The 20 Best Movie Soundtracks of The 1990s
The 1990s will always be remembered as the decade where the alternative became the mainstream. The story of Nirvana and The Year Punk Broke is well known to anyone even remotely interested in pop culture. The explosion of Nirvana, grunge and then ‘alternative’ music affected more than just the music scene.
That whole explosion practically brought interest in everything alternative, indie, underground and non-mainstream to the mainstream as the minds of the masses are opened in ways that make them friendlier to things that they won’t necessarily be friendly to in the 1980s. That ripple effect can be felt in films too, as indie films like Pulp Fiction, Trainspotting and Clerks all became cultural milestones.
After the huge success of Pulp Fiction, which not only won the Palme D’Or at Cannes but also scored US$214 million at the worldwide box office, the studios probably thought that indie film now has its own Nirvana too as they proceeded to knock out a whole slew of faux indie films (similar to the way the major labels co-opted grunge and alternative music), or snap them up for distribution only to find out, like the major labels did, that there can only be one Pulp Fiction (and Nirvana).
No matter how you feel about the whole co-opting process, one big benefit that came out of all this is that film soundtracks also became revitalized. The movies that house them may, more often than not, be mediocre, but there’s no denying the cultural impact of the Pulp Fiction CD soundtrack as well, after which almost every single film soundtrack became (or tried to become) a cool mixtape that you can play over and over again in your car and your CD player.
20. Romeo + Juliet (1996)
Quite simply the perfect movie for the 90s MTV generation, Baz Luhrmann’s adaptation of William Shakespeare’s classic wasn’t even paralyzed by its Shakespearean dialogue, which is usually the main stumbling block for teenagers and non-fans of Shakespeare, such is the power of its casting of Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes as the star-crossed lovers and its accompanying soundtrack.
Going all the way up to number 2 on the Billboard 200 albums chart and doing triple platinum sales in the US, the soundtrack is not exactly an all killer and no filler affair, even with its strong line-up of names like Garbage, Butthole Surfers, Radiohead, The Cardigans and Everclear, but it will always be remembered for bringing to the world the joys of The Cardigans’ “Lovefool” and The Wannadies’ “You And Me Song”, both of which are still feel-good classics to this very day. (Soundtrack Playlist)
19. Reality Bites (1994)
For a film that people often labeled as a Gen-X picture, the Reality Bites soundtrack actually has a very strong 80s feel to it with acts like The Knack, Squeeze, World Party, Crowded House and U2 making up its surprisingly strong line-up of acts.
It’s probably the whole 80s and 90s college radio feel of the whole soundtrack that led to it being very much an ever present in the record collection of so many people from Generation X, but the simple fact is that the whole thing is chock full of very melodic and highly memorable guitar pop songs that just flow so well together.
One won’t even bat an eyelid listening to The Knack’s “My Sharona” back to back with “Spin The Bottle” by the Juliana Hatfield Three and the killer midsection of The Posies, Lisa Loeb & Nine Stories’ ubiquitous “Stay (I Missed You)”, U2’s lovely “All I Want Is You” and Crowded House. Like the film, it is perfectly pleasant but nowhere near extraordinary. But sometimes perfectly pleasant is just what people need. (Soundtrack Playlist)
18. Empire Records (1995)
It’s remarkable how many people still think that Empire Records was a great movie, but it’s also very possible that the people who think so were influenced by their memories of its soundtrack CD.
Even though there are many candidates for great 90s soundtracks featuring jangly 90s alternative rock like the soundtracks to Dumb And Dumber, Kingpin or even Mallrats, it’s quite clear that the Empire Records soundtrack is the most dearly beloved of all these, even getting re-released on vinyl for the current hipster generation.
Chiefly remembered for its irresistible and still classic lead single “Til I Hear It From You” by Gin Blossoms, the soundtrack also boasts other classic 90s acts like The Cranberries, Toad The Wet Sprocket, Cracker, Better Than Ezra, Edwyn Collins and Evan Dando (covering Big Star’s classic “The Ballad Of El Goodo”). This is probably another one of those albums you’d inevitably find in a lot of bargain bins, but that basically shows how many people bought the album in the first place. (Soundtrack Playlist)
17. Breaking The Waves (1996)
Superficially there seems to be a discrepancy between the mood and feel of Breaking The Waves the film and the mood and feel of the songs on its soundtrack CD.
Anyone who’s heard about Lars Von Trier’s emotionally devastating masterpiece but who haven’t yet got the chance to see it will be baffled by the soundtrack’s tracklist, which largely consists of classic, mostly British, 1970s rock and glam, like “Hot Love” by T-Rex, “Child In Time” by Deep Purple, “Whisky In The Jar” by Thin Lizzy, “All The Way From Memphis” by Mott The Hoople, “Virginia Plain” by Roxy Music and “Whiter Shade Of Pale” by Procol Harum.
While some of these are heard playing on the radio in the film, some are crucially used in the film’s inter-titles, which serve as a brief breather for the audience, letting them calm down and soak things in for a few moments before delving into another emotionally draining chapter in the film’s relentless series of powerful and punishing events. The only shame here is that David Bowie’s “Life On Mars” didn’t make it into the CD soundtrack, even though it can be heard in the film. (Soundtrack Playlist)
16. Angus (1995)
There’s no getting around it, Angus the film, about a bullied high school school boy, is a remnant of the 1980s coming of age teen movie, and not a particularly good one at that. But Angus the movie soundtrack is a whole different proposition.
Made at a time when Green Day and pop-punk was fast becoming the new grunge, the soundtrack to Angus, most probably courtesy of music supervisors Elliot Cahn and Jeff Saltzman (who also happened to manage Green Day and The Muffs), became a sampler of all things great about 1990s pop-punk, especially of the Berkeley, CA and Lookout Records type.
About a quarter of the album is populated by notable acts from Lookout Records at the time, like The Riverdales (an awesome spinoff of the seminal Screeching Weasel), Pansy Division and Tilt (with Green Day also formerly on the label with their first 2 albums), and the rest is made up of plenty of other notable (and now even legendary) acts like Weezer (with “You Gave Your Love To Me Softly”, one of their best songs ever) Ash, The Muffs, Smoking Popes, and of course Green Day. The only weak points came from the baffling inclusion of Love Spit Love and Goo Goo Dolls who are nowhere near pop-punk. (Soundtrack Playlist)
15. Spawn (1997)
Surely inspired by the Judgment Night soundtrack’s groundbreaking and massively successful blending of rock and hip hop acts, the producers of the Spawn soundtrack brought together rock, industrial and metal acts to work with electronica acts instead. While the idea may not be something new, especially when considering the fact that Nu-metal acts have been flirting with hip hop and electronica anyway, the results are nonetheless pretty ear catching stuff.
With a lineup that combines Filter and The Crystal Method, Marilyn Manson and Sneaker Pimps, Korn and The Dust Brothers, Butthole Surfers and Moby, Slayer and Atari Teenage Riot, and that doesn’t even include other stellar names like Silverchair, Metallica, The Prodigy and Incubus, this soundtrack is simply a one of a kind event that’s too special to ever be forgotten in music history, even if the movie itself is long forgotten by now. (Soundtrack Playlist)