With the theme song being released for “Spectre,” the twenty-fourth James Bond film, it’s time to revisit a list I assembled several years ago. One of the most signature elements of the 007 movies has to be the various opening theme songs which have varied in quality quite considerably over the decades.
Some of the numbers are household names which numerous generations can sing, others are songs one wishes they could forget. On the rare occasion one of the other songs used in the film (either incidentally or on the closing credits) has actually been a better piece of music than what was put up front.
Today I’m ranking those opening themes. The ranking is purely my own personal list at this point in time and done entirely on the songs alone (even though the mini-reviews do cover the title sequences as well). Do you agree with this list? If not, what order would you put it in? Please leave your comments below:
1. “Goldfinger” by Shirley Bassey from “Goldfinger”
The quintessential Bond theme for the most iconic Bond film ever made. Its brassy horns instantly identifiable, its lyrics known around the world, its composition and unforgettable vocals seared into the consciousness of many a Bond fan. Singer Shirley Bassey and composer John Barry were at their peak here, aided by Robert Brownjohn’s opening credits cleverly projecting images onto gold-painted stationary women. It is, however, a ‘take it or leave it’ song that people seem to either love or hate. I’m definitely one of the former.
2. “Live and Let Die” by Paul McCartney & Wings from “Live and Let Die”
If there were a challenger to “Goldfinger” it would have to be Wings’ similarly iconic “Live and Let Die”. While the Bassey number was all about the strong vocals, this is all about the instrumental and has to be one of the most recognisable movie themes of all time. From its soft piano buildup to the dynamic guitar and keyboard surges, it’s a great piece of music that just happens to be a James Bond theme. The imagery of the credits, with women’s faces spontaneously combusting into skulls, is equally memorable.
3. “Skyfall” by Adele from “Skyfall”
The best Bond theme of the modern era and the only Bond song to win an Oscar, Adele’s tune is pretty much spot on in every way – memorable lyrics, excellent composition, a real moody piece that makes great use of her powerful voice. It’s a lush number right up there with Bassey and Barry’s best. The opening sequence with its crosses, graves, blood and so forth is similarly the best for the series in many years.
4. “OHMSS Title Theme” by John Barry Orchestra from “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service”
While everyone knows and loves the “Star Wars” theme, you’d be hard pressed to find a ‘Wars’ geek who didn’t love ‘The Imperial March’ theme as much if not more. The Bond franchise has an equivalent with John Barry’s iconic synthesizer-driven instrumental number for this film considered right up there with the original Bond tune. It’s music that’s both signature Barry and Bond, and the cherry on top of a film that already has an excellent score and several other great songs of its own including “All The Time in the World”.
5. “The World is Not Enough” by Garbage from “The World is Not Enough”
One of my all time favourite bands, Garbage, took the challenge of a title that makes for a difficult foundation and turned it into a highly enjoyable and surprisingly rich orchestral rock number. Great lyrics, an excellent vocal by Shirley Manson, and a lush slinky sound straddling rock and synth that’s both fitting for the franchise and Garbage’s own style. The colourful and oil-themed opening credits are also one of my favourites of the series and fit both the song and the movie perfectly.
6. “A View to a Kill (Dance Into the Fire)” by Duran Duran from “A View to a Kill”
Duran Duran’s final song together before their first split, this remains the only Bond theme to crack the number one spot on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100 chart. Thirty years on it’s surprising how well the number holds up whereas so many other tunes from that era have long fallen by the wayside. It has only brief glimpses of the Bond sound in it and is very much of its time, yet the song is strong enough that those issues don’t really matter. The opening credits are gimmicky, but the wind machine meets black light effect is still highly impressive.
7. “Diamonds are Forever” by Shirley Bassey from “Diamonds are Forever”
It’s not “Goldfinger” but Shirley Bassey’s second Bond tune is almost as unforgettable and probably the most famous song about the gem aside from that Marilyn Monroe number from “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes”. The haunting opening chimes, the man-bashing lyrics, the beautiful music and Bassey’s less energetic but still stunning delivery are all amongst the franchise’s best. Same goes for the opening credits with their clever use of the gems and even Blofeld’s cat.
8. “You Only Live Twice” by Nancy Sinatra from “You Only Live Twice”
The first Bond ballad is also one of the best. Kicking off with an instantly identifiable string riff, both the lyrics and composition are interesting and deceptively simple. Sinatra keeps her voice cool and collected which results in a richer song for it. One of the most covered of all the Bond theme tunes, it’s a great number that also has one of the best opening credits thanks to a theme blending lava with oriental women.
9. “Goldeneye” by Tina Turner from “Goldeneye”
The most Bassey-esque Bond theme not sung by the lady herself, the song is a love letter to John Barry’s work. Brilliant lyrics by Bono & The Edge, beautiful music composition by frequent Massive Attack collaborator Nellee Hooper, and robust vocal work by Tina Turner yield arguably the best post-Moore Bond theme until “Skyfall”. If there’s a drawback it’s that it tries to imitate the familiar Bond sound so perfectly it never quite stands out on its own. An inspired opening title sequence too with its fall of Communism theme.
10. “You Know My Name” by Chris Cornell from “Casino Royale”
If there’s a problem with Chris Cornell’s “You Know My Name” it’s unfortunately Cornell himself. The lyrics and music he and composer David Arnold wrote for the theme are top notch and work perfectly both on their own and within the film itself. The opening credits, with their rotoscoping meets playing card motif, also fit well and actually contain the better version of the song than Cornell’s separately released single. Something about Cornell’s voice though just doesn’t click as well as it should – a shame. Even so it’s still a great song.
11. “From Russia with Love (Instrumental)” by John Barry from “From Russia with Love”
The best James Bond film to quite a few people also has one of the lesser songs, but a big part of the problem is two different versions are used. The song heard in the film with Matt Monro’s crooning vocals is what comes to mind when one considers the Bond themes and frankly it’s not that great – a slow lounge music number with uninspiring vocals and a sluggish pace. In sharp contrast though is this opening credits theme, an instrumental and much more upbeat tempo version of the song which then segues into the familiar Bond theme. It’s an excellent and energetic starter with a beautifully simple opening credits involving light projection on a belly dancer – very fitting for this Istanbul-set tale.
12. “Nobody Does it Better” by Carly Simon from “The Spy Who Loved Me”
One of Carly Simon’s most famous songs and one of the few Bond theme tunes that’s had a real life outside of the franchise, Marvin Hamlisch composed the number which was unsurprisingly a massive hit. With its incredibly catchy chorus and memorable music, its a power ballad but with an upbeat and even cheeky tone at times. It also has probably the singularly cleverest use of a Bond title in the lyrics. The opening titles are a bit more generic with lots of nude female silhouettes, the most notable being one which uses a pistol as a gymnastics bar.
13. “Bond Theme/Kingston Calypso/Three Blind Mice” by Monty Norman from “Dr. No”
Like ‘From Russia’ above, the opening credits for the very first Bond film are complicated by not being built upon a single theme. Instead it mixes three different tracks starting with Monty Norman’s now utterly iconic Bond theme which would easily be On the top position of this list if it weren’t weighed down with two inferior tunes. In this case it’s a fun if generic calypso dance number to represent the Jamaican locales, along with the jaunty ‘Three Blind Mice’ which connects with the three assassins who kill John Strangways.
14. “Moonraker” by Shirley Bassey from “Moonraker”
Yes it’s the weakest and most somber of the Bassey Bond belters, and it is tied to probably the most derided film of the franchise. That doesn’t take away from it being one of the most atmospheric ballads created for the series. The lyrics are generic, but both Bassey and Barry compensate with the haunting music and emotional vocals to make it one hell of a mood piece. Barry’s score work throughout the film is also amongst the best of the series (“Flight Into Space” in particular is an amazing work with its eerie vocals and clever orchestration).
15. “The Writing’s On The Wall” by Sam Smith from “Spectre”
The credits sequence isn’t out yet so we’ve only the tune to listen to. Smith’s voice is beautiful no doubt, even if a bit unintelligible at times, and the song is a strong work on its own with a soft melancholy tone and a great falsetto chorus on top of some nice Bond compositional elements in the music. It takes a few listens to warm up to, but even then the lyrics aren’t that good and it has the feeling of a number that will probably age very fast.
16. “Thunderball” by Tom Jones from “Thunderball”
Welsh immortal Tom Jones was pulled in at the last minute to record this, easily the weakest song of the Connery-era. Rushed into production after United Artists ditched John Barry’s superior “Mr. Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang”, the result is a bit of a mess. Tedious lyrics, not helped by “Thunderball” being a hell of a difficult title to form a song around, it often sounds like Jones’ vocals are squabbling with Barry’s mix of trumpets and Bond motifs. It’s still a solid opening number, but Jones is the wrong fit and the theme overall too slapshot.
17. “All Time High” by Rita Coolidge from “Octopussy”
It has been dismissed by the artist herself as being an “unfinished work”, and was memorably made fun of in “Ted”. Yet something about this still works as it hangs around in ways other Bond themes have not. Trying to come off as sultry, Coolidge surprises in that her voice actually takes on a somber tone – singing not as if she’s giddy in love but rather wistfully looking back at times long gone. When you consider the way Bond pumps and dumps women, that perspective adds a whole other dimension to the song. The last of the real melancholy Bond themes until “Spectre”.
18. “For Your Eyes Only” by Sheena Easton from “For Your Eyes Only”
Easton’s Oscar-nominated ballad, created by Bill Conti rather than series regular John Barry, isn’t particularly distinctive. Yet it’s a simple and moody piece built upon Easton’s clean vocals, solid lyrics and some brief but fascinating musical riffs that fit perfectly with the water-heavy opening credits. The result is what a power ballad should be in many ways. Easton herself appears in the opening credits, the only artist to have done so in the series history.
19. “The Living Daylights” by A-Ha from “The Living Daylights”
While Duran Duran’s “A View to a Kill” has aged well, Norwegian pop band A-Ha’s turn at a theme isn’t so robust. There’s some interesting synthesiser work here and a couple of good hooks (like the brief flute bursts), but otherwise there’s simply too much going on and not enough direction. Added to that the lyrics that make no sense along with a god awful opening credits make this a fairly unremarkable number. It’s a shame considering this first Timothy Dalton outing is one of the more under-rated of Bond films.
20. “Licence to Kill” by Gladys Knight from “Licence to Kill”
Like the film itself, there’s a small but loyal contingent who adore this song and I can’t fathom why. It’s not that the song is bad, rather it’s the incredible genericness of it – a bland 80’s pop number without any real signature sound. Knight’s style is fine but the lyrics are awful and the photo-themed opening credits are arguably the worst in the series. I’m more curious to hear what the original song, a new instrumental version of the theme by Eric Clapton and Vic Flick, would’ve sounded like.
21. “Tomorrow Never Dies” by Sheryl Crow from “Tomorrow Never Dies”
One of the most famously hated of all the Bond songs, the truth is… it really is weak, but not a complete wash. Sheryl Crow’s lazy beach sound is an unexpected choice that doesn’t work, and the lyrics aren’t much chop either. That said the sound is distinct from previous Bond themes, the accompanying music is strong, and the credits with their circuit board women are interesting if flawed. k.d. Lang’s closing credits number “Surrender” – which was originally going to be the opening song – is a far stronger piece and one of the more under appreciated Bond songs. Hell, Moby’s Bond theme tune remix done for this film was also a lot better.
22. “The Man with the Golden Gun” by Lulu from “The Man with the Golden Gun”
Lulu, sounding like a bop girl with sinusitis, tries to out brass John Barry with this energetic upbeat go-go number replete with double entendres and heavy guitar. Barry considers this film his worst work on the series and this remains the only Bond song not to chart in the U.S. or U.K. – one can understand why. The lyrics are childish, but at least the credits are outright soft porn.
23. “Die Another Day” by Madonna from “Die Another Day”
Sales wise it is one of the most successful themes and films in the series. However, like the movie itself, ol’ Madge’s electrosynth dance track definitely belongs right near the bottom of the list. Playing much like a house remix of an actual Bond theme, it’s certainly different from every other entry in the series. That doesn’t make it work though and it’s the kind of music that essentially ages overnight. This is in contrast to the opening credits themselves which cleverly tell part of the film’s story – specifically Bond’s 14 month incarceration at the hands of the North Koreans.
24. “Another Way to Die” by Jack White & Alicia Keys from “Quantum of Solace”
Jack White is a strong songwriter, Alicia Keys a great performer, surely this should’ve come together. Instead we get a sound like two horny cats raping each other to try and drown out the trumpets that are over the top brassy, even by Bond film standards. The point of a duet is for both talents to compliment each other, instead the pair are such a contrast it sounds horrifically off-key. The primitive CG of the sand and space-themed titles does nothing to distract either. The musical equivalent of a car alarm.