What is the most '90s movie soundtrack of all time?
Last weekend, I stumbled across my new favorite blog on the Internet.
It’s written by a dude named Chris who is on an ongoing quest to decide which film released between 1990 and 1999 is the most ’90s movie of all time. He uses a handful of rotating criteria, like whether or not the plot of the film could be executed using today’s technology and social customs, the extreme ’90s-ness of the fashion, the use of outdated technology (like pagers and gigantic laptops), and whether the stars of the film are inextricably linked to the decade.
“The Quest” has been going on for a year, but I was so enamored of the idea that I ran through dozens of posts in a single afternoon, internally debating the merits of the scoring system and trying to decide whether or not Angelina Jolie is tethered to any particular era (and even if she isn’t, Hackers is still a paragon of ’90s-ness).
Top scoring entries so far include Don’t Tell Mom the Babysitter’s Dead (major points based on the impossibility of the plot in today’s technological landscape), Clueless (obvious nods to several different levels of fashion as well as the Mighty Mighty Bosstones), and Encino Man (a winner just based on the presence of Pauly Shore, perhaps the most ’90s a person has ever been).
That walk down memory lane appealed to me not only because I have so many personal memories tied up in movies like Happy Gilmore, Mallrats, and I Know What You Did Last Summer, but also because ’90s film soundtracks are about the only compact discs I still buy.
Whenever I’m in a used record store (especially in a city I’ve never visited), my first stop is always the soundtracks, where incredible relics like Twister and Batman Forever live in permanently unloved rotation. I’ve amassed a pretty thorough collection that acts as a remarkable summation of the times — especially the ones that were clearly curated to appeal to fans of the associated movies (and the ones that weren’t are even more mind-blowing).
So naturally, I started thinking: What ’90s movie soundtrack is the most ’90s? It’s a difficult thing to quantify, but a few ground rules emerged. The soundtrack scored high if it reflected a particularly zeitgeisty emergent subgenre, like electronica or gangsta rap. If a band’s only hit came from a soundtrack, that was a huge bonus. Was the album painfully curated to include nothing but unlikely collaborations between disparate performers? That gave it a boost, too.
The sheer volume of ’90s bands helped, though if the soundtrack also contained older songs that were helped by the association with the new stuff, that was also worth a few extra looks. And of course, anything associated with a horror movie or a Tarantino-esque heist movie got an extra bit of love too, simply because there were no fewer that 73,000 of those movies released every week for ten years.
Which soundtracks seemed to be the most ’90s? Here are a few nominations.
Why the inferior sequel to the game-changing, genre-redefining original? A handful of reasons. For one, the first Scream soundtrack is almost too artfully put together; it features wink-y covers of schlocky classics “Don’t Fear the Reaper” and “School’s Out.” There’s also a distinct lack of hits, though it did give Nick Cave’s “Red Right Hand” some much-deserved love two years after its initial release. Then again, “Red Right Hand” is also on the soundtrack to the sequel, which is way, way better.
The genre-mixing is exactly like what you’d hear bleeding out of freshman dorm rooms in ’97, with Foo Fighters, Everclear, Kottonmouth Kings, Master P, D’Angelo, Dave Matthews Band, Less Than Jake, and Sugar Ray all representing. Save for the Foos and possibly Cave, nobody included on this soundtrack made it out of the decade with their career intact, which makes for an extremely satisfying time capsule.
(It should be noted that the sequel improvement did not apply to all franchises, as Scream 3 is an atrocious collection of nü-metal, and I Know What You Did Last Summer is far superior to I Still Know What You Did Last Summer, even despite the presence of star Jennifer Love Hewitt’s woefully underrated “How Do I Deal” on the latter.)
But of course.As a movie, Singles essentially exists to prop up its soundtrack, which in turn was designed to capture exactly what 1992 sounded like. While the sound of grunge has not aged particularly well, Singles happened to catch several of the era’s best bands in some of their finest moments. “Would?” is the best song in the Alice in Chains catalog, and the two Pearl Jam songs (“Breath” and especially “State of Love and Trust”) stand side by side with their best singles.
It also happens to include a killer song by Seattle almost-weres Mother Love Bone, a kickass Mudhoney tune, a pair of extremely charming Paul Westerberg solo tracks, and Screaming Trees’ “Nearly Lost You.”The only place where Singles loses points is the inclusion of a Jimi Hendrix song (and a middling one at that) as well as the Lovemongers’ cover of Led Zeppelin’s “The Battle of Evermore” (another shruggy entry by a great band). Those out of time throwbacks probably satisfied director Cameron Crowe’s taste for classic rock, but it knocks this album’s ’90s-ness down a peg (because nobody liked the Lovemongers, no matter the decade).
A Life Less Ordinary
Though few people remember this Danny Boyle-directed road comedy, Beck superfans keep it close to their hearts because it contains the single “Deadweight.” Since there might not be an artist who is more ’90s than Beck (for “Loser” alone), that gets it off on the right foot.
The rest of the lineup includes Luscious Jackson (the band that nobody really liked but everybody had to deal with because they were on the Beastie Boys’ label), the Cardigans (the band that nobody liked because “Lovefool” was sort of annoying, even though every other song they ever did was way better), and Ash (who get bonus points because their one U.S. hit came on the extremely ’90s-centric Angus soundtrack). A Life Less Ordinary also taps into a few pop-up phenomenons from the decade, including electronica (Prodigy, Underworld, and Sneaker Pimps show up here), the swing revival (Squirrel Nut Zippers), and the strange obsession with old-timey lounge music (Bobby Darin in the house).
Quentin Tarantino’s first few movies were little more than pieces of pop culture ephemera jumbled together and re-ordered for maximum impact, so it’s only right that the soundtracks to said movies would sound like a mixtape from the guy you know who owns way too much vinyl.
Pulp Fiction actually loses points because it doesn’t reflect the decade as much as it directly impacted it, introducing a new generation to Dusty Springfield, Al Green, “Misirlou,” and the songs of Neil Diamond (the latter via the Urge Overkill cover of “Girl, You’ll Be a Woman Soon,” the soundtrack’s one nod to contemporary artists). In helping to define so much of the nostalgia that would infuse mid-’90s culture, Pulp Fiction accidentally sounds timeless.
In a lot of ways,the soundtrack to Amy Heckerling’s Clueless also sounds timeless, though in a totally different way. The movie probably doesn’t hold up as well as its fans wish it did, but the soundtrack remains rock solid. The presence of Radiohead’s “Fake Plastic Trees” helps a bunch, as do a handful of pretty boss covers (The Muffs doing “Kids in America,” Camper Van Beethoven’s David Lowery on “Shake Some Action”).
It also contains the one good song by an band inextricably tied to the decade thanks to its frontman’s love life (Counting Crows’ “The Ghost in You”) as well as great tracks by Jill Sobule and Supergrass. There’s also Smoking Popes’ “Need You Around,” one of the five best songs to come out of the decade, period.
It seemed like every action, horror, or fantasy movie in the ’90s had a hard-rock centric soundtrack, but The Crow did it better than most. It contains a massive parade of heavy bands who only seemed to exist while flannel was in style: Rage Against the Machine, Rollins Band, Helmet, and Machines of Loving Grace all turn in top-shelf work.
Since Joy Division hadn’t reached full fetishization in the States yet, most people who didn’t read the liner notes thought “Dead Souls” was a Trent Reznor original, and “Burn” might actually be the last decent song the Cure recorded in their career. The centerpiece of The Crow is Stone Temple Pilots’ “Big Empty,” a huge hit for them and a key moment in rock history: Since The Crow came out only a few weeks before the death of Kurt Cobain, “Big Empty” was STP’s bid for being the biggest band in America in the wake of Nirvana’s dissolution.
OK, so the soundtrack to Spawn is sort of terrible (unlike the movie, which is entirely terrible), but it’s built on such a weird idea that it’s hard not to talk about it. Released in the summer of 1997, the soundtrack consisted of 14 collaborative tracks, each one featuring a rock band and an electronica artist. Since that was the same season Prodigy’s The Fat of the Land and Chemical Brothers’ Dig Your Own Hole were making people reconsider whether or not guitars were still useful in rock music, Spawn seemed like the answer to the question, “What if all these DJs took over rock music permanently?”
The answer was, “It’d be sort of a mess.” There are moments of genuine greatness on Spawn, including Slayer and Atari Teenage Riot’s tag-team on “No Remorse (I Wanna Die),” DJ Spooky’s remix of Metallica’s “For Whom the Bell Tolls,” and Marilyn Manson and Sneaker Pimps’ “Long Hard Road Out of Hell.” The rest of it doesn’t gel at all, though it does get ’90s points for trying to Frankenstein genres like it did, as well as including second-string alt-radio staples Stabbing Westward, Soul Coughing, Silverchair, and Incubus. (It should be noted that the producer of the Spawn soundtrack was also responsible for the grunge-meets-rap compilation for the film Judgement Night, which features the legendary meeting of Mudhoney and Sir Mix-A-Lot.)
Those are some of the entries I found most intriguing, but now it’s your turn: Which film soundtrack is the most ’90s? And why? What about it sums up the music and cultural concepts that you associate with the decade? Sound off in the comments.
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