2012 marks the 50th anniversary of James Bond's cinematic debut, and is proving to be a banner year for the iconic franchise with the highly anticipated feature, Skyfall (November 9) as well as the release of Best of Bond, Capitol's expansive CD set spanning a half-century of remastered 007 music.
As a Bond music fanatic, I've chosen to celebrate this anniversary by carefully re-listening to each showstopper. Here are my picks of the top 20 most compelling vocal productions in the James Bond pantheon of anthems...
1. "Goldfinger" -- Shirley Bassey (Goldfinger, 1964)
When it comes to 007 themes, Goldfinger is the gold standard, setting the stage for every epic musical notion in the franchise to follow, and accomplishing this all in under two minutes and 50 seconds. Unlike most Bond themes, this is the antagonist's anthem, and it couldn't conquer in grander style. Opening with an inpenetrable wall of blaring horns to the ultimate climax: six glass smashing seconds of the word "gold" as torpedoed by Shirley Bassey's lethal weapon of a voice, the song is a movie unto itself.
2. "Nobody Does It Better" -- Carly Simon (The Spy Who Loved Me, 1977)
A soaring love song about James, the man, and not about the movie storyline, Simon's Oscar-nominated powerhouse ballad broke the mold. Seamlessly building from the first tinkling of a piano key to one of pop history's most lusciously layered vocal finales, Simon belts it at her heartbreaking best, and the result was a timeless, larger than life smash that stretched beyond typical Bond territory.
3. "Live & Let Die" -- Paul McCartney & Wings (Live & Let Die, 1973)
McCartney reunited with Beatles producer George Martin and landed one of his biggest hits. Immense in scale, Live & Let Die, is a rocking pyrotechnic thrill ride that (like "Nobody Does It Better") peaked at No. 2 on Billboard's charts, and scored a Best Song Oscar nomination.
4. "A View to a Kill" -- Duran Duran (A View to a Kill, 1985)
Featuring a 60 piece orchestra, this collaboration between the biggest British band of the 1980s and composer John Barry was the only Bond theme to reach No. 1. The song was also the last time the five original members of Duran Duran recorded together until they reunited 16 years later.
5. "Diamonds Are Forever" -- Shirley Bassey (Diamonds Are Forever, 1971)
Miss Bassey returned to belt out the grandiose theme for Connery's final official Bond picture. Producer Harry Saltzman objected to the lyrics' sexual innuendo, but thankfully co-producer Cubby Broccoli insisted the song remain in the film. In 2012, Bassey sang this gem for Queen Elizabeth's Diamond Jubilee.
6. "You Only Live Twice" -- Nancy Sinatra (You Only Live Twice, 1967)
Scared to death of recording a Bond song, Sinatra was so nervous that composer John Barry said the final version used 25 different takes. The result: a lush, wistful ballad, famed for its striking (and widely sampled) velvety opening bars of high octave violins and French horn in an Oriental flavor.
7. "Skyfall" -- Adele (Skyfall, 2012)
Just out of the starting gate and already an international chart hit, sultry Skyfall is one of Bond's best, co-written and recorded by Adele with a 77 piece orchestra. It's poised to become the first Bond song ever to collect an Academy Award for Best Song.
8. "Goldeneye" -- Tina Turner (Goldeneye, 1995)
When Goldeneye was released, the Bond franchise had been dormant for six years, and this showstopper (written by U2's Bono and The Edge especially for Turner) was the shot in the arm it needed. Turner and producer Nellee Hooper pulled out all the stops in Shirley Bassey-esque femme fatale grandeur.
9. "From Russia With Love" -- Matt Munro (From Russia With Love, 1963)
One year before Bassey redefined the Bond anthem with Goldfinger, 007's first title vocal belonged to romantic crooner, Matt Munro. Sans histrionics and clever effects, this is the smoking jacket of Bond songs, and a classic that holds up beautifully, thank you very much.
10. "Thunderball" -- Tom Jones (Thunderball, 1965)
Singing like his life depends upon it, Jones was recruited at the very last minute to record Thunderball after Shirley Bassey, Dionne Warwick and Johnny Cash, (who had all submitted songs for the film) were rejected. True to its name, this is a bold, campy recording that packs a walloping punch.
11. "The World Is Not Enough" -- Garbage (The World Is Not Enough, 1999)
With a sweeping chorus to rival the best of 007's themes, Shirley Manson and company's noir-ish contribution to the Bond music pantheon is a sexy, brooding, gorgeous marriage of electronic and orchestral. Garbage was an inspired choice that delivered.
12. "You Know My Name" -- Chris Cornell (Casino Royale, 2006)
This hardest rocking of Bond themes found Cornell's energetic, growling vocal,
the perfect, high-testosterone choice to capture the fresh, fiery spirit of the franchise's best Daniel Craig-era film.
13. "Another Way to Die" -- Jack White & Alicia Keys (Quantum of Solace, 2008)
Pairing (two very different) recording artists paid off with a driving, innovative composition that many were quick to criticize, but purists be damned, Another Way to Die is a multi-layered, striking, bold piece of work.
14. "Where Has Everybody Gone?" -- The Pretenders (The Living Daylights, 1987)
Chrissie Hynde created two stellar (and vastly different) tracks to The Living Daylights soundtrack, including this blazing, brassy rocker -- which had more kick than the official theme (see No. 18).
15. "For Your Eyes Only" -- Sheena Easton (For Your Eyes Only, 1981)
Big, and pop radio-ready, Easton's yearning delivery wrapped in shimmering Close Encounters-esque synth flourishes, snared Bond's last Best Song Oscar nom.
16. "If There Was a Man" -- The Pretenders (The Living Daylights, 1987)
Chrissie Hynde's tender throwback to Bacharach, is one of Bond's warmest, and most underrated ballads.
17. "Surrender" -- k. d. lang (Tomorrow Never Dies, 1997)
Originally supposed to open Tomorrow Never Dies, Lang's soaring, torchy aria was moved to the final credits in favor of Sheryl Crowe's anemic title contribution.
18. "The Living Daylights" -- a-Ha (The Living Daylights, 1987)
A-Ha's underappreciated contribution glides along a briskly paced, stylish, sophisticated arrangement blending Bond motifs with Morten Harket's lilting tenor to rousing 'Big 80s' effect.
19. "License to Kill" -- Gladys Knight (License to Kill, 1989)
Knight's rich honeyed voice ranks as Bond's most soul-drenched, aided by the Goldfinger-esque embellishments that help the song rise above the some of the now dated-sounding late-'80s R&B production.
20. "All Time High" -- Rita Coolidge (Octopussy, 1983)
While most Bond artists attempt to rip the roof off, Coolidge, bathed in sax and strings, took the opposite approach delivering the most relaxed vocal in 007 history to seductive, almost ethereal effect scoring the franchise a Top 40 hit in the process.
Honorable mentions: "Mr. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang," Dionne Warwick (Thunderball, 1965), "We Have All the Time in the World," Louis Armstrong (On Her Majesty's Secret Service, 1969)