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.