TV theme songs have gotten a little more hip in recent years -- from Cake lending "Short Skirt, Long Jacket" to Chuck to Lazlo Bane doing "I'm no Superman" for Scrubs, to any of the seasonal iterations of Tom Waits' "Way Down in the Hole" on The Wire.
But there was a time -- it still happens today, but to a much lesser extent -- when songs weren't borrowed from popular playlists, but written specifically for a television series. They were designed to make you identify them with their respective shows -- but they're also songs that deserve a listen once in a while by themselves.
(Fair warning: "Suicide is Painless" was written for the movie version of M.A.S.H., not the TV show, which sadly disqualifies it here. Also, the Rembrandts' "I'll Be There for You" is not on this list, even though it was written for Friends, and a huge hit besides. It was a decent song, but then the show lasted for 137 years and you want to kill yourself when you hear it.)
10. "Yahoos and Triangles," King of the Hill The Refreshments named this song because in it, they play a triangle and yell "yahoo" a lot. Seriously. I'm not sure you need anything more than that, but I'm going to give it to you anyway: It's Southwestern grunge that makes you want to pull on your boots, pop open a beer, and say something purposefully ironic in a slow drawl. Plus the song was built off a tune that the band would play at soundchecks. That there is ten pounds of awesome in a five-pound bag.
9. "WKRP in Cincinnati," WKRP in Cincinnati Not just the soft-rock, Eagles-on-benzos intro song -- even though that rocks in its own sort of charmingly expositional TV way. But also for the complete joke that is the closing credits -- a hard-rocking nonsense song that was admittedly tossed in just to screw with people. Baby, if you've ever wondered why this show is still one of the biggest hits in syndication history? It begins and ends with the music -- with a lot of absurdist funny there filling out the middle.
8. "Big Bang Theory," The Big Bang Theory The Barenaked Ladies wrote and performed the theme song for this show, which tells the story of the development of the universe through lines like "they froze their asses off" and "see ya, wouldn't want to be ya," neither of which were found in my textbook in BIO002: College Sciences for English Majors Who Couldn't Care Less.
7. "Where Everybody Knows Your Name," Cheers Okay, so it's sappy. But that's sort of the point of the song: Sometimes you need sappy. This is a great song for when you're down, when you feel beat, when you wish you had a strange little basement-level Boston bar of your own. In other words, it's the perfect song for when you feel like it's a dog-eat-dog world out there, and you're wearing milk-bone underwear.
6. "Boss of Me," Malcolm in the Middle They Might Be Giants has always been able to capture ridiculousness in a bottle and serve it up frosty and delicious. But this song gets to the core of adolescence: "You're not the boss of me now. You're not the boss of me now. You're not the boss of me, and you're not so big." These lyrics emphasize the perpetual and repetitive questioning that characterizes the inexorable shift from childhood to maturity. Either that, or it's just a really easy way to write a song. Either way, it's catchy.
5. "The Streetbeater," Sanford and Son Tons of instrumentals could have made this list -- check out how seriously cool the themes to The Bob Newhart Show ("Home to Emily") or Night Court and Barney Miller (both composed by the great Jack Elliot). But Quincy Jones nailed the sound of the 1970s in this funkalicious track. It is, however, probably misnamed -- it might have risen higher on the Billboard charts if it had been called something like "I'm comin' Elizabeth," or perhaps the more succinct "Big Dummy."
4. "Dukes of Hazzard," The Dukes of Hazzard Waylon Jennings is pretty much all you need to make this song pretty much a country classic, but just in case, the song comes out and states that these "good ol' boys" beat "all you never saw." This is quite the claim, if you think about it, because there's a hell of a lot that I've never seen. And I don't know what "straightenin' the curves" is supposed to mean, but I imagine that it has something to do with co-star Catherine Bach. Does for me, anyhow.
3. "Angela," Taxi Okay, it might be called "Angela," but this is a song about suspension bridges. Seriously, try not to whistle this song next time you cross a big grey-girder bridge. Can't be done. I don't know who this Angela is, but if she's not a bridge, this melancholy genius of a song is misnamed.
2. "Miami Vice Theme," Miami Vice Any one of a dozen or so fantastic cop/crime/spy dramas could go in this slot: Magnum PI, Hawaii 5-0, SWAT, Knight Rider, Peter Gunn, Mission: Impossible, etc. They all share the same thing: an irresistible hook and a driving beat, meant to foreshadow the excessive car chases that will invariably ensue. But Jan Hammer's theme to Miami Vice does all this and more: this sucker oozes 80s -- gives you a pastel jacket, rolls up the sleeves, and slips some cocaine into the breast pocket for later.
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1. "Square Pegs," Square Pegs A great song that got very little play, from a great band that got not enough attention, for a show that was canceled way too soon. The Waitresses were all over this CBS one-season wonder of a show (sort of a precursor to the also-awesome Freaks and Geeks), but their line "I'd like it if they'd like us, but I don't think they like us" proved too true to keep the Waitresses together, or Square Pegs on the air. Oddly, even though the song shared the same name as the show, it was played over the closing credits rather than the opening--but that sort of sense for this show about the vast wasteland of high school: human sacrifice, dogs and cats living together, mass hysteria.