My Top 10 Favorite Theme Songs

I love music, especially when I’m working. Even while writing this very blog post, I’ve got a tab to my YouTube music playlist open. But there are some songs more than others that get me excited, especially when it comes to theme songs chosen to exemplify a particular TV show, movie, or video game.

So here are my top 10 favorite theme songs of all time.

Note: Because the links to these videos are based on YouTube, it’s entirely possible that some of these links won’t be working by the time you read this article. If so, I highly recommend you try to look them up on YouTube from other channels, as well as through online marketplaces like iTunes and Amazon.

10. “Opening Theme” by W.G. Snuffy Walden (The West Wing)

9. “Opening Titles” by David Arnold and Michael Price (Sherlock)

8. “Tank!” by The Seatbelts (Cowboy Bebop)

7. “Main Theme” by John Williams (Star Wars)

6. “Opening Theme” by Kevin Manthei (Invader Zim)

5. “Battlecry” by Nujabes (Samurai Champloo)

4. “Inner Universe” and “Rise” by Origa (Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex and S.A.C. 2nd GIG)

3. “Opening Theme” by Murray Gold (Doctor Who)

2. “Made Me Realize” by Brad Breeck (Gravity Falls)

1. “Extreme Ways” by Moby (The Bourne Trilogy)

Some of you may disagree with my ranking, but I’m not talking about which is objectively better. All I’m saying is that these songs are the ones that get my blood pumping fast. The ones where I don’t just hear a snippet, but have to sit and listen to the entire track.

So, have you got one or two favorite theme songs of your own? Please don’t hesitate to share them in the comments below.

Top 5 Reasons To Watch Adventure Time

Copyright 2010 by Cartoon Network.

Cartoons seem to be making a nice resurgence lately thanks to the Hub and Cartoon Network.  We all know about the insane cross-gender appeal of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic, and now we have another strong contender: Adventure Time.

So here are my top five reasons for why I love this show, and why I think you should, too.

5. The Animation

Copyright © 2010 by Cartoon Network.

What’s Great About It: There is so much color in this show (which makes sense, considering it’s a cartoon).  But beyond that, there’s detail that can show up in unexpected places.  Hellish landscapes like the Flame Kingdom and the Nightosphere.  The character designs of Ricardio and the Lich.  And of course, every major fight scene and action sequence (about once per episode, it being an action-adventure series).  The animation is why Lady Rainicorn (pictured above) is so fascinating to me, and why I try to absorb every frame for something little detail or Easter Egg left by the creators.

Best Examples: “Return to the Nightosphere,” “Mortal Folly,” “Mortal Recoil”

4. The Comedy

Copyright © 2010 by Cartoon Network.

What’s Great About It: This show has some of the usual staples like toilet humor and bad puns, but then it can get… surreal.  Like, Ice King breaking the fourth wall and waxing philosophical about TV (“So clever, watching us from a one-sided mirror…”).  And like other good shows, it has material that only adults watching would pick up on, which kids won’t get until later.  Those kind of jokes are good because they let us enjoy them as kids and then appreciate the show even more years after the fact.

Best Examples: “The Other Tarts,” “Fionna and Cake,” “Princess Cookie”

3. The Drama

Copyright © 2010 by Cartoon Network.

What’s Great About It: But as much as you’ll laugh, Adventure Time will make you cry.  Delving into the Ice King’s backstory, Marceline’s tortured relationship with her dad, Finn’s unrequited love for Princess Bubblegum, and anything to do with the Lich and the Mushroom War.  It’s clear that the creators behind the show have built up quite a mythology, and little by little, they’re letting us see how deep and broken their world and its people are.

Best Examples: “Holly Jolly Secrets,” “You Made Me!”, “I Remember You”

2. The Music

Copyright © 2010 by Cartoon Network.

What’s Great About It: Much like the revival of My Little Pony, Adventure Time has quite a few catchy songs in it, but frankly, I prefer the latter’s music to the former.  That’s mostly due to storyboard artist and music composer Rebecca Sugar.  Between the voice actors for Marceline (Olivia Olson) and Finn (Jeremy Shada), the cast has some great vocals for whatever song they need, giving a lot of soul to an already deep show.

Best Examples: “What Was Missing,” “Dream of Love,” “I Remember You”

1. The Cast

Copyright © 2010 by Cartoon Network.

What’s Great About It: Finn’s usually a dumb hero, but he also has some good ideas.  Jake’s a magical dog adventurer, but he also has a sensitive side.  Princess Bubblegum is an attractive princess-scientist, but she also has dubious moral principles and can be pretty heartless toward Finn.  The point is that there are so many characters, often good for jokes, fight scenes, and dramatic moments, but so many of them have these layers that’ll surprise you every time.  That’s what keeps this adventure show from being superficial.  It’s just plain super.

Best Example: Honestly, just watch the show all the way through.  Storylines and character arcs come together season after season like colors blending into a rainbow.

New episodes of Adventure Time air on Monday nights on Cartoon Network.

Bibliography: Adventure Time.  Created by Pendleton Ward.  Written by Pendleton Ward, Patrick McHale, Adam Muto, Tim McKeon, Merriwether Williams, Steve Little, Thurop Van Orman, Kent Osborne, and Mark Banker.  Directed by Larry Leichliter.  Produced by Pendleton Ward, Eric Homan, Derek Drymon, and Fred Seibert.  Frederator Studios; Cartoon Network.  April 5, 2010 – present.

Rock N’ Roll Youth, Step Up: BECK: Mongolian Chop Squad

Copyright © 2004 by Harold Sakuishi.

With most anime series, I usually have to comment on how it looks and whether it’s visually appealing or not.  In BECK’s case, this is a rare case of me commenting on how an anime sounds.

And let me tell you, this anime sounds sweet!

Yukio “Koyuki” Tanaka is a young teenager whose dull high school life gets twisted around when he meets a young aspiring rockstar named Ryusuke and his fourteen-year-old sister Maho.  From that point on, Koyuki enters a world of rock-n’-roll, learning how to play the guitar, immersing himself in the sound of hot bands like Dying Breed, and even joining Ryusuke’s new band, Beck.  He struggles with life, teenage romance, and the pressures of the music business, all while keeping one eye on that impossible dream of becoming a rockstar.

For the most part, this anime is a slice of life series that reminded me a lot of Welcome to the NHK.  The animation style is similar and so is the plot (a young man having to overcome his innocence about the world and take more risks on account of an energetic young girl that he’s interested in).  It also has some good voice acting in the English dub, though at times I had to wonder how just faithful its profanity-laced dialogue was to the original Japanese show.  I also liked Greg Ayres doing the voice for Koyuki (worth noting he was also the voice for Yamazaki in NHK) and I was surprised by his singing voice when it finally come out.  Not the greatest voice ever, but it fits the character and the songs well enough.

But like I said before, this anime is all about the music.  Real-life bands like the Beat Crusaders and Meister provide a lot of the music assigned in the show to the fictional band Dying Breed.  The music’s style is mostly J-pop and alternative rock, with the occasional rap that seems like an homage to groups like Rage Against The Machine (in particular, Beck’s song “Spice of Life”).  By far, my favorite track in the entire series was “My World Down” by Meister, which also served as the ending theme song for most of the show.  A heavy melody of alternative rock guitar and ethereal backup vocals that always left me in a neat kind of trace by the end. And I have to say, the sound quality is good enough that I now have a better appreciation for the bass guitar in rock songs.

Much like Welcome to the NHK, BECK is not the most action-packed anime series, though it does feature the occasional street scuffle and music industry intrigue.  What’s really at the heart of this beast is a passion for rock and the thrill of a live show in front a wild audience.

The English dub for BECK: Mongolian Chop Squad is available through Funimation.

Bibliography: BECK: Mongolian Chop Squad.  Directed by Osamu Kobayashi.  Madhouse (studio).  Funimation Entertainment.  October 6, 2004 – March 30, 2005.

Double Review: “The 2nd Law” by Muse

Copyright © 2012 by Helium 3 and Warner Bros. Records.

Much like The Resistance, Muse’s latest album, The 2nd Law, is a blend of high-minded rock and brilliant symphonies.  ELO for a new generation.

It also features an unusual musical experiment at the end, with the title tracks “The 2nd Law: Unsustainable” and “The 2nd Law: Isolated System.”  I want to focus on these songs because of their melody and their take on thermodynamics.

Part I: “Unsustainable”

All natural and technological processes proceed in such a way that the availability of the remaining energy decreases.  In all energy exchanges, if no energy enters or leaves an isolated system, the entropy of that system increases.  Energy continuously flows from being concentrated, to becoming dispersed, spread out, wasted and useless.  New energy cannot be created and high grade energy is being destroyed.  An economy based on endless growth is… unsustainable!

Right off the bat, with the rising vocals and strings, the opening of this song reminds me of the melody of Muse’s previous musical experiment, “Exogenesis: Symphony.”  Then it kicks into a digitally-filtered monologue (quoted above) about the second law of thermodynamics, the inspiration for the album’s title.

And then, accordingly, everything falls apart into dubstep, more strings, and a wild medley of Matthew Bellamy’s falsetto cries.  With more narration scattered throughout, the song carries an impression of being hurled into an abyss, a system breaking down.

This is, as it were, the science before the politics.  Theory before application.

Part II: “Isolated System”

In an isolated system, entropy can only increase…

Techno-beats and synthesizer notes start off the album’s final track, reminiscent of the soundtrack from Tron.  But added to that ominous background (with light piano) are various audio snippets from contemporary British news broadcasts.  Anxious voices drawing attention to social upheaval, riots, and economic collapse.

In other words, to the entropy of our current isolated system.  And as the Englishwoman’s voice continually repeats, the entropy will only increase.  Without external sustenance, everything will keep breaking down as we move forward, according to the thermodynamic arrow of time.

This track is much more melancholy and understated than the first song.  If you remove the techno beats, it’s almost like a montage of news broadcasts that a political documentary might use.  It also carries a stronger political note than the first song, a very subtle plea for sanity in the ever-widening gyre.  This is a nice reflection of our current economy-in-crisis and the rise of political instability, much more focused than the general global perspective taken in “Exogenesis: Symphony.”

Taken together, these two songs are fascinating, though they don’t have the same bombast and magic of “Exogenesis.”  But considering other tracks like “Supremacy,” “Madness,” and “Survival,” I don’t feel like they’re holding back the rest of the album.

The 2nd Law is available for download on iTunes.

Bibliography: Muse.  “The 2nd Law: Unsustainable,” “The 2nd Law: Isolated System.”  The 2nd Law.  CD.  Helium 3, Warner Bros. Records.  September 28, 2012.

A Novel Symphony: The “Star Wars: Shadows of the Empire” Soundtrack

Copyright © 1996 by Varèse Sarabande and Lucasfilm Ltd.

In the years before George Lucas released his Star Wars prequels, there was an attempt to bridge together The Empire Strikes Back with Return of the Jedi.  The result was a multimedia project by Lucasfilm called Star Wars: Shadows of the Empire, spawning the release of a video game, a comic book series, a toy line, a set of trading cards, and a novel by Steve Perry.

It was based on a new storyline involving Luke Skywalker and his friends trying to find and rescue Han Solo–now frozen in carbonite and on his way to Jabba the Hutt–while being targeted by Darth Vader and his rival, a revenge-seeking alien crime lord named Prince Xizor.  The series introduced new characters like Xizor, his gynoid bodyguard Guri, and a smuggler named Dash Rendar (whose strong resemblance to Han Solo was not lost on the fans).  The project focused on the Underworld of the Star Wars galaxy, involving bounty hunters, smugglers, assassins, crime lords, and fugitives from the Empire.

My first intro to this series was the novel by Steve Perry.  Then I discovered, several years later, that John Williams got another conductor and orchestra to create a soundtrack based on that novel.  And as far as Star Wars music goes, it’s really, really good.

Track 1: “Main Theme from Star Wars and Leia’s Nightmare”

This track is mostly a replaying of two established pieces from the original Star Wars trilogy: the main theme and the music from Empire Strikes Back that plays over the scene where Han and Leia share their last kiss before Han gets frozen in carbonite.  The context for the music is that Leia has a nightmare based on her experience of that event at the beginning of the novel.  It’s a nice tie-in for both the story and the music, using the music from the last film.

Track 2: “The Battle of Gall”

The Story: Luke and his friends track down Han and the bounty hunter Boba Fett to Gall, where Luke joins Rogue Squadron in an attack on an Imperial base.  However, Xizor’s minions sabotage a friendly starfighter to shoot down Luke, who survives the attempt.  Meanwhile, Leia hires Dash Rendar to help them find Boba Fett, but the bounty hunter eludes them once again.

The Music: This song goes through a few phases.  First it builds up the action with some nice trumpets and drums, showing Rogue Squadron gearing up for the big battle.  Then it goes into an extended chase music with a repeating motif.  As the chase wears on and things go bad, the motif begins to break down and give way to increasing frenzy.

Track 3: “Imperial City”

The Story: About half of the story takes place on Imperial City, the capital of the Empire located on Coruscant.  Here we see Prince Xizor running the criminal organization known as Black Sun and putting his schemes against Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker into action.

The Music: The melody is ethereal, to say the least–a mixture of chimes and harp strings with solemn trumpets rising.  It captures the grandeur of the city-planet seen from afar and the majesty of its skyscraper-rich surface.  Probably in keeping with how the Empire wants its capital to seem, even though this is part of a story where the most prominent citizens are crime lords and officials of a tyrannical regime.  The epic horns section and haunting choir near the middle of the song certainly carries a sense of doom.

Track 4: “Beggar’s Canyon Chase”

Beggar’s Canyon Chase Sample (Dash Rendar’s Theme)

The Story: After going back to Tatooine to build himself a new lightsaber, Luke finds himself under attack by a swoop gang–again, hired by Black Sun.  This leads to a swoop bike gang through Beggar’s Canyon, which Luke has flown before, though he ends up being saved by Dash Rendar.

The Music: Like most of the score originally penned by John Williams, this song captures a chase scene with a quick tempo.  However, there’s also a nice turn at around 2:34–almost at the very end–where the music swells to a joyous crescendo.  This particular snippet has been dubbed in other Star Wars media as “Dash Rendar’s Theme” and boy does it fit.

Track 5: “The Southern Underground”

The Story: In an attempt to meet and negotiate with Prince Xizor himself, Leia and Chewbacca make contact with his representative, Guri, who takes them directly to Coruscant.  Since they’re entering the heart of the Empire, Guri leads them through Coruscant’s deepest levels, a series of slums called the Southern Underground.

The Music: When I hear this song, I think of the music that plays when C-3PO and R2-D2 are taken into Jabba’s palace at the start of Return of the Jedi.  It signifies the transition into a den of scum and villainy, where all manner of lowlifes can be found (but not in the same vein as when we enter the Mos Eisley Cantina in A New Hope).  Again, very appropriate to the scene in question.

Track 6: “Xizor’s Theme”

Xizor’s Theme Sample 1 (Reptile Version)

Xizor’s Theme Sample 2 (Primal Version)

The Story: There really isn’t much plot to this theme, though it does serve as a nice build-up of Xizor’s presence in the story, ranging from being a sinister background figure to a direct threat to the main cast.

The Music: Without a doubt, this is my favorite song on the soundtrack.  Xizor’s Theme is appropriately dynamic, beginning with an almost atonal melody of frantic horns before seguing at 1:22 into an ethereal choir with subdued background notes–a transition to mark Xizor’s reptilian nature.  At 2:24, the frantic melody returns, then dies at 2:58… only to re-surge into a dramatic new piece of Arabian-style trumpets and percussion, signifying the Dark Prince’s true malevolence and his more primal passions.  This is by far the one song from the album that I would love to hear in a Star Wars film.

Track 7: “The Seduction of Princess Leia”

The Story: Leia’s audience with Prince Xizor begins on a bad note and gets worse, as she realizes that, not only is he behind the plot on Luke Skywalker’s life, but the Falleen Prince also desires Leia for himself.  Possessing powerful pheromones, he tries to overwhelm Leia’s defenses, but an intervention by Chewbacca reminds Leia that they’re effectively his prisoners and she regains her iron will.

The Music: The interesting thing about this music is how romantic it sounds, even though the scene itself is more about lust than love.  There’s a graceful and waltz-style tone that makes me think of old musicals from the Twenties and Thirties.  It ultimately reaches an almost cliche crescendo at 3:09–about the point where you expect the lovers to share a passionate onscreen kiss–only to be interrupted by a lone series of rude noises, signifying Chewbacca banging on the door to bring Leia to her senses.  It’s strange musically, but makes perfect sense in the context of the story (this is one romance Leia does not want to develop).

Track 8: “Night Skies”

Night Skies Sample (Ending)

The Story: The story soon enters a holding pattern as Luke and his friends go to Coruscant to rescue Leia and Chewie, Xizor contemplates his next move, and Darth Vader tries unsuccessfully to establish contact with Luke and draw him to his side once more.

The Music: “Night Skies” is very reminiscent of “Imperial City,” which makes sense because it’s all about building up the climax on Coruscant.  There’s a whole medley where we get a very slow and sinister reprise of “Xizor’s Theme,” which then segues into “The Imperial March” at 1:31, as we cut to Darth Vader’s perspective.  Other themes and leitmotifs from earlier on in the soundtrack are briefly reintroduced and woven together after this, including the ever-popular “Binary Sunset” and a few more reprises of Vader’s theme as his outreach to Luke fails.  I actually like this song for the way it gives Vader some emotional depth through its interpretation of his villainous theme, making it less proud and more uncertain.

Track 9: “Into the Sewers”

The Story: Luke, Dash, and Lando Calrissian make their entrance to the lower levels of Coruscant.  They hire an engineer to get them into Xizor’s palace by way of the sewer system.

The Music: A lot of this piece brings back elements of “The Southern Underground,” but also carries a greater sense of dread (appropriate for people inside a gigantic sewer).  Again, it all reminds me of the horror and vile tones as heard from the opening of Return of the Jedi, which is a good way to bridge this work toward that film instead of Empire Strikes Back.

Track 10: “The Destruction of Xizor’s Palace”

Xizor’s Palace Sample (Ending)

The Story: After reuniting with Leia, Luke and his friends confront Xizor, who tries to kill Luke himself.  Fortunately, the young Jedi Knight defends himself well and a bomb dropped by Lando gives them only a short chance to escape the palace before it’s destroyed.  Xizor is the only one from Black Sun who survives the cataclysm, now pushed to vengeance beyond all reason.

The Music: Opening with light notes and that rising ethereal choir, this song quickly becomes more reminiscent of the Endor leitmotifs from Return of the Jedi.  This brings to mind the scenes of the Rebels setting up for the big attack against the Emperor, although in this case it’s more of a stage rehearsal, as a lone band of heroes takes on a crime lord.  We get a nice return of snippets from earlier in the soundtrack like “The Imperial March,” “Imperial City,” and “Xizor’s Theme.”  Starting at 4:10, the tempo rises in a way indicative of a chase scene, especially when it’s Luke and his companions battling their way through Black Sun guards and trying to escape the doomed palace.  Not much more to say other than it’s big, bombastic, and a brilliant way to both end the soundtrack and lead us in–musically, at least–to the stirring melodies of Return of the Jedi.

Final Verdict: Worthy of A Legitimate Star Wars Production

Composer Joel McNeely used the novel as his main inspiration for writing the score and it definitely shows.  It’s a novel idea (pun intended) to have a story with music set to it, but every piece does carry the mood and pace of the original text, even if they don’t sync up line for line.  The music itself is brilliant and the novel isn’t half-bad, though it’s not the greatest Star Wars novel ever.  Both deserve more attention from the fans, both young and old.

Bibliography: Star Wars: Shadows of the Empire (soundtrack).  Composed by Joel McNeely.  Performed by the Royal Scottish National Orchestra and Chorus.  Produced by Robert Townson.  Inspired by the novel Star Wars: Shadows of the Empire by Steve Perry.  Los Angeles: Varèse Sarabande, 1996.

Audio Credit: All music samples courtesy of user uploads on Wookieepedia and protected by fair use.  The Star Wars: Shadows of the Empire soundtrack belongs to Varèse Sarabande and Lucasfilm Ltd.