A James Bond theme is a curious thing. Sometimes, these soundtrack-topping songs take the shape of grungy rock tracks. Occasionally, they thrum with the high-beat intensity of electro pop. And at other, calmer times, they sit softly on beds of sweeping strings. But they always — without doubt, question or exception — sound like Bond.
They call to mind scantily-clad silhouettes, twisting and twirling on the barrels of giant guns. They conjure up that short-of-breath thrill of cinematic action and adventure. They can even fuel nostalgia — if the lyrics, melody and performance come together in the right way.
Of course, sometimes they don’t. For every hit, there’s a miss — and we’ve spent time trawling through and listening to every single Bond theme to identify the efforts that best found that brooding, dynamic, raspy-trumpet sweet spot. This is the definitive ranking of every attempt at a James Bond theme, from Shirley Bassey to Sam Smith…
#24 Die Another Day, by Madonna
How does it rank? Badly. Pierce Brosnan’s last Bond film opens with 007 being tortured in Korea — a montage during which he is subjected to drowning, abuse and poisoning-by-scorpion. If you fancy knowing how that feels, stick Madonna’s abject track on.
Where did it peak in the UK charts? Somehow, despite the stuttering vocals and highly-charged electroclash sound, it made it to No.3 in the charts. At the time, critical reception was mixed. In retrospect; dreadful.
Best (or worst) lyric? “Sigmund Freud / Analyse this / Analyse this / Analyse this”
#23 Writing’s on the Wall, by Sam Smith
How does it rank? Sam Smith once boasted that he wrote ‘Writing’s on the Wall’ in under half an hour. It sounds like it. Adele’s ‘Skyfall’ was always going to be a tough act to follow, but this whingy track doesn’t sound like Smith even tried.
Where did it peak in the UK charts? Unfathomably, Smith’s effort made it to No.1. It also managed to swing the Academy Award for Best Original Song (although, up against Fifty Shades of Grey, it was a particularly weak year in the category).
Best (or worst) lyric? “I want to feel love, run through my blood / Tell me is this where I give it all up?”
#22 The Living Daylights, by A-ha
How does it rank? This is an odd one. The first fifteen seconds are full of promise, energy and the requisite raspy trumpets for a Bond theme. But it fades into mediocrity — and isn’t catchy, exciting or memorable.
Where did it peak in the UK charts? Thanks perhaps to the success of ‘Take On Me’, A-ha’s attempt made it to No.5 in the charts. It’s a modest, inoffensive effort — and one that was lumbered with a bad film title before the Norwegian boys even got started.
Best (or worst) lyric? “Hey driver, where we going? / I swear my nerves are showing”
#21 Tomorrow Never Dies, by Sheryl Crow
How does it rank? Not well — mainly out of spite. Because, originally, k.d. lang wrote the theme song to Tomorrow Never Dies. And her track (relegated to the end credits) is much, much better. It’s like a modern spin on a classic Bassey theme. Crow’s attempt pales in comparison.
Where did it peak in the UK charts? At an unimpressive No.12 — which makes it the worst-ranking Bond theme of the last 38 years. k.d lang’s theme wasn’t ever released as a single — but would almost certainly have cracked the top ten.
Best (or worst) lyric? “I’m in a puddle on the floor / Waiting for you to return”
#20 Another Way to Die, by Jack White & Alicia Keys
How does it rank? Uneasily. ‘Another Way to Die’, written by White, is a guilty pleasure of ours. Tonally, it’s all over the place — and doesn’t work as a Bond theme. But it’s a rough, tough song that fits the film it soundtracks. And who would have wanted a song called ‘Quantum of Solace’ anyway?
Where did it peak in the UK charts? The staccato piano and swelling brass pushed it to No.9. It’s not a brilliant performance — but it did manage to hit the top spot in Sweden’s charts. So that’s something.
Best (or worst) lyric? “Another ringer with the slick trigger finger / For Her Majesty”
#19 Moonraker, by Shirley Bassey
How does it rank? The first of Bassey’s three entries here doesn’t make it too far up the list. Why? Because it’s unbelievably average. If you can sing the melody without pressing play above, we’ll applaud you.
Where did it peak in the UK charts? Nowhere. It wasn’t released as a single — which speaks to its sheer mundanity. At least it features the tricky title of the film, but that’s all this bland effort has going for it.
Best (or worst) lyric? “Just like the Moonraker knows his dream will come true someday”
#18 All Time High, by Rita Coolidge
How does it rank? We have a love/hate relationship with Rita Coolidge’s Bond theme. It works for Octopussy — inoffensively scoring Roger Moore’s penultimate 007 film. But hear it out of context and it fails to make an impression.
Where did it peak in the UK charts? It failed to make an impression with audiences, too. ‘All Time High’, for all its lofty aspirations, peaked at a devastatingly low No.75 in the UK charts — despite featuring lyrics by Tim Rice.
Best (or worst) lyric? “We’ll take on the world and win / So hold on tight, let the flight begin”
#17 The Man with the Golden Gun, by Lulu
How does it rank? It’s a little bit too funky for its own good, this one. Lulu barks her vocals, trying to raise her voice above a wildly improvisational trumpet and what sounds like an accident in a xylophone factory.
Where did it peak in the UK charts? Again, it was never released as a single. But that’s probably for the best; all those speed, style and volume changes do not a hit make.
Best (or worst) lyric? “He has a powerful weapon / He charges a million a shot”
#16 We Have All the Time in the World, by Louis Armstrong
How does it rank? Not as highly as it probably should. But the problem with Armstrong’s attempt — the theme to On Her Majesty’s Secret Service — is that it doesn’t work as a 007 theme. It’s beautiful; but it’s not Bond.
Where did it peak in the UK charts? At No.3, which is unsurprising considering Armstrong’s talent, popularity and wonderfully gravelly voice. This is one of the best standalone songs on this list — if not for that trumpet solo alone.
Best (or worst) lyric? “Every step of the way will find us / With the cares of the world far behind us”
#15 The World Is Not Enough, by Garbage
How does it rank? Not too badly. Garbage deliver on their bombastic promise of an orchestral opening, and approach the lyrics with a novel idea: the song tells the story of the film from the viewpoint of antagonist Elektra King.
Where did it peak in the UK charts? Brosnan’s penultimate Bond theme only made it to No.11 in the UK charts. It’s something of a snub for the track — which, although not achieving iconic status, did its job well back in the 90s.
Best (or worst) lyric? “There’s no point in living / If you can’t feel alive”
#14 GoldenEye, by Tina Turner
How does it rank? Surprisingly low. But Tina Turner’s take on a Bond theme simply isn’t as good as it should be. Written by Bono and performed with gusto, it’s even got good lyrics — but is less than the sum of its parts.
Where did it peak in the UK charts? Even with the buzz around a new Bond, Turner’s track only clawed its way to No.10 in the charts. Contemporary criticism suggested that it sounded ‘too familiar’ to make an impression.
Best (or worst) lyric? “Goldeneye no time for sweetness / But a bitter kiss will bring him to his knees”
#13 No Time to Die, by Billie Eilish
How does it rank? The latest Bond theme lacks trumpets. That sounds like a silly criticism, but Bond takes his brass seriously. It’s moody enough for Daniel Craig’s swan song, no doubt — but it won’t go down in history as one of the franchise’s finest tracks.
Where did it peak in the UK charts? Another chart-topping effort, Eilish’s brooding ballad hit No.1 — but stayed there only for a week. It did, however, become the second Bond theme to win an Oscar.
Best (or worst) lyric? “Fool me once, fool me twice / Are you death or paradise?”
#12 Licence to Kill, by Gladys Knight
How does it rank? Now we’re getting somewhere. Gladys Knight’s emphatic entry to the Bond theme canon is criminally overlooked. It’s passionate, sweeping and — most importantly — sounds like a proper 007 track.
Where did it peak in the UK charts? At a commendable No.6. It was Knight’s last solo charting single; a triumphant blend of orchestral instrumentation, modern synthesisers and assertive percussion.
Best (or worst) lyric? “Say that somebody tries to make a move on you / In the blink of an eye, I’ll be there too”
#11 Diamonds Are Forever, by Shirley Bassey
How does it rank? Another track that could, very easily, be much higher up this list. Had it come before ‘Goldfinger’, it likely would be. So why is it so low? Because, rather than having the originality and jolt of Bassey’s first theme, it plays it safe by sticking to a proven formula.
Where did it peak in the UK charts? At an undeservedly low No.38. The charmingly springy guitar, Bassey’s textbook delivery and the clean, sweeping strings should have made the top ten — at the very least.
Best (or worst) lyric? “Sparkling ’round my little finger / Unlike men, the diamonds linger”
#10 You Only Live Twice, by Nancy Sinatra
How does it rank? It’s nudging greatness, this one. Because, while the vocals and song itself settle into a less-than-exciting rhythm, those grand opening bars make up perhaps the most magnetic, memorable motif on this list.
Where did it peak in the UK charts? At a respectable No.11. Audiences particularly loved the lyrics, with The Telegraph describing them as “mysterious, romantically carpe diem — at once velvety, brittle and quite bewitching”.
Best (or worst) lyric? “And love is a stranger who’ll beckon you on / Don’t think of the danger or the stranger is gone”
#9 For Your Eyes Only, by Sheena Easton
How does it rank? Pretty well — considering it doesn’t properly get going until over two full minutes in. But Sheena Easton’s subtle, soft delivery is the perfect foil to Roger Moore’s plummy, lovey Bond.
Where did it peak in the UK charts? It made it to No.8 — which is something of an achievement, as this was one of the first Bond themes not to have any contribution from the franchise’s music maven, John Barry.
Best (or worst) lyric? “You can see so much in me, so much in me that’s new / I never felt until I looked at you”
#8 Thunderball, by Tom Jones
How does it rank? Musically, Tom Jones’ virile, vigorous effort is among the best tracks on this list. However, it slips a couple of places due to its lyrics. The rhymes are particularly predictable — but it does have some fabulous trumpet licks.
Where did it peak in the UK charts? Released in 1965, Jones’ Bond theme had some stiff competition — with The Beatles, The Rolling Stones and even Elvis Presley in the charts. ‘Thunderball’ made it to No.35.
Best (or worst) lyric? “He knows the meaning of success / His needs are more so he gives less”
#7 A View to a Kill, by Duran Duran
How does it rank? Divisively, we’re sure. Duran Duran’s Bond theme was released slap-bang in the middle of the 80s — and couldn’t sound more of its time if it tried. Bassist John Taylor was a lifelong Bond fan — and the guns-blazing approach and 60-piece orchestra shows he was determined to do the franchise justice.
Where did it peak in the UK charts? At No.2, where it became the highest-placing Bond theme of all time — and held that title until Adele’s ‘Skyfall’. Interestingly, it remains the only Bond theme to ever hit No.1 in the US charts.
Best (or worst) lyric? “The choice for you is the view to a kill / Between the shades assassination standing still”
#6 Nobody Does It Better, by Carly Simon
How does it rank? Among the best. One of only two Bond soundtracks to be nominated for an Oscar (the other was Skyfall), Marvin Hamlisch’s hammy title theme for The Spy Who Loved Me, sung seductively by Carly Simon, is a sumptuous 70s treat.
Where did it peak in the UK charts? At No.7 — but it should have been higher. With lyrics by Carole Bayer Sager and Hamlisch’s evocative melodies, it became the longest-charting hit of Carly Simon’s career.
Best (or worst) lyric? “Like heaven above me, the spy who loved me / Is keepin’ all my secrets safe tonight”
#5 You Know My Name, by Chris Cornell
How does it rank? Although Cornell sadly passed away in 2017, the rockstar’s enduring legacy was ensured with the release of his cracking 2006 Bond theme. Injecting gritty energy to the existing 007 theme formula, it’s an inspired action anthem.
Where did it peak in the UK charts? At No.7 — somehow managing to chart four full places lower than Madonna’s previous, disastrous Bond theme. And this one even has trumpets.
Best (or worst) lyric? “I’ve seen diamonds cut through harder men”
#4 From Russia with Love, by Matt Monro
How does it rank? On the top tier of Bond themes. Monro’s track plays over the end of Connery’s second outing as Bond, but it encapsulates the globe-trotting, suave feel of the early films. Composed by both John Barry and Monty Norman (who wrote the famous instrumental ‘James Bond Theme’), it’s a gorgeous piece of music.
Where did it peak in the UK charts? At No.20. It’s not a bad achievement — but Monty Norman’s aforementioned instrumental managed to make it higher the previous year, peaking at No.13.
Best (or worst) lyric? “From Russia with love, I fly to you / Much wiser since my goodbye to you”
#3 Goldfinger, by Shirley Bassey
How does it rank? This will be many Bond aficionado’s favourite theme. It’s like the DB5 on our list of Bond’s best cars — so iconic that we overlook any of the track’s actual flaws. There aren’t many, though, despite producer Harry Saltzman branding it “the worst f**king song I’ve ever heard in my f**king life”.
Where did it peak in the UK charts? It may be one of the most memorable tracks today — but Shirley Bassey’s raspy masterpiece only reached No.21 in the charts. In the US, it made it to No.8.
Best (or worst) lyric? “Golden words he will pour in your ear / But his lies can’t disguise what you fear”
#2 Live and Let Die, by Paul McCartney & Wings
How does it rank? Say what you want about Wings; this is an extraordinary tune. It may not be the most musically complex track, or have particularly insightful lyrics, but no other Bond theme has pervaded wider popular culture like McCartney’s effort.
Where did it peak in the UK charts? The Wings version, used over the opening credits, made it to No.9. A second version, performed by B.J. Arnau (producer Saltzman’s preferred performance) also appears in the film — but never charted.
Best (or worst) lyric? “When you got a job to do you got to do it well / You got to give the other fella hell”
#1 Skyfall, by Adele
How does it rank? At the very top. Adele understood the assignment, whipping a moody, broody ballad into a tour-de-force, climactic chorus. It’s simple, memorable and its lyrics are poetry. There’s a touch of Monty Norman’s ‘James Bond Theme’ in there and, most importantly, trumpets.
Where did it peak in the UK charts? This is a sore point. Not only was ‘Skyfall’, the best James Bond theme, kept off the top spot — peaking at No.2 — but the song that beat it out only adds insult to injury. What was it, you ask? ‘Gangnam Style’, we sadly answer.
Best (or worst) lyric? “Skyfall is where we start / A thousand miles and poles apart”
Want more Bond lists? Here’s our definitive ranking of every actor to ever play 007…
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