Tuesday, January 03, 2012

TV theme songs (no poker content)

Last night, out of nowhere, my friend Grange95 said via Twitter, "Hawaii Five-O is still greatest TV theme song *ever*." I countered with a few other possibilities, which he politely acknowledged as good, but not as good. He then suggested that we each prepare a list of our top 25 TV show theme songs and publish them on our blogs simultaneously.

I initially thought that 25 was too many and 10 was more manageable. He agreed to the lower number. But as soon as I started actually compiling my list, I realized I had made a terrible mistake. I just couldn't narrow it down that far. Grange graciously agreed to bump it back to 25 so that I wouldn't go insane endlessly second-guessing my choices.

Still, it wasn't easy. I started with a list of 40, which I assembled after consulting various online lists of the best theme songs, such as these:

So, to the inevitable question that will come up in the comments, "What about _________? Did you think about THAT?" The answer is almost certainly yes.

I was surprised that the "Cheers" theme song ended up at the top of most of the lists. I've never cared much for that one. Which just goes to show how completely subjective and personal such lists will inevitably be. (Sneak preview: No "Cheers" below.)

I approached Grange's challenge by first asking myself what makes a TV show's theme song great? I decided that it must (1) stand on its own as a piece of music, (2) make you want to watch the show that its attached to, (3) set or suggest the mood of the show, (4) be so distinctive that the viewer quickly forms a Pavlovian mental connection between the theme and the show, such that any other possible music becomes unthinkable.

I decided that those goals are more difficult to achieve if the music is instrumental, foregoing lyrics, so I awarded bonus points to that category and (rather artificially, I'll admit) made my instrumentals list into the top ten and the best ones with lyrics my second ten. (Throughout this post, I am ignoring any distinction in terminology between "theme song" and "theme music.") I then added in five more that, while not necessarily great by the criteria I established for myself, have something about them that compels inclusion in a "best of" list.

I tried to include clips of the original opening credits, but in many cases they are not available due to copyright issues, so some of the embedded clips below are of poor quality, or are some version other than what was with the show originally (e.g., a fan mashup).

So without further ado....


1. "Hawaii Five-0." Yes, in the end, after a couple of re-listens, I had to concede that Grange was right all along, dammit.

2. "Star Trek: The Next Generation." The theme of the original show was pretty good, but they managed to make it ten times better and more beautiful for the show's second iteration.

3. "Peter Gunn." Even if you've never seen the show (I haven't), you'll almost certainly recognize the music, from the great Henry Mancini.

4. "Mission: Impossible."

5. "Twin Peaks."

6. "Merrie Melodies"/"Looney Tunes."

7. "Dr. Who."

8. "The Twilight Zone."

9. "The Andy Griffith Show."

10. "The Waltons."


11. "The Sopranos." The most perfect mating ever of a pre-existing song to a new show--so perfect that most fans assume the song was written specifically for the show.

12. "The Mary Tyler Moore Show."

13."M*A*S*H." Yes, I know that it didn't have lyrics as used in the show, but everybody knew what the lyrics were, and that's important here; if the music doesn't call to mind "suicide is painless," then it doesn't really work well.

14. "Greatest American Hero." Maybe the best "feel-good" TV theme song.

15. "Ally McBeal."

16. "Rawhide."

17. "The Beverly Hillbillies." Earl Scruggs and the Foggy Mountain Boys? A shoo-in. Of all the ones in my list, this is the one that is most likely to become an earworm for me on any given day. Often just the mention of any its key words (oil, millionaire, swimming pools, movie stars) is enough to set it off. That's not so much because I love the song, but just because of how deeply it has managed to get ingrained in my engrams.

18. "The Monkees."

19. "The Addams Family." Though it deserves inclusion for its general charm and catchiness, this one could almost make the list just for the cheekiness of rhyming "scree-um" with "museum."

20. "Friends."


21. "The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson." For being so iconically, inextricably linked with one man, one genre, one time slot.

22. "Jeopardy." For having become the musical embodiment of a social message in just about any context, "Time is running out."

23. "The Muppet Show." For maximal playfulness and inventiveness in always finding new twists on the theme.

24. "The Big Bang Theory." For the cleverest lyrics ever penned for a TV theme song. Seriously, incorporating Australopithicus, Pangaea, and "the autotrophs began to drool"? Genius!

25. "Gilligan's Island." For becoming the best-known TV theme show song of all time. Really—just stop anybody on the street and ask. EVERYBODY can sing along.

For the sake of completeness, here is my list of the ones that were in serious contention but didn't quite make the final cut to 25 (in no particular order):

As a final bonus, I give you the most famous TV show theme song that actually has lyrics, though you probably thought it didn't: "The Dick Van Dyke Show":

Grange and I agreed to set the posts containing our lists to publish simultaneously, at 8:00 p.m. my time, so neither of us has seen the other's yet. You can presumably see his list here, now that the hour has arrived. The question for you, dear reader, is this: Who made the more definitive list of the top 25?


Grange's list is here. We had only 9/25 in common. Judging these in order of their summed ranks (lowest being best), they are:

Hawaii 5-0
Mission: Impossible
Star Trek: The Next Generation
Beverly Hillbillies
Gilligan's Island
Addams Family
Muppet Show

The only one on his list that I had not considered is "It's a Jungle Out There," by Randy Newman, from "Monk." I love that song and that show, and I agree with him that the song serves the show perfectly. I would have included it if I had thought of it. I'm amazed that it didn't appear on any of the lists I checked (unless I just missed it).

Judging by a Twitter exchange, he admits to about the same embarrassment for including "Cheers" as I do for including "Friends"--it's a surrender to sappiness on both sides.


Brendan said...

No 3 Stooges? No Benny Hill Theme?

Sebastian X said...

Very sorry to mention this after all your work compiling the post, but having twenty-five YouTube embeds is a pig to load, and I had my browser freeze twice trying to get from the blog front-page to this post to leave this comment.

VegasDWP said...

How can Rockford Files not be in the top 10?!?

Unknown said...

You could have included a little poker content by listing "Welcome Back" by John Sebastian.

Josie said...

Doh, now I have Gilligan's Island stuck in my head!

My immediate thought, before seeing your list, was The Sopranos...wish I had that stuck in my head instead of Gilligan's Island!

Grange95 said...

Your list is certainly admirable, if perhaps a bit misguided in a few places. :-p

I admit I fell for the Cheers catchy-sappy double hook when compiling my list. Might be a function of the daily reruns my group watched in college. Should've stuck to my guns with Hawaii Five-O at #1, and put Cheers somewhere lower in the Top 10.

Out of your picks, I think The Waltons is the one I most overlooked. That is a pretty good bit of instrumental music. Certainly better than a couple of my late picks.

Fun challenge, you passed with flying colors. Though ... Ally McBeal? :-p

Steve said...

I'm reminded of "Too much time on my hands." Just kidding!

No "Pink Panther?" Surprized!

Good work, both of ya.


Irishwake said...

No list of greatest theme songs can be complete that ignores the classic "Have Gun Will Travel".


Wine Guy said...

Wow. Talk about a walk down memory lane. As I am perusing your list I can hear the songs popping up in my head. As stated, everyone will have their favourites, but just having you and Grange compile this list goes to show you how much we are/were tied to the TV growing up.

Great job guys..always enjoy reading both your blogs!

Big-O said...


This is one that influnced me as a boy, but you may be too young to have seen it.

I also like this one--

I hope I havent overstayed my comment rights by including this as well:

Anonymous said...

You need the theme from Fireball XL5 and "Aqua Marina", the theme from Stingray .

Mark W. McClennan, APR said...

The only favorite of mine missing from the list is Magnum P.I. But my wife had a good point when I brought it up with her - how can we overlook "Blue's Clues" and "Dora the Explorer" They are certainly memorable...

Anonymous said...

The Grump list really does need "Miami Vice Theme" (which I'll admit is made better by the visuals).

While the "Twin Peaks" theme is okay, I think the instrumental used within the show with the finger snaps was more memorable, which would probably take it off the list for me.

I wonder how much Grange was affected by the use of the "Cheers" theme in a commercial that's running right now. Perhaps that subliminally forced him to make it number one for a while.

Rob said...

Always a fun an controversial topic. Nice list, of course I have my quibbles. Hard to argue with Hawaii Five-O as #1. Reminds me that when I was in school and the show was first on, there was a kid who could play the theme--really well--on his arm (he was a "manualist").

I don't see how Mission Impossible can be anything but second--man listening to that really gets your blood going.

Third has got to be Hill Street Blues, awesome theme and you only give it honorable mention? No way.

Twin Peaks? Liked the show (first season) but the song is nothing special.

Another one that deserves more than honorable mention: Lost in Space. Lame show (tho when it first came on I loved it) but awesome theme.

I wonder if sitcoms and dramas should have separate categories.
How can you snub Cheers, great show and great theme? Nice you including Big Bang Theory, terrific show and fantastic theme!

I've been told I resemble Gabe Kaplan these days (only at the poker table) but I don't mind you excluding Welcome Back Kotter, tho it could belong here.

Nice effort, Grump!

Sauza said...

This comment is a little late, but I just saw "Perry Mason" on TV. It immediately made me think of this thread.