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The 50 Best TV Theme Songs of All Time

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The 50 Best TV Theme Songs of All Time

In 2008, Paste claimed “there’s no denying we’re past the golden age of the TV show theme song.” Nearly 10 years later, with new shows popping up weekly on every conceivable (and previously inconceivable) platform, we’re not so sure. Television is arguably as good as it’s ever been, but have the songs survived as the integral element they once were? In a way, yes: The two biggest shows that aired between 2008 and today, Mad Men and Breaking Bad, both led off every episode with a memorable credit sequence that captured an essence of the show—Mad Men’s ratting drums and melodramatic strings, Breaking Bad’s simmering slide guitar and sinister hissing. But it was basically mood music, kind of like the screeching techno that leads off Silicon Valley now. Sometimes those wordless ditties are pure gold, like the harrumphing waltz that begins every Curb Your Enthusiasm—or, for that matter, M*A*S*H*—but it’s not exactly the stuff of Archie and Edith at the piano or the old-timey photos ahead of Cheers, when a show’s theme could tell you a little story by itself. (Silicon Valley’s end credits are getting a lot of the talk these days).

On the other hand, the advent of a) forward-thinking streaming series, like Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt on Netflx, and b) great shows suddenly appearing on formerly anonymous networks (Crazy Ex-Girlfriend on The CW) has opened the floodgates to anyone who wants to nail a theme song and set their show apart. Where does Kimmy Schmidt’s remix magic rank with the greats? Which old-school classics hold up best? How great is it, really, to rhyme “horse” with of “course”? Here are the 50 Best TV Theme Songs of All Time.

50. The Rockford Files
(Mike Post and Peter Carpenter)
You might not know the names of Post and Carpenter, but between them they composed theme music for a mind-boggling number of shows, including CHiPs, Magnum P.I., The A-Team, Hunter, Hill Street Blues, The Greatest American Hero, Doogie Howser M.D., Quantum Leap and Remington Steele. If you’re in your 40s, you can claim all you want that Prince provided the soundtrack to your childhood—but it was really Mike Post. —Josh Jackson

49. WKRP in Cincinnati
(Tom Wells and Hugh Wilson)
For the most part, it’s a standard late-’70s theme song, but then it closes with the magical “WKRP in Cincinnaaaaaati.— The tune is a perfect match for the middling radio station at the show’s center—”if you’ve ever wondered whatever became of me…”—and it was an original song written specifically for the show. —Josh Jackson

48. The Olympic Games on NBC
(John Williams, “Olympic Fanfare and Theme”)
Better than Charles Fox’s Monday Night Football theme music. Better than the intro to Wide World of Sports. This piece originally composed by Williams for the 1984 Games in Los Angeles has been the heart of NBC’s Olympic coverage ever since. His NBC Nightly News score is pretty great, too. —Josh Jackson

47. Rawhide
(Ned Washington, Dimitri Tiomkin)
Few shows have ever been introduced with shouts of “Hiya!” But the Western that gave the world Clint Eastwood also gave us one of the best scenes in The Blues Brothers. —Josh Jackson

46. The Flintstones
(Hoyt Curtain)
They’re the modern stone-age family, don’t you know. And you do, because no matter how much TV you did or didn’t watch as a kid, somewhere in your brain there is a picture of Fred Flintstone sliding down the back of his dinosaur crane (amazing how domesticated they all seemed to be, given what we know happened at Jurassic Park) into his waiting rag-top car. Fun fact: the famous big-band rave-up was not the theme song for the first two-plus seasons. It arrived during the third season, and was later added to the first two for syndication. —Matthew Oshinsky

45. Mr. Ed
(Jay Livingston, Ray Evans)
The first verse simply rhymes “horse” and “of course” four times. That’s innovation! But the second verse throws in such curveballs as “source,” “endorse,” and… uh… back to “horse” and “course.” But for a TV show about a talking horse and his beleaguered human friend, there’s nothing wrong with simple. —Josh Jackson

44. Friends
(The Rembrandts, “I’ll Be There For You”)
It’s easy to dismiss The Rembrandts’ “I’ll Be There For You” as nothing more than a piece of pop culture fluff. But really, to paraphrase Chandler Bing, could there be a more perfect song about the friends you make your family? The song captured the zeitgeist of the moment and still makes me want to dance in a fountain with my umbrella and clap, clap, clap. —Amy Amatangelo

43. Sesame Street
(Joe Raposo, Jon Stone, Bruce Hart)
The iconic kids show devises new versions year after year, but the foundation is always there, and it never fails to put a smile on your face. But we’re going back to the beginning here, when the air was actually clean. Here’s a 1988 version sung by Gladys Knight & The Pips. —Josh Jackson

42. Malcolm in the Middle
(They Might Be Giants, “Boss of Me”)
The Johns (Flannsburgh and Linnell) have also written solid theme songs for The Daily Show, The Oblongs, Mickey Mouse Clubhouse and Higgly Town Heroes. But “Boss of Me” was their broadcast highlight, earning the prolific duo their only Grammy win in 2002. —Josh Jackson

41. Veronica Mars
(The Dandy Warhols, “We Used to Be Friends”)
Veronica Mars was about teenage detective, but it was also about the struggles of navigating the tricky waters of high school. A paen to the perils of adolescence and young adulthood, the melancholic “We Used to be Friends” pretty much sums up how friendships change as we grow up. Veronica knew this and The Dandy Warhols spoke to the teenager in all of us. —Amy Amatangelo

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