For a musician, the honor getting to sing the James Bond theme song is in its own category. Many movies need songs, but you never see articles wondering who will do the next Fast and the Furious song (even though more people would likely hear your song there than in Bond). Giving their music to sell a product is something musicians regularly do, but rarely take as a career honor.
But given the track record Bond theme songs have had, the appeal makes sense. James Bond songs might even have a higher batting average than James Bond movies (and certainly higher than James Bond actors). And there’s a prevailing sense artists are chosen for abilities beyond just star-power, despite plenty of counterexamples over the years. Some of the most iconic songs were sung by singers who rarely topped the charts elsewhere – three by Shirley Bassey alone – whereas attempts to grab zeitgiesty performers have flopped.
So in honor of the new Bond movie Spectre coming out this week, with its own tradition-minded Sam Smith song, we present a ranked list of the best James Bond song covers of all time. Spectre is the 24th official Bond movie (no, we don’t count Sean Connery’s abysmal 1980s comeback Never Say Never Again, made by another company), so we picked 24 covers.
A few rules, since we take these sorts of things far more seriously than we should:
* We did not hit every Bond theme. Chris Cornell’s “You Know My Name” was a lousy song that has generated lousy covers, so we are not going to include one at the expense of a classic “You Only Live Twice.”
* We excluded instrumental versions, unless the original was also instrumental. There are quite a few good surf-rock covers of these that are worth seeking out though for those interested, and quite a few bad lounge-electronica ones.
* We made no attempt to include big names, but neither did we fetishize the obscure. My Bloody Valentine’s Bond cover didn’t make it, but Coldplay’s did.
And without further ado, here are the all time highs of James Bond cover songs….
Deadbolt – James Bond Theme [psychobilly]
Fanfare Ciocarlia – James Bond Theme [gypsy brass]
Graeme Norgate & Grant Kirkhope – James Bond Theme [electro-groove xylophone]
Hugo Montenegro – James Bond Theme [orchestral pomp]
John Zorn – James Bond Theme [psycho-jazz]
Les Ejectés – James Bond Theme [reggae with a dude yelling “James Bond!” repeatedly]
Ray Barretto – James Bond Theme [Latin swing]
Surf Champlers – James Bond Theme [percussive surf]
Tokyo Panorama Mambo Boys – James Bond Theme [spastic salsa-punk]
Though technically this instrumental was a theme for a specific Bond movie – the first, Dr. No, which didn’t get its own song – it doesn’t quite count as it’s also become the theme for the series as a whole. So we left it out of the main list, but rounded up a bunch our favorite versions as honorable mentions.
#24. Natacha Atlas – From Russia with Love (Matt Munro cover)
This one, and a couple others, comes from a tribute album that doubled as a job application. British film scorer David Arnold curated a 1997 Bond covers album featuring everyone from Iggy Pop to Pulp. Iconic Bond composer John Barry liked the album so much, he hired Barry to score Tomorrow Never Dies and four subsequent Bond films.
#23. Fun Lovin’ Criminals – We Have All the Time in the World (Louis Armstrong cover)
“We Have All the Time in the World” is technically the second theme for On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, as the instrumental title track plays over the opening title sequence. But it’s one of the most-covered Bond songs all the same. Here, Louis Armstrong’s rasp is replaced by a slightly twangy crooned cover.
#22. The Original Onions – On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (John Barry cover)
And here’s that instrumental theme; ironic that one of the worst Bond movies (all you need to know: the one where Bond gets married) delivers two of the best songs. The only instrumental stand-alone theme gets covered here by a Columbus, Ohio surf-rock group that only released one album and dressed like guys in Office Space.
#21. DJ Downfall feat. Theoretical Girl – Moonraker (Shirley Bassey cover)
After “Goldfinger” and “Diamonds Are Forever,” Shirley Bassey was the preeminent James Bond singer. For her third and final (so far) Bond song, she sang “Moonraker,” a quieter ballad that knocked it out of the park again. On a new tribute album, Julee Cruise sound-alike Theoretical Girl sings overs a production by London’s DJ Downfall that is appropriately spacey.
#20. Pulp – All Time High (Rita Coolidge cover)
Pulp rescues one of the most forgettable Bond themes, Jarvis Cocker’s understated speak-singing making a wonderful contrast with the soaring strings. Still, how amazing could this have been if Pulp had done, say, “From Russia With Love”?
#19. Coldplay – You Only Live Twice (Nancy Sinatra cover)
Coldplay included this cover regularly in their set early on, eventually releasing a live recording as the b-side to their single “Don’t Panic” in 2001. It works perfectly as a Coldplay song, all dramatic crescendoes and guitar atmospherics.
#18. Aneka – Live and Let Die (Paul McCartney & Wings cover)
I’ve always maintained that “Live and Let Die” is a great song but a terrible Bond theme. Its radically shifting soft-loud dynamics don’t really work as an opening credits number, which needs to be drama all the way through, not great choruses broken up by white-boy reggae interludes or weepy piano lilting. This quiet acoustic cover is in the same spirit: Great song that would be daffy next to images of flames and shapely silhouettes.
#17. Mark Lanegan – You Only Live Twice (Nancy Sinatra cover)
The Screaming Trees frontman is known as a grunge veteran, but on his 2013 covers album Imitations he mostly turned down the volume. On this quiet acoustic guitar number, he croons with his gentle gravel of a voice, sounding like a guy who’s just as glad he won’t have to live that third time.
#16. Robert Johnson & Punchdrunks – On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (John Barry cover)
This weirdo Swedish instrumental band delivers a cover that’s part surf, part Middle Eastern, and all trippy.
#15. Skye – A View to a Kill (Duran Duran cover)
Cocktail lounge versions of Bond songs pop up as often as shaken-not-stirred martinis, but the little touches make this one stand out. The bicycle bell, the soft rain in the background – it sounds like a soundtrack to a very different movie, one about the French countryside where you live and let live and nothing ever blows up.
#14. Aimee Mann – Nobody Does It Better (Carly Simon cover)
On NPR the other day, a segment on Bond themes claimed there was a perception that Bond themes are where big hitmakers go to not have a hit. While there are certainly high-profile themes that fell flat, there seem to just as many counterexamples. One of the biggest is Carly Simon, who might have been a one-hit wonder except for her surprise Bond smash, which became her second biggest single after “You’re So Vain.” Aimee Mann doesn’t have Simon’s belting voice (which you might consider a good thing), so she goes for a more avant-garde take that alternates between whispers and electronic roars.
#13. Cinerama – Diamonds Are Forever (Shirley Bassey cover)
A defunct side project of British indie rock vets the Wedding Present, Cinerema lived up to their name on this 2001 b-side. With some reverbed-out guitar and warbly backing vocals, they conjure up a widescreen soundscape worth of Shirley Bassey’s classic second theme.