Writing a real song is easy; writing a fake song is hard. The fictional song has undergone something of a renaissance recently, thanks largely to two shows that return to TV lineups this week — FOX’s Empire and ABC’s Nashville — whose universes’ success is almost entirely reliant on the potency of their made-up artists’ made-up hits. A good faux-song has to be compelling on its own merits, true to the character of its performer, and recognizable enough through some kind of real-life analogue to make sense outside of its fictional universe. The 50 songs below manage all of this — or, at least, they’re funny and/or catchy enough for the rest of that stuff not to matter.
Defining a fictional song is tricky, though, so let’s go over some quick ground rules for the purposes of our list.
- Most basic rule: Songs need to have originated from within a fictional work.
- Musical numbers — as in, when characters spontaneously break into song, outside of a performance context — do not count.
- Songs have to actually be played within the fictional work to be eligible. Not necessarily the whole song — just a verse and/or chorus is fine, if it’s enough to get the character of the song across — but if a song is only alluded to and never actually heard, it’s out.
- Songs have to be performed by fictional characters, and not by pre-existing real-life artists, or pre-existing real-life artists playing lightly fabricated versions of themselves. (Think Prince as the Kid in Purple Rain.) Bands assembled specifically for fictional projects, however, are fair game. (So, for example, Pete & Pete’s Polaris are in the mix.)
- Songs based on real-universe songs — meaning parodies, covers, or anything closer than a general stylistic pastiche — are out.
Got it? Maybe? Well, duck your head into our 50 fictional worlds here, and hopefully you’ll get the gist of it before too long. And before we start, apologies to the scores of classic faux-songs we had to leave off: “Day Man,” “Teenage Suicide (Don’t Do It),” “My Shiny Teeth and Me,” “Say No More, Mon Amour,” “Do the Hippogriff,” “I’m a Boinger,” “Teacher’s Pet,” “Can’t Fight the Moonlight,” “Kelly Song,” “Get Schwifty,” “Love Ya to Death,” and any eligible number from Flight of the Conchords, just to name a dozen. Fifty is a smaller number than you think.
50. Phoebe Buffay, “Smelly Cat” (Friends, 1995)
None of Friends’ six leads did more with less than Lisa Kudrow. Take “Smelly Cat” — the dumbass lyric isn’t hers, but she wrote the music, and she stretched the one-note joke (aspiring musician doesn’t know she sucks) into an entire alt-rock lifecycle. She cribs from her forebears (a game Chrissie Hynde), records a sell-out version complete with music video, and gets the song licensed to a corporation. The final step is nostalgia, achieved last month when Kudrow performed “Smelly Cat” with noted pet parent and friend-collector Taylor Swift at Staples Center. — BRAD SHOUP
49. Mystik Spiral, “Ow! My Face” (Daria, 1998)
Trent Lane’s perennial Gen-X laziness, cool-dude self-assurance, and total belief that because he listens to morose artists he must be one too peaks in this one-minute lover’s lament. Turning the volume way past 11, Mystik Spiral (but they might change their name) sing of a broken relationship, and later, a broken nose. If the band’s intent was to return some bodily damage, they can rest assured: The youth of Lawndale likely walked out of Club Cinderblock going, “Ow, my ears.” — RACHEL BRODSKY
48. James, Donna, and Maddy, “Just You” (Twin Peaks, 1990)
In the midst of Twin Peaks’ strangely soapy second season, the sensitive, leather-jacketed James Hurley breaks out a hollow-bodied electric guitar to anticipate the nasally heartbroken balladry that Christopher Owens would mine two decades later as Girls. Leave it to David Lynch to be a futurist even when he’s trying to evoke an otherworldly past. — COLIN JOYCE
47. Peter Bretter, “Dracula’s Lament” (Forgetting Sarah Marshall, 2008)
The centerpiece from the Dracula-puppet-musical-within-a-movie A Taste for Love, and the single most enduring aspect of Forgetting Sarah Marshall, one of the more heartfelt Hollywood comedies of the past decade. That “Dracula’s Lament” has outpaced the unveiling of Jason Segel’s junk as the go-to scene referenced from Sarah Marshall is a reassuring sign for the state of humanity — the state of puppets, too. — KYLE MCGOVERN
46. The Rocking Knights of Summer, “Higher and Higher” (Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp, 2015)
Originally introduced as montage music in the Wet Hot American Summer movie, and later revealed to have been the work of Camp Firewood’s reclusive music genius Eric in the Netflix prequel series, “Higher and Higher” transcends mere parody of ‘80s music tropes. Its self-descriptive chorus soars in a thrillingly over-the-top message of encouragement, and much like the song and its layering of riffs, gets better in steady increments. So will you, in your training. — JAMES GREBEY
45. Polaris, “Summerbaby” (The Adventures of Pete & Pete, 1994)
For three seasons, the genially surreal Pete & Pete built a skewed, sweet suburban world around its two identically monikered brothers, soundtracked by the college-rock sounds of Polaris, an offshoot of Connecticut’s Miracle Legion. Polaris was the focal point of “A Hard Day’s Pete,” in which Little Pete catches them playing the Richman/Reed homage “Summerbaby.” Desperate to remember his new favorite song, he forms a band with his meter reader (Marshall Crenshaw), his math teacher (Syd Straw), and a kid drummer doing the best Neil Young you’ve ever seen. Pete eventually recalls the song, but not before his band, the Blowholes, embark on a Yo La Tengo-style cover spree to pay for the electric bill. — B.S.
44. Marceline the Vampire Queen, “The Fry Song” (Adventure Time, 2012)
“Fry Song” gets right to the core about what’s great about Adventure Time. At first, Marceline the Vampire Queen (whose voice you may recognize as the Mariah Carey-belting tyke from Love, Actually) is just singing about pilfered potatoes, but the silly little tune gives way to a much deeper, emotionally raw song about her distant, neglectful father. Madcap and mature, “Fry Song” splits the difference, and we can empathize with Marceline’s daddy issues as she strums her mighty axe, even if our fathers aren’t the Lord of Evil. — J.G.
43. Link, “Song of Storms” (The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, 1998)
Okay, fine, “Song of Storms” isn’t the most useful song Link learns to play on his Ocarina (it can’t control the flow of time), but its quick, skyward steps of deliberate notes are the catchiest thing the wielder of the Master Sword has in his songbook, and the accordion in the full version is both warmly comforting and surreal. Plus, it’s not like controlling the weather is anything to scoff at. — J.G.
42. Olaf, “Berserker” (Clerks, 1994)
The plot of Clerks halts altogether for the unforgettable aside where Silent Bob’s Russian cousin, cajoled by Jay because “girls think sexy,” sings a few bars of a tune by his metal band from back home. And what a tune it is: “My love for you is like a truck / Berserker / Would you like some making f–k / Berserker.” “Did he just say making f–k?” asks the girl in question, as well as everyone watching. We can only imagine the full-band version in all its f–k-making glory. — DAN WEISS
41. Defiler, “Defile You” (The Sopranos, 1999)
“You know who we are / You know what we do”: Has there ever been a more brilliantly idiotic and vague lyric? Probably, but a good deal of them likely came from the lunkhead Y2K rawk bands that The Sopranos spoofed with Defiler. The locker-room bravado of a rhyme like “Stay out of our way / And don’t be so gay” is especially indicative of the pointless machismo that pervaded the period. A terrible song but a dead-on parody; if this track was uploaded to YouTube and credited to (blamed on?) Velvet Revolver, no one would have raised an eyebrow. — K.M.
40. Blueshammer, “Pickin’ Cotton Blues” (Ghost World, 2001)
Terry Zwigoff’s adaptation of Daniel Clowes’ misanthropic comic went above and beyond to hit its satirical targets, and one of the film’s most memorable was the bro-blues bar band monstrosity that is Blueshammer, a gang of frosted-tipped white guys bellowing, “I’ve been plooooooooowwwwwwwwing / Picking cotton all day long.” It might have been the most cruelly funny capture of white musical appropriation extant — at least until Taylor Swift sang “Trap Queen.” — D.W.
39. Sex Bob-Omb, “We Are Sex Bob-Omb” (Scott Pilgrim Vs. the World, 2010)
Sex Bob-Omb’s trajectory toward the top of Canada’s indie-rock circuit was that of an underdog, but the real-world iteration of the band had a ringer in their back pocket in the form of songwriter Beck. The whole concept (graphic novel characters brought to life in an Edgar Wright-directed Technicolor wonderland) seems like it’d demand some of his goofy Odelay bars, but he goes dead serious on the bass-heavy fuzz-pop of “We Are Sex Bob-Omb,” the sort of slapdash song that Ty Segall’s churned out reams of over the last half-decade. Good guys always win at the end in these sorts of stories, but at least these ones rock harder. — C.J.
38. Timmy and the Lords of the Underworld, “Timmy” (South Park, 2000)
A stop-start groove and bouncing bass line better than any real turn-of-the-century modern-rock hit, fronted by the rare period frontman who never became overbearing in his verbosity. Don’t sleep on the backing Lords, though, who sum up goth-rock in one line better than the entire South Park episode on the subject: “Darkness fills my heart with pain!” — ANDREW UNTERBERGER
37. Titus Andromedon, “Peeno Noir” (The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, 2015)
Bet you never knew so many things rhymed with “pinot noir” (Rosanne Barr! Mid-size car! Caviar! Myanmar! Boudoir! Smoke a cigar! Leather bar!), and bet you’ll never regard a real-life bottle of the stuff the same way again. — R.B.
36. Dewey Cox, “Walk Hard” (Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story, 2007)
The best scene in Walk Hard (“Well, you are the quiet one, so why don’t you shut the f–k up”) was stolen from its lead, but for bulldozing the hipster hagiography erected around a decrepit Johnny Cash, John C. Reilly’s performance as Dewey Cox deserves every accolade possible. Jake Kasdan and Judd Apatow drop Dewey into every wretched biopic pace — the hardscrabble beginning, the inevitable hit, the derailing demons — and Reilly’s wide-eyed dips–t does the rest. “Walk Hard” is his statement song, a profane mixture of the Tennessee Three and Roy Orbison, written by Marshall Crenshaw. — B.S.
35. The Be Sharps, “Baby on Board” (The Simpsons, 1993)
The second-highest Simpsons song on this list — no shame in that placement, particularly when the song in question is as pleasing to the ear and warming to the heart as “Baby on Board.” Knowingly frivolous at first but more and more endearingly hokey with time, the Be Sharps’ finest moment comes with two helpings of nostalgia baked in: one for the barbershop ditties the track is tipping its boater toward, and one held dear by the ‘80s babies who remember tuning into FOX one Thursday night with their parents and hearing “Board” for the first time. No wonder Homer and the boys nabbed that award statu… oohh, it’s a Grammy. — K.M.
34. Dethklok, “Thunderhorse” (Metalocalypse, 2007)
A total tonal shift from Brendon Small’s beloved Home Movies, Metalocalypse pulls the viscera from extreme metal and rolls around in the guts. Like Home Movies, it’s about grown children learning to create together: here, it’s Dethklok, a melodic death-metal act that inspired unearthly popularity. The lyrically sparse “Thunderhorse” is the last third of a Viking Trilogy: to attain the heaviness required by lead singer Nathan Explosion, the band ventures to the Marianas Trench to record it. As usual, they succeed despite their penchant for infighting and self-sabotage. The tune even lent its name to a couple of limited-edition guitars that Small — Berklee Class of ‘97 — released into the meatspace. — B.S.
33. Mitch & Mickey, “A Kiss at the End of the Rainbow” (A Mighty Wind, 2003)
Far more emotionally complex than This Is Anabelmusical Tap, Christopher Guest’s somewhat misunderstood A Mighty Wind had just as funny songs beneath a too-subtle veneer of lampooning the 1960s folk revival. But the movie’s soundtrack was also so strong that its most serious performance, by a shaky, career-best Eugene Levy and a frazzled, sparkly eyed Catherine O’Hara, rang true with total sincerity — and beauty — which earned it a not-at-all-ironic Oscar nod. — D.W.
32. Céline, “Let Me Sing You a Waltz” (Before Sunset, 2004)
Even those unfamiliar with the story arc of the three-film Before series — boy meets girl on train to Vienna, boy and girl reunite in Paris nine years later, boy and girl grapple with married life on Greek island another nine years later — would be smitten by Céline’s affectionate ode to the kind of continent-crossed love most people with hearts and tear ducts dreams about. And it’s not even a bit mawkish: Julie Delpy doesn’t overplay the fledgling Edith Piaf angle with her slight vibrato and her Seine-side acoustic strumming, and the sigh of relief she lets out at the end is the start of the next chapter to a beautifully complicated relationship. — HARLEY BROWN
31. Mark Cherry, “Getaway” (Arrested Development, 2013)
Songs as subtweets are nothing new, but few get as direct as the song Mark Cherry writes for G.O.B. Bluth in Arrested Development’s fourth season. “Getaway” offers an ad infinitum repetition of its title as an intended kiss-off, but the densest Bluth just can’t take even the most obvious of hints. Hard to ask for self-awareness from a magician, but at least that universe got a stickily sweet song about stalking out of it. — C.J.