Sunday, February 3, 2013

Top Ten James Bond Theme Songs

Best James Bond Musical Artist? John Barry, He was Behind Everything

Nancy Sinatra John Barry You Only Live Twice 1967
Nancy Sinatra in the studio with John Barry for 'You Only Live Twice"

There are well over two dozen James Bond theme songs, ranging from the original Monty Norman theme from "Dr. No" up through Adele's popular composition for 2012's "Skyfall" and the odd theme to "Spectre." Any true fan of the James Bond movies has their own list of favorites, just as they have their own ranking of Sean Connery, Roger Moore, Pierce Brosnan, Daniel Craig, George Lazenby and Timothy Dalton (that's mine, by the way). It so happens that the following are not just my favorite Bond theme songs - they also are among my favorite songs, period. Proper credit must go to the performers, but John Barry was the brains behind the whole enterprise for over thirty years, and his touch is evident in just about all of the songs listed below.

John Barry theme songs
John Barry and spouse Jane Birkin in the 1960s.

I have considered not just the title songs of each Bond film, but also secondary compositions in the films that sometimes are better than the "official" themes. Thus, for instance, Louis Armstrong's "We Have All the Time in the World" from "On Her Majesty's Secret Service" and Matt Monroe's "From Russia with Love" are given exactly the same consideration as the instrumental title themes from those two films. As you will see, that may lead to a surprise or two in my list.

Adele theme songs
Adele did a great job on "Skyfall."

Oh, and I haven't forgotten about the 2012 Adele tune, "Skyfall." I simply don't think it ranks, despite its popularity. Madonna's contribution for "Die Another Day" was hot in its day, too - heck, all themes are when their respective movies come out - but "Die Another Day"'s theme is in the bottom ten, not the top. The "Skyfall" theme is a fine homage to the classic Bond themes like "Goldfinger," but also is derivative and designed to showcase Adele and her personal style rather than say much about James Bond. The song "Skyfall" is popular because Adele is popular and the movie was a smash hit, which is not a bad thing, but that does not mean the song itself is of any lasting value. Adele won the Academy Award for it, but there are plenty of forgotten Academy-Award winning songs. Plus, 2012 was a weak year for film songs (Academy voters like to recognition successful films that aren't "prestigious" in the lesser categories, and "Best Song" was an adequate consolation prize). Subsequently, "Spectre" theme song "Writing's on the Wall" (Sam Smith & Jimmy Napes) also won both the Academy Award and Golden Globe - which may be more an indication that Hollywood theme song standards are falling than that the Bond theme songs are suddenly world beaters. But, draw your own conclusions - if you think those two Bond theme songs were better than all that went before, well, good for you.

Adele theme songs
Adele won the statue for her rendition of "Skyfall," the only time that has happened.

"Skyfall" really could have used John Barry's unifying and sometimes quirky influence, may he rest in peace, or maybe some tuning up by someone like George Martin. As it is, "Skyfall" sounds like a piece written by somebody who had listened to the previous Bond themes and decided to write something that would be just like them. That's terrific, homages are great, but the originals are classics, derivative rip-offs like "Skyfall" are not. Give "Skyfall" ten years, maybe I'll change my mind - but probably not. It's slow, ponderous, and a downer. That said, if you like "Skyfall," it's Top Ten for you, and congratulations on finding something that you like.

A brief nod to John Barry, who co-wrote all the James Bond songs during his tenure, and Leslie Bricusse, who wrote the lyrics to Bond themes "Goldfinger" and "You Only Live Twice."

Now, as Casey Kasem would say, "On with the countdown."

10. Tie: "Goldfinger" - Goldfinger (1964), "Diamonds Are Forever" (1971) and "Moonraker (Disco Version)" (1979)

Shirley Bassey theme songs
Shirley Bassey sang "Goldfinger."

"Goldfinger" singer Shirley Bassey ultimately wound up doing three James Bond theme songs ("Goldfinger," "Diamonds are Forever" and "Moonraker"), and has been under consideration for others as well. While all three of Bassey's contributions are superb, "Goldfinger" is the one that had the most lasting impact and remains fresh almost fifty years later. Sung in a loud, brassy style, "Goldfinger" is the song most people think about (except for the most recent ones) when the Bond series comes up. It captures the mood and style of a villain who is larger than life, like Goldfinger, rather than going the usual route and glorifying or otherwise describing Bond himself. In that sense, it helps the film (which really built the foundation for the entire rest of the franchise) by subtly building up Goldfinger himself as this awesome entity who only a James Bond could threaten. "Goldfinger"'s only fault is that it has a sort of 1950s style that is unfamiliar to modern ears and sounds dated, plus it could have been a bit longer.

Sean Connery theme songs
James Bond finally meets his match in "Diamonds Are Forever" after treating women abysmally earlier in the film.

The theme song to "Diamonds Are Forever" is a bit less brassy, a little more wistful, and a great Bond theme. It's a Shirley Bassey theme song, choosing between it and the other two just depends on what kind of theme song you prefer. It is marred by a sort of proto-disco feel at certain points that dates it, but when Shirley opens it up, she fills the room.

Roger Moore theme songs
Roger Moore in "Moonraker."

If I were to skip "Goldfinger" and "Diamonds Are Forever" because of these minor quibbles, I would replace it with Bassey's disco version of "Moonraker (1979) (it plays over the film's end credits). This version is just pure fun and original, haunting and menacing at the same time. It is a change of pace for Shirley Bassey and the series, and it works. The opening bars are phenomenal, capturing an entire musical era in one musical phrase. "Moonraker" serves to show just how timeless Bond is. Yes, it is dated, how could it not be? However, if James Bond can survive Disco, he can survive anything.

9. "For Your Eyes Only" - For Your Eyes Only (1981)

For Your Eyes Only theme songs
"For Your Eyes Only."

Sheena Easton was riding a crest of popularity in the early '80s, one of those inexplicable phenomena that you look back on and can only scratch your head at in wonder. With the song "For Your Eyes Only" written by Bill Conti and Mick Leeson for the next Bond film, the producers were hunting around for someone to sing it. The studio suggested Sheena Easton. In her favor, Sheena Easton was a very pretty girl, and she also was from the British Isles, always a consideration when choosing a Bond singer. So, Sheena it was - and she did an outstanding rendition for the film.

Roger Moore For Your Eyes Only theme songs

They caught Sheena Easton at just the right moment, for she was still rising in popularity (her popularity crashed soon after). Sheena's hotness fortunately lasted long enough to turn "For Your Eyes Only" into a major international hit.

Sheena Easton theme songs
Sheena Easton in the titles sequence of "For Your Eyes Only."

Sung in a very emotive style, "For Your Eyes Only" remains the peak of Sheena Easton's career and, because she subsequently was not over-exposed, helps identify her and her song with the James Bond franchise (like "A-ha" and its theme song for "The Living Daylights"). Easton remains the only Bond theme singer to appear in the opening titles singing her song, helping make the song a unique delight for true Bond fans.

8. "The World is Not Enough" - The World is Not Enough (1999)

Shirley Manson theme songs
Shirley Manson of "Garbage" sings "The World Is Not Enough."

Written by David Arnold and Don Black and performed by then-popular Garbage, "The World is Not Enough" has a classic Bond sound. Throaty vocals by Garbage lead singer Shirley Manson contrasted nicely with the classical sound of the theme song, giving what could have sounded like a golden oldie a sharp and emotional edge. The song has a wistful quality that compares nicely to other classics in the series such as "You Only Live Twice," conveying emotions below the surface that help give the character of James Bond added depth.

Shirley Manson Garbage theme songs

"The World Is Not Enough" was accompanied by a well-crafted, if somewhat derivative, music video that quite appropriately focuses on Shirley Manson's charms. While the song and video have nothing to do with the film aside from the title - a minor drawback - it does have a very Bondian theme. If "The World is Not Enough" has a fault, it is that it sounds a little too much like what a Bond theme should sound like, perhaps a bit formulaic and derivative of Shirley Bassey's sweeping vocals in "Goldfinger," "Moonraker" and some of the other classics. Is that terrible for a Bond theme? Certainly not! However, "The World Is Not Enough" does not exhibit the sheer originality you need to be the best. This derivative sound was a minor problem with "The World is Not Enough," and became a much greater issue with Adele's later "Skyfall" in 2012.

7. "We Have All the Time in the World" - On Her Majesty's Secret Service (1969)

Louis Armstrong theme songs
Louis Armstrong created a memorable sound in "We Have All The Time In The World."

"On Her Majesty's Secret Service" is the James Bond film in which the super-spy gets married, and "We Have All the Time in the World" is the song that accompanies scenes of that relationship. In fact, it takes its title from the climactic scene of the film. Composed by John Barry with Hal David, "We Have All The Time In The World" is another of the great '60s James Bond tunes that has stood the test of time. "We Have All the Time in the World" was Louis Armstrong's last recorded song, and is another example of a great Bond theme song that was not composed to cater to prevailing musical tastes and fads and, thus, did not do much on the charts. It is a sweet, affecting love song that has grown in popularity over the years, the way the truly great James Bond theme songs tend to do.

Lazenby theme songs

Watching the film's love scenes now is kind of amusing because of the harsh things that Diana Rigg has said recently about co-star George Lazenby (he effectively dumped her during production, though that is not something she brings up these days). The song itself has become a true classic.

6. "A View to a Kill" - A View to a Kill (1985)

Simon Le Bon theme songs
Simon Le Bon of Duran Duran in the "A View To A Kill" video.

Duran Duran was at the absolute peak of its popularity while it was composing "A View To A Kill" with John Barry, and retains the distinction of having the only James Bond theme song to hit the top of the charts in the United States (Adele with "Skyfall" had similar popularity at the time of her own Bond theme song, accounting for its extravagant chart success). The song has distinctive Eighties touches that date it, but it remains a lively and well-performed song. Oh, and "A View To A Kill" has the rare distinction of being the only James Bond theme song to hit No. 1 on the U.S. pop charts, and that ain't beanbag.

A View To A Kill theme songs
"A View To A Kill" had two great villains in Christopher Walken and Grace Jones.

Duran Duran's "A View to a Kill" is somewhat similar to Paul McCartney's "Live and Let Die" in being more memorable than the movie it accompanied. For both songs, the main thing was who performed it and its hard-edged lyrics. If the song "A View to a Kill" has any real fault, it is that the accompanying opening titles by Maurice Binder were lackluster at best, along with the entire film and the accompanying music video. If "A View To A Kill" has a drawback, it is a bit too pop-oriented and not Bond-oriented, else it would rank a bit higher.

5. "You Know My Name" - Casino Royale (2006)

You Know My Name theme songs

Written for "Casino Royale" by Chris Cornell and David Arnold, performed by Cornell, "You Know My Name" has a powerful, driving quality that is perfect for the film that introduced the latest James Bond, Daniel Craig. Craig portrays Bond in muscular, no-nonsense style, and that is how Cornell delivers "You Know My Name." Cornell was a bit of an odd choice for a Bond theme-song singer, being a male American, but the song is brilliant and accompanies an animated title sequence that is among the very best of the series.

Chris Cornell theme songs
Chris Cornell.

Okay, why is this not ranked higher - many think this is the best of the Bond catalog, and it truly is a superlative work. "You Know My Name" did not do very well on the charts, which just shows that the charts are not the best way to judge Bond theme songs. The pop charts are not the be-all-and-end-all, but I don't believe that you can just ignore that immutable fact. Bond songs like "You Know My Name" are directed at complementing the films and are not necessarily focused on the musical fads of the moment, which is both good and bad. Since "You Know My Name" is so Bond-specific, and did not prove to be a widely loved song outside the Bond community, it does not score higher. The songs ranked higher than "You Know My Name" all did better in the general music community and, in my opinion, are more enduring as songs rather than simply masterpieces of the Bond genre.

That said, "You Know My Name" is by far the best Bond theme song since the trued classics of the '60s and '70s which have proved their worth by enduring. "You Know My Name" is direct and to the point, just like Daniel Craig's portrayal of James Bond, and only gets better with time. Who knows, it may move up the list someday.

4. "Nobody Does it Better" - The Spy Who Loved Me (1977)

Carly Simon theme songs
Carly Simon.

Composed for "The Spy Who Loved Me" by Marvin Hamlisch, lyrics by Carole Bayer Sager, "Nobody Does it Better" was a big hit for Carly Simon. Those were the days of disco and mellow soft-rock, so hearing a power ballad on the radio in between the latest Abba disco hit or overly mellow Debby Boone confection was like a breath of fresh air. The phrase "the spy who loved me" is a lyric in the song, though this was a departure from the official theme song being named the same as the film itself. "Nobody Does it Better" stayed on the charts all summer long, and it later received an Academy Award nomination for Best Song. For many people, this was the summer song of 1977, and they'll never forget it for that reason alone.

Carly SImon theme songs
Carly Simon performing "Nobody Does It Better" with the composer, Marvin Hamlisch.

That it also has ideal lyrics for a Bond theme song has helped this become an enduring classic, covered repeatedly over intervening years and often used by Eon Productions for various purposes. The song also is helped by the fact that it accompanied Maurice Binder's absolutely best title sequence, featuring acrobatic nude girls (and Bond himself) and classic images of Roger Moore as Bond that were so good they were used in subsequent Bond films as well.

3. "Live and Let Die" - Live and Let Die (1972)

Paul McCartney theme songs
Paul McCartney.

It was time for a new James Bond, and Roger Moore was ready to go in "Live and Let Die." As is so often the case with new actors brought on to play the super-spy, the producers were eager to prove that Moore would be a "tough" Bond the way that Ian Fleming intended. So, everything was oriented to make Bond "tough," including the theme song.  The story goes that Paul McCartney went in to pitch the song to Harry Saltzman and Albert Broccoli, and when he was done, one of them asked, "That's it?" Indeed it was it, and the song ultimately became a huge hit on the pop charts and earned Wings an Academy Award nomination for Best Song, the first such honor for an Eon Productions James Bond theme song ("The Look of Love" from 1967's "Casino Royale" actually received the first for any Bond film, but it was not produced by EON).

Roger Moore theme songs
Roger Moore starred as James Bond for the first time in "Live and Let Die."

For years, people poked fun at McCartney's repeated use of the word "in" during one sequence of the song, but you have to have created something special if people continue to recall it for any reason years later. McCartney continues to perform "Live and Let Die" regularly, perhaps most memorably at the Super Bowl some years ago, and 'Live and Let Die" appears to be one of his personal favorites. "Live and Let Die" is another of the great Bond songs that has only increased in popularity over the years, and most would agree that it is the best thing about Roger Moore's first Bond outing.

2. "The Look of Love" - Casino Royale (1967)

Dusty Springfield theme songs
Dusty Springfield sang "The Look of Love."

The 1967 "Casino Royale" is the black sheep of the entire James Bond canon. It is not an "official" Bond film because it was not made by Eon Productions. However, it is without question a James Bond film, and just because Albert Broccoli and Harry Saltzman own the rights to most of the other Ian Fleming novels and did not produce this one doesn't make "Casino Royale" any less a James Bond film. If you want credentials for this song, it was the first James Bond song nominated for an Academy Award - ever.

David Niven theme songs
David Niven as James Bond in "Casino Royale" (1967).

Burt Bacharach wrote "The Look of Love" as an instrumental, but Hal David later added lyrics. Bacharach said that he was inspired by Ursula Andress' performance in early footage of the film. Phil Ramone produced, and Dusty Springfield's sensuous vocal propelled the song to an Oscar nomination. It became extremely popular and was covered by many high-profile artists of the time. "The Look of Love" was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 2008. You may not associate this song with Bond, but it was and remains a top James Bond tune, much beloved by fans of all the Bond films. The short sequence of Peter Sellers and Ursula walking behind the giant fish tank became an iconic image of the 1960s.

1. "You Only Live Twice" - You Only Live Twice (1967)

There were two Bond Films released in 1967 - "You Only Live Twice" and "Casino Royale" - and both were huge financial successes. They also happened to have absolutely astonishingly good theme songs. Nancy Sinatra sang the "You Only Live Twice" theme song in a longing, wistful way, pushing her voice harder than at any other time in her career, giving the lyrics an almost operatic quality (some of which undoubtedly is terrific processing). "You Only Live Twice" became a minor radio hit despite being completely out of step with the music of the time, a ballad in a time of pop and rock. The song was part of a broader Nancy Sinatra phenomenon from 1966-1968 that encapsulated the Vietnam War era, helping to create and sustain a mystique that was larger than just one song or performance and helped to reorient American music. In other words, "You Only Live Twice" had larger cultural significance than just a run-of-the-mill pop hit.

Nancy Sinatra theme songs
Nancy Sinatra performing "These Boots Are Made For Walking."

The story is that Sinatra was so nervous about singing "You Only Live Twice" that she almost ran out of the studio in terror. However, the final result (cobbled together later from over two dozen takes) was spectacular. John Barry composed "You Only Live Twice," with lyrics added by Leslie Bricusse, and Barry gave it a slightly Asian feel in accordance with the plot of the film. Two versions of Nancy Sinatra's rendition exist, one for the soundtrack and one for radio airplay, and both are excellent. The haunting, repetitive undulating string figure is so recognizable as a Bond tune that many people don't even know what film it came from - they just hear it, and know instinctively that it is a Bond tune, a natural fit with the series without seeming to mimic previous themes (which did become a problem years later). There are so many different Bond-ian musical influences and varieties of tempo melded into the final product, building throughout the song and culminating in the magnificent staccato climax, that it's difficult to sort them all out, but the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.

Frank Sinatra Nancy Sinatra theme songs
Nancy Sinatra and her dad, who was Cubby Broccoli's original pick to do the theme song for "You Only Live Twice." He suggested his daughter instead.

Robbie Williams, who knows something about pop music, paid "You Only Live Twice" the ultimate homage by using the string background composition for his hit "Millennium" in 1998. He obviously recognized that it is perhaps the most recognizable and characteristic musical theme of the series aside from Monty Norman's original Dr. No "James Bond Theme," a theme not tied to a particular style of music or performer. "You Only Live Twice" also perfectly jibes with the film's theme, which opens with James Bond's death - and then resurrection, leading to his "second life." This remains one of Nancy Sinatra's finest recordings (even if she doesn't like it much), one of John Barry's best compositions (though he had songs that did much better on the charts), and our pick for the best song in the James Bond canon.

Thanks for reading and watching!


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