Everybody knows Shirley Bassey’s “Goldfinger.” It was the first James Bond title theme with vocals, and it seems like fans have agreed that it’s the best of them all, over all the twenty other songs that followed. Most of the twenty-one themes have made the Billboard charts here in the U.S., and seemingly all of them have charted in Britain. Adele’s “Skyfall” was released a few months back to great fanfare. Plenty of voices have called “Skyfall” the best track since “Goldfinger,” and it now seems that Adele has been elected the heir to Bassey’s throne. It’s all a bit premature, though—as it happens, there are several great Bond themes that we should not be discounting. Many of them are superior to “Skyfall,” and there are even a few that I would deem superior to Bassey’s classic.
It can get difficult to judge Bond themes because they are so specific to the movies they accompany. Trying to look at them as regular commercial music is, in most cases, a snipe hunt. Each song has been specifically crafted for the film in which it features, and the songs are therefore intrinsic to the given storyline. Most of the songs are descriptive. Bassey’s “Goldfinger” is a warning to her fellow gals that they shouldn’t be fooled by Auric Goldfinger’s charms. Tom Jones’ “Thunderball” is a two-minute soliloquy about the things James Bond does and doesn’t do. (He always runs while others walk, and he’ll break any heart without regret, but his days of asking are all gone.) Accordingly, some of the songs are a little hokey—“Thunderball” is not the leader in the pack, which we should find alarming—though that in itself isn’t necessarily ruinous.
The real problem is that plenty of the theme songs are plain bad. Most of the damage is limited to the Roger Moore era. Carly Simon’s “Nobody Does It Better” is likeable, but the lyric “The way that you hold me whenever you hold me” is ridiculous, though it’s always amusing when a song rhymes identical words. (It’s hard to believe they couldn’t find something to rhyme with ‘me.’ This rhyme dictionary suggests ‘tree,’ ‘sea,’ ‘key,’ and ‘whoopee’—perhaps most appropriate—along with myriad other assorted words and phrases.) Beyond the words, most of those late-70s/early-80s tracks are soft and slow and subdued, precisely the opposite of what a Bond theme should sound like. They don’t quite fit the tone of the films, though whether one likes them as songs in their own right is up to one’s taste—I’m partial to Sheena Easton’s “For Your Eyes Only,” but it’s way too sappy to be a Bond theme.
Some special mentions before we begin the countdown proper: I have no real objection to Wings’ “Live and Let Die,” though I like to pretend to be offended by Paul McCartney’s line, “In this ever-changing world in which we live in.” As comedian/magician Penn Jillette is fond of saying, that’s one too many ‘ins.’ It sticks out like a foghorn each time I hear the song. Also, I feel like I should hate the electronic mess that is Madonna’s “Die Another Day,” yet there’s something addictive about it. Mercifully, it doesn’t make my top five. Another song that misses is Chris Cornell’s “You Know My Name.” It’s very close—it might be around sixth or seventh place—but I have not forgotten it. There are a few that come before it for me—namely, these five tracks:
5. The World Is Not Enough—Garbage
The world is not enough / But it is such a perfect place to start
There’s something infectious about the way this song blends its dreamy, lo-fi verses with the haughty orchestra that kicks in over the refrain. Garbage’s effort promises more than the film itself could deliver. It’s an introspective song, and the spaced-out tones and vocals make it feel like an odyssey. There’s a lonely feel about the whole thing, as if we’re about to be cast off into this very shallow, very solitary world that these characters live in. Had the film successfully echoed that, it may have turned out a masterwork, but I’m glad we got Garbage’s single out of it at least. This is unique as far as Bond songs go. It’s quiet, but not in the maudlin way the aforementioned Moore-era songs were. It’s a classy tune, and one that (unfortunately) most people have forgotten about.
4. Goldfinger—Shirley Bassey
Pretty girl, beware of his heart of gold / This heart is cold
“Goldfinger” perennially tops the Bond theme countdown lists that people like to put together (lists like this one), and there can be no doubt that it is a great theme song. The orchestra booms along with Bassey, and together they belt the song out with great gusto. It sounds great, it is beloved, and it became the yardstick that all subsequent themes were measured by. But as seminal as “Goldfinger” is, there is one fact that weakens its cause: it is a novelty. It has no application outside of the film. I can’t imagine anybody listening to this at the gym or during their commute, or putting it on after coming home from work, or in the morning upon waking up. As a song, it has no range—it is by far the most limited of any on this list—but even if that wasn’t the case, I don’t think it would trump the three that follow. We love it because we love the film, and that is absolutely acceptable, but there is more out there, and for me, it does not begin and end with Bassey.
3. A View to a Kill—Duran Duran
Nightfall covers me, but you know the plans I’m making
80s synthpop and New Wave are not exactly the most quality genres, and while there’s room to ironically like that style of music (the way people like “Never Gonna Give You Up” or “I Can’t Go For That (No Can Do)”), most of that music is incredibly dated. Duran Duran may very well be one of the chief offenders. “A View to a Kill,” therefore, would seem to have everything going against it, but in fact it works, and it works well. It’s very terse (almost Hi-NRG), and it gets the blood pumping in a way that few of the other themes do. I get a jolt every time the synth strings shriek out. This is the quintessential 80s action song. Just a few seconds of it invoke images of shoulder rolls, sliding across car hoods, rappelling down the sides of buildings, and diving while firing guns. A View to a Kill” has momentum; it cruises; the lyrics border on nonsensical but that’s just fine, because listening to it I feel like I’m in an action movie, and it’s a feeling that I wish more Bond themes would attempt to capture.
2. You Only Live Twice—Nancy Sinatra
This dream is for you, so pay the price
“You Only Live Twice” played over the final scene of the Mad Men fifth season finale earlier this year. You have to listen when a song with vocals gets played in Mad Men. Music is no throwaway in that series—the words are always relevant to the characters, in this case Don Draper. In paying closer attention then, it struck me how lyrical this song was, and I’ve adored it ever since. It’s a haunting theme, and it easily has the best lyrics of any of the Bond themes. It’s not any revelation as far as music goes, but it’s extremely impressive when stacked up against the twenty other songs. The concept of having two lives—one in reality, and one in our dreams when we sleep—is neat, though going off my memory of the film I can’t fathom why the producers would allow such abstract ideas to surface in what should be a boilerplate theme song. The sweeping orchestra sounds great, the opening bars are iconic, and Sinatra’s vocals have a beautiful elegance about them. The song washes over you, and its impact begins to be felt when it fades out. This could stand on its own. It is superb—though it falls short to just one other in the franchise.
1. Tomorrow Never Dies—Sheryl Crow
Until the day / Until the world falls away / Until you say there’ll be no more goodbyes
“Tomorrow Never Dies” is a vastly underrated song. To my mind, it is the best Bond song, and it achieves that honor by being several orders of magnitude superior to its competition. Everything here is about as close to perfect as one can get. It’s Sheryl Crow that really makes this song, so we might begin with her: from her smoky verses to the large chorus where she bellows it out, Crow absolutely kills it here. I love how she wails—screams—out the refrain, as if she’s wielding it like a bat and battering us with it, her voice ricocheting between our ears. Meanwhile, the brassy orchestra glides along behind her. For once, the strings—which apparently every Bond theme must have—don’t feel forced; the composition is impressive, and its smoothness contrasts happily with Crow’s more brusque approach. There’s a sting when the chorus ends, that very shrill note that tapers off, and I imagine falling endlessly like the silhouette in the opening titles of Mad Men... and we return back to Crow, to eventually be thrown into to the chorus again.
It has it all: it is a terrific tune, it stands alone outside of the film, and it’s totally a sing-along. It’s interesting that Crow’s song was vying against a track by k.d lang (along with a number of other submissions) which ended up playing over the credits. Lang’s “Surrender” is fairly good, much more in the Bassey tradition than more recent themes. Had it been an official title theme for one of the other pictures it may have been included here. But “Tomorrow Never Dies” absolutely takes the cake for me. It has not yet received the recognition it deserves. If all the fawning over Adele’s ditty makes people search out the other Bond themes, they should hope to find their way here. This is far superior to “Skyfall.” Crow’s effort is epic. You don’t get much better than this.