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.
21. Jack White and Alicia Keys, "Another Way to Die"
Quantum of Solace (2008)
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?
20. Shirley Bassey, "Moonraker"
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.
19. a-ha, "The Living Daylights"
The Living Daylights(1987)
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.
18. Lulu, "The Man With the Golden Gun"
The Man With the Golden Gun (1974)
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.
17. Louis Armstrong, "We Have All the Time in the World"
On Her Majesty's Secret Service (1969)
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.
16. Madonna, "Die Another Day"
Die Another Day (2002)
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.
15. Sheena Easton, "For Your Eyes Only"
For Your Eyes Only (1981)
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.
14. Rita Coolidge, "All Time High"
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.
13. Matt Monro, "From Russia With Love"
From Russia With Love (1964)
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.
12. Nancy Sinatra, "You Only Live Twice"
You Only Live Twice (1967)
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.