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!"