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From Radiohead to Paul McCartney: The 10 best James Bond theme songs

@TylerGolsen

There are certain rules to follow when making a James Bond theme. None of those rules are written in stone, but if you try to produce a song that doesn’t include a moody atmosphere, a vaguely fatalistic lyrical theme, or the signature “James Bond chord”, good luck trying to get away with it. Stick to some minor chords, belt it out, add an orchestra if you like, but we all generally know what a James Bond theme should sound like in our heads, even if it’s hard to articulate.

Over the course of 60 years, each of the 25 films produced by Eon Productions has included a theme song from a wide range of artists that aimed to capture the mystique, suaveness, danger, and excitement of 007. Those songs vary wildly in tone and style, often reflecting the type of film or personality of the then-current Bond actor. Sillier romps tend to get lighter themes, while more modern productions aim for the eerier and more serious nature of Daniel Craig’s no-nonsense Bond. Sometimes the themes are wildly incongruous with their film, while others are so intrinsic to the experience that you couldn’t imagine one without the other. 

It’s hard to say what truly makes a great Bond theme. Like the films themselves, the songs can be subject to the whims and trends of the day, which is why we’ve had orchestral pop, classic rock, synth-pop, alternative rock, industrial, and gentle ballads all soundtrack the indelible opening sequences. There’s no promise as to what kind of song will appear during the opening credits to a Bond movie, just that there will be a song in the opening credits.

There have been occasional attempts to subvert the well-trod formula. Dr. No, From Russia With Love, and On Her Majesties Secret Service all feature instrumental themes, while films like The Living Daylights, Licence to Kill, and Tomorrow Never Dies feature two themes, one during the opening credits and one during the end credits. The ubiquity of Bond themes became so prevalent at one point that it was necessary to commission two different songs for each movie.

As previously mentioned, there are some strict criteria that come with creating a Bond theme. But today, we’re throwing that all out the window to list the ten best Bond songs. Perhaps a track appears at the end of a movie. Maybe a song was rejected outright. That’s all fine. This list will primarily focus on opening credit themes, but some numbers are just too interesting to leave out. So with that, here are the ten greatest James Bond themes of all time.

The ten best James Bond theme songs:

10. ‘Spectre’ – Radiohead

As I said, there are no rules when it comes to this list, and we’re starting out with a song that was ultimately rejected from the film it was composed for. Radiohead’s favouring of darker lyrical themes and spacey orchestral arrangements is certainly a strong fit for Daniel Craig’s steely Bond, and after the band’s original offering, ‘Man of War’, was rejected on a technicality that would exclude it from Oscars eligibility, Thom Yorke and company set about making ‘Spectre’ instead.

There’s something so eerie and impenetrable about ‘Spectre’ that honestly would have been wasted on the film itself, which is painfully obvious and overwrought. Speaking of obvious and overwrought, the producers decided to go with Sam Smith’s ‘Writing’s On the Wall’ instead, which isn’t a bad song per se, but it’s far more traditionally and derivatively Bond-esque than the sweeping and majestic melancholy of ‘Spectre’.

9. ‘Thunderball’ – Tom Jones

After Shirley Bassey’s magnificent theme for ‘Goldfinger’ (more on that later), Eon had a formula in place for all future Bond themes: bombastic, heavily orchestrated songs that blow out the film’s themes to epic and ridiculous proportions, ideally with a singer who can belt out the big notes — who better to step up for that job than Tom Jones?

Honestly, I couldn’t tell you if ‘Thunderball’ is a good song or not, and I have a suspicious feeling that it might not be, but it is just too much goofy fun not to include here. The guttural low notes, the wild opening orchestra stabs, and, of course, Jones’ final sustained wail would come off as a parody if it were attempted today, but for the silly and highly entertaining film that it accompanies, it works perfectly.

8. ‘A View to a Kill’ – Duran Duran

Not every Bond theme works well with its parent film. But then there are those that work in tandem, for better or for worse, to put a Bond film squarely in a specific place and time within pop culture. By 1985, Roger Moore was nearly 60, and the Bond films had gotten so cheesy that they had to find new ways to top themselves. For a fair few films prior to A View to a Kill, the theme songs were more relaxed and laid back, so with the bawdy maximalism that came with A View to a Kill, a similarly maximalist theme tune was required.

Enter Duran Duran. Armed with enough gated reverb to swallow you whole and some truly ludicrous keyboard effects, ‘A View to a Kill’ couldn’t have been made by any other band at any other time. The words are nonsense. The song has not aged well at all. And yet, all of that is strangely endearing.

In terms of pure pop bravado, ‘A View to a Kill’ finds an unstoppable franchise meet an unkillable ’80s band at their absolute peak. Everything was too big to fail, but the results are so catchy and memorable that it’s hard to begrudge that way of thinking. For James Bond, nothing is ever too big to fail.

7. ‘Surrender’ – k.d. lang

For Tomorrow Never Dies, the film’s producers commissioned a number of submissions from prominent artists of the time and pitted them against each other to see which one would be the film’s theme song. They found the perfect choice: ‘Surrender’ by k.d. lang, who left her usual folk styles at the door to channel some phenomenally brassy orchestral sounds. Perfectly suited in style, composer David Arnold even incorporated the song’s melodic motif throughout the film’s score.

And then, for some ungodly reason, they decided to use Sheryl Crowe‘s vastly inferior ‘Tomorrow Never Dies’ during the opening credits instead. Why this decision was made is beyond me, but ‘Surrender’ was instead relegated to the end credits. Having two theme tunes for a Bond film had been done before, but never before had there been such a noticeable gap in the quality of the title song and end credits song. There needs to be some justice for ‘Surrender’, the true theme for Tomorrow Never Dies.

6. ‘Nobody Does It Better’ – Carly Simon

For some reason, as the 1970s wore on, James Bond films began to tone down the bombast and grandeur of their theme tunes in favour of sleepy, adult contemporary love ballads. Maybe that’s because Carly Simon’s ‘Nobody Does It Better’ from The Spy Who Loved Me perfected this style of a theme song and they attempted to replicate it throughout the decade.

‘Nobody Does It Better’ is somewhat strange to hear outside the context of its film, but it remains perfectly and intrinsically linked to The Spy Who Loved Me. It’s sweeping and over the top yet still mellow and yacht rock-adjacent. Guitars, strings, brass, drum fills, and piano all compete with Simon’s voice in an unending trek to take over the song, and the song just keeps building and building as it goes on. It’s very ’70s, but it’s also very Roger Moore Bond, which gives it a certain silly and sensual power that fits incredibly with the movie.

5. ‘You Know My Name’ – Chris Cornell

I always forget how wild ‘You Know My Name’ starts – 16 bars of whiplash-inducing guitars and cymbals that explode straight out of the speakers. From there, Cornell takes you through a masterclass in dynamics and mystery, incorporating all the best elements of his own signature style (unusual key changes and chords, high belting rock god vocals, propulsive high energy alt-rock) while mixing in the orchestral stabs of classic Bond themes.

Setting the perfect template for the new Daniel Craig 007 that appeared for the first time in Casino Royale, ‘You Know My Name’ is the platonic ideal of bringing in new sounds while retaining the key aspects that make Bond themes so unique. In Cornell’s hands, the excitement and danger that is paramount to the James Bond experience get its perfect accompanying tune.

4. ‘GoldenEye’ – Tina Turner

It probably should have been a disaster. Bono and The Edge, the U2 leaders who married the minimalist ambient aesthetics of Brian Eno with the bombastic and towering sounds of stadium rock, win the bid to make the next Bond theme. They find out that Tina Turner has been chosen to sing the words and melodies that they arrange, so they set about making the slinky and uber-silly James Bond theme of their dreams.

But credit to Turner: she absolutely sells the material she was given. Imagining Bono belting out these songs in his “Fly” persona from the Zoo TV tour is just a little too ironic to work, but for someone as sultry and kinetic as Turner, the song becomes a playground for suspense and danger. In that way, the three created one of the more memorable and listenable Bond themes of the past 30 years.

3. ‘Live and Let Die’ – Paul McCartney and Wings

By all accounts, ‘Live and Let Die’ is the most enjoyable Bond theme to hear outside of the film itself. It’s frantic and fantastically over-the-top, but it also has the best melody and most catchy aspects of any Bond theme before or after it. If it had been just a Wings song and nothing more, it would have been another addition to Paul McCartney’s endless list of fantastic songs.

But the secret sauce for ‘Live and Let Die’ came from an old friend of McCartney’s, producer George Martin. Martin’s orchestral touches, from the horn blasts around the title phrase to the frenetic xylophone runs and the lush string arrangements, elevate the song to Bond theme grandeur. ‘Live and Let Die’ is ridiculous, pompous, and an absolutely unimpeachable classic in both McCartney’s discography and the James Bond film series.

2. ‘Goldfinger’ – Shirley Bassey

Shirley Bassey created three Bond themes, two more than any other singer, and her tenure with the franchise exceeds even some of the actors who portrayed the titular British spy himself. Bassey is, to get this pun out of the way early, the gold standard to which all other singers should aspire in their Bond themes.

While I do enjoy ‘Diamonds are Forever’ and ‘Moonraker’ a fair bit, this slot couldn’t possibly go to any other song than ‘Goldfinger’. Perhaps the most Bond-esque Bond theme, all of those unwritten rules for creating a Bond theme originate from Bassey’s unforgettable track. The lavish orchestral touches, the belting vocal lines, the absurd splendour and camp, the final shout-sung note. It’s all there, and it only ever was bested a single time. Still, for many, ‘Goldfinger’ remains the quintessential James Bond theme.

1. ‘Skyfall’ – Adele

After Shirley Bassey’s ‘Goldfinger’, the formula had been established for a proper Bond theme. Every subsequent artist who attempted their own take either purposely subverted the elegant bombast or played directly into it. Everyone knew what a Bond theme should sound like now, so good luck trying to do one better.

And then came Adele, who stepped into the role complete with her own signature piano ballad style, incorporating all of the classic orchestral and over-the-top touches of a seminal Bond theme, and came out with the perfect Bond theme. ‘Skyfall’ is ideally suited for the tragic drama of its parent film, but it also could work in just about any Bond adventure, where death and destruction colour even the wackiest of 007 plots. Those intangible, mysterious elements that are necessary for a great Bond theme are all over ‘Skyfall’, more so than any other theme in the franchise’s long and storied history. 

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