The theme songs that play during the opening sequence in James Bond films have become a staple of the franchise. Top artists are contracted to perform the tracks that are written specifically for the film, and often times, become chart topping hits on their own merit. A Bond theme, however, is more than just a song. A proper Bond theme sets the film up for audiences. It introduces them to the tone of the film without ever blatantly stating what the movie's really about.
With Sam Smith's most recent tune for Spectre, there are now exactly 50 Bond theme songs in existence. While all of them are important to the cultural development of the franchise, certain songs are definitely more enjoyable and memorable than others. Polygon's Danielle Riendeau and Julia Alexander combed their way through the catalogue of Bond themes to pick not only the catchiest songs, but the most important ones.
Collected below are their picks and reasoning for each.
Skyfall - Adele (2012)
The first line Adele sings in her theme for Skyfall is, "This is the end." It's a near perfect line for a song that foreshadows an inevitable end for someone in the James Bond universe and she's a near perfect artist to predict it. There's no contemporary artist who deals with devastation, death and emotional destruction as well or as poised as Adele. She's made an an entire career out of enduring sadness and sharing that with her fans.
In the movie, Dame Judi Dench's beloved M is killed off, and although she wasn't an extraordinarily large character, the way her death played out was still incredibly moving. Adele's Skyfall theme wasn't just important to the film as part of the quintessential Bond viewing experience (the theme is just as important as the movie), but it set the tone perfectly from that very first line.
Skyfall is also incredibly large. It's explosive. Adele's got one of the most powerful voices in modern pop music and when it's set against the backdrop of a booming orchestra, it's just amplified. This was a huge movie for the franchise, and ended up being one of the best in recent years. Adele's track encompasses everything about Skyfall that made it the movie it's known for today: it was unafraid, confident, sultry and strong from beginning to end. -Julia Alexander
Tina Turner - Goldeneye (1995)
This is one of the all-time best Bond songs for what I'll argue is a top-5 Bond movie. It was the 90s, time for a new Bond (Pierce Brosnan!) and a new, ever-so-slightly more progressive era. The movie explicitly acknowledges both the fact that we're now rocking in a post-soviet world, and that feminism exists here in the 90s, both themes that feature prominently in the imagery of Goldeneye's official music video and the film's title sequence.
In the video, we have Tina Turner (always a plus), dolled up, belting out an earworm-worthy tune with an irresistibly 90s vibe, with pseudo-random shots of big cats, golden eyeballs, and women prowling about in cages. Sometimes there are shots from the film, with Pierce doing Bond-like things, blowing up buildings and getting topped (literally!) by the best '90s Bond villain, Xenia Onatoppa.
Like the film, Goldeneye's music videos show the modern Bond era's ambivalent treatment of women. Turner - a woman of color who was about 55 at the time the movie released - is the star of the show in the official music video, a glitzy badass hanging out in the gun barrel. But in the credit sequence for the song, it's more of the usual writhing ladies and... women with guns poking out of their mouths. Totally not an oral sex joke or anything...
Gags aside, there's a lot of artful imagery in the movie sequence. Hammer and sickles and other Soviet symbols fall, literally, as the ladies writhe. Women in high heels take hammers to the symbols of the old, oppressive regime. Subtle it is not, but at least there's story value in the gyrations. -Danielle Riendeau
Paul McCartney - Live and Let Die (1973)
James Bond is to Britain what John Wayne was to America. He's their guy. Being English is such a major part of Bond's character that they've managed to work it into every aspect of his being. His car of choice is the Aston Martin. Although he travels the world for his job, London is his home. He still drinks tea. It's because of Bond's essential British being that it's incredibly important the theme song reflect that and no track does it better than Live and Let Die.
Sung by Paul McCartney and backed by his Wings band members, Live and Let Die is about as British as it can get. The poster boy of British music paired up with the poster boy of British cinema, it begs the question why The Beatles never agreed to do their own rendition of a Bond track. Admittedly, Live and Let Die's lyrics are almost nonsensical, but that almost doesn't matter. It's clear that McCartney has as much fun on the track that Roger Moore does in the 1973 movie. -Julia Alexander
Shirley Bassey - Goldfinger (1964)
Goldfinger is the... shall we say Gold standard by which all other Bond songs/videos should be judged (I'm sorry, I won't do that again). It's classy, brassy and infectious, and Bassey's voice feels definitive and not to be messed with, even as the screen introduces the world to Pussy Galore. -Danielle Riendeau
Alicia Keys and Jack White - Another Way to Die from Quantum of Solace (2008)
Another Way to Die shouldn't have worked as a Bond song. Jack White and Alicia Keys were an odd pairing from the get-go, neither were British, and as a direct follow-up to Chris Cornell's mediocre Casino Royale theme, it was a risky move. Instead, however, the combination of Keys' seductive voice paired with White's almost creepy instrumental arrangement mirrored Craig's introductory performance and film wonderfully.
Keys and White tapped into the essence of what made Bond film as invigorating as it has been in the past and explored it through a modern lens that brought an entirely new feeling to a recently rebooted franchise. -Julia Alexander
Garbage - The World is Not Enough (1999)
From one Shirley to another, as Garbage frontwoman Shirley Manson stars in sort of a mini Bond movie in the official music video from what is otherwise a very forgettable Bond movie. Honestly, this one is better - in the video, Manson is an android assassin who kills people with her kisses. A sort of serious fembot, if you will.
The video is really high concept, with a complex plot revealing the construction of the Shirley-bot, her targets, and her mission. The effects work is stunning for 1999, with Shirley's face singing away on a half-complete bot-face and bot-body. There's a sort of winking tone to the video that's infectious. It knows it's a slightly goofy 60s throwback (and maybe it even knows it's better than the movie it's hawking). -Danielle Riendeau
Chris Cornell - You Know My Name from Casino Royale (2006)
This is easily the coolest Bond credit sequence - fitting, for the best modern Bond movie. The song is a throwback to the earlier soundtracks, but the video trades the writhing women for stylized, layered visuals that recall all of the elements from classic card decks. Bond's figure walks and fights through a maze of queens, jokers and aces, while the guitars, trumpets and Cornell vocals wail on.
I get excited every time I watch the sequence, even for the last few beats of Bond walking from the distance to the front of the frame. You know my name, indeed. - Danielle Riendeau