Friday, November 05, 2010

The Twelve Best TV Theme Songs, Ever

Spending the better part of last week with the Who's the Boss? theme song stuck in my head got me thinking about the quality of sitcom theme music during my formative years. For about two decades, from the mid 1970s to the mid 1990s, easy listening fare that was too bland and/or corny for the lite rock stations dominated the sitcom-theme-song landscape. From Welcome Back, Kotter to Full House hard-to-listen-to sitcom music was a prominent part of the soundtrack of my childhood and adolescence. ("Welcome Back" by John Sebastian, formerly of the Lovin' Spoonful, actually received quite a bit of play on the lite rock stations and even hit #1 on the charts in 1976. That doesn't make it a good song.)

After dealing with "There's a time for love and a time for livin', a brand new life around the bend" for five consecutive days, I considered compiling a list of the era's worst sitcom theme songs and discussing theme music conventions that I don't care for (releasing a theme song as a single, with or without a music video featuring the show's stars; an opening song performed by one of the show's stars; songs that describe, explicitly, their show's premise; cover songs). Instead, I decided to be positive and to give you the Twelve Best TV Theme Songs. (The year each show first aired is in parentheses. Also, if you're wondering what television show the worst-ever theme song belongs to, that would be the Super Mario Bros. Super Show.)

  • 12. That '70s Show (1998): "In the Street" by Big Star, performed by Cheap Trick. It's a good song; it was part of a memorable title sequence; and it suited the show nicely. Also considered for this spot: Buffy the Vampire Slayer and The Golden Girls (that's right).

  • 11. Laverne & Shirley (1976): "1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8 Schlemiel! Schlimazel! Hasenpfeffer Incorporated!" That alone is enough to earn Laverne & Shirley—and "Making Our Dreams Come True"—a spot on this list.

  • 10. The Big Bang Theory (2007): I don't care for the Barenaked Ladies, but they did a nice job with this one. It's entirely appropriate for the show and is the ideal length for a TV theme song.

  • 9. The Fresh Prince of Bel Air (1990): If you, like me, spend much of your spare time watching Nickelodeon and the Disney Channel, you know that most of the sitcoms on these networks open with a song recorded by one of the show's stars. And if you watch these stations as much as I do, you also know that most of their sitcoms have bad theme songs. Well, Selena Gomez and Victoria Justice aren't Will Smith. While Smith doesn't have a place on my Top-50-Greatest-Artists list, he's a talented and proven entertainer. Moreover, when The Fresh Prince of Bel Air first aired in 1990, its title track was the best song that D.J. Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince had recorded to date. (A year later it would be surpassed by "Summertime.")

  • 8. The Mary Tyler Moore Show (1970): I suppose that Sonny Curtis's "Love Is All Around" (the Mary Tyler Moore theme song) differs little from the easy listening fare I complained about above. But Hüsker Dü recorded a cover of it, and that's reason enough to give "Love Is All Around" a reprieve. But Mary Tyler Moore's theme would have made the list even if no Minneapolis punk band ever touched it. Take a break from whatever you're doing and sing along with me: "Love is all around, no need to waste it. You can have a town, why don't you take it? You're going to make it after all." Feel a little better about life, the universe, and everything? I thought so.

  • 7. Monk (2002): I'm not sure why more television producers haven't asked Randy Newman to write and record theme music for their shows. His contributions to movie soundtracks have been, without exception, above average. I would guess that commissioning a Newman-penned opening number would give the average producer a 90% chance of upgrading his or her show's theme song. "It's a Jungle Out There" (the Monk theme) is among Newman's best.

  • 6. M.A.S.H. (1972): M.A.S.H.'s instrumental theme song, written by Robert Altman's 14-year-old son (Altman directed the movie that inspired the television series), has a name, and lyrics. It's called "Suicide Is Painless." (Sing it: "Suicide is painless. It brings on many changes. And I can take or leave it if I please.")

  • 5. The Cosby Show (1984): The The Cosby Show's eight seasons featured seven different variations of the same theme, called "Kiss Me." The tune evolved with the show and never went stale. (The show itself, on the other hand, went stale when it added Cousin Pam to the cast.)

  • 4. SpongeBob SquarePants (1999): "Are you ready kids?" A unique and quirky theme song for a unique and quirky show. A perfect fit. Before Resha Kate or Malachi could talk, each could sing the "Ohhhhh" that precedes "Who lives in a pineapple under the sea?"

  • 3. The Simpsons (1989): The Simpsons has been on the air for more than two decades. In that time the characters have not aged and their clothing has not changed and the theme music and title sequence (aside from the chalkboard and the living room couch) have remained the same. Yet no critic of any significance has ever accused the show of being dated. Danny Elfman's jaunty theme music has stood the test of time as well as anything on The Simpsons.

  • 2. The Twilight Zone (1959): No piece of music better sets the mood of a television show than the Twilight Zone theme. It's fantastic—not just the iconic G#-A-G#-E guitar riff, but also the horns and the percussion and the entire arrangement.

  • 1. The Muppet Show (1976): Fun. Catchy. Timeless. Performed by Muppets. Part of one of the great title sequences in television history. The Muppet Show theme is so great that it doesn't need to apologize for being guilty of the sins of being performed by the show's stars and describing (more or less) the show's premise. When you hear the low brass and see Sweetums and Thog emerge beneath the arches of Muppet Theater, you know that "It's time to get things started with The Muppet Show tonight.


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