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Dancing to a New Hollywood Beat: 14 of the Most Surprisingly Unforgettable Movie Songs of the 1990s

Updated on August 13, 2013
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What constitutes a good song? Does it have a catchy tune or stellar lyrics? How about an appealing lead singer? Hollywood tended to overlook the appearance portion when it came to finding the right song for a particular scene in a movie. Would Pocahontas have been the same without the Vanessa Williams song “Colors of the Wind” playing at a crucial time? Maybe. Maybe not. It’s hard to say whether or not a good movie song can make or break a film before the end credits roll. The only thing that’s for certain is that many people would be willing to buy the inevitable movie soundtrack if the music was unforgettable.

When it comes to the 90s, many people tend to overlook it for various reasons. The biggest one was that it became a period that was immersed in grunge music. Surprisingly, that wasn’t always the case. Director Cameron Crowe has been known to use good music to his advantage in the past with his films. He used Peter Gabriel’s “In Your Eyes” for a key moment in 1989’s Say Anything. The director took advantage of America’s obsession with grunge and created a whole movie around it (1992’s Singles) that balanced romance and good music. Not everyone followed the same path that Crowe did and tried to find ways to lure people into movie theaters.

While many grew obsessed with bands like Pearl Jam and Nirvana, Hollywood tried to find a diverse group of talented artists to lend their talents to various film soundtracks. They turned classic iconic performers, such as Whitney Houston (The Bodyguard) and Aretha Franklin (Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit), to lend their voices to various film soundtracks. With a combination of innovation and good timing, there are many great movie songs that came out of the 90s. It was a challenge to select the ones that made the greatest impression, but the list has been boiled down to 14 songs that did just that. Some of them were pretty obvious, while a few were meant to surprise the masses. Read on to see if you agree or disagree with the list to find your favorite 90s movie songs.

Understated Songs

Eric Clapton “Tears in Heaven” in Rush (1991)- This Clapton song was written for the soundtrack to the movie Rush, which focused on two cops (Jennifer Jason Leigh and Jason Patric) who literally flew too close to the sun for a case. They forged a very close relationship that grew dangerous with their drug addiction. After a tragic conclusion, all that remained of the relationship was nothing but a painful memory. The song discussed a devastating loss and the overwhelming grief that it caused. It was Clapton's most personal song because it discussed the pain he felt after the death of his son. Listeners could literally feel his pain in each word and instrument being played. The song also had a major impact in the movie because it used raw emotion instead of stylized beats to showcase Leigh's pain and suffering. No one will ever forget it anytime soon.

Madonna “I’ll Remember” in With Honors (1994)- After a controversial couple of years, Madonna chose to take a very different approach with "I'll Remember," which took a tone similiar to songs from the late seventies and focused on the music telling the story. The music video mixed movie clips and featured Madonna inside a vintage recording studio. She gave a subdued performance and didn't lose a beat at the same time. This song is considered one of Madonna's best ones because she took a huge risk and it paid off. Sure, "Vogue" might have been an unforgettable addition to the film Dick Tracy, but the song was too similiar to Madonna's early work to distinquish it from the rest. Hopefully, Madonna will one day that another musical risk like "I'll Remember," because it will pay off if she played her cards right.

Tina Turner “Goldeneye” in Goldeneye (1995) - When it comes to James Bond films, the theme song was often just as important as the movie. Shirley Bassey’s “Goldfinger” was the gold standard, but there were times that the songs missed the mark, such as Garbage’s “The World is not Enough.” The latter song seemed more like an attempt for the longest running movie franchise to score younger fans, but it missed the mark in every way. Turner’s theme song effort has been vastly overlooked, because many people tended to focus on the franchise’s comeback and not the song. When you listen to the song, it tells the story of a woman who was betrayed by someone she cared about and she save her strength in order get her revenge. Turner's vocals expressed the right amount of anger and intensity to prove her point without going too over the top, which was a blessing in disguise. It also helped that "Goldeneye" had a catchy beat that lured listeners in even before Turner sang her first note. Now, that's impressive.

Bruce Springsteen “Secret Garden” in Jerry Maguire (1996)- When it comes to film soundtracks, Springsteen reached the gold standard with "Streets of Philadelphia," because it took a very personal tone from start to finish. It expressed the story of a painful loss that mixed with using Philadelphia's streets to drive the point home. That song also earned Springsteen an Oscar and a slew of other awards. The reason why "Secret Garden" made a very different impact because it discussed a relationship that was never fully within reach. The song's story was personal but it had a quieter tone that made an even greater impact. "Secret Garden" might not have gotten its due until Jerry Maguire's release, but it'll never be forgotten anytime soon.

The Land of the Popular

Queen “Bohemian Rhapsody” in Wayne’s World (1992)- This classic Queen song ended up getting a second life with this movie, because it made moviegoers want to play this tune in their car so that they could headbang to it like the characters did. The idea might appear to be foolish in reality, but it worked like magic in Wayne's World, which all that mattered.

Coolio “Gangsta’s Paradise” in Dangerous Minds (1995)- When it comes to rap songs, many believed that a rapper couldn't express their point without swearing repeatedly. This song was one of the few Coolio songs where he didn't utter a single word of profanity and he still managed to get his point across. He even won a Grammy for his efforts. The music video captured the movie's tone and also featured Coolio and Michelle Pfeiffer in a wordless mock confrontation that had more impact than many would expect. The song also delivered the film's message perfectly that being a gangster would only lead to death in the end. Many rappers have since lent their vocals to film soundtracks, including Eminem, but it was still song that started it all and left a big impact for whoever bought the Dangerous Minds soundtrack.

Bette Midler, Goldie Hawn, and Diane Keaton “You Don’t Own Me” in The First Wives Club (1996)- The film's three stars lent their vocals to this song in this film as their characters struggled to find their identities after their husbands left them. The song helped to symbolize their enduring friendship and also gave viewers a reason to smile as the stars sang it with the right amount of abandon. It wasn't hard to get the song stuck in your head, but it was much harder to get it out.

The Divinyl's "I Touch Myself" in Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery (1997)- This Divinyl's song was played at a crucial moment in the first Austin Powers movie that'll always get moviegoers to laugh hysterically. It was the scene where Mike Myers' hapless spy was forced to charm multiple villainous fembots and he did a striptease to drive them to distraction. The scene was hilarious and Austin Powers was able to save the day in the end. A win win for everyone involved.

Expect the Unexpected

Jon Bon Jovi “Blaze of Glory” in Young Guns II (1990)- This song had a very different impact because it was Jon Bon Jovi's only successful hit outside of his band Bon Jovi. The reason that the song was so successful because it delivered an approach that was full of a rebellious vigor that made even the most urban individual want to be a cowboy. The music video followed Bon Jovi in a deserted drive-in theater as he strummed his guitar and talked about being a young gun through and through. The movie itself might have been a mostly forgettable sequel, but the song will stand the test of time even if Jon Bon Jovi will never have another solo hit under his belt.

U2 “Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me, Kill Me” in Batman Forever (1995)- Many moviegoers will often refer to Seal's "Kiss From a Rose" as the film's most unforgettable song, but this U2 hit also packed a major whallop as well. It provided listeners with some soaring guitars and other instruments of musical mayhem. Okay, the loud beats might have bordered on over-the-top at times, but it also sent a powerful message delivered by Bono that mixed a dangerous connection between a hero and a villain that could end badly for both. The song was the perfect fit for a film that mixed good and evil with a playful campy twists for moviegoers to not take things too seriously. The same can be said about music because humor can also lure listeners in just as much as drama in the end.

Celine Dion “Because You Loved Me” in Up Close and Personal (1996) – Dion has done multiple songs for film soundtracks, but this ballad stood out the most because it was before Dion’s star grew too big from the overexposure of “My Heart Will Go On” the following year. The song also had a genuinely pure message that love helped someone become a better person. It might sound a tad cliché, but the song fit very well with the movie about a couple (Michelle Pfeiffer and Robert Redford) who were better together but had a hard time balancing marriage and career.The music video used Dion's vocals and some key movie clips to express the song's powerful emotions. Many of Dion's fans would prefer "My Heart Will Go On," but they should also realize that both songs are a lot more similar than many would expect. Of course, both songs had the same tone and used a lot of loud instruments whenever Dion ended up hitting a high note. "Because You Loved Me" will stand the test of time because the song's lyrics were personal and expressed things that many couples could relate to, not a song that describe a tragic movie death that ended up getting way too much exposure.

90s Rock Alternative

The Boo Radleys “There She Goes” in So I Married an Axe Murderer (1993)- Unfortunately, this Mike Myers' comedy was mostly a miss because it tried to mix humor and horror, which proved to be its undoing. The Boo Radleys' song was played throughout the film and it was the only thing that was memorable from the film. Of course, this song has been covered repeatedly and has been featured on different film soundtracks (The Parent Trap, Fever Pitch, etc.), but it was still this version that managed to utilize it the best.

Lisa Loeb “Stay” in Reality Bites (1994)- Loeb's breakout song described the pain of a complicated relationship about a couple that can't find a way to make a commitment to each other. The woman in the song begged for the guy to stay even when he had his foot out the door. While most of the Reality Bites soundtrack focused on the cynical vibe of Generation X, Loeb's song made a conscious effort to bridge all gaps and just focused on a complicated relationship between a boy and a girl. Now, that's a good love song.

Edwin Collins “A Girl Like You” in Empire Records (1995)- Unfortunately, this film was largely overlooked when it was originally released. Luckily, moviegoers started giving it a chance with the help of the film's soundtrack. The movie did manage to reach cult status years later, but it was the music that still withstood the test of time. Collins' song provided a catchy beat full of attitude and a music video that took an artist approach with dancers in dark silhouettes. The singer also had a vocal quality that was similar to David Bowie's early days that made him endearing. The song told the story of a guy who was smitten with a girl unlike any other. The only mystery that remained was whether he was going to get the chance to date her or simply worship her from afar. Only time will tell.

In the end, most successful movie songs are timeless because they try to avoid following current music trends and stick to telling a great musical story. Whitney Houston’s version of “I Will Always Love You” has withstood more than two decades and is considered to be one of Houston’s signature songs. It told the story of a couple, who found love, but the relationship couldn’t last. She sang about how she’ll never forget her time with him, which made people relive their own unforgettable relationships as well. Of course, it’s also great to find a way to escape from reality by listening to music. Dancing to The Knack’s “My Sharona” makes logical sense, especially after you’ve viewed Reality Bites for the tenth time in a week. You’re also probably guilty of head banging in your car while listening to Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody.” People might be staring at you while you’re doing it, but they’ll forgive you once they figure out why you’re pretending to be a rock star. The best solution would be to keep driving and try it again when there are less cars on the road to watch you make a fool out of yourself. Just what the musical doctor ordered.

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    • Alecia Murphy profile image

      Alecia Murphy 4 years ago from Wilmington, North Carolina

      My favorite on this list has to be Madonna's "I'll Remember." She took a chance and it paid off. But I favor simple songs over elaborate ones especially in movies.

      Many of these songs I haven't heard of but I do know the artists. I feel like the 90s was probably the last era of the great soundtrack. Awesome list!