Ranking all of the James Bond theme songs in order of greatness
The first thing that comes to my mind when I hear the name James Bond is the iconic tune that was played by The Ian Rich Orchestra. Since its release in the 1962 film Dr. No, it has featured in almost every gun barrel sequence of every Bond film. Apart from such a quintessential melody, the film series has consecutively accommodated a number of theme songs that range in variety both in terms of artist and style.
In fact, music plays a huge role in the Bond films as the theme songs are the most awaited pieces. Several of these original songs have been nominated and even won the Academy Awards. For many leading names within popular culture, the opportunity to have their name etched into cinematic and James Bond history is one too tantalising to turn down. The likes of Shirley Bassey, Paul McCartney, Madonna, Jack White, Adele, Sam Smith and, most recently, Billie Eilish have all contributed their work to the iconic franchise.
As we wait for the new James Bond film No Time to Die to release in 2021, and with it the introduction of ‘No Time to Die’, a song by Eilish and Finnes, let’s take a look back at the theme songs, ranked from the worst to the best.
James Bond theme tunes ranked from worst to best:
24. ‘Die Another Day’ – Madonna
The song tried to represent the fourteen months of torture by the North Koreans that Bond suffered.
Performed by the ‘Queen of Pop’ Madonna, who also had a cameo appearance in the film, the song didn’t quite hit the mark. The track underwent various changes before finally adapting to an electroclash version that applied stuttered edits on Madonna’s voice.
23. ‘For Your Eyes Only’ – Sheena Easton
A pure love song from the 1981 Bond film, it was performed by the Scottish singer Sheena Easton.
Written by Bill Conti and Mike Leeson, the song was originally made for more Bond-esque singers like Donna Summer or Dusty Springfield. It was the United Artists film studio that suggested the upcoming Easton.
However, that said, it wasn’t just Easton, the song, in general, failed to capture the essence of the film.
22. ‘The Living Daylights’ – A-ha
Performed by the Norwegian synth-pop band A-ha, ‘The Living Daylights’ featured in the 1987 film of the same name.
Although written by the band’s guitarist Pål Waaktaar, John Barry was credited as a co-writer. There were two versions of the song, the one which was used in the film and another released by A-ha in their album Stay on These Roads.
In truth, there were some disagreements between the two parties while recording the film version and it shows.
21. ‘From Russia With Love’ John Barry / Matt Monro
The famous musical team consisting of John Barry and Monty Norman was broken in the second Bond film that released in 1963.
The producers replaced Monty Norman with the British singer-songwriter, Lionel Bart. Sung by Matt Monro. the song though gives a detailed description of the plot, is too old school and conservative.
20. ‘The Man With The Golden Gun’ – Lulu
The Scottish singer Lulu performed this track in the 1974 film of the same name. Surprising though, it was the only Bond song that didn’t enter the charts at all.
John Barry himself admitted it to be one of his weakest works, saying: “It’s the one I hate most… it just never happened for me.” Though the song’s lyrics is particularly notable for being suggestive, it doesn’t gel well with the film.
19. ‘Thunderball’ – Tom Jones
In truth, John Barry didn’t do a great job with this track either.
Sung by Tom Jones, it was accompanied by the John Barry Orchestra. The song ended up sounding like a slightly modified version of ‘Goldfinger’ that released just a year before. There is a clear lack of effort on Barry’s part to make the song a standout.
18. ‘The World Is Not Enough’ – Garbage
The American rock band Garbage teamed up with composer David Arnold and lyricist Don Black for the theme song of the 1999 film.
The song is somewhat ordinary given that it doesn’t bring anything new on a plate. Moreover, the band’s presence is not felt. The edgy tone they generally had was sandpapered to fit the theme of the movie.
17. ‘Moonraker’ – Shirley Bassey
The song was passed from John Mathis, Kate Bush finally to Shirley Bassey. As a result, Bassey recorded the song at very short notice which was probably the reason behind its average status.
Bassey never even considered it to be her own song as she never got to promote it properly. Though the chorus makes an impression, it’s hard to say the same about Bassey’s vocals.
16. ‘Diamonds Are Forever’ – Shirley Bassey
One of Shirley Bassey’s early songs, ‘Diamonds Are Forever’ has been covered by a wide range of artists due to its flexibility. It is a melodic, rousing number that handles Bassey’s vocal strengths well.
Had not ‘Goldfinger’ released earlier and elevated our expectations from Bassey, this would have slid down the list.
15. ‘All Time High’ – Tom Rice
This song marked the return of the composer James Barry after being absent from the 12th Bond movie due to some tax-related issues. This time he paired up with the English lyricist Tom Rice.
Although the film’s peculiar title Octopussy proved it difficult to create a theme song, Rice took it as a challenge. Sung by Rita Coolidge, it is a powerful ballad tinged with a certain sadness.
14. ‘Goldfinger’ – Shirley Bassey
Shirley Bassey’s best performance in the Bond franchise was in the theme song of the 1964 movie Goldfinger. Written by Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley, and composed by John Barry, the lyrics of the song was written after the completion of the tune. The story goes that when Barry played the first three notes to the songwriters, the two looked at each other and sang out the line “. . . wider than a mile,” in the melody of the famous song ‘Moon River.’
Bassey was chosen by Barry who played her an instrumental version of the song even before the lyrics were written. The only thing that can be said about Bassey’s performance is that she set the bar so high with this song that she couldn’t compete with it in her later performances. It reached the Billboard Hot 100 chart and was inducted in the Grammy Hall of Fame in 2008.
13. ‘You Only Live Twice’ – Nancy Sinatra
Written by Leslie Bricusse and composed by John Barry this theme song was performed by the American singer Nancy Sinatra. Initially, it was performed by Julie Rogers along with a huge orchestra band but that version was immediately discarded as Barry felt “there’s a certain something that it needed.” The version Nancy Sinatra sang had very little in common with the Rogers’ except for the two lines “You only live twice”, and “you’ll pay the price.”
‘You Only Live Twice’ opens with striking high octave bars on the violin and French horn. The song was offered to Frank Sinatra and almost to Aretha Franklin but the producers insisted on the rising Nancy Sinatra. It has been one of her most popular songs and I can see why. Shortly after the release of Barry’s version Sinatra’s producer Lee Hazelwood released another version that was guitar-based.
12. ‘A View To Kill’ – Duran Duran
Composed and performed by the English New Wave band Duran Duran it was released in 1985.
The harmonious partnership with John Barry is reflected in the song. Simon le Bon, the vocalist of the band said, “He didn’t really come up with any of the basic musical ideas. He heard what we came up with and he put them into an order. And that’s why it happened so quickly because he was able to separate the good ideas from the bad ones, and he arranged them. He has a great way of working brilliant chord arrangements. He was working with us as virtually a sixth member of the group, but not really getting on our backs at all.”
‘A View To Kill’ became the band’s one of the most known songs.
11. ‘License to Kill’ – Gladys Knight
Gladys Knight shines through the song which was used as a theme track in the 1989 film. Penned by written by Narada Michael Walden, Jeffrey Cohen and Walter Afanasieff, the title of the song as well as of the film, probably originated from Bob Dylan’s 1983 song of the same name.
However, the Knight song is quite different from the Dylan one not just in style but also in delivery. It is much more intense and emotionally charged. Knight’s vocal depth perfectly suited the mood of the song. It shot up the UK singles chart in no time and fared equally well in other states of Europe. It was also notedly the last single of Knight to enter the charts.
10. ‘We Have All The Time In The World’ – Louis Armstrong
The name of the song is taken by the final dialogue by James Bond after the death of his wife, both in the novel and the movie. John Barry chose Louis Armstrong as he felt he could “deliver the title line with irony” and was absolutely right.
However, Armstrong being too ill to play the trumpet, had to pass on the duty. The song was a perfect fit for the movie and later was adapted for many purposes. In fact, like few of the songs on this list, this track has become a universal anthem across generations of Bond fans.
9. ‘You Know My Name’ – Chris Cornell
Chris Cornell’s song from the 2006 movie Casino Royale has often been criticized for its loud guitars. However, that is precisely what sets the song apart. It has a distinct soundscape that meets the demand of the film. Cornell along with David Arnold wrote the song to reflect on Daniel Craig’s more emotional portrayal of Bond’s character.
Following the Soundgarden singer’s tragic death, the song has soared among the rest of the pack with a heavy sense of sentimentality now attached. Adding weight to an already incredible vocals means the position on this list is secured for years to come.
8. ‘Another Way To Die’ – Jack White and Alicia Keys
This song saw the most unusual pairing; The White Stripes guitar impresario Jack White and R’n’B juggernaut Alicia Keys got together to deliver a solid gold track. A heavy-duty riff from the Detroit performer gave Keys the perfect grounding to reach for the stars and deliver one of the best vocal performances in Bond history.
Though met with scepticism, the duo turned out to be a pleasant surprise. Their vocal range is phenomenal, and the voices compliment each other well. It was the first-ever duet song in the film series. It won the Best Song’s title in 2008’s Critic’s Choice Award along with many other awards and nominations.
As Bond theme songs go, this one is a near perfect reflection of the franchise’s ‘glory days’ reimagined as a modern anthem.
7. ‘Golden Eye’ – Bono, The Edge, Tina Turner
Written by Bono and the Edge Tina Turner performed the song in the 1995 film. The song didn’t bring anything new per se but it was exactly what made it a success. It wasn’t too experimental like some of the previous songs.
It stuck to the formula which worked beautifully with the film. Tina Turner’s majestic presence was what exactly the film, which was back with a bang, needed. A fearsome performance, as ever, means ‘Golden Eye’ should be considered one of Turner’s best songs.
A classic track.
6. ‘No Time to Die’- Billie Eilish
Since the announcement of the new Bond film, everyone was eagerly waiting to know who would sing the theme song. In January 2020 it was confirmed that Billie Eilish had been chosen for the job.
Eilish who happens to be the youngest artist in the Bond franchise recalled the lukewarm reaction this announcement received in an interview. She and her brother Finneas, who co-wrote the song, believed that the time of the announcement was not right. “I wasn’t mad about it because I understand, why wouldn’t people have wanted for the song that’s the theme to their favourite franchise? That’s totally understandable” said Eilish.
However, upon its release in February 2020, it was proved that it wasn’t a bad idea to bag the youth sensation for the job. It landed on number 16 on Billboard Hot 100 and convinced the audience that they were wrong before. The work also helps to see Eilish in a new light.
5. ‘Nobody Does It Better’ – Carly Simon
A power balled, it was composed by Marvin Hamlisch and written by Carole Bayer Sager for the 1977 film The Spy Who Loved Me. Performed by Carly Simon, the song was an international hit.
Thom Yorke, who backed the song, and even covered it with Radiohead, said that it was the “sexiest song ever written.” The song was rightly described as “typically inventive and bombastic” by the Billboards magazine.
Lyrically it explores the sexual prowess of James Bond. Marvin Hamlisch said during a 1977 documentary on the film that Simon was selected for the song when Carole Bayer Sager remarked that his lyrics sounded “incredibly vain,” referring to Simon’s hit single “You’re So Vain.”
4. ‘Tomorrow Never Dies’ – Sheryl Crow
There was another song of the same name performed by K.D Lang which was supposed to be the theme song. When Sheryl Crow’s song was chosen to replace it, Land’s song was renamed ‘Surrender’ and was demoted to the end credits.
Crow can be credited for fusing her iconic pop/rock sound along with the right amount of vocal drama at the climax of the song. It received a nomination for the Best Original Song in the 55th Golden Globe Awards.
By 1997, the chance to shine on a Bond anthem was well known and the opportunity often too tempting to turn down. For Crow, the song proved to be an ample performance space to let her vocal power through. Golden in every sense, the collaboration of Crow and Bond seemed a match made in heaven.
3.’Writings On The Wall’ – Sam Smith
Co-written by the English singer-songwriter Sam Smith and Jimmy Napes, it was written under half an hour before recording a quick demo. Surprisingly this impromptu jam turned to be quite pleasing convincing Smith to use the vocals of the demo for the final release. Smith rightly described the theme song for the 2017 film Specter as “one of the highlights of my career.”
The song fetched Smith the 88th Academy Awards for the best original song and will rightly be recognised as one of Bond’s best tracks forevermore. Haunting and powerful, the song reflected this shadowy and searing film.
It even became Bond’s first number one, a feat which is astounding given the calibre on show. Smith later called it an “unforgettable experience” and we’d say the song is pretty memorable too.
2.’Live And Let Die’ – Paul McCartney, Linda McCartney
“I read it and thought it was pretty good. That afternoon I wrote the song and went in the next week and did it… It was a job of work for me in a way because writing a song around a title like that’s not the easiest thing going” said Paul McCartney after reading Ian Flemming’s novel.
Never one to shy away from putting in the work, McCartney picked up the book when the production team pursued him to work on the theme song. Never afraid of a challenge, even one as possibly treacherous as writing for Bond.
Co-written by his wife Linda, the British-American rock band Wings performed the song with McCartney on the lead vocals. The song bursts into a power-packed chorus after a slow start. Using a bit of reggae successfully creates a certain thrill that plays out perfectly in the film. Naturally, it’s expertly delivered by the former Beatle.
To be the best Bond theme song, the track needs to blend perfectly with the film it’s attached to. The English singer-songwriter Adele’s song, ‘Skyfall’ for the film of the same name, is certainly the best.
The lyrics perfectly capture the moody and dark essence of the film’s plot and Adele’s vocals soon break through the ice to unleash a waterfall of powerful notes. It’s a searing arrangement too, working effortlessly both within and outside of the picture.
Talking about the orchestral pop, the producer Paul Epworth said that they wanted to “do something that was simultaneously dark and final, like a funeral, and to try and turn it into something that was not final. A sense of death and rebirth.” Adele delivered the song in a low vocal range which added to the sombre mood and prompted widespread adoration.
A brilliant moment whenever it is heard, the song will likely hang around both inside and outside the circle of James Bond for years to come.