Film soundtracks were at their best in the 1990s. It was an important genre in the last pre-download era, because it provided space for down-list acts. And in the 1990s, record companies’ down-list acts, at various points, included Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, Mazzy Star, Bjork, Pulp, the Flaming Lips, the Cardigans, and other art rock favorites that couldn’t rely on radio play to move units. (Plus lots of great hip-hop and R&B but like an idiot I tuned that out until Stankonia opened my eyes.) Headline acts used soundtracks to stretch out their muscles, trying out new ideas, performing covers — there must’ve been five hundred versions of Harry Nilsson’s “One (Is the Loneliest Number)” on 1990s OSTs — and using up their album leftovers. By the end of the decade soundtracks were stuffed with terrible nu-metal, rap rock, and Smashmouth, but for a few weird years soundtracks were one of the best ways to become introduced to cool new music.
There were many great 1990s soundtracks. Here is one extensive ranking (with accompanying Spotify playlist). For my money the Batman Forever OST is the best of the lot — more on this below — but it’s a very strong field. The Mission: Impossible soundtrack doesn’t make that list. It shouldn’t. It isn’t one of the best of them despite containing some interesting material. I’ll get into that in a moment, but even as a relative failure it does provide an interesting way to think about the genre as a genre. A genre filled with names like Letters to Cleo, Ash, Juliana Hatfield, The Posies, The Beta Band, Stereolab, Pizzicato Five, Our Lady Peace, Girls Against Boys, Supergrass, Orbital, and Archers of Loaf. A genre with “Lovefool” and “Susanne” and electronic remixes of Bush and “Blame Canada” and Belly covering “It’s Not Unusual” and “My Sharona”.
For me there were two types of 1990s soundtracks: “Resurrection” OSTs and the “New Hotness” OSTs. Resurrection OSTs took old songs, mostly forgotten or never well-known, and used them at key plot points in the actual film. The recontextualization led to new appreciation by audiences that never would have heard the songs otherwise. Tarantino was obviously the master of this, even when he was using songs by prominent (if cult) artists: Harry Nilsson in Reservoir Dogs; Al Green and Dusty Springfield in Pulp Fiction; Johnny Cash, Bobby Womack, and the Delfonics in Jackie Brown; all the way through to David Bowie in Inglourious Basterds. An excellent example of this occurs in Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol when Tom Cruise’s Ethan Hunt breaks out of a Russian prison to Dean Martin’s “Ain’t That a Kick in the Head”. Nothing like that exists on the first M:I. Other than the theme song the only music heard in the film is Danny Elfman’s mediocre score, excepting The Cranberries’s “Dreams” as background noise in the penultimate scene.
Resurrection OSTs are great but are not what I’m concerned with here. There is nothing particularly ’90s about Resurrection OSTs: quality examples existed before and since, and the 1990s were not a particularly special moment for them. New Hotness OSTs, on the other hand, peaked in a serious way in the 1990s. With a few exceptions soundtracks in the 1980s were typically comprised of one schlocky rocker (e.g. “Danger Zone”), slow burn (“(I’ve Had) The Time of My Life”), or cheesy pop single (“The Heat Is On”) followed by the film’s score. Call it the James Bond soundtrack model.
But in the 1990s soundtracks were filled with material, often available nowhere else, by the decade’s best and brightest. Those soundtracks were filled with subculture, and much of the material on these albums wasn’t even in the movie and had little no relationship to it — “Music from and inspired by Movie X” — so we frequently got artists at their peak giving us their best shot. (The score, if the film had one, was often — tho not always — released separately.) New Hotness OSTs frequently introduced new artists or provided comeback opportunities for old ones.
To my knowledge Lisa Loeb is still the first and only person to have a number one single before they had a record contract, all thanks to the Reality Bites OST. These things had power.
There was a formula for New Hotness OSTs. First, lead with a Big Artist playing the closing-credits and/or theme song. For example:
— U2’s “Hold Me Thrill Me Kiss Me Kill Me” from Batman Forever, which bottled up and sold the band at the height of its post-Cold War Zoo TV theatricality.
— R. Kelly’s “I Believe I Can Fly,” from Space Jam. Probably still sung by every 11 year old shooting hoops at his friends’ backyard rim.
— Filter + the Crystal Method collaborating on “(Why Can’t You) Trip Like I Do” from Spawn distilled the mid/late-1990s better than many any other song. You can hear the beginnings of rock’s darkest day since disco coming from miles away: the nu-metal/rap-rock spasm that even absorbed the Mission: Impossible II soundtrack, which was led by Limp Bizkit and also featured Metallica, Rob Zombie, Godsmack, and Buckcherry. (There is an intriguing cover of Pink Floyd by Foo Fights with Queen guitarist Brian May, however. Plus Tori Amos.)
The Mission: Impossible OST tried this, enlisting Adam Clayton and Larry Mullen Jr — U2’s rhythm section — to reprise the original television show’s theme. It didn’t really work. The original theme’s composer was Argentinian Lalo Schifrin, an accomplished jazz composer who had worked extensively with Dizzy Gillespie before going to Hollywood to write songs for M:I, Bullit, and the Dirty Harry films. Schifrin wrote a great mid-60s spy song that was an exemplar of the era’s loungey, noodley jazzed theme tracks. The U2 boys butchered it by opting for muscle. They dropped the 5/4 time after the initial bars, added some synth, and neglected the breakdown completely. Compare this:
All brawn, no brains. Perhaps this is appropriate for Cruise’s M:I, which broke from the series in a variety of ways. One of them is the nature of the characters. Although Cruise tells Jean Reno’s Krieger that he wants “zero body count” midway through — which references the original television show’s refusal to allow the Impossible Missions Force agents to kill any of their enemies — by the end he’s using a James Bond-style gadget to blow up a helicopter that was forced into the England-France Chunnel by attachment to a high-speed train. In many ways M:I is the story of how Ethan Hunt, who was not based on a character from the original show, matures from a relatively minor team-player who employs guile as his primary weapon in low-level ops to the agent who engages in increasingly-ludicrous stunts with increasingly-high stakes as the series goes on. Hunt’s best weapon in the series is his force of will, so Clayton and Mullen Jr gave him a theme with which to psych himself up.
The second element of a good New Hotness OST is to get the mood right. To thoroughly explain this I must go on a digression regarding Batman Forever, the greatest example. I’m going to have to go a little deep on this, but stay with me. After U2’s contribution brought Bono to climax it was followed by PJ Harvey’s “One Time Too Many”. This is perfect because it dials everything back a bit, but not too much… you’d still wear a leather jacket listening to it. Following U2 with PJ Harvey is a particularly ’90s thing to do, and it opens up the rest of the soundtrack to travel in 20 different directions. Which it does. After Polly Jean comes Brandy dancing all over the Lenny Kravitz-penned “Where Are You Now?“, probably the best thing either one of them did in the 1990s.
And then Seal compared some lady to being kissed by a rose on the gray. I never liked that song, but it exemplifies the power of 1990s film soundtracks like no other song this side of “My Heart Will Go On”. Which is why it’s somewhat jarring for it to be followed on the soundtrack by Massive Attack (ft. Tracey Thorn) covering Smokey Robinson’s “The Hunter Gets Captured by the Game,” which had been popularized by The Marvelettes. People, the Batman Forever soundtrack might be settling into some kind of sexy groove, and 14 year old me has already been introduced to PJ Harvey and Massive Attack for the first time in my life! Eddi Reader’s sentimental “Nobody Lives Without Love” plays the Sarah McLachlan role on this album; personally I’d skip it to get to, well, just look how glorious it gets:
-> Mazzy Star, “Tell Me Now,” a slow acoustic blues jam that makes you wonder whether you’re actually still listening to a Batman soundtrack. It’s narcoleptic. Mazzy Star was great for that 2-a.m.-and-just-opened-another-bottle-of-red-wine time. But just when you’ve nearly fallen asleep comes:
-> The Offspring (covering The Damned), “Smash It Up”. Oh man, this got my 14 year old heart pumping. I was already a fan of the Smash album — the one with “Keep ‘Em Separated” and “Self Esteem” on it — but this sounded nothing likely those songs. I’d never heard The Damned before but bought a compilation like two days later. Other than the Sex Pistols this was my first bit of education into late-’70s Britpunk. I listened to “Smash It Up” a lot, which means that I heard its follow-up a ton:
-> Nick Cave, “There Is a Light”. I’m a big Nick Cave fan almost entirely due to his presence on 1990s soundtracks. “Red Right Hand” was on the soundtrack to the X-Files television show (I might need to write an essay on that too; tons of good stuff there). “Into My Arms” was featured in the criminally-underrated Zero Effect. Both of those prompted me to buy full records — Let Love In and The Boatman’s Call, respectively — and I’ve been a Cavehead ever since. A little later Cave covered “Let It Be” for I Am Sam. But “There Is a Light” is special because it doesn’t appear on any of Cave’s albums. It’s sinister as hell, maybe the most appropriate song for Batman’s baddies. And there is a further symmetry: PJ Harvey’s brother was in Cave’s band, and through this connection Harvey and Cave began a torrid relationship. It ended badly.
-> Method Man, “The Riddler”. This is an anomaly on the soundtrack, and I wasn’t quite ready for rap yet when I heard it, so it never registered much me. But in retrospect it’s pretty fantastic, especially as a theme song for Jim Carrey’s house-of-mirrors Riddler.
-> Michael Hutchence (covering Iggy Pop), “The Passenger”. I wouldn’t really hear Iggy Pop until the Trainspotting soundtrack a year later — remember that one? I told you ’90s soundtracks were great — but I had heard INXS’ “Need You Tonight” so I was prepped to dig this one. Hutchence ramps up the song’s tension in this version while attempting to add drama via deeper low-end. It isn’t great, but when Hutchence killed himself via autoerotic asphyxiation in 1997 this song gained some creepiness.
-> The Devlins, “Crossing the River”. The Devlins’ sincere attempt to ape U2 was never quite good enough to propel them to stardom, but if this had ended up on a U2 B-sides collection nobody would’ve complained.
-> Sunny Day Real Estate, “8”. Seriously, I have no idea how Sunny Day Real Estate ended up on here. SDRE was never my thing — I fought valiantly in Great Emo Wars of the 1990s — and it doesn’t really suit the film, but as a cultural artifact it remains interesting. Once again, you can see the seeds of nu metal here: it’s only a short step to Deftones and then, unfortunately, to Korn.
-> The Flaming Lips, “Bad Days”. This song plays in the movie when Jim Carrey becomes The Riddler, and is the perfect closer to this soundtrack. It might be my favorite Flaming Lips song still. Prior to this the only Flaming Lips song I’d ever heard was “She Don’t Use Jelly”. Needless to say, on the strength of these I was not very well prepared for the avant-garde Zaireeka or the majestic The Soft Bulletin. I was, however, super-prepared for them to break new weed-smoking records as Miley Cyrus’ backing band.
Look at that. If you just played the Batman Forever soundtrack at a party people would think you were a fantastic DJ with expansive knowledge of mid-1990s pop, rock, and rap. I’ve never in my life gotten a mixtape as good as this. It covers a lot of different styles and evokes several different moods, all of which are present in the actual film, or are at least intended to be.
Mission: Impossible isn’t nearly so good. But let me tell you something: the M:I OST was the first time I heard Pulp. Or Bjork. I immediately bought Different Class and Post, two of the best — and most ’90s-ish — albums of the ’90s. “I Spy” is one of Jarvis Cocker’s better leers, and elaborates upon the only time in the M:I franchise with any real mystery, or a love triangle, or any relationship dynamic more complicated than sublimating all of your better judgment to Ethan Hunt’s doggedness. Meanwhile, “Headphones” was the first time I got the importance of listening to songs via headphones. I believe it was intentional.
But both of those songs are available on normal albums, and the rest of the soundtrack isn’t to the same level. One of the lesser songs from Massive Attack’s Protection is included, but it seems to have been mostly chosen for its name: “Spying Glass”. The attempt to infuse trip-hop with reggae sounds ridiculous following Clayton and Mullen Jr’s theme, although the same song was used more effectively to build anxiety in Samuel L. Jackson’s One Eight Seven a few years later. The entries by Skunk Anansie, Salt, and Longpigs are not worth remembering, and while Nicolette’s anarchist ditty “No Government” has its charms it feels out of place in both tone and sentiment.
But despite its faults the fact that teenagers could accidentally discover Pulp and Bjork while trying to listen to U2 is not nothing. 1990s soundtracks were great for discoveries such as these, from Elliott Smith in Good Will Hunting and Aimee Mann in Magnolia to sleazy standards in Trainspotting and made-up “standards” in Velvet Goldmine and That Thing You Do. Second-tier Britpop and the ska revival found a home in Clueless (I was really into the Mighty Mighty Bosstones back in the day), while you could go to The Crow or Lost Highway for the darker stuff.
They don’t make ’em like that anymore.