Before I start, a brief proviso: by “theme song”, I mean, “song that plays over the film’s opening credits”. This is necessary because there are some places where the particular movie’s most memorable song plays at some other point, and in some latter cases, the films have multiple songs. So that’s my definition of “theme song” for this post, and even that definition will have an exception or two along the way.
Why do this? Well, as I noted in a post a while back, I’ve been listening to a podcast about the Bond films, so this lore is often fresh to mind in some way. I remember an LP album I had when I was a kid that had all the Bond theme songs on it, up to For Your Eyes Only, if memory serves. I played the hell out of that album, which I got when I had only seen a few of the Bond films at all; thus I came to know some of the songs before I saw the films. I found “Under the Mango Tree” from Dr. No particularly baffling and un-Bondlike, but...well, anyway, let’s get started! I’m going in reverse order here, and as in all such lists, I find that my bottom group and my top group are pretty well set, and everything in the middle is changeable.
23. Quantum of Solace (Jack White and Alicia Keys)
This is just a nothingburger of a song. It goes nowhere, it does nothing. Listening to it is outright unpleasant. I can’t say much more than that about it. It actually opens promisingly, with a bass line that calls back to the opening guitar smash of the previous film’s song, Casino Royale, but the vocal lines are awful and there is no real melody at all. I was glad when the opening credits were done running when I saw this movie.
22. Die Another Day (Madonna)
I gave some thought to whether this song or Quantum was my least favorite, and this one wound up not quite dead last because the song’s disjointed nature actually does mesh fairly well with the disjointed nature of the film’s credits sequence, which depicts a captured James Bond being held captive and tortured for more than a year. I can accept the song’s nature on that basis, but still, it too is just plain unpleasant to hear.
21. Goldeneye (Tina Turner)
As I look over the list of all the Bonds, it appears that Pierce Brosnan really didn’t fare well in the theme song department. This song suffers in a number of ways, first by not being very tuneful (I’ve seen the film any number of times and I can barely summon up the melody in my head), not memorable in the lyrics department, and it’s written in such a way that it really doesn’t do much justice to Tina Turner’s voice. I’m not the world’s biggest Turner fan, but I don’t think this song does her any favors.
20. Dr. No (special case)
This feels slightly unfair, since the very first Bond movie underscores about half of the credits sequence with nothing other than the James Bond Theme in its original incarnation. That’s pretty cool. But eventually the Bond theme fades out, and it’s replaced with some calypso-sounding percussion (again, not bad), but then a very bizarre calypso rendition of “Three Blind Mice”. This ends up referring to the three blind assassins who start the plot off in the first scene, but then these fellows are never seen again and the whole “Three Blind Mice” thing ends up just seeming weird. The whole effect is pretty disjointed.
19. Moonraker (Shirley Bassey)
Bassey did three Bond themes, and here’s the last. She sings it gorgeously, so the problem here is the song itself. It’s a very slow, ponderous ballad that just slides by without leaving much impression at all. The Bond films did a string of slow songs for themes in the late 70s and early 80s, only two of which really worked. This isn’t one of those. It’s telling that they recorded a faster, kind-of discofied, version for the film’s end credits.
18. The Living Daylights (a-ha)
Lots of people always assume that the producers were trying to capitalize on a-ha’s short-lived MTV popularity here, but it’s worth remembering that the Bond films are made by Europeans, and a-ha was a much bigger deal over there. They actually had a long career in Europe which you’d never know about if your view of the music world never extends beyond the American top-40 list. This song is OK, but it’s not especially memorable, it’s not even the most memorable actual song from the film, and John Barry didn’t like it all that much, so he didn’t make a lot of use of it in his score.
17. Tomorrow Never Dies (Sheryl Crow)
Another instance of the producers grabbing a contemporary popular name for the song, this one is again an OK tune, but again it’s not especially memorable and it doesn’t fit the rest of the movie. The problem here is that composer David Arnold drew a lot of melodic inspiration from the other song in the movie, by kd lang, which was supposed to be the main title song in the first place but ended up getting bumped to the end credits. It does fit the TRON-esque credits sequence, but that’s about it.
16. The Man With the Golden Gun (Lulu)
I have a soft spot for this song because it’s so goofy in the lyrics department (“Love is required/whenever he’s hired/he comes just before the kill!”), and because John Barry did a lot of neat things in the actual score using this song as inspiration – some terrific action writing, for instance. The song’s got a good beat to it, but ultimately it just feels like it’s trying too hard. It feels almost like a parody of a Bond theme song.
15. A View to a Kill (Duran Duran)
After Golden Gun, we’d go ten years before another up-tempo Bond theme. This song just reeks 80s pop to me, which isn’t a bad thing. It’s a fun listen and the melody pops up in the score, which listening to the song the first time isn’t something you’d initially think possible. I mainly rank it down this far because the lyrics make absolutely zero sense. Seriously. You could sing a Sarah Palin speech to this tune and have as coherent a set of lytics.
14. You Only Live Twice (Nancy Sinatra)
It’s gorgeous and lush and Nancy Sinatra has a wonderful voice. The problem is that it might be too lush, at times feeling repetitive. This song comes after the Bond films have been ratcheting things up in the song department, and though I like it a lot, it’s not my favorite thing in the world.
13. Octopussy (Rita Coolidge)
Another in the string of slow ballads that dominated the Bond series right around the time I was starting to cultivate my 007 fandom. Notably, one of the few times the song doesn’t use the film’s title in any way, which I suppose was the right decision to make, since I doubt anyone really felt like taking on the challenge of using “Octopussy” in the song. It’s a nice ballad and I like it, particularly the little guitar licks toward the end, and I love Coolidge’s husky voice. But for Bond, the song may be just a bit too nice.
12. Licence to Kill (Gladys Knight)
This is a weird song. I like it a lot, actually, and like the movie itself, I think it’s terribly underrated. The song goes on a bit too long, but I dig the way Knight really sinks her teeth into it. It’s a good Bond-type of ballad, even if it tries to rip off Goldfinger a bit with those big opening chords.
11. Goldfinger (Shirley Bassey)
Yes, Goldfinger doesn’t even make my top ten. I know, I know – it’s the most iconic of all the Bond theme songs, but iconic or no, I simply don’t like it all that much. It’s good, but like the movie, I think too much is made of it.
10. From Russia With Love (John Barry)
Unusual case here. FRWL has an honest-to-goodness song, with a singer and everything (a fellow named Matt Munro), and it’s really quite good. It starts off almost sounding like a lounge song, but it gets bigger and bigger and at the end it’s pretty dramatic. Problem is, it’s only heard during the movie’s end credits. For the opening credits, we simply have a John Barry instrumental arrangement of the same song, as the credits are projected over the undulating features of a belly dancer. That arrangement is pretty awesome, though, starting with very fast and staccato chords in the brass. The arrangement really sets the tune for some action and adventure in an exotic locale. That instrumental is terrific stuff, and would later be quoted by David Arnold in his score to Tomorrow Never Dies.
9. Diamonds Are Forever (Shirley Bassey)
My favorite of the Shirley Bassey songs. This ballad is haunting and evocatively scored, with that wonderfully mysterious open and some nifty 70s synth stuff in the middle. John Barry even gets in some of his trademark staccato brass stingers in the midst of this lush bit of mysterious romanticism. I love this song. Too bad the movie doesn’t rise to its level. (Or anywhere near it, really.)
8. The World Is Not Enough (Garbage)
This is one of those Bond movies that no one much talks about, which is a shame because it’s loaded with good ideas and good performances and is pretty much done in by the ridiculous inclusion of Denise Richards as a complete nothingburger of a character. This song is really quite good, too, in my opinion. I don’t know anything about the band Garbage other than this song, but this is just a terrific Bond song. David Arnold does some Barry-esque things with the sound (brass stingers, again), the chorus is ear-wormy as hell, and the overall sound is one of exotic mystery. This is a deeply underrated gem of a Bond song.
7. For Your Eyes Only (Sheena Easton)
Here’s some Bond trivia for you, next time you’re in a bar and you need a James Bond fact to stump people: What’s the only Bond film in which the theme song’s singer appears in the titles sequence? That’s right, it’s FYEO! Cool, huh? Yup, Sheena Easton is right there on screen, belting out this early 80s ballad. And it’s a good one, with some exotic sounds from the synths, and lyrics of the oft-used “lonely woman singing to the secret agent who has come to save her” genre. This is a terrific song.
6. Casino Royale (Chris Cornell)
The Daniel Craig reboot era begins with the blood-soaked gunbarrel animation giving way to this hard-driving rock song. It’s really a nicely-crafted film sequence, in which Craig’s Bond appears in two separate black-and-white sequences, one of which is muted and quiet, the other of which is harsh and loud and garish – and then this song kicks in with driving opening chords and explosions of color as the titles begin. As for the song itself, I like it a lot. It’s got a very ear-wormy aspect to it, and it sounds like a new version of Bond while still being Bond.
5. Live and Let Die (Paul McCartney and Wings)
Once upon a time I hated this song, but over the years it has relentlessly climbed up my list. It’s a very different kind of Bond song, really – John Barry was not involved in this film, and so the sound of the music is quite different. LALD starts right off with Paul McCartney singing, and then we get those wonderful smashing chords when he reaches the words “Live and let die”. I had a problem for years with the fact that probably half the song is instrumental, but all that stuff works. To this day, though, I can’t quite get behind the weird funky middle section (“What does it matter to ya? When you got a job to do, you gotta do it well!”), because it’s just so weird and out of place. It’s very McCartney-esque, as sticking mismatched sequences into the middle of songs is something he likes to do, but I still don’t care for that tiny bit. Still, this song is terrific. Not enough to redeem the movie, though, which is by far my least favorite Bond movie ever.
4. Thunderball (Tom Jones)
Oh, this wonderful, weird, gonzo song! Listening to it, you can just hear the producers telling John Barry, “We need a song even bigger than Goldfinger!” So out comes this strange number, in which Tom Jones sings ever-so-lovingly of the world’s most narcissistic and misogynist asshole. Seriously, listen to the lyrics and imagine what it would be like, to be in the company of a guy like that. But Jones sells it, doesn’t he? Just don’t ask what it means to “STRIKE [bum bum bum bum BUM] like THUN-DER-BALLLLLL.” (For added fun, listen to Jones’s voice as he holds that last high note and imagine the colors his face turned before he finally collapsed into unconsciousness.) This song is like the movie: bloated, over-the-top, and huge. It makes the most liberal quotes from the James Bond Theme itself, and...I just love it to pieces.
3. The Spy Who Loved Me (Carly Simon)
The song is titled “Nobody Does It Better”, and it’s just an outstanding song – so good that it’s probably been overplayed through the years, and it’s a staple of many a karaoke bar. The film’s music score is a regrettable mishmash of disco-sounding crud, but this song is outstanding, quite easily the best of Roger Moore’s films. Just the way Carly Simon sings it is amazing: in the first verse she sounds small and hesitant, backed by little more than a piano, but then she gets to “Baby, you’re the best”, and as she sustains the word “best”, her voice seems to double in size, and it keeps growing and growing throughout the song. I’m not the biggest fan of the movie, but this song is fantastic.
2. Skyfall (Adele)
Adele may be the first person to ever do a Bond song where I thought, “I’d like her to do more of them.” This is the Bondiest of the Craig songs, with its lush sound, its big vocals by a big-voiced singer, and even its way of making almost-coherent lyrics out of a made-up word (“Skyfall”). It’s a wonderful song, and it even goes so far as to suggest the film’s somewhat downbeat ending in its constant references to the sky falling and tumbling and such. I really like it.
1. On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (John Barry)
I suppose this is no surprise, coming from me, is it? I make no apologies. This movie’s opening titles sequence is scored not with a vocal song but with a driving instrumental by John Barry that doubles as the film’s main action-sequence music. It begins with Barry-esque staccato stingers in the brass, and then there’s a driving downward pounding motif my bass synths before the main melody kicks in with an amazing rhythm in the background. It’s the perfect music for the film’s ski-chase sequences, and it musically suggests speed and danger as well as anything Barry every wrote for a Bond film. I’ve always been amazed that the producers made no attempt to convey the film’s “Bond-ness” through the use of a song, but rather just gave the job to John Barry, who then delivered perfectly. No piece of music, other than the James Bond Theme itself, screams “007!” to me so well as this one, which is why I put it at the top of the list.
(At some point I’ll look into some other songs and musical oddities from the Bond films.)