Nearly two decades ago, Boo stole our hearts and Mike and Sully changed a long-standing stereotype in Monsters Inc. The now iconic film wouldn’t be complete without its score and soundtrack (courtesy of legend Randy Newman); nor would Mike and Sully’s friendship without a proper theme song.
Disney and Pixar films continue to gift movie and music lovers with that same one-two punch: incredible stories paired with unforgettable songs. From “Hawaiian Roller Coaster Ride” (Lilo & Stitch) to more recent hits like “How Far I’ll Go” (Moana) and “Let It Go” (Frozen), here are the 12 best songs off Disney and Pixar soundtracks from the 21st century.
Monsters Inc., 2001
“If I Didn’t Have You”
This unofficial Monsters Inc. theme song doesn’t play in full until the film is over (it soundtracks both the opening and end credits) — and perfectly summarizes the bromance between Sulley (John Goodman) and Mike Wazowski (Billy Crystal). Randy Newman — who at this point in his career had already given Buzz Lightyear and Woody an anthem of their own with “You’ve Got a Friend In Me” from Toy Story — wrote this duet in a similar fashion. The singer-songwriter had been collecting Academy Award nominations since 1981, but “If I Didn’t Have You” finally earned him his first win for best original song, as well as his fourth Grammy.
Lilo & Stitch, 2002
“Hawaiian Roller Coaster Ride”
It’s hard not to feel the sand between your toes, splashes of water from the waves and sunshine beaming down when this song comes on (a girl can dream, especially during quarantine). “Hawaiian Roller Coaster Ride” soundtracks a blissful moment in the hit film Lilo & Stitch when Lilo, Nani, David and Stitch all go surfing in Kauai, where the movie takes place. Hawaiian chanter Mark Keali’i Ho’omalu wrote and performed this original theme song, featuring the Kamehameha Schools Children’s Chorus; he also sings the traditional song “He Mele No Lilo,” both of which inject the energy of the island into the film.
This ballad soundtracks footage of how a once bustling Radiator Springs — the fictional desert town in which the Cars franchise takes place — fell victim to the creation of Interstate 40 and has since been mostly forgotten. Written by Randy Newman and recorded by James Taylor, “Our Town” is the kind of track that transcends any one scene or film; with universally felt lyrics like, “You never see it coming when the world caves in on you,” it’s clear why this song won a Grammy for best song written for a motion picture, television or other visual media — and why it still hits home over a decade later.
Toy Story 3, 2010
“We Belong Together”
Instead of Mariah Carey, here we have Randy Newman at it again, doing what he arguably does best: singing about friendship. Though the lyrics are a bit forlorn to start (“Don’t you tell me I’m not the one/Don’t you tell me I ain’t no fun/Just tell me you love me like I love you”), the uptempo, horn-heavy production leads the song to a brighter end. As “We Belong Together” plays out during the end credits of Toy Story 3, it’s less important to consider how it’s a perfect soundtrack to Buzz and Woody’s forever friendship, and more critical to consider its intention: being there for the ones you love no matter what — or in this case, where you end up.
“I See the Light”
Tangled’s Rapunzel, voiced by Mandy Moore, has her fair share of standout moments on this soundtrack composed by Disney heavy-hitter Alan Menken (The Little Mermaid — yes, this scene does recall a similar romantic boat ride between Ariel and Prince Eric — Aladdin, Pocahontas). But it’s this moving duet, which Moore sings with Zachary Levi (voice of love interest Flynn Rider) that immediately brings listeners back to a specific scene in the film. Just as those floating lanterns light the night sky, as they do every year on Rapunzel’s birthday, she and Flynn Rider realize their feelings for one another just in time for a swelling joint chorus — and suddenly “I See the Light” is no longer just a literal track title.
“Into the Open Air”
Though the second of two songs that Scottish folk singer Julie Fowlis recorded for the Brave soundtrack, “Into the Open Air” arrives at a pivotal moment in the film. As it plays, princess Merida begins to bond with her mother (whom by this point she accidentally had turned into a bear) for what she feels is the first time ever. With the combination of swelling strings and earnest lyrics like “I tried to speak to you every day … Could these walls come crumbling down?” this track surely clicks with any mother and daughter who haven’t always seen eye to eye — but are learning to try.
“Let It Go”
The opening notes of this song are just as chilling as the icy powers that Queen Elsa (voiced by Idina Menzel) possesses. Though Demi Lovato recorded a single version of this massive hit — written by the iconic husband and wife songwriting team of Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez — it’s Menzel’s soaring vocals that literally took the track to record-breaking heights: “Let It Go” peaked at No. 5 on the Billboard Hot 100, becoming the first top 10 hit from a Disney film since “Colors of the Wind” from Pocahontas in 1995. The track also won both a Grammy and an Oscar. Meanwhile, the soundtrack itself topped the Billboard 200 for 13 weeks while the film was the highest-grossing release of 2013.
Zootopia’s biggest pop star Gazelle (voiced by Shakira) performs “Try Everything” at the film’s celebratory end. The motivational and uptempo track was written by superstar songwriters Sia with Stargate’s Tor Hermansen and Mikkel Storleer Eriksen (Michael Jackson, Mariah Carey, Rihanna), and won a Grammy for best song written for visual media. And though Shakira didn’t include this song in her Super Bowl Halftime Show medley, she did pay homage to Gazelle by wearing a near exact replica of the red dress her character performs this song in — a performance that many fans believe predicted Shakira’s co-headlining halftime gig.
“How Far I’ll Go”
Lin-Manuel Miranda wrote this power ballad for the film’s pivotal moment, when Moana is overcome by her craving to disobey every rule and leave her island behind. Performed by then-newcomer Auliʻi Cravalho (who voiced Moana), “How Far I’ll Go” became the singer’s first Hot 100 entry, peaking at No. 41; meanwhile, the soundtrack itself reached No. 2 on the Billboard 200. The track (which Alessia Cara covered to soundtrack the end credits) was nominated for an Oscar, Golden Globe and a Grammy, taking home just the lattermost. “The song comes from a place of ‘what if,’” Cravalho told Billboard in 2017. “We all have that drive, that quiet voice inside telling you to go for it.”
Also penned by Lin-Manuel Miranda, “You’re Welcome” is performed in Moana by demigod Maui (voiced by Dwayne Johnson) after he first meets Moana (a cover by Miranda and Jordan Fisher also appears in the end credits). Though less moving than “How Far I’ll Go,” this track is surely more fun and earworm-y, in that Disney soundtrack way. And though “You’re Welcome” may not have nabbed any nominations and only peaked at No. 83 on the Hot 100, Johnson is making sure it doesn’t fade into distant memory; during quarantine, he shared a now viral Instagram video in which he washed his daughter’s hands while delivering the rap portion of this track by memory.
This loving, heart-melting track appears throughout the film in four versions: there’s the uptempo, mariachi arrangement sung by the film’s fictional star Ernesto De La Cruz; the gently whispered lullaby sung by fictional songwriter Héctor to his daughter Coco; the moving moment in which main character Miguel reminds with his grandmother, Mama Coco, of the song she grew up singing; and finally, R&B artist Miguel and Natalia Lafourcade’s version that soundtracks the end credits. It’s the lullaby, though, that cuts the deepest with its stripped-back, acoustic delivery that puts the lyrics front and center. Written by Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez, “Remember Me” won best original song at the Oscars, making Robert the first-ever double EGOT.
Frozen II, 2019
“Into the Unknown”
Considered the unofficial companion to “Let It Go,” Elsa (Idina Menzel) belts “Into the Unknown” with just as much passion and breath control as she did on the original film’s anthem. And though “Into the Unknown” didn’t reach the same chart heights or score any major awards (it was nominated for an Oscar and Golden Globe), its delivery and message make it a clear standout in Disney’s recent catalog of hits. Also written by Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez, this track is a push to follow your instincts — even, or especially when, you have no idea where that will lead you.