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In Praise of the Junk-Drawer ’90s Alt-Rock Movie Soundtrack

The height of the CD era brought a bevy of compilations that often felt like grab bags, but sometimes reached transcendence

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

On Thursday, Ringer Films will debut the latest installment of its HBO Music Box series, Mr. Saturday Night, on the legendary producer Robert Stigwood. Before that film examines the man who forever changed the way music and film interact with his work on Saturday Night Fever, The Ringer will spend the day celebrating the world of movie soundtracks that he so heavily influenced.

Is Judgment Night a real movie? Have you ever met anybody in your life who even claims to have seen the gritty 1993 replacement-level crime thriller Judgment Night, directed by Stephen Hopkins and starring Emilio Estevez, Cuba Gooding Jr., Denis Leary, Jeremy Piven, and Stephen Dorff? Real quick, can I share with you this paragraph from Stephen Hopkins’s Wikipedia page?

Yeah, so where do these friends of yours even claim to have seen the feature film Judgment Night? Projected onto the side of a dumpster out behind a multiplex? Is this a link to the legit Judgment Night trailer or to a poorly synced clip of Crucial Taunt playing “Ballroom Blitz” near the end of the Wayne’s World movie? Who can say? I can. Judgment Night: not real. I’m calling it. The “Swingin’ on the Flippity Flop” of cinema. An elaborate ruse concocted for the sole purpose of gifting the world with the Judgment Night soundtrack, which is real, and yes indeed spectacular, and world-famous for its delightful conceit of pairing rowdy rock bands with even rowdier rappers, a somewhat revolutionary idea in 1993 that produced unholy one-song unions that remain hilariously incongruous in 2021.

Get a load of this, man. The whiplash antics of the Judgment Night track list—whose pairings veer immediately from Helmet and House of Pain (reasonable, tuneful) to Teenage Fanclub and De La Soul (bizarre, even more tuneful)—are a national treasure. When’s the last time you listened to “Freak Momma” by Mudhoney and Sir Mix-A-Lot? If this is your first time, congratulations, and you’re welcome.

I come before you today to praise the ’90s junk-drawer alt-rock soundtrack, a wildly profitable and mostly prestige-free cesspool of randos deployed randomly to promote everything from Godzilla to Reality Bites to Empire Records to The Crow to Beavis and Butt-head Do America to Mallrats to Lost Highway to (personal favorite) Angus to The Saint to Spawn. Few of these records tend to show up on Greatest Movie Soundtracks of All Time Lists, but all of them were absolutely essential to an uncommonly perceptive and charismatic ’90s teenager such as myself. In fact, let me elaborate: In 1994 I could recite for you the entire 14-track Crow soundtrack track list, from the bands I already loved (the Cure, Nine Inch Nails, Rage Against the Machine, Stone Temple Pilots) to the bands I’d never heard of and never listened to again. (No offense to Machines of Loving Grace.) I am mentally headbanging along to the Rollins Band’s “Ghostrider” as I type this, and it makes me want to throw my laptop at the ceiling.

Quick summary of the ’90s: lotta alt-rock bands. Lotta CDs. Lotta starry-eyed knuckleheads such as myself buying those CDs for full price. Lotta cornball B-movies I don’t believe existed even if I saw them in the theater at the time. (Alas, the 1993 gritty-crime-thriller spoof Loaded Weapon 1, which starred Emilio Estevez and Samuel L. Jackson and was the funniest movie I’d ever seen at the time, did not have an official soundtrack.) The end result: a lotta 14-or-so-track grab bags of big shots, wannabes, also-rans, and never-weres. These records were ridiculous and obviously craven music-biz Frankensteins of opportunity and incongruity, and very few were worth $17.99, and I loved them all.

The ’90s rock soundtracks that have endured, some 25-plus-years on, deserve their modest prestige, from Cameron Crowe’s immaculately curated 1992 Seattle scene report Singles (best Pearl Jam song) to Amy Heckerling’s tenderly chaotic 1995 L.A.–rich kid love letter Clueless (best Coolio song). But you can keep Romeo + Juliet (I learned this on piano) and Batman Forever (best U2 song), and leave me with the trash, or at least the undiscovered treasure. Give me “Kill the Sexplayer.” Give me Filter and the Crystal Method doing “(Can’t You) Trip Like I Do,” Give me Divinyls covering Roxy Music’s “Love Is the Drug” at the behest of Super Mario Bros.

Actually, you know what I want more than anything? Give me the whole of 1996’s The Crow II: City of Angels. Hole doing “Gold Dust Woman”! A Seven Mary Three song literally called “Shelf Life”! Incredible. White Zombie’s cover of KC and the Sunshine Band’s “I’m Your Boogie Man” walked so Underworld’s “Born Slippy (Nuxx)” could run, is what I’m saying.

It is not terribly hard to track what happened to this particular genre: CD sales fell off a cliff in the early 2000s, and any coherent spiritual conception of “alternative rock” had already flamed out a solid half-decade before that. And though indie-rock-leaning soundtrack outliers persisted in the aughts in terms of both unexpected commercial success (Garden State) and mild critical derision (also Garden State), the days of enjoying new tunes from a half dozen of your favorite grunge-adjacent bands in the service of some delightfully crummy action flick were long gone. I sold all these CDs back for a pathetic fraction of what I paid for them ages ago. Everything’s made to be broken. But in some crucial and not at all embarrassing way, these stupid records will always be who I am.