With the presidential election behind us, we are finally free to return to the contests that really matter; with this week's release of Skyfall, the 23rd film in the 007 series, for the time being that would have to be obsessing over the Bond canon. But it'd be a waste to spend our time here together trying to endlessly reassess the suitability of Daniel Craig for the title role — by now he's proven himself capable enough, and can't really be considered a greenhorn anymore given that, three movies in, he's already outlasted George Lazenby and Timothy Dalton. And let's be honest, it'd probably just end up being a straw-man comparison wherein we'd prop him up just long enough for an eventual skewering by Connery, right? No, let's leave all that in the capable hands of Cinemetrics and find ourselves some new ground. The obvious alternate choice is the matter of the theme songs, which, after the lead actors, are the next elements of the franchise most readily available for neurotic comparative analysis. Admit it, there's a Nate Silver–size hole in your heart right now, right? Never fear, we're here to help.
But a Bond theme is a funny animal. There's always the expectation of proper British respectability, but the ultimate goal is still popular success, which creates a weird tightrope for the selected performers. As if that's not enough, while walking across it they're also expected to juggle edicts handed down by the film in matters of lyrical content, or even specific notes and melodies as dictated by the score composer. Embodying the musical trends of the day is desirable, but only so long as those trends are not later considered unbecoming; the '80s were drowned in reverb, New Wave, and cheesy ballads, so one must imagine that other near-misses probably include disco in the '70s, ska in the late '90s, and dubstep in 2012.
It's a tough act; this is why you shouldn't hold your breath waiting for a hip-hop theme even if Kanye would probably knock it out of the park, why it's baffling that Aerosmith's late-'90s ascendancy never led them into a supporting role during Pierce Brosnan's iteration, and why English chart phenomenon Adele, to all outward appearances, was an ideal choice for Skyfall. It's also why we need to consider more than just the quality of the songs when figuring out how they work — simply put, because the best songs do not always make the best theme songs.
Considered on its own, the strength of the song roughly corresponds with that first expectation of artistic unimpeachability, the idea that a secret agent of Bond's formidable aptitude should not be introduced by anything less than the finest entry music. But the smoldering remains of the music industry do still like to chase after popular success, so we also need to consider the prominence, popularity, and reach of each song — for our purposes here, this is a rough amalgam of sales numbers, chart positions, eventual cover versions, and more generally, the extent to which the song can stand on its own as an independent cultural allusion many years after its initial release. This also acts as an automatic populist counterweight of sorts against what would otherwise be an isolated critical opinion for strength — please remember that as you're composing your angry tweets about this article.
Using two numbers allows us to measure intrinsic quality separate from widespread success, but those are already valid metrics for every song in existence, and we've not yet accounted for the fact that these are Bond themes, and therefore just the latest tiny pieces of a high-profile, long-running whole. Let's see what we can do about that.
The cleverest of the Bond pop songs are undoubtedly those that seamlessly incorporate a very specific melody, known among Bond music enthusiasts as the "suspense motif" — this is the slinky chromatic line that kicks in during the main title music, after the horns stop. If you listen carefully, you can hear it in the background at the beginning of the verses in Shirley Bassey's "Goldfinger," for example. This is what everyone thinks of as "the James Bond theme," Adele and all her predecessors notwithstanding. Constructing your pop song around the mathematical constraints of the suspense motif is the most fascinating compositional approach, but there are also other ways to "sound like a Bond theme," so we'll simply assign a third score here for cohesion, which is the extent to which a given song cooperates with the rest of the series. The archetype here is Monty Norman's immortal instrumental theme from 1963's Dr. No, which we can't really include in our rankings since it predates the practice of releasing a vocal pop song alongside each film and some version of it has appeared in every film thus far.frameborder="0" allowfullscreen>
This now gives us three scores instead of one for each of the Bond pop songs — roughly speaking, we now have separate numbers, on a 10-point scale, for each of those words: "Bond" (cohesion), "pop" (reach), and "song" (strength). From these we can calculate an overall average that we hope will better reflect the effectiveness of each theme song using more reasonably balanced criteria than a simple gut reaction.
But despite our best efforts to the contrary, there is obviously still a place for subjectivity in this process, so numerical ties were resolved by editorial judgment. In some cases this might just be a breakdown of the same subject matter that is more finely nuanced than simple division, but it can also account for factors that don't otherwise figure into the ranking system — the bar should have been higher for Madonna given her prior experience, Garbage were a refreshingly bold choice even in their '90s heyday, and so forth.
Are you confused yet? Fine, let's just demonstrate it in action using the intro sequence from the last Bond film, 2008's Quantum of Solace.
Strength: 0 A one-note "melody," a guitar riff cribbed from Marilyn Manson's "The Beautiful People," and two artists who have no business ever being in the same room as one another. What could possibly go wrong?
Reach: 3 A few points for effort here, at least. But despite multiple ambitious releases — a limited edition from White's Third Man Records label, a Keys album rerelease, some Coca-Coca thing, a Guitar Hero download — to this day, the primary channel through which one is exposed to this song is someone else complaining about it.
Cohesion: 4 Oddly enough, White uses a very specific chord sequence that fits in right alongside the suspense motif — this was clearly deliberate, given that we can see from his other work that he's no dummy — but then he never actually inserts the melody.
See how this works? But our multi-metric is admittedly not very interesting if we're only using it on crap, and "Another Way to Die" is the absolute dregs. Instead, let's now consider each subsequent theme, in ascending order of overall performance. Things can only get better, right?
Strength: 4 With three Bond themes under her belt, Bassey is the high queen of this game, but even she isn't infallible.
Reach: 3 Never really went anywhere — so you have to wonder what might have happened if this song had gone to Kate Bush as originally intended.
Cohesion: 3 It's dreamy, whimsical, and relaxing — all things that a Bond movie is not.
Strength: 6 Duran Duran rode a Bond theme to tremendous success just two years earlier — we'll get to that in a bit — so it's understandable that the next installment would try to repeat the formula with a similarly stylized, male-fronted, synth-driven New Wave pop band. It mostly works out, surprisingly, though anchoring the entire production to an explosion of harpsichord-like arpeggios during the chorus makes it feel a bit lopsided the rest of the time.
Reach: 3 Nice try, but no cigar — "The Living Daylights" failed to make a dent outside the UK.
Cohesion: 1 This has nothing to do with anything, frankly, and could have just as easily been a regular a-ha song. And, in fact, that's exactly what it became — despite its mediocre commercial performance, the band still liked the song enough to reclaim it from the franchise, and grafted a lightly reworked version onto their album the following year.
Strength: 2 Are you serious? The overbearing cabaret camp makes this sound more like a theme song for the very idea of theme songs; either way, it's certainly a contender for the weakest theme song in the entire franchise.
Reach: 2 Mercifully.
Cohesion: 7 We're in an unfortunate position here, in that the specific brand of despicable cheese on display here is also, to some extent, quite fairly equated with the Bond franchise. In fact, if you ignore Lulu's hackneyed vocals (which, to be fair, are half the problem) it becomes pretty easy to see a direct path to the kooky theme song from Austin Powers, which was nothing if not a mockery of Bond conventions. So, fine — but remember, there's a difference between playing by the rules and doing a good job, between coloring inside the lines and actually making it up onto the fridge.
Strength: 8 Coming off Connery's run, it's easy to roll your eyes at almost everything about George Lazenby's one entry in the series, but that just makes the courtship montage soundtracked by Armstrong's summery bounce stand out even more as a blistering highlight.
Reach: 2 Most folks aren't even aware that Armstrong ever did a Bond theme.
Cohesion: 2 Great as it is, it sounds nothing like a Bond theme. The ominous, shadowy figures crouching in darkened corridors are gone, giving way instead to lazy-Sunday idle musings that seem like they'd work quite nicely for a synchronized swimming routine.
Strength: 0 On paper, Madonna seems like an ideal Bond theme songstress, and there was, one must imagine, a certain arrogance at the time among the producers regarding her infallibility in this space — she was even given a small cameo in the movie. Whoops! The electronic dance-pop that had started to seep into her music made sense, relatively speaking, on Ray of Light and Music. It could have even worked in a Bond theme, in theory, but Madonna drove the whole endeavor right off the nearest cliff with jagged start-and-stop fits that made the rhythmic flow feel erratic and over-the-top hypersexual grunts that were apparently supposed to come across as erotic. And why on earth is she name-dropping Freud?
Reach: 8 And yet here we have the second-most commercially successful Bond theme of all time. What's wrong with you people?
Cohesion: 5 No idea what to do here since it barely seems like a song at all when you're putting on the brakes every 30 seconds. Let's just split the difference and move on.
Strength: 3 As banal as it gets.
Reach: 8 This was a substantial worldwide pop hit that reached no. 4 on Billboard and no. 1 in a smattering of European markets, and it was nominated in the Best Song category at the 1982 Academy Awards.
Cohesion: 2 Nothing here seems especially Bond-specific, and even the topic of secrecy would be right at home in pretty much any other love song.
Strength: 4 While this might be perfectly respectable in a vacuum, it pales in comparison when you string it up alongside Carly Simon's theme song from six years earlier, which also concerns itself mostly with describing Bond through superlatives and does a far better job of it. How embarrassingly ironic it must be to write a song about being the best that doesn't manage to actually do so.
Reach: 7 Made a respectable showing on the Billboard Hot 100 and was a genuine no. 1 hit with adult contemporary audiences.
Cohesion: 2 Frankly, this could have appeared on the soundtrack to any number of '80s movies. The Karate Kid? Back to the Future? Once again, you barely need James at all for this.
Strength: 5 Rat Pack–style crooning can be a hard sell at times, so give or take a point here depending on whether you're in the mood.
Reach: 3 Nothing to write home about.
Cohesion: 7 This may be a bit on the high side, but remember that at this point we're only two films deep and the expectations for the theme songs had not yet been established. Given the circumstances, it's remarkable that Monro's entry has aged with so much of its majesty intact.
Strength: 4 It's tempting to give this big points for the stately poise and all, but unfortunately the lead riff comes via the most annoying guitar sound in any of these songs. Squeak squeak!
Reach: 6 To this day, it's a marquee song for Ms. Sinatra.
Cohesion: 5 Stylistically, it's all fine — the quibble here is more semantic, in a way. As subject matter for a Bond song, defying death seems like it should be potent territory, but Sinatra just reads it like a pun from a Dr. Seuss book, as though she's scarcely aware of mortality at all.
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11. Tina Turner, "GoldenEye"
Strength: 4 Yikes, this is a frustrating one. At any age, Turner should make an ideal Bond theme singer, and this was written by Bono and The Edge at the height of U2's late-'90s interest in film soundtracks. In the context of a movie where a satellite weapon is a primary objective for both sides, a line like "You'll never know how I watched you from the shadows" becomes both creepy and prophetic, even if in the era of dial-up we were ill-equipped to understand the privacy issues we're still learning to deal with almost two decades later. This song should have been incredible, but somehow it never really connects, probably because of an overreliance on Turner snarling the movie's title at the beginning of every single line.
Reach: 5 As is often the case when there's a changing of the guard, Turner's theme was overshadowed by Brosnan's debut, but the film ended the longest gap between installments in the history of the series and to this day has serious legs as the bookend to an era.
Cohesion: 8 Production to the rescue here — the chromatic suspense motif is subtly woven in, and more importantly, the constellation of plinks enveloping Turner's voice is sparse enough to appropriately soundtrack a sneaky crawl down a dark hallway with laser scopes trained on mysterious silhouettes.
Strength: 2 Look, can we just cut to the chase and call this out for the turd it is? The handful of clever moments are barely strung together at all, and the resulting jumps and dramatic section shifts bring to mind a failed Meat Loaf rock opera, with proto-metal power chords that Sabbath could be proud of quickly collapsing into the bouncy organ backbeat of a Jimmy Buffett cover band in Cabo. It's a shame this is as revered as it is.
Reach: 10 With a Beatle at the helm, this was destined from birth to become one of the most iconic songs in the series. So it's not like the furious reinvention by Guns N' Roses was even necessary in the first place, but once they did, they made it stick with a whole new generation.
Cohesion: 5 Even these points are only given grudgingly — the suspense motif is present, but it's the clumsiest application in the entire series, rendered as a plodding riff that just walks around in circles a few times before settling in for a nap. On the other hand, at least the towering Marshall stacks were able to make it work for Axl and Slash.
Strength: 6 The verses here are remarkable and would garner very high scores if examined on their own, but unfortunately their minor-key marches into oblivion always transition abruptly into strange major-key choruses that undo everything.
Reach: 7 Huge assists from De Beers and Kanye West on this one.
Cohesion: 5 Half of this song hits its mark beautifully, but the other half stumbles.
Strength: 5 Which is to say, exactly as pleasant as any other Tom Jones song.
Reach: 8 "Thunderball" has managed to penetrate the public consciousness largely due to its own mythology, it seems — Jones famously fainted in the studio after singing the triumphant high note at the very end. In a way this seems like a cheap win, but remember that we're talking about theme songs for a guy who spent Die Another Day driving around in an invisible Aston Martin.
Cohesion: 6 You're right to complain that Mr. "What's New Pussycat" is not an ideal Bond singer by any stretch, but he manages quite a feat here. "Thunderball" is the only song other than "Goldfinger" to focus all its energy on describing the villain — "He looks at this world and wants it all," etc. Thus, any shortcomings are handily overcome by this pure focus and willpower — likely the same things that drove Jones to knock himself out in the vocal booth that day.
Strength: 7 This is still a tough one to swallow since at the last minute Crow's submission beat out k.d. lang's also-excellent "Surrender," which was instead used over the decidedly less glamorous end credits. But the contrast between Crow's lilting hook and the boxy, stair-stepped orchestral runs that surround them is fascinating.
Reach: 4 Punitive damages are almost in order here — this should have been a much bigger hit than it was, coming as it did on the heels of some of Crow's most successful singles, including "Everyday Is a Winding Road" and "If It Makes You Happy."
Cohesion: 8 Say what you will about the Crow vs. lang faceoff, but both songs are Bond-y as all hell.
Strength: 7 This longtime fan favorite is riddled with weird metallic stabs and cheesy reverb effects that occasionally threaten to spin it off into self-parody, but clucking guitars and singer Simon Le Bon's triumphant chorus always seem to bring it back from the brink at the very last moment.
Reach: 10 To this day, this remains the most successful Bond theme ever, and the only one to hit no. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100.
Cohesion: 3 That it was so popular also reveals its primary weakness: Years later, it sounds stylistically mired in the tropes of the day, pandering to the very pop audience that propelled it into the history books. Enjoyable as it might be, this is a liability, because we all want our Bond themes to be timeless.
Strength: 7 Where were you four years earlier, Carly, back when McCartney was unable to smoosh all his riffs into a single coherent idea? "Nobody Does It Better" has the sort of impeccable chord sequences we'd expect from The Beatles, and the vocals aren't half bad either.
Reach: 5 Outside "You're So Vain," this has understandably become a bit of a calling card for Simon, though superlative songs looping right back into artistic appraisals of the performers who sang them always seem a bit lazy in a "We Are the Champions" sort of way.
Cohesion: 8 Hmm, well, Simon gets a pass on this one. It sure doesn't sound like the world is about to blow up, but by 1977 we also had not yet had a song that bluntly celebrated Bond's uncanny ability to prevent the world from blowing up. We know he has legions of these adorers, and in a way it's kind of nice to have one of them sing about his talents instead of just hopping into the sack with him at the first opportunity. All in due time, dear.
Strength: 8 Arguably the most underrated of the songs here; Knight belts out all the defining hallmarks of the power ballad format — there's a big key change at the end, SURPRISE! — with the gusto of a performer who, like her audience, had no inkling that it would later come to be seen as corny.
Reach: 4 The title song was a minor hit in the UK and Germany, but accounting for inflation, this is the least profitable film in the series.
Cohesion: 8 Knight's arrangers borrowed half the horn part from "Goldfinger" so closely that they eventually had to part with royalties because of it. Resulting legal mess notwithstanding, this is a fairly strong glue.
Strength: 9 Cornell unexpectedly burst back into the public eye with this angry alt-rock gem, in which one of the greatest rock voices in a generation delivers some of the most appropriately chilling lyrics ever to grace this series: "I've seen angels fall from blinding heights / but you yourself are nothing so divine — just next in line."
Reach: 4 Criminally underrated as Bond themes go, both because the focus at the time was on Daniel Craig's big debut, and also because Cornell had mostly faded away following the unceremonious decline and eventual breakup of Audioslave.
Cohesion: 7 In a move that Adele and Jack White would astutely later pilfer, Cornell made the unorthodox decision to use chords that dance around the edges of the suspense motif's famous melody instead of bluntly following it in the conventional fashion. Major points there for one of the smartest composition tricks in the series, but we'll have to knock a few right back off for predictability — he's always within a stone's throw of the alt-rock tropes he learned in Soundgarden — double-tracked guitars, distortion, palm-mutes. They work together well enough, but don't appropriately convey the stuffy dignity we all associate with Bond.
Strength: 9 The production is among the most tasteful of any Bond song, and "I want more" is a perfect thematic foil for singer Shirley Manson's dejected wail, which quickly humanizes the Bond supervillains — like the rest of us, they just want to be loved, and will detonate the bombs or launch the missiles if that's what the conniving girlfriends cooing into their ears demand.
Reach: 6 This was certainly one of Garbage's more important singles, but at the end of the day that's also pretty faint praise.
Cohesion: 10 The band otherwise known for "Stupid Girl" and "I'm Only Happy When It Rains" found an ideal home in the Bond narrative template, which depends on a sense of hopelessness in the penultimate act in order to reaffirm our hero's merits by the time the credits roll.
Strength: 8 Screaming horns next to each mention of the titular villain make this a thrilling ride, but we should also knock off a point because the definitive recorded version has the most grating production value of any song in the series. Snobbing out over audio fidelity is not the point of this enterprise, but sometimes it's seriously hard to listen to this.
Reach: 10 Nearly 40 years on, Goldfinger is still the crown jewel of the Bond lineup; likewise for its theme. Here is a video of Frasier and Niles Crane singing it, if that's your thing.
Cohesion: 7 You're right, if we had to name any song aside from Norman's "Dr. No" title theme as the archetype, it would undoubtedly be "Goldfinger." But that state of affairs came about organically because of its strength, so also awarding it a top-shelf cohesion rating would be double-dipping. Instead, we'll give it the same five points we gave to "Thunderball" because of the lyrical focus on the villain, and then bump it up a couple more notches for clever use of the suspense motif.
The glaring omission here is, of course, Adele's "Skyfall," released on October 5, which was also the 50th anniversary of the release of Dr. No. Problem is, we're not yet in a position to assess the reach value yet, since it's so new. But nonetheless:
Strength: 5 The vocals are fairly shapeless, but Daniel Craig says he cried when he first heard it (which seems like a very un-Bond-like thing to do in that scenario).
Cohesion: 8 Adele leaves a lot to be desired on her end, including an inexplicable omission of the suspense motif after laying the proper chordal groundwork as pioneered by Cornell — this is the same mistake Jack White made. (Correction: Adele's "Skyfall" does briefly use the suspense motif, but because she already scored very highly on cohesion anyway, this does not change any of our other conclusions.) With that said, there's something about the combination of vague apocalyptic platitudes and plodding tempo that's absolutely bone-chilling in the context of this film series. This is what watching a slow-motion replay of the Hindenburg disaster would probably feel like, and that seems a suitable level of dread for Bond to face off against.
So even if her song goes on to Paul McCartney and Duran Duran levels of fame on the reach metric, Adele is looking at maximum overall rating of 7.67. And while a perfect score for reach initially seems quite unlikely in our age of piracy and fractured tastes, if there's any star in 2012 with the power to move serious units, it's Adele: 21 was the definition of an evergreen hit through most of 2011 and early 2012, topping album sales charts in both the U.S. and UK well over a year after its initial release. In the grand scheme of things it hasn't been that long since the sales figures for "Die Another Day" eclipsed its zero strength rating. It could happen! But even then, Adele would still rank just below Garbage, who have pulled off the seemingly impossible feat of numerically tying with "Goldfinger," which still gets the edge and a bump up into the no. 1 slot due to its existing cultural inertia more than anything else.
While it's not especially surprising that "Goldfinger" took the top slot here, it's encouraging that Adele can hypothetically reach all the way to 7.67, because it means unseating Shirley Bassey is still within the realm of possibility. Here's how to do it with the next film:
It's this last point that should be the most heartening. The music industry keeps having to continually lower the bar regarding what constitutes a hit, but even with BitTorrent nipping at its heels, the film industry can still create mind-boggling blockbusters. Despite an enormous opening in the UK last week, Skyfall has not yet become The Dark Knight Rises, and even if it does eventually get there, Adele's song wants for more than just reach and thus can't quite beat "Goldfinger." But that's all right, and in fact you should buy James a drink in thanks nonetheless — because he always gets his man, there's always a next time.
Vijith Assar (@vijithassar) drank more martinis while writing this than he'd care to quantify.