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.

Skyfall

The theme tune is just okay. I want to love Adele, but I don’t, quite. She seems a sort of pale imitation of what she ought to be. The girl is young, though, and perhaps she’ll grow into that voice. Surprisingly, the Chris Cornell theme tune has grown on me, though I hated it at first; it’s the best of the Craig themes so far.

And Casino Royale is still the best of the Craig films, perhaps because it’s a modern take on the original Bond flavor, just as Quantum of Solace was a modern take on the franchise circa License to Kill. It’s not that Skyfall isn’t impressive as hell, because it bloody is. I’m still getting my head around all the places this film goes and all the motifs it plays with.

It’s got some fun moments, but still nothing quite like the fun we used to have with Connery and Moore: as we all know, this is a serious Bond who’s supposed to persuade us he’s real and means business. He’s an assassin, and sometimes just a thug. He doesn’t do a lot of what you’d call spying; most of his duties involve running and jumping and shooting people. Sometimes he makes a laughable attempt to interrogate people, typically by asking silly questions like “Who do you work for?” when they’re bleeding to death or hanging over a yawning chasm. Of course he never gets an answer. Can you imagine?

Maybe I’m forgetting that this is how it always was, but Daniel Craig is good at draining Bond’s face of the intelligence we know Craig has, leaving mainly quick wits, perceptiveness, laser focus, and icy calm. Either he never gets angry or he never stops being angry, and even when he’s got a woman in his paws he looks stony and sour. He’s great, don’t get me wrong, but part of what makes Bond so much fun to watch is that before and after the danger he enjoys life. There’s no sign that this version of him ever does. We still hardly know this man, even though the whole film is supposedly a commentary on him.

The action’s better than that of Quantum of Solace, because it’s clearer. The locations aren’t as good, because we hardly get to see them; lots of night shoots, lots of interiors. The girls are okay; neither is a match for Olga Kurylenko or Eva Green in any significant respect, but as in the last two films, the formula persists that one girl is relatively impressive and competent, while the other is a doomed unfortunate. There’s a surprising and largely unexplained pre-credits action sequence that recalls (but can’t hope to top) the beginning of You Only Live Twice, and there’s a really surprising endgame that is quite unlike anything I remember from any previous Bond film, for better or for worse.

By far, though, what struck me the most about Skyfall is the incredible list of elements that reminded me of The Dark Knight Rises (or the prior two Nolan Batman films). I can, in fact, touch on just about every interesting element in this movie by listing the comparisons. I’ll try to be vague, but this may spoil some of the film for you if you haven’t seen it. Both films, actually.

  1. At or near the beginning of the film, our hero is missing and presumed dead.
  2. In fact, he’s alive, having survived what to the audience appears to be an unavoidably fatal situation (in TDKR this comes at the end).
  3. He’s in hiding and grows some scruff before shaving it off and getting serious.
  4. When he returns to action, he’s got some aches and pains from prior missions. He’s a little off his game.
  5. (A little personal opinion here: he’s played by an actor who’s talented but whom I happen to find it difficult to warm to. He plays the part effectively and insightfully but sacrifices some of his predecessors’ charm in order to do it.)
  6. He finds himself working with a good-looking woman who likes driving fast vehicles and attempts to shoot the villain he’s wrestling with.
  7. She’s thinking about retiring and settling down somewhere she’ll still be close to him.
  8. His older parental figure seems perennially displeased with him and questions his fitness for duty.
  9. Even after returning to duty, he is considered a liability by officials, someone whose way of doing things is disapproved of, someone who should retire on account of age.
  10. He finds himself up against a genius opponent who is able to take control of computer networks easily and single-handedly, and commit apparently effortless acts of terrorism.
  11. This villain turns out to be someone who trained in the same way as our hero and is returning to exact a “reckoning.”
  12. This person is even said to have come from “the shadows,” and to inspire great fear (Batman Begins).
  13. The villain was crippled near to death in the course of a heroic act, and now must wear special mouthgear in order to function normally.
  14. The villain escapes from what we must assume is one of the best prisons in the world (deep inside a cave, though this is one where our hero works and it’s filled with technology) and flees through the underground, which he has somehow rigged for detonation.
  15. The villain has a markedly effeminate/eccentric air, laughs easily, has a gruesomely deformed mouth, and seems at least half insane (The Dark Knight, though to be fair none of this is too far out of line for a Bond villain).
  16. Our hero’s parents had a rather impressive ancestral home, which includes a cave in which our orphaned hero spent a tense evening as a child, and which is ravaged by fire toward the end (Batman Begins).
  17. The climactic battle is precipitated by the scientific genius character using technology in a supposedly unauthorized but seemingly innocuous way to create a trail that leads hero and villain to the same place (The Dark Knight again).
  18. Significant themes of the film include questioning the relatively advanced age of our hero (can he still cut it? are his methods outdated?), and judging the ethics of the powers that be (do they use people irresponsibly with no regard for their lives?).
  19. The end of the film sees a surprisingly competent character revealing their name to be one we recognize immediately (but which has no significance to anyone in the film, who of course don’t know this name from prior versions of the story).
  20. The end also involves a passing of the torch from one character to the next.

There are probably more. I really didn’t have to spend any time at all thinking to come up with these, and you could probably double it if you really dug for them. I don’t want to give the impression that this seemed like a total ripoff to me. At no point did I think “oh, I’ve seen The Dark Knight Rises so I don’t have to see this now.” The two trilogies have so much in common concerning their approach, themes, interests, and relationship to what’s come before that it really shouldn’t be strange that they’re so much in sync. And yet it is.

I’ll be honest: as much as I admire everyone’s work in these films, including Craig’s, I’m just about ready for some turnover. I was glad to see the torch passed, because as much as I like the actor who’s leaving, I never felt fully convinced by the character, and I think what comes next will feel a little more on-target. I would really love to see the next Bond film relax a bit, take itself a little less seriously, luxuriate in its exotic locations and intrigue, let the action take care of itself a bit more. There are so many films today that give us the opportunity to see improbable chases and masonry blowing to bits and fights on top of trains (and even heartstring-tugging glimpses into damaged heroes’ pasts). There weren’t quite so many of these big action blockbusters back when Bond got started, and he helped make them the big industry they are today.

But there’s still a niche for the stuff that comes in between, the Casino Royale stuff like cocktails and tuxedoes and gambling (Bond even enters a casino at one point and never even places a bet) and penthouse suites and first-class resorts, not to mention good-natured half-smiles, suave jokes, glib cover stories, and yeah, even those dorky gadgets that Skyfall wrongly declares to be passé. We’ve had our Skyfall now, and as much as I enjoyed it, I’m ready for us to have our Bond back.