Like Santa Claus appearing at the end of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade or the groundhog seeing its shadow, the release day of the new James Bond theme song formally heralds that we are just a few weeks away from the big event. And for the release of Spectre–the fourth Bond adventure in the revitalized Daniel Craig era–that day is today: the music video for Sam Smith’s “Writing’s On The Wall” dropped late last night, giving the English crooner the 24th Bond theme in the series.
Comparing all Bond themes throughout history is an apples-to-oranges proposition: How do you rank Shirley Bassey and Tom Jones against Sheryl Crow and A-ha, or those artists against Sam Smith or Adele? (Spoiler: Everybody looks pretty good compared to A-ha). Taking a closer look at how Smith’s theme stacks up to the other Daniel Craig-era Bond themes gives a more direct comparison, though.
“You Know My Name,” Chris Cornell (Casino Royale, 2006)
Cornell’s trademark yowl could have made him a perfect choice for a Bond theme–dude can belt one out (have you ever heard him sing “Ave Maria”?), and that sort of big-time production from a street-level singer like Cornell was probably intended to signal a similar shift from the slick, sappy, Pierce Brosnan-era Bond of the ’90s as the casting of Daniel Craig was. (At the very least, he was likely to deliver something pretty far away from Madonna’s awful “Die Another Day” from the final Brosnan film.) But Cornell’s “You Know My Name” turned out to be just a pretty good rock song from a pretty good rock singer–it sounds good as the closing track to Cornell’s 2007 album, Carry On, but with heavy electric guitars and not much mood-setting, it doesn’t really work as a Bond theme.
Bond rating: 4/10
“Another Way To Die,” Jack White & Alicia Keys (Quantum of Solace, 2008)
The pairing of Jack White and Alicia Keys is an inspired one. White–a decade into his career with the White Stripes, but before achieving domination as a solo act–was still one of the more interesting voices in music, while Keys was fully established as one of the slickest singers of her generation. Putting the two together for the first Bond theme duet delivered something unique–a blend of crunchy Jack White-style guitars and Alicia Keys-style piano tinkering that gave way to dramatic horns and tension-building strings. “Another Way To Die” sounds like a James Bond theme, but it’s forward-facing and interesting, achieving musically what Quantum of Solace aimed to die cinematically.
Bond rating: 7/10
“Skyfall,” Adele (Skyfall, 2012)
Sometimes, the stars just align, and the most thrilling vocalist this side of Shirley Bassey is the most famous singer in the world just as a new Bond film is coming out, and she and shows up with a song that’s so perfect for a James Bond theme that all you really have to do is release it for an instant classic. Adele’s “Skyfall” is moody and epic, with swirling strings and a perfect, massive hook that also manages to say the movie’s name like two dozen times. 2012 was the fiftieth anniversary of James Bond, and “Skyfall” fittingly stands right alongside the other great songs in Bond theme history.
Bond rating: 10/10
“Writing’s On The Wall,” Sam Smith (Spectre, 2015)
Smith’s take on the Bond theme gets a lot of things right: he’s got the vintage strings, horns, and piano, and “Writing’s On The Wall” sounds like it could have come from a few different eras, which is good–part of the point of a Bond theme is that it ages well, and “Writing’s On The Wall” is fairly timeless. It’s also kind of a drag, though: Smith delivers a moody, tense ballad, but he forgets to drop a hook in it (maybe he was scared he’d end up ripping off Tom Petty again?), which means that “Writing’s On The Wall” is pleasantly listenable, and manages to evoke the mood of a Bond movie, without actually being much of a song by itself.
Bond rating: 6/10