For the love of entertainment
The James Bond franchise is the most enduring movie series of all time. Each movie is is iconic in its own way–even if that way is simply by being terrible. Elaborate opening title sequences are a hallmark of the series, usually featuring a prestigious artist belting out a tune while scantily clad women dance in silhouette. Getting selected to sing a Bond theme is quite an honor. Some artists have acquitted themselves quite well when they got a shot at 007 glory, while others fell flat on their face. What better way to honor one of the most iconic features of the 007 franchise than to line up all its signature songs and rank them?
Please note that for practical purposes I have decided to omit the James Bond theme itself, played over the opening credits to 007’s first adventure, Dr. No. Let’s give the other songs a chance.
Coming from the unofficial (not to mention execrable) James Bond adventure Never Say Never Again, this one can’t be part of the official ranking but still deserves to be called out for being awful. I mean truly wretched. If it counted, it would easily be second worst. “Never Say Never Again” is worse than easy listening hell because it dared to actually veer hard into the elevator music classification. If phones have hold music in hell, this song is what plays.
I just don’t know how to choose the worst Bond song. On the one hand, Madonna’s “Die Another Day” makes my ears bleed. On the other hand, Lulu’s “The Man With the Golden Gun” leaves me utterly confounded and afraid for humanity. Let’s discuss them in chronological order, shall we?
I don’t know where to start with “The Man With the Golden Gun.” The music is bad on its own, but the lyrics are where this song really goes off the rails. I mean, I love me some puns, but “his eye may be on you or me, who will he bang?” is just beyond the pale. And that’s only one example of the terrible pun-work at play here. Even Arnold Schwarzenegger as Dr. Freeze in Batman and Robin thinks they went too far. How did Lulu agree to this? She sings with such enthusiasm, too. “Love is required, whenever he’s hired–it comes just before the kill.” Someone should hire the man with the golden gun to assassinate everyone involved in the creation of this song. No jury would convict him. Someone actually wrote this. Someone actually sang this. Musicians actually performed this. Someone actually listened to this and said “yup, that’s the theme we want.” If that doesn’t make you afraid for humanity, I don’t know what will.
“Die Another Day” also has some ludicrous lyrics. It name-drops Sigmund Freud for some reason. What really makes it earn this spot, though, is the war it wages on your eardrums. Remember Madonna’s awkward phase post-Ray of Light? When she had let go of the zen-Madonna thing but hadn’t latched onto the disco diva Madonna of ‘Hung Up’ yet? That’s the unfortunate timing of her landing a James Bond theme. Madonna hooked up with Mirwais and made music with all kinds of weird sounds, then briefly tried on a militant persona before recognizing that it just wasn’t working and moving on to her next incarnation. Unfortunately, we got stuck with this turd in the punch bowl as a reminder of her awkward stage. She also got a cameo in the movie, and even that was painful (to be fair, everything about Die Another Day is painful). Let’s just pretend this never happened, okay? Forgetting is the only way we’ll get by in life.
As if the person who put together the main title sequence understood how painful the music was, “Die Another Day” plays to stylized scenes of James Bond being tortured in a North Korean prison. How terribly apt.
Oh, Miss Shirley. You are better than this. You have the best Bond theme of all time to your credit, and you got lured back to sing this? It’s okay to say no to the Bond producers when they call, you know. The lyrics should have been a tip-off that this was going to be a disaster: “Just like the Moonraker goes in search of his dream of gold / I search for love, for someone to have and hold.” What does that even mean?! Oh, Miss Shirley. You are a lucky woman. You are lucky because the disco version of this that plays over the end credits kinda redeems it. A version so awful that it actually comes around to being spectacular from a camp perspective (if only the same could be said about Moonraker the movie). But the regular version, the one that plays over the opening credits? Dull as dishwater, honey.
When you hire Gladys Knight to do a Bond theme it’s tempting to do pop-gospel. It’s not the usual Bond sound but it could be made to work (after all, you should use your hired talent according to the talent they possess). But this song was never going to work. First, the production is so terribly try-hard. Second, the confounding lyrics attempt to blend a love song with the violence inherent to the series, and it comes off… odd. Gladys Knight sounds like a serial killer. “Please don’t bet that you’ll ever escape me once I get my sights on you. I got a licence to kill, and you know I’m going straight for your heart. I got a licence to kill anyone who tries to tear us apart.” Guys, Gladys Knight is one step away from boiling a bunny. Finally, the very-Christian Gladys strongly objected to using the word ”kill’ in the song (did she pay attention to the rest of the lyrics?). I suppose that’s why it sounds like she’s saying ‘licence to kilt’ every time the chorus comes around. Oh, Gladys. You cheeky conscientious objector/serial killer.
Two Bond themes can be described as ‘easy listening hell.’ They were released in consecutive Bond movies, and (spoiler alert), they also appear consecutively on this list. The first is Sheena Easton’s sleepy “For Your Eyes Only.” There’s no rhythm or tempo, just blandness. Turns out saccharine earnestness doesn’t make for a good Bond song. But hey, at least Sheena can claim the distinction of being the only singer to appear in the opening credits along with her Bond theme. But then, given the theme song I’m not sure I would ever cash in those bragging rights. Come on, Sheena. You’re so much better than this. Don’t let it get you down. Shake out your hair, fix your makeup, go outside and strut. Strut, pout, put it out. That’s the Sheena we love.
The other half of the ‘easy listening hell’ duo is Rita Coolidge’s ode to elevator music, “All Time High.” It’s a bland love song and it has precious little to do with the movie it’s paired with. I suppose we should be grateful they didn’t try to work ‘Octopussy‘ into the lyrics, but still, there’s absolutely no through-line from song to movie. What makes this better than its easy listening companion is that it has a slight tempo to it. That saves it from being utterly monotonous. You might begrudgingly admire the producers’ dedication to easy listening in the early 80s if the results weren’t so stultifying.
When it comes to terminally boring Bond themes, “The World is Not Enough” reigns supreme. I would question whether or not Garbage was a good choice for a Bond theme in the first place, but once the decision was made, why go with a saccharine lite-rock ballad? Remember that “use your singers according to the talent they possess” rule of thumb? Shirley Manson,Garbage’s lead singer, was what the late 90s considered an edgy mainstream rocker chick. Ballads are not in her wheelhouse. The song itself is too bland to merit discussion. It’s so boring that it’s hard to even work up any rage against. To damn it with faint praise, it has the sound of a Bond song. That’s all you can say.
I love Sheryl Crow, but this song was clearly out of her wheelhouse. It’s fine enough (if bland) when she’s doing her breathy thing during the quiet moments, but when the chorus comes around it sounds like she’s shouting more than singing. Sheryl Crow is not a belter. She’s not Shirley Bassey. Believe it or not, that’s okay. She doesn’t have to be, provided you don’t give her a song outside her vocal range. She’s an indie singer-songwriter type. She’s not the person you go to when you want to blow the roof off the joint. Use your singers according to the talents they possess. I hope we learned something today.
It’s not that “You Know My Name” is a bad song. It’s just forgettable. And, okay, not especially good. The most disappointing thing about it is that it’s far and away the weak link when it comes to Casino Royale, one of the better Bond movies on record and the movie that finally managed to bring James Bond into the modern era. I suppose in keeping with that theme, rocker Chris Cornell seemed like a good choice. The end result just didn’t come together. Strictly middle of the road all the way.
Matt Monro’s “From Russia With Love” and Louis Armstrong’s “We Have All the Time in the World” are the only two Bond themes that don’t play over the opening credits. Truth be told, this one wouldn’t have played well over the opening credits anyway. It’s not a bad song per se, but it is relatively bland compared to the other, more grandiose Bond themes. It has some nice flourishes and you can never deny Louis Armstrong knew how to leverage his unusual voice, but in the end there isn’t much memorable.
Nowadays there’s a strict formula for a Bond movie’s structure. There’s an opening sequence followed by elaborate opening credits that play over a theme song by a seasoned performer. Once that’s done, the movie itself can begin. But that rigid structure didn’t exist when From Russia With Love, the second Bond movie, was released. It wouldn’t be until Goldfinger that producers stumbled on the formula. As such, Matt Monro’s theme gets short shrift here, only heard in the background of a scene halfway through the film. Instead, an instrumental version plays over the opening credits. Despite not getting a spotlight, “From Russia With Love” isn’t a bad song. In my review of the movie, I called it “Sinatra lite,” and I stick to that assessment. It really does sound like a song producers would have wanted Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, or even Perry Como to sing, but couldn’t get them to sign on for. Since that review, however, the song has grown on me a bit. It has a certain charm to it, and Monro performs it well. It just doesn’t sound like a Bond song, which I suppose makes sense because no one had any concept of what a Bond song was supposed to be at the time (again, Goldfinger would set the standard). And while some songs have departed from the typical Bond sound with success, this one doesn’t stick out as well.
After decades of failing to win an Academy Award for Best Original Song, Bond went back-to-back at the Oscars with Adele’s Skyfall theme and Sam Smith’s ode to Spectre, respectively. Unfortunately, only one of them deserved it and it wasn’t this one. It’s not that “Writing’s On the Wall” is a terrible song–it isn’t. It’s just so expected. And dull. Sam Smith has a big voice like Adele but they clearly thought they could build an entire song around the sound of his voice. It didn’t work. Even “Skyfall” had more propulsive sounds to build tension and a sense of mood. “Writing’s On the Wall” has empty flourishes here and there that don’t do anything but echo the Bond “sound” and support Smith’s vocals. There’s no real tone or personality at all, although it’s perfectly inoffensive. It certainly isn’t memorable.
With Sean Connery’s exit from the series, producers made the curious decision to relegate the actual theme song (“We Have All the Time in the World”) to a set piece later in the film. I suspect two forces were at play here. First, they seemed keen to re-introduce Bond with new star George Lazenby, so the instrumental “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service” is a call-back to the legendary Bond theme from Dr. No. Second, placed where it is “We Have All the Time in the World” plays more like a love theme for Bond’s relationship with Tracy, who would become his wife (briefly). I decided to include “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service” in the list because it is an original piece of music unique to a single movie. I also happen to like it a lot. It calls back to the sound of the main Bond theme without being a retread, and the air of menace it builds is nicely done. It may be a bit of an oddity among Bond themes, but it deserves recognition.
Judge if you must but I like this song. What else was a Bond song supposed to sound like in the 80s? “The Living Daylights” was Bond’s second theme song in a row to cater to MTV’s demographic. It’s a silly, over-the-top song, but doesn’t that describe a lot of music in the 80s anyway? At least it’s fun. Certainly more fun than the song by The Pretenders that was almost used instead (that song plays over the end credits and periodically during the movie when the henchman is listening to it on his Walkman). “The Living Daylights” is frivolous 80s bombast at its second-best for 007. Why second-best? Because of the other 80s Bond theme that pandered to the MTV generation…
Duran Duran’s “A View to a Kill” is basically “The Living Daylights” with a more, ahem, killer hook. And Bond songs are all about the hook, after all. It even has a Bond theme’s requisite nonsensical, violence-tinged lyrics (“that fatal kiss” is a common refrain). Basically, this is all the so-bad-it’s-good 80s deliciousness of “The Living Daylights” with a better eye for 007 tropes. It also had much more fun opening credits to back it up–think dancing naked ladies with black light-enhanced makeup pretending to ski. Of course, the credits themselves can’t impact how good the song is. It’s just the cherry on top. It’s as though producers realized the opening credit sequences have always been ridiculous and decided to just lean into it.
Quantum of Solace took itself too seriously, and “Another Way to Die” plays into that without actually falling into the trap. It’s a nice blend of the two singers performing it. The aggressive guitars are very Jack White while the resounding piano is very Alicia Keyes. It sounds modern and edgy while calling back to the pomp and circumstance that has defined the Bond franchise–something producers fumbled with the theme to Casino Royale. Amy Winehouse was the original choice to record a Bond theme for Quantum of Solace, but she had to drop out due to a double whammy of legal troubles and substance abuse. I imagine whatever she might have come up with would have sounded like Adele’s eventual theme for “Skyfall”–falling into the moody, melancholic camp instead of the aggressive rock camp.
I like “Thunderball.” I mean, it’s a thoroughly ridiculous song but it’s fun and totally fitting in with classic Bond themes like “Goldfinger.” In fact, I’d say Tom Jones proved to be a worthy successor to Shirley Bassey, whose Goldfinger theme directly preceded this one. Jones gives this song his all. There are even rumors that he fainted after recording that last big, long note in the song. That is commitment. If there’s a flaw, it’s that it feels a little too close to “Goldfinger.” That is, it doesn’t feel original so much as it feels like an attempt to duplicate something magical that happened before. Given that, I can’t place it any higher than this. I still love it, though. Even if I have no idea what it means to strike like Thunderball.
God I love this song. “Diamonds Are Forever” was Dame Shirley Bassey’s second Bond theme after her legendary theme from Goldfinger. Let’s forget her third outing, “Moonraker,” ever happened. There’s a reason she’s the only performer to have sung more than one Bond theme: she does it so well. “Diamonds” is quieter than the bombastic swells of “Goldfinger” and that’s part of its charm. It’s sultry, seductive, emotional, and so very bitchy (“unlike men, the diamonds linger”). Plus, it has slight early-era disco flourishes. It’s far and away the best thing about Diamonds Are Forever, that’s for sure. It may not be one of the most frequently discussed Bond themes, but for my money it deserves top marks.
“Skyfall” was the first Bond theme to win an Academy Award for Best Original Song after three previous nominations (for “Live and Let Die,” “Nobody Does it Better,” and “For Your Eyes Only”). In addition to that achievement for the series, it also proves that a song can be an excellent Bond theme without audio pyrotechnics. “Skyfall,” like the movie itself, is something of an elegy. It is somber, quiet, and beautiful. “This is the end,” Adele intones, foreshadowing not only the demise of Judi Dench’s M but the devastating final showdown… “at Skyfall.” Adele is the 21st century answer to Shirley Bassey. This may seem boring compared to other Bond themes, but make no mistake: this is one of the best cases on record of a Bond theme doing justice to its film.
“You Only Live Twice” has one of the most famous hooks of any Bond theme, and that says a lot. It does sound like Nancy Sinatra is sleep-walking through the song a bit, but if you ask me that’s just what “You Only Live Twice” called for. The subtlety is a nice change of pace, while the sleepy tone hints at both the air of mystery the song is going for and the undertones of attitude the best Bond themes dish out. The lyrics are gorgeous, sumptuous, evocative. I’ve actually owned this song for many years and frequently catch myself humming the opening bars. I can’t think of a greater compliment than that.
To me, Tina Turner’s “GoldenEye” is the unsung hero of Bond themes. It doesn’t get much respect in favor of other, flashier themes, which is a shame because it is unquestionably one of the best. From the hook that lures you in to Tina Turner’s sultry delivery, “GoldenEye” is a Bond theme firing on all cylinders. “GoldenEye” might not be the showiest Bond theme, but it delivers. It doesn’t hurt that Ms. Turner imbues the song with Shirley Bassey levels of divatude. That level of diva is the calling card of good Bond themes, and Tina Turner could hit it in her sleep.
Fun fact: I didn’t even know this was a Bond theme until I was well into my teens. Until then, I thought it was just a fantastic song. That’s simultaneously the wonderful thing about “Nobody Does it Better” and what holds it back from placing higher in this list. It’s glory is that it’s a really great song that happens to be a Bond theme. The problem, then, is that we’re ranking Bond themes and this doesn’t really fit into the pack very well. Personally, I love it for that audacity. But I have to admit, the top spots on this list have to be reserved for Bond themes that are great songs and emblematic of the brand. Still, the pairing of Carly Simon and songwriter Marvin Hamlisch was brilliant. If only Bond producers had stuck with that during most of the seventies. If they had, we would have been spared from a lot of missteps. If I were going off of personal preference, this song would be #1.
The gymnastics and trampoline work in the credits themselves are totally on point. Not to mention hilarious. Unfortunately it became a trope the opening credits called back to far too often in the next two decades.
If we were talking about critical preference, “Live and Let Die” would be number one without question. It’s one of the two biggest, most iconic Bond themes in existence, and of those two it is far and away the better song from a mainstream, commercial perspective. Like “Nobody Does it Better,” “Live and Let Die” is a good song that happens to be a Bond theme, although in this case it better embodies the brand. The hook, the chorus… all legendary. This is one of the biggest songs of Paul McCartney’s career–and he was in The Beatles. That says it all. If I were going off personal preference, I’d give it to “Nobody Does It Better.” If I were thinking like a critic, I’d go with “Live and Let Die.” Still, we have to consider that we’re talking specifically about Bond themes, which means our number one has to be a great song and personify the Bond brand best. Which means that of the two most iconic Bond themes, we have to give the top spot to…
No other song has defined Bond better than “Gondfinger.” It set the standard for all others to follow. It took three movies to get it right, but once the template was in place the Bond series as we know it was officially born. It’s a great song that is also totally inseparable from the Bond franchise. In fact, it helps define who James Bond is. It helps that Dame Shirley Bassey, in her first outing with the Bond series, belts her heart out in one of pop culture’s most sublime performances of all time. It should come as no surprise, then, that when the Academy Awards were celebrating Bond’s 50th anniversary in 2012, the centerpiece of their tribute was to bring Shirley Bassey onstage to perform the series’ signature theme song. And in true Shirley Bassey (read: DIVA) fashion, she belted it out just as well as she did when the song was first released in 1964.