When it comes to "James Bond" theme songs, nobody does it better than the Brits. (Apologies to Carly Simon, whose ballad for "The Spy Who Loved Me" is an honorable exception.) Case in point: Adele's "Skyfall," the first "Bond" song by a British artist in more than 25 years, has been widely hailed as one of the best in the series.
"[Sony Pictures] was interested in an artist who not only would be right for the specific film, but who could harken back to the classic 'Bond' themes of the '60s," says Jon Burlingame, author of "The Music of James Bond." "Because Adele is one of the hottest artists in the world – and a Brit – it was almost a no-brainer."
The series' risqué silhouetted title sequences, which are just barely PG-13, have featured memorable hits by British artists such as Tom Jones, Paul McCartney & Wings, Sheena Easton, and Shirley Bassey.
The template for the "Bond" song, established by composers John Barry and Monty Norman, combines the twang of machismo guitar, plunges of orchestral strings, blasts of brass, and a vocal somewhere between melancholic torch song and tongue-in-cheek belter. Exhibit A: Ms. Bassey's "Goldfinger" – the first of her three "007" songs – which was a Gold Record. The brand-savvy "Bond" franchise has looked to "sounds that could potentially get on the radio" ever since "Dr. No" in 1962, says Mr. Burlingame.
In 1985, that sound was Duran Duran, whose hit "A View to a Kill" came at the height of the "Second British Invasion" of US radio. But when British artists began to struggle in the United States, the film producers roped in American acts such as Sheryl Crow, Garbage, and Madonna. The character of the theme songs changed somewhat.
"The contributions of the other recent performers – Tina Turner, Gladys Knight, Chris Cornell, Jack White, and Alicia Keys – are done more in the style of those individual performers than in the style of '007,' " says Bruce Scivally, coauthor of "James Bond: The Legacy."
By contrast, Adele's "Skyfall" earns its license to thrill by emulating the classic "Bond" sound. In keeping with the tenor of Daniel Craig's Bond, it's soulful and somber, sophisticated and seductive. One can imagine a tuxedoed 007 listening to "Skyfall" while driving his Aston Martin – or sky-diving with Her Majesty.
"It's one of the most listenable and accessible 'Bond' tunes in a long time," concludes Burlingame.