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For Your Ears Only: Ranking the songs of James Bond

For Your Ears Only: Ranking the songs of James Bond

Let’s face it. The songs are the best parts of the James Bond movies. Throughout 007’s five decades, the title tracks are each film’s one hope of rising above dubious casting choices, retreads of old villains, and grandiose plots for world domination that will inevitably be foiled. And like all that other stuff, we like the songs because they’re another expected element in a series that’s filled with them, a pop cultural barometer for measuring the secret agent’s standing in the zeitgeist.

Bond songs can be aged bygones of their time with poetically vague lyrics that don’t add up to much, but the best ones rise above their period trappings to comment and reflect on their respective films. With Spectre set to hit American theaters this week, let’s look back at each and every title song in Metro Golden Mayer’s canon:

24. Rita Coolidge — “All Time High” (1983)

All time low.

23. LuLu — “The Man With the Golden Gun” (1974)

There’s little correlation between the quality of a Bond movie and the caliber of its respective title track, but one of the hammiest 007 entries gets some of the most laughably literal lyrics. “He has a powerful weapon” is something that belongs on the back of a trading card, and you can hear Scottish singer LuLu straining to sexualize Christopher Lee’s Scaramanga with “His eye may be on you or me/Who will he bang?” This is dreadful stuff, with a treble-heavy opening and a unison melody that is miles away from the “Live and Let Die” elements it’s desperately trying to recreate. 64 pixels of GoldenEye’s golden gun are infinitely cooler than the weapon’s namesake but at this point, I’d settle for a Klobb submachine gun.

22. Jack White & Alicia Keys — “Another Way to Die” (2008)

In 2008, Jack White hadn’t yet integrated his garage blues aesthetic with fuller, soulful arrangements like he would pull off on his first solo album Blunderbuss. Instead, he and Alicia Keys are still feeling their way around with mordant piano, melting trumpet, a buzzing hornet’s nest of a main motif, and a pretty great call and response. White and Keys rap back and forth with a nonchalance that’s almost ghoulish given the subject matter. This feels like deconstructionism, aiming for a post-James Bond world where violence is nothing more than a conversation piece. The hold up here is there’s way too much going on in this, with hollow production shining a light on its disparate pieces. The franchise’s first and only duet to date deserve credit for trying something different, especially when so many prior artists have adhered to proven templates, but this was too much, too soon.

21. Shirley Bassey — “Theme from Moonraker” (1979)

Tedious to the point of becoming a laborious listen, even Shirley Bassey can’t escape the dangers of including your movie title as a song lyric.

20. Tom Jones — “Thunderball” (1965)

Like the film, thinking about the title theme for Thunderball is more interesting than thinking about Thunderball itself. The name, which Tom Jones belts out in expected cheeseball fashion, raises more questions than answers, and the 10-second delivery of his final line allegedly caused him to faint in the recording booth. Long-time producers Albert R. Broccoli and Harry Saltzman even planned for Shirley Bassey to reprise her Goldfinger duties on this one, too. Her absence may be why the end result sounds underwhelming and shrill. And ditto for one of the worst movies in the series.

19. Gladys Knight — “Licence to Kill” (1989)

Goldfinger would go on to influence so many title songs in the franchise but “Licence to Kill” is an outlier in that it’s a straight up homage. From Gladys Knight’s brassy solo vocals to the literal opening reference to the 1964 original. Timothy Dalton’s second turn as Bond would be his last as the series would stall out after 1989, so it’s easy to understand why the producers would latch onto one of the franchise’s brightest and most recognizable touchstones.

18. Garbage — “The World is Not Enough” (1999)

Perhaps the biggest caveat in the Bond music pantheon, this is undeniably catchy stuff, especially considering how unnatural “The World is Not Enough” sounds as a lyric. Shirley Manson’s vocals take on a more alien quality compared with her predecessors, but the verses sound too much like an overproduced Moby record. Garbage also falls victim to Matt Monro Syndrome, sticking disjunctive romantic themes next to a movie that has an interest in none of them. That’s neither the first nor the last time that’s happened; it just never helps the cause.

17. Sheena Easton — “For Your Eyes Only” (1981)

Sheena Easton can carry a tune and Bill Conti and Michael Leeson’s entry is quite the earworm. What hurts “For Your Eyes Only” is what hurts so many others: It’s hammering home a philosophy that shows a tone-deafness to 007.

16. Matt Monro — “From Russia With Love” (1963)

It’s strange to think that what is otherwise the best, most precise James Bond film has one of the weaker song entries on this list. Matt Monro’s saucy vibrato don’t appear until the end credits, but their shadow is all over the instrumental version. “From Russia With Love” paints an incongruous portrait of 007 as a hopeless romantic, a downright comical proposition until George Lazenby would take a crack at things. In addition to being inferior to the Western romp of composer John Barry’s “007 Theme” that blares over the film’s gypsy shootout, this is oblivious to its hero’s habits, an unflattering reflection of how dated the series can seem and how far it’s come since 1963.

15. Sheryl Crow — “Tomorrow Never Dies” (1997)

With an orchestra filled with the usual suspects and some egregiously lazy songwriting — “Martinis, girls, and guns” is a lowpoint — this is more engineered than composed. Yet for as shameless of a carbon copy as this is, Sheryl Crow nails a balance between the breathy, sultry verses and the balls-to-the-wall delivery of the explosive chorus. Its apocalyptic opening groove also repurposes Monty Norman’s classic guitar riff, which is at least more imaginative than anything in the k.d. lang and David Arnold alternate “Surrender.”

14. Monty Norman/Byron Lee and the Dragonaires — “The James Bond Theme/Three Blind Mice” (1962)

You know it. The Kentonesque hornlines. The grimy electric guitar. The snappy, swinging swagger. Monty Norman’s iconic riff is an all-time great in film music, as singular as John Carpenter’s Halloween music and as immediately recognizable as those ba-dums in Jaws. When ranking Bond songs, the very first is essential — well, the first part of it anyway. In a nod to its Jamaican setting, Dr. No’s opening titles are bisected by a rambling calypso and then Byron Lee and the Dragonaires’ cover of “Three Blind Mice,” which is basically here to take up time.

13. Madonna — “Die Another Day” (2002)

As a film, Die Another Day gets a lot of flak, and with its reconstructive surgery shenanigans and yes, that dumbass invisible car, Pierce Brosnan’s sad final turn probably deserves it. Madonna’s punching bag of a song isn’t to blame, though. Marking the first time a James Bond title sequence actually told part of the story, the pop icon’s lurchy, electroclash number plays as 007 is tortured for months inside of a North Korean prison camp. Look, Madonna’s whispers of “Sigmund Freud” and “Analyze this!” make absolutely zero sense in this. But pop music non sequiturs aside, this song knows what it is, repeating a hiccuped chorus as an extra-produced affirmation of the franchise’s cyclical relevance and its character’s textual immortality. Bond isn’t going anywhere, even in the face of terribly-rendered windsurfing.

12. Duran Duran — “A View to a Kill” (1985)

This really needs to be experienced in the context of A View to a Kill‘s titles. Because what goes better with neon colors and women in day glow paint than a little Duran Duran? Starchy synths slash over staccato guitar chords as lead singer Simon Le Bon basks in all of the self-destruction. Bond songs are notorious for their poppy, disposable songwriting, but this has some of the better lyrics in the franchise. Duran Duran exploits a kind of beauty out of violent allusions to love, and there’s a Bacchanalian insanity to the track as a whole, where party references to “the weekend’s why” make sense when painted women are literally dancing “into the fire.” Never have the “fatal sounds of broken dreams” been so danceable.

11. Shirley Bassey — “Diamonds are Forever” (1971)

Shirley Bassey’s on this list three times, and while this isn’t her best song, she sounds the best here. She’s silky and smooth without ever losing her raw power — dig that long delivery of “they luster on.” This also distinguishes itself from Bassey’s breadwinner with glassy opening arpeggios and a hybrid groove of staccato brass and funky wah-wah guitar that shimmies along to a pointed critique of Bond’s womanizing. Diamonds are Forever would mark Sean Connery’s last turn in the role in any official capacity, and its title tune is an extra jab at the character’s flighty ways.

10. Sam Smith — “Writing’s on the Wall” (2015)

Forget about the “real” identity of Christoph Waltz’s Oberhauser. The real mystery in Spectre is what’s with all the Sam Smith hate? The pining lyrics fall into that realm of misguided romance but with songwriter Jimmy Napes, Smith turns in something indelibly unique in the Bond music canon, shifting away from the singer’s usual bellows. Instead, 007 sheds much of the angsty brooding of the Daniel Craig era for something more ghostly, floating along on Smith’s exquisite falsetto. “Writing’s on the Wall” isn’t perfect, but when blockbusters are continually one-upping themselves with spectacle, it’s refreshing to hear perhaps the most-hyped Bond movie ever end with a whimper.

9. Nancy Sinatra — “You Only Live Twice” (1967)

While You Only Live Twice is terrible for its yellow-facing, it’s also the earliest takedown of the series’ manly mythmaking, wearing down the idealism of wistful string passages with Nancy Sinatra’s teasing cynicism. “And love is a stranger who’ll beckon you on/Don’t think of the danger or the stranger is gone.” Frank Sinatra famously passed on singing duties and thank God for that because his daughter takes this and runs with it. Or maybe, runs away from it, equating the sex and violence in Leslie Bricusse’s lyrics with a wounded loneliness. As her upgrade to Cher’s “Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down)” proved a year prior, Nancy Sinatra is best when she’s blunt, and this is the perfect vehicle to call out what so many Bond climaxes willfully ignore: James Bond will return. Always. Whether you like it or not. As it happens, Sean Connery would walk away from the role after this movie, only to come back again. Twice, actually.

8. Paul McCartney and Wings — “Live and Let Die” (1973)

Due credit to Sir Paul McCartney, who actually takes a backseat in his 1973 smash hit. The best parts of “Live and Let Die,” and much of the heavy lifting, come not from his iconic voice but from the dark echoes of the chorus. Only a handful of title tracks successfully broke the “Goldfinger” mold, and this is one of them. The catch is that while “Live and Let Die” is good, it gets a pass for how good it sounds at a Paul McCartney concert. That driving uptempo melody is fun, especially with flutes, but the bridge sticks out like, well, a Beatles song. The funkiness just doesn’t fit. Wings’ sunshiney delivery of “You gotta give the other fellow hell” rings out like something from Help!. That’s not a knock against Help!, but Beatles exuberance is a far cry from the sublime, devil may care delivery of the film’s opening. Just as the franchise seemed to be in uncertain territory with a fresh-faced Roger Moore, it kinda seems like Paul wasn’t ready to be done with the Fab Four just yet.

7. a-ha — “The Living Daylights” (1987)

Depending on whom you ask, “The Living Daylights” is either a really great a-ha/John Barry collaboration or a really great a-ha song that John Barry tried to mess with. It really doesn’t matter, because this is chock full of recognizable elements to match its stilted Europop weirdness. The jagged upbeat chorus is sparse and boisterous, working in the film’s awkward title and hiding just how cripplingly depressing the rest of the song is. Here, Bond is the scapegoat of a “Hundred thousand people,” salt in the wound when he already seems to be embracing the gloom on his own. Morten Harket pleads to “Save the darkness” and “Let it never fade it away” over the verse’s twinkling twilight. In his first appearance as 007, Timothy Dalton spends much of The Living Daylights globetrotting after a Soviet turncoat but thanks to the refrain of “The living’s in the way we die,” it seems like Bond’s own worldview is the real threat this time.

6. Chris Cornell — “You Know My Name” (2006)

On face value, a Bond song by Chris Cornell has about as much appeal as a Bond song by Scott Stapp. “You Know My Name” has no business being this good, with an infectious synchronicity between driving mid-aughts hard rock and a snapping brass section that belies just how rough and tumble Daniel Craig’s “James Blonde” would turn out to be. There’s also something to be said for Casino Royale‘s general disregard for fan sensitivity. From casting an unknown commodity at the time to its wanton approach to offing characters and kinetic smash mouth action, its opening anthem is a ballsy move in and of itself: Let’s punt on the whole introducing-this-new-Bond thing and sing about expendability for three straight minutes instead.

5. John Barry — “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service” (1969)

Forget “SMERSH” or “SPECTRE”; “HIPSTER” is the devious acronym you’re looking for. In all seriousness, Bond revisionists will claim there are worthier musical selections from the black sheep of 007 movies, but the wordless title track is the real groundbreaker. From the xylophone and arrested straight eighth-notes to a jumpy synth and galloping bass line, this shows the series at an abrupt unease while still finding that balance between dangerous and sexy. Composer John Barry improvises and varies on his own musical iconography, creating a Frankenstein’s monster of a tune that’s both new and immediately recognizable — an experience akin to watching anyone other than Sean Connery in the role. For certified proof of Barry’s musical mastery, this downward spiral of a main theme (and the first example of modernity in a Bond song) is it.

4. Adele — “Skyfall” (2012)

Up until a month ago, the last great Bond song was also the last Bond song. It’s because of Adele that “Skyfall” manages to sound contemporary and classic all at once. As a vocalist, her sultry, bourbon-soaked delivery has always made her sound older than her age, and make no mistake this is timeless stuff. She dips and dives with the self-destruction, broadening the film’s plot point of a title into 007’s trajectory as a character. At odds physically, emotionally and psychologically, Skyfall is James Bond at a mid-life crisis, and the music is there holding his hand through it all with murky clouds of low brass that threaten to swallow the listener whole. The sound of “Skyfall” as a song pairs wonderfully with the film’s suffocating and invasive title sequence, too. The genius is that you don’t need to watch them to get that impression.

3. Tina Turner — “Goldeneye” (1995)

Bono and The Edge’s crack at writing a Bond song contains more musical iconography in three minutes than Eric Serra does in the entirety of his tinny, pinball arcade of a score. The catch is they’ve also created something new, fusing Tina Turner’s showstopper of a performance with searching piano figures, slinking strings and a sexy, samba rhythm. With throbbing verses so musically barren, “Goldeneye” largely works because of Turner’s one-woman show, signaling Bond’s return in 1995 with a fresh face and a sultry braggadocio. Shirley Bassey’s the Queen of Bond songs but damn if Tina doesn’t come close.

2. Carly Simon — “Nobody Does It Better” (1977)

I’m not sure any other singer on this list could pull off wryness and conflict the way Carly Simon does here. Carole Sager’s lyrics drip with disillusionment as Simon sings that “Nobody does it better/though sometimes I wish someone would.” Composer Marvin Hamlisch’s piano is a tremendous crutch too, swinging away from the expected musical staples with quaintness and humility. The Spy Who Loved Me wasn’t the first to suggest that James Bond is kind of a dick, but it’s most definitely the best. Daniel Craig’s making headlines for calling his character a “misogynist.” If only we remembered that Carly Simon was singing that tune 40 years ago with a little piano and a ton of regret.

1. Shirley Bassey — “Goldfinger” (1964)

Only a handful of songs are about anything other than the MI:6 agent and/or the women in his short-term future. So at face value, it’s a little strange that the greatest James Bond theme of all time is actually about the villain. But Goldfinger is where the series truly set its template, with kitschy Bond women, gadgets galore and over-the-top nemeses set on world-domination. Gert Fröbe’s Auric Goldfinger gets an irreplaceable siren song that, like the Midas man’s dangerous M.O., draws you into its dastardly ways with a dazzling allure. Just listen as Shirley Bassey belts out a malevolent fable of Goldfinger’s legend. If there’s a knock against “Goldfinger,” which has endured any number of rip-offs and spoofs, it’s that it’s so good Hollywood can’t stop copying it. Often imitated and never duplicated, this is still number one.

This article is part of our 007 marathon. You can find all the entries by clicking here