The James Bond franchise is famous throughout the world for its signature elements – thrilling spy action, the debonair actions of its lead character, gadgets galore, and memorable theme songs for each installment.
The best James Bond theme songs that both improve the films they are part of and stand on their own as fun and memorable pieces of music. The rest? Not so much. But in either case, both the bad and good James Bond theme songs are fantastic pieces of film history. They mark both the changes in the James Bond franchise and the changes in the film industry as a whole. After 23 films, they are a wonderful tradition in a series that has hit dizzying highs and nauseating lows, both in the music and the movies as a whole.
While elements of “classic” James Bond film themes have come to define many of these 24 songs, they are by no means carbon copies of one another. The shifts and changes make the music of James Bond fun to study and critique, especially when things go terribly wrong, which is a lot of this first half of the countdown.
A few rules for the countdown. Since “Dr. No” had no real theme of its own aside from the signature James Bond Theme, it is not included in here, but look for it at the end of Part 2 as a way to wrap up the countdown. Also, the only songs included here are those used in the title credits sequence, so other memorable pieces included throughout a movie or in the closing credits are excluded from the list.
23. “Die Another Day” – Madonna
There’s no mistaking this for easily being the worst James Bond theme song ever created. A terrible electronic sound, incomprehensible lyrics, and Madonna harping away. If this wasn’t evidence enough that the James Bond franchise was scraping the bottom of the barrel, the film that followed after made an excellent case. It’s hard to say which is worse, the title theme or the movie itself. Probably the movie because it’s longer.
22. “Tomorrow Never Dies” – Sheryl Crow
This song may be all over the place tonally, but it commits the cardinal sin that no James Bond theme song should commit – it’s boring. I have no idea why the producers chose Sheryl Crow of all people to sing the theme for Tomorrow Never Dies. Here catalog definitely doesn’t make a case for why she should kick off the latest James Bond adventure. While the song may hit a couple high notes, it still doesn’t thrill. Throw in strange strings and a soft acoustic section and there is no need to listen to this more than once.
21. “All Time High” – Rita Coolidge
Again, a James Bond theme that ends up being far too boring for a movie about a sashing secret agency travelling the world and shooting bad guys. I promise, these are going to get better. One of the few James Bond themes to not share the film’s title, I think “All Time High” was a lot easier to incorporate into a song than the noun (Verb? Adverb?) Octopussy. I’m not entirely sure what that song would be about. This may be a silly little love song, but it’s better than the alternative. Also, this credit sequence is terrible.
20. “The Man With The Golden Gun” – Lulu
Changing from the boring to the just kinda dumb, the theme to The Man with the Golden Gun is like the film itself: overblown and cheap. This has all the feeling of an exploitation movie, incorporating whammy bar guitars and suggestive lyrics. While it certainly has a unique feel, it doesn’t make a huge impact. In fact, you’ll be hoping for the credits to come to an end not too far into the song. But once it ends, you’ll probably wish that you could go back. “Nick Nack. Tabasco!”
19. “The World is Not Enough” – Garbage
While it’s not a bad song, Garbage’s theme for The World is Not Enough really doesn’t stand out among the field of contenders. It doesn’t have the hard rock edge that the band was known for, but it also doesn’t feel like a classic James Bond theme. It’s kind of just the same tune over and over. I’ve already run out of things to say about this song.
18. “For Your Eyes Only” – Sheena Easton
The theme songs for Roger Moore’s James Bond films definitely had a tendency to lean toward soft and romantic, which somewhat fits the films, but at the same time seems a little strange in the larger context. In the lesser songs, they tend to be forgettable and sappy, which this most certainly is. Not that it’s a bad song. It befits the more romantic leanings of Moore’s James Bond movies. Fun fact – this is the only James Bond theme to show the singer in the film credits, with Sheena Easton being in nearly the entire credits.
17. “GoldenEye” – Tina Turner
The theme for GoldenEye seems to be meant as a reflection for the direction that the film was supposed to mark for the series as a whole. After years of unsuccessful choices, the James Bond series was getting a big reset and an update for the modern times. While the song was written by Bono and The Edge of U2 and sung by Tina Turner, giving it plenty of starpower, the song itself isn’t all that strong. Mostly because of its minor keys and halting rhythm, which keeps it from reaching the heights of the Shirley Bassey themes it seeks to emulate.
16. “Moonraker” – Shirley Bassey
While Shirley Bassey is never a slouch when it comes to vocal power, this is easily the weakest of her many James Bond themes. Like the film itself, the theme to Moonraker is quite silly, but it still has the classic elements of her many wonderful themes. It also falls prey to what many of the James Bond themes suffer from – silly lyrics. While many of the best 007 movie themes have strange lyrics that tangentially relate to the film, the power of the music and the vocals more than make up for it. That’s not the case here. At least it didn’t rip off Star Wars like the rest of the movie.
15. Thunderball – Tom Jones
What may be most interested about Tom Jones’ Thunderballtheme is the story behind it. The film was originally set to have the song “Mr. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang” by Shirley Bassey until producer Albert Broccoli decided that he didn’t like the song and wanted one that featured the name of the movie. Since it was a last minute decision, they threw out the original tune and slapped together a new one with Tom Jones. It’s a fine addition, but due to the score having already been completed, the sound of “Mr. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang” is incorporated throughout the movie instead of the final theme.
14. “The Living Daylights” – A-ha
It’s easy to tell that the James Bond producers knew the theme song for A View to a Kill by Duran Duran was a hit, taking advantage of the ‘80s popular style. So they went for round two with A-ha and The Living Daylights. But they did reproduce the same magic. It’s kinda weird, features strange lyrics (the bad kind) and isn’t very memorable. But it’s still more fun and memorable than the songs that rank lower than this entry.
13. “Writing’s On the Wall” – Sam Smith
The massive success of Adele’s “Skyfall” theme was a clear influence on the style of “Writing’s on the Wall” for the follow-up film, Spectre. Smith hits some amazing notes and certainly fills the tune with plenty of pathos that sets up the stakes of the film that it is part of, but it’s simply a little too plodding and repetitive to be much higher on this list. It’s certainly enjoyable and isn’t anywhere near bad, but it can’t be much more than a middle-of-the-road James Bond theme song.
12. “From Russia With Love” – The John Barry Orchestra/ Monty Norman
This one is sort of two themes in one, since the opening credits feature the instrumental version, while Monty Norman’s version with lyrics is heard on the radio during the film and is played over the closing credits. Combined, it makes a strong impression, with the style matching the film well and the theme incorporated throughout the runtime. The feel and ideas behind the theme would pave the way for what would be the classic take on Bond themes.
Click here for Part 2 – featuring the greatest James Bond movie themes!