We’re coming down to the end of this year-long trip through the James Bond series. In the last couple weeks, I did countdowns of the Top 10 Pre-Title Sequences and the Top 10 Villains in the series. Now, we’re getting back to my original plan for the series which was to finish the year of articles with a ranking of the James Bond Theme Songs and then next week, rank the films. Let’s get started!
First and foremost, we have to talk about two themes that I am not going to rank. First up is “James Bond Theme” because, c’mon… If I did rank this it would #1 without a second thought. If I ranked it anywhere else, I suspect people would come to my house to give their grievances. Yes, it is the theme to Dr. No. Yes, it is the theme for the main character. However, I feel it is a tad unfair to each unique song lucky enough to be a James Bond movie theme when this same iconic theme plays in every single movie in the franchise.
Still… It’s a really good theme.
Second, there are two “themes” from On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. The first is John Barry’s awesome orchestral theme. It’s exciting, it was very modern for the 60s, and it allowed for the filmmakers to show clips from the previous films to help remind you that with or without Sean Connery, you’re still watching a James Bond movie. The other song that can count as a bit of a theme on its own is the song “We Have All the Time in the World” written by Hal David and Barry. It’s sung by Louis Armstrong and is a beautiful ode for Bond and Countess Tracy (Diana Rigg) as their relationship blossomed. I also convinced my brother and sister-in-law to use the song in their 1992 wedding ceremony. So… It’s pretty romantic.
Now onto the countdown proper.
“DIE ANOTHER DAY”, MADONNA
This song sucks. It sucks. I can only give it a lukewarm thumbs up in general because it is a Bond theme song, but if it wasn’t, I’d want to throw it in the garbage. Madonna was the right person to both sing a Bond theme and appear in the movie (as she did in Die Another Day), but both instances were about 15 years too late as she had transitioned into a more trance pop dance sound that is wince-inducing at least and enraging at worst. Different sounds are okay, they have worked in the past (see #2, #5, and #7 below), but when it misses, it missed badly.
“THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN GUN”, LULU
Almost everything about this movie is a misfire. The primary exception is Christopher Lee as Scaramanga, of course. John Barry and Don Black wrote this song as well, and Barry felt the entire musical landscape of the film to be among his weakest efforts… ever. I feel bad for Lulu because she is probably right for the usual Bond theme motif if compared to Shirley Bassey, but the song just doesn’t work. It’s peppy, it blares with brassy sound, but the lyrics are kind of silly (and really immaturely raunchy).
“DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER”, SHIRLEY BASSEY
Easily the weakest of the three songs from Bassey, this song, much like “The Man with the Golden Gun”, is incredibly raunchy and actually created a relationship issue between co-producer Harry Saltzman and John Barry that led to Barry being completely cut out of the Live and Let Die action in 1973. The story is that Barry instructed Bassey to sing the song as if she was singing to a penis. While that’s an interesting story, it doesn’t make the song any better. As with the two that rank lower than this one, “Diamonds Are Forever” is a not great song, not a great film, and just an overall mess.
“WRITING’S ON THE WALL”, SAM SMITH
I… don’t like this song. It’s boring. The reason why it is able to rank above the past three entries is that Sam Smith’s vocals are truly emotional. That said, I appreciate his talent, but I’m not really a fan of Smith’s. He doesn’t really sing songs that I would find myself listening to – outside of this song (it gets a similar pass as “Die Another Day”). It’s emotional. It has something to say as it pertains to the movie. It’s just too sleepy and too draining when I would rather have hit the ground running with Spectre.
“NO TIME TO DIE”, BILLIE EILISH
Is this fair to already include the latest theme when the movie hasn’t seen the light of day? Eh… Yes? Is it much of an improvement on the last movie and the last entry? Barely. As with Smith, I’m not really a fan of Eilish. I appreciate her soulful sound, but this is yet another emotional and sleepy theme song. I can tell the lyrics, like with “Writing’s on the Wall”, are connected to the emotional beats of the movie. There are a couple decent lines, but it’s yet another snoozefest that comes off the heals of the critical success of Smith and Adele’s past themes.
“ANOTHER WAY TO DIE”, ALICIA KEYS AND JACK WHITE
Well, Bond might have no time to die, but Keys and White deliver “Another” option with this fairly kinetic, heavy beat rock song that opens Quantum of Solace. I know many don’t like this song and I don’t exactly blame them. It’s not without some messy issues in the vocals, but I have a secret to reveal to you about this song… This actual song is my water mark for themes in the series. If I can either like a theme song as much as or more than “Another Way to Die”, it’s a “worthy” Bond theme in my opinion. So, now you can probably guess that all the songs I’ve not yet mentioned (along with the unranked ones before the countdown) are indeed worthy Bond themes.
“THUNDERBALL”, TOM JONES
This theme was the one that almost wasn’t. Originally a song called “Mr. Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang” was written by John Barry and Leslie Bricusse and it was recorded by Shirley Bassey. When some issues came up, Dionne Warwick was called in relief to record a new version, but that too was scrapped. Don Black and Barry collaborated at the last minute and Tom Jones recorded the song. There was a more tightly interwoven song called “Thunderball” written and sung by Johnny Cash, but it wasn’t used. I believe that Tom Jones continued to perform the song in concerts for a good chunk of his career.
“GOLDFINGER”, SHILREY BASSEY
This is about as quintessential Bond theme as you can have. It perfectly encapsulates the film’s villain and has that really sexy jazz sound that John Barry was so enamored with in the earlier part of his career. The main riff of the instrumental part even sings “Goldfinger” without Bassey’s vocals. It’s just about everything you could think of when it comes to a Bond theme and really set the bar high for every theme that came after it to be just as exciting or contemporary or descriptive as possible.
“FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE”, MATT MONRO
This is one that is kind of forgotten as NOT actually being played at the beginning of the movie, but later in one of the earliest scenes in the movie. This is the second Bond film and the series was still finding its legs. John Barry had written a wonderful orchestral suite to play at the beginning that was a medley of the instrumental for “From Russia With Love” with “James Bond Theme”. Then, the Matt Monro version of the song plays in the film proper and during the end credits. So, it crosses that line of being like the two unranked songs and the previous entry in the countdown above. The song is both not the opening theme but also the actual theme song of the movie. Either way, it’s a solid song and rather appropriately romantic.
“ALL TIME HIGH”, RITA COOLIDGE
Oddly, I think Rita Coolidge’s smooth adult contemporary love song is my favorite thing about Octopussy. It’s so… pleasant. It’s not one that I would say I would have loved outside of the context of the James Bond series, but it’s a song that is not just contemporary, but also matches so well with the Roger Moore era. It’s almost about as Roger Moore as you can get in the theme song side of the series. It’s just nice and therefore earns its spot in the middle of the pack.
“THE LIVING DAYLIGHTS”, a-ha
Okay, so the previous entry’s theme, “A View to a Kill” by Duran Duran, was the first, and still only, Bond theme to hit #1 on the US Billboard charts. Well, two years later, we have a new Bond, but the musical side of things in John Barry’s final entry in the series is firmly entrenched in the 80s sound – for better or worse (though mostly better). It was no surprise that the powers that be would go out and say, “Give us another one of those Duran Duran types.” Enter a-ha, who had a huge hit earlier in the decade with “Take On Me”. Apparently, it wasn’t a great working relationship with the Norwegian pop group and Barry. That said, the song still comes out just fine. In fact, it is quite a bit better than fine. The worst thing you can say about it is that it doesn’t live up to Duran Duran’s “A View to a Kill”, but not many can. It’s perfectly placed right in the center of this list.
“TOMORROW NEVER DIES”, SHERYL CROW
This is really a better song than its ranking. I deduct a few places for this song for one main reason – it’s not as good as the k.d. lang song “Surrender” that was placed at the end of the movie. “Surrender” is a classic sounding Bond theme, but “Tomorrow Never Dies” turned out to be more marketable. Sheryl Crow does quite well and turns it into a fairly sexy torch song that turns out to be better than just about everything else in the movie.
“FOR YOUR EYES ONLY”, SHEENA EASTON
This is a bit of a controversial pick. Honestly, I just like this song. I know many, many people who really dislike this song, but it’s a song I would be happy to listen to if it played “All 80s Weekend” on the radio. It’s a little weepy, sure, but it’s about as 1981 as you can possibly imagine and it ends up nicely fitting the film’s more personal story too. Plus, it’s about the only thing from Rocky score composer Bill Conti’s music for the movie that is salvageable and elevates some of the scenes when the instrumentals are played.
Now we’re really getting to the heavy hitters. Adele finally got the Bond themes through the glass ceiling of getting the much deserved Academy Award for Best Original Song. It was the fourth song from the series to get the nomination (somehow only four had ever been nominated up to this point) and it was the one that finally broke through. The upside is that it is a fantastic song sung by a wonderful singer. The downside is that “Writing’s on the Wall” and “No Time to Die” followed a little too closely on its coat tails. That’s not “Skyfall” or Adele’s fault though as it is a really great, timeless song for a really great movie.
“LICENCE TO KILL”, GLADYS KNIGHT
Everything about Licence to Kill is great in my book. If you’ve followed me along this entire year of 00 Saturdays, I’ve been more than vocal about how much I love this movie. As I said, my dad’s favorite Bond film is the first he saw, From Russia With Love. Licence to Kill was not my first Bond film, but was the first I saw in the theater. So those early moments of the gun barrel, the fun opening scene, and the brass horns of this theme glued me to my seat for the entirety of the film. Gladys Knight also was the first black woman to perform a Bond theme and it’s a good one that I love listening to with or without the movie it introduces.
“MOONRAKER”, SHIRLEY BASSEY
This is the third of the Bassey themes, and her last go around with the series. I am a staunch defender of Moonraker. The score itself might be my very favorite of the entire series as John Barry is now fully into his 70s and 80s style of using primarily rich strings as opposed to his previous jazzier brass sounds. The song was recorded only weeks before the release of the film when it was hard to nail down a singer, but Bassey’s yearning tone in the lyrics just sets up that dreamy feeling of what I would call an adult contemporary sci-fi adventure film.
“A VIEW TO A KILL”, DURAN DURAN
This is a favorite among almost every Bond fan. It’s the first rock theme for the series since “Live and Let Die” and, like that theme, it came from one of the biggest acts of its decade. I’m not sure what else to say about it other than I think most fans would recognize this was going to be a big one from the very first beat of the song.
“THE WORLD IS NOT ENOUGH”, GARBAGE
Sometimes trends happen in these themes from one movie to the next. Sometimes the trends are passable (Duran Duran/a-ha). Other times, not so much (Adele/Sam Smith/Billie Eilish). However, this is one of those scenarios that worked out fantastically. In 1997, David Arnold came in to provide a score for Tomorrow Never Dies. It turned out to be rather classic in sound as he was a John Barry fan. He came back for 1999’s The World Is Not Enough. He brought that same classic feel. He also did similar things with the theme songs. Much like with Sheryl Crow’s torch singer performance in the previous film, Shirley Manson does the same for Garbage’s theme, but does one more thing – the band and Arnold manage to make this song almost sound like it was plucked right from the mid 60s.
“YOU KNOW MY NAME”, CHRIS CORNELL
I’ve never especially been a fan of Cornell’s work with Soundgarden or Audioslave. I had an uneasy feeling when it was announced that he would do the theme song for Casino Royale. However, the song is so perfect for the introduction of the sledgehammer-like young 00 agent that Daniel Craig brought to the screen. The song itself speaks directly to the fact that we’ve changed actors again, but you know the name and you know what to expect from him. It was almost like David Arnold’s opportunity to do exactly what his mentor and inspiration John Barry did with On Her Majesty’s Secret Service – introduce a new generation to a new Bond, but make sure the fans who have always been around know that it’s going to fit right in with the rest of the series.
“GOLDENEYE”, TINA TURNER
U2’s Bono and the Edge wrote the theme song that was the first to be heard in a new Bond film in over six years. They were huge fans of the series and even stayed at Ian Fleming’s Jamaica home, appropriately called GoldenEye, to write the song. Tina Turner came in as maybe THE MOST PERFECT person to perform the song. Her vocals are spot on and come off as sexy too. She’s a tough gal singing a tough song about the world’s greatest spy with lyrics provided by some of the greatest rock song writers ever. It’s all a match made in heaven.
“YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE”, NANCY SINATRA
I dearly love the music in You Only Live Twice. I sometimes struggle with whether I like the movie or the music more or if they both meld together in this beautiful tapestry of wonderfully Japanese inspired strings and horns and some of the best location visuals in the series. Originally, Albert Broccoli wanted his pal Frank Sinatra to do the vocals, but Frank suggested his daughter Nancy do it. That’s about as great as a pairing as you can get – a very popular singer at the time (thanks to “These Boots Are Made for Walkin'”), who is part of singer royalty (thanks to her father), and has Bond Girl looks. It’s a beautiful song and works even better with the feminine point of view from the singer. I know John Barry wanted Aretha Franklin, which would have been great, but, as much as I would be curious about what might have been, this is as good as it gets with Nancy Sinatra.
“LIVE AND LET DIE”, PAUL MCCARTNEY AND WINGS
I mean… What can I possibly say about this that would be new? “Live and Let Die” was a culmination of Harry Saltzman having his turn to choose who he wanted to work with for the new Bond movie’s music. He was pissed at John Barry for the raunchy “Diamonds Are Forever” and he decided he was going to aim high. Saltzman turned down the possibility to produce the Beatles’ movie A Hard Day’s Night, so he approached McCartney to do the theme. Now, that took a lot of money, but with McCartney and Wings you get George Martin, an accomplished classic musician himself. So it all works out. It’s maybe the ONLY theme song in the series that operates as a solid song and hit outside the context of James Bond, and was even covered by Guns N’ Roses as a hit of their own in the early 90s. It elevated the popularity of Roger Moore’s first outing as 007, and boy is it a great song to this very day!
“NOBODY DOES IT BETTER”, CARLY SIMON
As good as “Live and Let Die” is, it doesn’t beat out the theme song from The Spy Who Loved Me. It’s right in the title – “Nobody Does It Better”! Outside “James Bond Theme” and John Barry’s “007”, there is no better piece of music that perfectly encapsulates our main hero than this song. It’s beautiful. It’s soulful. It’s all there in the song itself. To quote the song itself, “Why’d you have to be so good?”
00 Saturdays comes to a conclusion next week when Geoff countdowns all the James Bond films from worst to best! We hope you join us for the big conclusion!