My first experience with James Bond that I can remember was watching Tomorrow Never Dies in theaters as a 7-year-old with my dad, brother and aunt. Later that year, I was given a Best of Bond CD featuring every theme from Dr. No to Tomorrow Never Dies. Two years later, I saw The World is Not Enough in theaters, too (and every Bond since). Between that and Die Another Day, my friend David and I — whose dad also introduced him to James Bond — watched every Bond film from the library during our Friday-night sleepovers and talked about the themes like they were hallowed classics.
There’s still a part of me that feels that way about them. I once tortured Aly on a three-hour car ride by making her listen to all 24 (at the time) Bond theme songs while occasionally asking what she thought. Nick Rogers once wrote a ranking like this. He was wrong, of course, and unfortunately for him, he couldn’t import it over to Midwest Film Journal before I got to put my own stamp on the Bond-fan tradition of arbitrarily listing these tie-in pop songs from worst to best.
I am not including John Barry’s classic James Bond theme even though it was technically the theme to Dr. No first. I am also representing On Her Majesty’s Secret Service with Louis Armstrong’s “We Have All the Time in the World” rather than Barry’s incredible orchestral score.
Let’s do this.
#24: “Another Way to Die“
Quantum of Solace (2008)
Performed by Jack White & Alicia Keys
Is just another (hey!) / Is just another / You got to d-d-die! / Is just another (tell ’em, baby) / Woah!
Insofar as most Bond themes capture the film they accompany, “Another Way to Die’s” dysfunctional pairing of Alicia Keys and Jack White is a pretty appropriate reflection of the mess that is Quantum of Solace. Although it’s gained some proponents in recent years, they’re all wrong. Quantum is a messy movie born from the union of an immovable deadline and a writer’s strike that left audiences with the lamest possible follow-up to 2006’s Casino Royale. Little did we know the film-to-film swing between “great” and “awful” would become a pattern in the Daniel Craig era of the character. Anyway, the best Bond songs are the ones that become earworms and fondly fill your head with memories of a movie you enjoyed (advertising!), and “Another Way to Die” is the song you “accidentally” leave off your Spotify Bond playlist.
#23: “Writing’s on the Wall“
Performed by Sam Smith
How do I live? How do I breathe? / When you’re not here, I’m suffocating / I want to feel love run through my blood / Tell me is this where I give it all up?
The Craig era had two all-time great Bond films (and songs, as you’ll see later). It also had two — maybe three — all-time bad ones. The songs for these movies correlate pretty perfectly with their rankings as films to me, although Quantum of Solace is marginally more palatable than Spectre, which is when the wheels really fell off the “most human” Bond. If Quantum was a letdown of epic proportions, Spectre was kind of just a resignation to the reality that both Casino Royale and Skyfall were franchise exceptions rather than new rules. Spectre tried to follow Skyfall’s gritty emotional dive into Bond’s past with even more weird origin revelations and whining about ghosts than its predecessor, becoming more and more contrived as it progressed. Director Sam Mendes fucked up so spectacularly that Craig demanded a hiatus from the role. If the movie was bad in comparison, though, the theme song was somehow even worse. “Writing’s on the Wall” lets Sam Smith croon utterly inane lyrics that feel like they were written in 30 minutes after watching the teaser trailer. Sure, corny lyrics are part and parcel with the subject we’re dissecting, but never has a vocalist been so poorly matched with the song itself. There’s no hook, no mood. In the film, Bond has needles inserted into his ears to fuck up his balance forever; might as well have been earbuds with this song playing.
#22: “The Man with the Golden Gun“
The Man with the Golden Gun (1974)
Performed by Lulu
Love is required whenever he’s hired / It comes just before the kill / No one can catch him, no hitman can match him / For his million-dollar skill
What more can be written about Lulu’s radio hit? It belongs to Roger Moore’s worst entry in the franchise that just so happens to include one of his best villains, Christopher Lee’s Francisco Scaramanga. The song is full of euphemisms and keeps a good beat. I actually like this song a lot. This is where the rankings generally become songs I like, ranked in order of how frequently I listen to them.
#21: “No Time to Die“
No Time to Die (2021)
Performed by Billie Eilish
I let it burn / You’re no longer my concern / Faces from my past return / Another lesson yet to learn
“No Time to Die” has the same problems as “Writing’s On the Wall,” except it succeeds in capturing the feeling of its movie and thus I rank it a little higher. Like the movie, this song is pretty fucking boring.
#20: “Licence to Kill“
Licence to Kill (1989)
Performed by Gladys Knight
Got a licence to kill (to kill) / And you know I’m going straight for your heart / (Got a licence to kill) / Anyone who tries to tear us apart
I don’t … look. I don’t have anything insightful to say about this one. I’ve just never really cared for it or the movie, for that matter. They’re both fine.
#19: “Die Another Day“
Die Another Day (2002)
Performed by Madonna
Sigmund Freud, analyze this / Analyze this / Analyze this, this, this, this
Die Another Day, on the other hand, is a song I find as funny and charming as the movie of the same name. The song is terrible — while the film, on the other hand, is a top-tenner — but it’s so outrageously awful. Madonna came to the franchise a good decade too late. She wasn’t matched with a film or a song that met her talents nor was she at a career-high when she finally agreed to do it. “Die Another Day” is such a dire song that EON gave up on forcing artists to work around the title of the film in their songs for a decade.
#18: “Tomorrow Never Dies“
Tomorrow Never Dies (1997)
Performed by Sheryl Crow
Darling, I’m kill
That “kill” has always bothered me. People just make fun of me when I write word wrong
#17: “From Russia With Love“
From Russia With Love (1963)
Performed by Matt Monro
I’ve seen places, faces / And smile for a moment / But, oh, you haunted me so
I mean, it’s pretty good. I often hum it on the toilet.
Performed by Tina Turner
GoldenEye, no time for sweetness / But a bitter kiss will bring him to his knees
Boring, but also the only one Aly actually seemed to dig, so what the fuck do I know?
#15: “Diamonds Are Forever“
Diamonds Are Forever (1971)
Performed by Shirley Bassey
Diamonds are forever, hold one up and then caress it / Touch it, stroke it and undress it / I can see ev’ry part, nothing hides in the heart to hurt me
One time when I was 10 or so, I sang along to the entirety of this song from memory on a car ride with some friends. I’m not sure why I did that. Kids are really stupid. Anyway, I like this song. Shirley Bassey is indisputably the queen of the franchise, and I wish her song “No Good About Goodbye” really was an alternate theme for Quantum of Solace because it rocks. Diamonds Are Forever may well be my least favorite Bond film, but the song is pretty catchy and fun to return to from time to time.
#14: “Live and Let Die“
Live and Let Die (1973)
Performed by Paul McCartney and Wings
You know you did, you know you did, you know you did
I accept the notion that Paul was the most talented Beatle and I was really into Wings as a kid. But this one has never done it for me. The film is also very boring.
Performed by Tom Jones
His days of asking are all gone / His fight goes on and on and on / But he thinks that the fight is worth it all / So he strikes like Thunderball …
Frankly, I can’t think of Tom Jones without also remembering the ending to Tim Burton’s Mars Attacks! Thunderball has an incredible poster and the song is relaxing, but those aliens really scared me as a kid and it is very difficult to let go of that fear.
#12: “The World is Not Enough“
The World is Not Enough (1999)
Performed by Garbage
People like us / Know how to survive / There’s no point in living / If you can’t feel alive
This song was stuck in my head for most of 1999, but it turns out I never knew the lyrics to it. I still don’t really know the lyrics to it. I’m never going to learn the lyrics to it. I can’t learn lyrics. But I can still sing gibberish, which is kind of how I’d also describe Michael Apted’s The World is Not Enough.
#11: “The Living Daylights“
The Living Daylights (1987)
Performed by a-ha
Comes the morning and the headlights fade away / Hundred thousand people, I’m the one they frame / Oh-oh-oh, the living daylights
“The Living Daylights” is a pretty sweet song by a band my Aunt Lynda told me was pretty cool before my generation rediscovered them as a meme. I like the way EON hired a-ha because they had so much success with Duran Duran’s “A View to a Kill,” which was a much better song than this. I don’t know why I ranked this at #11. Fact is, I listen to this song all the time. Has a good beat to it. I really like the random sighing and wailing and stuff. It’s great.
#10: “You Only Live Twice”
You Only Live Twice (1967)
Performed by Nancy Sinatra
You only live twice, or so it seems / One life for yourself, and one for your dreams / You drift through the years and life seems tame / Till one dream appears and love is its name
Thing is: This song really fucks. So does the film. Even though both of them are pretty orientalist in their nature. I guess the song gets away with it more than the film, which features Sean Connery disguising himself as a Japanese man. Yeesh!
#9: “For Your Eyes Only“
For Your Eyes Only (1981)
Performed by Sheena Easton
For your eyes only, only for you / You see what no one else can see, and now I’m breaking free / For your eyes only, only for you / The passions that collide in me, the wild abandoned side of me / Only for you, for your eyes only
Back in my bookseller days, I briefly had a store manager who was a real jerk. But he respected me more after I told him one day to lick a raccoon’s dick. That respect was a double-edged sword. One time, he called me into the office to ask my favorite Bond song. I told him (which is the same answer as this list), and he told me his was “For Your Eyes Only” and that he always thought Sheena Easton is hot. I mean, all right. Thanks for giving me that association whenever I listen to her awesome song, Tad.
Performed by Shirley Bassey
Where are you? When will we meet? / Take my unfinished life and make it complete. / Just like the Moonraker knows his dream will come true someday / I know that you are only a kiss away.
You know what movie is great? Moonraker. I’ve been arguing that for years and now the mainstream has finally caught up to my good taste in bullshit. Even Marvel Studios agrees with me, which means my opinions are now the beating heart of mass media. Shirley Bassey’s third and final contribution to the series is a classy introduction to a movie that famously features a gondola car and a pigeon doing a double-take. God bless tonal dissonance.
Performed by Adele
This is the end / Hold your breath and count to 10/ Feel the Earth move and then / Hear my heart burst again / For this is the end
I’m a big fan of the fact that “Skyfall” doesn’t suck like “Another Way to Die.” EON went back to basics for this one and it cracks! Good job! If it weren’t for Skyfall as a movie, Craig would probably be the worst Bond.
Performed by Shirley Bassey
He loves only gold / Only gold / He loves gold / He loves only gold / Only gold / He loves gold
I can’t put it any higher on the list because I don’t like it as much as my favorites, but to put it lower than my absolute favorites would be disrespectful. This is the Bond theme.
#5: “We Have All the Time in the World“
On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969)
Performed by Louis Armstrong
We have all the love in the world / If that’s all we have / You will find / We need nothing more
Look, I used to rank this higher, but then Cary Joji Fukunaga lifted it to add some emotion to his utterly tedious No Time to Die. It made me very angry the entire time. This is a great song, and it makes me think of a great movie, but now it also makes me think of a bad movie that aped the great movie and it just drives me bananas.
#4: “A View to a Kill“
A View to a Kill (1985)
Performed by Duran Duran
Nightfall covers me / But you know the plans I’m making / Still overseas / Could it be the whole lot opening wide? / A sacred why / A mystery gaping inside
Duran Duran sure could get it and whenever I listen to this song, for 3:37, I’d give it to them.
#3: “All Time High“
Performed by Rita Coolidge
We’re an all-time high / We’ll change all that’s gone before / Doing so much more than falling in love / On an all-time high / We’ll take on the world and win
This is an easy-listening masterpiece. The music video is immaculate. Tremendous. Rita Coolidge just singing me to an easy rest. I can’t believe Nick Rogers ranked it so low. He’s usually on point but he’s so wrong. Christ. Octopussy is a goddamn masterpiece. It’s the chillest shit ever. So what if Russia wants to steal some bejeweled eggs or something? Who knows? Who cares? Roger Moore stuck around longer than he should’ve, but in this one he’s just a chill old dude banging around a ninja harem owned by a woman with eight vaginas or something. Maud Adams is so great they brought her back after a completely unrelated supporting role in The Man with the Golden Gun. James Bond dresses as a clown. Q airlifts him in a hot-air balloon. The whole thing is infused with that British 1980s “aw shucks, wasn’t the Raj great?” racism. I’m not making excuses. This song isn’t about that. It’s about finding a sweet distraction for an hour or two.
#2: “You Know My Name”
Casino Royale (2006)
Performed by Chris Cornell
Arm yourself because no one else here will save you / The odds will betray you / And I will replace you
This song! It’s great! Chris Cornell: Great! Guitars: Great! Casino Royale: Great!
#1: “Nobody Does it Better”
The Spy Who Loved Me (1977)
Performed by Carly Simon
Nobody does it better / Makes me feel sad for the rest / Nobody does it half as good as you / Baby, you’re the best