A comprehensive and definitely definitive assessment of James Bond's title-sequence music, from the dazzling (Adele! Shirley Bassey!) to the dreadful (looking at you, A-ha).
It's possible to have reasonable discussions around the two classic James Bond debates: Who was the best Bond? Which was the best Bond film? (Although every right-thinking person knows that the correct answers are obviously Sean Connery and Goldfinger, respectively.) Fans will wax eloquent about plot points, action sequences, one-liners, brawn vs. charm, and a host of other factors.
Shift the conversation to the topic of James Bond theme songs, though, and the conversation turns alarmingly subjective. "Live and Let Die' is badass!" "I like Carly Simon." "Madonna gets on my nerves."
Perhaps we should talk a little bit about what makes a great Bond theme.
1. It's not about the best song. No list worth anything will merely rank the best songs that happen to have been Bond themes. Otherwise, the producers could just stick "Stairway to Heaven" or "Satisfaction" or "Try a Little Tenderness" into the next installment of the series and assure themselves the new No. 1 spot. No, the songs shouldn't only (or even primarily) appeal as songs per se, but as icons of Bond. They should exude Bondness. When you hear one of them, you shouldn't first think "What a great song!" Instead, you should immediately be plunged into visions of a Bond film, preferably with yourself as either the titular hero or as his love interest.
2. What is Bondness? Entire books have been written on the appeal of Bond, but two of the most important aspects of that appeal need to be expressed in the song. First is a sense of momentousness, of earth-shattering urgency. It can be expressed through the arrangement, through the vocal performance, or the lyrics, but we'd better get a sense that big things are at stake. Second, and seemingly paradoxically, there must be an element of offhand elegance, almost a casual air. James Bond makes it look easy. So the song should make it sound easy.
3. Bondness is forever. In the original, instrumental James Bond theme, John Barry gave the franchise a gift of inestimable worth: so many signature moments. Go on the street and ask four people to hum the James Bond theme, and you're likely to hear four different parts of the same composition. There's the menacing four-note opening, the wildly discordant second portion, and the full-out orchestral jazzy vamp, all of which lead to the orgasmic "BAH-BAH-bummmmm, BAH-BAH-bummmmm, BAH-BAH!" ending, which then returns to the original sequence. The best Bond songs recognize Barry's genius by incorporating the iconic instrumental theme into themselves, however subtly.
So how do these three rules play out over the history and development of the Bond theme song? Let's take a look at each of the three eras of the Bond film, and the songs in each.
THE CLASSIC ERA
"From Russia With Love"—Matt Monro (From Russia With Love, 1963)
Let's get this part out of the way first: It's a crime that Frank Sinatra never recorded a Bond theme. It would have been a near perfect meeting of singer and subject. Having said that, Monro basically does his best Sinatra imitation here, and does it well. It's a strong song, borrowing the title of the film (always a good idea), incorporating the Barry theme, and telling a story. It may not be at the No. 1 spot, but it did a great job of setting the template for the great Bond themes that followed.
BEST MOMENT: That closing "From Russia with...," which to that point has always been sung in a hushed major chord, goes bold and minor. A touch of brilliance.
"Goldfinger"—Shirley Bassey (Goldfinger, 1964)
Whoever first had the idea to recruit Welsh diva Shirley Bassey for the Bond films deserves a knighthood. She's simply got the perfect voice for the franchise—technically brilliant, swanky, sexy, powerful. And oh-so-'60s, in a good way. This song is the first one where the lyrics are about the villain, always a highlight. The music is menacing and yet somehow still fun, and builds to a legendary crescendo. Many people choose this as the best of all time.
BEST MOMENT: "He loves gooooooooold!" Buh-duh-BUMP.
"Thunderball"—Tom Jones (Thunderball, 1965)
Speaking of legendary crescendos and perfect voices for the franchise.... Bassey's Welsh compatriot Tom Jones simply astonishes in what is, unbelievably, the only Bond theme he's ever done. The subject of the lyrics is Bond himself, and Jones is possibly the only singer in the world whose vocals could match Sean Connery's onscreen swagger. Jones's vocal interpretation approaches the melodramatic, but never becomes embarassing. The song itself incorporates not one but three of Barry's themes. And those lyrics. If you ever need an infusion of confidence, this'll do.
BEST MOMENT: It can only be "Like Thun-der-BAAAAAAAAAAAAALLLLLLL!!!!!" According to legend, Jones passed out after singing the note.
"You Only Live Twice"—Nancy Sinatra (from You Only Live Twice, 1967)
Perhaps the most underrated of the early Bond themes. Music fans nowadays mostly know Sinatra as Frank's daughter, or from "These Boots Were Made for Walkin," but she was an outstanding vocalist in her own right. Her silky smooth elegance is a great fit for the prettiest Bond theme ever. A few points off for not having enough edge, although it's tough to criticize a song that works so well on its own.
BEST MOMENT: "And lllllove is the stranger whoooooo beckons you on." That "L." I think I'm in love.
"We Have All The Time In The World"—Louis Armstrong (On Her Majesty's Secret Service, 1969)
A study in contradictions. On the one hand, it's Louis Armstrong, which means it's inherently awesome. On the other hand, it's late Louis, which means there's a vague whiff of sanitization and dumbed-downness to it, which is sad. It's the most optimistic of the themes, which is great. But do we really want an optimistic, romantic Bond theme? Not sure. One thing is certain, though: The closing trumpet "solo" is a travesty. It's 15 seconds long and completely boring. It serves no musical purpose, save to remind casual fans that Louis Armstrong plays the trumpet. Shameful. But how can you give Satchmo a bad grade?
BEST MOMENT: Any and every time Louis says "In the woild." Try not to be happy when he does. It's impossible.
"Diamonds Are Forever"—Shirley Bassey (Diamonds Are Forever, 1971)
Shirley takes the Classic Era out in style with a masterpiece. It's the kind of song Eartha Kitt would have seemed like a better fit for—but, would have taken too far into camp. Bassey holds back just enough, but brings out her inner sex kitten during the quiet parts of the song to balance the explosive diva sections ("I don't-need-looooooove"). The song has a worldview that sets up the urgency of the film (better than the film itself, regrettably). Everyone filling out an application to sing a Bond theme should be forced to listen to this one repeatedly.
BEST MOMENT: It's a shame to keep picking crescendos, but it has to be "Aaaaand evaaaaaaaahhhhh!"
THE PRE-MODERN ERA
"Live And Let Die"—Paul McCartney & Wings (Live And Let Die, 1973)
All right, I realize I'm on an island on this one. But hear me out. First of all, other than the title and an inspired use of the Barry theme in specific and limited places, the song as a whole doesn't sound at all like a Bond theme. It's as if McCartney just took a song he had already written (actually, two songs he'd already written) and dropped the Barry music into it as an instrumental break; it's not integrated at all. Plus, McCartney's voice is a horrible fit for the franchise. It doesn't suggest anything Bond-y. Worst of all, this song inaugurates the Pre-Modern era of Bond themes, where the producers just choose a song they like, rather than tying it to the character or the movie. And although it's not McCartney's fault, extra points deducted for this being the first Roger Moore film.
BEST MOMENT: The two-note instrumental theme after each "Say live and let die."
"The Man With The Golden Gun"—Lulu (The Man With The Golden Gun, 1974)
Perhaps sensing their misstep with "Live and Let Die," the producers try to return to Classic-Era Bond themes with this song that was surely written for Shirley Bassey to sing. For whatever reason, they ended up with Lulu instead, and the Scottish singer (who also sang the theme for To Sir, With Love) gives it her best shot. It's not a bad performance, really. It just suffers by comparison to Bassey. The song itself is a bit one-note in its tone, and Lulu isn't quite able to elevate it. And the orchestration is a crime. Fun song, though. Extra points for being about the villain of the movie.
BEST MOMENT: The elegant crooning break in the middle.
"Nobody Does It Better"—Carly Simon (The Spy Who Loved Me, 1977)
The Pre-Modern Era of Bond themes was largely misguided in its abandonment of the Bondness necessary for a great theme song, but there's one glaring exception. Carly Simon contributes one of her best songs, and one of the best songs qua songs in the franchise's history. It probably helps that she's a beautiful woman professing her undying love and admiration for Bond. And "makes me feel sad for the rest"—what a brilliant turn! She even works the title of the film into the song. Top shelf.
BEST MOMENT: Simon's muscular growl on "Have to be so good."
"Moonraker"—Shirley Bassey (Moonraker, 1979)
The greatest Bond siren of them all gives it her best shot, but even she can't save a weak song assigned to the weakest Bond film of them all. The song itself has a decent melody, and of course Bassey is masterful as always. Too many strings and harps, though (and a dreadfully cheesy guitar) doom this one to mediocrity.
BEST MOMENT: Bassey purring "I search for love."
"For Your Eyes Only"—Sheena Easton (For Your Eyes Only, 1981)
It has a promising beginning, for sure. The instrumental opening is dramatic and sweeping. But once Easton starts singing, it's too slow and ponderous. And then the chorus kicks in and it's complete late '70s/early '80s kitsch. Not bad for a revival dance party, but utterly unsuitable for a Bond film.
BEST MOMENT: The aforementioned opening.
"All Time High"—Rita Coolidge (Octopussy, 1983)
Carly Simon lite. A little trifling, a little disco-y, but oh so pretty. Like so many Pre-Modern Era songs (and the Moore films, for that matter), it captures the elegance but not the urgency or grit. "Let the dream begin," indeed. This song sounds like a dream. Not a bad thing, altogether.
BEST MOMENT: The first five words of each chorus.
THE MODERN ERA
"A View To A Kill"—Duran Duran (A View To A Kill, 1985)
In the Modern Era of Bond themes, some of the world's biggest artists have been tapped, raising the profile of the musical contributions to the franchise. The release of a new Bond theme is now an event. Duran Duran begins the era on a strong note with the only Bond theme to go to No. 1 (although Adele may join them shortly). Despite the band's limitations, it's a master class in how to create a great Bond theme. The song is a perfect marriage of group and franchise; it sounds completely like a Bond theme and completely like a Duran Duran song. And Simon Le Bon's much-maligned voice does actually have that great blend of elegance and urgency. And it's fun! A great choice, and a great theme.
BEST MOMENT: "A chance to die." An unexpected lyric that hangs in the air. Nice touch.
"The Living Daylights"—A-Ha (The Living Daylights, 1987)
Sigh. The Modern Era started with such promise. There's no need to pile on here; this may well have been the very best Bond theme the band was able to produce. But whose idea was it to commission them in the first place? Poor Timothy Dalton never had a chance. The less said about his one, the better.
BEST MOMENT: When it ends.
"Licence To Kill"—Gladys Knight (Licence To Kill, 1989)
Perhaps in justifiable backlash against "The Living Daylights," the producers turn to the greatest (to that point) soul diva ever to do a Bond theme. The song is weak, and the arrangement is terribly '80s-cheesy, but Gladys' voice is undeniable.
BEST MOMENT: At the end of each chorus, when Knight's "Got a license to kiiiilll" leads into the Barry theme. Nicely played.
"GoldenEye"—Tina Turner (Goldeneye, 1995)
Apparently inspired by Gladys Knight saving the day, the producers up the ante on soul divas by recruiting the great Tina Turner. Let's be honest, Turner could sing "Happy Birthday" and it would be an above-average Bond theme. The song itself is weak, but it hardly matters. Outside of Bassey, she may have the greatest blend of urgency and elegance in her voice, even at 56. They could have done worse than signing her to a five-film deal.
BEST MOMENT: The minute she starts singing.
"Tomorrow Never Dies"—Sheryl Crow (Tomorrow Never Dies, 1997)
Another ill-conceived match of singer and franchise. The song isn't terrible, just kind of boring as Crow is obviously far out of her comfort zone. Her public persona may have something to do with it; it's difficult to reconcile the jeans-jacket-and-boots Crow with 007. And the stop-and-start nature of the song is distracting. She gamely tries to hit a crescendo in each chorus, but it's utterly forgettable.
BEST MOMENT: The cello under the verses actually works pretty well.
"The World Is Not Enough"—Garbage (The World Is Not Enough, 1999)
Now we're talking. Until this year, the high point of the Modern Era was this song, and it came from an unlikely source. I'd never really thought of Shirley Manson as a throwback singer, but damned if she doesn't sound that way here. Soft and slinky in the verses, loud and brassy in the chorus. You can almost see Shirley Bassey nodding approvingly.
BEST MOMENT: The lead-in to each chorus. And the electronica beat is surprisingly effective. Also, the way the theme sneaks in at the end. Love it.
"Die Another Day"—Madonna (Die Another Day, 2002)
Ugh. This is what happens when someone thinks their persona is bigger than the franchise. It doesn't make you think of James Bond; it makes you think of Madonna. Neither urgency nor elegance. No connection to the character. Worse than ignoring the title of the film, she uses it in other contexts. She should be sending thank-you notes to whomever hired A-ha, because they're the only ones saving her from the bottom of the heap. If you love this one, it's only because you love Madonna.
BEST MOMENT: "Sigmund Freud." Only because you know then that you can hit "stop" and skip the rest.
"You Know My Name"—Chris Cornell (Casino Royale, 2006)
The most frustrating entry on the list. It should have been great. Cornell's voice veritably screams its urgency. And although moving away from the film's title is always dangerous, "You Know My Name" is pretty fantastic as a title for a Bond theme. So what happened? Maybe Cornell was creatively exhausted after coming up with that title, because the song is completely uninspired. Weird melody in the verses, and completely cookie-cutter chorus. And how is it that his magnificent voice never gets a chance to completely let go and start howling? Oh, what might have been.
BEST MOMENT: Cornell finally gets a little crescendo at the end, although it's buried in muddy instrumentation.
"Another Way to Die"—Jack White & Alicia Keys (Quantum of Solace, 2008)
A great pairing, and they seem to be doing their best to produce something that screams Bond. The back-and-forth vocals shouldn't work but they do, chiefly because White brings the urgency and Keys the elegance. It still sounds a little too Jack White-y and not Bond-y enough. But strong enough to overcome it. Barely.
BEST MOMENT: Keys taking it to the bridge. Not sure what she's saying, but it's cool.
"Skyfall"—Adele (Skyfall, 2012)
The producers may have missed their chance to have Amy Winehouse do a Bond theme, but they make up for it here with their most inspired choice in years. It's not just that she's a throwback vocalist; it's that she's a great vocalist. Greater than any previous Bond theme singer not named Tina Turner. The song sounds simultaneously of the moment and timeless. The Barry theme subtly appears behind the verses. A gradual, slow build. And if you don't get chills when the chorus begins, you must not have your finger on the pulse of Bondness.
BEST MOMENT: "Let the Skyfallll." Of course.
FINAL RANKING (note: the instrumental theme was the credits song for Dr. No and is not eligible):
"Thunderball"—Tom Jones (from THUNDERBALL, 1965)
Diamonds Are Forever—Shirley Bassey (from DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER, 1971)
Goldfinger—Shirley Bassey (from GOLDFINGER, 1964)
Skyfall—Adele (from SKYFALL, 2012)
You Only Live Twice—Nancy Sinatra (from YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE, 1967)
From Russia With Love—Matt Monro (from FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE, 1963)
A View To A Kill—Duran Duran (from A VIEW TO A KILL, 1985)
Nobody Does It Better—Carly Simon (from THE SPY WHO LOVED ME, 1977)
The World Is Not Enough—Garbage (from THE WORLD IS NOT ENOUGH, 1999)
We Have All The Time In The World—Louis Armstrong (from ON HER MAJESTY'S SECRET SERVICE, 1969)
GoldenEye (Single Edit)—Tina Turner (from GOLDENEYE, 1995)
All Time High—Rita Coolidge (from OCTOPUSSY, 1983)
Another Way To Die—Jack White & Alicia Keys (from QUANTUM OF SOLACE, 2008)
Moonraker—Shirley Bassey (from MOONRAKER, 1979)
The Man With The Golden Gun—Lulu (from THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN GUN, 1974)
Licence To Kill—Gladys Knight (from LICENCE TO KILL, 1989)
Live And Let Die—Paul McCartney & Wings (from LIVE AND LET DIE, 1973)
Tomorrow Never Dies—Sheryl Crow (from TOMORROW NEVER DIES, 1997)
For Your Eyes Only—Sheena Easton (from FOR YOUR EYES ONLY, 1981)
You Know My Name—Chris Cornell (from CASINO ROYALE, 2006)
Die Another Day—Madonna (from DIE ANOTHER DAY, 2002)
The Living Daylights—A-Ha (from THE LIVING DAYLIGHTS, 1987)