The 25 Best Soundtrack Albums of the 1990s
From rock ('Singles') to rap ('Above the Rim') to rap-rock ('Judgment Night')
5. Trainspotting: Music from the Motion Picture (1996)
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.”
3. Waiting to Exhale: Original Soundtrack Album (1995)
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.
2. Natural Born Killers: A Soundtrack for an Oliver Stone Film (1994)
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.
1. Singles: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack (1992)
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.”