Once in a while, I like to rank things. Ranking helps you define the subjective qualities that comprise your individual tastes, forces you to think about the subconscious criteria that inform your opinions, and as a bonus gives you something to argue about endlessly at cocktail parties or (the internet equivalent) your blog.
On a recent road trip, I cranked up the James Bond themes and chose what are, to me, the top ten best. My criteria were as follows:
1. Expresses an essence of Bondian baroque: operatic, epic, seductive, exciting. The song should not feel like it could just as easily have been from another franchise (Eye of the Tiger, anyone?) or remixed disco euro-syth dance music (the dreadful Die Another Day, which ranks, in my view, as the worst Bond theme).
2. The song expresses aspects of the characters and themes, particularly James Bond, or at least the James Bond of that particular era.
3. The song was important to the franchise: it charted high and/or financially helped the film.
4. In style, melody and arrangement, the theme bears traces of the 1960s, the era that defined the film James Bond, but is still recognizably a well-written song.
5. The singer invests emotional hyperbole. If you’re singing about James Bond, people, make it big.
Of course, the Monte Norman theme is THE Bond theme, so it’s not included in the running, and not every song on my list scored high on every criterion. Your mileage—and 007s—may differ.
This is the Bond theme to end all Bond themes. It defined Bond, defined over-the-top villainy (“No, Mr. Bond, I expect you to die!”) and is the essential benchmark for all subsequent Bond music. In other words, the song (and incredible performance by Shirley Bassey) set the standard for the entire series, much as the film did for the franchise.
After film after film of unmemorable Bond themes, Adele’s grand foray not only scores high in every category, but also qualifies as a damn good piece of music, independently from 007. Skyfall was a film that demanded gravitas, and Adele delivered, securing her rank as the second greatest Bond diva of all time.
Sir Tom Jones. James Bond. One of the greatest films of the series and remade as Never Say Never Again when Connery needed a job. Sir Tom and Dame Shirley Bassey are both Welsh, and the Welsh have that emotional, over-the-top investment in the music nailed. Most Bond themes have been sung by women, and I’d argue that Jones’ Thunderball is the single best male performance.
4. DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER
One of the worst films and one of the best Bond songs, thanks again to Shirley Bassey’s commitment. She’s too authentic to be campy, and too grand to be dismissed. Plus, it’s a rare theme that expresses a feminine (and even somewhat “liberated”, surprisingly) viewpoint. I don’t need love … for what good did love do me? Diamonds never lied to me …
5. LIVE AND LET DIE
Paul McCartney and Wings offer a memorable, fast-driving anthem that just misses sounding like most other Wings songs by incorporating enough of the Monty Norman/1960s flourishes that register as Bond. Plus, it’s Paul McCartney on Roger Moore’s debut outing, a most felicitous new beginning for the series. The first time a band’s performance helped sustain the franchise, but not the last …
6. THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN GUN
Lulu is an underrated treasure, probably best known for To Sir, With Love. Here, she rocks the snappy Bond theme with nary a hint of the laid-back ’70s in sight. Another triumphant performance of emotional intensity helps compensate for the light lyrics (meant to evoke, of course, memories of Auric Goldfinger), and lifts this theme song to the level of classic.
7. NOBODY DOES IT BETTER
Something happened to Fleming’s James Bond in the 1970s. Was it Vietnam? Watergate? Weed? There’s a thesis in there, somewhere, but meanwhile, we still have Carly Simon’s excellent pop song. Another example of a theme that lifted the franchise and defined the film Bond of its era, if not Fleming’s master spy. Imagine this playing over Daniel Craig’s face, and you’ll see what I mean.
Most of my top ten Bond songs are performed by UK artists—Welsh, English and Scottish (Lulu). Here, though, American Tina Turner helped relaunch the 007 franchise with this catchy-cool, urgent theme, adding some grit and edginess to Pierce Brosnan’s choir boy good looks for his debut film, an auspicious new beginning for the series.
Shirley Bassey’s third theme was still squarely in the 70s, but Dame Bassey elevates it to the moon, so to speak. Soaring, vocally rich and even a little haunting, Moonraker transcended its filmed namesake.
10. A VIEW TO A KILL
The only Bond theme to soar to number one, thanks to Duran Duran. That feat alone wins it a spot on the list, as musically, the song is more Simon Le Bon than James Bond. Still, it lifted up a sagging and flagging end-of-series and helped prove to the world that it needed a younger 007.
Notes: Only two Americans feature on my list. And, though I like two more of the Brosnan era theme songs (particularly The World is Not Enough), the vocals were reedy-whiny-90s enough to keep them in the bottom half of the oeuvre. I would recommend, however, kd lang’s end credits rendition of Tomorrow Never Dies/Surrender, which I prefer to the actual Sheryl Crowe-sung theme song.
So what say you? Did your song make the top ten?