Alicia Silverstone as Cher Horowitz in 'Clueless' (1995)
Courtesy Photo: CBS via Getty Images
How 1995 Became A Blockbuster Year For Movie Soundtracks
Mariah Carey, Alanis Morissette, 2Pac and The Smashing Pumpkins all had No. 1 albums in 1995. Despite such hallowed competition, four movie soundtracks also topped the Billboard 200 chart that year. Two were family-friendly Disney behemoths: Pocahontas and The Lion King, the latter still powering from the previous year. The other chart-topping soundtracks, for the Michelle Pfeiffer vehicle Dangerous Minds and the stoner comedy Friday, were no one's idea of kids' entertainment.
Beyond those No. 1 spots, 1995 marked a fascinating midpoint in a soundtrack-heavy decade. According to a New York Times report, a new release CD that year typically cost anywhere between $13-$19. At that price, a soundtrack needed major star power or an undeniable concept.
For movie studios and musicians alike, the format was rich with opportunity. However, there was no certain formula for success. Some soundtracks were guided by a single producer, while others drew on a grab bag of then-current songs. Several featured one clear hit that eclipsed the soundtrack, or occasionally the movie itself. For all their differing approaches, the soundtracks of 1995 epitomized the energy and audacity of the decade, while also establishing tropes for the next 25 years.
The Bodyguard: Original Soundtrack Album (1992) set the bar high for the decade. With a 20-week reign at No. 1, it remains the biggest-selling soundtrack of all time. Whitney Houston performed six songs on the album, including the titanic power ballad, "I Will Always Love You." (At the 1994 GRAMMYs, the track won the GRAMMY for Record Of The Year and Best Pop Vocal Performance, Female, while the soundtrack itself earned the Album Of The Year award.)
While The Bodyguard magnified their commercial potential, movie soundtracks like Quentin Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs (1992) and Pulp Fiction (1994) framed the medium as an artistic showpiece. Throughout the '90s, Tarantino and fellow indie auteurs Paul Thomas Anderson, Richard Linklater and Spike Lee made music a key character in their films. (The latter continues the trend on his latest movie, Da 5 Bloods, alongside six-time GRAMMY-winning composer and trumpeter Terence Blanchard.) Both instincts, for commercial returns and artistic validation, were well-represented in 1995.
Batman Forever (1995) epitomized the big-budget, mass-appeal mid-'90s soundtrack. Spanning PJ Harvey to Method Man, the 14-track set employed some tried-and-true tactics. First, only five songs on the track list appear in the movie itself, ushering in a rash of "Music From And Inspired By" soundtracks. Second, its featured artists largely contributed songs you couldn't find on other albums: According to Entertainment Weekly in 1995, U2 landed a reported $500,000 advance for "Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me, Kill Me," an offcut from the band's Zooropa album sessions.
Most significantly, Batman Forever backed a surprise smash in Seal's "Kiss From A Rose." Originally released as a single in 1994, the ballad blew up as the movie's "love theme." In its music video, Seal croons in the light of the Bat-Signal, intercut with not-very-romantic scenes from the film. Outshining U2, "Kiss From A Rose" reached No. 1 in 1995; one year later, the song won for Song Of The Year, Record Of The Year and Best Male Pop Vocal Performance at the 38th GRAMMY Awards.
Both Bad Boys and Dangerous Minds had their "Kiss From A Rose" equivalent in 1995. Diana King's reggae-fusion jam "Shy Guy" proved the breakout star of Bad Boys, transcending an R&B- and hip-hop-heavy soundtrack. Meanwhile, Coolio's "Gangsta's Paradise," featuring singer L.V., the key track on Dangerous Minds, became the top-selling single of 1995; it won the rapper his first, and only, GRAMMY for Best Rap Solo Performance the next year.
Other soundtracks from 1995 endure as perfect documents of their time and place. Clueless compiled a cast from '90s rock radio to accompany the adventures of Alicia Silverstone's Cher Horowitz and her high school clique: Counting Crows, Smoking Popes, Cracker and The Muffs. Coolio, the everywhere man of 1995, contributed "Rollin' With My Homies."
From the same city, but a world outside Cher's Beverly Hills bubble, came the Ice Cube- and Chris Tucker-starring Friday. Its soundtrack took a whistle-stop tour of West Coast hip-hop and G-funk via Ice Cube, Dr. Dre, Tha Alkaholiks and Mack 10. True to the era, the music video for Dr. Dre's "Keep Their Heads Ringin'" is half stoner comedy, half cheesy action movie.
Waiting To Exhale, the 1995 drama directed by Forest Whitaker, boasted a soundtrack with a clear author. Babyface, the R&B superproducer with 11 GRAMMY wins for his work with the likes of Boyz II Men and Toni Braxton, produced the set in full. Following Babyface's co-producer role on The Bodyguard soundtrack three years prior, Waiting To Exhale featured two new songs from the movie's star, Whitney Houston.
Houston's "Exhale (Shoop Shoop)" and "Why Does It Hurt So Bad" led a track list that also featured Aretha Franklin, TLC, Chaka Khan, Mary J. Blige and then-newcomer Brandy. A powerful showcase of Black women across generations, the soundtrack has prevailed as a standalone work, going on to receive multiple nominations, including Album Of The Year, at the 1997 GRAMMYs. In a crowded year for soundtracks, which also included Dinosaur Jr. founder Lou Barlow's work on Larry Clark's contentious Kids, Waiting To Exhale demonstrated the power of a singular vision.
For the most part, the soundtracks of 1995 tried a bit of everything. The previous year, The Crow: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack went all-in on covers, including Nine Inch Nails overhauling Joy Division's "Dead Souls." That trend continued into 1995, from Tori Amos covering R.E.M.'s "Losing My Religion" for Higher Learning to Evan Dando's update of Big Star's "The Ballad Of El Goodo" in Empire Records to Tom Jones gamely taking on Lenny Kravitz's "Are You Gonna Go My Way"' for The Jerky Boys movie. (Is there a more '90s sentence than that?)
Elsewhere, the Mortal Kombat soundtrack blended metal and industrial rock (Fear Factory, Gravity) with dance music (Utah Saints, Orbital). For every Dead Presidents, which zeroed in on '70s funk and soul, there was a Tank Girl, which threw together Bush, Björk, Veruca Salt and Ice-T to match the movie's manic tone.
Continuing from their '90s winning streak, grown-up soundtracks have proven surprisingly resilient. In an echo of Babyface's role on Waiting To Exhale, Kendrick Lamar oversaw production on 2018's chart-topping, multi-GRAMMY-nominated Black Panther: The Album, uniting an A-list cast under his creative direction. On the same front, Beyonce executive-produced and curated The Lion King: The Gift, the soundtrack album for the 2019 remake of the Disney classic, which spotlighted African and Afrobeats artists. In 2016, Taylor Swift and One Direction's Zayn recorded "I Don't Wanna Live Forever (Fifty Shades Darker)," pitching for the movie tie-in bump enjoyed in 1995 by Seal and Coolio. (The millennial stars stopped short of including scenes from the movie in their music video.)
Like Batman Forever back in the day, the DC Universe continues to put stock in soundtracks. Both Suicide Squad (2016) and its follow-up, Birds Of Prey (2020), are packed tight with to-the-minute pop, R&B and hip-hop. Each soundtrack reads like a who's who of the musical zeitgeist. In 1995, Mazzy Star, Brandy and U2 grouped up behind Batman. In 2016, Twenty One Pilots, Skrillex and Rick Ross powered the Suicide Squad. In 2020, everyone from Doja Cat to Halsey to YouTube star Maisie Peters form Team Harley Quinn.
As 1995 taught us time and time again, nothing traps a year in amber quite like a movie soundtrack.