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Sunday, August 3, 2008

Ranking The Theme Songs

Well, it's time to officially put my neck on the line, as I rank ALL of the James Bond theme songs. Before anyone attacks me as having no taste:

A) Well, you're probably right. I freely admit that I'm a musical idiot.
B) As always, this is just a catalogue of my tastes, not some absolute declaration of musical quality. There are few bad songs here, but some decent ones are ranked lower because, while good, don't meet up with what I think are the requirements to be a good Bond theme song.
C) Said requirements include, but are not limited to: appropriateness for the genre, ability to be used well in the film's score, memorability...it's not an exact science, there's no formula, and I can't promise that I've applied these all consistently.
D) I do not include "The James Bond Theme." It only covered 1/3 of the credits in Dr. No, and of course has become so iconic that there's no way it wouldn't win. Call it a Hall Of Fame member.
E) Casino Royale (1967), being a "comedy," is not included on the list. While I like the theme song, it's a comedy theme song, not a spy movie theme song, so it would be comparing apples and oranges. Never Say Never, which desperately wanted to be a "real" Bond movie, is included.
F) As with all the other rankings I'll be throwing up here, this is just a snapshot of 2008. My (and society's) tastes shift, some things age well and some badly. This list looks different than the last time I did it, and will look different again a few years from now. Hell, it looks different than 5 minutes ago, as I re-arranged some things twice while typing this up...

OK, I've covered my ass enough. Let the kvetching begin!!

21) Never Say Never Again (Lani Hall)--Ouch. After spending a gazillion dollars to get Sean Connery on board, you'd think they would have spent a few bucks on a song that didn't sound like it came from a generic 1985 romantic comedy or sitcom. Yuck.

20) The Man With the Golden Gun (Lulu)--A vapid attempt to forge a Bond song from elements that were successful elsewhere. Lulu is no Shirley.

19)From Russia With Love (Matt Monro)--A decent tune, but Monro's syrupy vocals turn what should be an exotic evocation of globe-trotting into a sappy crooner. They didn't play his vocals over the opening credits for a reason...

18)Moonraker (Shirley Bassey)--Third time was not the charm for Shirley. Granted, it must have been tough to come up with a good song for the title, but this is Shirley's weakest performance to boot.

17) "All Time High"--Octopussy (Rita Coolidge)--Demerits for not including the movie's title in the song (although that seems to be the new trend). An attempt to capture the style of "Nobody Does It Better," but it's not a Bond song at all--it's not about the plot, not about Bond, not about the girl, the villain, the action--it's just a generic (albeit not completely terrible) love ballad.

16) The Living Daylights (a-Ha)--The perils of trying to be trendy. Sometimes it works, sometimes you pick a one-hit wonder who deserved to be. The thready vocals, weak syntho-pop, and lame lyrics confirm that it was the video for "Take On Me" that made the band a hit, not their music. No Duran Duran here...

15) The World Is Note Enough (Garbage)--I like Garbage. I like Shirley Manson. And while I'm listening to the song, I like it. But it's not memorable at all--when it's not playing I just can't remember how the damn thing goes! Like many of the David Arnold era, it's not different enough from the others.

14) License to Kill (Gladys Knight)--One of those I can never make up my mind about. Sounds great while listening to it, but fades from the mind very quickly after consumption. And the chorus doesn't fit comfortably with the rest of the song...

13) Tomorrow Never Dies (Sheryl Crow)--Not bad. Suffers from the fatal defect of being infinitely poorer than the alternate title track by k.d. lang that ran over the end credits. And the chorus is overly-histrionic when her voice simply can't handle that. Sorry, Alex.

12) You Only Live Twice (Nancy Sinatra)--Great, lush melody, used excellently in the film...but Nancy's voice isn't up to the challenge.

11) Goldeneye (Tina Turner)--I wish I could rank this one higher than I do, but it's starting to get tough. Sadly, it's in the movie with the worst score known to modern man, so the song's virtues quickly get burned out of your brain by the terror that is Eric Serra.

10) Live and Let Die (Paul McCartney & Wings)--I'm not as high on this as nearly everyone else is. To quote from my review of the movie: "It's too schizophrenic for my tastes, less than the sum of its discordant parts... it feels like somebody jammed "Man With the Golden Gun" and "Nobody Does It Better" together, but didn't bother to thoroughly blend them. Individually the parts work...together, not so much."

9) "You Know My Name"--Casino Royale (2006) (Chris Cornell)--This damn song grows on me the more I listen to it. I've never cared much for Chris Cornell in any of his bands, it doesn't use the film title, it was a real dick move not to allow it on the movie soundtrack CD--there are a lot of reasons I shouldn't rate it this high. But there it is. Goddammit, it's a good song.
8) Diamonds Are Forever (Shirley Bassey)--Perhaps the most underrated Bond theme. Overshadowed by "Goldfinger," but just listens to Shirley's vocals, the throbbing bass line...sensuous and strangely enthralling.

7) Thunderball (Tom Jones)--You have to respect a song when the guy faints trying to sing it. So over the top that it's a perfect fit for it's movie, both in the credits and throughout the movie.

6) Die Another Day (Madonna)--OK, I'll admit I'm a Madonna fan, so maybe my tastes are colored here. And I know the electronica-lite isn't for everyone. But once you get past that intro, there's an attempt to do something really different, to break out of the mold that had other Bond themes of the era sounding more-or-less interchangeable. And it works perfectly in concert with what they're trying to do over the opening credits. An idiosyncratic choice to put it this high, but one I'm sticking with.

5) "Nobody Does It Better"--The Spy Who Loved Me (Carly Simon)--One of those songs that you constantly take for granted, forgetting how good it is until you actually listen to it again. I do wish that it had used the title more than once as a throwaway, but that's it's only weakness.

4) For Your Eyes Only (Sheena Easton)--Haunting and gorgeous. Practically perfect.

3) On Her Majesty's Secret Service (John Barry)--The days of instrumentals for Bond films are long gone (what, someone can't give Moby a shot?), but it's hard to see why. A great, great, GREAT spy movie instrumental, circling around itself again and again while never repeating. And now it's stuck in my head again for the next two weeks.

2) A View To A Kill (Duran Duran)--Yes, I'm serious. This is one freakin' awesomely good song, the first attempt at a "modern" Bond theme, as John Barry unexpectedly drags the franchise musically into the 1980s (especially surprising after the Beach Boys in the teaser). And hell, just listen to Simon LeBon emote! Plastic Soul at it's finest.

1) Goldfinger (Shirley Bassey)--No surprise. The ur-Bond theme song, surely already existing in our race memory and merely plucked forth by Bassey and Barry and Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley. As responsible as anything else for the popularity of the Bond franchise. Seriously.

Well, there it is. Have at me...


  1. Re: "The Living Daylights": I agree that it's not that good a song, but a-ha is only a "one hit wonder" if you take into consideration their American success. They're actually a huge group in Europe, and they're still together, believe it or not -- they have an album coming out later this year.

    As for the rest, I'd have a hard time ranking them, since I pretty much like every Bond song (excepting Madonna's, which I admire for doing something new but wasn't to my taste, and Lulu's, which just isn't good and with silly lyrics: "Love is required/whenever he's hired/he comes just before the kill!" That may be one of the worst double entendres in the entire Bond corpus, and it comes in the song, fer Chrissakes!).

    "All Time High" is a favorite of mine, for some reason. I also like "Moonraker" and "Licence to Kill" more than you, apparently. And "Thunderball" is a hoot in its attempt, along with everything else in that movie, to out-do "Goldfinger", right down to the song, where you can hear poor Tom Jones pass out at the end from lack of breath on that high note. (What does it mean to "strike like Thunderball", anyway?!)

  2. Pretty good ranking except that I'd rate a-ha way higher. Like in the Top Four. But I'm a big a-ha fan.

  3. I pretty much agree with your ranking, though I might have rated YOLT and LALD (surprise) a bit higher and FYEO and DAD a little lower. And I like VTAK, but I don't know about it being number 2, or ranking it above OHMSS.

    And a-ha deserves the scorn for dissing John Barry.

  4. What's wrong with Lulu's TMWTGG? It's one of the best Bond songs (yes, there is someone who likes it).

    And I deeply despise Duran Duran (too 80's for me). Otherwise a great list.

  5. One day I'll convince you that Live and Let Die's schizoid nature is PERFECT. But today is not that day.

  6. Gotta say, MOONRAKER is one of my favorites. (The song, that is. Not the movie. Good Lord, no.) It has a dreamy feel to the melody and a gorgeous arrangement. Bassey's vocals might be just a bit too strident to do it full justice--imagine Lena Horne crooning it. True, it's a bit mellow for a Bond theme, but a terrific song nonetheless.

  7. "(too 80's for me)"?! That's like saying "Ice cream is too tasty!"
    Duran Duran's theme to AVTAK stands up well, I say.

  8. A couple of years ago, to coincide with the release of Casino Royale, Channel 4 in the UK broadcast a TV programme ranking the theme songs in a similar way. It was worth watching for the interviews, such as Vic Flick's comments on his guitar playing on the James Bond Theme.

    Just for a change, someone should do a list like this featuring just the SECONDARY Bond themes... how would "Surrender" fare against "Underneath the Mango Tree" I wonder? :)

    As for your list: first of all, great choice putting OHMSS so high! The Propellerheads' version is good too.

    The main ones I'd rank higher than you did are From Russia with Love (yes it's syrupy crooning, but I like the melody), TMWTGG, The Living Daylights and Tomorrow Never Dies (I haven't heard Pulp's version of it).

    Agree that TLD and TWINE are decent enough but rather forgettable, that Moonraker is the worst of Shirley Bassey's themes, and that Diamonds Are Forever is underrated... apparently the Arctic Monkeys would agree!

    I'm really not keen on Die Another Day, although I suppose you're right about it fitting with the images on screen (and not just in the sense that it's supposed to be torture). ;)

    Out of interest, what do you think of Moby's version of the James Bond theme? Or will you get to that in your TND review? I saw a live version of it on TV where he added lyrics to it (lyrics from, of all things, a rap song I only knew from a Tony Hawk videogame), which was a bit weird but very good.

    And also, does anyone else think that "Play Dead" by Björk (featuring David Arnold!) is the best James Bond film theme that's not actually in a James Bond film? :)

    11) Goldeneye (Tina Turner)--I wish I could rank this one higher than I do, but it's starting to get tough. Sadly, it's in the movie with the worst score known to modern man, so the song's virtues quickly get burned out of your brain by the terror that is Eric Serra.

    Ah, a sneak preview what you're going to write about GoldenEye in a couple of months' time! I suppose I should leave this till your main GoldenEye post, but I can't resist...

    I like Serra's score. And I don't think it's just because Graeme Norgate's music for the N64 game seemed to take quite a lot from it in terms of rhythm and instrumentation (echoey kettle drums(?) in the Facility mission for example).

    C'mon, don't you even care for that catchy bit in the final action scene on the antenna cradle? (Someone's put the OST on YouTube: I mean the bit about 30 seconds into this.)

  9. Oooh! I know I posted far too many Youtube links in that post, but I can't resist two more:

    I think we have a new #1!

    It's by Joe Cornish, of Adam and Joe... Adam Buxton's is also great, but lacks the video. :(

  10. I'd be able to see your LALD criticism, "... it feels like somebody jammed 'Man With the Golden Gun" and "Nobody Does It Better' together" if LALD hadn't been recorded before both of the other two songs.

  11. I was referring to the songs style and effect, Dr. Zoom, not its origins.

  12. Nice ranking, I don't have much to add. I agree with other comments that a-ha is only a one-hit wonder in the US, but I wouldn't really rate it any higher. My one negative is the Madonna song - what a miss. While being a good Madonna song, she clearly missed out on what it means to write a BOND song. It has nothing to do with Bond as far as the song itself goes, I was told that the producers asked her to listen to all older scores which she clearly didn't do. Pure self-indulgence on her part.

  13. wow - to me Live and Let Die is the definitive Bond theme song. It has it all - "give the otha fella hell!!!" Spy Who Loved Me has to be #2. All other songs fight for #'s 3 thru whatever. Come on - Paul McCartney not #1? Seriously?

  14. How can you say that the GoldenEye score is terrible? At least it have hints of John Barryish parts like the Severnaya theme, also Ladies First and We Share the Same Passion. And of all the theme songs out there, GoldenEye has got to be the worst. Just listen to the chorus. Just jam as many words as you can in it.

  15. excuse me? a-ha as a one hit wonder? please do your research before insulting such a fine, distinguished band. their music, talent, and popularity was what prompted the producers to team with them for the living daylights theme. they are the only non-us/uk artist to have ever done a james bond theme! although they are considered to only have one hit song in the us, they are regarded as a great successful band worldwide.