Songs for a “Licensed Troubleshooter”: Ranking Every James Bond Theme Song

“You were pretty good with that hook.”

At the end of this week, another chapter will be added to the well-dressed and extremely drunk world of James Bond. With the release of Spectre—the twenty-fourth 007 film—comes a new Bond girl (Lea Seydoux), a new villain (Christoph Waltz), and a new theme song. In September, Sam Smith released “Writing’s on the Wall,” his contribution to the musical legacy of the suave MI6 agent, and, frankly, it was a bit of a letdown. Where were the explosions? Where were the sexy quips? Where was the drama!

Lukewarm though Smith’s take may be, it apparently managed to get editorial staffs around the country all fired up about Bond themes in general. And while we can all agree that Madonna’s take on “Die Another Day” is a stain on the reputation of the British Empire, we thought it was important to set the record straight concerning who the real number one is (the issue of who Number Two works for having been settled some time ago).

So, after much argument, we managed to put all twenty-four Bond themes in order (we excluded Dr. No’s iconic guitar signature, which still functions as Bond theme par excellence). So grab your shaken vodka martini (President Bartlet be damned), your Vesper, or your product-placement Heineken, and crank up the volume in your Aston-Martin.

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24.

Sheena Easton
“For Your Eyes Only”
For Your Eyes Only (1982)

You would think that Sheena Easton would’ve known better. You’d think that Bill Conti, who in addition to writing this daytime sitcom theme-cum-historically bland Bond track, also wrote the ineffable theme from Rocky, would’ve known better. And you’d certainly think that the film’s producers, who were given a potential theme by Blondie and still chose this keyboard demonstration track, would’ve known better. Everything else you need to know about “For Your Eyes Only”: years later, it was stripped of its lyrics and turned into a Merrill Lynch jingle. — Marty Sartini Garner

23.

Madonna
“Die Another Day”
Die Another Day (2002)

They say that if you’re going to fail, you should fail brilliantly. As the sole voter who didn’t place Madonna at or near the very bottom of this list, allow me to defend Madge’s maddening “Die Another Day,” which even I know isn’t a “good” Bond theme—but it is a good song, falling as it does right in the squelchy niche that Madonna carved for herself circa Music, which came out two years prior to Die Another Day. Rather than lean on hoary strings and gold-lamé dresses to give her theme an air of otherworldly importance (the default mode of literally every single other Bond theme), Madonna deflates the series’ sense of propriety and turns in a track that sounds much more like the contemporary British dance scene of the era than it does some throwback to Bond’s golden era. Does it work? No, not particularly, and if you stopped listening at that “Sigmund Freud/Analyze this” couplet that she mutters early in the track, I don’t blame you. But it is interesting, and, in a sharp departure from just about every other entrant on this list, fun. — MSG

22.

Rita Coolidge
“All Time High”
Octopussy (1983)

“All I wanted was a sweet distraction for an hour or two.” This is literally the opening line of Rita Coolidge’s theme song to Octopussy. But, unfortunately, “All Time High” is neither sweet nor a distraction. From the saccharine lyrics to the smooth jazzy sax solos that bookend the track, this Bond theme is just lame. There’s nothing dangerous or sexy about it, and she doesn’t say “Octopussy” once. How’s that good for marketing a film franchise? C’mon Rita!— Bailey Pennick

21.

Lani Hall
“Never Say Never Again”
Never Say Never Again (1983)

Despite how Sean Connery was pitched on it (probably with loads of money and the promise of a world-class toupee), Never Say Never Again is a total bastard child of the Bond franchise. Appropriately enough, then, so is its theme. Lani Hall, the wife of Herb Alpert, does her husband proud on this one by providing a performance so corny that only retirees several daiquiris deep can truly enjoy it, nasty resort earworm that it is. And it doesn’t help that the song isn’t even given a traditional animated sequence at the beginning, which it seems to have been designed for. Should’ve just gone with the Bee Gees song of the same name. — Nate Rogers

20.

Gladys Knight
“License to Kill”
License to Kill (1989)

In the same way that Timothy Dalton is kind of the apocryphal Bond, “License to Kill” (like “Never Say Never Again”) doesn’t quite fit as a Bond theme. The song itself is fine as far as saccharine ’80s power ballads go, but it’s a genre that has none of the edge, intrigue, or over-the-top bombast of the franchise. In short, it lacks what makes the cocksure James Bond who he is: balls. — Christian Koons

19.

Sam Smith
“Writing’s on the Wall”
Spectre (2015)

Sam Smith claims that “Writing’s on the Wall”—the upcoming theme to Spectre—was written in twenty minutes. I’m inclined to believe him on that one, because the song is bad. But it’s more than that. It feels like it was written too quickly and then subsequently produced by too many people (sometimes less is decidedly not more when it comes to arrangements). Hell, Smith even provided his own critical punchline! Yes, yes. Like the fall of Babylon, the writing here is indeed on the wall. Maybe they should’ve hired Tom Petty? — NR

18.

Duran Duran
“A View to A Kill”
A View to A Kill (1985)

It’s pretty clear that Duran Duran did their homework before sitting down to pen the ultra-’80s A View to A Kill theme song. That John Barry horn wail? Got it. Catchy chorus? “Dance! Into the fire!” Title of the song mentioned? Three times, baby. It also seems like the band actually watched the movie (or at least had the plot explained to them) as they were working on the track because their lyrics actually tell a bit of the story: “The first crystal tears fall as snowflakes on your body.” See? Don’t ever say that Simon LeBon doesn’t know what foreshadowing is. He knows, and he’s pretty alright at it.— BP

17.

Lulu
“The Man with the Golden Gun”
The Man with the Golden Gun (1974)

Lulu’s theme for The Man with the Golden Gun is what happens when camp is pushed into the realm of kitsch. Her growly, cocktail-lounge-worthy delivery of this instantly forgettable song borders on self-parody and would fit better in an Austin Powers film. — CK

16.

a-ha
“The Living Daylights”
The Living Daylights (1987)

It’s well known within the James Bond fanatic blogosphere that Norwegian new wave band a-ha did not get along very well with longtime 007 composer John Barry during the creation of this track. And yes, while it does kind of feel like two completely different tracks smooshed together, the result is a surprisingly sultry number that captures the quintessential late-’80s synth sound while pandering to the cinematic scoring of classic Bond films. “The Living Daylights” also comes with this gem of a lyric: “The living’s in the way we die.” Deep, a-ha. So deep. — BP

15.

Garbage
“The World is Not Enough”
The World is Not Enough (1999)

To fully experience this song, you’ve got to watch the music video, wherein Garbage singer Shirley Manson is a murderous fembot who uses deadly face-melting acid kisses and a bomb in her abdomen to kill literally everyone, including herself. If that’s not enough, I don’t know what is. — CK

14.

Tina Turner
“GoldenEye”
GoldenEye (1995)

You can dock “GoldenEye” for essentially being an update of “Goldfinger” if you want. But listen to the way Tina Turner slinks around this song’s obviously synthesized horns like it’s a garment she’ll put on when she’s damn well ready. The chorus is maudlin, even for a Bond theme, but the verses are as buttery as these things get, which is at least half the point; it’s worth your time for the guttural delivery of the words “lace or leather” alone. — MSG

13.

Jack White and Alicia Keys
“Another Way to Die”
Quantum of Solace (2008)

Sixties fetishism, masculinity, Britishness: this Bond thing made more sense for Jack White than it may have first appeared when he was contracted to write the theme for Quantum of Solace. So it’s not terribly surprising that his punchy “Another Way to Die” feels both perfectly in tune with the series’ essential elements while also departing from its self-serious high drama. Like McCartney (and, it must be said, Madonna), White and Alicia Keys don’t take the weight of Bond history too seriously, which allows them to reshape the traditional Bond sound to meet their own artistic strengths; even that title seems like a nod to McCartney’s masterful take, which is the obvious antecedent here. — MSG

12.

Chris Cornell
“You Know My Name”
Casino Royale (2006)

Choosing Chris Cornell to be the voice of a new franchise chapter in 2006 was about as fresh an idea as an egg salad sandwich from a truck stop vending machine, but in truth, the alternative rock number “You Know My Name” has actually proven to be a surprisingly good theme to what turned out to be a surprisingly good Bond movie. The song is catchy without being obnoxious and cinematic without being pastiche. It also helps that Cornell solely had the duty of following up with something that was better than the ice-castle mess that is “Die Another Day.” — NR

11.

Shirley Bassey
“Moonraker”
Moonraker (1979)

The theme to Moonraker marked Shirley Bassey’s third and final Bond performance, and while it is the least effective of the trio, the back-to-basics approach wasn’t really all that bad an idea at the time. At least, it was a lot better of an idea than most of the plot to Moonraker itself (Hovercraft gondolas? Really?). Anyway, it was definitely the right choice to hire longtime Burt Bacharach songwriting partner Hal David to pen the lyrics—that guy always knew how to put just the right touch into capturing the romantic essence of homicidal space maniacs. — NR

10.

Sheryl Crow
“Tomorrow Never Dies”
Tomorrow Never Dies (1997)

Forget the unremarkable chorus; Sheryl Crow’s voice was never meant for big band dynamics. But dammit if her brittle but surprisingly affecting delivery of those cheesy opening lines over the finger-picked guitar doesn’t conjure Pierce Brosnan’s smirking mug immediately to mind. It’s quintessential late-90s-era Bond. Ham it up. — CK

9.

Carly Simon
“Nobody Does It Better”
The Spy Who Loved Me (1977)

In case you couldn’t figure it out based on the subtle imagery of naked girls sitting in the barrels of oversized guns, Carly Simon’s theme to The Spy Who Loved Me is a sex song—“the sexiest song ever written,” in fact, according to Thom Yorke, who gave the tune new life by including it in Bends-era Radiohead sets. Sucks that we have to associate the song with Roger Moore (the least sexy Bond by a wide margin—and yes, I’m including George Lazenby), but I wouldn’t want to watch stunt doubles in tuxedos do trampoline backflips set to anything else. — NR

8.

Shirley Bassey
“Diamonds Are Forever”
Diamonds Are Forever (1971)

Shirley Bassey’s Bond themes are iconic for their attitude and sensuality. “Diamonds Are Forever” wasn’t quite as haunting as its predecessor, the masterful “Goldfinger,” but it was definitely sexier. This might be because composer John Barry told Bassey to imagine that she was singing about a penis. Subtle! — CK

7.

Louis Armstrong
“We Have All the Time in the World”
On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969)

On Her Majesty’s Secret Service was released in the final weeks of the 1960s, which might make Louis Armstrong’s “We Have All the Time in the World”—with its breezy melody and surprisingly pastel-colored horn chart—seem a little canned, particularly following as it did Nancy Sinatra’s slightly lysergic take on “You Only Live Twice.” But there’s something about the quality of Satchmo’s voice here; he’s in full-on “What A Wonderful World” mode as he delivers his straightforward love anthem. And like “What A Wonderful World,” “We Have All the Time in the World” works best in negative: the idea of George Lazenby running through a cloud of bullets to something so pleasant seems almost perverse. — MSG

6.

Matt Monro
“From Russia with Love”
From Russia with Love (1963)

Forget the Man with the Golden Gun; Matt Monro was the man with the Golden Voice, and his suave, brooding big band theme captures all the rugged elegance of Sean Connery’s Bond and all the deadly intrigue of Cold War espionage. As the second film of the franchise, this song set the precedent for all the film themes to come. And, like Connery himself, it set the bar pretty high. — CK

5.

Adele
“Skyfall”
Skyfall (2012)

With so many classic Bond themes having come out of the ’60s (and a few good ones from the ’70s), a red flag might go up when you see that a track from 2012 nabbed the number five spot. It shouldn’t. Adele’s title song for Skyfall restored the authority and authenticity to the musical side of the Bond franchise. Following in the brassy and bold footsteps of original Bond songstress Shirley Bassey, Adele brings serious emotion and depth to her theme song without getting cheesy. It’s hard not to get chills as the orchestration swells and the British superstar hits her highest note with all the pain and power of Bond fighting for his life at the end (and beginning) of the film. Oh yeah, she was also the first artist to ever win an Oscar for a Bond theme.— BP

4.

Tom Jones
“Thunderball”
Thunderball (1965)

Prior to helping save the world from a Martian attack, Tom Jones was simply a sex bomb looking for his next job when troubles with Shirley Bassey’s Thunderball theme (which almost went to Dionne Warwick, and was almost replaced by a separate theme by Johnny Cash) brought him in at the last minute to help voice a new one. And you know what this dude did? He knocked it out in one take, passed out while belting that final note, and then danced out the door to go work on his tan. Oh, and the song itself? So good that to this day, it’s impossible to go scuba diving and not get it stuck in your head. — NR

3.

Nancy Sinatra
“You Only Live Twice”
You Only Live Twice (1967)

In 1967, the Bond franchise was back with You Only Live Twice and decided to take a slightly different route with the film’s opening number. Nancy Sinatra was the first American artist to lend her talents to a 007 title song and instead of reaching for impossibly high notes or thunderous orchestration as previously employed by Shirley Bassey and Tom Jones, she stuck to what she knew best—seductive and lush vocals with a playful and light melody. Sinatra’s voice is warm, but it feels lighter than air as she speaks of dreams and attractive strangers, drawing the audience in to learn more about the kind of life that this mysterious woman is crooning about. At only two-and-a-half minutes long, “You Only Live Twice” leaves you desperately wanting more, but then it’s time for the film’s action to start. All you have left is the track’s distorted guitar hooks rattling around your brain and fogging your productivity for hours as you dream. — BP

2.

Shirley Bassey
“Goldfinger”
Goldfinger (1964)

All respect due to Sir Paul, but “Goldfinger” is the rule by which all Bond themes are measured. It may not have been the first Bond film—and there ain’t a thing wrong with Dr. No or From Russia With Love’s openers—but it both set and perfected the template for the James Bond Theme™: sultry vocals that strike like a stiletto on tile, imperial horns, a lyric that suggests in the vaguest terms possible that Bond may have finally met his match. It can be played by an orchestra, a marching band, or a busker without its essential character changing. “Goldfinger” is the perfect musical distillation of what makes Bond both wildly attractive and wildly repugnant: it’s the reduction of international affairs to sex and swagger and the ability to know how to order a drink. — MSG

1.

Paul McCartney and Wings
“Live and Let Die”
Live and Let Die (1973)

The main point of a James Bond theme song is to get viewers excited for the film they’re about to see. As an artist, you’re supposed to say the name a few times, leave room for some forced orchestral arrangements, and make it long enough for naked ladies to dance around in the opening title sequence. That’s it.

Paul and Linda McCartney’s theme to the 1973 film Live and Let Die is a spectacular failure in those terms, because it’s infinitely more compelling than the film that it precedes. In under three minutes, McCartney and Wings tell a complex story with different tempos, moods, and points of view. From the sweet and wistful opening remembrance of days of old and pledges of peace and the bombastic instrumental sequences—scored and produced by the one and only George Martin—to the secretly awesome reggae breakdown in which he reminds you lyrically that James Bond’s job to kill people, McCartney makes you actually listen to his words.

By the time he screams his final “Live and let die,” we’re thrown into a frenzied sonic tornado of strings, keys, guitars, bongos, and woodwind instruments. For any other artist, this would feel like putting on airs, but for a former Beatle who has masterfully experimented with building layers of orchestration in the past, the crescendo of “Live and Let Die” fits like a glove. The end of the song collapses under the stress and excitement of the previous two-and-a-half minutes. It’s an exhilarating and exhausting listen, and the finest musical work that the Bond franchise has ever released. It’s also clear that McCartney is still proud of the track, making it an integral part of his never-ending live show (complete with flame throwers and fireworks, to boot). McCartney didn’t need Bond, but Bond was damn lucky to be chosen by McCartney. — BP

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