James Bond movie theme songs are the cinematic equivalents of paperback book-series covers — they suggest familiarity and course with the promise of a compelling new adventure for Western culture’s most unkillable pop icon. Bond’s first big screen adventure, 1962’s, Dr. No had no precedent to follow, and therefore no need for the bombastic title treatments that would come to define the franchise (it opted for a gentle calypso medley). By the time the franchise’s third film was released two years later, we already had Shirley Bassey roaring “Goldfinger”over the credits, and audiences knew just what kind of fun 007 had in store for them.
Each Bond gets the themes he deserves, from the smooth and impenetrable tunes of the Connery era to the radio-ready offerings from the Daniel Craig years, as muscular and wounded as his iteration of the legendary spy. You don’t need to have seen Spectre to know that the song Sam Smith wrote for it taps into the unique pathos of the rebranded contemporary version of the character; when it comes to Bond themes, the writing has always been on the wall.
With Spectre looming ominously on the horizon, we look back at more than 50 years of Bond themes, counting down from worst to best.
22. ‘The Man with the Golden Gun’ (Lulu)
A fitting theme song for a Bond movie in which the villain is largely defined by the fact that he has a third nipple, 1974’s “The Man With the Golden Gun” served as perverse proof that 007 was here to stay — if this laughable ode to Roger Moore’s penis couldn’t kill the spy franchise, nothing can. (Composer John Barry has even admitted that “It’s the one [theme] I hate most.”) Performed by Scottish singer Lulu, and chosen over an equally awful offering from Alice Cooper, the song snakes a porno guitar riff through a driving horn section that’s doing everything in its power to distract from the words. “His eye may be on you or me/Who will he bang?/We shall see/Oh yeah!” Those lyrics are real. You can Google them.
21. ‘Another Way to Die’ (From ‘Quantum of Solace’) (Jack White and Alicia Keys)
On paper, the series’ first two-for-one theme sounded too good to be true: Alicia Keys lacing some pop R&B swagger over Jack White’s crunchy guitar licks — what could go wrong? Less a duet than the sound of two people singing vaguely similar songs at the same time, “Another Way to Die” may not share a title the film to which it’s attached (you try finding a good rhyme for “Quantum of Solace”), but it was just as disappointing. White and Keys’ voices fit together like 007 and celibacy, and the track quickly devolves into a screechy high-speed chase of runaway harmonies and staccato horn blasts. Like the master plans of the franchise’s many nemeses, the idea here was strong — it was in the execution where things went up in flames.
20. The Living Daylights’ (A-Ha)
Credit where it’s due: The first eight seconds of “The Living Daylights” are absolutely perfect, a suspenseful gust of flutes delivering on that classic John Barry sound. And then 1987 happens. Cue a wonky synth twinkle with all the grace of a Rickroll, as A-ha swoops in so violently that you can almost hear them locking everyone else out of the recording studio. The relationship between the Norwegian pop group and the Bond team eventually deteriorated to the point where the band claimed Barry didn’t deserve a credit on their song, and the composer compared them to the Hitler Youth. It’s a slinky enough pop jam, but so far removed from the world of MI6 that you’re likely to forget what you’re watching by the time the movie starts.
19. ‘You Know My Name’ (From ‘Casino Royale’) (Chris Cornell)
The first Bond theme since 1983’s Octopussy not to borrow the title of the movie, (and the first one not to appear on its movie’s soundtrack), this alt-rock dumpster fire really can’t be blamed on Chris Cornell. The fault lies with the Sony executive who — in the year 2007 — decided that the dude from Soundgarden was the right voice to introduce the most radically different, forward-thinking James Bond in the character’s half-century history. (The singer wasn’t even the voice of Audioslave at this point.) Its generic squall of chunky guitar riffs conveys none of the Craig era’s style and raw pathos. Bond theme songs have never exactly been on the vanguard, but seldom have they felt so far behind the times.
18. ‘All Time High’ (From ‘Octopussy’) (Rita Coolidge)
The theme song for Octopussy was always going to have one job and one job only: Distract viewers from the fact that they’re about to watch a film called Octopussy. By those standards, “All Time High” is considered something of a success. Not the smuttiest Bond theme ever recorded, the track cut for Bond’s 1983 adventure feels about as dangerous as a trip to the grocery store or an FM radio-show dedication. Rita Coolidge’s smooth jazz ditty just sort of sits there, knowing full well that it would be a lot more awkward to watch guns ejaculate silhouettes of women in silence.
17. ‘Die Another Day’ (Madonna)
There’s really only one way to prepare audiences for an action movie involving space lasers, invisible cars, and a henchman with diamonds encrusted into his face: Robo-Madonna. Declaring that James Bond needed “to get techno,” the Material Girl cut a glitchy, awkward, and hideously auto-tuned chant that allows audiences to experience a degree of the torture that 007 endures in the opening scene. Easily the weirdest Bond theme ever recorded (even before android Madge offers a spoken-word interlude that name checks Freud), the song was symptomatic of a franchise desperately trying to disguise the fact that it had sunk into self-parody.
16. ‘Tomorrow Never Dies’ (Sheryl Crow)
Not even Sheryl Crow’s best Gwen Stefani impression can save this forgettable cut, which was chosen over offerings from the likes of Pulp and Saint Etienne. In fact, the singer’s contribution to the spy series is notable only for how it underscores the fact that most Bond themes — notably the ones performed by women — are sung from the perspective of a neglected lover, dolled up and desperately waiting by the door for 007 to come home. Crow’s first words here are especially pitiable: “Darling/I’m killed /I’m in a puddle on the floor/Waiting for you to return.” And return James Bond always does, but never to the same girl.
15. ‘Goldeneye’ (Tina Turner)
Tina Turner’s “Goldeneye” has it all — even if that includes a lot of stuff you never really wanted in the first place. Bouncing on top of a smooth synth beat, the first Bond theme of the Brosnan era is both a nice throwback to the velvety sound of Shirley Bassey, and also an agreeable capitulation to the tinny production sound of movie scores of the mid-Nineties. Its greatest attribute, however, is how its lyrics strain to represent every different type of creepiness that a Bond theme can: clumsy sexual come-ons (“It’s a golden honey trap I’ve got for you tonight”); violent jealousy (“Other girls they gather around him/If I had time I wouldn’t let him out”); and, best of all, allusions to a lifetime of stalking (“You’ll never know how I watched you from the shadows as a child”). This may not be a great song, but it has enough going on under the surface to keep a dozen therapists perpetually summering in the Hamptons.
14. ‘License to Kill’ (Gladys Knight)
Essentially a cover of the Goldfinger theme (royalties had to be paid to the writers of the original), the title track from 1989’s License to Kill takes Shirley Bassey’s classic and remixes it with the hold music from your favorite cable service provider. Fortunately, Gladys Knight goes a long way, and she’s given free reign to flex her vibrato with the same indifference to song structure as James Bond has to the architecture of the buildings he blows up. Bonus points for some of the most homicidally covetous lyrics of any Bond tune: “I’ve got a license to kill/and you know I’m going straight for your heart/I’ve got a license to kill/anyone who tries to tear us apart.” Given 007’s track record, she’s going to have her hands full.
13. ‘From Russia With Love’ (John Barry Orchestra)
It’s a bit unfair to stack the theme sequence from Bond’s second big-screen adventure against all the others, if only because it was sent out into the world before Goldfinger had established that Bond title songs should be kissed with a go-for-broke vocal performance. John Barry’s jaunty instrumental number is defined by its seductive funk and half-hearted exoticism (certain stretches sound like they were excerpted from a muzak cover of Maurice Jarre’s Lawrence of Arabia score) — and just when it sounds like the tune has run out of steam, it segues into the classic Bond theme. Future franchise installments wouldn’t be allowed to take such an easy way out, but From Russia With Love proved that there’s simply no better way to set the stage for 007.
12. ‘A View to Kill’ (Duran Duran)
Allegedly, Duran Duran’s bassist drunkenly approaching Bond producer Cubby Broccoli at a party and asking, “When are you going to get someone decent to do one of your theme songs?” The frustrating thing about “A View to a Kill” is that there were already so many of the band’s tunes that would have made better Bond themes (“Girls on Film,” “Hungry Like the Wolf,” “Union of the Snake” — that one just for the title alone). Nevertheless, the song is catchy in that Duran Duran sort of way, and it became one of the band’s biggest hits for good reason. To this day, it’s still impressive how the track not only navigated the nonsense of the movie’s title, but affectionately embraced it: “Dance into the fire/that fatal kiss is all we feel/Dance into the fire/when all we see is the view to a kill.” Who can’t relate to that?
11. ‘The World Is Not Enough’ (Garbage)
If there’s one dirty secret that unites all Bond themes from the Nineties, it’s that the songs ache to have been performed by Björk. That said, Garbage frontwoman Shirley Manson is a perfectly decent substitute for the Icelandic swanstress, and the silky cognac of a song she had to work with is a strong fit for her tone. Co-written by the hit-or-miss Don Black, who had a hand in formative Bond themes like “Thunderball,” the last 007 tune before the turn of the millennium roared with more drama than anything in the film to which it was attached. The verses are wishy-washy, but that chorus is a killer earworm, with Manson’s elastic voice pulling the rest of her body into each note by sheer force of will.
10. ‘Moonraker’ (Shirley Bassey)
There are no two ways about it: Shirley Bassey is the voice of the Bond themes, and even her weakest contribution ranks among the series’ most essential tracks. Stepping in for a frustrated Johnny Mathis mere weeks before the film was due for release, the chanteuse reminded the world that she was one of the only Earthlings who could croon a nonsense word like “Moonraker” and make it sound downright glorious. Listen, you try taking a mess of typically distressed Bond lyrics (“Where are you? When will we meet? Take my unfinished life and make it complete”) and imbuing them with sense of life or death. Not so easy, is it?
9. ‘On Her Majesty’s Secret Service’ (John Barry Orchestra)
And now for something completely different. The first entry shot after Sean Connery relinquished the role, 1969’s On Her Majesty’s Secret Service was also the first Bond film since From Russia With Love to use an instrumental theme. Layering a safe but deliciously brassy melody over a Moog bass line that was a few years ahead of its time, John Barry’s reassuring composition helped 007 make the daunting leap from successful series to a bona fide franchise that could exist independent of a single star. Still, it’s hard not to wonder what might have happened if the composer had been granted the permission he sought to write the operatic Gilbert and Sullivan-style jam the film’s title so clearly demands.
8. ‘For Your Eyes Only’ (Sheena Easton)
Following the cartoon serial theatrics of Moonraker, 1981’s For Your Eyes Only was meant to be a return to the grittier Bond movies of yore. Composer Bill Conti had other plans, however — and because the funky, unmistakably Eighties score he wrote for the film demanded a similarly off-brand theme, we got Sheena Easton’s shimmering low-key ballad. The first (and last) performer in the series to have her face superimposed over the opening titles, the “Sugar Walls” singer aims this post-coital country jam for the last row in the theater, holding it together on the strength of her conviction (and a killer piano power chord).
7. ‘Thunderball’ (Tom Jones)
Tom Jones! We can’t hold it against him that his silky croon now sounds like the stuff of parody, or that Jones and John Barry were forced to rush something out the door after United Artists made a last-minute request that the theme song contain the film’s title. Fortunately for them, pretty much every other word in the English language rhymes with “Thunderball.” The squelching horn melody may be a little (or a lot) derivative of the music from the first three Bond films, but that Welsh baritone spin on Shirley Bassey’s shtick made it sound brand new, and the way he nearly asphyxiates on that final note is a perfect flourish for a spy adventure that sets most of its action underwater.
6. ‘Nobody Does it Better’ (From ‘The Spy Who Loved Me’) (Carly Simon)
Carly Simon’s lust-drunk anthem to a mythic lover — which has since appeared in everything from Lost in Translation and Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason to bridal showers across the world — might be a hotel lobby staple if not for the smuttiness of its lyrics. “There’s some kind of magic inside you/That keeps me from runnin’/But just keep it comin.'” Hair metal bands who could learn a few things from this. Of all the odes to Bond’s sexual prowess (and there were a lot of them), Simon’s is the most satisfying.
5. ‘Diamonds Are Forever’ (Shirley Bassey)
Tight, layered, and suitably sharper than most of the franchise’s other opening tracks, Shirley Bassey second crack at a Bond theme is perhaps most notable for being the franchise’s least horny song ever. On the contrary, the singer rails against the impermanence of a good lover, as even those with stamina for miles can’t last as long as a good rock on your finger. (“Men are mere mortals who aren’t worth going to your grave for,” she belts.) Ironically, producer Harry Saltzman considered the song to be objectionably sexual, presumably blushing at how Bassey’s line that diamonds can “Stimulate and tease me” suggested that women were capable of feeling any pleasure that wasn’t provided by a man. Right.
4. ‘Skyfall’ (Adele)
The most popular Bond theme of all time (if you go by YouTube play counts), “Skyfall” was money in the bank from the moment Sony decided to hire Adele. Channeling that vintage Bassey sound and flexing it with serious symphonic muscle, this epic tune played no small role in helping make this blockbuster the the first Bond movie to gross more than a billion dollars. As with the other songs written for the Craig-era instalments, “Skyfall” eschews the franchise’s classic innuendo in favor of bleating emotional abstractions, though some of the words here (“Skyfall is where we start…”) tease at crucial third act plot details. In fact, the lyrical nonsense works to the song’s advantage, leaving Adele’s booming voice free to launch the tidal wave of sonic pathos that will carry this consequential Bond movie all the way to its grim conclusion.
3. ‘You Only Live Twice’ (Nancy Sinatra)
The rising whirl of strings that kicks off this formative 1967 Bond theme might just be John Barry’s finest moment (even if it was lifted from an Alexander Tcherepnin concerto, the decision to use and tweak it here is still a stroke of genius). Originally intended for Frank Sinatra but ultimately delegated to his daughter, “You Only Live Twice” is located somewhere in the Bermuda Triangle between James Bond and South Pacific. Playing off of the film’s Japanese setting — yes, this is the one where 007 fakes his death and comes back to life in yellow face — Barry augments a breezily majestic melody with the exotic plink of bamboo xylophones, and Nancy Sinatra’s voice trembles around them in style. More recently, the season five finale of Mad Men confirmed what audiences of the time knew right away: This song is a classic.
2. ‘Live and Let Die’ (Paul McCartney and Wings)
Possibly the best song Paul McCartney ever recorded with Wings, “Live and Let Die” isn’t just good — it’s Beatles good. With an assist from Linda McCartney and legendary producer George Martin (who arranged the track’s killer orchestral break in addition to his usual duties), this perpetually shifting tune feels like a super condensed throwback to the medley that backstops Abbey Road. Featuring the only good thing that a guitar has ever done for a Bond theme, the song front-loads the franchise’s curious attempt to cash in on the early Seventies blaxploitation wave, but this is one of those rare tunes that’s worth the price of admission all by itself.
1. ‘Goldfinger’ (Shirley Bassey)
You were expecting someone else?
Where to begin with a song that almost every culturally literate person in the Western world has etched into their minds like the lines on their hands? The brassy call and response that triggers the track seems as natural a place to start as any, that two note phrase blasting the first real James Bond theme into our spinal cords even before Shirley Bassey can solder the wound shut. By the time her voice kicks in, instantly becoming as integral to the franchise as the Walther PPK or Sean Connery’s hedge maze of chest hair, John Barry has already gilded the 007 movies with a frivolous sense of danger; silly in the extreme but worth taking seriously.
But it’s Bassey who deserves the last word — and given her lung capacity, it’s hard to take it from her. The singer couldn’t have known the extent to which her performance would resonate in pop culture, but she holds that final note for so long that it may reverberate with us forever.