If the 1980s marked a soundtrack explosion, commemorating a decade of aggressive merchandising and cross promotion, it entered a new permutation after the release of Tim Burton’s Batman in 1989, when Albert Magnoli, Prince’s then-manager, suggested that Warner Bros. employ his client for an album “inspired by” the film rather than one meant to be played wall-to-wall behind the characters. Afterward, filmmakers and studious couldn’t get enough of tracks and full albums engineered as tie-ins and spinoffs to their films—especially if they could stake out a spot for themselves on the Billboard charts.
To collect the 35 best songs from 1990s movie soundtracks, we had to eliminate from selection one of the decade’s trends of reviving an older song for new, anachronistic use, beginning with Ghost’s use of The Righteous Brothers’ “Unchained Melody” in 1990, and continuing through Wayne’s World (Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody”), Pulp Fiction (Dick Dale’s “Misirlou” among several others), Trainspotting (Iggy Pop’s “Lust For Life”), and more. Also, because she had no fewer than four charting singles, we excluded Madonna because—as always—she is in her own category (though “Vogue” is the best one). You may not remember some of these songs from the films for which they were recorded; you may have forgotten about some of these songs (or movies) entirely. But each of these captured a very specific moment in the life cycle of the films, the artists, the decade, and pop culture itself. And when you’re finished reading about these iconic tunes, scroll to the bottom of the page for a full playlist.
The Adventures Of Ford Fairlane (1990), Renny Harlin’s star vehicle for Andrew “Dice” Clay, made the comedian a cultural phenomenon for a hot minute—but the song “Cradle of Love” gave Billy Idol a late-career boost. It was accompanied by a music video directed by David Fincher that featured zero footage of Clay, who had been banned by MTV.
After Emilio Estevez approached Jon Bon Jovi about using his tour-slog anthem “Wanted Dead Or Alive” for the brat-pack Western sequel Young Guns II (1990), the singer offered instead to record a song whose subject matter was more tailored to the film. “Blaze of Glory” eventually reached no. 1 on the Billboard Album Rock Tracks chart.
David Lynch’s Wild At Heart (1990) made this single from Chris Isaak’s 1989 album Heart Shaped World a hit, but its two music videos helped elevate it to legendary status. The first was directed by Lynch, featuring Isaak performing in black and white opposite clips of Wild At Heart characters Sailor (Nicolas Cage) and Lula (Laura Dern). The second was a historic Herb Ritts beach romp featuring the singer cavorting in the surf with supermodel Helena Christensen.
In what’s otherwise a fierce competition, Nothing But Trouble (1991)—starring Dan Aykroyd, Chevy Chase, and Demi Moore—could rank high as one of each actor’s worst cinematic efforts. That said, the appearance of Digital Underground qualifies as one of its best moments, not the least of which because this song marks the first published recording of Tupac Shakur.
In June 1991—two months before the release of their two-volume, take-themselves-too-seriously album Use Your Illusion—this absolute banger was released as the theme song for Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991), James Cameron’s groundbreaking sequel. It wasn’t an easy get: According to Larry Kasanoff, who co-founded Lightstorm Entertainment with Cameron, Arnold Schwarzenegger had to do “a lot of schmoozing with the band and Arnold and Maria [Shriver] invited the band over to their house for dinner one night, and sure enough [the band] agreed.”
Kevin Costner’s decision to play Sherwood Forest’s most notorious 12th-century bandit with a flat modern-day California accent was one of the many misguided choices in Kevin Reynolds’s Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (1991). But choosing Bryan Adams’s ballad “(Everything I Do) I Do It For You” was not. Even as the film drew widespread critical derision, including nods from the Razzies for its leading man (and his bare butt), Adams earned a Grammy, an Oscar nomination, and the eternal gratitude of teenagers really hoping to go all the way on prom night.
Rush (1991), Lili Fini Zanuck’s film starring Jason Patric and Jennifer Jason Leigh, is all but forgotten. But Eric Clapton’s score for the film endures as some of his best work, particularly this acoustic song inspired by the death of his 4-year-old son, Conor.
Deep Cover (1992), Bill Duke’s undercover cop thriller, features standout performances from Laurence Fishburne and a mesmerizingly unhinged Jeff Goldblum. But at the moment that Dr. Dre broke away from N.W.A., he collaborated with a then-unknown rapper named Snoop Doggy Dogg on what would be an all-time hip-hop anthem, full of menace, street realism and undeniable funk.
Eddie Murphy attempted to reimagine himself as a romantic leading man with Boomerang (1992), which offers an incisive look at gender politics and features one of Boyz II Men’s best and most successful songs (which would become a future wedding staple at any ceremony with an ounce of earnest sentimentality).
Cameron Crowe, with his endlessly astute musical knowledge, captured the then-nascent sound of grunge in Singles (1992). This early ‘90s look at relationships and dating is set in Seattle and features this pulsing single by Alice in Chains.
At what age did you learn that this was actually a Dolly Parton song she famously wrote (along with “Jolene”) in less than a day? And that it wasn’t a love song at all? Whitney Houston couldn’t win an Oscar for her rendition from The Bodyguard (1992), but she went on to almost unimaginable commercial glory after the song and soundtrack became a ubiquitous, beloved smash. Even today, nearly 30 years after the film’s original release, its still the best-selling soundtrack of all time.
Untamed Heart (1993), Tony Bill’s romance between a waitress (Marisa Tomei) and a reclusive young man (Christian Slater), earned its place honestly as a cult classic (and it’s totally great). But this souped-up outlier for singer-songwriter Suzanne Vega became a runaway smash and the signature song of the film, capturing the essence of its coffee-shop setting and the mundane but compelling dramas within.
Johnny Depp was still trading on being the weirdest hunk you’d ever seen at this point in his career (and adding a healthy dollop of Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton’s influence for good measure), but The Proclaimers became a brief but indelible part of the commercial firmament in Benny & Joon (1993) with this yodeling-adjacent tribute to how far someone would go for love.
Sharon Stone struggled to recapture the febrile sexuality she showed in Basic Instinct a second time in Sliver (1993), a lousy erotic thriller. But its soundtrack offered some prescient musical thrills exploring electronica and other marginalized genres—including a cover of Elvis Presley’s “Can’t Help Falling Love,” which “Red Red Wine” standard-bearers UB40 transformed into a different kind of chart-topper than the original.
It’s still unclear if the ending of Reality Bites (1994), Ben Stiller’s Generation X chronicle, is meant to violate or embody the “iconic” theme that winds through his story. But Lisa Loeb’s understated guitar ballad is nothing but earnest, earning her—and cute female singer-songwriters with glasses—new appreciation by the mainstream.
Jeff Pollock’s basketball drama Above The Rim (1994) didn’t quite register with the same vitality as some other films about Black characters and inner-city lives from the era, but working with Interscope Records on the soundtrack, it nevertheless left an impression. Especially when Warren G and Nate Dogg’s Michael McDonald-sampling chronicle of two friends dealing with carjackers and catching the attention of a couple of ladies became a runaway smash.
After Disney’s salad days with Alan Menken and the late Howard Ashman on The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast, the studio took a chance on Elton John and Tim Rice for The Lion King (1994), and they knocked it out of the park.
Even as director Joel Schumacher leaned heavily back into camp and commercialism with Batman Forever (1995), the third installment in the Batman film series, he coaxed some great work out of a number of contemporary artists including Seal, whose love ballad was at least good enough to replace “Can You Feel The Love Tonight” at high school dances.
Clueless (1995)—Amy Heckerling’s chronicle of high school social hierarchies, filtered loosely through Jane Austen’s Emma—featured an eclectic variety of artists on its soundtrack, from Radiohead to Coolio. But the runaway hit among its selections was No Doubt’s breakthrough single “Just A Girl,” which perfectly captured both the endearing sentiment of the film’s protagonist Cher (Alicia Silverstone) and the unpredictable complexity lurking beneath her manicured exterior.
In Dangerous Minds (1995), a based-on-a-true-story drama, Michelle Pfeiffer played a teacher and former Marine who decided to try and make a difference in the lives of several inner-city students. Coolio’s reworking of Stevie Wonder’s “Pastime Paradise” gave it a theme song, capturing the unforgiving realities the students face while Pfeiffer’s character tries to break through the noise and offer them a better future.
Bernardo Bertolucci’s Stealing Beauty (1996), starring a young Liv Tyler, offered an empathetic look at a young woman’s sexual and intellectual awakening, set to this breakthrough trip-hop song that samples Isaac Hayes’s “Walk On By” in a deliciously sexy new context.
Late Fountains of Wayne frontman Adam Schlesinger wrote the title song for That Thing You Do! (1996), which became a pop single good enough to hold up against the best work of the 1960s—a title theme that would evoke the brisk and enjoyable sounds of the era in which the film is set.
Baz Luhrmann managed to contain his own creativity to just one disc as he reimagined Romeo + Juliet (1996), Shakespeare’s most famous play, for a completely new generation. The Cardigans’ signature song became an immediate hit thanks to singer Nina Persson’s unimposing but effortlessly charming vocals, pleading for listeners to “love me, love me.” Who could resist?
It’s no surprise that Cameron Crowe appears more than once on our list, as his musical choices are absolutely peerless. In Jerry Maguire (1996), a film about learning the difference between obligation and commitment, Bruce Springsteen’s gorgeous love ballad provided the perfect backdrop for Tom Cruise’s crash-landed sports agent to learn that lesson firsthand, with a little help from an absolutely irresistible Renée Zellweger.
Unfortunately, Val Kilmer’s big-screen update of the book, radio, and television series The Saint (1997) pretty much sucked. But its soundtrack was shrewd enough to capitalize on the exploding craze for electronic music. Orbital’s title theme proved to be a minor hit, but Sneaker Pimps’ hip-hop influenced “6 Underground” broke free from the film and deservedly became a bona fide hit unto itself.
No matter how salty fans of DJ Jazzy Jeff and The Fresh Prince might have been when Will Smith went solo, the rapper and movie star delivered more than a few really solid hits, including this theme song to Men In Black (1997), a graphic novel adaptation of the same name, using a sample of Patrice Rushen’s “Forget Me Nots” to evoke a little nostalgia even after audiences submitted themselves to one of Smith’s character’s neuralizers.
As the Oscar-winning theme song to Titanic (1997)—the onetime biggest movie of all time—there was no way we could leave this song off this list. Like the film itself, its appeal fades with distance from experiencing its charms in context (at least for some); but any kitsch value quickly burns off once you actually hear it projected against the love story of Jack (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Rose (Kate Winslet), building a love that endures even from the bottom of an icy sea.
Alfonso Cuarón’s 1998 adaptation of Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations remains a decidedly mixed bag of success (astonishingly beautiful visually, sadly meandering narratively), but this song perfectly captures young Finn’s (Ethan Hawke) emotional torment as he attempts to win the heart of childhood sweetheart Estella (the then-ubiquitous Gwyneth Paltrow), over a John Barry sample that gives it a sound that’s vintage and modern at the same time.
City Of Angels (1998), Brad Silberling’s remake of Wim Wenders’s Wings Of Desire, left, well, much to be desired. But it spawned a massive hit for the Goo Goo Dolls, giving them a level of success they’d never experienced on any of their five previous albums and becoming a crossover staple from modern rock to pop to adult contemporary.
There are probably few films more in need of a contemporary reappraising than Warren Beatty’s Bulworth (1998), about a politician who blows up his own reelection campaign by stumping with absolute candor. And its soundtrack features an amazing collection of tracks, including this virtual posse cut featuring Ol’ Dirty Bastard at his unpredictable best, Mýa updating “Islands In the Stream” for the chorus, and former Fugee Pras breaking out for the first time.
It was a toss-up whether to include this or Diddy’s song with Jimmy Page, “Come With Me,” but the Wallflowers undeniably exploded as a result of this skilled cover of David Bowie’s classic. The band sanded off their predecessor’s edges in order to deliver a smooth, catchy hero’s theme for the characters fighting a giant iguana in Godzilla (1998), Roland Emmerich’s American update of the city-leveling kaiju.
Aerosmith has reinvented itself more times than just about any rock artist of the last four decades. At the moment when their “Pump” era came to a close, they teamed up with hitmaker Diane Warren to perform this love ballad for Armageddon (1998), Michael Bay’s movie about an asteroid heading for Earth, and in the process found a way to keep themselves relevant for a few more years.
This one was another toss-up; Fatboy Slim’s “Rockafeller Skank” provides the soundtrack to the best scene in She’s All That (1999). However, Sixpence None The Richer’s song not only became the most famous track ever associated with the film, but absolutely has become the platonic ideal of a one-hit soundtrack wonder, scooping up critical and commercial success pretty much without ever being heard from again.
Although technically Sneaker Pimps’ “6 Underground” also appeared on the soundtrack for Cruel Intentions (1999), it was The Verve’s Rolling Stones’-sampling breakthrough single that earned this soundtrack its biggest success. It’s impossible to listen to “Bittersweet Symphony” without imagining what kind of mind games Ryan Phillippe and Sarah Michelle Gellar are perpetrating on some unsuspecting young co-ed.
Go (1999), Doug Liman’s tribute-slash-ripoff of Pulp Fiction, featured a lot of great songs from a lot of great bands. But the most underappreciated of them might have been Len, whose “Steal My Sunshine”—which samples a break from Andrea True Connection’s “More, More, More”—offers a suitably meandering, conversational track about odd encounters that perfectly suits the film.