Every classic action film series has great music, and James Bond is no different. Over 007's 58-year history, the theme music featured at the beginning of every film has become a Bond tradition.
While the series has changed drastically, this tradition remains unaltered and is one of the greatest ways in which it stays relevant and popular in the 21st century.
Excluding any theme songs that aren't canon to the original series, here is a ranking of the Bond theme songs from weakest to best.
Unfortunately for Crow, one of the theme songs had to be ranked last. Crow had released two albums prior to joining the James Bond musical family, but she really grew in popularity following this song's release. With all due respect to Crow, who's obviously a popular country singer, "Tomorrow Never Dies" misses the mark. It doesn't have a memorable chorus other than her screeching high voice, and nothing else makes the song notable. All in all, it's a forgettable Bond theme.
When the Bond series returned with "Casino Royale" after a four-year layoff, 007 went in an entirely new direction. That's also true for the film's theme song. Cornell became the first male American to sing a Bond theme, and it was the first in the series to not share the same name as the movie since 1983. Cornell brought his grunge band and alternative rock sound to the series for the first time as well. For some, the risk might have worked, but it didn't for me, mostly due to the fact it isn't catchy enough to be a great Bond theme. And with the song title being different than that of the movie, it would have helped if Cornell said "You know my name" a little more often than just the seven straight repetitive times he screams it toward the end.
It would be unfair to say it's ironic the title theme for "The World is Not Enough" is sung by a band named Garbage, but this song is also one of the least memorable and recognizable themes in the series. It has a stronger chorus than some of the others of its era, but it doesn't have the great instrumental background needed to be a classic Bond theme. The best part of the song is probably in the second verse when the lyrics match Elektra King's quote from the film: "There's no point in living if you can't feel alive."
The cool thing about the lyrics to "The Man with the Golden Gun" is it captures the plot of the film better than any other of the theme songs. While that helps make it unique, it's also its downfall. Lulu's song is a little cheesy, and it's unrelatable outside of the Bond series. The best 007 themes transcend the series, so it doesn't make much sense to anyone listening to this song without seeing the film.
Every Bond theme song is the product of its era, but that's particularly true for "The Living Daylights." How one judges the song in 2020 is probably reflective of how they feel about pop music of the late 1980s. A-ha's sound wasn't as catchy as Duran Duran's, which hurts its standing. Overall, it's not a bad song, but it hasn't aged as well as the others.
For anyone who hates repetitive lyrics, "Die Another Day" is absolutely not the song for them. The chorus consists of Madonna repeating the line, "Die Another Day" four or five times. But the lyrics improve starting with the second verse, and the song is definitely catchy. Then again, it's partially catchy because it's so repetitive. The fact some will find it monotonous places this theme in the bottom half of our list.
On one hand, it's tough seeing this song ranked so low. John Barry, who composed the soundtracks for 12 of the first 15 films in the series, was a brilliant musical mind, and his "On Her Majesty's Secret Service" theme might be his crowning achievement. But as a Bond theme, the fact it doesn't have lyrics hurts it on any list of the best and most recognizable themes in the series. As great as this song it, the competitive disadvantage is too great to have it ranked high.
It's honestly not really fair to judge the new Bond theme up against songs 007 fans have been hearing, in some cases, for decades. Bond themes tend to grow on listeners with time, and this song is just too new for that to have happened. Furthermore, it's difficult to grade a song without knowing the full plot and themes of the film. But we do know from listening to it already that it's not at the bottom of the barrel, and it's not an instant classic. It will be easier to truly grade the song a year from now.
The second Bond theme to differ in name from the movie title, it's pretty obvious Coolidge tried to imitate "Nobody Does It Better" from "The Spy Who Loved Me." Both are love songs during an era of 007 where sleeping around was, shall we say, at an all-time high. Coolidge's lyrics and instrumental beautifully mix together, but it's not quite as special as some of the others from its era.
The only duet in Bond theme song history, Key and White's "Another Way to Die" is one of the most underrated title songs in the series. With Key's pop voice and White's rock instrumental, the song has a little bit for everyone. The lyrics also seem to accurately portray how women in the series feel about men like 007. That was the start of a trend in 2008. "Another Way to Die" probably isn't more popular because it doesn't have an easy-to-sing chorus, and its title differs from the name of the film.
Another one of the truly underrated title themes, Knight's voice invokes memories of some of the other female voices in the early themes, yet the instrumental in "License to Kill" gives the song a 1980s feel. The chorus is catchy and maybe a little repetitive, but the lyrics are much better than most of the other 1980s Bond themes. If there are any major weaknesses to this song, it's a little long. It runs at 5:15, which makes it the most lengthy theme of the series.
All three of Bassey's title themes capture the essence of each film. With "Moonraker," her high-toned voice and soft musical notes give the listener the feeling of actually being in space. "Moonraker" is the least memorable of Bassey's three themes, but the other two are classics. This one is not at the same level, but it's a beautiful song.
Speaking of capturing the essence of a film, "You Only Live Twice" does that perfectly. The background music sounds like it may be from traditional Japanese musical instruments, which works well since the film largely takes place in Japan. This song is also notable because Sinatra was the first example of a budding star going to even newer heights after performing a Bond theme. Most don't consider "You Only Live Twice" quite up to the standards of the most classic Bond themes, but it's a beautiful song.
Like many Turner songs, "Goldeneye" seems to get better every time one listens to it. The song is upbeat and catchy with gold-like sounds coming from strings and horns. It sounds like a Bond theme, and yet is an exciting original piece of 1990s art. In that way, it exactly mirrors the movie. If readers want to argue "Goldeneye" should be ranked in the top 10, I wouldn't necessarily disagree.
Even better than A-ha's "The Living Daylights," Duran Duran's title song captures the essence of the 1980s. The song emphasizes its loudness and synthesizing sound over the lyrics, which honestly, don't really make much sense. The weak lyrics make this a difficult song to place on the list, and from a musical perspective, it's not as strong as quite a few of the songs ranked lower. However, it remains the only Bond theme to reach No. 1 on the U.S. chart, and it climbed to No. 2 in the U.K. It's arguably the most popular 007 theme ever, and it will remain a treasure to any 1980s music fan.
The title theme in "From Russia with Love" has no lyrics, but the song with lyrics appears in the film during the end credits, and with them, the song is one of the best themes of the series. The lyrics don't have much to do with the plot, but the song's success proved love stories in Bond themes could work well. Monro's voice with the Russian influence in the instrumentals combine to make the first great 007 theme song about love.
The screaming horns and Jones' powerful voice make for a lethal combination, giving the series another memorable title theme in the 1960s. Thunderball's lyrics give the song a double meaning, as the man described in it could be either Bond or primary antagonist Emilio Largo. As such, listeners probably don't relate to it as well in their everyday lives. However, it's hard to think of a title theme that captures the essence of the series better than "Thunderball."
With its lyrics about preferring diamonds over love, this song is hard for the male Bond fans to sing. Nevertheless, it's a wonderful theme. Again, Bassey's voice and the instrumentals mix together to give the song a spacious aura, which fits the diamond and space (both in Las Vegas and outer space) themes in the film. It wasn't popular on the billboard top 100, but "Diamonds Are Forever" belongs in the top 10 on this list.
There have been some popular Bond theme songs over the years, but Smith's "Writing's on the Wall" became the first title theme in the series' history to hit No. 1 on the U.K. singles chart. It isn't hard to see why. The lyrics are relatable to both listeners' everyday lives and the Bond series, as Smith's chorus says "I've spent a lifetime running, and I always get away, but with you I'm feeling something that makes me want to stay." The rest of his chorus is just as poetic, and Smith's high vocals work really well with the background piano.
It doesn't get much more classic than "Goldfinger." The lyrics and screaming horns and strings almost give the listener the feeling of touching gold. Then the imagery of the song multiplies with the way words such as "finger," "touch," "web," and "death" roll off Bassey's tongue. She "killed" this song so well that the series brought her back to sing two more themes. She's the only artist to perform multiple Bond title theme; she did three.
The first title theme to not share the same name with the film, the success of this song probably gave the series creators false hope that future title themes with different names could be just as popular. Simon's voice and the piano give this song an aquatic feel, which is perfectly in line with the themes of "The Spy Who Loved Me." Like the other very successful and popular 007 themes, the lyrics of "Nobody Does It Better" relate to the movie and to the everyday life of the listener. To land this high on this list, the song has to transcend the series. Simon helped that to happen with this piece of art.
"For Your Eyes Only" is another film with a heavy emphasis on underwater adventure. That's again perfectly captured in Easton's love song. Her high-pitched voice is reminiscent of a lot of other themes in the series, but her vocals and the high-noted musical instruments combine to make a truly beautiful tune that again is relatable to both a Bond and music fan.
No Bond theme has transcended the series over the last 40 years quite like Adele's "Skyfall." Just like "Writing's on the Wall," the lyrics of "Skyfall" capture the essence of Craig's Bond and has helped the recent 007 films argue why the series is still relevant. "Skyfall" reached No. 8 in the U.S. and became the first theme since "A View to a Kill" to climb to No. 2 in the U.K. With the popularity of Adele in 2012 and the beauty of this piece of art, it's likely that even music fans who have never seen a Bond film will recognize this song.
From a popularity perspective in Bond themes, it doesn't get much bigger than "Live and Let Die." While it peaked at No. 2 and No. 9 on the U.S. and U.K. Top 100 charts, "Live and Let Die" remains recognizable for any music fans almost 50 years after the film's release. The song itself plays with ones emotions, going from slow and beautiful to fast and chaotic multiple times. Forget Bond themes, the bum bum bum, bum bum bum, bum bum rift is one of the most famous in rock and roll history. McCartney, one of the greatest musicians of all time, continues to play this song at his concerts today. Without a doubt, the fact a member of The Beatles wrote this song helped its popularity, but still, it's the unquestioned top theme in Bond history.
Dave Holcomb began working as a sports writer in 2013 after graduating from Syracuse University. Over the past six years, he has covered the NFL, NHL, MLB, fantasy sports, college football and basketball, and New Jersey high school sports for numerous print and online publications. Follow Holcomb on Twitter at @dmholcomb.