There are so many iconic, recurring features in the James Bond film franchise that even if you haven’t seen many of the movies, you’re more than likely familiar with what they have in common. Most people could tell you that Bond films involve spies, gadgets, guns, girls, and whether they realize it or not, a good chunk of them could probably tell you about the music.
Each addition to the franchise has come equipped with its own theme song. Some of them have become popular radio staples, others have remained relegated to the opening credits of the films they came from. There are 24 films in the official canon as of 2015 and therefore, 24 songs. We’re going to rank them all based on a combination of how strong of a song they are in general, as well as how effectively they fit the image and style of the Bond franchise.
Of course, music is a highly subjective thing to enjoy and differing opinions are what make debating things like Bond themes so much fun. Before we get to the numbered ranking though, there’s one thing to get straight.
Special Mention: “James Bond Theme” – John Barry – From Dr. No
Bond’s main theme is so memorable, instantly identifiable, and downright catchy that it transcends a numbered list system. The guitar riff, the atmosphere, the change in tone from slinky and stealthy to big and bombastic; it’s Bond’s leitmotif and is as cool today as it was back in 1962.
23. “Another Way To Die” – Jack White & Alicia Keys – From Quantum of Solace
If there ever existed a song within the Bond franchise, or music itself that displayed a textbook case of an identity crisis, this is it. Jack White throws in a number of gritty guitar lines, Alicia Keys gives her R&B style vocals, there’s a healthy amount of piano, somebody tried to throw some traditional Bond elements in at places; it sounds like it’s trying to be three different things simultaneously with none of them being worthwhile. It also sounds nothing like what you’d imagine a James Bond theme to sound like; something that could be forgivable if it were good otherwise.
22. “The Man With The Golden Gun” – Lulu
The best thing that can be said about this theme is that at least it’s consistent; unfortunately it’s consistently bad. The horns that lead off the arrangement do help give it a distinct, Bond tone, but everything from the guitars to Lulu’s singing sound terribly camp. It’s fitting that many critics and websites consider this to be one of the worst Bond songs of all time, with the movie itself also being considered similarly. And if you’re not familiar with Lulu maybe you’d remember her more for her 1967 number one hit, “To Sir, With Love.” Nope? Moving on!
21. “All Time High” – Rita Coolidge – From Octopussy
Until the Daniel Craig films, “All Time High” was notable for being the only non-instrumental Bond theme to not include the name of the film in the title or lyrics of the song…and with a name like Octopussy it’s pretty self-explanatory why that’s the case. However, maybe trying to work the title in would’ve made it a better piece of music. You’d be forgiven if you had no idea this was from a James Bond movie as it sounds like a generic, early ’80s ballad. It’s not bad by any means, but it is completely forgettable.
20. “Die Another Day “- Madonna
Nothing says action/spy thriller like electronic dance music with voice samples that randomly say “Sigmund Freud” and “analyze this.” The one thing this has going for it as a theme song are the string arrangements that actually evoke a good sense of tension and mood. The rest of the music only works well as a stand alone Madonna song, in which it actually is a good Madonna piece. To give credit where credit is due, it did perform well on the music charts, taking Bond back into the Billboard Top 10 for the first time in decades. Then again, 2002 Madonna was still extremely popular and could’ve read the phone book to a dance beat and made the charts with it.
19. “Writing’s On The Wall” – Sam Smith – From Spectre
Sam Smith cleans up at the 2015 Grammy Awards and the next thing you know he’s recording a Bond theme. His voice is strong, the arrangement is evocative, but it’s hard to escape the feeling that this very much sounds like Smith’s previous work and is a personal piece about his relationships. A singer should bring their own style into the mix for a project like this, but not to the extent where it sounds like he’s moping about his love life. It would’ve been a great addition to his next record, not to the list of Bond themes.
18. “Thunderball” – Tom Jones
“They call him the winner who takes all/And he strikes, like Thunderball.” …Just uh, how exactly does a Thunderball strike? They really had to force the title into the lyric here. The orchestral flourish that opens the song gets real repetitive real fast, but man can Tom Jones belt it out. The last note he sings is phenomenal and helps prop up an otherwise mediocre number.
17. “Moonraker” – Shirley Bassey
As of 2015 and the release of Spectre, Shirley Bassey remains the only artist to have recorded more than one Bond song, having given her vocals to three of them. This is not only the weakest of the trio, but is also one of the weaker themes in general. It’s a moving ballad, that part can’t be denied, but unlike her other tracks, this one doesn’t do the Bond style and sound any justice. If it were sung by any other person it would be lower on the list, but Shirley Bassey remains an exceptional vocalist. Oh, and if you thought trying to logically work the term “thunderball” into a lyric was a stretch, “moonraker” isn’t much better.
16. “You Only Live Twice” – Nancy Sinatra
Nancy Sinatra doesn’t display a tremendous amount of range as a singer here but she does have a great edge to her voice. The musical arrangement is distinctly different for a Bond film but makes more sense considering the Asian setting it takes place in. Is it a bad song? No, but there are better ones in the series.
15. “License to Kill” – Gladys Knight
Gladys sings the hell out of this one; all nearly five and a half minutes of it. “License to Kill” smartly copies the distinct horn section of “Goldfinger” and then lets Gladys go to town with her soulful vocals. It does drag on far longer than it needs to though. The song doesn’t do anything in five minutes that it couldn’t do in three and thus it gets a little dull as it continues
14. “Tomorrow Never Dies” – Sheryl Crow
The first 13 seconds of this song are some of the best ever recorded for a Bond theme. Now if only the rest of it were at that level. The arrangement and Crow’s singing alternate between restrained verses and and a large, sweeping chorus. Like the movie itself, it’s a middle of the pack song that doesn’t do a lot of things wrong, does some things remarkably right, and leaves itself open to be loved by some and tolerated by others.
13. “For Your Eyes Only” – Sheena Easton
You can certainly tell this is from the ’80s Bond pictures. This is easily one of the poppier themes, but in a good way. Easton nails the vocal, captures the emotion of the lyric, and similar to Crow, knows how to alternate between a hushed verse and full throated chorus. All that being said, it does sound like something you’d hear in the waiting room of a dentist’s office. Not that there’s anything wrong with that…welcome to the nature of ’80s pop.
12. “From Russia With Love” – Matt Monro
An instrumental version of the song opens the film, a fully sung one closes it. It’s a fairly simple track with an understated percussion performance and string arrangement. Lyrically it incorporates the title rather effectively and actually makes more sense with the end of the film as opposed to beginning. This track gets the most credit though for letting Monro’s wonderful voice really be the driving force behind it all.
11. “Live And Let Die” – Paul McCartney & Wings
Hardly the most lyrically deep track that McCartney ever wrote, it at least contains an instrumental refrain that absolutely rocks. The whole song goes through three different phases; a calm verse, energetic instrumental, and kooky little bridge. The highs and lows of the piece really are like a musical roller coaster which is largely why the song is so fondly remembered and gets substantial radio play to this day. If anything, this is probably the most well known Bond theme and may suffer from a bit of over exposure.
10. “Skyfall” – Adele
If ever there were a more fitting choice for an artist to contribute to Skyfall in 2012, it was Adele. Thanks to her album 21 sweeping the Grammys and her undeniable talent and voice, it was only natural to get Adele to do the next Bond song. Not only did she rise to the occasion, she also netted the Bond franchise it’s first Academy Award for Best Original Song. “Skyfall” does everything a Bond theme should. Adele channels Shirley Bassey in her delivery, the lyric is fitting for the song and the film’s atmosphere, and the musical arrangement sounds like James Bond. True story: I once had a co-worker who came into the office one day saying that he heard a song on the radio by who he thought was Adele, and that it sounded like it would be perfect for a James Bond film. …You can probably guess what the song was.
9. “The World Is Not Enough” – Garbage
This one is definitely outside of Garbage’s normal wheelhouse, but wow, they nail what a Bond song is supposed to sound like. This theme is smooth as silk, which is remarkable considering it has an alternative edge to it. Shirley Manson, Garbage’s vocalist, lets her voice soar over the chorus and gives the song a sultriness that compliments the film’s romantic subplots.
8. “Goldfinger” – Shirley Bassey
In many ways this is the definitive Bond theme, perhaps as identifiable with the character as his own recurring, instrumental leitmotif. Once again, points are earned for being able to work an otherwise unwieldy title into the song’s lyric, but even more points for making it work so well. If this were a list that was ranking songs purely on the Bond aesthetic it would easily top the list, but in any other context, singing about a man named Goldfinger would be absurd. In context; it’s absurdly amazing.
7. “A View To A Kill” – Duran Duran
By all means a product of ’80s excess, but in the best possible way. It’s the only Bond theme to top the American Billboard Chart and sports a surprisingly strong mix of John Barry’s orchestration with Duran Duran’s synthpop. The strings and keyboards give the song an appropriate degree of tension, and even if lead singer Simon LeBon’s lyrics make virtually no sense on paper, they accomplish much in the way of imagery. Above all, it’s ferociously catchy. For added fun, you can watch a live version where LeBon botches a note terribly at 2:54 seconds in: (sorry Simon!)
6. “Diamonds Are Forever” – Shirley Bassey
Good gracious! For everything that “Goldfinger” does so well, “Diamonds Are Forever” picks everything up a notch. Bassey’s voice is even better here than it is on her other themes and the arrangement is so dynamic. Listen to the ethereal opening and then notice how the more the song goes on the more elaborate the music gets. Every time Bassey sings the titular phrase more and more instrumentation is added. This is a breathtaking performance and it deserves just as much praise if not more than “Goldfinger.”
5. “Nobody Does It Better” – Carly Simon – From The Spy Who Loved Me
Earlier in the list it was mentioned how Sam Smith seemed to inject too much of himself into his Bond theme. “Nobody Does It Better” definitely feels like a Carly Simon piece (even though she didn’t write it) but she also makes it sound like it’s being sung from the perspective of a Bond girl and her thoughts about James. The opening piano sets up a classy tone and the beautiful string section highlights the song’s emotional pull.
4. “You Know My Name” – Chris Cornell – From Casino Royale
Chris Cornell’s “You Know My Name” succeeds in doing what “Another Way To Die” would fail miserably at; giving Bond a new, harder edge. Casino Royale was supposed to represent a rebirth of the franchise with a new actor in the role; a grittier one with a more realistic take on the series. The theme echoes those ideas perfectly by taking Cornell’s raw voice and combining it with grinding guitars and powerful orchestration. The song stands on its own too when listened to as a general rock song. Credit there can be given to Cornell who was also one of the best vocalists of the ’90s grunge era.
3. “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service” – John Barry
Poor On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. Of all the films in the franchise, this is the one that is the most misunderstood and under appreciated in almost every way. Most casual Bond fans either haven’t seen it, or only know it as the one film that George Lazenby did. Enthusiasts on the other hand will be quick to tell you that O.H.M.S.S. is easily one of the best, if not THE best Bond film ever made. Composer John Barry is at his best too with this instrumental theme absolutely capturing the excitement and action of being James Bond. It sounds completely different than the original iconic theme but it still somehow instantly evokes the spy. The way the main riff chugs along to the symphonic arrangement is so perfect that it doesn’t need words to tell you what you’re in store for if you watch the movie.
2. “GoldenEye” – Tina Turner
Listen to “GoldenEye” and think about who wrote it. Any ideas? What if I told you it was written by Bono and The Edge of U2. Bet you can totally hear that now. Tina Turner sings this with a great degree of power, rivaling Shirley Bassey in her own way. The programmed strings and horns work surprisingly well thanks to the production from Nellee Hooper, who had previously worked with Massive Attack and U2 among others. The melody itself is slinky, seductive, a little dangerous, and Turner knows it and captures it in her performance. It sounds like Bond, it’s catchy, and it’s utterly fantastic.
1. “The Living Daylights” – a-ha
a-ha was a hugely successful band everywhere but the United States where they remain a one-hit wonder. Because of that, it may seem laughable to American audiences to hear the guys who did “Take On Me” performing a Bond theme. Admittedly, they were picked to do it based only out of the producers’ hope that their popularity would create another huge hit like Duran Duran’s did with “A View To A Kill.” They were partially right, though it completely misfired in the American market. Despite this, “The Living Daylights” is a staggeringly good song. John Barry’s production and string contributions cement the Bond motif and from the opening seconds, create an air of suspense and intrigue. The lyrical imagery and singer Morten Harket’s voice are haunting, and the song manages to deliver a series of great hooks. a-ha is a band that’s surprisingly more artistically talented than many people realize and this track shows it. “The Living Daylights” is an exceptional Bond theme, and a remarkable pop/rock number, thus leading it to be the best song to come out of the franchise.