9.01.2015

Bond... James Bond Songs, Worst to Best

What is the best Bond Song?


It's no mystery that the most essential song of the franchise western civilization itself is the original James Bond theme, written by Monty Norman and arranged by John Barry, the one with the explosive brass, mind-bending strings, and furiously cool guitar riff. As it plays over half the credits of Dr. No, this makes Dr. No the default number one Bond Song movie if we're playing by strict rules. Hole and match.  

But for many reasons it's ineligible for our purposes here. Ditto for the orchestral From Russia with Love theme that plays over the opening credits, and ditto for On Her Majesty's Secret Service. (Bond '77 too for that matter, which really doesn't count, but while we're here.) I love all of these songs - particularly the OHMSS theme - but let's stick to what the vast majority of people imagine when they think "James Bond Song:" the big vocal number over the opening credits.

There will be an exception or two. Naturally - double-0 work entails a certain flexibility, after all. 

Except where relevant to discussing the song, I'm going to try to avoid discussing the opening titles or the movies themselves. And I'm only looking at EON productions; sorry, Lani Hall et al.

Without further ado, Dog Star Omnibus proudly presents:

Let us begin.

22.
"Tomorrow Never Dies"
 Performed by Sheryl Crow. Written by Sheryl Crow and Mitchell Froom. (1997)

This earns the bottom spot not by being a terrible song. It's actually easy to hear how in different hands it might have been a powerful Bond song. Unfortunately it's simply out of Sheryl Crow's vocal range. It's not her fault - it's whomever signed off on this as a finished product. This is the kind of shoddy work that gets good agents killed. Sir Miles never would've put up with this.

Grade: D As many have pointed out before me, they should've swapped it with the end-credits song, K.D. Lang's "Surrender."
21.
"Another Way to Die"
Performed by Jack White and Alicia Keys. Written by Jack White. (2008)

This sounds like the demo for what might have been turned into a proper Bond Song. Although I disagree with much in the Consequence Of Sound Bond-song rankings, this particular bit sums it up well:

"As the first duet in Bond song history, “Another Way to Die” doesn’t know if it’s a rock song or an R-and-B song. The clean horns and garage rock sound strange together. White’s vocals are more affected than Keys’. These fusions don’t work. I can appreciate White trying to shake it up, but we’re left stirred and not shaken."

Sidenote - the amount of "shaken/ not-stirred" puns out there on the web is staggering. Unsurprising but staggering. I'm glad I had a look around though, as I came close to naming this post "Bond Songs - Ranked, Not Stirred." Grade: C

20.
"Die Another Day"
Performed by Madonna. Written by Madonna and Mirwais Ahmadzai.
(2002)

Many consider this to be the worst of the lot, but I don't hate it. I don't exactly like it, but I can appreciate it as part of the radical departure (or confused attempt at such) of Die Another Day. I like electronica and even if it's an odd fit for a Bond film, it's not really a bad tune. Not counting the "Sigmund Freud... Analyze This" bit, which is excruciating.

This is not to say Madonna's cameo in the movie itself is anything but ill-considered and ridiculous. But Madonna is no stranger to the ill-considered and ridiculous. This was only a year before she started showing up at awards shows and sexually assaulting teenage girls, after all.

Anyway, it's not the best of Madonna's pop electronica efforts - that would be "Ray of Light" or "Hung Up" - but it's at least competently recorded, which puts it ahead of the last two. Grade: C

19.
"You Know My Name"
Performed by Chris Cornell. Written by Chris Cornell and David Arnold. (2006)

I really liked this at the time Casino Royale came out, but I've soured on it a bit in the years since. There's plenty to like about it - Chris Cornell belts it out pretty well, and the grunge-guitars mix unexpectedly well with the orchestra - but something about it keeps me at a distance. I'm not sure it's the best match for the film. On one hand, it is, "considerably so," (in my best Daniel Craig voice.) The lyrics tie into the character's uncertainty. (You-Only-Blog-Twice has some interesting things to say about the lyrics, if you want more on the subject.) On the other, I just can't quite get there. 

Grade: B For what it's worth, I initially had this a bit higher, but repeated listenings of the next four entries saw it slip down to #19. Stephen King would be proud.  


18.
"Goldeneye"
Performed by Tina Turner. Written by Bono and The Edge. (1995)

Not the most notable entry in Bono and The Edge's body of work. It's not a bad impersonation of a Bond song, but it's a rather bland affair. How on earth is it beating out "You Know My Name," its superior in production and execution? I'm not sure I can put the answer into words. I suspect it's because I've been walking around drawling "Goldeneyyyyyee, no time for sweetness" and chuckling to myself the last few days.

Grade: B- It probably makes no sense to put it ahead of "You Know My Name," but what can I say? I'm more entertained by something like "Goldeneye" than I am "You Know My Name."

17.
"Licence to Kill"
Performed by Gladys Knight. Written by Narada Michael Walden, Jeffrey Cohen and Walter Afanasieff. (1989)

This has actually grown on me quite a bit. Until I started listening to all of the Bond Songs for this post, I couldn't recall much about it.

The repurposed "Goldfinger" motif and crisp (some might say antiseptic) 80s production are effective backdrop for Gladys Knight's considerable vocal ability. I also love the "I've got a license to kill / anyone who tries to tear us apart" line. I hope that James Bond has used that line once or twice. Or even as an affirmative legal defense. Grade: B
16.
"The Living Daylights"
Performed by A-Ha. Written by John Barry and Paul Waaktaar-Savoy. (1987)

This isn't the greatest tune, nor the greatest Bond tune, but damn if it hasn't been stuck in my head for years and years. That chorus is so catchy. Sounds pretty good live, as well. It's aged well. 

Just a coincidence that the two Dalton songs ended up side-by-side. Grade: B


15.
"All Time High"
Performed by Rita Coolidge. Written by John Barry and Tim Rice. (1983)

Some people have strong negative feelings about this one; "a perfect encapsulation of all the was wrong with the late Roger Moore era" is by no means an uncommon sentiment. For me it encapsulates both the worst and the best of the Moore era. I certainly understand people's aversion to it. It's cheesy as hell, and as it soars ever higher into the dreamy, post-coital saxophone stratosphere, you can't help but wonder if you've been lulled to sleep only to wake up on a voyage of the Love Boat damned. But hey: that's the Moore-era gestalt.

You've got to kind of squint at it to see it that way, sure. But all squinting aside, it's a hell of a melody. If this was arranged for a string quartet and you were standing nearby dressed in a tuxedo or expensive gown, flute of Dom PĂ©rignon '62 in hand, you might even be moved to tears. Grade: B+

14.
"From Russia with Love"
Performed by Matt Monro. Written by Lionel Bart. (1963)

Granted I'm a big fan of old crooner stuff, so I'm an easy sell for stuff like this. But I've always loved this tune, even before I even had an inkling I'd one day be describing myself as a big fan of old crooner stuff. Matt Monro had a hell of a set of pipes. Grade: A-

A sidenote: I love the scene in the film where this is played over the radio. It just sounds so cool coming out of that old-timey radio. I wish I had a clip for you. Keep an ear out for it next time you watch. I enjoy when films do such things (probably taken to its ultimate extreme in Altman's The Long Goodbye.)

13.
"The World Is Not Enough"
Performed by Garbage. Written by David Arnold and Don Black. (1999)

Garbage is a hell of a band. Everytime I revisit one of their tunes I find myself listening to a dozen of them or more and wondering why I don't listen to them more. Despite massive international success, they may even be a bit underrated. Anyway, that's the band - how does this work as a Bond Song?

Pretty damn well, for my money. Shirley Manson's voice is a good fit for the tune, and she sings it wonderfully. The production is great. And it travels well outside the studio/ silver screen, as well, as evidenced by this performance on David Letterman. Grade: A-

M'S TOP TWELVE

0012. 
"We Have All the Time in the World"
Performed by Louis Armstrong. Written by Hal David and John Barry. (1969)

It's difficult to evaluate this song apart from the emotional resonance it gives to On Her Majesty's Secret Service. Do I love it because it's a wonderful song, sweetly sung by Louis Armstrong at full rasp, or because when I hear it I fall under the vicarious spell of the film?

Tough to tell. Still, it's a wonderful song, both subjectively and objectively speaking. That it's here at all is something of a cheat, perhaps, but to not include it would be madness - it is an indelible thread in the fabric of Bond. Grade: A

0011. 
"Thunderball"
Performed by Tom Jones. Written by John Barry and Don Black. (1965)

So he strikes like Thun-der-ball...!

For the longest time I didn't know what to make of this song. Or even the movie, honestly. This was the legacy of not having it back in the VHS Age; it didn't go through the ritualistic re-watching all of the other Bond films did for me. 

I eventually came around to both - and how. Recently read the Fleming novel, as well, but let's stick with the song. There's really not too much to say. You've heard all the anecdotes most likely (Tom Jones allegedly fainted in the studio after holding that last note, etc.) and its magnificence is self-evident. Grade: A

0010. 
"For Your Eyes Only"
Performed by Sheena Easton. Written by Bill Conti and Mick Leeson. (1981)

I asked my wife and her friend last night what their favorite Bond Songs were. I had to rattle them off and sing approximations of them as best I could to jar their memories. Interestingly enough, this one provoked strong negative reactions. I hadn't expected that. Sure it might have been my rendition, but do people hate on "For Your Eyes Only?" I've got to be honest - I don't think it even occurred to me that anyone would entertain thoughts of doing so.

As mentioned here at You-Only-Blog-Twice: "I suppose you could level the charge that the title song is guilty of being cheesy eighties-style pop balladry; you could almost certainly get a convictions on those charges.  So what?  This is a great song, and maybe it's nostalgia making me say that, maybe it isn't, but the fact is that I love the song and always have."

Me, too. Grade: A 

009. 
"Skyfall"
Performed by Adele. Written by Adele Adkins and Paul Epworth. (2012)

Speaking of You-Only-Blog-Twice, its overview of the Bondverse-thus-far recently wrapped up. (If you haven't already, bookmark and make your way through it - hours of entertainment.) It was suggested there and in the comments (and elsewhere) that this was if not the best Bond Song ever made than a close second. I remembered liking it, particularly the performance at the Oscars linked to above, but the best? 

As you can see I don't quite rank it as highly as folks over there, but we are very much in the best-of-the-best waters now. Fantastic stuff - hard to argue with anyone who votes it the best of the lot.

My only objection to Adele has nothing to do with her and 100% with a very irritating former co-worker, from whose desk "Rumor Has It" and "Someone Like You" would emanate, twice a day everyday, for over half a year. This unfortunately had the inevitable effect of short-term association between irritation-with-her and Adele. These things tend not to last, so maybe when it wears off I'll feel differently. Until then, "Skyfall" is 009. Watch out for Mischka and Grischka, 009. Grade: A

008. 
"You Only Live Twice"
Performed by Nancy Sinatra. Written by Leslie Bricusse and John Barry. (1967)

The same Telegraph article aforelinked had this to say about this one:

"(Nancy Sinatra's) delivery of Bricusse’s mysterious, romantically carpe diem lyrics at once velvety, brittle and quite bewitching, though chief laurels must go to Barry. His score for You Only Live Twice was his best yet, and his title song remains a standout of the entire series, a perfect counterpoint of serene melody and swirling strings that make it a gorgeous piece of music by any standards."

Well-put. Nice to see it lavishly praised, as this one doesn't seem so well-loved by a lot of Bond fans. Me, catch me on a different day, and it could be my favorite. (The song, not the movie). It has that 60s-dreamlike quality to it that always lands with me.  Grade: A+


007.
"A View to a Kill"
Performed by Duran Duran. Written by Duran Duran and John Barry (1985)

This was my wife's and her friend's pick for best Bond Song. I was mildly chided for thinking otherwise. I tried to explain that here and only here coming in 7th place had the distinction of being designated "007," so in some respects it was the greater honor. But they weren't having it. So it goes.

Like "The Living Daylights" this song has aged very well. And in much the same way - its 80s-ness stands out all the more in 2015, but in even bolder contrast to other 80s songs. Does that make sense? Like Phil Collins' "Take Me Home" or something comparable. It was big at the time, but plenty of things were big at the time. 30 years on, it still sounds amazing, while the greatness of plenty of other things has faded. Grade: A+.


006. 
"The Man with the Golden Gun" 
Performed by Lulu. Written be Don Black and John Barry. (1974)

Google "Best Bond Song" and chances are you'll find this one showing up down there with "Another Way to Die" and "Die Another Day." 

I'm going to to go the mat on this one. It's always been a personal favorite, and I could come at things just from that angle: my favorite Bonds growing up were TMWTGG, Moonraker, and Octopussy, the zanier side of Bond, etc. But I'm going to argue that personal bias aside, it's a damn great tune.

First, the arrangement: top notch. Compare the song to the old-timey-piano version you hear at Scarmanaga's Funhouse. Or the version with the fuzztone-guitar vs. some of the other ones. It's a masterpiece of instrumentation. Second, Lulu's vocals: over the top and effortlessly awesome. This is a vocal performance as physically impressive as anything by Dame Shirley B. or Ms. Adkins. Third, the lyrics: wonderfully absurd. The whole damn production is, like Thunderball, the absurdity of the Bondverse in all of its pop art glory.

His eye may be on you or me.
Who will he bang?
We shall see! Oh yeah! 


Two last things: a) That "Goodnight, Goodnight, sleep well, my dear! James! Bond! Is! He-er-re!" before the end credits recapitulation is one of my favorite moments in all 22 movies. So insane. And b) check out this version by The Ventures - if ever a version was made for the slow entrance/walk-to-the-bar, it's this one.


005.
"Diamonds Are Forever"
Performed by Shirley Bassey. Written by Don Black and John Barry (1971)

One of the least-loved Bond movies yields one of the most-loved songs. Deservedly so. Just a masterpiece. 

One of the guys I used to play high-low-jack with would break into this whenever Diamonds were named trump. And he wouldn't stop with just the title - he'd keep it going all the way through the "I don't need lo-o-ove...!" part. Man that used to piss everyone off. Not me, though. 

I just talked with said friend, actually, and he mentioned getting another card night going. I think he's mentioned this every time I've talked to him over the past ten years, which shows you two things: 1) we never actually get another card night going, and 2) a good Bond joke shared between friends endureth like diamonds.  Grade: A+  

004.
"Nobody Does It Better"
Performed by Carly Simon. Written by Marvin Hamlisch and Carole Bayer Sager. (1977)

Another one that prompted an eyeroll from Mrs. Dog Star Omnibus and her friend when I told them this was a better Bond Song than "A View to a Kill." 

But, I'm sorry, it just is. Same level of lyrical absurdity as "The Man with the Golden Gun" but with all the swoon-y charm of  "You Only Live Twice." Grade: A+


003.
"Moonraker"
Performed by Shirley Bassey. Written by John Barry and Hal David. (1979)

Where are you? Why do you hide?
Where is that moonlight trail that leads to your side?

What bizarre questions to ask of a story like Moonraker. Or anyone in it.

Nevertheless, this is another one whose epic, cosmic awesomeness seems to be lost on some people. I don't know anyone who outright hates it, but it doesn't always make people's top 10 Bond Songs. I think people think well, we can't have three Shirley Bassey tunes. But: you can. You must, even - the songs demand it! Grade: A+

002.
"Goldfinger"
Performed by Shirley Bassey. Written by John Barry, Leslie Bricusse, and Anthony Newley. (1964)
And three in the top five, to boot.

What more can possibly be said about Shirley Bassey's "Goldfinger?" As Vanity Fair put it: "If the 'James Bond Theme' set a template, 'Goldfinger' brought it home—the distillation, in sound, of all that a Bond movie stood for." Hear, hear. 

Short and sweet, but as with our next and last Bond Song, everything that could possibly be said about it is immediately self-explanatory once you hit play. Grade: A++

001
"Live and Let Die" 
Performed by Paul McCartney and Wings. Written by Paul and Linda McCartney. (1973)

One of my favorite songs since I was a kid. Just dynamite. Either this or "Goldfinger" takes the top spot on most Best Bond Song lists I've seen, and deservedly so. 

Here's a list of fun songfacts and tidbits. And as mentioned here:

"The track starts with a hushed introduction featuring piano and McCartney’s doubled-up vocals, but an entirely different dynamic comes into play after the first verse. At this point, a bombastic run of strings and orchestral instruments brings 007-approved action movie drama to the proceedings, before making another surprising move, into a pseudo-reggae bridge. It was, to say the very least, an interesting mash-up of musical styles, and one that only a talented and studied artist like McCartney could pull off with such flying colors."

Very true. I'm a fan of George Martin's whole score for Live and Let Die, but this, the greatest Bond song of all, anchors everything perfectly. Grade: A++

~

All links active as of September 1st, 2015. Hopefully on whatever date you click them, as well.

11 comments:

  1. Fun song survey. Really love that Jack Black tune... Way more than Moonraker or Duran Duran, but agree to disagree.

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    1. I've heard that from a few people, actually - it hits people differently than it hits me, I guess. Such is the nature of horse races. Glad you enjoyed yourself just the same.

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    1. I'd kind of love to hear what a Tenacious D song for a Bond movie would sound like. I don't think I'd end up liking it, but I'm sure it would be worth hearing once.

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  3. I'm glad you mentioned "Surrender" -- it's one of the best Bond songs of the past few decades, and they didn't even use it up top! Shameful.

    Glad to see I'm not the only person who thinks of Stephen King every time I rank something #19.

    I'd never heard that live version of "The Living Daylights" -- solid! I like how they made it just a wee bit more uptempo. It feels like I should listen to more of their stuff one of these days.

    Ditto for "The World Is Not Enough" (excepting tempo). I'm not sure I realized how sexy a song that is until hearing that version.

    One thing a list like this makes abundantly clear is that the Bond-song catalog is an embarrassment of riches. Almost every fan is going to have a few titles on the list they can't deal with (mine correspond relatively closely to yours), but once you get past those three or four tunes, it's -- bare minimum -- a baker's dozens of classics and another handful that are nearly as good. It's a heck of a legacy, and one of the most notable aspects of the film series.

    I'm looking forward to finding out who the next person/group will be to go on this list. All signs point to Radiohead, but (pun time) we shaaaa-aaallll seeeeeee!!!!!

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    1. Agreed on the embarrassment of riches, absolutely.

      I might have to revise this and bump "The World Is Not Enough." That Letterman performance alone translates the Bond mythos better than some of the movies, even.

      Not even a day old and already I want to revise it...

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    2. I understand the urge, believe me!

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  4. After giving it a lot of thought, my favorite Bond song is Gladys Knight's "License to Kill". "Maybe" my number two spot, I'm not sure, goes to "The Living Daylights". As for the rest, I look at them on a more or less even keel. This is a trait I have on a lot of things, and I don't why it always works out that way, to tell the truth (clueless shrug).

    It took me a while to realize why those two songs should qualify as my favorites. It's because I was approaching this whole list as a straight up Rocker/R n' B fan, and these two seemed closest to that category. I should be a clue as to just how "illiterate" I am when it comes to most film scores, as aside from the work of James Horner's collaboration with Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil, I know pretty much zip about film scores.

    ...(hangs head in shame).

    ChrisC

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    1. Glad to hear a vote for "License to Kill" - that one's overlooked all too often. I don't think I've ever seen anyone name it as their favorite. It took awhile to grow on me, but now I quite like it.

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  5. I wrote a long-winded response and, because I wasn't logged in, it disappeared. Dammit. Anyway, I've always been partial to the songs that played with or celebrated the mythology of Bond. "Goldeneye" could have been written with me in mind, as I grew up seeing the Moore Bonds at the cinema; "You'll never know how I watched you from the shadows as a child."
    "Live And Let Die" is a stone-cold classic.
    Marvin Hamlisch tapping the ivories on "The Spy Who Loved Me", coupled with Carly Simon's great vocals is another fave.
    And I'm quite partial to 'The World Is Not Enough" because it's evocative and Bondian. "Goldfinger" is grand, of course. I think it was a Vanity Fair article that described Bassey's voice (perfectly) as "all leather bellows and broken glass". And I like her "Quantum of Solace" audition, "No Good About Goodbye". When she sings the title, I substitute "Tomorrow Never Dies" or "The World Is Not Enough" over it. They fit.
    I've always found "Moonraker" to be the most subdued Bond title song. And Lulu's effort just bugs the hell out of me. Same with A-Ha.
    A friend of mine (I made him a Bond fan) used "Licence To Kill" for his wedding waltz. It basically sounded like a threat to anyone who might have thought of putting the moves on his new bride.
    Oh, and Louis Armstrong's "We Have All The Time In The World" is just beautiful. Even Iggy Pop's version deserves a mention.

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    1. I've lost many a long-winded comment to the internet ether - I know how that one goes all too well.

      I think from the feedback I've received on this that my high votes for "TMWTGG" and "Moonraker" (and my low one for "Another Way to Die" and midtable-one for "You Know My Name") have been the most disagreed with. Which fits my real-life-conversations on the topic pretty well. (The ladies all seem to go with "A View to a Kill." Scientist should study this. Preferably atop a remote privately-owned mountain in the Alps with an appropriate cross-section of participants.)

      What do you think of that Ventures version of "TMWTGG," though? Is it a worthwhile swagger or just supermarket background? I can see the latter, but I love it.

      Chapeau on your friend's choice of wedding waltz - nicely done.

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