I’ve been quietly putting this list together for a few months now.
I actually made a Facebook Live video of this list a few months ago, but that feed went on at about 9am so I’m pretty sure that nobody freaking saw it and all my work and nervous sweat was a complete waste.
Anyway, I decided to cheat and do the same list twice on two different platforms, both because I’m a lazy fuck and because I really like talking about cartoons.
In general, cartoon themes are supposed to quickly inform children on what the show’s about and get them excited enough to sit through it.
…Or at least until the commercials come on, because that’s all broadcasters care about anyway.
However, since we humans are unfortunately nostalgic creatures, we tend to build emotional bonds with relics of our childhood. As such, cartoon theme songs have a direct path to almost anyone’s heart strings.
We grew up with these shows, and the theme songs have become the soundtracks to our childhood.
However, with most things from the past, nostalgia goggles can really distort how good these openings actually were.
I’m here to address that.
After watching over 60 different cartoon openings, I’ve selected 20 that rank the highest in terms of quality, influence, and how well they’ve held up over time.
So, here we go:
Ed, Edd, n’ Eddy
Ok, for realsies this time:
20. Darkwing Duck
Definitely more of an obscure choice here, since Darkwing Duck only ran from 1991-1992.
The fact that the intro has remained popular despite such a short run only speaks to its quality. It’s soulful, catchy, and still sufficiently descriptive of the show.
The visuals also sync up perfectly with the song, hitting every beat with an accompanying animation. This was pretty rare back then, so to see it executed so well is quite the treat.
19. Steven Universe
I have a soft spot for Steven Universe. Everyone our age loves to jaw about how bad cartoons are these days. But honestly, Steven Universe blows most of our childhood shows out of the water.
Most of it has to do with its heart, which is perfectly embodied in the opening theme. Having the main cast sing the song only adds to the lyrics’ sincerity.
Even the jarring “And Steven!” at the end seems so appropriately innocent.
Eat your heart out, 90s kids.
18. Jimmy Neutron
Much like the show that it opens, Jimmy Neutron’s theme has been moderately underrated as time has passed.
Although the sequence recycles footage from both the show and the movie, the infectious surf rock song helps pick up the slack.
The main riff is just awesome, especially for a children’s cartoon show. This shouldn’t be a surprise though, as the theme is performed by Bowling For Soup.
17. American Dragon: Jake Long
It took me forever to take this intro seriously, since the song is sung by A.J. Trauth, who played Alan Twitty in Even Stevens.
…I mean, not that cartoon intros are meant to be taken seriously by anyone, but I was like 11 and there wasn’t much more important to me in the world.
Anyway, the song is actually the best part of this opening. The visuals are decent, but rely heavily on recycled episode clips.
And as cheesy as it sounds, the short rapping portion by voice actor Dante Basco is actually hilarious in retrospect.
16. Samurai Jack
Admittedly, I never really got into Samurai Jack.
While I could never speak to the merits of the actual show, the opening has always caught not only my attention, but the attention of its huge fan base that successfully howled for the show’s return.
In any case, this intro is smooth as shit.
Wonder why? Because the vocal portion was performed by Will Adams, also known as will.i.am.
And like 20% of the reason I’m putting this song here is so the legion of fans won’t find me and kick my ass for not including it.
15. The Weekenders
The opening to one of the most underrated cartoons EVER is just as tragically overlooked.
Well, that ends today.
The Weekenders was a fantastic cartoon about kids having as much fun as possible within their own means. It’s almost a “how to” guide on enjoying youth.
The intro song matches the show’s spirit perfectly: upbeat, carefree, and fun.
I’ve also always loved when openings have character intros as well, and this intro spaces them out flawlessly.
Also–how about Tino literally knocking on the 4th wall to start it off? Awesome.
Fun Fact: The Weekenders was called “the show that killed Pokemon”, since it knocked Pokemon off its 54-week streak as the #1 Saturday morning cartoon
14. Foster’s Home For Imaginary Friends
I mean, the opening could have stopped after the house-drawing sequence and had still been an all-time great.
It communicates that the Foster’s house is truly a place of creation and imagination.
The opening does a fantastic job of using the house’s zaniness to its advantage by framing different characters in various-sized windows.
The song is also a true joy, representing an innocent fun that served as the show’s foundation.
Arguably Craig McCracken’s magnus opum, Foster’s features an opening as whimsical as its premise.
13. Pepper Ann
I’m not sure whether this theme song was ahead or behind its time, but it worked.
The femme-punk song that kicks off Pepper Ann is catchy, well-executed, and does a very concise job of describing the show…or at least its main character’s name.
The animations of the intro are great, having been made just for the opening sequence and featuring great transitions to match the song’s punchy pace.
Did you notice how Pepper Ann’s art style looks a bit familiar? That’s because the lead character designer was a guy named Tom Warburton, who would go on to create Codename: Kids Next Door.
12. Fairly Odd Parents
While most other cartoon intros were trying to be as loud as possible in the early 2000s, Fairly Odd Parents’ theme was a breath of fresh air.
It took an older, more “show tune” approach by using harmonizing vocals and a swinging chorus.
The visuals in the opening are astounding, and synthesize with the lyrics so well that the intro can be seen on mute while communicating the same message.
And, of course, there’s the famous bridge of the song. Say it with me now:
11. As Told By Ginger
Quite honestly, we didn’t deserve this show. Or at least, not at the time when it debuted (2000).
As Told By Ginger was way, WAY ahead of its time. Characters were developed, aged, and even changed their clothes. The conflicts were more subtle, the drama more believable, and the entire premise of the series was so much more relatable than anything around at the time.
Kicking off this quality show is a perfectly somber tune, sung by (Grammy winner) Macy Gray. The song, titled “In Between”, paces an animation sequence that perfectly outlines the adolescent awkwardness of the show.
It’s a great opening theme, to what is arguably one of the best cartoons ever.
10. Ben 10
Ben 10 was a little after our time. It was actually kind of a tweener show–too young for us, but too old for the next generation. Before the recent revival, the series kinda got lost in the shuffle.
But holy shit, this fucking opening.
The awesome sauce that drizzles over the song starts with the edgy bass line and chilling female vocals.
Even small things about the song are executed to perfection: the backing vocals, hi hats, and supernatural sound effects all mesh in perfect harmony.
I don’t care much for the visuals, because I’ve never seen the show. But that’s okay, because this song is a polished as they come.
For cartoons, anyway.
This opening is the cat’s pajamas.
It introduces the entire main cast with a level of stylish tact that was unheard of back in the 90s.
Each of the X-Men are shown with their own distinctive movements and name cards, demonstrating both their abilities and personalities. This is especially impressive when considering that the audience gets great a impression of each character without the aid of expository song lyrics.
…Like the intro for Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, which I’ve always found overrated.
The song for the opening is legendary today amongst people in their 30s who grew up with the show. And for good reason, too. The combination of symphonic strings and the iconic guitar riff create an experience that’s both exciting and dramatic.
Put all this together, and you have one of the most effective openings in history.
8. The Magic School Bus
Oh yeah, I dug deep for this list, homies.
The Magic School Bus theme makes it this high for having equal levels of quality and widespread recognition.
Seriously, everyone under the age of 33 or so knows this song.
There’s only two real reasons why someone wouldn’t know this song:
- You were raised under a rock
- You didn’t attend public school…ever
For those of you who don’t fit those two criteria, The Magic Schoolbus was basically the soundtrack to our academic childhood, and I can’t think of a better theme to have.
The best part: It’s sung by Little Richard. Go figure.
Disney Television Animation intros were kicking some serious ass in the late 80s/early 90s, but none have remained as catchy or fondly remembered as DuckTales.
Similar to Darkwing Duck, the visuals in Duck Tales’ opening perfectly complement the cadence and lyrics of the song. It’s interesting to see how this was done so much better in the past, when the purpose of cartoons was primarily just to sell toys.
The song is downright legendary in the lore of cartoon theme songs (if there is such a lore). It’s bubbly, easy to sing along with, and has the “woo-oo!” that’ll make some older people tear up with nostalgia.
I’m not going to go as far to say that the opening for DuckTales is overly influential, but it has stood the test of time for nearly 30 years now.
That’s quite a feat for a 1 minute sequence.
….Woo-oo! Had to get one more in.
6. Mucha Lucha
So. Much. Yes.
Now, not many people completely remember this show, but I sure do.
A cartoon show about kid luchadors? What’s not to like?
If the premise didn’t hook you back in 2002 (holy shit it’s been that long?), then the opening certainly did.
I still can’t wrap my mind around how awesome it was for Mucha Lucha to have a full-on merengue band kicking off the show, with classical guitars, accordions, and trumpets in tow.
That’s what I call dedication to authenticity.
Mucha Lucha could have easily sold out by using some crapass latin rock gimmick (looking at you, El Tigre), but the creators stuck to their guns and probably introduced millions of non-Hispanics to a type of music they’d never heard before.
The visuals are nice, demonstrating the unique qualities of each of the main cast, but this opening is all about the song.
5. Dragon Ball Z
For 98% of kids born in the 90s, Dragon Ball Z was our first introduction to Japanese Anime.
And let me tell you: there could not have possibly been a better theme song to carry the flag.
Never before had any of us seen a cartoon opening that was so unabashedly aggressive. The song, titled “Rock the Dragon”, set to high-paced clips from the show (and movies), had all of our hearts pumping with excitement after school.
It’s actually not much of a stretch to say that the opening is more exciting than any single scene in the actual show.
I think it was pivotal for DBZ to have such an explosive opening. For a medium that was looking to make a name for itself in the West, anime needed a song that snatched viewer attention.
Seeing as how the opening guitar notes still give some of us goosebumps, DBZ’s opening had a lasting impression on Western Anime popularity.
Fun fact: It’s also RIDDLED with spoilers, since both Trunks and Super Saiyan Goku are shown way before their in-show introductions.
Long before the hilarious memes ran rampant on the web, Arthur’s theme song was by far the most well-known aspect of the show.
And for good reason, too. What’s not to like about Ziggy Marley telling us the optimistic potential of every day?
It’s a simple song, and it comes from the heart.
Believe in Yourself has also been the Arthur theme song for as long as the show’s been running. Which, if you’ve been keeping count, is almost 21 freaking years
…Holy crap, we’re old.
3. Code Lyoko
An underrated show, and an underrated opening.
Airing on the since-forgotten Miguzi block on Cartoon Network, Code
Forehead Lyoko was a trailblazer in various ways.
It was one of the first action shows with 3D animation that didn’t totally suck ass, was one of the only really big French shows in the West (along with Totally Spies), and showed us some of the biggest fucking foreheads imaginable.
But regardless of how many people remember the show, EVERYONE remembers the theme song. It’s short, sweet, and really fun to sing along with.
It also used autotune before it was really a thing, so there’s that.
2. Teen Titans
Teen Titans was a fantastic show.
Arguably the best DC cartoon ever created, Teen Titans masterfully combined American comic characters with a traditionally Japanese animation style to attract a huge viewership.
One of the many Japanese-inspired elements incorporated into the show was its theme song, performed by the popular Japanese rock duo Puffy AmiYumi.
The song is awesome, showcasing AmiYumi’s distinctive Pop Punk musicianship and vocal delivery. The visuals match the quality of the song, featuring some iconic shots (like Raven’s nonchalant expression) and incredibly smooth transitions.
The opening was so good that it caused a HUGE spike in Puffy AmiYumi’s international fame, which actually led to them getting your own show.
That’s what I call impact, which is why the beloved Cartoon Network show’s opening takes the Number 2 spot.
Okay. Before I begin, I want to let you know that I tried absolutely everything possible to prevent this from being Number 1. It just would have been too obvious.
But the reality is that no other cartoon theme in history will make full on adults shit themselves and start singing like lunatics.
And honestly, the fact that everyone, EVERYONE knows the lyrics to the Pokemon theme is reason enough for it to take Number 1.
While trying my best to dethrone it was quite hipster of me, I’d be the first to admit that the first opening for Pokemon is excellent.
The first two lines encapsulate the ENTIRE show’s premise right off the bat. And it only gets better from there, with the song’s first verse being firmly engrained in the part of everyone’s brain reserved for childhood memories.
The visuals all perfectly match the lyrics, switching scenarios, pacing, and characters when necessary. This all leads up to the huge chorus, which led to the official catchphrase “Gotta Catch ‘Em All!” for Pokemon in the US.
Throughout the years, we’ve heard this song remixed and covered by various acts ranging from high school pianists to entire freaking orchestras.
This opening is chiefly responsible for SMOSH getting their big break, for God’s sake.
At the end of the day, it’s undeniable: Pokemon’s first opening is the most legendary, beloved, and consequently greatest cartoon theme that there was, is, and ever will be.
2,600 words later, and I’m all written out. I hope you enjoyed the list.