A staple of the franchise since 1964, the James Bond opening credits song is as integral to the brand as the gadgets, the Bond girls, the shaken and not stirred martinis, the “Bond, James Bond” line, and the occasional sexual assault that’s played down as romantic horseplay. The back-to-back combo of the cold open action set piece that’s barely tied to the main plot, and the suave and/or assertive song that accompanies the stylish credits sequence full of babes, guns, and babes wielding guns, serve as a sort of hype man for the main act. If these elements fail to make the audience feel as if they’re in their navy tux, nonchalantly keeping tabs on a bad guy in a high-stakes casino, when in fact they’re plopped in front of the TV, wearing nothing but their dirty underwear and a “Who Farted?” shirt, then that Bond flick starts off with a handicap.
Of course this doesn’t mean that a Bond installment with a sub-par title song is automatically going to result in a bad movie. But it will stumble a bit until it gets on its feet. On the other hand, a fun and engaging song can at least give us some warm and fuzzy feelings about a Bond flick that’s otherwise pathetically inept—looking at you, A View To A Kill. With Billie Eilish’s eponymous new song for the new Bond, No Time To Die (whose release date was pushed to November due to the coronavirus), recently released to boost interest in the film, let’s rank all Bond opening title songs from the last six decades.
First, some ground rules: We’re ranking only songs, with lyrics, that play over the opening credits. So John Barry’s iconic “Dr. No Theme” or the theme music from On Her Majesty’s Secret Service don’t count. We’re also only focusing on the EON productions, so don’t expect to find Lani Hall’s lethargic ballad for Never Say Never Again, a non-EON movie that exists solely because of a grudge over a contract dispute. Believe me, I’m doing you a favor. Here are all the Bond opening credits songs, ranked from worst to best.
The press screening for the underwhelming Spectre played the music video of this grossly miscalculated Sam Smith whine-fest before the movie, forcing the unsuspecting audience to sit through the song twice after the feature’s credits were done. By that point, I was convinced that I had entered the wrong theater and was actually about to watch the latest Tyler Perry melodrama or the YA romance du jour. Even if we’re dealing with a somber tune, a Bond song should exude power, passion and determination. Smith is half-asleep in his monotone delivery, and the piano/string combo that’s supposed to lift our spirits into the chorus barely registers. And to think, we could have gotten Radiohead.
Play this strained and over-compensating acid rock/lounge hybrid out of context to a friend and ask them if it’s from a legit Bond flick, or the new Austin Powers reboot. The busybody mix of short horn bursts, atonal guitar licks, and the growling vocals sound desperate to achieve that effortless Bond coolness through regurgitated cliches, so much so that the unintentionally exaggerated tone comes across as parody. As the pixie princess Lulu tries to sound tough—her “sinister” delivery of the word “assassin” is adorable—she ends up like, well, Lulu trying to sound tough. Check out the groovy unused Alice Cooper track instead.
One can imagine ’80s Madonna, the tough-as-nails pop queen of that decade, delivering a scintillating sex ballad for a Bond installment at the time. How awesome would it have been if she actually released a song called “Octopussy”? But by the time she was tapped to co-write and perform Pierce Brosnan’s 007 swan song full of hyper-realistic CGI, we got the minimalist-electroclash-experimenting, midlife-crisis-art-snob-mom Madonna. The result is this grating series of pretentious electro distortion pulses, with Madonna’s ironically detached auto-tune-light vocals laid on top as mere formality.
I’m still not convinced that this smooth jazz monstrosity wasn’t originally conceived as the theme song for a ’70s soft-core porn Bond parody, only to be repurposed as the title track for the legendarily forgettable Octopussy. Listen to that sax and base line that leads into the lyrics, and tell me you’re not imagining soft focus shots of Sylvia Kristel doin’ the nasty with a hunky Bond placeholder on a beach, while in the background, giant waves slap the shore with every thrust. The only tolerable component is Rita Coolidge’s dependably silky vocals.
If there’s one Bond song royalty, it’s queen diva Shirley Bassey. Her voice has that unique base and smooth delivery that foreshadows Bond’s trademark suaveness. That’s a good reason why Bassey is not only the one performer who recorded more than one song for the franchise, but did so a total of three times—it was almost four, if her track for Quantum of Solace had been chosen. Look for no further proof than the energy she actually manages to infuse into this flatline, sleep-inducing ballad that comes across as a temp track that producers forgot to write an actual song around.
If there’s a perfect song for hard-core Bond fans to do the Say Anything move and serenade their love interest with a boombox outside their home, this unapologetically tacky love song should rise to the occasion. It’s grade-A cheese, and embarrassingly early ’80s, so it certainly fits the midpoint of Roger Moore’s tongue-in-cheek and gaudy run as 007. But have fun convincing your soon-to-be-former friends of its merits out of context. Bless Sheena Easton, who gives it her all during the chorus, and delivers an overall performance that’s too good for the sub-par material.
I’m not surprised the tinny piano hook that works as the foundation of Shirley Bassey’s second foray into the Bond world has been sampled in over thirty hip-hop songs, since the sparkly tone operates as a musical translation of the slang term, “Bling-bling.” The materialist fantasy dripping off the spiffy cars, expensive clothes, and exotic locations has always been a selling point for the franchise, and this ode to the shiniest of the shiny represents its apex. However, it’s still fairly derivative of ’60s Bond and is a bit too uninspired beyond the memorable hook. Bassey showcases her pipes once again, but the understated chorus doesn’t give her a chance to really belt it out.
a-ha’s brand of Scandinavian new wave and synth-pop fits Bond’s larger-than-life aesthetic fairly well. The heavy bass beat laid over the tinny synth hook deftly introduces the late-80s neon grit of Timothy Dalton’s 007. The falsetto bridge provides just the right amount of cheese without going overboard. The glaring disappointment of the track lies with the lazy filler chorus. It’s fairly short, but the Saturday morning cartoon knock-off feel is undeniably distracting.
Yes, this is where the velvety string hook in Robbie Williams’ “Millennium” comes from. Nancy Sinatra’s sleek title track for the Sean Connery Bond flick that aged the best thanks to a copious application of yellowface is as close to a 007 lullaby as fans who are new parents will get. Sinatra’s pitch-perfect delivery works as a hypnotic siren song to pull us into the movie, but the overproduced mix undercuts the natural integrity of the vocals, leading to an impressive but uneven result.
Die Another Day was the follow-up to The World Is Not Enough, so it’s too bad Madonna didn’t take some pointers from Garbage when it came to delivering the Bond formula while maintaining the structural integrity of her personal output. While Madonna delivered yet another Madonna track without any consideration for the franchise, Garbage first and foremost laid a bombastic, string-heavy, old-school Bond foundation to their title song. Once that foundation was solid, Garbage subtly brought out their alt-rock and post-grunge sensibilities through various hooks and fills. It’s not a special tune by any means, but at least it’s executed with finesse.
The simplicity of Sheryl Crow’s sweltering vocals blanketed over the serene acoustic guitar licks and vibrant synth riffs during the opening verses creates one of the most exciting build-ups to any Bond song. Unfortunately, once the operatic chorus kicks in and Crow dons her Shirley Bassey cosplay by testing the limits of her vocal range, we’re left wanting a more rousing climax. That said, the track gets the job done as a fit for Brosnan’s smooth 007. The song also gets a slight knock because K.D. Lang’s “Surrender” was supposed to open the film, and it’s leaps and bounds more original and progressive than Crow’s genre pleaser.
Billie Eilish’s naturally haunting voice once again splendidly accentuates her’s and brother Finneas O’Connell’s minimalist production instincts in order to establish the one Bond tune that can easily be retrofitted to a mid-budget, slow-burn horror movie. The classic Bond elements, like the E-minor piano strokes, and the sudden pulse of the string section, are used sparingly to establish a compromise between Eilish’s unique style and the long-established franchise branding. It’s not as catchy as the songs below, but it’s an admirable effort.
The lyric “Nobody does it quite the way you do / Why’d you have to be so good?”, belted out with gusto and without a hint of self-aware irony by Carly Simon’s incendiary voice, encapsulates the effortlessly cocksure aura that kept Bond as a lucrative power fantasy franchise for so long. This is the kind of ’70s pop ballad that brings the house down with its challenging crescendo, and Simon’s certainly up to the task. It may be a bit overstuffed on the production side, but that also fits the style.
The year is 1995. It’s been six years since the last Bond film, the longest gap in the franchise’s history. The cold war is over, and 007 is seen as a macho relic of its time. In order to sell the triumphant return of the character, while dragging him kicking and screaming into a new decade, he needs to be hyped by the kind of badass vocalist who’ll send shivers down anyone’s spine with a single note. Enter Tina Turner, her attractively intimidating vocals giving life to Bono and The Edge’s bass-and-percussion-heavy title track. If any song was going to unequivocally declare “Bond is back!” this was it.
I have to admit that this one is a bit of a personal guilty pleasure. Yes, I’m fully aware of how gaudily ’80s it is, but it’s hard to resist the combination of raw drumbeats and synth power chords building into this bubblegum pop earworm. Duran Duran’s fiery dance-rock vibes are so catchy and fun that it almost turns A View To A Kill into a halfway watchable movie. And we’re talking about the one where Moore was so old that his love interest’s mother was younger than him.
“Goldfinger” is generally referenced as the template, but it’s actually this roided-up lounge monster that’s the go-to inspiration for any Bond song parody. It takes Goldfinger’s campy lounge/jazz aesthetic and pumps it up to 11, resulting in a fascinating combination of dated kitsch and timeless confidence-builder. John Barry’s “Bond Theme” is slyly incorporated into the bridge, as Tom Jones’ singular baritone vocals deliver us to the mountaintop with his head-exploding crescendo.
The most elegant of the Bond tracks from the Daniel Craig era so far, “Skyfall” wisely lets the musical arrangement take a step back and allows Adele and her extraordinary voice to do the heavy lifting. Adele and Paul Epworth’s composition isn’t necessarily groundbreaking; there isn’t much of a change in tone between verse and chorus. But who am I to pooh-pooh one of the most mesmerizing vocal performances we ever heard from the franchise?
From the most underrated Bond flick comes the most underappreciated title song. While Dalton’s second and last outing as 007 worked as a precursor to Craig’s gritty and grounded 2000s version, this toe-tapping R&B/pop treasure firmly grounds the film in its time period. For fans of exuberant soul from the era, “License to Kill” is a godsend. However, it couldn’t have taken off as powerfully as it does without Gladys Knight’s formidable pipes.
When Bond took a dump on The Beatles in Goldfinger he couldn’t have foreseen that one of the Fab Four would one day co-write and perform one of the most iconic songs of the franchise. “Live and Let Die,” the musical accompaniment to Moore’s first Bond, came out during Paul McCartney’s “Band on the Run” period, when McCartney and his band, Wings, would experiment with fluctuating tones and genres within the same song. He applies the same style here, starting with a serene verse, only to ratchet up to a full-blown heavy metal riff on strings—which ended up being heavily influential in that genre’s evolution. There’s also that awkward reggae bit, but thankfully it’s only 10-seconds-long.
I would have never guessed that Jack White and Alicia Keys’ post-modern hip-hop would fit a cultural staple as ancient as Bond, but damn if this dick-swinging rock/rap anthem to effortless badassery doesn’t get the blood pumping and the heads bopping. White’s distorted bursts of percussion and electric guitar compliment Keys’ intense vocals like chocolate and peanut butter packed with amphetamines. The track pumps us up so diligently that the disappointment of the film that follows it, the writers’ strike-era clusterfuck known as Quantum of Solace, becomes that much more pronounced.
The first ever title track for Bond is still the most defining song of the franchise’s history and will most likely remain so. The scratchy horns and the jazz/lounge structure immediately conjure up manly images of Connery in a tux, glaring at his nemeses with utmost conviction that he will eventually come out on top. It’s the natural soundtrack for anyone who seeks that instant suave feel. Bassey’s legendary performance rightfully turned “Goldfinger” into her signature number.
When the extensive marketing campaign for Craig’s Jason Bourne-boosted 007 went underway for 2006’s Casino Royale, still the best Bond outing in my humble opinion, Chris Cornell’s (RIP) viscerally gripping hard rock masterpiece was barely mentioned. “You Know My Name” wasn’t even included in the film’s soundtrack. What the hell happened there? The song not only soulfully captures the moral ambiguity of Craig’s 007, giving unexpected depth to a Bond title track, but it also works as a timeless tribute to the character’s enduring essence and charisma. From the first note to the last, “You Know My Name” offers the quintessential heart-pumping Bond experience.