In the 1980s, music and film collided for cross-promotional blockbusters both transcendent (Purple Rain) and transcendently cheesy (Footloose). In the ‘90s, soundtracks continued to sell in the millions, capturing cultural moments like the Seattle grunge of Singles or the Britpop and electronica of Trainspotting. Auteurs like Quentin Tarantino and Wes Anderson reached deep into their record collections to set the mood while movies like Above the Rim and Menace II Society pioneered the concept of soundtracks as hip-hop mixtapes.
A great soundtrack can propel an unsuccessful single, like Seal’s “Kiss From A Rose,” to the top of the charts, or revive a decades-old hit, like Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody.” It can also push a cult singer-songwriter like Elliott Smith or Aimee Mann to an Oscar performance.
Here are 25 soundtracks from the 1990s that hold up as albums, not just as pieces of movie memorabilia.
Singer-songwriter and former Heatmiser frontman Elliott Smith already had a growing cult fanbase after releasing his third solo album, 1997’s Either/Or. But nobody could have predicted his unlikely rise to mainstream fame within the next year, when he stood onstage at the 1998 Oscars, competing with Celine Dion for Best Original Song. A fellow Portland resident, Gus Van Sant, decided to use a few songs from Either/Or and 1994’s Roman Candle in the biggest film of his career, Good Will Hunting, and commissioned a new Oscar-worthy Smith song, “Miss Misery.”
In 1986, a young O’Shea “Ice Cube” Jackson wrote the lyrics to Eazy-E’s debut single “Boyz-n-the-Hood.” Almost exactly five years later, Ice Cube, by then a major rap star, made his acting debut in John Singleton’s film named after the song. The Eazy-E track didn’t appear on the soundtrack, but Cube contributed a new song of his own, “How to Survive in South Central.” And the rest of the album showcased a rapidly exploding West coast rap scene, including Yo-Yo and Compton’s Most Wanted, that gained significant mainstream visibility from the film.
23. Wayne’s World: Music From The Motion Picture (1992)
The late ‘80s hair-metal culture that Mike Myers affectionately satirized on Saturday Night Live was waning by the time his “Wayne’s World” sketches became a feature film in 1992. So bands like Cinderella and BulletBoys had already begun to disappear from the charts when they appeared on the movie’s soundtrack (which, on a sentimental note, was the first CD that I ever bought). But the album also features some more timeless classic rock that accompanied hilarious moments in the movie, like the Jimi Hendrix Experience’s “Foxy Lady” and, most famously, Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody,” which soared to No. 2 on the Hot 100 — even higher than it reached in 1976. And co-star Tia Carrere’s fictitious band Crucial Taunt really ripped that cover of The Sweet’s “Ballroom Blitz.”
The two Batman movies directed by the late Joel Schumacher pale in comparison to the Tim Burton films that preceded them. But the star-filled soundtrack, which accompanied his first movie with Val Kilmer as Batman, made a chart impact that rivaled the Prince-powered 1989 Batman LP. There’s an awkward stylistic gulf between Batman Forever’s unvarnished alt-rock tracks (PJ Harvey, Mazzy Star, Sunny Day Real Estate) and more on-topic choices like Method Man’s wacky villain theme song “The Riddler.” Despite the odd mix of styles, nearly every song is good or great, including “Kiss From A Rose,” Seal’s minor hit unexpectedly vaulted to the top of the Hot 100 after it appeared in Batman Forever.
21. SubUrbia: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack (1997)
Richard Linklater’s SubUrbia didn’t strike a chord with critics like his earlier slice-of-life movies Slacker or Dazed and Confused. However, it earned cool points by featuring Sonic Youth, who contributed three tracks to the soundtrack, including a longer and more relaxed version of “Sunday” that’s far superior to the re-recording on 1998’s A Thousand Leaves. The soundtrack also opens with a killer cover of X’s “Unheard Music” by Elastica and Pavement’s Stephen Malkmus, along with one of Superchunk’s greatest non-album cuts, “Does Your Hometown Care?”
In his directorial debut, Tom Hanks created one of the ‘90s best music films, tracking the life cycle of a hit song in the mid-‘60s. But That Thing You Do! wouldn’t have worked if the big song by imaginary band the Wonders wasn’t a plausible hit, and Fountains of Wayne’s Adam Schlesinger delivered: The title track, sung by Candy Butchers frontman Mike Viola, climbed to No. 41 on the Hot 100 — despite sounding straight out of 1964. The entire soundtrack album is an entertaining exercise in pastiche, featuring more catchy power pop by the Wonders and fictitious contemporaries like surf rockers the Saturn 5 and girl group the Chantrellines.
Jim Jarmusch’s minimalist, black-and-white western called for an equally stark score. And Neil Young provided it, improvising alone in a studio as he watched the Johnny Depp-led film. The resulting album is perhaps the best way for Young obsessives to hear his favorite guitar, Old Black, in all its fuzzed-out glory, with no vocals or backing musicians.
18. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me Soundtrack (1992)
Composer Angelo Badalamenti has collaborated with David Lynch on most of the director’s films since 1986’s Blue Velvet. But his most enduring and influential work came with Lynch’s 1990 TV series — creating a strange and otherworldly cocktail of jazzy noir, saccharine balladry, synth drones and dream pop. Badalamenti mixes elements of the series score with new melodies on the follow-up feature film Fire Walk With Me, performing an entertaining monologue on “A Real Indication” and reuniting with Twin Peaks’ resident chanteuse Julee Cruise on “Questions in a World of Blue.”
Hip-hop was still coming to its own as a commercial force in the early ‘90s. And long before DJ Khaled albums or Rap Caviar playlists, soundtracks to Black films like Menace II Society were just about the best way for rap fans to hear a lot of up-and-coming MCs at once, including regional stars like UGK and Ant Banks. So the soundtrack to the Hughes Brothers’ debut film — promoted with singles by West coast rappers like MC Eiht and Spice 1 who were hardly household names — became a steady seller, charting higher on the Billboard 200 than any featured artist (other than Too $hort) had with their own albums at that point.
They may have no idea what they’re saying, but multiple generations of American children can sing by heart “Nants ingonyama bagithi Baba,” the opening Zulu chant from The Lion King. It’s the biggest traditionally animated film in box office history, and it simply wouldn’t have been without the unforgettable songs by Elton John and Tim Rice. You may never play the album at home without young children who demand it. But there’s no denying the campy menace with which Jeremy Irons sings “Be Prepared” or the infectious exuberance that Jason Weaver, then fresh off playing a young Michael Jackson in 1992’s The Jacksons: An American Dream, brings to “I Just Can’t Wait To Be King” and “Hakuna Matata.”
“Exit Music (For a Film),” an evocative — if drily titled — song that Radiohead wrote for the end credits of Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet, was kept off the soundtrack album so that it could appear a year later on their masterpiece OK Computer. But the song they sent in its place, live staple “Talk Show Host,” is a great track in its own right — perhaps the best Radiohead song that never appeared on one of their proper albums. And the biggest hits from Romeo + Juliet, Garbage’s “#1 Crush” and the Cardigans’ “Lovefool,” are both brilliant songs about the dark side of infatuation, capturing the perfect tone for a Shakespeare adaptation about star-crossed lovers.
Director Wes Anderson originally intended to fill Rushmore’s soundtrack with Kinks songs and similarly planned to fill 2001’s The Royal Tenenbaums with Beatles tracks. In the end, both wound up with a mix of different artists. But Rushmore stayed closer to the British Invasion theme, featuring the Kinks, the Who, and one-hit-wonders like Unit 4 + 2 peppered among the whimsical score by Devo’s Mark Mothersbaugh.
Like Mothersbaugh, the career of Oingo Boingo’s Danny Elfman traced an unlikely arc from new wave frontman to film score composer. Elfman disbanded Oingo Boingo in 1995, devoting himself entirely to scoring, including over a dozen collaborations with Tim Burton. But first, Elfman gave one last great performance as a singer, voicing the main character Jack Skellington in Burton’s stop-motion animated musical The Nightmare Before Christmas. In 2008, the soundtrack was reissued with some songs covered by acts like Fall Out Boy and Fiona Apple. And Elfman finally returned to the stage in 2013, touring internationally with a show that included Nightmare songs and his other Burton scores.
12. The Crow: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack (1994)
In 1994, every black-clad teenager in America seemed to own a copy of the triple-platinum soundtrack to The Crow — offering a mainstream platform to several brooding strains of alternative rock, goth, industrial and post-punk that had thrived on the margins in the ‘80s. The Cure and My Life With The Thrill Kill Kult put in appearances, while Nine Inch Nails and Rollins Band covered Joy Division and Suicide, respectively. And Stone Temple Pilots contributed one of their greatest songs, “Big Empty,” as a preview of their second album, Purple.
11. Music from the Motion Picture Pulp Fiction (1994)
Pulp Fiction is an iconic ‘90s film, but very little of the music in it is actually from the decade: The big hit from the soundtrack was Urge Overkill’s 1992 cover of Neil Diamond’s 1967 single “Girl, You’ll Be a Woman Soon.” And the only fully new tune, former Lone Justice frontwoman Maria McKee’s gorgeous torch song “If Love is a Red Dress (Hang Me In Rags),” is a relatively overlooked gem, heard in the film only faintly in the background when Ving Rhames chases Bruce Willis into a pawn shop. But Quentin Tarantino’s gift for memorable needle drops, like Dick Dale’s surf guitar barnstormer “Misirlou” and Uma Thurman dancing to Chuck Berry, are threaded into the film so perfectly that every song on the soundtrack is imbued with a certain ‘90s thrift shop hipster aura of retro-cool.
10. Belly (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack) (1998)
Hype Williams is arguably hip-hop’s greatest music video director, and his debut feature film, Belly, starred platinum rappers Nas, DMX and Method Man. Naturally, the Def Jam soundtrack is packed with big-name posse cuts like “Grand Finale” by the film’s stars, “Crew Love” by Jay-Z and his Roc-A-Fella label mates and Gang Starr’s “Militia” remix with Rakim. But the Belly soundtrack’s bangers are also balanced out by a lot of smooth R&B, including D’Angelo’s DJ Premier-produced “Devil’s Pie,” over a year before it appeared on 2000’s Voodoo.
For the Until the End of the World soundtrack, director Wim Wenders gathered an impressive roster of acts — like R.E.M., Depeche Mode and Lou Reed — whose music often felt ahead of its time. But the filmmaker gave them all the ambitious task of imagining what kind of music they’d make 10 years in the future, when his apocalyptic film took place. It’s hard to say how much Wenders’ mission succeeded – the resulting album is less a preview of the turn of the millennium than an accurate snapshot of the modern rock landscape in 1991, just before grunge changed everything. But it was the end of an era in other ways: “Sax and Violins” turned out to be the final Talking Heads song before the announcement of their breakup, and “It Takes Time” was Patti Smith’s last release with husband Fred “Sonic” Smith before the MC5 guitarist’s 1994 death. U2 composed the film’s title song, which they also included on their classic album Achtung Baby a month before the soundtrack’s release.
8. Street Fighter Soundtrack (1994)
Most great soundtracks are attached to movies that were at least decent. But in the pantheon of memorable soundtracks from mediocre movies, you must acknowledge Street Fighter, the widely panned Jean-Claude Van Damme action film based on the popular video game franchise. With an enviable roster of mid-‘90s hip-hop talent (including LL Cool J, Craig Mack, the Pharcyde and Ras Kass), nearly every song on Street Fighter sticks to the themes of combat, revenge, punching and kicking — plus Ice Cube’s regrettable barrage of Asian punchlines on the title track (“at the Japanese deli with my crew, and we all take malt liquor in our wonton soup”). But the real gem of Street Fighter is “One on One,” the first song Nas released after his acclaimed debut, Illmatic.
7. Magnolia: Music from the Motion Picture (1999)
Aimee Mann’s post-Til Tuesday solo career was adrift: After being dropped by Geffen following her second album, 1995’s I’m With Stupid, she wrote songs without a label to release them. But her L.A. social circle included Boogie Nights director Paul Thomas Anderson, who found the inspiration for his next screenplay in her unreleased songs. “Magnolia came out of Aimee Mann’s songs,” Anderson told The Guardian in 2000. “I had her two albums and a lot of her demos, because she’s a friend, and I think the tone she gets is really beautiful.” Mann’s song for the Jerry Maguire soundtrack, “Wise Up,” was nearly featured in a key scene in Cameron Crowe’s film, until it was replaced by Bruce Springsteen’s “Secret Garden.” In Magnolia, “Wise Up” gets an even bigger moment, when every character in the movie suddenly begins singing Mann’s song. “Save Me” was nominated for an Academy Award, giving an underdog singer-songwriter the same kind of Oscar career boost that Elliott Smith received two years earlier.
At a time when you could count significant rap-rock collaborations on one hand, the Judgment Night soundtrack dropped like a bomb, minting the genre as much as Rage Against the Machine’s 1992 debut. Some of the 11 tracks featured surprisingly natural combinations like Biohazard and Onyx while other pairings were oil-and-water experiments like Seattle neighbors Mudhoney and Sir Mix-A-Lot. Run DMC, the godfathers of rap-rock crossover, even showed up to duel with Living Colour on “Me, Myself & My Microphone.” Judgment Night was influential on the soundtrack world as well, providing a template for other genre mashup albums like 1997’s Spawn soundtrack (rock-electronic fusions) and 2002’s Blade II soundtrack (rap-electronic fusions).
Buy the Judgment Night soundtrack on Amazon
The “Cool Britannia” explosion of U.K. pop culture found perhaps its most indelible union of sound and vision in Trainspotting, Danny Boyle’s 1996 film and companion soundtrack. Released at the peak of Britpop, the album featured songs by Blur, Elastica, and Sleeper, along with “Mile End,” an outtake from Pulp’s era-defining album Different Class. But the soundtrack also made room for the scene’s foundational influences, with vintage tracks from New Order and the Lou Reed/David Bowie/Brian Eno/Iggy Pop axis, reviving Pop’s “Lust For Life” for a new generation. And the record’s biggest U.K. hit, the previously obscure Underworld B-side “Born Slippy .NUXX,” pointed the way towards the electronica wave on the horizon. In 2017, Boyle and Ewan MacGregor reunited for T2 Trainspotting, but the soundtrack got a sequel far quicker than the movie: Demand was so high for the music not included in the first album that Trainspotting #2: Music From the Motion Picture was released in 1997.
4. Above The Rim – The Soundtrack (1994)
New York basketball drama Above The Rim was part of New Jack City screenwriter Barry Michael Cooper’s “Harlem trilogy.” But when it came time to assemble the film’s soundtrack, producers looked to the west, with L.A.’s Death Row Records releasing an album overseen by Dr. Dre and Suge Knight. Fresh off the success of The Chronic and Doggystyle, the Above the Rim album featured a parade of hits, including Warren G and Nate Dogg’s G-funk smash “Regulate,” The Lady of Rage’s “Afro Puffs” and SWV’s “Anything.” One of the film’s stars, Tupac Shakur, would sign to Death Row over a year later. But the label was stingy with 2Pac’s submissions for the soundtrack, putting two of his three songs only on cassette editions of the album, including a classic track that’s featured prominently in the film, “Pain.”
Whitney Houston was one of the most ubiquitous pop stars of the 1990s, despite going eight years between solo albums. And she pulled that off thanks to her three biggest film roles, each of which prominently featured her on blockbuster soundtracks. Waiting to Exhale was like The Avengers: Infinity War for ‘90s R&B, with the era’s premier hitmaker Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds writing and producing over a dozen new tracks for Houston, Mary J. Blige, Toni Braxton and SWV at the peak of their powers, along with legends like Aretha Franklin, Patti LaBelle, and Chaka Khan.
Brandy’s “Sittin’ Up in My Room” holds up as perhaps Waiting to Exhale’s best hit, but TLC’s “This Is How It Works” deserved to have been a smash too — and probably would have if CrazySexyCool’s singles weren’t still dominating the charts. And Babyface’s role in the soundtrack almost didn’t happen: Telling stories about the soundtrack on an Instagram livestream in May, he said director Forest Whitaker’s first choice was Quincy Jones. When Jones declined to produce the soundtrack, he recommended Babyface for the job. “I’ll take Quincy’s leftovers any day. Thank you, Quincy,” Babyface said.
Although Trent Reznor later won an Oscar for his ambient instrumental film scores with Atticus Ross, the Nine Inch Nails frontman’s first soundtrack retained more of his band’s confrontational and transgressive spirit. With abrupt edits and eclectic transitions (like Leonard Cohen to L7), Reznor’s Natural Born Killers soundtrack emulates the aesthetic of Oliver Stone’s jump-cut-heavy film. The soundtrack also launched Cowboy Junkies’ cover of the Velvet Underground’s “Sweet Jane” back into the top 10 of Billboard’s Modern Rock chart, five years after its first run.
Memorable musical moments pepper every film from Cameron Crowe, the former Rolling Stone scribe. And Singles isn’t even his most popular movie about a fictitious band — that would be 2000’s Almost Famous. But it’s the one where the soundtrack, which blanketed rock radio airwaves and went double-platinum, overshadowed the film itself, which debuted behind Sneakers and Captain Ron at the box office. Crowe fortuitously moved to Seattle in the mid-‘80s after marrying Heart’s Nancy Wilson and decided to set his second directorial effort in the city’s burgeoning rock scene. But nobody predicted just how huge Seattle grunge would become in the year between Crowe filming Singles and the movie hitting theaters.
All the biggest Seattle bands circa 1992 appear on Singles except Nirvana – although it felt like their pals Mudhoney spoke for them with their sneering response to grunge hype on “Overblown.” The brooding Alice In Chains hit “Would?” eulogized Andrew Wood, who made a posthumous appearance on the soundtrack with Mother Love Bone, while Screaming Trees, Pearl Jam and Soundgarden contribute massive anthems. Jimi Hendrix appears as the ghost of Seattle rock’s past in the form of the choice deep cut “May This Be Love” while Nancy and her sister Ann Wilson cover Led Zeppelin with their side project the Lovemongers. But even the midwestern interlopers make crucial contributions to Singles: Paul Westerberg offers a solo debut with his first two songs since the Replacements’ breakup, and Smashing Pumpkins close the album with the eight-minute epic “Drown.”
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