The Best Soundtracks of the 1990s

This article first appeared on Audienceseverywhere.net. Go there for more great stuff.

Born in 1984, I am what Buzzfeed calls a 90s kid. I have also at some point erased most 90s pop culture from my brain ala Eternal Sunshine of a Spotless Mind, so don’t find myself awash with nostalgia when someone says the words Tamagotchi or Saved by the Bell. With that in mind I pushed down my natural urge for cynicism, rolled up my sleeves, and dived into the 90s headfirst. First thing that struck me was the use of love ballads for movies that probably shouldn’t have love ballads as their signature song. Armageddon, an awful Michael Bay turd with a murderer’s row of great actors, probably needs a rock song for its plot of drillers going into space to blow up an asteroid and yet Don’t Wanna Miss a Thing by Aerosmith was chosen instead. I guess studio execs thought, hey how do we get women to see this steaming pile? Right, make it seem like a romance movie by putting Liv Tyler and Ben Affleck up front and get Aerosmith to play some sappy nonsense over the top, yeah, chicks dig that! What makes even less sense was that the song, How Do I Live?, A country-ish ballad by Trisha Yearwood (originally by LeAnn Rimes ) was the song for Con Air, a movie in which John Malkovich threatens to shoot a bunny and Nicholas Cage has a mullet.

Oh, man, the 90s were so stupid.

Pulp Fiction

MCA

MCA

Arguably the best movie of the 1990s, Pulp Fiction also has a fantastic soundtrack. Tarantino can be relied upon to create awesome albums to accompany his awesome movies. His use of music in his films is usually perfect, and his eclectic music choices keep it unpredictable. For example, if someone described the plot of Pulp Fiction to you and talked about Walken’s watch speech or the gimp or shooting Marvin in the face or adrenaline straight to the heart or Jules’ moment of clarity, the first thing you wouldn’t think of is surf music. And yet, if you’ve seen Pulp Fiction then you know that the movie could not be the same without Dick Dale’s Misirlou playing over the opening credits. In much the same way that Tarantino’s movies are made up of homages and odes to other movies, so is his soundtrack a mix of odds and sods from music he likes. A lot of the soundtracks I have written about already tend to either have a single artist that performs the lion’s share of the songs or are thematically linked. Flash Dance for example is mostly dance songs and ballads, while Easy Rider was mostly languid drug songs or upbeat driving songs. Pulp Fiction does not follow that rule at all. There aren’t many times you would look at a track list and see Kool and the Gang, Dusty Springfield, Chuck Berry, and Al Green all there one after another and yet, with Pulp Fiction, it simply works.

Space Jam 

Atlantic Records

Atlantic Records

Remember how a few seconds ago you read about how eclectic the Pulp Fiction soundtrack was, ignore that and find the track list for Space Jam. In what world does a movie about Michael Jordan helping the Looney Tunes win a basketball game against a group of monsters have a soundtrack in which one of the songs is called Basketball Jones that is written by Cheech and Chong and performed by Barry White and Chris Rock? Oh, it’s this world. This one we live in. It’s like having your teeth drilled for six minutes.
Other than that though, what is this soundtrack like? Not bad. The most well-known song is obviously I Believe I Can Fly by R. Kelly, and it still holds up as a piece of inoffensive, gospel R&B. Say what you will about R. Kelly, the guy can put together a sappy ballad that you struggle to dislike and make it look easy.
My favourite track on this album, and again it’s another inexplicable song for an album that accompanies a movie about talking cartoon animals, is Hit ‘Em High. Hit ‘Em High is performed by B Real, Busta Rhymes, Coolio, LL Cool J, and Method Man, five men who should be nowhere near a kid’s movie soundtrack and they bring the heat. Hit ‘Em High (especially the Busta bits) is a legit rap song that, while still pretty 90s (Coolio, references to Bob Dole), still holds up today.

The Bodyguard

Arista Records

Arista Records

This is the bestselling soundtrack of all time. Not Saturday Night Fever, not Frozen, not some musical bullshit. No, the bestselling soundtrack of all time comes from a Kevin Costner movie in which he protects/falls in love with Whitney Houston. It’s easy to scoff about the movie (which earns three shrugs out of five in a meaningless rating system I just half-heartedly devised) but the album is very good, or at least half of it is. I’ve been a big Whitney fan in my day and having her open the album with six tracks that cover her musical range is a smart choice (17 times platinum smart). Obviously we are all aware of I Will Always Love You, the ubiquitous song of 1992 and the song that reportedly bought Dolly Parton (its writer) a new house, so we won’t talk about that. We also won’t really talk about the second half of the album because of word count and abundance of Kenny G. Instead we can focus on the start of the album. This opening salvo of Whitney is substantial and caters to her funkiness, her vocal range, her playfulness, her emotional delivery, and the fact that she could get your ass on the dance floor. It shows an artist at her peak killing everything put in front of her no matter what kind of song it is, while sounding as though she’s having the time of her life.

Romeo + Juliet

Capitol Records

Capitol Records

Baz Luhrmann’s hyper-styled and insane adaptation of Shakespeare’s tragedy was very much of its time (the movie’s time, not the play’s). It is Shakespeare for MTV and ADHD and sometimes suffers for that (1996 Sean thought the opening scene with its jump cuts and slapstick and slow motion was really cool. 2014 Sean got a headache behind his eye) but overall manages to tell a very old story in an entertaining and modern way without sacrificing the beautiful language that makes the play abide. One element that keeps it interesting is the great soundtrack. There are some missteps which I will blame on the 90s such as the presence of Everclear and Butthole Surfers, but overall the choice of songs and artists is excellent. I’m always happy to see Garbage during their awesome period (#1 Crush is dark love song brilliance) and Radiohead’s Talk Show Host soundtracked a lot of my own teenage sulking, which probably didn’t look as cool and effortless as Leonardo DiCaprio’s. A lot of the songs on this album would definitely fall under the guilty heading but what’s wrong with a little bit of guilty pleasure now and again?

Trainspotting

Capitol Records

Capitol Records

Straight from darkness into running feet and the opening drum beats of Lust for Life by Iggy Pop, Trainspotting telegraphs that it’s going to be something amazing from its first five seconds. This movie was released in 1996 and holds a special place in my heart because my older brother let me watch it one night when my parents weren’t home. I remember going into school thinking I was king shit because I had watched this crazy movie about heroin and dead babies and swimming through shit-stained horror to find lost suppositories.
My friends at the time hated the movie’s song Born Slippy, which was playing on the radio all the time and I remember saying in my most pompous 12 year old voice, ‘Guys, it’s a good song when it plays in the film…oh, you haven’t seen it? Maybe when you’re older.’ As pompous as pre-teen Sean was, he did have a point. The song, Born Slippy, is very good but in the context of the movie’s final scenes it is flawless.
Between the first scene’s song and the last scene’s there are some other perfect music moments in this movie. Renton’s OD set to the dulcet tones of Lou Reed’s Perfect Day is…well…perfect, and the use of New Order’s Temptation as a leitmotif around 14 year old Diane and her pursuit of Renton is that interesting mix of sweet  and incredibly creepy at the same time.

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