When FOX debuted Bob's Burgers in 2011, it was an unassuming dark horse, a cartoon about an ordinary family not unlike others the network had broadcast previously. But unlike cruder, crueler animated sitcoms like The Simpsons and Family Guy, Bob's Burgers filled its character-driven comedy — the story of hamburger joint owner Bob Belcher, his wife Linda and their children, Tina, Gene and Louise — with buoyant pathos.
While the first season was arguably clunky, the popularity of Bob's Burgers accelerated as it gained comedic momentum. The show came into its own thanks to strong character development, but you could track its musical sophistication on the same axis. The Belchers' middle child, Gene, an aspiring musician, would sprinkle in original tunes here and there, spontaneously composed on his keyboard, which later became as crucial an in-joke as Bob's Burger of the Day (a new recipe scrawled in chalk on the restaurant's specials board every episode) or the ever-changing business next door (Tire-Rhea, The Petalfile, Extra Moist Yoga, etc.) Three seasons in, the show's personality had fully revealed itself along with the musical presence, evolving to include clever parodies of familiar hits, full-length pop songs and elaborate mini-musicals. A turning point was reached when this consonant ingenuity extended to Bob's Buskers, which saw prominent artists like St. Vincent and The National covering choice songs from the show, animated to look like musicians busking in front of the restaurant.
In a symbol of rightful providence, Sub Pop is releasing The Bob's Burgers Music Album, a collection of 107 songs from the show's first 107 episodes, on May 12. The massive number of tracks would be nearly impossible to review, but there are themes that run through the material that prove why the songs and the show are special. For a show about an American working class family, the show is unusually connected to social currents. The adult sensibilities of the Belcher children, combined with the relatable, plainspoken nature of Bob and Linda, make for continual opportunities for the show to subversively promote progressive values like sex and body positivity and gender equality to a mainstream audience. The characters frequently undergo rich role reversals; gender stereotypes are always delightfully jumbled and boundlessly fluid.
The same things make the best songs of Bob's Burgers — which can be can be jarring or genius, pervy playground rhymes or earworms that clarify swiftly-delivered subplots — great, with or without context. The 15 below — my picks for the best of the bunch, presented in chronological order by episode airdate — rely on solid songwriting and dimensional lyrics. Sadly, they don't include every instance of John Roberts (Linda) doing an impression of Michael McDonald or Eddie Money, nor can they accommodate H. John Benamin (Bob himself) singing "Love Is In Control (Finger on the Trigger)" in place of Donna Summer. The bathroom humor tracks alone ("The Fart Song" or "The Diarrhea Song") probably deserve their own list, though that's just further confirmation that the musical accomplishments of this show (these 15 songs in particular) are exceptional.
from: "Food Truckin'" (4/15/2012)
Save yourself admission to a Tori Amos concert and watch "Food Truckin" to hear some true poetry. "Oh it's hot and wet and slick / and it's making everybody sick / Oil spill! Oil spill!" gushes the sexy pianist Tabitha Johansson (voiced by Megan Mullally) at the Lolla-Pa-Foods-A Food Festival. She straddles a piano bench in a clear nod to Tori Amos, and even 12-year-old Gene is clued in to the fact that the song is about her vagina. (Maybe he's so perceptive because he's been listening to sensitive singer-songwriters.) An actual recorded version by Amos would've really slicked things up even further, but Mullally's distinct voice gives the song its stickiness. It's hard to tell whether vaginas are so normalized in the glorious world the Belchers live in that they're a positive source of entertainment to an entire festival crowd, or the audience is just stuck in the lasting power of this song.
"Taffy Butt (feat. Cyndi Lauper)"
from: "The Belchies" (4/11/2012)
Bathroom humor can be a delicate thing to nail down, not to mention parody songs, much less entire parody episodes, but Bob's Burgers does it fearlessly and illustriously in "The Belchies," based entirely off of The Goonies. Closing with "Taffy Butt," Cyndi Lauper howls, "You have a taffy butt / there's treasure in that butt / I want that taffy butt, ayayayay! Taffy butt / it's such a taffy butt / there's gold there in that butt." Admittedly the song holds up because it's melodically identical to "The Goonies 'r' Good Enough," but lyrically it serves to describe the episode's ending while managing to slip in an empowering message to embrace one's derrière.
"Bad Girls Theme" (feat. St. Vincent)
from: "Bad Tina" (5/13/2012) / Bob's Buskers
Performed by St. Vincent in "Bad Tina" as the inaugural entry to the Bob's Buskers series, this pogo punk piece could be listened to and enjoyed completely out of context, making it a watershed moment for the show's original music. Wisdom is layered lyrically and throughout the episode, in which Tina is peer-pressured by her "bad girl" friend Tammy to secretly invite her crush over while her parents aren't home. In the midst of knocking back shots of margarita mix and putting on too much makeup, things get out of hand, forcing Tina to reflect on her values as St. Vincent sings, "I was always the good girl but then I fell in with the wrong crowd / Now I'm mouthing off to my mom and skipping school / Are all the boys and their cute butts really worth all this? Watch out!" Staying true to herself and not lying to her parents are Tina's takeaways, but in a broader supporting framework, off-limits behavior is encouraged by highlighting everyone's not-so-secret fetishes. From Bob's newfound obsession with kinky hand-clapping performances, to Linda's encouragement of Tina writing freaky friend fiction novels, the bad girls theme carries throughout.
"Electric Love" (feat. Stephin Merritt)
from: "Topsy" (3/10/2013) / Bob's Buskers
If Megan Mullally voicing Aunt Gayle voicing Tina dressed up as a circus elephant named Topsy doing a duet with Thomas Edison sounds absurd, imagine replacing Mullally with Stephin Merritt's sonorous baritone for Topsy's part and it suddenly makes more sense. The resounding, slightly congested-sounding leader of The Magnetic Fields lends his voice well to the timbre of an elephant's trunk on this Bob's Buskers installment, easily one of the catchiest original songs from the series yet. And instead of following the science fair rules and doing a conventional project, Gene brings some levity to a horrifying milestone of animal cruelty in history, rewriting it to tell a sexy love story instead. "But I never noticed, The curve of her trunk," sings Thomas Edison (writer/performer Kenny Mellman), before Merritt-as-Topsy declares, "And I never noticed, his electric junk. We might just have found electric love."
"Will You Be Mine (Coal Mine)" x "I Wanna Hear Your Secrets"
from: "Boyz 4 Now" (4/28/2013)
This nugget of gold is a One Direction caricature, but with pop power to match any lasting boy band material from the early '00s. "My hat is hard, but my heart is soft ... Will you be my coal mine? Will you be my diamond mine?" Performed by three of the show's writers plus actor Max Greenfield as the voice of the youngest Boyz 4 Now band member, Boo Boo, the extreme autotune and harmonies only further refine this ear candy. The episode is a tender but tense turn for nine-year-old Louise, whose typical disinterested, masculine vibe is smashed with a wrecking ball when she becomes smitten with Boo Boo at the Boyz 4 Now concert, allowing her a rare moment of sisterly bonding with Tina.
Things come full circle by the time the credits roll and "I Wanna Hear Your Secrets" plays. Also performed by Boo Boo, the song is an incredibly catchy tribute to fresh infatuation and the funny urges and curiosities that can arise. Louise is so confused by her feelings — lovestruck and simultaneously horrified— so much so that her primary urge is to smack Boo Boo in the face. She does this repeatedly and satisfyingly; rather than advocating abuse, her method of showing affection fights the patriarchy by reversing the conventional roles in the "being mean to your crush" construct. Somehow, it's not shocking for Bob's Burgers to use a nine-year-old to suggest that BDSM dynamics are no longer taboo.
"I've Got A Yum Yum"
from: "Carpe Museum" (5/5/2013)
Comprised entirely of call and response babble like, "Boom chaka boom chaka boom boom boom," or "Weeda weeda weina, weina weina wang," one might think there isn't a message. To the contrary, Linda manages to wah-wah her way into the credits, sharing her easygoing take on sex in just two funky little rhymes: "Boys are from Mars, girls are from Venus / I've got a yum-yum, you've got a penis ... Shake your hips, wiggle your butt, drop your pants, pick'em back up." While the song has little to do with the episode, it's tacked onto a plot that sees Bob bonding with Louise and further supports the Belcher's broad-minded approach to child rearing. Even if Linda is referring to female privy parts as "yum-yums," she's illuminating the glory in honest communication between parents and children, especially when it comes to talking about sex.
from: "My Big Fat Greek Bob" (11/10/2013)
"Why is everyone holding vibrators?" wonders Bob when he wanders into the restaurant with a group of frat bros to find Linda and her cougar clients having a LadyGoods party. Cue "Sneaky Pete," the song written about the specific vibrator Linda sells during her brief career stint as a Pleasurologist. "I wanna go home to your bedside drawer and live there," coos Linda, pretending to be the vibrator speaking to a potential buyer. As the credits roll at the end of "My Big Fat Greek Bob," the frat bros, the cougars and the Belchers all seem to be having a casual good time as sensual, electric disco-funk slinks through the restaurant, solidifying the idea that Linda's spirit instrument is a wah-wah pedal and that there's nothing unique-y about getting freaky. In fact, it's strongly encouraged.
"Derek Dematopolis" x "Not Bad for Havin' Three Kids"
from: "Purple Rain-union" (12/1/2013)
In "Purple Rain-union," Linda and Aunt Gayle revive their old band the Ta-Tas for their high school reunion, and we get a rare glimpse of both women existing outside of the Belchers, pre-kids and middle-age. Aunt Gayle (Megan Mullally) lustily kicks off the Ta-Tas performance, crooning the painfully slow "Derek Dematopolis" to her old high school crush in the audience. "Won't you enter my Acropolis and make my yogurt Greek? Derek. Derek. Let's you and me make a we-union," she purrs, before Linda counts off the intro to "Not Bad for Havin' Three Kids."
"I've still got 2 out of 5 sexy parts / This is down here but it should be up there / This is kind of loose and I think it might tear / When I bend down I pee a little bit / But it's not bad, not bad for having three kids!" Giving a voice to middle-aged mothers is what these songs accomplish, reminding listeners that you're never too old to be fierce, angry or sexual.
from: "The Equestranauts" (4/13/2014)
If this isn't gender reversal wrapped up in a children's show theme, then it's just a group recording that stampedes through a heart-warming intersection of Brony culture, My Little Pony, erotic confusion and the bond of friendship. The episode lands Bob and Tina at Equestra-con, which is essentially an affectionate Brony movement farce based on Tina's favorite show. She and her toy pony with its camel-toe defect are fully enthused, but Bob (who could have easily made fun of the experience), awkwardly embraces it, ultimately embodying the Equesticals' core value of acceptance without judgment. While the song sounds like a nod to Saturday morning cartoons like Paw Patrol, it is brought fully to life in the image of a grown man wearing a purple horse costume, fueled by unbridled joy and "horse medicine" (cocktails).
"Die Hard / Working Girl Musical Medley" x "Work Hard or Die Trying, Girl" (feat. Carly Simon)
from: "Work Hard or Die Trying, Girl" (10/5/2014)
This ridiculously ambitious smattering of songs was co-written by Gene for his musical, Work Hard or Die Trying, Girl. Allegedly co-written with his ex, Courtney, the hybrid musical is a mashed up rom-com action thriller of Die Hard-meets-Working Girl. The medley consists of incomplete musical clips flashing back to familiar themes from the two '80s classics like coffee, business, fight scenes, working in the city, and the Staten Island Ferry. The lyrics are as loosely fragmented as the melodies and the herd of characters, but the finale is the title track.
"Maybe there's a tower, somewhere up above / Filled with bearer bonds and love, where dreams don't die hard / Maybe there's a tower, somewhere up above / Filled with shoulder pads and love / Where dreams can fly hard / But until we can live in that imaginary world / We'll work hard or die trying, girl." Enter Carly Simon, who leads the full cast in the final anthem with a stirring cry of, "You work hard, you die hard! You work hard, you try hard! Or die trying, girl!" The cherry on top of this treat is that a 12-year-old boy wrote a body of music casually acknowledging that the future is female, yet gender equality in the workplace is still something women have to work for.
"BM in the PM"
from: "Eat, Spray, Linda" - (5/3/2015)
Set in the style of The Doobie Brothers' "What a Fool Believes," John Roberts does a convincing impression of a Michael McDonald-soundalike in voicing Tim, a hotel lounge singer. The Belchers are on a wild goose chase to track down Linda on her birthday, and they gain new understandings of her character along the way, including her bowel movement schedule. "She does her BM in the PM," Tim soulfully wails, informing the family that Linda has been coming to The Royal Oyster Hotel for years to use the bathroom and that it wouldn't make sense for her to be there at that hour of the day. This song conceptually reinforces the individuality of Linda while the kooky Doobie groove and synth sequences emulate the uniqueness of her character and the situation perfectly.
"The Spirits of Christmas"
from: "Nice-Capades" (11/15/2015)
While getting drunk during the holidays isn't exactly a new or progressive idea, "The Spirits of Christmas" still does a nice job at displacing and reimagining the typical sentiments of everyone's least-favorite commercial Christian holiday. Calvin Fischoeder, the felonious landlord, holds great financial power over the Belcher family, but the song and corresponding scene are rare exceptions to this dynamic because for once, he helps the family out while they try to get off of the mall Santa's naughty list. Kevin Kline voices the meddlesome Mr. Fischoeder and says bourbon possibly more than 40 times in a jazzy combination ice-show-piano-ode to liquor a la Elvis Costello, or perhaps more appropriately, Harry Nilsson. The landlord really drives it home with earnest lines like, "The snow outside's gettin' thicker / So let's open that bottle of liquor / Hey, bourbon, take me home / Oh bourbon, oh bourbon." Granted, this episode and song were just transparent amusement, but after past holiday episodes exploring "serious themes," this bit only further enhanced the reality that Christmas in this millennium is entirely fabricated, even in the minds of the Belcher children. The blasphemy can be relished further by speculating that if this were played on the radio today, its melody and conviction could make it a modern Christmas classic.