The ’90s was the last great decade for the movie soundtrack.
Back then, it was always a thrill to flip though someone’s CD collection and see what stood out from the usual suspects — there were plenty of essential albums everyone owned, they practically sent out Nirvana’s Smells Like Teen Spirit in the mail — but soundtracks were where you got a feel for someone’s taste, as the world of film and music collided on a those wonderful compact discs. If you spotted certain soundtracks, you knew someone was probably going to be an absolute legend.
These days it’s rare to come across films with a killer soundtrack that isn’t just a compilation of hits and deep cuts from the past (see: Baby Driver). In the ’90s, there was an art to the film/music tie-in, where artists would launch a song you could only buy on the soundtrack. These tracks were usually tied to an Oscar campaign for Best Original Song, which has slowly become a dud category over the last decade or so — case in point is Counting Crows scoring a nomination for Shrek 2.
So to pay tribute to their genius, we’ve picked out the ten best ’90s movie soundtracks.
A little housekeeping first: the list is made of soundtracks that are reflective of the ’90s. Big guns like Pulp Fiction, Reality Bites, The Wedding Singer, Apollo 13 and My Girl are excellent, but they excel as compilations without a particular allegiance to ’90s music. Soundtracks are counted as separate to film scores, which means Titanic is out (sorry, Celine Dion), and musicals have an unfair advantage in this category so South Park: Bigger Longer and Uncut, Aladdin and The Lion King are exempt.
Oh, and one last thing: this list is strictly Forrest Gump free.
While Marvel and DC Comics were trying to figure out how to get their shit together, a bunch of underground comic book characters got film adaptations in the ’90s like Tank Girl, The Crow and Spawn.
These films came with a lot of noise and most of it came from their soundtracks. Spawn managed to outmuscle its comic book rivals with its soundtrack, which got better reviews than the film did. Spawn: The Album is built on the concept of pairing bands with producers. Sounds like the worst idea, right? Surprisingly, the album creates an identity of its own that pulses with darkness of the film, which is about a demonic superhero who gets his powers from hell.
It reflects the industrial electro music phase that swept through the music industry in the ’90s with everyone trying to emulate bands like Nine Inch Nails. The pairings were inspired: Korn and the Dust Brothers, Marilyn Manson and Sneaker Pimps, and The Prodigy and Tom Morello.
These collaborations would never happen if it wasn’t for a flick like Spawn and it’s a true one-of-a-kind soundtrack that managed to eclipse the film.
There’s more to this soundtrack than the juggernaut hit ‘Gangster’s Paradise’ by Coolio — it’s the perfect blend of ’90s hip-hop, soul and R&B, which is vital to reflecting the musical tastes of the teenagers in the film.
A notable track is Sista’s ‘It’s Alright’, an all-female R&B group led by Missy Elliot and produced by Timbaland. It’s one of Elliot and Timbaland’s earliest collaborations, long before they became musical royalty, and a huge break to be included on a soundtrack that sold in excess of three million copies at the end of ‘95. DeVanté’s ‘Gin and Juice’ is silky smooth ’90s R&B and Big Mike’s ‘Havin’ Things’ has a lot of angry swagger.
It was tough trying to get your hands on albums with an ‘explicit’ sticker on it in the ’90s (thanks, Mum and Dad!) but the Dangerous Minds soundtrack was a nice little workaround to get to great tunes.
If you didn’t have a legit copy of the Empire Records soundtrack, you definitely had a burnt copy of the Empire Records soundtrack.
The film was a huge flop when it was released in cinemas but found a legion of fans when it hit VHS and every ’90s kid wanted to work in a record store like Empire Records – open till midnight. The soundtrack is worthy of celebrating like it’s Rex Manning Day, the perfect mixtape, the glue of world.
Not all 50 songs used in the film made the soundtrack. Different volumes of it were released overseas, with most only getting the 16 track edition featuring The Cruel Sea, The Cranberries, Gin Blossoms, Edwyn Collins, Better Than Ezra, Toad and the Wet Sprocket and more. But it was the bands you couldn’t instantly recognise that had the best songs.
Savvy teens armed with Napster and a remote control could track down every song by pausing the song listing in the credits; I have no shame in admitting I did just this. Damn then man, save the Empire.
Yep, Batman films were once famous for their soundtracks. Prince worked on the soundtrack for Tim Burton’s Batman, and while the music from Batman Returns didn’t get traction, the soundtrack for Batman Forever did.
The two big singles did all the heavy lifting: Seal’s ‘Kiss From a Rose’ and U2’s ‘Hold Me Thrill Me Kiss Me Kill Me’. But a pleasant surprise awaited those who blind bought the album for those tracks. The soundtrack boasted PJ Harvey, Mazzy Star, The Offspring (doing an excellent cover of the Damned’s ‘Smash It Up’), Nick Cave, Massive Attack, Method Man and The Flaming Lips.
Also, for INXS fans, there’s a solo track from Michael Hutchens covering Iggy Pop’s ‘Passenger’. Batman Forever’s soundtrack made up for the newly added nipples on his Batsuit… almost.
Shortly after The Verve’s ‘Bittersweet Symphony’ finished playing during the final scene in Cruel Intentions, I was begging my parents to lend me cash to buy the CD single. Not only did I get the single, I bought the soundtrack twice: one for home and one for my Discman.
The ’90s was rich with teen driven soundtracks like Can’t Hardly Wait, Go, American Pie and 10 Things I Hate About You, but Cruel Intentions seduced an excellent mix of bands onto its soundtrack. Placebo got a hug bump from this soundtrack, as did Fatboy Slim, Faithless, Blur, Aimee Mann and Counting Crows.
The Cruel Intentions soundtrack was as cool as the rich kids in the film but minus all the sexual manipulation, drug use and creepy relations with a step-sibling.
Who would have thought a cover of a Dolly Parton song would decimate the charts in ’92? ‘I Will Always Love You’ is the centrepiece single of one of the highest selling soundtracks — and albums — of all time.
The Bodyguard solidified Whitney Houston as a superstar and the soundtrack shows off Houston’s incredible vocal abilities with various covers. The soundtrack also features music from Kenny G, which makes it even more indelible to the ’90s. It’s the soundtrack that changed karaoke forever and it will never be forgotten as long as there are drunk people with access to a microphone at 1am.
As The Muffs tear into a cover of ‘Kids in America’ in the opening seconds of Clueless, you know it ain’t going to be your standard ’90s teen movie.
It’s a film that vibes with music present in lives of its characters living in the ’90s: Coolio’s ‘Rollin’ With the Homies’ plays at the party and Radiohead’s ‘Fake Plastic Trees’ is heard on the radio. The music used in montages, such as Jill Sobule’s ‘Supermodel’ in the makeover sequence, gives the film a fun teenage energy.
The prominence of female-led bands gives it a point of difference that’s key to director Amy Heckling’s sensibilities. No Doubt, Cindi Lauper, Jewel and Luscious Jackson feature prominently. If anyone doubts this soundtrack should not be on this list, give them a huge, ugh, as if!
A soundtrack that bleeds flannel. Cameron Crowe’s film centres on the rise of grunge in Seattle in the early ’90s and it’s a soundtrack that captures the sound that changed rock music.
All the key growlers are there: Alice in Chains, Pearl Jam, Chris Cornell/Soundgarden, Mudhoney and The Smashing Pumpkins. If you had to explain grunge to someone, you’d give them the Singles soundtrack. It packaged grunge for a whole generation and the parents who asked ‘what the hell is this?’
While you can point out the bands overlooked in Crowe’s mix, there’s no doubling the influence his soundtrack had on the rise of each bands involved and how they are remembered as key players in the grunge scene. History is written by the bands on the Singles soundtrack.
Music and Trainspotting are so intricately linked that it’s impossible to talk about one without mentioning the other.
The first seconds of the film feature Iggy Pop’s ‘Lust For Life’ thrashing along to the gang on the run as we hear the famous ‘Choose Life’ speech. The film demands your attention in the opening minutes but it doesn’t give a shit if you can’t keep up, it keeps thumping and pounding along.
Nearly every iconic scene in Trainpsotting is punctuated by the soundtrack. The use of Lou Reed’s ‘Perfect Day’ during the overdose scene is perfection. I always get chills when Underworld’s ‘Born Slippy’ plays because it jolts me back to the powerful closing moments of the film.
Trainspotting is one of those rare soundtracks that you can listen to from start to finish and feel like you’ve just watched the film through your ears. It’s evocative, and works perfectly in tandem with the images director Danny Boyle burned into your brain the first you saw the film.
One of the highest selling albums of ’97 came from a Shakespeare adaptation. At the time it was unprecedented, but Baz Lurhmann’s ‘so crazy it just might work’ modern adaption of the Bard’s tale of star crossed lovers is one of the great anomalies in film history. A decade after its release, it’s still difficult to define the film.
If you compare Romeo + Juliet to Lurhamann’s later films it’s worthy of putting up a missing person poster to try and find the filmmaker he once was. The soundtrack is evidence of the wild creativity and inventiveness at work in the film. Radiohead is deployed for a mopey Romeo, Kym Mazelle’s ‘Young Hearts Run Free’ turns a party into a cabaret musical/rave and The Cardigan’s ‘Love Fool’ is the song equivalent of someone making puppy dog eyes at you; I’ve spent ten years trying to get it out of my head.
The solo vocal performances of Des’ree and Quindon Tarver are achingly beautiful and are impeccable company for Shakespeare’s romantic prose. There’s a lot of passion in the soundtrack, which resembles the wild vitality of the film. Romeo and Juliet are portrayed as teenagers, so it’s essential for the music to have the same hormonal energy.
The Romeo + Juliet soundtrack elevates the film immeasurably. Each listen, like each watch of the film, is like falling in love and having your heart broken time, and time again.
Cameron Williams is a writer and film critic based in Melbourne who occasionally blabs about movies on ABC radio. He has a slight Twitter addiction: @MrCamW.
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