There are plenty of reasons to be excited about Skyfall, the newest installment in the venerable James Bond movie franchise (fifty years and counting): Daniel Craig is back as Bond, Javier Bardem as the new Bond villain, Oscar-winning director Sam Mendes bringing it all together with wit and grace. But our first indication that this one might be something special came a few weeks back, when we got a listen to Adele’s moody, smoky theme song for the film. It’s got a big, brassy sound that immediately recalls Shirley Bassey, who became the signature voice of the Bond movie theme songs (and while she only did three of them, that’s two more than anyone else), and digging up Bassey’s tunes sent us down a YouTube rabbit hole of Bond themes. As you might expect, over the course of fifty years there have been some timeless, immortal songs; there have been others that, to put it charitably, haven’t aged quite so well. After the jump, we’ve picked our five best, four worst, and one in between of the Bond themes thus far. Some controversies may erupt, so by all means, throw in your two cents in the comments.
“Goldfinger,” Shirley Bassey
The first (and best) of the Bassey trilogy — slinky, big, brassy, with the singer’s distinctive vibrato on full display, and a killer belt on that last note. Pair it up with one of the most distinctive of the series’ memorable title sequences, and you’ve got the song that set the table for all Bond themes that followed.
“Live and Let Die,” Paul McCartney & Wings
Live and Let Die marked a changing of the guard for the Bond franchise. It was the first film in the series to feature Roger Moore as 007; in addition to that switch in the look of the series, they made a change in its sound, moving away from the adult contemporary likes of Bassey and Tom Jones for the theme, instead hiring Paul McCartney to work up the opening number. McCartney also brought along longtime Beatles producer George Martin to provide the score — the first time since Dr. No that John Barry hadn’t filled that role. As a result, McCartney’s “Live and Let Die” has a harder, edgier sound (for the Bond movies, anyway), and it’s a track that’s maintained a healthy afterlife, with Guns N’ Roses’ Use Your Illusion cover going to #20 in 1991.
“You Only Live Twice,” Nancy Sinatra
Frank’s daughter was hot off “These Boots Were Made For Walking” when she lent her pipes to this fabulously mellow and bewitching track, which has been covered by Bjork and Coldplay and sampled by Robbie Williams and Cee-Lo. Let’s face it: you can’t argue with a song deemed strong enough to close a season of Mad Men.
“Goldeneye,” Tina Turner
The Bond series hit one of its occasional reboots in 1995 when, six years after the second of two snoozy Timothy Dalton installments, Pierce Brosnan was (finally) cast in the role for Goldeneye. The film’s producers hired U2’s Bono and the Edge to work up a title song, which was belted out by the great Tina Turner; the song nicely mashes up the series’ typical sound with a bit of mid-’90s pop electronica.
“Another Way to Die” (from Quantum of Solace), Jack White and Alicia Keys
Well, when they hired Jack White to do the theme for the second Daniel Craig Bond movie, they certainly got Jack White; while some maintain that this one sounds too much like Jack White and not enough like James Bond, we like the intermingling of White’s guitars and drums with those blasting Bond horns, and the White/Keys match-up is more successful than you’d think. A lot of fans hate this one, but, well, they’re wrong; it’s much more fun than the snoozy fare that dominates too many Bond openings.
“All Time High” (from Octopussy), Rita Coolidge
You won’t find too many fans that put Octopussy among the higher ranks of the Bond movies (or even the Moore efforts), and its opening song holds up even worse than the movie; it’s the worst kind of early-’80s easy listening pap, the kind of song you can all but hear being played in snippets on a K-TEL compilation commercial over stills of couples walking on beaches. And that’s before the sax solo that closes it out.
“Die Another Day,” Madonna
You get the feeling the Bond folk had been trying for years to land Madonna, and when they finally did for 2002’s Die Another Day, they not only had the pretend-Brit do the theme song, but a cameo. Who’da thunk her acting would turn out to be better than her musical contribution, a nightmare of early Auto-Tune and other computerized burps and farts that serves as a fine reminder of why we haven’t been listening to much Madonna lately.
The reinvigoration and reinvention of the Bond franchise with 2006’s Casino Royale has become such a part of the series narrative that it’s easy to forget how much skepticism there was for the idea of a reboot back then — who was this new guy? Why were they doing an origin story? And, most disturbingly, why was the frontman for Soundgarden doing a Bond theme? It’s not just his mediocre vocalizing or the Vegas showroom instrumentation; with lyrics like “If you take a life do you know what you’ll give?/ Odds are, you won’t like what it is” (deep!), it’s little wonder this is the only Bond title theme to date that didn’t appear on the corresponding soundtrack album.
“The Living Daylights,” A-ha
The trouble with trying to generate hit singles out of Bond themes is that you occasionally end up stuck with a flavor of the month. Such is the case with 1987’s The Living Daylights, whose title song is provided by the momentary Norwegian sensation A-ha — a group we only remember for their stylized “Take on Me” video (and the way their name means that song always ends up accidentally playing on your iPod). The vocals are thin and reedy, the production is (to put it charitably) dated, and the song itself is as utterly forgettable as the movie it opened.
“A View to a Kill,” Duran Duran
Duran Duran’s title tune for the wheezy 1987 Moore vehicle A View to a Kill is cursed with several of the elements we’ve attributed to the worst of the Bond themes: nonsense lyrics (“dance into the fire?” Heh?), dopey instrumentation, and a sound that betrays, with every note, the moment it was made (and not one second after). So why can’t we put it on that list? Because those same elements also make it vintage Duran Duran, and how on earth can we hate on that?
Those are our picks for the best and worst — did we leave off your favorite? Or put it on the wrong list? Let us know in the comments!