Go into a James Bond movie, and you know what to expect from the start: A standalone action scene that serves as a sort of amuse-bouche for the rest of the film and then a fantastic theme song. From Shirley Bassey’s “Goldfinger” onward, the theme songs to the 007 movies have been as hotly anticipated as the list of actresses playing Bond girls and the many exotic locations serving as the setting to the action.
"Writing’s on the Wall," Sam Smith’s new contribution to the long list of Bond themes certainly seems to have made a splash already: Last week, it became the first one ever to debut at No. 1 on the British charts. Popular opinion has been divided on whether Smith’s song stands up to the 23 that have preceded it, but here’s our take, in ascending order. (Feel free to tell us which song you think deserves the top spot in the comments below.)
24. "On Her Majesty’s Secret Service" by John Barry and his orchestra (1969)
The sixth Bond outing dispenses with the traditional vocal opening theme song in favor of an instrumental one. You can’t knock the accompanying visuals, and the song is just fine, but the film’s secondary theme, "We Have All the Time in the World," sung by Louis Armstrong and named after the line Bond speaks after the death of his wife, is the one that feels like a true Bond song.
23. "From Russia With Love" by Matt Monro (1963)
The second Bond film opens with a new variation on the familiar instrumental theme. Monro’s song only plays over the end of the film, but the above clip inserts them over the opening credits (and the girls dancing among them). It’s era-appropriate, but likely not among most fans’ favorite Bond tunes.
22. "All Time High" by Rita Coolidge (1983)
Can we reflect on the strangeness of the producers greenlighting a title like Octopussy but not using such a provocative name in the song itself? Perhaps it’s best that no songwriter was tasked with rhyming “Octopussy,” but it seems like a missed opportunity all the same. As it stands, “All Time High” is a rather sleepy Bond theme. In fact, it nearly seems like it should belong in another movie. A romantic comedy, maybe? A made-for-TV romantic comedy?
21. "The Man with the Golden Gun" by Lulu (1974)
With lyrics like “His eye may be on you or me / Who will he bang? We shall see,” this song certainly frontloads the sexual undertones of the James Bond movies, but it’s not quite as fun as another song considered for the main titles: an Alice Cooper song that feels a little more progressive than Lulu’s.
20. "The Living Daylights" by A-ha (1987)
It’s awesome to hear A-ha kick off a James Bond movie, but the band allegedly preferred an alternate, more synth-heavy take on the track, and you know what? They were probably right.
19. "Tomorrow Never Dies" by Sheryl Crow (1997)
Initially, it was to be k.d. lang who sang the film’s opening number. Her contribution is preserved as the end title song, but it might be the superior of the film’s two themes. Crow is great, but she’s just not the kind of vocalist most fans expect to sing a Bond theme. Lang is, and you have to wonder how it came that one won out over the other.
18. "Thunderball" by Tom Jones (1965)
True story: Jones actually put so much into hitting the song’s final high note that he fainted. And while the song is decent – and, sure, very James Bond-y – it’s not the strongest of the bunch, and that may be because it wasn’t initially intended as the opening number. Shirley Bassey recorded a better one, "Mr. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang", for the film, and Dionne Warwick did a take on it too, but the producers ultimately opted for a track that bore the movie’s name, even if the vague term “Thunderball” doesn’t exactly lead to easy lyrics. Most tantalizing of all? Johnny Cash also wrote a song called "Thunderball," but it wasn’t used.
17. "Moonraker" by Shirley Bassey (1979)
Theory: The more vague James Bond movie titles don’t make for good literal translations to songs. It didn’t help that Bassey only came in last minute to record “Moonraker” and that she’d already recorded two superior James Bond themes. Hey, it’s at least better than the disco remix that plays over the end credits.
16. "License to Kill" by Gladys Knight (1989)
The track was a moderate hit for Knight, and she has the right vocal style for a James Bond theme, but this last theme before the Pierce Brosnan era just doesn’t soar quite as high as others.
15. "Die Another Die" by Madonna (2002)
The first Bond theme of the new millennium made a drastic departure from typical opening number fare. Who would have expected eletroclash to kick off a James Bond movie? The thing with “Die Another Day” is that it’s a decent post-’90s Madonna track but just doesn’t sound a whole lot like a Bond theme. Bonus points, though, for Madonna’s cameo in the film itself – a feat no other Bond theme singer had accomplished. (She’s the lesbian fencing instructor to Rosamund Pike’s character, BTW.)
14. "For Your Eyes Only" by Sheena Easton (1981)
Easton rode the success of “Morning Train” straight into singing the theme to the twelfth Bond film, beating out even a song with the same title performed by Blondie. This writer says Blondie should have gotten the nod. Argue among yourselves how memorable Easton’s track is, but regardless note that Easton is to date the only Bond theme singer to actually appear in the opening credits.
13. "Another Way to Die" by Jack White and Alicia Keys (2008)
The first-ever Bond theme sung as a duet, the opening song to Quantum of Solace sounds like a decent enough Jack White single. And while he teams up well enough with Keys, you’d be forgiven for concluding that the track doesn’t fully capture the essence of classic James Bond.
12. "Diamonds Are Forever" by Shirley Bassey (1971)
It’s not the Bond song for which Bassey is best known, but it’s a good theme that gets at the glitz and greed that typifies so many characters in James Bond’s universe.
11. "The World Is Not Enough" by Garbage (1999)
Shirley Manson’s voice made the perfect Bond theme choice in 1999. And the song was written with many of the themes at the heart of the films in mind – love and world domination, namely – to the point that it made a solid addition to the Bond canon.
10. "Writing’s on the Wall" by Sam Smith (2015)
That opening orchestral blast certainly sounds James Bond-y enough, but fans of the films seem divided on Smith’s theme for the upcoming Spectre, with Smith’s falsetto in particular drawing mixed reactions. For now, consider this a placeholder ranking. We’ll have to hear the song in the context of the film itself, accompanied by the visuals, to give a more definitive evaluation.
9. "You Only Live Twice" by Nancy Sinatra (1967)
A beautiful song whose instrumentation sets the stage for Bond’s first adventure in Japan, “You Only Live Twice” puts Sinatra’s vocals to good use, but there’s an even better, more guitar-centric version of the song produced by frequent Sinatra collaborator Lee Hazlewood.
8. "James Bond Theme" by John Barry and his orchestra (1962)
The first cinematic James Bond adventure, Dr. No, is the only one to lack a typical lyrical theme song, but you really can’t beat the thrilling guitar on that original James Bond song, performed here by John Barry and his orchestra. The theme has endured through fifty years of sequels – minus the calypso-style "Three Blind Mice," of course.
7. "You Know My Name" by Chris Cornell (2006)
What a way to kick off a rebooted franchise. Cornell’s song nods to Bond’s long history as a legendary hero – that title, come on – and yet departs from tradition by skewing harder rock. It’s also notable that the opening sequence switches out sexy female silhouettes for abstracted male ones.
6. "GoldenEye" by Tina Turner (1995)
Though it may be surprising that it took until 1995 for Turner to be tapped to record a sing a Bond theme, she made good with “GoldenEye,” in which she channels classic opening numbers but also makes it her own. The track was written by U2 members Bono and The Edge. Fun fact: The Ace of Base song "Juvenile" was initially written as a potential theme to GoldenEye. Just replace the syllables “juvenile” with “GoldenEye.”
5. "Live and Let Die" by Paul McCartney & Wings (1973)
The eighth Bond outing breaks with tradition and allowed Paul McCartney’s band to unleash a full-on rock-and-roll theme song. The song alternates between melodic and frantic, and that’s a pretty good musical shorthand for the life of James Bond: tender and sweet one minute and then running for dear life the next.
4. "Skyfall" by Adele (2012)
Adele seems like she was born to sing a Bond theme. Her dark, soulful vocals ultimately won Best Original Song awards at both the Golden Globes and the Oscars. Best of all, previous Bond compositions by Shirley Bassey and Carly Simon helped inform the track.
3. "Nobody Does It Better" by Carly Simon (1977)
Rather than have Carly Simon sing a James Bond-style theme song, the producers allowed to sing a Carly Simon-style song. The result? One of the biggest hits of Simon’s career and a song that went on to a second life as an easy-listening standard. This one’s just a great love song, even independent of its association with The Spy Who Loved Me.
2. "Goldfinger" by Shirley Bassey (1964)
To this day, this is the song most people think of when they hear the words “James Bond theme.” Bassey’s brash, beautiful voice not only sets the tone for the movie itself but prepares the audience for Auric Goldfinger, who at the time was the greatest foe 007 had taken on yet. Decades later, every subsequent singer of every subsequent Bond theme is trying to recapture the magic Bassey found in this one.
1. "A View to a Kill" by Duran Duran (1985)
This may be heretical, but we’re not actually giving the top slot to “Goldfinger.” Nope, it goes to “A View to a Kill,” not only our favorite Bond song but also one of Duran Duran’s greatest hits. In fact, it’s the first Bond theme to hit No. 1 on the Billboard Top 100. And aside from Grace Jones as May Day, it may be the best part about A View a to Kill.