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.