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Photograph: Interscope

The 11 best James Bond theme songs

With ‘No Time to Die’ finally here, we raid the 007 soundtracks and pick the best Bond themes ever

Written by
Andy Kryza
Written by
Oliver Keens
,
James Manning
&
Michael Curle
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There are many constants in a James Bond adventure: high-tech gadgetry, slick cars, craft cocktails and a rampant disregard for safe-sex practices among them. But a booming theme song is absolutely clutch.

Yet the history of Bond songs contains more misses than hits. The best build upon the foundation of John Barry’s iconic score and deliver the kind of bravado that pairs perfectly with silhouettes of semi-nude women and dapper assassins. The worst sound like Madonna having a midlife crisis at an EDM fest.  

With Billie Eilish on song duty for No Time to Die, we dived headlong into the history of Bond themes, revisiting  the highs (damn, Shirley Bassey!) and the lows (Tina Turner, how could you?) to separate the zeros from the Double 0s. Here are the 11 best from across the decades.

‘No Time to Die’ by Billie Eilish (2021)
Photograph: Nicola Dove © 2019 DANJAQ, LLC AND MGM

11. ‘No Time to Die’ by Billie Eilish (2021)

‘The Living Daylights’ by A-ha (1987)

10. ‘The Living Daylights’ by A-ha (1987)

The man behind many an iconic Bond theme, John Barry wrote or co-wrote scores and songs for ten 007 films. His very last saw him working with a trio of chart-smashing Norwegian pretty-boys – or trying to. Barry said it was like ‘playing ping pong with four balls’ and compared the band to the Hitler Youth; A-ha ended up releasing a radically different version of the song. But it all worked out: ‘The Living Daylights’ combines tense, atmospheric verses with a storming pop chorus, Barry’s orchestral stabs and even a sax solo – just the thing to puncture that Timothy Dalton-era seriousness. 

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‘From Russia With Love’ by Matt Monro (1963)

9. ‘From Russia With Love’ by Matt Monro (1963)

Cockney crooner Matt Monro was a former bus driver, a huge 007 fan and also a 70-a-day smoker, making the creamy tone he deployed on the first proper Bond song nothing short of miraculous. ‘From Russia With Love’ is pure, straight-up class, with one innovation: the pseudo-balalaika noise on the instrumental track. Producer George Martin took a piano altered with tacks, recorded it at half speed, then sped it up. Q himself couldn’t have done it better. 

‘Licence to Kill’ by Gladys Knight (1989)

8. ‘Licence to Kill’ by Gladys Knight (1989)

In a word: powerful. ‘Licence to Kill’ is the only Bond theme to shout out R&B fans – and weirdly, between the slow ’n’ sexy drum machines, arpeggiated synth rushes and thick layers of orchestral oomph, it also sounds almost as if it predates dubstep by about a decade. It’s a beauty conceptually, too: the main riff is a knowing, slowed-down tribute to ‘Goldfinger’.

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‘A View to a Kill’ by Duran Duran (1985)
© Eon Productions Ltd

7. ‘A View to a Kill’ by Duran Duran (1985)

Like the car-crash film it introduced, Duran Duran’s title song has been slated over the years – but as period pieces, both go down a treat. David Bowie turned down the role of the villain (now that would have been something), but music-loving Bond fans still got Grace Jones deadpanning it as a very hench henchwoman. And Duran’s synth-stabbing theme is improved no end by the moment at the end of the video when their singer delivers the immortal line ‘Bon… Simon Le Bon’.

‘Nobody Does It Better’ by Carly Simon (1977)

6. ‘Nobody Does It Better’ by Carly Simon (1977)

From the delicate, dancing piano plinks of its intro to the final bars of its booming crescendo, this worshipful song is more seductive than a KGB spy. The first Bond theme not to share the name of the film in which it appears (The Spy Who Loved Me), ‘Nobody Does It Better’ is a world away from its vocalist Carly Simon's other big hit (the ultra-caustic ‘You're So Vain’) and has been covered by artists as diverse as Radiohead and Alan Partridge.

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‘Live and Let Die’ by Paul McCartney & Wings (1973)
© United Artists Corporation/Danjaq LLC

5. ‘Live and Let Die’ by Paul McCartney & Wings (1973)

The blaxploitation genre was a major influence on the 1973 film Live and Let Die, so a Shaft-style funk track for the opening credits would have made a lot of sense. Instead the producers phoned Paul McCartney, who read Ian Fleming’s novel then wrote his schizophrenic pomp-rock suite the same day. Cycling through classic McCartney balladry, racing symphonic rock and cod-reggae, ‘Live and Let Die’ manages (just like Roger Moore’s Bond) to be both thrilling and ludicrous. 

‘Diamonds Are Forever’ by Shirley Bassey (1971)

4. ‘Diamonds Are Forever’ by Shirley Bassey (1971)

Shirley Bassey’s second best Bond theme (the less said about Moonraker the better), ‘Diamonds Are Forever’ has had a strange afterlife: Kanye sampled it on ‘Diamonds from Sierra Leone’ and Arctic Monkeys have covered it live. But the original is the best: John Barry’s surprisingly funky orchestration, Don Black’s innuendo-heavy lyrics and Dame Shirley’s belting vocals work in perfect synch as she gets her mouth around the hardest and longest-lasting substance known to womankind. Hey, we never said it was subtle. 

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‘Skyfall’ by Adele (2012)
© Francois Duhamel

3. ‘Skyfall’ by Adele (2012)

In 2011, it felt like everything Adele touched turned to gold. Her chart competition had been dispatched with all the merciless precision of a razor-rimmed bowler hat. So it was no surprise when, a year later, the north London warbler was chosen to soundtrack 007’s fiftieth birthday (on screen, at least). The result was a Bond anorak’s dream: both a nod to the franchise's illustrious past – the Barry-esque orchestral swells, the Bassey-esque vocals – and a song with its own haunting, troubled identity. In other words: an instant classic. Though does ‘Skyfall’ really rhyme with, er, ‘crumballs’? 

‘You Only Live Twice’ by Nancy Sinatra (1967)

2. ‘You Only Live Twice’ by Nancy Sinatra (1967)

Long before YOLO, there was YOLT. John Barry’s gorgeous string refrain reaches out and pulls you in straight away, but it’s Nancy Sinatra’s delivery of Leslie Bricusse’s yearning lyrics that makes ‘You Only Live Twice’ special. Her famous dad turned down the chance to sing the theme, nominating Nancy instead; she was so nervous that she took over 30 vocal takes. The end result is something pure and almost naïve, but with a darkness that lurks under the surface like a supervillain’s HQ under a Japanese volcano.

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‘Goldfinger’ by Shirley Bassey (1964)

1. ‘Goldfinger’ by Shirley Bassey (1964)

What can you say? ‘Goldfinger’ is simply the quintessential Bond theme. Introduced bombastically with rasping, almost violent brass, it’s the interplay between two former lovers – Shirley Bassey and John Barry – that makes it glitter. Barry’s melodic mess-around with the signature three-chord Bond motif is characteristically brilliant, while Bassey’s performance is simply spellbinding. That long note at the end was such a reach that she even had to remove her brassiere. Like we said: quintessentially Bond. 

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