James Bond theme songs, from worst to first
The Bond Songs
The Man with the Golden Gun (1974) – When I say this one’s a Lulu, I mean it literally. Performed by World-Famous-In-Britain pop-singer Lulu, the song is loud and tinny, and the electric guitars simply do not mesh with the horns. The lyrics try too hard to tell a story, and the rhymes are weak (“Love is required whenever he’s hired”…whew.)
Thunderball (1965) – this song is saved from the basement by one thing; the dulcet tones of Mister Tom Jones. The man can make any song seem a masterpiece – case in point, his rendition of the theme from Duck Dodgers in the 24 1/2 Century, which he makes hilarious by treating it perfectly seriously. But once you peel his performance away, you’re left with a boring, plodding song with almost no creativity in its lyrics. It was composed at the eleventh hour (replacing the aforementioned “Kiss kiss Bang Bang”) and brother, it shows.
Die Another Day (2002) – This song should have been a LOT better. Madonna has a perfect voice for a Bond theme, but she chose to do a Madonna song instead. Auto-tuned, overproduced and overly beat-boxed, it’s almost annoying to listen to. Listening to it now, it actually shares a lot of similarities to the modern work of LMFAO and Psy, he of “Gangam Style”, neither of which I’d let within 100 yards of a Bond soundtrack. Ironically, the song she did for The Spy Who Shagged Me, “Beautiful Stranger”, would have done far better.
From Russia with Love (1963) – Technically the theme for this film is the one over the opening credits, titled “James Bond is Back”, a solid song that both incorporates and honors the James Bond Theme from Dr. No. But it’s the closing song, sung by Matt Monro that places it here. Monro has a very Sinatra-styled tone here, a style he first used on a Peter sellers album “Songs for Swinging Sellers”, under the name Fred Flange. It’s a slow song, more romantic than exciting, and seems to have been written by someone who was only given the title, and not told that it’s for a Bond film..
All Time High (Octopussy ,1983) Octopussy is often a film people forget in the list, and Rita Coolidge was an…interesting choice for the song. More a jazz performer than mainstream pop, she didn’t have the cache of other performers. She’s a fine singer, but like other selections, the song seems unconnected to the movie, pulled out of the trunk as opposed to composed for the film.
You Only Live Twice (1967) – This is the reverse of Thunderball – it’s a pretty good song by Leslie Bricusse and John Barry, which is pulled down a couple pegs by the singer, Nancy Sinatra, who was always a journeyman singer, but not a master. Se’s got a voice more for pop songs than torch songs, and this song needed the latter. The tune is stronger than the lyrics, with a lot of long reaches to hit the rhyme on “twice”. The songs that didn’t worry as much about hitting the rhyme and so heavily repeating and featuring the title at the end of each verse generally fared better. Thunderball is by far the worst offender in that regard.
License to Kill (1989) Gladys Knight is a fine singer, but her more soul style was out of phase with the needs of a Bond theme. The song was very good for her style, but again, not for a Bond film. The recurring two chord motif that reminded you a bit too much of Goldfinger starts to annoy once you notice it.
Moonraker (1979) – It seems almost crass not to promote all of Shirley Bassey’s three Bond themes to the top five, if only out of sheer respect. But as good as her performance is, the song is nice, but ultimately forgettable, and for a Bond theme, that’s nearly unforgiveable.
The World Is Not Enough (1999) – Shirley Manson, lead singer of Garbage has the perfect voice, the music is a great mix of rock and orchestra, and it’s certainly one of the better of the more recent Bond themes. It’s only the fact that the song doesn’t quite have enough direction that keeps it from hitting further up the top half of the list. The video, however, is awesome.
A View to a Kill (1985) – This and the next film went for more well known rock bands to do the theme, as opposed to solo performers. and it’s interesting that they come dead in the middle of the list – beaten almost entirely by more traditional songs, but better than the less successful ones. Both songs are much more examples of the bands’ style of songs, but both were able to tailor their tone to the films’ needs likely through he assistance of indefatigable collaborator John Barry. This song, by Duran Duran, is a fine song, but fell slightly short of that need to write a Bond song, as opposed to put a Duran Duran song in a Bond movie.
The Living Daylights (1987) – Yes, Virginia, a-ha had more than one good song, and this was the other one. Their somewhat mellow style here worked well, and the brief hammer-dulcimer riff at the beginning gave the song a memorable sting that so many Bond songs have.
“Another Way to Die” (Quantum of Solace, 2008) – It’s interesting that this is the most successful of the “rock and roll” style bond themes, as it’s also the one that broke the most rules. This is mainly due to the composing and arranging of Jack White, who used rock instruments like guitars and drums, in a more “orchestrative” way to give a more traditional sound to the song. Alicia Keys has a good voice for a Bond theme, but by going for a more percussive cadence, instead of smoky and slow, she comes around the other direction and makes it work. It’s a song with attitude, and that’s what a Bond film needs, certainly the Daniel Craig ones.
For Your Eyes Only (1981) – Sheena Easton has a unique honor (to date) in the Bond films – she’s actually seen performing this song over the opening credits. She’s got a lovely voice, and the song works well for her. It uses the title well, without getting ham-handed about it, all ingredients that earn is a rather high spot on the list.
“Nobody Does it Better” (The Spy Who Loved Me, 1977) – Marvin Hamlisch was a true renaissance man when it came to composing. He could do Broadway, love songs, and as he did here, performed by Carly Simon, a quintessential torch song. It’s also the first theme not to be named after the film, and the title only appears once in the song.
“You Know My Name” (Casino Royale, 2006) – Only a couple men have sung Bond themes. Perhaps that’s usually because the songs have a more sexual tension to them, and that works better sung by a woman, since it’s a guy they’re singing about. Chris Cornell, on the other hand, is singing about murder. And as a result, it works very well.
Live and Let Die (1973) – I must confess to personal weakness here – I’m genetically predestined to adore the work of Paul McCartney, and this song it no exception. It’s got the bombastic excitement that a Bond theme needs. The instrumental portions far outperform the brief lyrics.
“Surrender” (Tomorrow Never Dies, 1997) – It’s called “B-side syndrome” – once in a blue moon, the main song chosen for a single is blah, while the song on the flip side ends up being the hit. The main title song for this film, by Sheryl Crow, is no better than okay, and if it got a separate listing, would be in the bottom third of this list. But it’s the closing credits song “Surrender”, by kd lang, that gets this spot on the list. That was originally to be the main theme, and its tune is incorporated in the score of the film in numerous places. Crow’s song was added late in the process. Lang’s performance is jaw-dropping, a perfect torch song.
Diamonds are Forever (1971) – The inverse of two of the songs near the bottom of the list, this is a good song made great by the remarkable Shirley Bassey. Returning after her triumph on Goldfinger (which you’ll notice hasn’t showed up on this list yet), the song is a smoky counterpoint to the musical classic on the same topic, “Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend”. Lorelei Lee sees them as an object of avarice; Shirley sees them as sensual.
On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969) – One of only three instrumental themes for the films, it’s another John Barry wonder. A simple short theme, repeated several times with successively larger orchestration, it stays with you afterwards, and in a good way. The film also featured the bittersweet closing song “We Have All The Time in the World”, performed by jazz legend Louis Armstrong. As good as it is, seek out Iggy Pop‘s cover version from the closing credits of the Adrien Brody film The Jacket, and be suitably impressed.
GoldenEye (1995) – Tina Turner has provided a number of songs for films, and her voice has that unique combination of “Nice and easy” and “Nice and rough” like honey-coated sandpaper. She sings this one perfectly – the verses are low the throaty, and the bridge gives her a chance to hit those lovely notes she does so well. A good move to provide a more traditional styled theme for Pierce Brosnan’s first Bond film.
Skyfall (2012) – When I heard Adele would be providing the theme for the latest bond film, my expectations were high. The final performance lit a rocket under those expectations. Adele’s voice is breathtaking, and the song is simple, emotional and expertly scored. A clear return to the more orchestrated themes of the past, it FEELS like a Bond theme, something the more rock-and-roll-y tunes never did. It brought the wife to tears – she had never heard Adele perform, and believe me, this is one hell of a first song to hear.
Goldfinger (1964) – Was there ANY doubt? The perfect song, from the perfect Bond film, by Shirley Bassey, who is rightly synonymous with the Bond theme. The song is as recognizable as the Bond theme itself.