(Note: This article originally appeared on http://www.celebrationspress.com)
Music has always been fundamental to the Disney experience. Just try to picture Aladdin without “A Whole New World” or Dumbo without “Baby Mine”. The Haunted Mansion without “Grim Grinning Ghosts” is unthinkable. The idea of “it’s a small world” without its accompanying melody borders on blasphemy. From the movies to the theme parks, song has played a central part in bringing the magic to life.
With that in mind, here are five albums that we think every Disney fan needs to hear.
Disney’s Music from the Park
Released in 1996, this album is a fun romp through some of Disney’s most popular tunes. All of the pieces are reinterpreted by the artists, which include The Pointer Sisters, The Rembrandts, Olivia Newton-John, and Linda Ronstadt, among others.
The Barenaked Ladies’ rendition of Grim Grinning Ghosts is one of the true standouts, and for the comedic value, it’s very hard to top Tim Curry’s performance of “The Ballad of Davy Crockett.” Not only does he perform the piece, but he provides a sort of running commentary on the lyrics as the song progresses. To describe it as epic would be underselling its greatness.
For a bit of nostalgia, make sure to check out Brian McKnight’s performance of “Remember the Magic” which was released for Walt Disney World’s 25th anniversary. The theme song will send you straight back to the days of the birthday cake castle, and the brilliant “Remember the Magic Parade”. As the parks continue to celebrate the “Most Magical Celebration on Earth”, the song is like a time machine to another great moment in Walt Disney World history.
Stay Awake: Various Interpretations of Music from Vintage Disney Films
Disney songs are almost like the music of Christmas at this point. They are so ubiquitous that they are well known around the world and it seems every musical artist has, at one time or another, tried their hand at performing their favorites.
Nowhere is that more apparent than in the eclectic performances found on “Stay Awake”. Produced by Hal Willner and released in 1988, it’s the sort of album that seems absurd on paper. The musicians included come from a vast array of genres. Michael Stipe of R.E.M performs, as does Tom Waits, the Roches, Bonnie Raitt, Yma Sumac, Sun Ra, Sinead O’Conner, Ringo Starr, Herb Alpert, Natalie Merchant, and Aaron Neville, to name just a few.
The diversity is no surprise given the album’s producer. Willner’s career included work as a music producer for Saturday Night Live, as well as for artists like Lou Reed, Lucinda Williams, Marianne Faithful, and even William S. Burroughs.
He was also famous for producing tribute albums and concerts for such diverse musicians as Tim Buckley, Nino Rota, Charles Mingus, Leonard Cohen, and Randy Newman.
While it’s hard to pick a favorite from the album, Tom Waits’s growling interpretation of “Heigh-Ho (The Marching Song)” is particularly memorable. “Medley Five (Technicolor Pachyderms)” is also not to be missed. The track begins with jazz luminary Sun Ra and the Arkestra performing “Pink Elephants” before transitioning into a zydeco-esque arrangement by Van Dyke Parks of “Zip-a-Dee-Do-Dah” performed by Harry Nilsson.
Muppets: The Green Album
In 1968, the Beatles released their iconic “White Album.” Just over a quarter of a century later, Weezer issued the “Blue Album.” A mere nine years after that, came Jay-Z’s “The Black Album.” It only makes sense that the next stop on this musical tour of the rainbow would come from the Muppets.
Walt Disney Records dropped the record on August 31, 2011. A week prior, every song was debuted on NPR’s First Listen program. It features a wide array of musicians from the alternative, punk, and indie scenes, re-working classic Muppets songs.
Weezer and Paramore’s Hayley Williams sing “Rainbow Connection”. The Fray performs a toe-tapping version of “Mahna-Mahna”. My Morning Jacket dip outside the Muppets catalog, but remain within the world of Henson, with their take on “Our World” from Emmett Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas. Emo darlings Alkaline Trio even give us a rocking version of “Moving Right Along”.
There’s so much good stuff, that I’m reluctant to name any single piece as the “best”. That said, I’m particularly fond of Sondre Lerche’s infectious bit of pop heaven found in his take on “Mr. Bassman”.
Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas is a true classic in every sense of the word. Ground-breaking animation, compelling characters, an entertaining storyline, and of course, some of the greatest music ever written for a Disney film thanks to the brilliant compositions of Danny Elfman, and fantastic performances by folks like Ken Page and Catherine O’Hara.
“Nightmare Revisited” was released in honor of the movie’s 15th anniversary and was produced by David Agnew. Given the macabre humor of the film, and the goth leanings of many of its biggest fans, it should be no surprise that it features some pretty distortion-heavy, crunchy performers. The track “This Is Halloween” is performed by shock rocker Marilyn Manson, while “Kidnap the Sandy Claus” is handled by the nu-metal band Korn. The driving flamenco-tinged guitars of Rodrigo y Gabriela provide a unique take on “Oogie Boogie’s Song”, while the psychedelic pop of Polyphonic Spree gives us a new take on the “Town Meeting Song”.
The punk rock adaptation of “Making Christmas” by Rise Against seems so fitting that it’s almost hard to hear the song any other way once you’ve given it a listen, and the Plain White T’s are responsible for a stripped-down performance of “Poor Jack” that captures the pathos of the number.
Everybody Wants to Be a Cat, Disney Jazz, Vol. 1
We’ve talked before about the link between Disney and Jazz. It makes sense. Jazz music is all about taking risks and exploring new possibilities, which was at the core of Walt Disney’s philosophy. Over the years, jazz greats like Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Miles Davis, Etta Jones, and others have recorded their own versions of Disney hits.
“Everybody Wants to Be a Cat,” which was released in 2010, keeps this love affair alive with glorious performances that demonstrate the versatility of the genre, and its ability to take well-known Disney standards and transform them into something new. Performers include Roy Hargrove, Esperanza Spaulding, Dianne Reeves, Alfredo Rodriguez, and The Bad Plus (a trio that has given the world jazz versions of songs by groups like the Pixies, Nirvana, Aphex Twin, and Ornette Coleman).
Top to bottom, the album is a joy. It’s easy to picture yourself in a dark, smoky nightclub while listening to Spaulding’s recording of “Chim Chim Cher-ee”, and Nikki Yanofsky’s swinging version of “It’s a Small World” sounds as though it should be played under the bright lights of Vegas, with an Ella Fitzgerald worthy scat.
All that said, it’s particularly exciting to hear the legendary Dave Brubeck on “Someday My Prince Will Come” and alongside Roberta Gambarina on “Alice in Wonderland”. Brubeck would pass away a little over two years after the album’s release (and a day before his 92 birthday), and it’s wonderful to find that he had lost none of his mastery over the piano, with playing that is equal parts delicate and energetic.