The 10 Best 90's Soundtrack Songs
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The 10 Best 90's Soundtrack Songs

By Chris Polley | Guides | August 28, 2012 | Comments ()


Sometimes nostalgia creeps up on you like a motherfucker. It seems to attack viciously out of nowhere, and yet, isn't it always in the back of our heads, nibbling away at our present until something notable enough comes along to make 2009 memorable in ten years. Maybe it's the fact that summer usually means seeing friends from high school but I have had yet to make that happen this year, or maybe it was because this morning I randomly chose to watch Dangerous Liaisons on Netflix Instant Viewing for some reason, which made me think of Cruel Intentions, which I've never seen, but remember as distinctly 90s. I mean, c'mon: Sarah Michelle Gellar, Ryan Phillippe and The Verve's "Bitter Sweet Symphony"? It's so 90s it hurts (read: feels so good) just thinking about.

And while at first I wanted to complain about the severe lack of Billboard alt-rock/blockbuster movie tie-ins nowadays, I soon realized how idiotic that would sound. So that's not why I'm here. I'm here because of the memories. It's actually fine by me that this phenomenon stayed in the 90s because then it becomes part of that decade's history, along with pogs and slap bracelets (my wrist hurts just thinking about that). Also, admit it, wouldn't it be mega-lame if, say, some emo act like Dashboard Confessional tried to write some theme song to a superhero movie? Oh, wait. So let's let the 90s be the 90s and just appreciate the awesomeness/ridiculousness that was this decade with a look back through my personal favorite songs from this trend. Nostalgia: it's useless and often makes you feel unhip, but it feels too good to ignore.

10) "Graduate"
Third Eye Blind
Can't Hardly Wait (1998)

As the most recently released film and soundtrack on the countdown, part of me feels like "Graduate" needs special explanation. At the ripe age of 14 during its time of release, I had already sequestered the majority of my tastes to "good films" and "cool music" and thus missed Can't Hardly Wait on the first go-around. Third Eye Blind and their self-titled album, however, found their way into my headphones mighty easily. At a time when mainstream pop-rock was beefing up on machismo or disseminating into subgenres like (gulp) ska, I held a firm belief in the accessibly jangly and wimpy sounds of 3EB. And when I heard "Graduate" in particular in the commercials for Can't Hardly Wait it took all my pretentious teenage strength to keep myself from the theaters. It was the one track that had the party energy of a thousand suns and still proudly exhibited (admittedly, a douchemeister) Stephen Jenkins' ineffable lisp. Luckily, six years-ish later, with a gallon of ostentatious reservations down the drain, I holed up in a friend's basement during a break from college to witness the glory that is Can't Hardly Wait, which finally taught me that memories are all we have. And sometimes I wish I could go back, shed the film geek getup, and hear this song through Dolby theater speakers.

9) "You and Me Song"
The Wannadies
William Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet (1996)

Now this one was pretty hard to stay away from. Possibly the most popular soundtrack on this list at my middle school, it's amazing that it featured a Law & Order-esque Radiohead track and "You and Me Song" by The Wannadies, a no-name Swedish wuss-pop group and still fluttered around the hearts of tween girls everywhere, before they were called tweens of course. The movie is whatever (just like the play, oh snap!), but one thing that could be said for it (and Baz Luhrmann's relationship with music in his films in general) is that the soundtrack matched it so perfectly that its sheer flashy sugar-pop power is hard to deny. The lyrics for this song in particular are pure lameness, but they're distilled through a samba beat, clever melodica, and a chorus melody accompanied by enough sappy strings to explode flowers out of the coldest of hearts. A couple years later I would spend a summer in France and track down as many Wannadies imports as possible, giddily humming this song in the back of my head in hopes I'd find something that would equal it.

8) "Need You Around"
Smoking Popes
Clueless (1995)

Okay I wasn't exactly the right gender demographic for Clueless probably, but I appreciated the genius of Paul Rudd and Donald Faison and pretended they were the story's protagonists so that I could justify my own enjoyment of the film. Sure now I can look back and realize it's the much better modernized classic literature adaptation of that time period (and possibly of all time), but back in 1995, I had to back up my fondness of the film with something more tangible, so I said, "the soundtrack's pretty cool." And it was. The Muffs, Luscious Jackson, Velocity Girl, oh yeah, those are all girl bands. Well luckily I was able to offset my girliness with the kickass Smoking Popes. And this song in particular, their only big hit, used vocalist Josh Caterer's strange baritone croon to its utmost advantage, sounding like a perfect mesh of old-style romanticism and new-school downbeat quirkiness, which years later makes so much sense as the credits-playing closing track for Clueless, as the predictable but satisfying kiss is accompanied by jagged neon-colored title cards.

7) "Waiting For Somebody"
Paul Westerberg
Singles (1992)

My older brother loved this movie and I couldn't understand it. It looked like it was just mopey idiots falling in and out of love for two hours. Flash forward to 1997 when we get the Internet. I somehow wind up with this song in my Shared Files folder. I can't stop listening to it. By the fourth listen, I'm singing along word for word, and scatting along to the guitar solo too. I get the movie from the library and give it another go. It's so strange how a perspective can change in five years when you're an adolescent. I was at that point entering high school; I now knew that the next step was college, and then, the real life. Holy crap, am I ever going to get a girlfriend? That was the first thought that came into my head of course. But then I kept watching the movie and realized these idiot mope characters were ten years older than me and still trying to figure out life. It got me to open my eyes, freak out, and then immediately relax my neurotic tendencies all at once. Cameron Crowe would do it again a few years later with Almost Famous, then a year after that I would find myself in Paul Westerberg's hometown of Minneapolis, trying to make it through that post-adolescent existence (still kinda am).

6) "Natural One"
Folk Implosion
Kids (1995)

There was little else that was as frightening and alluring as Larry Clark's Kids to a newly minted teenager in 1995. After months of pretending I didn't want to see it and listening over and over again to the alt-rock radio station DJ mentioning the movie whenever he spun "Natural One", it wound up on HBO at a friend's house and I watched with this disgusting gut rot swirling in my abdomen but with my eyes glued to the 25" Zenith bastard. It was a kind of sick hypnotism not unlike the Folk Implosion song itself, which was a breed of electronic-tinged psychedelia unfound on the aforementioned radio station, which at that point was my sole source of musical enlightenment. It burrowed into my skull with its big-drum sound, murky-as-fuck bass line, and Lou Barlow's buried-in-the-mix creepster voice just a few years before I started bopping happily to my first Sebadoh download (not knowing at the time that Barlow was responsible for both). The song and the film it's derived from is sinister and scarring, but at least "Natural One" is fun to listen to.

5) "Til I Hear It from You"
Gin Blossoms
Empire Records (1995)

Did this movie even come out in theaters? I don't even remember it on a marquee anywhere, but I must have watched it a dozen times on VHS during my freshman year. It's my generation's Pump Up the Volume, which is sad to a certain degree, what with its pastel palette and presence of Renee Zellweger, but I want to believe it's still just as valid. I wished I was friends with the characters and I genuinely wanted the trite premise to unfold according to plan, with the independent record store winning out over the corporate behemoth trying to buy it out, which is mighty powerful when you're in the midst of forming a music geek identity at a young age. And yes, the soundtrack was chock full of corporate radio hits and major label artists, but that easily went unnoticed when a gorgeous Gin Blossoms track kicks off your record. Sure Doug Hopkins, co-founder of the band and writer of so many of their greatest songs ("Hey Jealousy", "Found Out About You") had died, but hearing the meticulously jangly guitars and ridiculously pretty vocal harmonies all over again flooded my head with the same kind of intense smile-inducing harmlessness that Empire Records always did. I haven't listened to the band's breakout album New Miserable Experience or watched the film in question for quite a long time now, and I don't know if or when I'll ever pull either out again, but this song and movie right here are the reason why the word "fuzzy" is most overused in conjunction with the word "nostalgia."

4) "Dead Souls"
Nine Inch Nails
The Crow (1994)

My first R-rated movie. And how sweet it was. And my brother, a Bruce Lee and martial arts fanatic, was just as cautiously and eerily fascinated by the impending opening of Brandon Lee's first and last film as I was. But when we saw it, Lee's death while filming ended up being the last thing on our minds. Instead, the vicious revenge plot, the intense shadowy and rainy visuals, and the face-melting soundtrack became our points of conversation over the next few weeks. Especially when we both bought the album, his on CD, mine on cassette (my Walkman was my middle school blanky, get over it), we each had a new favorite track every week. He loved the Rollins Band and Helmet songs while I leaned toward Rage Against the Machine and the Stone Temple Pilots hit "Big Empty". But the one we could both always agree on, and still to this day is the one I most audibly associate with the film itself rather than just the record after the fact, is Trent Reznor's cover of the Joy Division song "Dead Souls". Of course I had no idea who Ian Curtis was back in 1994, but the lumbering bass and tribal drums (and overall reserved pace) were something I had never expected from Nine Inch Nails, and I was happy to finally hear something doomily pleasant underneath Reznor's snake-like caterwaul. Plus, watching Lee's character Eric Draven physically adapt to his new state of resurrection alongside this tune is so affecting that it should go down in history as the best serious use of modern rock music as cue music for a film.

3) "Born Slippy (Nuxx)"
Trainspotting (1996)

You might realize that this is the only non-pop-rock song on this list (well maybe, depending on what the hell you call #2) and that alone was probably enough to make it so high on the countdown. Then there's the fact that Danny Boyle, whether or not he deserved to win for Slumdog Millionaire, is a fucking master at integrating a musical motif into his films. Whatever your thoughts about his breakout Oscar smash, the intertwining of M.I.A. into the bold kinetics of the film was gangbusters. As was his match-up of apocalyptic orchestral rockers Godspeed You! Black Emperor in 28 Days Later, for obvious reasons. But the first time he really got his head around splicing photography in congruence with non-traditional film score music was with the final scene of Trainspotting. Yeah Iggy Pop, Blur, and Elastica were pretty solid hits too, but I remember seeing Boyle's drug opus for the first time and a wacky British film like that hadn't felt so hefty and heart-rending until those first pulses of Underworld peaked out in the background while Ewan McGregor stared at the carpet, figuring out whether or not to betray his friends. Here's a movie that goes from making you guffaw to grieve in a matter of seconds, and only this dramatic dancefloor remix of "Born Slippy" could have communicated that transition so effectively. I'd like to think that it single-handedly started making people take electronic music more seriously, including myself.

2) "Standing Outside a Broken Phone Booth with Money in My Hand"
Primitive Radio Gods
The Cable Guy (1996)

Something I didn't realize until after I formed this list: our top two tracks here both stem from films directed by Ben Stiller. How random is that? Maybe Mr. Night at the Museum should get back behind the camera, and not just to make us laugh bewilderedly at Tom Cruise dancing to Flo Rida. Truth is: like Dustin mentioned in his recent Trailer Appresh for The Truman Show, Jim Carrey actually first showed us his real chops here. Yes he's still manic and obnoxious, but not only did the character call for that, but I genuinely felt pity for poor Chip as he sat there hurt by the satellite - the very symbol of that which cultivated his personality (or personalities). And while this song, possibly the strangest and most unique radio hit of the 90s (also one of the most forgotten), only played momentarily in the film during a scene with Matthew Broderick trying to make nice with Leslie Mann, it was the only one of the two songs I played over and over again from this soundtrack (yes, the other was Jim Carrey's rendition of "Somebody to Love", which still gets to me to this day). It was a dark and sad film just as much as it was a comedy (possibly more so), and the tone of this song captures that so vividly that I am not ashamed to say The Cable Guy still holds a special place in this 90s-obsessed nerd's heart.

1) "Stay (I Miss You)"
Lisa Loeb & Nine Stories
Reality Bites (1994)

And here's the only woman on the list, at the top where she belongs. Never wrote another good song, but that's okay, because the delicious soft-pop cheesiness that is "Stay (I Miss You)" is timeless. Fucking timeless. It's the 90s soundtrack hit that you couldn't not belt out at the top your lungs when it came on the radio, even if you were worried your mom would hear you from two stories below and begin to question your sexuality. I didn't see the movie until high school (double feature w/ Singles actually, so Westerberg's also kind of responsible for me revisiting this one, and I will forever associate each film with the other), but when I did, I once again fell in love with the mopey idiots falling in and out of love with each other. Except in this movie, they were also witty assholes. And if my current obsession with watching The West Wing on DVD is any indication, I still love me witty asshole characters. Oh and proof that the muscle-tensing cathartic power of this song is still present? When the karaoke guy at the bowling alley bar told me that I couldn't sing it because their tape of it was busted, a single tear gently flowed down my pale cheek. I'm not even shitting you.

This post was originally published in 2009.

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