The name’s Eilish. Billie Eilish.
When the then 18-year-old artist released the title track for No Time To Die, the 25th film in the James Bond franchise, all the way back in February 2020, she became the youngest ever musician to record a James Bond theme song.
In doing so, Eilish followed in the footsteps of some huge names: Shirley Bassey, Adele, Madonna, Tina Turner and more have all tried their hand at recording a song worthy of 007.
With No Time To Die now set to make its long-delayed cinema debut, more than 18 months after Eilish unveiled her song, what better excuse than to look back at nearly 60 years of cinema history to ask: which Bond theme is the all-time best?
First and foremost, it’s impossible to discuss the subject without mentioning the late John Barry, the visionary composer who scored 11 films in the series between 1963 and 1987. He’s the man who pioneered the so-called “Bond sound”, that rousing mix of mystery and intrigue – big and brassy, yet sleekly seductive.
He was also the person who came up with the James Bond theme, first featured in the 1962 film Dr No and subsequently featuring in every other Bond movie. It’s one of the most celebrated pieces of music in film history and, as such, it feels unfair to rank it among the other themes. Let’s just say it’s in a class of its own.
Here, we’ve listed the tracks — starting with From Russia With Love in 1963 and going all the way up to Writing’s On The Wall by Sam Smith in 2015 — ordering them from worst to best.
24. Writing’s On The Wall — Sam Smith (Spectre, 2015)
Billie Eilish hardly had a tough act to follow. This damp flannel of a song has all of the pianos and strings but none of the necessary gravitas. That we were given this undercooked effort over Radiohead’s far superior alternative just adds more salt to the wounds.
23. Die Another Day – Madonna (Die Another Day, 2002)
It’s far and away the worst Bond film in the series, and Die Another Day’s theme music is one of the film’s biggest crimes – along with the invisible car, ice hotel and laughable CGI work, of course. Fans not only got a needless cameo from Madonna as a flirtatious fencing instructor in the film, but were also subject to her half-hearted slice of glitchy early-00s synth pop, which sounded more like a discarded B-side.
22. On Her Majesty’s Secret Service — John Barry (On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, 1969)
This isn’t all that bad, it’s just a bit of a non-event that lasts less than three minutes and doesn’t have any vocals. It does have a tasty little Moog bassline, though. The film's main musical moment comes at the end, when Louis Armstrong's We Have All the Time in the World soundtracks the big emotional finale.
21. Tomorrow Never Dies – Sheryl Crow (Tomorrow Never Dies, 1997)
If we’re being honest, we’d totally forgotten Sheryl Crow had recorded a Bond theme in the late 90s. Saying that, we’d be surprised if Crow herself remembered it, given how unremarkable this dreary ballad is. Strangely, k.d lang also produced a song for the opening credits which was far better, but it was eventually relegated to the end credits and replaced with Crow’s effort. A shame.
20. For Your Eyes Only — Sheena Easton (For Your Eyes Only, 1981)
From its chillwave-style opening to the cheesy balladry of the chorus, this one just feels very… un-Bondish. It was originally written with Dusty Springfield or Donna Summer in mind, but we’re not sure they could have done much to elevate it.
19. The Living Daylights — A-ha (The Living Daylights, 1987)
This one almost feels like an experiment. What happens if you take A-ha’s new wave sensibilities and mash them up with classic Bond string arrangements? The answer: something confused that almost works but, ultimately, doesn’t.
18. All Time High – Rita Coolidge (Octopussy, 1985)
Running around a circus dressed as a clown in Octopussy certainly wasn’t an all time high for Roger Moore’s Bond, but the film’s theme wasn’t quite so laughable. Rita Coolidge’s ABBA-esque ballad was a little restrained for the franchise, but a solid enough effort all the same.
17. Moonraker — Shirley Bassey (Moonraker, 1979)
Shirley Bassey’s third and final go at doing the Bond theme was also her weakest — fair enough really, seeing as she was only drafted in a couple of weeks before release as an emergency replacement for Kate Bush. The songwriting is pretty lacklustre, and once you hear that infernal triangle, you can’t unhear it.
16. The Man with the Golden Gun – Lulu (The Man with the Golden Gun, 1974)
It’s one of the most problematic Bonds and there’s a slight Carry On feel to Lulu’s innuendo-packed Man with the Golden Gun theme, too. “He has a powerful weapon, he charges a million a shot… Love is required whenever he's hired, it comes just before the kill.” It’s completely ridiculous, but quite good fun all things considered.
15. A View to a Kill – Duran Duran (A View to a Kill, 1985)
Duran Duran powered up their synthesisers for this middling effort back in the mid 80s. The feel of the theme is right, propelled by huge drums and peppered with brass blasts. The tune just isn’t quite up it though, and Simon Le Bon’s vocal performance is a little lacking too.
14. From Russia With Love — Matt Monro (From Russia With Love, 1963)
The songwriting here isn’t particularly riveting, but it’s the baritone vocal of Matt Monro that wins us over — the final 10 seconds or so are truly something to behold.
13. You Know My Name — Chris Cornell (Casino Royale, 2006)
Surely one of the most underrated Bond tracks. We’re big fans of all the drama that swells around this one, combining Cornell’s belting vocals with a great dollop of melodramatic rock and strings.
12. Licence to Kill – Gladys Knight (Licence to Kill, 1989)
This Gladys Knight power ballad has the hallmarks of a good Bond theme, hitting all the right cadences and showing off her blockbuster voice. The late 80s twist in production is a joy too – think huge gated reverb drum sounds, glittering synths and an enormous key change. It’s another track that’s underrated – much like Dalton’s stint as Bond.
11. Another Way to Die – Jack White & Alicia Keys (Quantum of Solace, 2008)
Jack White wrote, produced and played guitar, drums and piano on this hard rocking Bond theme, duetting with Alicia Keys. While it did feel a little unfocused, it was good to have some heavy riffage in the Bond world again – the first proper guitar motif since the days of Dr No and Live and Let Die.
10. The World Is Not Enough — Garbage (The World Is Not Enough, 1999)
It might come across as very turn-of-the-millennium now, but even more than two decades later, there's no denying that this one of the best modern Bond themes — no other track has mixed the dark allure of its classic predecessors with contemporary sounds quite as well as this one.
9. Thunderball – Tom Jones (Thunderball, 1965)
It felt like Tom Jones and Bassey were trying to out-belt each in the early years of Bond, and Jones really gives it some on this big band number. The orchestration and explosive brass flourishes are essential Bond, and there are nice allusions to the original theme from Dr No too, with Jones’s powerhouse vocals sitting in their midst.
8. No Time To Die - Billie Eilish (No Time To Die, 2021)
Eilish’s Bond effort is downright haunting - and it’s testament to her and brother Finneas’ songwriting abilities that despite the tumultuous release saga, No Time To Die feels just as striking as it did when it was unveiled to much fanfare last year, at once strikingly modern (it’s more understated than your average Bond theme, with those muted opening piano notes and Eilish’s whispering vocals) and plugged into the franchise’s musical heritage (that’ll be the soaring strings towards the end).
7. GoldenEye — Tina Turner (GoldenEye, 1995)
There’s a distinctly sinister vibe to this one, thanks to both the songwriting of Bono and The Edge — who clung firmly to the traditions of the Bond theme, rather than try any great leaps forward — and the excellent, inky vocals of Tina Turner. Extra marks for the subtle güiro that comes in during the chorus.
6. Skyfall – Adele (Skyfall, 2012)
Adele took us back to the golden age of the big Bond theme in 2012, giving a memorable performance on the classy title track. The song, based around the classic descending three-chord progression so synonymous with Bond, was equally bold and restrained, accelerating towards an emphatic finish – much like the film itself.
5. Diamonds Are Forever — Shirley Bassey (Diamonds Are Forever, 1971)
It was a hard decision between this and Bassey’s other classic, Goldfinger, as to which should place higher on our list. Regardless, Diamonds Are Forever is a gold standard against which all the other Bond themes have since been judged. The sultry, sophisticatedly funky groove is the perfect backdrop for Bassey’s superbly wounded vocal performance.
4. Goldfinger – Shirley Bassey (Goldfinger, 1964)
It doesn’t get more quintessentially Bond than the opening orchestral swell and scream of brass on Goldfinger. It’s one of John Barry’s finest moments, and the delivery from Bassey is one of the all-time great diva performances. There’s fantastic use of dynamics in the orchestration throughout, and the way Bassey attacks her way through the track, delivering the lyrics with relish, is worth its weight in… well, gold.
3. Live And Let Die — Wings (Live and Let Die, 1973)
The first Bond theme ever nominated for an Oscar, and with good reason — it’s an absolute romp. We’ll excuse the awkward reggae bit in the middle (part of the film was set in Caribbean, but still, we’re not convinced) and just focus on that unbeatable main riff. When Macca and the gang are in full flow on this track, it’s impossible not to conjure images of a high-octane car chase or some death-defying fisticuffs. Superb.
2. You Only Live Twice — Nancy Sinatra (You Only Live Twice, 1967)
Surely John Barry’s finest production, You Only Live Twice is a swirling beauty. Orchestral breezes blow over Nancy Sinatra’s sumptuous tones, while Barry adeptly works in some traditional sounds from Japan, the country in which the film is set (he certainly handles those elements with more panaché than the film itself, whose tropes of the Far East are clumsy to say the very least). There are actually two versions of this song — a subsequent reworking by producer Lee Hazlewood added extra layers of guitar-led psychedelia — but it’s this original that endures as one of the most affecting Bond themes ever written.
1. Nobody Does it Better – Carly Simon (The Spy Who Loved Me, 1977)
This perfect slice of power balladry has no real right to work as a James Bond theme, really – given how different it feels to other, more traditional songs in the franchise.
Carly Simon’s elegant tune was the first Bond song which didn’t share the name of the movie, and it’s a big departure from the norm. The writers knew how different the song was – the line “like heaven above me, the Spy Who Loved Me” was added late in the day by Carly Simon, almost to justify its status as a Bond theme. The strength of the writing alone, though, is what earns it a position at the top of our list.
The opening piano flourish instantly hooks the listener, and everything that comes after – from Simon’s impassioned delivery to the woozy strings and propulsive chord progression – is perfectly pitched and still keeps us shaken and stirred to this day.
It’s unshackled by some of the traditional hallmarks of Bond themes, and as a result it’s one of the only ones which manages to transcend the franchise completely – it’s not just one of the great movie themes, but one of the greatest pop songs of the 70s and beyond.
No Time To Die is in cinemas from September 30