The Best Disney Songs: Our Beloved Outliers

Our recent list of the twenty best Disney songs wasn’t without its controversy and heartbreak – or anyway, we all voted for songs that didn’t make it on the list. But there’s a particular specialness to the outliers – the songs that only one person apiece voted for on their list, often very high on that list, and that no one else included. Here, before we get to our Disney songs podcast, I’ve asked some of our contributors to defend their orphan choices for the best Disney songs.

Jennifer on “He’s a Tramp”

Lady and the Tramp, 1955
This song is fantastic, both in-film (doggie back-up singers!) as a stand-alone jazz number. Where, oh where, is the direct-to-DVD sequel starring Peg the Pekingese? But I guess we don’t have Peggy Lee anymore, so it’s too late anyway. This isn’t a showstopper the way the songs on our top ten are, but it has a sophistication and sense of cool Disney lost during the “renaissance” that Little Mermaid ushered in. It’s not trying too hard; it doesn’t have to. It’s Peggy damn Lee. It’s real jazz. It’s hot shit. No one’s trying to make you remember what it was like to have a dream here– we’re just straight-up singing about sex, and it’s fabulous.

Sara on “Candle on the Water”

Pete’s Dragon, 1977
I can understand why this didn’t make the list. It’s from a movie that’s legitimately terrible, and one that never made it into my own personal rotation of obsessive Disney rewatches when I was a kid. That’s perhaps not surprising as the premise is on the dark side: the orphaned Pete is being raised by an abusive hillbilly family and finds solace in befriending a dragon who can make himself invisible, a creature rendered in what was at the time a revolutionary joining of animation and live-action but now just looks pretty goofy. Its casting into the Disney dustbin is warranted, which is a shame because “Candle on the Water” might be one of the most emotionally open songs the company has produced. It’s sung by Nora, who works with her father in a lighthouse and eventually adopts Pete, to her fiancé Paul, who has been missing at sea for over a year. But really it works as an ode to staying steadfast to anyone or anything that feels far away, as much a lullaby as love song. The lyrics are simple but have a gentleness and thoughtfulness to them that’s genuinely touching; it’s crucial that it’s a “candle” that’s staying alight rather than a “torch.” It certainly doesn’t hurt that it’s performed by Helen Reddy who’s angelically lit in the film, the focus kept tightly on her warm face as she sings out to the sea. It’s a sublime moment that still stands out from the bloat and ridiculousness that surrounds it. I’ve yet to see the remake that came out this past year but it’s surely better in almost every respect than the original. Except, of course, for this song (no offense to Okkervil River).

Nathaniel on “Feed the Birds”

Mary Poppins, 1964
Mary Poppins represents a pinnacle in a number of Disney-related categories. It’s the greatest of Walt Disney’s live-action productions, an all-time great film debut for Julie Andrews, probably career-best work by matte artist Peter Ellenshaw, and (most relevant for this list) the best work by the Sherman Brothers. This is a song score that includes “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious,” “Chim Chim Cher-ee,” “A Spoonful of Sugar,” and “Let’s Go Fly a Kite,” each of them iconic in their own right. But maybe my favorite song in the film is “Feed the Birds.” The initial performance is one of Andrews’s loveliest, sweet and gentle and moving. And the reprise as Mr. Banks makes his long nighttime walk to the bank is soaringly beautiful, setting the stage for the emotional climax of the film. But even outside of its effective use in the film, “Feed the Birds” is a good example of the Sherman Brothers’ knack for a deceptively powerful brand of simplicity. Like so many of their songs, it isn’t a terribly complex tune or set of lyrics, but it powerfully conveys its simple idea. And in the case of “Feed the Birds,” its plea for kindness (even a very small kindness, “tuppence a bag”), a simple idea conveyed with clarity an emotion, is as powerfully urgent now as it ever was.

Bayard on “The World Will Know”

Newsies, 1992
In the spring of 1992, I had begged my parents to take me to Manhattan’s now-defunct Guild Theater to see a double feature. First would be Beauty and the Beast, which had been out since late 1991 but I had not yet seen and hadn’t really been interested in. It would be followed by a one time “sneak preview” of Newsies, a movie I had been strongly (but somewhat oddly) drawn to see after having watched its trailer and advertisements in the prior weeks. When we arrived at the theater, I saw that a long line had already formed out the door; my parents soon broke the news to me that it was sold out. As I sobbed on the sidewalk, my mom reassured me that we would see Newsies once it came out for real. When we got around to trying to see it a few weeks later, it had already swiftly come and gone from theaters, and I was left disappointed once again.

A few years later, after having mostly forgotten about the film’s existence, I caught most of Newsies on a local TV station, rekindling my interest and prompting me to buy a copy of the soundtrack. Over twenty years later, and my love for those songs has not diminished. Four of my top eleven votes for this list were from Newsies; even though I assumed that those votes were unlikely to lead to a large Newsies representation on the final list, I felt obligated to make a statement for my underdog of a movie.

While not as popular as “King of New York” (which thankfully made the final cut!), “The World Will Know” is a more important song to the movie, showing conflict between Jack and Davey as they share their contrasting views on what makes an effective strike. It also brings into light the idea that the newsies, who are usually bringing people the headlines, are now trying to “make ’em.” The New York World was the name of Joseph Pulitzer’s oppressive newspaper, giving the title and chorus of the song a double meaning, something that makes this theater geek and history teacher extra happy.

Jesse on “The First Time in Forever”

Frozen, 2013
I know Frozen isn’t exactly underrepresented on our list or in the world in general. But the song that reached #5 on our list was, of course, “Let It Go,” and while I did vote for it, I also threw a vote to one of the movie’s other, more underrated tunes. Frozen has a strong song score, and “First Time” is one of the best and fullest, especially valuable for the way it intertwines the concerns of both Anna and Elsa – remember Anna, the actual main character in Frozen, often forgotten in favor of Elsa and her ice castle? Apart from its cultural impact, the movie itself is actually about sisters, and “First Time” does a wonderful job connecting these two characters even as they remain apart for the actual singing.

Marisa on “Sugar Rush”

Wreck-It Ralph, 2012
In terms of the Disney canon, Wreck-It Ralph is almost criminally underrated. That’s probably because it feels more like a Pixar joint than a proper Disney film. It’s not about a princess, isn’t based on an existing fairytale, and doesn’t star an animal. It does, however, have a familiar hero’s quest: Ralph, sick of being a villain in his own 8-bit game, looks for glory in a first-person shooter and N64-style racing game.

Wreck-It Ralph further departs from the tried-and-true Disney formula by not being a musical. Ralph doesn’t get an “I Want” ballad about how he wants to leave his Fix-It Felix, Jr. arcade cabinet and shed his villain status. His plucky-kid enemy-turned-ally kid doesn’t join him in a jaunty duet about how they’re going to take over the race together.

Instead, the original music in Wreck-It Ralph—godawful Owl City credits ballad excepted—is there because it fits, because it belongs as part of that world. “Sugar Rush” does not remotely sound like any other Disney songs; it’s not belted out by anyone with vocal chops as much as it is delivered by any number of members of J-Pop mega-collective AKB48. The same way Sugar Rush, the game, feels like a wholly imagined kart racer and not a parody of a 64-bit game or a pander to late-‘90s gamers, “Sugar Rush” the song feels like a tune that already existed, and that you’ve already heard 1,000 times during that week your friends were obsessed with beating one video game. “Catchy” is a word that has just as many good connotations as bad, but this is catchy in a way that most video-game music is, which is instantly familiar, and brings up good memories.

I have amazing memories of seeing Wreck-It Ralph. It’s the only Disney movie I’ve seen for the first time while visiting a Disney theme park. I spent the day as a single rider, jumping the line to hit the same roller coasters over and over. Afterwards, I saw a new Disney animated movie that felt like it was aimed directly at me, someone who grew up with Atari cartridges and graduated from console to console until first-person shooters made me dizzy and made me quit gaming altogether. When I left the theater, hearing a small clutch of teens—who seemed like they’d already seen Wreck-It Ralph at least once previously—singing “Sugar Rush” to themselves, I admit, endeared me immediately to the song. It was, like sugar, a very sweet ending to the day.

Rayme on “In a World of My Own”

Alice in Wonderland, 1951
I know I am not alone in my adoration for the Disney masterpiece that is Alice in Wonderland. Amid the chaos of songs and lyrical nonsense poems made into songs exists the plain and sweet “In a World of My Own.” The song is more awkward than graceful, sung in a quavering melody by the young Alice, lacking the joy and catchiness in such songs as “The Unbirthday Song.” But, it brings to mind the dreamlike musings of childhood. Visually, Alice is laying in a field of daisies while singing this song. In my own childhood, my mind wandered while laying among the long orange shag carpet fibers in my living room. (Oh, 1970s home stylings!) It might as well have been a field of daisies. The possibilities were limitless then. Perhaps this is not a particularly popular Disney song, but it is an undersung gem and a quaint reminder of the credulousness of youth.

Maggie on “Colors of the Wind”

Pocahontas, 1995
Remember VHS tapes? Remember how VHS tapes used to put trailers before the movies? Remember how the Lion King VHS tape had a trailer for Pocahontas, except it wasn’t really a trailer, it was the Colors of the Wind sequence in its entirety? Remember how Pocahontas is problematic? Remember babysitting? Remember forcing the kids to watch the Lion King VHS and never ever ever not once fast forwarding past the “Colors of the Wind”? Remember how you were too old to get Disney tapes, even if you really wanted them? Remember how you watched them anyway, at the movie theater with your friends’ younger siblings or, over and over again, while babysitting? Remember when you realized you knew all the words to “Colors of the Wind”? Remember the fun of the triple alliteration x2 of “Come roll in all the riches all around you / and for once never wonder what they’re worth”? Remember that great big loud passionate build to “You can own the earth and still / all you’ll own is earth until” and then the quiet beautiful profound little “You can paint with all the colors of the wind”? Remember waiting until the kids went to sleep and watching Colors of the Wind by yourself, singing loud but not loud enough to wake the kids? Remember?