James Bond themes, ranked

Recently I found myself lamenting the sorry state of James Bond theme songs in the 2010s, and how overhyped I find “Skyfall” in particular, but after some discussion of the matter I realized I owed it to this most vital and urgent of topics to do my homework and listen to them all again before delivering the definitive ranking. So I did, and here is that ranking. The rules were opening themes with vocals only, meaning we needn’t discuss Dr. No (much better simply to watch it!).

But I will offer special mention, before we begin, to “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service”. Like the film, it’s something unique and special in the Bond franchise and need not be sullied in some petty contest. Louis Armstrong’s “We Have All the Time In the World” is also peerless, but because it closes the film (with deep irony) rather than opening, it too escapes being ranked. Lucky thing, because between the two of them they’d wipe the floor with a lot of these clowns.

22. “Die Another Day”
There’s the germ of an idea in here, but it’s buried in the detritus of Madonna’s yoga period and bears no relation to anything, as far as I know. I haven’t dared to sit through this film yet so for all I know it’s 100% relevant. The problem is that even if the lyrics fit, the “melody” doesn’t; not only is this a bad Bond song, it’s a bad Madonna song, which is unforgivable.

21. “All Time High”
Anemic and forgettable. I have the same problem with the film, about which all I remember is the trailer, from which the line where Bond asks about a woman’s tattoo (“that’s my little octopussy”) was seared on my preadolescent brain.

20. “Another Way to Die”
The first one on our list that is in the vicinity of being an actual Bond theme. Its stop-start jerkiness is more frustrating than exciting, and though Jack White and Alicia Keys have some good qualities on their own, somehow they cancel each other out. Not the blandest of the Craig themes, but the least successful.

19. “The Man With the Golden Gun”
A stab at rewriting “Goldfinger” by returning to the “watch out for this guy!” genre, and perhaps the only song ever recorded that could make Christopher Lee sound goofy. Lulu does her best, but this is perhaps the only Bond theme too embarrassing to listen to.

18. “License to Kill”
It’s not the worst song, but — despite using the title as the chorus — it’s a little too mellow not just for its lyrical content but also for the film itself, wherein Timothy Dalton gets put through the wringer and Felix Leiter gets fed to sharks.

17. “Writing’s On the Wall”
Sam Smith has a very pretty voice and this is a fairly pretty song. It would sound much better on a Sam Smith album than it does trying to amp us up for a Bond movie. For that purpose, the lyrics don’t cut it, the mood is all wrong (even for the morose, sullen Craig era this is too much), and the chorus anticlimactic. Next.

16. “From Russia With Love”
In revisiting the Bond themes for this ranking I was surprised this had lyrics and qualified for the list. I hadn’t remembered them. You probably won’t either. It’s old and it sounds classy and romantic, which is about the only advantage is has over Sam Smith’s tune. That and being followed by the splendor of From Russia With Love, obviously.

15. “Tomorrow Never Dies”
I’m kind of shocked to be ranking a Sheryl Crow song this high on the list, but I must admit this is a credible Bond theme. The mood’s right, the lyrics have the right idea, Crow sounds pretty decent. It’s nothing special, but it works.

14. “Live and Let Die”
It’s awkward, isn’t it? Do you hear what I’m talking about? That wordy lead-in that just can’t wait to get to the chorus, but has to set it up like the least funny joke ever? The way the song doesn’t really know what to do with itself after that chorus and just starts noodling around in a vaguely aggressive manner? If this weren’t written by McCartney, how would anyone take it at all seriously? It’s clumsy, daffy, and a little embarrassed to be itself. And yet those two things — the pedigree and the unpredictability — are enough for this to stand out. Barely.

13. “You Know My Name”
One of the few things holding Casino Royale back from total perfection. There’s a brashness and testosterone to this that seemed a daring break with recent history at the time, and with someone other than Cornell on vocals, this might almost have worked. But if there’s one thing that Bond categorically can never be — and Cornell, sadly, couldn’t not be — it’s grunge.

12. “Skyfall”
Vastly overrated, but I admit it’s the only Craig-era theme that works. It’s humorless, turgid, and dull, but the sound is right, it’s grand and voluminous, and there’s nothing out of place. To be Bond it should also have been sexy, but one could say the same of the film it precedes.

11. “Goldfinger”
Also vastly overrated, most recently by me, but when I listened again, I had to admit this is among the dorkiest of Bond themes. Like its film, though, it’s absolutely iconic, to the point where being “good” is almost beside the point. Both are as quintessentially Bond as it is possible to be, even though they are hardly representative of the whole franchise. At least 90% of Austin Powers’ DNA comes directly from this source (and most of the rest is Moonraker).

10. “Moonraker”
Gasp! I know! Ignore the lyrics: this is a gorgeous tune. Let’s just leave it at that and move on.

9. “Thunderball”
Not generally my thing, but I have to admit that Tom Jones hits the mark pretty solidly with this one. McCartney complained a bit about having to write a song featuring the phrase “live and let die,” but that’s nothing compared to working around a non-word like “thunderball”! A good meat and potatoes Bond theme.

8. “Goldeneye”
Here’s where we really get into the good stuff. I find Tina Turner’s vocal here just a little too easy to lampoon, but it’s got all the right elements: sultry, elegant, and dangerous. If the lyrics aren’t making us a little worried that maybe this time someone will actually manage to retire James Bond permanently, the theme isn’t doing its job. I have to wonder a bit about the transition from “watched you from the shadows as a child” to “it’s a gold and honey trap I’ve got for you tonight.” Scandalous!

7. “For Your Eyes Only”
For a Bond theme, this is almost too innocent (though the less said the better about how that tone fits with the movie’s running gag where a teenaged figure skater has a crush on Moore’s 54-year-old Bond), but as a song, this is one of the triumphs of the 80s, riding the line between schmaltzy and transcendent. You know it’s on the good side of that line because when you sing it in the shower, you feel like you’re flying, even if you substitute the irresistible mondegreen “the wild abandoned sodomy.” My ambition is to sing it that way in karaoke and see if anybody notices.

6. “Nobody Does It Better”
We are into unassailable classic territory finally, starting with this Carly Simon ode to Bond’s lovemaking skills (and maybe spy skills too, but let’s not kid ourselves). It makes Bond sound mellower than some of the tunes I ranked lower, but to introduce a film called The Spy Who Loved Me, why shouldn’t it? Ironically, five people do it better, but this is still a respectable showing for 70s Bond.

5. “The Living Daylights”
I’m willing to concede that personal taste and history play a role in getting a-ha up this high; I loved the band, and I loved the film, the first to come out at a time when I was (by my parents’ standards) old enough to watch it. It’s one of the few Bond themes that manages to work just fine as a pop song in sequence on a record (Stay On These Roads, in this case) without sounding out of place or comical, and provide an exciting, driving intro to the film. If I rate it below its immediate predecessor, it’s only because a-ha are a little too cuddly to sound quite dangerous enough.

4. “A View to a Kill”
Duran Duran, like a handful of acts that for some unjustifiable reason have never provided a Bond theme (Bryan Ferry, Portishead, Goldfrapp, and Barry Adamson), were basically born to do this. Half their songs sound like Bond themes as is, and most of the videos from Rio looked like miniature Bond films. A more natural fit of band to Bond you won’t find on this list. Those punching orchestra hits that were all over dance music in the mid-to-late 80s date the arrangement a bit, but it’s a minor complaint. This and “Daylights” will probably always be my favorite Bond themes, but there are three I consider just a touch better if I’m being objective.

3. “The World Is Not Enough”
I have a theory about the ideal Bond theme. It showcases a female singer who is Bond’s counterpart, his anima perhaps, a woman just as capable and devious and deadly as he is, smoky and sexy and maybe just a little bit sinister, a vision of who he would be if he were not so scrupulously dedicated to protecting the interests of his country. Basically, not to cheapen it with this analogy, she’s the Catwoman to his Batman. There may not be a better example of this perfect storm than “TWINE.” Garbage have the same thing going that Duran Duran did, where half their songs sound like Bond themes already, but this song takes the whole thing further. In my mind this song is Shirley Manson (well, the character she’s voicing) talking directly to Bond: “look, if you gave up this whole spy gig, with your skills and mine, we could own this sorry little planet.” It’s compelling, it sounds fabulous, it’s mysterious and sensual. This is one of the few Bond movies I’ve never even bothered to watch, but the theme: it’s a jewel.

2. “You Only Live Twice”
The theatrical arrangement and Nancy Sinatra’s vocal on this are wonderful but maybe just a little quiet and unassuming; it’s early days for Bond and no one knows yet that a Bond theme is “supposed” to thunder into the room like an elephant in combat boots. Based on this elegant, sinuous tune, maybe less is more. It’s modest, and it’s gorgeous, and it way outclasses the film that follows. I’ve heard at least one brilliant cover of this, which cemented my love for it. It’s not the most bombastic Bond theme, but it might be just about perfect.

1. “Diamonds Are Forever”
This one is perfect. It’s got everything “The World Is Not Enough” had, including a singer named Shirley, plus twice the charisma, four times the glamour, and six times the sex appeal. It’s an intriguing intro to the film, it’s got that rolling thunder we expect from a Bond theme, it’s got that Bassey magic, it’s got everything. It’s this song — not “Goldfinger,” not “Skyfall” — that should serve as the template for future themes if anyone knows what they’re doing. It’s timeless: forever, forever, forever.

Morrissey, “Ranked”

There are some bad people on the right. There are some bad people on the rise. They’re saving their own skins by ruining people’s lives. While Rome burns, let’s rank Morrissey.

This is of course the definitive, uptown Moz ranking. It includes only the albums you need and none of the ones you don’t. Of course, there will be stray rarities you need to acquire at all costs, e.g. the essential “Pregnant For the Last Time” and majestic B-side “I Can Have Both,” but does an extra track and a tacky badge rate a repackage a place on the ladder? It does not. A better case might be made for including the live albums, but since one of them is “Beethoven Was Deaf”, it’s kinder to note for the record that Live at Earls Court is wonderful and indispensable and concentrate on the densest collections of new-to-us songs. So we have ten albums and three collections to consider. Let’s go worst to best, like any good countdown should.

13. World Peace Is None of Your Business (2014)
I confess I have only made it through this album once. It was that appalling. It’s the only studio album by Morrissey I do not own. I’m not certain what happened but my guess is this: Morrissey, like Madonna (have those words ever been typed? they must have, surely), depends heavily on the right collaborators. None of them could write a Morrissey song without him, but the rub is that he can’t write a good one without them. Maybe there’s a good one on here, and if so please write in and tell me. But one is not enough.

12. Swords (2009)
Or, Things Less Mighty Than Pens. It’s the weakest of the compilations, and it has some truly embarrassing stuff, but there are plenty of impressive B-sides and rarities here. My favorites are the sly “Don’t Make Fun of Daddy’s Voice” and of course “Friday Mourning,” one of the loveliest songs he’s written this century. “Good Looking Man About Town” is fun, “Shame Is the Name” has a real drive to it, and though “Teenage Dad on His Estate” is dubious as social commentary, it’s lovely as melody. All are Alain Whyte collaborations, if that tells you anything.

11. Ringleader of the Tormentors (2006)
There’s a lot of gratifying stuff here, chiefly the continued lyrical hints that Moz has had something of a sexual reawakening around this time; claims that “I entered nothing, and nothing entered me” are tough to swallow even with his self-styled reputation, but in any case it’s nice to hear them in the past tense. Certainly there are plenty of strong melodies here, and the lyrics are assertive and bold, but it suffers by comparison with its predecessor. Lots of Tobias collaborations here, though they’re not all bad: “You Have Killed Me” is fun and “In the Future When All’s Well” cranks along just fine.

10. Years of Refusal (2009)
More uneven than Ringleader, but this means it has true highlights, namely the fantastic “Something is Squeezing My Skull,” the gorgeous “I’m Throwing My Arms Around Paris,” and the sublime “When Last I Spoke to Carol.” The rest of the record will probably appeal to anyone in search of scathing breakup songs, but is otherwise safely skippable.

9. Maladjusted (1997)
Kind of a shock at the time. That awkward cover photo! The shapeless title track! The one about Mike Joyce suing him for royalties! It seemed even more apocalyptic with the long silence that followed. But when an album is the latest Morrissey for seven years, you spend a lot of time spinning it, and you discover that the rest of it is actually really excellent. Only those two tracks are subpar; every other song is a pleasure, if perhaps not among his most urgent statements. You might not find another Morrissey album more fun to sing in the car.

8. Viva Hate (1988)
I’ll lose some of you here, but see this album for what it is: Morrissey figuring out how to be a solo artist, and establishing some of his worst habits. In the former column, “Angel, Angel…” may have saved a few lives but may have endangered others, while “I Don’t Mind If You Forget Me” begs the obvious joke. In the latter, “Alsatian Cousin” is the first in an intermittent series of obnoxious album openers, while “Bengali in Platforms” kicks off a confusing ambivalence about the place of immigrants in British society, encapsulated in the wait-what? line “life is hard enough when you belong here.” There are no bad tracks, and plenty of wonderful ones, but since several of the best end up on later compilations, the harsh truth is that there’s less to come back for than nostalgia would suggest. It might be time for an update of that guillotine song, though.

7. Kill Uncle (1991)
So concise it’s almost a swindle, and not unfairly derided as a flimsy record compared to both earlier and later work. And yet there’s something almost absurdly confident about it. The tone is set poorly by “Our Frank” at the top of one side and “Found Found Found” on the other, but the remaining eight songs are as focused and vivid as anything he’s ever done. “Sing Your Life” and “There’s A Place in Hell For Me and My Friends” are, not to put too fine a point on it, not only perfect Morrissey songs but perfect songs, full stop.

6. Southpaw Grammar (1995)
I’ll never forget the Morrissey radio interview I heard when he was asked his favorite Smiths record and then his favorite solo record. His answers were “Rank” and this one. He might have been trolling, or self-promoting (this album had just come out), but actually he kind of has a point. “Rank” captures the energy of The Smiths in a way that the studio albums never could, and Southpaw might have come closest to doing the same for a backing band that — heresy time — might have, in whole though not in part, been their match. At the time I was enthused by the baroque opening track but a bit indifferent to the more conventional rock that followed it; now I feel the opposite. It’s easy to get lost in some of the highly unusual extended instrumental stretches, but it’s a fine place to be lost. Everyone is at the top of their game here. The scorching “Reader Meet Author,” “The Boy Racer,” “Dagenham Dave,” and “Best Friend on the Payroll” are top-notch, and I refer to “Do Your Best and Don’t Worry” at least every other week.

5. Your Arsenal (1992)
The muscle Morrissey sorely needed after Kill Uncle, and just in time. “You’re Gonna Need Someone on Your Side” is fine, but forgettable; “We’ll Let You Know,” a little limp; but the rest of the album is stone classic. “Successful” and “Fatty” are treasures, “Tomorrow” a triumph, “Glamorous Glue” perennial (“everyone lies, nobody minds, everyone lies: where is the man you respect?”). “The National Front Disco” might be awkward to sing along with, continuing that “Platforms” ambiguity with the pre-chorus “England for the English” which is probably condemnation but sounds a bit like celebration, but it’s all part of the fascinating Morrissey puzzle, of which this is a key piece.

4. My Early Burglary Years (1998)
If you know anything about Morrissey you know he saves most of his best tracks for B-sides. And here’s a stunning lineup: “Sunny,” “At Amber” (“it’s not lowlife, it’s just people having a good time”), “Nobody Loves Us,” “A Swallow On My Neck,” “Pashernate Love,” “Jack the Ripper,” “I’ve Changed My Plea to Guilty,” “Boxers,” and the indispensable “Sister I’m a Poet” and “Girl Least Likely To.” I’d quickly have traded away “Michael’s Bones” and the unnecessary “Cosmic Dancer” cover for “My Love Life” and “I Can Have Both,” but one has to sell singles somehow.

3. Vauxhall and I (1994)
This album came out at a time when I had cooled toward a lot of the music I’d been into and became obsessed with female singer-songwriters and neo-medievalists. I borrowed this, listened, gave it back: it had flown under my radar entirely. When I revisited it years later I couldn’t believe I’d missed out on one of Morrissey’s most perfect albums. The bravado of Your Arse settled down, the point proven, and now just a matter of gorgeous music sustaining some of Morrissey’s best lyrics. It’s highlight after highlight. If I’m back to not listening to it much, it’s because I’ve just about worn it out with repeats. I have to put something aside for old age.

2. You Are the Quarry (2004)
The idea that Maladjusted might have been Morrissey’s retirement record seems crazy now, but in the early 21st century it seemed the most likely scenario. When we heard this was coming out on some obscure defunct reggae record label as a vanity release, we hoped for the best but feared the worst. What we got was the best. It’s not as consistent as Vauxhall, what with meanders like “Come Back to Camden” and near-novelties like “I Like You.” But the sudden direct and forthright and sure-footed power of songs like “America Is Not the World,” “Irish Blood, English Heart,” “I’m Not Sorry,” “The World Is Full of Crashing Bores,” and “You Know I Couldn’t Last” seemed both unprecedented and quintessentially Morrissey. And after so many years of coyness about not only his sexuality but that of others, to hear him use the word “gay” in a song, or sing gorgeously about “All the Lazy Dykes,” or declare “the woman of my dreams…there never was one” seemed revelatory. Other albums might be easier listening, but none made stronger statements, and regarding a man known for his lyrics, that counts for a lot.

1. Bona Drag (1990)
I might be biased for two reasons: one, this is the first solo Morrissey album I ever owned and listened to, so it set the baseline; and two, this is objectively the best Morrissey album of all time. Of course it’s a collection, not technically an album, but with Moz, what difference does it make? This is a set where “Hairdresser on Fire,” “Everyday is Like Sunday,” and “Suedehead” aren’t even in the running for best tracks. “Piccadilly Palare,” “Interesting Drug,” “The Last of the Famous International Playboys,” and “Ouija Board, Ouija Board,” are all extraordinary in their own right and are early prototypes and perhaps best examples of Moz tropes he’d revisit again and again. Depending on your taste, you might find “November Spawned a Monster” or even “He Knows I’d Love To See Him” among the highest of highlights. For my money, it’s the back-to-back pair “Yes, I Am Blind” and “Lucky Lisp” that really brings this one home. There’s an alternate universe where this is a Smiths album and fans debate its merits vs. The Queen Is Dead. As much as I’d love to hear Johnny Marr’s guitar underpinning some of these songs, I’m fine with them just as they are.

Designing the next day

Let’s talk about something that truly deserves our anger: this album cover.

bowie_next

It’s not his ugliest album cover, certainly: it lacks the exasperating vulgarity of Diamond Dogs, the mid-80s insanity of Never Let Me Down, the overcooked end-of-his-ropeness of hours…, or indeed the flat-out godawfulness of this design firm’s previous Bowie mistake, Reality. But if you take a classic Bowie album cover and you just half-assedly strike through it, using the homeliest font you can find, you cannot fail to fail to improve on it. Putting a Post-It over the face of the Mona Lisa is necessarily going to be at best a notch below the original aesthetically, even if you hate the painting.

So all you’re left with is the concept. You’re two albums too late to “obscure the past;” the time for such a word was not hereafter but the day before yesterday, when Heathen came out. Obviously you know the absurdity of using an instantly recognizable image from the past to obscure it, and the designer admits this is impossible, but then why bother trying? If you’re trying to keep moving forward, keep moving forward. Do practically anything other than this. When a song from this album pops up in the shuffle, I can’t enjoy it for what it is, because I can’t see this cover image without thinking every time: this is okay, but damn, I could be listening to Heroes.

Remember the past, paint the future over it: yes. That’s what it’s all about. But then paint something. Don’t just react to what came before: envision a complete new future. Put all of your heart into it and have something to show for it.

…hey, maybe that applies to more than just album covers.

motown then and now

I love Amy Winehouse. My girlfriend can’t stand her, and suggested to me recently that I try some of the more classic stuff, namely Smokey Robinson. So I checked out a box set of Smokey and the Miracles from the library and have been sampling it at random for a few weeks.

There’s nothing to dislike about Smokey. I don’t agree with irritating 80s band ABC about much, but we are on the same page about what it feels like “When Smokey Sings.”

The thing is, and I’m a little shocked, most of these songs don’t do much for me. The execution is marvelous (though perhaps not miraculous), and the basic sound is like butter and cream. But not every song is catchy, and some of them seem to meander over a melody that’s not really sure where it’s going, and some of the catchier ones are kind of annoying.

But the worst problem is that lyrically and emotionally most of them are of their time — that is, generalized and uncomplicated, odes not so much to the beloved as to love itself. They’re bubblegum, sweet for a minute or two, then flavorless, good only for habitual, unconscious chewing.

They don’t have a lot to do with why I love Amy Winehouse. Part of it’s That Voice, and both Smokey and Amy have their own That Voices, even if Smokey’s is more like wine and Amy’s is more like smoke. Part of it’s the retro stylings, and of course with Smokey they weren’t retro but contemporary.

But a lot of it is what she’s singing about, which is love but not in vague, impersonal, blithe terms. There’s pain and lust and guilt and bliss and resignation and wisdom in there, some of it sounding as young as she is, some of it sounding as old as time, but all of it both personal and universal, specific and general, simple and complicated in all the right ways. It’s not just ear candy, but every flavor you can think of all together in one sublime dinner.

Her personal meltdowns are beside the point, though I don’t necessarily think they’re part of her talent. Maybe they put the darkness into her music, and maybe that’s why it’s more memorable than 80% of the Miracles stuff, but they’re not a reason to dislike her art. Would I like this Smokey box set better if there were more songs in it about losing love and fewer about being in it? I’d like to think I wouldn’t, but then again, there’s “Who’s Loving You,” one of the stone classics on here, and if anything the sweet sad sorrowful question to which “You Know I’m No Good” could well be the answer.