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James Bond Movie Theme Songs, Ranked Worst to Best

From A-Ha to Adele, breaking down the franchise’s legendary (and legendarily bad) opening numbers

Sean Connery; Pierce Brosnan; Daniel Craig

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James Bond movie theme songs are the cinematic equivalents of paperback book-series covers — they suggest familiarity and course with the promise of a compelling new adventure for Western culture’s most unkillable pop icon. Bond's first big screen adventure, 1962's, Dr. No had no precedent to follow, and therefore no need for the bombastic title treatments that would come to define the franchise (it opted for a gentle calypso medley). By the time the franchise's third film was released two years later, we already had Shirley Bassey roaring "Goldfinger"over the credits, and audiences knew just what kind of fun 007 had in store for them.

Each Bond gets the themes he deserves, from the smooth and impenetrable tunes of the Connery era to the radio-ready offerings from the Daniel Craig years, as muscular and wounded as his iteration of the legendary spy. You don't need to have seen Spectre to know that the song Sam Smith wrote for it taps into the unique pathos of the rebranded contemporary version of the character; when it comes to Bond themes, the writing has always been on the wall.

With Spectre looming ominously on the horizon, we look back at more than 50 years of Bond themes, counting down from worst to best.

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4

‘Skyfall’ (Adele)

The most popular Bond theme of all time (if you go by YouTube play counts), "Skyfall" was money in the bank from the moment Sony decided to hire Adele. Channeling that vintage Bassey sound and flexing it with serious symphonic muscle, this epic tune played no small role in helping make this blockbuster the the first Bond movie to gross more than a billion dollars. As with the other songs written for the Craig-era installments, "Skyfall" eschews the franchise's classic innuendo in favor of bleating emotional abstractions, though some of the words here ("Skyfall is where we start…") tease at crucial third act plot details. In fact, the lyrical nonsense works to the song's advantage, leaving Adele's booming voice free to launch the tidal wave of sonic pathos that will carry this consequential Bond movie all the way to its grim conclusion.

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3

‘You Only Live Twice’ (Nancy Sinatra)

The rising whirl of strings that kicks off this formative 1967 Bond theme might just be John Barry's finest moment (even if it was lifted from an Alexander Tcherepnin concerto, the decision to use and tweak it here is still a stroke of genius). Originally intended for Frank Sinatra but ultimately delegated to his daughter, "You Only Live Twice" is located somewhere in the Bermuda Triangle between James Bond and South Pacific. Playing off of the film's Japanese setting — yes, this is the one where 007 fakes his death and comes back to life in yellow face — Barry augments a breezily majestic melody with the exotic plink of bamboo xylophones, and Nancy Sinatra's voice trembles around them in style. More recently, the season five finale of Mad Men confirmed what audiences of the time knew right away: This song is a classic.

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2

‘Live and Let Die’ (Paul McCartney and Wings)

Possibly the best song Paul McCartney ever recorded with Wings, "Live and Let Die" isn't just good — it's Beatles good. With an assist from Linda McCartney and legendary producer George Martin (who arranged the track's killer orchestral break in addition to his usual duties), this perpetually shifting tune feels like a super condensed throwback to the medley that backstops Abbey Road. Featuring the only good thing that a guitar has ever done for a Bond theme, the song front-loads the franchise's curious attempt to cash in on the early Seventies blaxploitation wave, but this is one of those rare tunes that's worth the price of admission all by itself.

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1

‘Goldfinger’ (Shirley Bassey)

You were expecting someone else?

Where to begin with a song that almost every culturally literate person in the Western world has etched into their minds like the lines on their hands? The brassy call and response that triggers the track seems as natural a place to start as any, that two note phrase blasting the first real James Bond theme into our spinal cords even before Shirley Bassey can solder the wound shut. By the time her voice kicks in, instantly becoming as integral to the franchise as the Walther PPK or Sean Connery's hedge maze of chest hair, John Barry has already gilded the 007 movies with a frivolous sense of danger; silly in the extreme but worth taking seriously.

But it's Bassey who deserves the last word — and given her lung capacity, it's hard to take it from her. The singer couldn't have known the extent to which her performance would resonate in pop culture, but she holds that final note for so long that it may reverberate with us forever.

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