My career in writing TV music began with my love for television and television scores as a kid in the 80s and 90s. However, I shall reserve that list for another time. The criteria for this one is that it should be a program that aired within the last decade to the present. Of course they are all shows I watched, though not necessarily loved.
So here are my favorites in no particular order.
1. Prison Break (2005)
A modern-day Shawshank Redemption, a body map tattoo, two brothers’ love and loyalty—everything about the first season of this show was perfect. Can’t say much about the succeeding seasons (they all had ridiculous plots once they uh…broke out of prison in season one), but the music had always been excellent.
Composed by Ramin Djawadi, I just love how the score begins with an ethereal voice, then the strings fuse with an electronic beat. It ends with a church bell, which always sounds haunting.
2. House of Cards (2013)
Binge-watching is a habit this show capitalized on with tremendous results. It is indeed as addicting as they say. The evil side of politics has never been portrayed so well. The Underwoods (Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright) scare me.
Jazzy, brooding, orchestral, and patriotic—I love music themes that are artistically composed with hardly a hook but still manage to be memorable. A rare feat that shows like The Practice can do. The theme, composed by Jeff Beal, is not exactly something you can hum but, accompanied by a series of amazing time lapse videos of Washington, it’s a fine work of art.
3. Ben 10 (2005)
I think I was surfing through channels when I first caught this show. It was funny, full of action, and aside from having a villain of the week, the story progressed and the characters matured. I think fans of this show, both young and feeling young, will agree that the original series was the best.
I wish more television programs would incorporate a catchy song in their OBBs (opening billboards). Composed by Andy Sturmer and performed by Canadian rock band Moxy, this soundtrack is cute, quirky, catchy, and I just had to memorize it after hearing it the first time.
Yes, I know it’s cartoons! But it’s really good.
4. The Newsroom (2012)
I barely survived the first season. The screenplay was good—too good for itself. After three episodes, it was clear. Writer Aaron Sorkin is an articulate genius, but for him to eternally flaunt this made me dislike him or anything he has written after that. While “intelligent”, the dialogues had become wordy and unnatural with each episode. And too much shouting!
As for the music? I’ll try not to gush with adulation. Thomas Newman is one of my favorite composers in the world and his score for this show is absolutely beautiful. It’s reminiscent of those news programs that aired in the 70s and 80s depicting credibility and prestige. It’s pure orchestral bliss that follows an odd meter, which makes it all the more special.
5. House (2004)
Ambient, elemental, electronic. You can’t go wrong with a soundtrack from trip-hop group Massive Attack. That’s all I have to say about that. Now I just discovered that there are 3 versions of the theme: American, Singaporean and European as heard in the video—and they all sound fantastic.
Since the program was more episodal (hospital case of the week) than serialized (having an overall story arc over the season), I tuned out by Season 3, though Hugh Laurie and the cast were extremely talented.
6. Outlander (2015)
Watch the opening soundtrack, a traditional hymn called The Skye Boat Song, and you’ll understand why I decided to watch this show. The arrangement, by Bear McCreary, is a masterpiece. Its cinematography deserves praise and will make you want to visit Scotland. The entire cast, headed by Caitriona Balfe and Sam Heughan, are all amazing and competent.
However, by the end of the season, there’s a—SPOILER ALERT—male rape scene which viewers and critics are calling “tasteful”—yes a tasteful justifiable rape, imagine that! Jesus. If people can’t stand the rape scenes in Game of Thrones, I wonder why they can stand this one. Because the male character getting raped is a stud? Kasi kelangan sa eksena? Bull crap. It’s Magic Mike baloney. It’s almost one whole friggin’ episode long! One of TV’s worst moments. The epic romance theme kind of drags on too (and veers off from the initial premise of wanting to get back home) so I will definitely skip season two. But the music’s great. It really is.
7. Survivor (2000)
One of the first CDs (remember those?) I ordered abroad, a time when ordering online wasn’t a thing yet, though downloading via Napster was. I just had to acquire a high quality copy.
Is it safe to call this program the mother of all reality shows? I think I watched until Season 4 or 5, but Season 2 will always be the best. Since it was in the Australian outback, I love how they integrated the didgeridoo, a native low-sounding instrument, into the theme. I wanted to order one of those things too (it’s perfect for techno), but was convinced that it was just a large expensive bamboo stick that you played with by making funny sounds with your mouth.
Anyway, I listened to “Ancient Voices”, what the theme is called, for many years. A notable inclusion in the soundtrack is a track called Tribal Council. The rest are worth listening to as well. Really great work by composer Russ Landau.
8. Jessica Jones (2015)
Sean Callery, same guy who writes music for 24, Homeland, and Elementary wrote this amazing soundtrack.
The show is as dark and whimsical as its opening theme. By the 35th second mark, it shifts from being jazzy to having a more electronic rock motif then back to being jazzy again. It spells chic superhero, which she really is.
The show shares the fanbase of Daredevil but has diminished appeal with its less complicated plot: Find the Purple Man and kill him. It could certainly be a 2-hour movie instead of a 13-episode series. Thankfully, Krysten Ritter and David Tennant are fun to watch.
9. How I Met Your Mother (2005)
C’mon admit it. After all these years, hearing the intro is still a happy thing. It comes from a full song called Hey Beautiful by a band called The Solids, the members of which are the show’s forerunners.
It’s a shame the last three seasons were the worst and the series ended with a disappointing revelation. They just ran out of ideas. Still, it goes down in history as one of the warmhearted comedies out there. Pa…pa…pa…pa…pa…pa….
10. Arrested Development (2003)
Hands down, the most intelligent comedy ever written—and it follows a major story arc! Great feat for creator Mitchell Hurwitz and producer Ron Howard.
I didn’t really have a Top 10 contender (Breaking Bad and Silicon Valley, while memorable, were just too short and not that musically impressive). But for the past 13 years, this soundtrack composed by David Schwartz, actually stuck with me. And some thematic motifs in the show, which they used repeatedly, were effective and quite unforgettable.
The Shannara Chronicles (2016)
I was only thinking of programs that aired until 2015 that I forgot about this show! My latest favorite theme.
The opening credits features strings, a heavily distorted dubstep-esque beat, with vocals by artist Ruelle all awashed in glorious reverb. The best thing about the music score in the entire series is that it hardly uses familiar instrumentation. Everything is made of breathy synth swirls, organic pads, and airy vocals. Now this is how you package a fantasy series for today’s generation.
I’m pretty sure you’re wondering why Game of Thrones isn’t here. Though highly memorable and popular, personally I feel that the instrumentation is just too simple. It starts out with a melody, then layers and layers of instruments are added—playing the same melody. It’s sort of a technical musical trick. Creative yes, but easily fools the ears. Like listening to an orchestra playing a pop song. If you listen to Prison Break and Pacific Rim, which features the same composer, the formula is the same, though the placement of musical elements are more well-thought out.
But really, who cares about the intricacies of music? If you like it, you like it, right?