the world outside of her own island, and this wanderlust anthem is a passionate plea for permission to hop on a boat and sail off, building with every verse and chorus like the fire burning fiercely inside of her. — ML 

10. 'Let it Go,' Frozen

Written by: Kristen Anderson-Lopez, Robert Lopez
Performed by: Idina Menzel
Released: 2013

No Disney song spawned more covers or memes than Frozen's "Let it Go." With more than half-a-billion views on YouTube and both a Grammy and an Oscar behind it, the song's powerful message of letting go of the things you can't change (mainly: people's perceptions and opinions) was a welcome one from a film that centred on the love between two sisters instead of the more traditional story arc of romantic love. The powerhouse vocals of Idina Menzel propelled "Let it Go" into every kid's imagination, and provided a killer catchphrase: "The cold never bothered me anyway." — HG

9. 'Can You Feel the Love Tonight,' The Lion King

Written by: Elton John, Tim Rice
Performed by: Elton John
Released: 1994

A generation of '80s and early '90s children were first exposed to Elton John's music through The Lion King and this ballad is probably up there as one of the highlights of an all-around incredible soundtrack. While it's among the most romantic Disney songs ever, in the film, "Can You Feel the Love Tonight" does have a comedic framing around it because it is bookended by Timon and Pumbaa's realization that "our band is doomed" if Simba falls in love and leaves his pals behind. But it's OK, Timon and Pumbaa: there's plenty of love to go around in this song. Go ahead, feel it! — ML

8. 'A Whole New World,' Aladdin

Written by: Tim Rice
Performed by: Brad Kane and Lea Salonga
Released: 1992

A true prince-charming moment (well, faux prince), Aladdin's "A Whole New World" is a romantic theme song where Aladdin literally sweeps Jasmine off her feet and shows her a "new fantastic point of view." "Tell me, princess, now when did you last let your heart decide?" Aladdin sings, as he encourages Jasmine to break out of the bubble she lives in and explore new horizons with him. It's a classic Disney love song, from the lush orchestration to the two characters professing their feelings for one another by trading verses, and it still gives listeners butterflies 27 years later. — ML

7. 'Beauty and the Beast,' Beauty and the Beast

Written by: Alan Menken, Howard Ashman
Performed by: Celine Dion, Peabo Bryson, Angela Lansbury
Released: 1991

This is the song that kicked off Disney's '90s run as a soundtrack juggernaut: "Beauty and the Beast" was the first Disney single to break the Billboard Hot 100's top 10, while also winning a Golden Globe, two Grammys and an Oscar. Angela Lansbury sang the song within the 1991 film as Mrs. Potts, but a pre-English fame Celine Dion and Peabo Bryson duetted it out of the park for the radio single. (You'll recognize Bryson's voice, along with Regina Belle's, in Aladdin's "A Whole New World," too.) "Beauty and the Beast" also sets the most pivotal scene in the movie: when Belle and the Beast's relationship becomes genuine. It's still a tear-jerking heart-warmer after three decades. — HG

Related: Beauty and the Beast: an oral history of Disney's original 1991 hit song

6. 'Part of Your World,' The Little Mermaid

Written by: Howard Ashman, Alan Menken
Performed by: Jodi Benson
Released: 1989

Literally putting the "I want" in the "I Want" song genre, The Little Mermaid's "Part of Your World" is Ariel's chance to tell everyone that she's "sick of swimming, ready to stand." She's grown up with the privilege of being the daughter of a king, but her dream is to be on land, to stand on her own two — "what do you call 'em? Oh, feet!" Ariel is gifted with an insatiable curiosity and this song is for all the "bright young women" who are unabashed in their pursuit for knowledge, freedom and more. Just don't lose your voice along the way. — ML

5. 'The Bare Necessities,' The Jungle Book

Written by: Terry Gilkyrson
Performed by: Bruce Reitherman, Phil Harris
Released: 1967

How the verse "when you pick a pawpaw/or a prickly pear/ and you prick a raw paw" didn't make it into the tongue-twister canon is beyond us, but "The Bare Necessities" really did try its best. The song, sung by Phil Harris as Baloo and Bruce Reitherman as Mowgli, is fun and lighthearted, and sets the scene for a lovely moment of friendship between the two characters (with some good side-eye from Bagheera). Baloo and Bagheera actually sing the song's chorus together in the film's closing scene, where they walk away arm in arm, bringing everything full circle. As a song that leans heavily on horns, it makes a lot of sense that the best cover out there is by Louis Armstrong. — HG

4. 'The Circle of Life,' The Lion King

Written by: Elton John, Tim Rice
Performed by: Elton John
Released: 1994 

Perhaps the most iconic opening sequence in a Disney film ever, "The Circle of Life" remains one of the most epic songs in the company's animated history, if not movie history in general. From the very first lines of the song, sung in Zulu by Lebo M., to the dramatic end that cues the film's title card, "The Circle of Life" beautifully sets the scene for audiences, building a setting that's filled with life, love and harmony. Yes, the track hints at the despair to come, but in that moment, the only thing viewers can feel is complete awe. — ML

3. 'Hakuna Matata,' The Lion King

Written by: Elton John, Tim Rice
Performed by: Ernie Sabella, Jason Weaver, Joseph Williams, Nathan Lane
Released: 1994

Long gone are the days when "Hakuna matata" was part of everyday vocabulary, but the Disney song of the same name still has that nostalgic sparkle. The Lion King's soundtrack continues to be the best-selling animated film soundtrack of all time, and it was Disney's first real foray into celebrity hiring for the job: Elton John was commissioned to do much of the writing (and sings cuts of "Can You Feel the Love Tonight," "I Just Can't Wait to be King" and "Circle of Life") alongside Tim Rice, while Hans Zimmer completed the trifecta to compose the score. Nathan Lane (Timon), Ernie Sabella (Pumbaa) and Jason Weaver (young Simba) sing the lighthearted song, which lost the 1994 Oscar for best song to fellow soundtrack listing "Can You Feel the Love Tonight." — HG   

2. 'You Got a Friend in Me,' Toy Story

Written by: Randy Newman
Performed by: Randy Newman
Released: 1995

"As the years go by, our friendship will never die" has become an emotional throughline across Disney-Pixar's four instalments of the Toy Story franchise. The line from the first film's theme song, "You've Got a Friend in Me," is simple and direct, and songwriter Randy Newman originally wrote it as an ode to the cowboy toy protagonist Woody and his owner, Andy. But over the franchise's 24-year run, the song has continued to pop up in its films as an anthem that illustrates the friendship between different characters, from cowgirl Jessie and spaceman Buzz Lightyear to Wheezy and his fellow toy pals. It also makes an appearance in Toy Story 4, as a heart-wrenching reprise that showed that as the years went by, Andy and Woody did eventually grow apart and separate. Newman once said at a concert that the song is "a f--king lie, of course," but its sweet sentiment remains a pure and heartfelt promise of commitment that we want to believe in forever. — ML

1. 'Under the Sea,' The Little Mermaid

Written by: Alan Menken, Howard Ashman
Performed by: Samuel E. Wright
Released: 1989

Arguably the most singable Disney song, "Under the Sea" swam to the top of our rankings list immediately. In the 1989 animated film, Sebastian the crab uses the lyrics to try to convince Ariel that "it's better, down where it's wetter, take it from me." (Which, out of context, seems inappropriate?) Disney songs tend to shine brightest when the entire cast is involved in the production, and this song is no exception though there have long been call-outs that Disney's depiction of some characters in the scene was racist, particularly the roles and drawings of the duke of soul and the blackfish. We're hoping that the live-action remake, which will include new music from Hamilton's Lin-Manuel Miranda and stars Halle Bailey as Ariel, will approach it differently. — HG


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

Become a CBC Member

Join the conversation  Create account

Already have an account?