Part of grunge’s golden era and a crucial turning point for hip-hop, 1994 is often lauded as one of the best years for music, ever. And from cult favorites like Pulp Fiction and The Shawshank Redemption to blockbusters like Forrest Gump and The Lion King, 1994 is also recognized as a crucial year in modern film history.
Given the quality of movies that year, 1994 was unsurprisingly a banner year for movie soundtracks too. But it was more than that — 1994 marks an essential turning point for movie soundtracks as we know them today.
Prior to 1994, most soundtracks were either a collection of new songs or a compilation of classic hits, serving to sum up a generation’s tastes (The Big Chill) or capture a moment in time (Saturday Night Fever).
But 1994’s best soundtracks weren’t representative of a generation, at least in the traditional sense. Along with the rise of risk-taking indies in Hollywood, the soundtracks of 1994 showcase a mixtape, postmodern mentality.
Pulp Fiction is the shining example. Surf rock, soul, country and funk rub elbows on one of the best-selling soundtracks of the year. Unlike most films, Pulp Fiction didn’t deploy past hits to evoke a particular era (save the Jack Rabbit Slim’s scene). Instead, the different genres flow together in a way that seems somehow neither vintage nor contemporary. Pulp Fiction exists in a world all its own, and the music is a huge part of that.
More explicitly postmodern is the Natural Born Killers soundtrack, Trent Reznor‘s first foray into film music. Instead of arranging tracks from Leonard Cohen, Dr. Dre, Bob Dylan and his own Nine Inch Nails neatly alongside each other, Reznor presents a cut-and-paste collage of songs, special effects and dialogue to create a schizophrenic, jittery journey. It’s a far cry from comfort-food soundtracks like Sleepless in Seattle or Free Willy, both released the previous year.
The soundtrack to The Crow — a film about a rock musician who rises from the grave to avenge his death — similarly tosses in disparate artists, but still creates a unified tone. While the inclusion of the Cure makes sense for the film’s goth sensibility, placing Robert Smith alongside Pantera, Violent Femmes, Jesus & Mary Chain and Stone Temple Pilots made for a more diverse soundtrack than you’d typically expect.
Though less abrasive and inventive, the Reality Bites soundtrack is another classic disc from 1994. Lenny Kravitz, U2 and Dinosaur Jr. sit comfortably alongside winking retro throwbacks, like the Knack‘s “My Sharona” and Big Mountain‘s reggae reworking of Peter Frampton‘s “Baby I Love Your Way.” And of course, there’s Lisa Loeb‘s “Stay (I Missed You),” which became the first independent single to hit No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 — and boasts an Ethan Hawke-directed music video.
Of course, 1994 wasn’t all postmodern mixtape fare. The double-disc Forrest Gump soundtrack is a straightforward collection of songs chosen to represent different eras in American pop culture, presented without any irony or re-contextualization.
Similarly straightforward is the soundtrack to Above the Rim, overseen by Suge Knight and Dr. Dre. Aside from serving as an excellent snapshot of the West Coast G-Funk taking over hip-hop circa 1994, it was the first release to feature Warren G‘s “Regulate” ft. Nate Dogg.
Both “Regulate” and Loeb’s Reality Bites track were among the 10 best-selling singles of 1994, showing just how important soundtracks were to the music industry and culture at the time.
And then, of course, there was the year’s best-selling album, period: The Lion King soundtrack. Neither a snapshot of its era nor an edgy, postmodern compilation, it’s still a classic — and arguably Disney’s best soundtrack.
So, case closed? Was 1994 the best year for movie soundtracks, or can you think of a better one? Let us know in the comments below.