You Were Expecting Something Else?: Re-ranking the Bond Themes

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Quantum-of-Solace-1640As I intimated back in 2012, “The Bond Sound” as we know it is mostly a cultural construct that was borne more out of John Barry’s orchestrations from the 1960s than much else to do with the theme songs in and of themselves. But, another few years and another couple of Bond tracks later, and I guess I should regroup and rerank them all, because that’s what you do when a new thing comes out, right? Listicles, man, listicles. My grading criteria shifts from son to song because I was rejected from SPECTRE membership, but it’s on two levels of consideration: a) is this a good song? And b) is this a good song for the Bond films? Because this is what you do when you have a lot of time on your hands.

24. “Another Way to Die” – Jack White and Alicia Keys – Quantum of Solace

This is basically a semi-okay Jack White track + a lot of elements taken from “You Know My Name” + terrible vocals.

23. “Live and Let Die” – Paul McCartney and Wings – Live and Let Die

I know I’m alone on this, but that “Live and Let Die” is both a terrible song and a terrible Bond theme is the hill I choose to die on. It’s really insufferable, and as far as trying to transition Bond from era to era, it’s like forcing your head in a toilet. I don’t understand why everyone loves this at all. It’s, like, abysmal.

22. “Moonraker” – Shirley Bassey – Moonraker

A great voice like Bassey’s can only get you so far.

21. “Licence to Kill” – Gladys Knight – Licence to Kill

This is getting noxiously silly.

20. “Writing’s on the Wall” – Sam Smith – SPECTRE

There are parts of this that work, just not in this song. It’s the self-seriousness that drowns this one though. Sam Smith is nothing but sincere; James Bond has rarely been so outwardly sincere or vulnerable, and when he is, it’s with a particular edge.

19. “The Man with the Golden Gun” – Lulu – The Man with the Golden Gun

How phallocentric can you get?

18. “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service Theme” – John Barry/”We Have All the Time in the World” – Louis Armstrong – On Her Majesty’s Secret Service

I need a rewatch of this film, and while Armstrong’s final record probably makes sense within that context, the malleability of “The Bond Sound” might have its limits. The Bond tracks have extended across multiple genres, but the slowness of this is very drowsy for me. The only thing I remember about John Barry’s orchestrations is that they were in the teaser for The Incredibles.

17. “For Your Eyes Only” – Sheena Easton – For Your Eyes Only

Once again, sincerity can only get you so far.

16. “The Living Daylights” – a-Ha – The Living Daylights

This was kind of ineffectual to me.

15. “Skyfall” – Adele – Skyfall

I keep going back and forth on this one. Yes, Adele’s vocal abilities are incredible, enough that she can sell some really dumb lyrics like this one. She’s like the new Shirley Bassey almost! And while this one doesn’t take itself too seriously, it also jarringly makes very little sense. I guess if you look at it from the perspective of MI6? I don’t know.

14. “All Time High” – Rita Coolidge – Octopussy

Pleasant, but hard to be a good sincere love song about James Bond when you’re following Carly Simon.

13. “Die Another Day” – Madonna – Die Another Day

Die Another Day was a very strange, mishandled attempt to update Bond and his relationship to technology. Arnold’s score is filled with a litany of examples of house music inspired electronic riffs, Lee Tamahori’s direction plays the immediacy of time and the experiential nature of  it, and the bizarre script was a rehash of the Goldfinger-esque plot but with snow, diamonds, and lasers. Madonna’s song was therefore a weird intro for Bond and techno, and it’s okay. The foreignness of the track isn’t even that bad, but it feels much more suited to a gay club than a Bond film, mostly because the anarchist lyrics have rarely applied to Bond in any meaningful sense, and especially not in Die Another Day. As a treatise about Bond’s constant reinvention, then maybe it works slightly better.

12. “Goldfinger” – Shirley Bassey – Goldfinger

This is fine. It is very good. Let’s move on.

11. “James Bond is Back” – John Barry/”From Russia with Love” – Matt Monro – From Russia with Love

Like I said, Bond going full torch song only works from time to time. Monro’s Dean martin-esque vocals make this work. Barry’s theme music is a nice little nod to Dr. No.

10. “A View to a Kill” – Duran Duran – A View to a Kill

Authorship is kind of funny when it comes to Bond songs given the restrictions involved. It’s always a test to see how much of the singer/band can get themselves in there within the parameters of what they, or the producers involved, think a Bond song is. This is mostly a Duran Duran song. And a fun one at that.

9. “You Only Live Twice” – Nancy Sinatra

This works better in Mad Men than it does in You Only Live Twice, tbh.

8. “Thunderball” – Tom Jones – Thunderball

There’s an element silliness to the Bond songs, or good ones at least, that is rarely acknowledged. “Thunderball” is so bombastic in the best way possible. Just listen to that final note!

7. “Tomorrow Never Dies” – Sheryl Crow – Tomorrow Never Dies

Yes, Brosnan’s Bonds were weighted down by a general sense of mediocrity (I don’t think they’re that bad, personally), but, as you can see, all of the ‘90s tracks got into the top ten because they seemed to be both more daring formally and lyrically than they traditionally were. Crow’s theme follows this trend in eschewing convention or perverting it, her vocals posing as the woman challenging James Bond’s ethical standards, particularly examining the relationship he holds to violence and women. (The music video is actually pretty amazing.)

6.“Diamonds Are Forever” – Shirley Bassey – Diamonds Are Forever

Shirley Bassey is the best, and “Diamonds” was her best Bond track. “Goldfinger” is showy as heck, but Bassey’s range is better presented here, as mystifying and intoxicating, not just a showcase of her ability to belt.

5. “GoldenEye” – Tina Turner – GoldenEye

Did Bono and The Edge realize they were penning a track about the sadomasochistic and obsessive homoerotic tension between James Bond and Agent 006, Alec Trevelyan? I mean, “neither lace nor leather”. And that homosocial/homoerotic tension is pretty present in the film, especially if one reads it through the lens of the prodigal son. Anyways, it’s pretty solid writing, upending the traditional heteronormative masculinity that the series regularly perpetuates with some queer desire, and also Tina Turner’s vocals are stellar.

4. “Nobody Does It Better” – Carly Simon – The Spy Who Loved Me

I’ve never felt that the Bond tracks going full romance has ever worked truly well, except in this case, where “Nobody Does It Better” transcends it Bond track status and is just a very nice song in its own right. On the other hand, the song is about how good James Bond is in bed, so in context, it’s like, you’re holding a glass ofwhite wine, leaning in and saying, “Yes, tell me more.”

3. “The World is Not Enough” – Garbage – The World is Not Enough

If the Bond Sound is a cultural construct, then Garbage’s song is a playful subversion of it. It’s maybe one of two of the most hypnotic Bond songs.

2. “You Know My Name” – Chris Cornell – Casino Royale

The old meets the new, and though this song gets a lot of shit for some reason, it is, to me, the perfect track to acknowledge the reengineering the series. Back to basics, but with a little bit of an edge, which is what the film was exactly. Also, even by the title, the track is like musical white out, a proclamation that the canon is about to be rewritten for a new generation. Yes, every film is a reboot, but Casino Royale embraced it instead of tacitly inferred it, and not least of all because of Cornell’s track.

1. “The James Bond Theme” – John Barry and Monty Norman – Dr. No

You don’t need the Bond themes except for this one, to be honest, do you? This theme, originally composed by Monty Norman and orchestrated by John Barry, was the leitmotif that became embedded into Bond’s DNA. The only voice, musically at least, that the series ever needed was this. David Arnold, who composed the score for Casino Royale, was conscious not to use the track or sample it at all in the score until the end of the film precisely it’s exactly this song that is as much a part of Bond’s cultural identity as his Walther PPK or his martinis.

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