There are many noble quests in life. Trying to cure cancer. Trying to end poverty. Trying to rank the best television theme songs of all-time. This article is primarily focused on the third of those things. TV theme songs are becoming increasingly less relevant. This is due to the fact that television episodes are seeing more and more time stolen away for ads, and cutting down theme songs is the easiest way to make that time back up. The TV theme song is a cultural touchstone that should not be lost, however. Here are the 25 best of all-time.
A quick note of explanation before we get to the list. In order to be considered, a song had to be primarily thought of as a TV theme song. As such, shows like Bosom Buddies and Dave’s World, with their Billy Joel cover theme songs, were not considered. Additionally, this is not a list of the best songs, but the best TV theme songs. That is to say, while some of these songs would feel odd to listen to in a vacuum, before watching an episode of television, they just make sense. If they can evoke the essence of the show, so much the better.
25. Space Ghost Coast to Coast
This parody of a talk show was the giant leap for Cartoon Network that paved the way for Adult Swim. In addition to setting the stage for absurdist, anti-humor on the network, it also gave its theme song over to free jazz guitarist Sonny Sharrock. The song, “Hit Single,” was a real rocker, and, unfortunately, one of the last things Sharrock recorded before he died. In his honor, Space Ghost Coast to Coast did an episode that was just 15 minutes of his music. It was far from the weirdest thing they ever did.
24. Scooby-Doo, Where Are You!
There have been a million versions of Scooby-Doo, but this is the first one, the one most people of a certain age are familiar with (although, even if you are an adult, Scooby-Doo! Mystery Incorporated is good). There was a lot of silly bubblegum pop in this version, and that extends to the theme song. In addition to laying out the details of the show, scaredy-cat dog and mystery solving, it’s quite catchy. In fact, it’s the best part of Scooby-Doo, Where Are You!, given the mediocrity of the actual show.
23. Mission: Impossible
Thanks to the power of Tom Cruise and his series of Mission: Impossible films, the theme song lives on. Its high energy peppy sound is ideal for getting you hyped up for an action show.
22. Halt and Catch Fire
Halt and Catch Fire takes place in the computer industry in the ‘80s, so it makes sense that the theme song has an old-school computer sound to it. What’s an “old-school computer” sound, you may ask? Listen to the theme and you’ll know. It gets you in the mind of the era of the show, and it also has a sort of neofuturist techno vibe that makes it still feel fresh and innovative.
21. Clarissa Explains It All
What makes the Clarissa Explains It All theme song smart is that it has lyrics, but most of the lyrics are just sounds. Namely, it’s the word “na” sung in a very catchy fashion that is sure to lodge into your brain. Plus, it has the words “way cool” in there, which was perfect for a kid’s show of the time. A lot of kid’s shows have annoying or boring theme songs. Clarissa’s, like the show itself, transcended the genre, even though it is super simple.
20. Miami Vice
The Miami Vice theme by Jan Hammer was the No. 1 song in the country, and won two Grammy Awards. Imagine a current TV theme song doing that. Alas, it hasn’t aged very well, as it is pretty much the ‘80s embodied in a synth heavy song. It’s still good, though, and because Miami Vice was the most ‘80s show of all-time, it is only fitting that it has the most ‘80s theme of all-time. This is a feature, not a bug.
19. WKRP in Cincinnati
This is the first of a handful of old school, lyrically rich theme songs on the list. Soft and sweet and setting the stage for the show, WKRP’s theme song keeps it to the point, but it sounds lovely and is a real delight. It’s not the best of this kind of theme song, but it’s in the running.
If Miami Vice has the most ‘80s theme song, Friends may have the most ‘90s. The Rembrandts’ “I’ll Be There for You” is typical pop rock, but it has catchy hand claps and some good guitar riffs. Now, there are questions about whether or not the song really evokes the world of Friends. Were any of their love lives ever D.O.A.? They were dating all the time, and some of them got married, right? However, the chorus, the part about being there for you, works perfectly, and the energy gets you up for the wacky antics of these fairly boring characters. Hey, the show doesn’t have to be good to have a top-notch theme song.
17. The Office (U.S.)
Back to the instrumentals, and as this is a more recent show, its theme song is shorter. There’s a lot packed into that small package, though, because this is a wonderful theme. It’s another theme song with a lot of energy that is exceedingly catchy. You can whistle it and tap your feet to it and then it ends on a nice, soft piano note before the action begins.
16. Sealab 2021
Sealab 2021 is even more nuts than Space Ghost, but it has a better theme song. The band behind it, Calamine, are reminiscent of All Girl Summer Fun Band. It makes you want to hear more music by the band. Music that isn’t a few seconds about a TV show set at the bottom of the sea. This song suffices, though, because it is so good.
15. The Big Bang Theory
As the one massive sitcom left on TV, this is one of the most prominent TV sitcom theme songs of modern times. It’s performed by Barenaked Ladies, but don’t hold that against it. It’s pretty complex for a short theme song, which it gets bonus points for, but it still is a good melody even though they are trying to get all of the universe’s history into a song.
This song got Homer brainwashed into joining the Movementarians, if you need proof of how catchy it is. Perhaps no song is simpler on this list, but it’s still so good. Plus, it mentions Batman over and over, so you know what you are getting into.
13. The Sopranos
“Woke Up This Morning” is by a British band, which is somewhat amusing, considering that The Sopranos is so thematically linked to the American Dream. It’s an ominous foreboding song, which is pretty perfect for watching Tony Soprano driving into New Jersey. It’s also a rare theme song on this list that is a full song that exists outside the world of the show, even if it will forever be the song from The Sopranos opening credits.
12. The Simpsons
No TV sitcom has been heard more than The Simpsons’, probably. It was created by Danny Elfman who is best known, of course, for being in Oingo Boingo. Or all his movie scores, maybe. From the opening, angelic chorus singing the show’s title until those final moments after the couch gag, it’s top notch. The fact that it flows so well in relation to the stuff happening in the opening credits certainly helps, as well.
11. The Addams Family
The lyrics of the Addams Family’s theme are, admittedly, pretty nonsensical. Their house is not, in fact, like a museum, and why the word “petite” is said, nobody really knows for sure. What it does have, though, is iconic snaps and a real ear worm quality. Also, some of the lyrics do work, in terms of setting up the creepy and kooky family we will be watching. Of course, the MC Hammer song from the movie is terrible.
10. The Monkees
The Monkees is a show about a band, so it needed to have a catchy theme song that came from the band. This one knocks it out of the park. Not only is the song good, and a stellar example of ‘60s pop rock, it also introduces The Monkees in the song, and tells you what they are about. A band performed the theme song for their own show to introduce themselves to the world, and it worked. Well, they “performed” the song, but either way, it’s really good.
9. Hawaii Five-O
This one is pretty obvious. Hawaii Five-O takes place in Hawaii, and its theme song has a real surf rock vibe to it. It’s the platonic ideal of a theme song for a show set in Hawaii. Oh, and it sounds awesome, too.
This is the highest-ranking theme song that doesn’t have lyrics, although, on a couple of occasions, it did for remixed versions. It’s not very futuristic, admittedly, because it has bells in it and stuff. However, it may be the catchiest, most upbeat, of all the instrumental theme songs. If it doesn’t get you revved up for the adventures of Fry and Scruffy, nothing will.
7. Laverne and Shirley
There’s a reason the opening credits of this show was parodied in Wayne’s World, and that’s because they are awesome. This is about the song, though, which is a perky little “sisters are doing it for themselves” number. Give them any chance, and they’ll take it. Give them any rule, and they’ll break it. They are going to make their dreams come true. It gets you primed to watch their wacky antics, and gets you rooting for them.
6. The Office (UK)
“Handbags and Gladrags” was originally written in 1967 by Mike d’Abo, the lead singer of Manfred Mann. Several versions have been recorded, and a couple of them have even become sort of hits in the United Kingdom. The version on the British version of The Office was recorded by some guy named Big George. This may be stretching the “not a hit outside the show” aspect of this list, but being that we are dealing with across the pond translations, we’re going to count it. The wistfulness of this version is perfect for the somber aura of the show. Also, Rod Stewart’s version of “Handbag and Gladrags” is worth checking out.
There are a lot of people who probably want to see the Cheers theme atop this list. You could make that argument. After all, it’s in the top five, and there have been at least, like, 50 shows in the history of time. It sets up Cheers, the bar within the show, as a place where everybody knows your name. It makes Cheers, the bar, and Cheers, the show, seem very welcoming and inviting. It’s sort of somber, in its way, but in a good way. It’s not quite as somber as the “Flaming Moe’s” song, though.
4. Happy Days
This is not “Rock Around the Clock” by Bill Haley & His Comets, the first theme song of the show. That’s an iconic early rock song. This is “Happy Days,” the song that took over as the theme in season three. It still sounds like early rock music, though, and it’s still a really good song. Additionally, it says the name of the show over and over, which is good for a theme song, but it has more lyrics to it, which makes it deeper and more substantive. It’s a theme song that could easily exist outside the world of the show as a single.
3. Mystery Science Theater 3000
Over the course of MST3K’s run, it had several theme songs as the cast changed, but they were all great. It consistently told you the premise of the show, which takes place in the not too distant future. You find out about all the characters, you get a robot roll call, and, in the end, they tell you to repeat to yourself that it’s just a show, so you should really just relax. It’s one of the funniest, perhaps the funniest, opening theme song, but it’s a good little song to boot.
2. The Adventures of Pete & Pete
We already dedicated an extensive article to the music of Pete & Pete. We don’t need to say any more about how awesome “Hey, Sandy” is.
1. The Mary Tyler Moore Show
It should go without saying that we are talking about the second version of the theme song. The “Who can turn the world on with her smile?” version, not the “How will you make it on your own?” version. Mary Richards went to prison to protect a source! She can handle, like, washing her car and grocery shopping alone. This is the epitome of a TV theme song. In a vacuum, it may not work as well, but as the opening credits of a sitcom, it’s perfect. The lyrics are perfect for the show. The upbeat nature of the song. The “You’re gonna make it after all!” as she throws her hat in the air. There is no better theme song in all of television. It can take a nothing day, and suddenly make it all seem worthwhile.