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.
10. Paul McCartney and Wings, "Live and Let Die"
Live and Let Die (1973)
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.
9. Shirley Bassey, "Diamonds Are Forever"
Diamonds Are Forever (1971)
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.
8. Tom Jones, "Thunderball"
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.
7. Sheryl Crow, "Tomorrow Never Dies"
Tomorrow Never Dies (1997)
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.
6. Duran Duran, "A View to a Kill"
A View to a Kill (1985)
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.
5. Carly Simon, "Nobody Does It Better"
The Spy Who Loved Me (1977)
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.
4. Gladys Knight, "Licence to Kill"
Licence to Kill (1989)
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.
3. Chris Cornell, "You Know My Name"
Casino Royale (2006)
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.
2. Garbage, "The World Is Not Enough"
The World Is Not Enough (1999)
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.
1. Shirley Bassey, "Goldfinger"
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:
- Go dance-pop. The strength assessment is the most subjective of the bunch (there are probably some doofuses out there who inexplicably adore Adele's song), and this makes trying to land a high score with a specific person a bit like playing darts while blindfolded. Bona fide global smash hits appear from time to time in the music world, mostly via pop and hip-hop — "I Gotta Feeling" by the Black Eyed Peas or "Tik Tok" by Ke$ha or "Call Me Maybe" by Carly Rae Jepsen. It's safe to assume that more people liked these songs than disliked them, and that's your surest statistical bet if you want a high critical assessment (even and especially one performed by a different writer). None of those artists have any business performing a Bond theme, of course, but even if we continue assuming that a hip-hop song is not yet in the cards, there are still options like Rihanna and Beyoncé, both of whom can address those styles and markets while also passing muster with the Bond fans who are stodgiest about maintaining the lineage of performers without entertaining risky departures. There may yet appear some plucky young new upstart who will rise to prominence before the next installment hits and who, fine, might deserve a shot. That's OK, because the most important figure here should be a behind-the-scenes wizard like Max Martin — the Swedish songwriter is a critical favorite and has been a driving force behind the biggest global pop hits for the past 15 years. He'd ace an assignment of this prominence.
- Minor key, with the suspense motif. This is a no-brainer. The Bond films are always dark and distressing by design — Adele did a great job of speaking to that texturally, but she also omitted the suspense motif, which needlessly costs her on cohesion. Those points are free for the taking; make the most of it.
- It's interesting to note that "Goldfinger" corresponds with what is still widely accepted as the apex of the film franchise, while "The World Is Not Enough" roughly equates with the late-'90s heyday of the music industry. The latter has by now almost totally collapsed, but the former is certainly still capable of enormous blockbusters, and that's the surest way to ubiquity and a high reach score, insofar as going dance-pop as in point no. 1 above fails to deliver an inescapable "Call Me Maybe"–style smash — make an excellent film. Maybe this is just stating the obvious, but the Bond theme that unseats "Goldfinger" can only come from a film that wrecks theaters for months, as resoundingly as The Dark Knight Rises did earlier this year. Christopher Nolan's macabre superhero tragedy was better served by the moody string arrangements of film score composer Hans Zimmer, but had there been a pop song attached, you can be damn sure it would have been a hit.
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.