A few months ago, Albumism’s Terry Nelson escorted us on a trip down nostalgia lane when he revisited Eight ‘80s Soundtracks That Still Sound Totally Awesome Today. Inspired by the sentimental reminiscences offered by our readers in response to his thoughtful ruminations, as well as the conspicuous omissions from his list, it’s now time to pay homage to the most memorable film music from the decade that followed.
And as with Terry’s 1980s tribute, we encourage you to let us know what your favorite 1990s soundtracks are, whether they appear in the list below or not. So without further ado…
Pump Up the Volume (1990)
A year and change removed from steadily building his Hollywood cred through solid performances in Gleaming the Cube and Heathers, Christian Slater landed what proved to be one of the more intriguing roles of his career. In Pump Up the Volume, Slater plays the shy and reclusive “anonymous nerd” Mark Hunter by day and Hunter’s provocatively brash alter-ego “Hard Harry” by night.
With no filter and minimal regard for the ethically bankrupt authority figures of his Phoenix suburb, Harry commands the late-night pirate radio airwaves as an outlet to articulate the angst and disenchantment of teenage existence in the culturally sterile “Whitebread Land.”
The film’s soundtrack is an eclectic and enthralling collection of songs that spans indie rock (Pixies, Sonic Youth), hip-hop (Above the Law), Americana (Cowboy Junkies), soul (Ivan Neville), hardcore punk (Bad Brains featuring Henry Rollins), and alt-rock (Concrete Blonde, Soundgarden).
Standout tracks include Pixies’ “Wave of Mutilation” (UK Surf version), Sonic Youth’s “Titanium Exposé,” Above the Law’s first amendment anthem “Freedom of Speech,” and Cowboy Junkies’ sprawling cover of blues legend Robert Johnson’s “Me and the Devil Blues.” The latter is the strongest of the four stellar covers featured here, along with Concrete Blonde’s “Everybody Knows” (Leonard Cohen), Bad Brains featuring Henry Rollins’ “Kick Out the Jams” (MC5), and Liquid Jesus’ “Stand” (Sly & The Family Stone).
While the underappreciated film has faded into relative obscurity over time, the soundtrack demands to be dusted off on a regular basis. Talk hard.
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The greatest hip-hop inspired film ever made? A tough call, with Wild Style (1983), Beat Street (1984), Krush Groove (1985), 8 Mile (2002), and Hustle & Flow (2005) all more than worthy candidates. Another film that certainly warrants consideration, and my personal favorite of the bunch, is 1991’s Juice.
Notable for being one of the first films to depict and celebrate the DJ within the broader context of hip-hop culture, Juice is also noteworthy for being Tupac Shakur’s first silver screen acting gig. Shakur’s performance as Roland Bishop, the disaffected Harlem youth who leads his crew of friends astray in a botched corner store holdup, was instantly memorable and reinforced that his talents extended well beyond the hip-hop game alone. And lest we overlook that the film also served as the underappreciated Omar Epps’ breakout role as the ambitious, conscientious DJ Quincy "Q" Powell, in addition to featuring brief cameos by the likes of Samuel L. Jackson, Queen Latifah, Doctor Dre & Ed Lover, Fab Five Freddy, and EPMD.
The accompanying soundtrack showcases several heavyweights of hip-hop’s Golden Era, including Eric B. & Rakim (“Juice (Know the Ledge)”), Big Daddy Kane (“Nuff Respect”), Too $hort (“So You Want to be a Gangster”), Naughty by Nature (“Uptown Anthem”), and the aforementioned EPMD (“It’s Going Down”). The lighter R&B flavored fare incorporated throughout lends the whole affair a balanced feel overall, with standout tracks including Teddy Riley’s “Is It Good to You” featuring Tammy Lucas, Aaron Hall’s catchy but admittedly somewhat creepy “Don’t Be Afraid” (just listen to the lyrics), and the Brand New Heavies’ closing “People Get Ready.”
A few years removed from directing the successful, widely beloved Say Anything (1989)—which also boasts a stellar soundtrack—Cameron Crowe wrote and orchestrated Singles, an endearingly comical examination of the vicissitudes of singlehood in grunge-era Seattle.
The film boasts a fantastic core cast (Matt Dillon, Bridget Fonda, Campbell Scott, Kyra Sedgwick) and features cameo appearances by Seattle rock legends Chris Cornell (of Soundgarden), Alice in Chains, and Pearl Jam, who nobly play the role of Cliff’s (Dillon’s) bandmates in the fictitious, amusingly aspirational band with the inescapable name, Citizen Dick.
From beginning to end, the Singles soundtrack is one of the most listenable and filler-free film compilations you’ll ever hear from the period, with a slew of esteemed acts contributing top-caliber compositions. Alice in Chains’ searing “Would?” opens the affair, and their fellow Seattle brethren Pearl Jam offer two contributions (the adrenalized “Breathe” and “State of Love and Trust”) as do Soundgarden (“Birth Ritual” and Chris Cornell’s gorgeous, stripped-down “Seasons”). These five songs alone would have made for an excellent collection, but there’s so much more to enjoy here.
Seattle alt-rock pioneers Mother Love Bone’s “Chloe Dancer / Crown of Thorns” is included three years after first appearing on the band’s debut EP Shine and two years after frontman Andrew Wood’s death. In the form of the instantly addictive “Dyslexic Heart” and “Waiting for Somebody,” Paul Westerberg offers his first solo fare in the wake of the dissolution of The Replacements in 1991, the band he helped propel to critical acclaim across the indie rock circuit in the 1980s. Also included is the lush “Drown,” one of Smashing Pumpkins’ earliest and greatest recordings, which appears here just about a year before they hit the big time with their 1993 sophomore album Siamese Dream. The lone throwback nod goes to the excellent “May This Be Love” by The Jimi Hendrix Experience, presumably included here due to Hendrix’s Seattle roots.
All in all, the Singles soundtrack is the perfect accompaniment to the film, emblematic of its time, place, and sound.
Empire Records (1995)
An entertaining, if somewhat dated flick, Empire Records is one of the first films to examine the drama-filled coexistence of record shop coworkers, five years before the superior Nick Hornby adaptation High Fidelity hit theaters. The film has left an indelible impression on many nostalgic thirty- and forty-somethings who lived their formative years during the ‘90s, as most recently evidenced by the faux “Rex Manning Day” event that Rough Trade NYC staged with great success last year.
The soundtrack is pretty much as ‘90s mainstream radio rock as it gets, bolstered by the Gin Blossoms’ album opener and smash single “Til I Hear It From You,” Edwyn Collins’ “A Girl Like You,” The Cranberries’ “Liar,” and Toad the Wet Sprocket’s “Crazy Life,” and Evan Dando’s “The Ballad of El Goodo,” with additional fare from ephemeral 90s bands most notably including Better Than Ezra and Cracker. One of the more overlooked standouts is “Bright as Yellow” by The Innocence Mission, the Pennsylvania band that has cultivated a prolific recorded repertoire since.
Quite a nostalgic trip, this one, and a musical pleasure just this side of guilty.
Early next year, more than 20 years since Danny Boyle translated Scottish novelist Irvine Welsh’s contemporary classic Trainspotting to the big screen, the film’s sequel hits theatres with much of the original cast in tow. While it remains to be seen if T2: Trainspotting 2 can even remotely approach the visceral brilliance of its precursor, it should nonetheless serve as a welcome update for fans of the original.
Set to celebrate the 20th anniversary of its release later this week on July 9th, the accompanying soundtrack plays a central role in propelling the heroin-fueled debauchery of the film’s protagonist Renton (Ewan McGregor) and his socially marginalized chums Sick Boy (Jonny Lee Miller), Spud (Ewen Bremner), and the notorious Begbie (Robert Carlyle).
An intoxicating assemblage of adrenalized romps and more subdued, melancholic anthems that seemingly evoke the dichotomy of cooking up and coming down, the collection offers choice selections spanning ‘70s era rock (Brian Eno , Iggy Pop, Lou Reed), Britpop (Blur, Elastica, Primal Scream, Pulp, Sleeper), and dance/electronica (Leftfield, New Order, Primal Scream, Underworld). A second volume comprised of 15 tracks, most of these courtesy of the same artists featured on the inaugural volume, was released three months later in October 1996.
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An unexpected, low-budget success back in the fall of 1996, Swingers is a brutally honest, but refreshingly clever portrayal of the search for fame (let alone a steady paycheck), friendship, and love in the ultra-competitive, impersonal, and superficial clubs and social circles of Hollywood. At the heart of the film is the connection between the smooth-talking Trent Walker (played by Vince Vaughn in his breakout role) and the socially awkward Mike Peters (Jon Favreau, who also penned the screenplay), a dynamic made even more unforgettable through the film’s musical backdrop.
Much like Vaughn’s character, the soundtrack exudes an effortless swagger through its infectious mix of throwback era big band and lounge music, courtesy of vocal heavyweights like Tony Bennett (with Count Basie), Bobby Darin, Louis Jordan, and Dean Martin. A few curveballs are thrown in for good measure, such as country icon George Jones’ plaintive classic “She Thinks I Still Care,” and Average White Band’s funk-soul escapade “Pick Up the Pieces.”
Most notably, the compilation introduced neo-swing band Big Bad Voodoo Daddy to a much broader audience beyond their devoted, native SoCal following through a trio of terrific tracks including “You & Me & the Bottle Makes Three Tonight (Baby),” “Go Daddy-O,” and a cover of the Disney classic “I Wanna Be Like You,” the latter of which was actually not featured in the film.
Not only the perfect musical complement to this story of navigating the ups and downs of bachelorhood in the City of Angels, the Swingers soundtrack is also a sure-fire option for your next dinner party – your guests will love it.
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Romeo + Juliet (1996)
As with Baz Luhrmann’s other films (Strictly Ballroom, Moulin Rouge!, Australia, The Great Gatsby), music plays an integral part within his inventively filmed, frenetically paced reimagining of Shakespeare’s most universally beloved work, Romeo + Juliet. Indeed, the tragedies that befall these two star-crossed lovers, admirably played by Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes, have never sounded so good.
Des’ree’s soulfully sentimental “Kissing You,” the film’s love theme, and Quindon Tarver’s cover of Rozalla’s 1991 dance-pop hit “Everybody’s Free (To Feel Good)” are both notable because of the artists’ respective cameos within the film.
The Cardigans’ buoyant “Lovefool” was featured on their sophomore album First Band on the Moon a month before the soundtrack’s release, but its inclusion here propelled the Swedish band to radio and MTV glory, albeit the attention proved rather short-lived. A shame that most people still naively associate The Cardigans with the sugary-pop of “Lovefool,” as their recordings before and since are consistently excellent and less overtly pop-driven, while Nina Persson has developed into one of the strongest songwriters working today.
Although Radiohead’s “Exit Music (For a Film)” plays across the film’s end credits, it was left off the soundtrack, only to appear the following year on their watershed album OK Computer. No matter though, as the band’s melancholic “Talk Show Host” is one of the compilation’s finest moments, alongside Garbage’s “#1 Crush” and Gavin Friday’s “Angel.”
Love Jones (1997)
A sophisticated, somewhat underrated urban love story featuring solid performances by Larenz Tate (Darius Lovehall) and Nia Long (Nina Mosely), Love Jones features a soundtrack that showcases the richness of mid ‘90s soul. Bookended by spoken word poetry from Tate and Long, the collection includes excellent contributions from Groove Theory (“Never Enough”), Dionne Farris (“Hopeless”), Kenny Lattimore ("Can't Get Enough"), and Lauryn Hill accompanied by the Refugee Camp All-Stars (“The Sweetest Thing”). Maxwell’s slowed down “Mellosmoothe” version of his sensual track “Sumthin’ Sumthin’” from his 1996 debut album Maxwell’s Urban Hang Suite and Trina Broussard’s cover of Minnie Ripperton’s modest 1975 hit “Inside My Love” both warrant recognition as well.
The soulful fare is juxtaposed seamlessly with more jazz-imbued compositions, highlighted by Cassandra Wilson’s “You Move Me,” The Lincoln Jazz Orchestra’s “Jelly Jelly,” and Duke Ellington & John Coltrane’s classic “In a Sentimental Mood.” The latter encapsulates precisely how you’ll feel after watching the film and listening to its fine soundtrack.
When I first saw Magnolia in the theater, I was so captivated—and admittedly more than a little confounded—by it, that I returned to see it for a second time just a few days after my initial viewing. Perhaps an acquired taste for some, Paul Thomas Anderson’s intricately executed, emotionally gripping examination of deep-seated family dysfunction, psychological trauma, loneliness, and despair is definitely not for the faint of heart.
While the top-notch cast that boasts Tom Cruise, William H. Macy, Julianne Moore, John C. Reilly, Jason Robards, and the late Phillip Seymour Hoffman collaborate to bring Anderson’s ambitious and unique vision to life, an argument can be made that the film’s power derives, first and foremost, from Aimee Mann’s songs.
Indeed, Anderson cites Mann’s songs as the key inspiration for the film. “I had a lot of ideas floating around in my head, probably too many ideas, and [Aimee’s] a really good friend of mine, and was privy to stuff she was working on,” Anderson explained to PopMatters in 1999. “It was great to have her music as a thing to latch on to, to help corral all the stuff that was sort of circling around in my brain. So I wanted to just adapt Aimee’s songs, like you would adapt a book or a play. It certainly branched off from there and didn’t become a direct adaption of her songs, but I ended up stealing many lines from her.” One of the film’s most unforgettable moments finds the cast singing along to Mann’s “Wise Up,” a song that Mann originally wrote for Cameron Crowe’s Jerry Maguire (1996).
Featuring eight original songs by the former ‘Til Tuesday frontwoman, the soundtrack and film garnered widespread critical acclaim, in turn helping to rejuvenate Mann’s career, which, at least professionally if not creatively, had reached its stagnation point by the late ‘90s. After Magnolia’s success and with two criminally overlooked studio albums (1993’s Whatever and 1995’s I’m With Stupid) under her belt, Mann extricated herself from her recording contract with Geffen Records and launched her own label, SuperEgo Records.
The first fruit of her newfound freedom was 2000’s outstanding Bachelor No. 2 or, the Last Remains of the Dodo, which lifted a handful of the tracks featured in Magnolia alongside new material. Since then, Mann has crafted quite an impressive discography, each of her albums rewarding listens in and of themselves.