25 underrated 1990s movie soundtracks

From Muppet Treasure Island to Speed, we take a look at the 90s soundtracks that deserve another listen...

Ah, the 1990s. The decade that brought us The Lion King. Titanic. Quentin Tarantino. That wordless bathroom scene in Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet. Angelo Badalamenti’s Twin Peaks. Duel of the Fates from Star Wars: The Phantom Menace. In the Mood for Love.

It was a good 10 years for film music, no doubt.

But scratch the surface of 1991 through 1999 and there are tons of good scores ready to spring a surprise on your ears. Some were attached to sorely underrated movies, others were overshadowed by wildly successful ones, and some have simply been forgotten in the passage of time.

Here, in no particular order, are the top 25 underappreciated film soundtracks from the 1990s.

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1. Chaplin – John Barry

Okay, let’s start with a big one. Richard Attenborough. Robert Downey Jr. John Barry. Chaplin is hardly underrated, you cry, with its three Oscar nods, including Best Original Score. But when was the last time you heard anyone talk about it? Or even mention it in passing? Even among Barry fans, this 1992 gem has been lost in the distant memory that was 23 years ago.

Get out your cassette tapes once again, though, and this is exactly the kind of sumptuous string work you’d expect from the Bond maestro, as swooning and romantic as it gets. That meant it got brushed aside by some as typical of his later, slushy work, but his arrangement of Smile, which Chaplin famously penned for 1936’s Modern Times, is achingly beautiful. Go on, have a listen. Then recommend it to someone and watch their surprise at it being mentioned in 2015.

2. LA Confidential – Jerry Goldsmith

The late, great Jerry Goldsmith cemented his legendary status with films such as The Omen, Alien, Planet Of The Apes and, of course, Chinatown. But the 1990s saw him on peak form, with not just the Universal logo fanfare, a bunch of Star Trek films, Basic Instinct and Total Recall, but also the fantastically old-school OST for The Mummy remake. Plus there was a last-minute rescue job for Air Force One when Randy Newman’s music was rejected. He was on fire.

Amid all that, though, was the delightfully discordant score for LA Confidential. Remember that one? With its offbeat piano chords stomping all over the muted brass, it’s like an angry cousin to Chinatown – and all the better for it. But in a decade of loud action, electronic experimentation and James Horner’s Titanic, it has since been sorely underplayed.

3. That Thing You Do! – Tom Hanks / Adam Schlesinger / Various

What a bizarre film That Thing You Do! was. Telling the story of a one hit wonder band, called The Wonders, it was written and directed by Tom Hanks. The soundtrack, though, is where it really shines: released under the fictional Play-Tone record label featured in the film, the whole thing is made up of pastiche period pop, most of it co-written by Hanks with Gary Goetzman and others.

Combined with Adam Schlesinger’s titular earworm track – which actually become a hit in real life – the result is a largely unseen movie over in the UK (the improved extended cut even less so), but one that is packed with catchy tunes, all of which, quite brilliantly, don’t exist.

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4. Sweet and Lowdown – Dick Hyman / Howard Alden

Who doesn’t remember guitarist legend Emmet Ray? It turns out most people. Partly because he featured in a Woody Allen film from the late 1990s and partly because Emmet is made up. Played by Sean Penn, the self-proclaimed second greatest guitar player in the world is a whizz on the frets, thanks to Penn’s own performance and the contribution of virtuoso Howard Alden and the snappy arrangements by Dick Hyman (Sweet Georgia Brown particularly stands out). If you like Django, you’ll love this.

5. Miller’s Crossing – Carter Burwell

A composer who has been at it ever since 1984, Carter Burwell has only ever received a single Golden Globe nomination (for Where The Wild Things Are). To pick an underappreciated soundtrack of his from the 1990s, then, isn’t hard: they’re all underrated. Miller’s Crossing, though, might be his masterpiece (a shout-out must also go to True Grit).

Written by a composer who knew nothing about orchestral music, it’s a lovely piece of orchestral work, with its earthy, open clarinet adding a sentimental, melancholic vibe to the mature, moral complexities of the gangster world. Add in Danny Boy recorded by Frank Patterson specifically to fit a stellar shootout sequence and you’ve got yourself one of the 1990s’ best – and yet criminally underappreciated – soundtracks.

6. The River Wild – Jerry Goldsmith

Goldsmith pops up again (I told you he was on fire) in the background of Curtis Hanson’s straightforward thriller, which sees a rafting holiday go wrong. Meryl Streep and Kevin Bacon may get top billing on the poster, but it’s Goldsmith’s deceptively luxurious score that makes this pot-boiler such wonderful fun, with Jerry’s ear for a strong melody evident on the gorgeously simple, flute and brass-led theme for Gale.

7. Brassed Off – Trevor Jones + Grimthorpe Colliery Band

You can keep your trumpets: cornets are where it’s at. Anyone who disagrees should be introduced to Brassed Off. This 1996 drama, based on the true story of the Grimethorpe Colliery Band, follows the band (mimed by Ewan McGregor – Eb Tenor Horn – Tara Fitzgerald – Flugel – and Stephen Tompkinson – Trombone) through a tournament and their mine closure.

Trevor Jones’ score slots in nicely between the smashing brass pieces, which Grimethorpe deliver with a mellow sound, a knack for subtle dynamics and one heck of a soloist in Paul Hughes. It’s worth watching (or hearing) just for the Concierto de Aranjuez halfway through. The William Tell Overture, meanwhile, has rarely sounded so good.

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8. The Talented Mr. Ripley – Gabriel Yared

Anthony Minghella’s adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s novel is one of those tour de forces that seems to get swept aside by audiences and critics the more time passes. But Gabriel Yared’s music is right at the thriller’s chilling heart, from Sinead O’Connor’s opening Lullaby for Cain, with its haunting lyrics by Minghella, to Matt Damon’s own vocal take on the standard My Funny Valentine. Tracks from Miles Davis, Bird and Guy Barker add to the classy sheen (and character development). By the time Fiorello’s Tu Vuo’ Fa L’Americano turns up in a nightclub scene, with Jude Law and Damon joining in, your feet are tapping all over the place.

9. The Iron Giant – Michael Kamen

Michael Kamen was nailing Die Hard for a third time back in the 1990s – something he did so well that it was easy to overlook his family film offering a few years later. Give The Iron Giant a second chance, though, and – much like everything else about the animation – it’s an enchantingly complex beast, with a real sense of colossal scale, rushed adventure and emotional themes.

There’s too much going on to pick it apart in a few sentences (expect something in more detail in a future Music in Film column) but this is magical stuff.

10. Kikujiro – Joe Hisaishi

Say the words ‘Joe Hisaishi’ and Studio Ghibli fans will immediately think of My Neighbor Totoro, Princess Mononoke or, post-1990s, Spirited Away. But the Japanese composer has also made a significant contribution to Takeshi Kitano’s work. Away from the director’s violence and gangsters, though, was Kikujiro, a film that was far from well received – a fact that means Hishaishi’s unashamedly sentimental score was barely heard. The main theme, Summer, moves from gentle cello to pizzicato strings with the kind of dainty and simple melody that sums up why Hisaishi’s sound is so evocative.

11. Perfect Blue – Masahiro Ikumi

Satoshi Kon’s superb film sees a pop singer stalked by an obsessed fan – only for her reality to start falling apart. How do you convey that on the screen? By getting Masahiro Ikumi to compose your score. The result is a barnstorming display of musical versatility that blends the familiar bubblegum pop numbers and upbeat techno beats of anime with a distorted, discordant descent into a synthesized, sampled nightmare.

12. All About My Mother – Alberto Iglesias

In 2011, Alberto Iglesias was responsible for the best score of the year with The Skin I Live In. Years earlier, though, he was already working with Pedro Almodovar, honing his knack for balancing sincere emotions with stylised melodrama. This mix of Goldsmith-esque offbeat string chords, delicate percussion and muted trumpet is superbly atmospheric stuff: you can practically hear the rain on the streets of Madrid.

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13. Starship Troopers – Basil Poledouris

When it comes to movies from the 1990s, Free Willy’s harmonica will always stick with me. But Basil Poledouris’ best achievement of the decade – aside from the highly regarded The Hunt For Red October – was the score for Starship Troopers. Yes, we all know and love Paul Verhoeven’s absurd space thriller, but despite the splattering blood and cheesy performances, a key, unsung part of its satire lies in the music: a bombastic array of brass fanfares, it elevates the action just one step higher up the OTT scale.

14. Wild Wild West / Alien 3 – Elliot Goldenthal

What do Wild Wild West and Alien 3 have in common? Not giant mechanical spiders, nor the fact that they are both flawed, but their soundtracks: both are rather splendid. And they’re both by Elliot Goldenthal. The first, a rollicking romp through Western conventions, from celestas to trumpets, nails the genre pastiche with aplomb (a special shout-out also goes to Will Smith’s theme song, which samples Stevie Wonder to infectious effect), but it’s Alien 3 that really stands out today. Dark and moving, its use of a simple brass line against minor dropping strings conjures up both tragedy and fear with a devilish complexity.

15. Batman: Mask of the Phantasm – Shirley Walker

Echoing Elfman’s 1989 theme, Walker took those serious brass tones and ran with them for this animated Batman outing. Trumpet fanfares contrast with jaunty piano licks for the deformed comedy of Mark Hamill’s The Joker, while the judicious use of synth noises give the whole story a supernatural air.

Best of all, though, is the choir chanting a strange language at a scarily loud volume. Only when you listen carefully do you start to work out what they’re singing: their own names backwards. It’s exactly that sense of humour that seems to pervade Shirley’s work – somewhere between her conducting and writing, you always get the feeling that musicians enjoyed what they were playing.

16. Dead Presidents – Danny Elfman

Danny Elfman defined the 1990s as much as he defined Tim Burton’s work (hello, Edward Scissorhands). Along the recognisable way, several underappreciated albums slipped under the radar, including Mars Attacks! and Sleepy Hollow, but their less seen and even lesser heard cousin is Dead Presidents, which sees Elfman shirk the familiar trappings for which he is known for unstable electric guitars and synths. It’s experimental, it’s intriguing and it’s unique.

17. Speed – Mark Mancina

Dum dum do dum-dum do dum-dum do dum-dum dum…

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What is Speed doing on a list of underappreciated scores? While the film itself is one of the decade’s best blockbusters (a mention here for John Powell’s fantastic work on Face/Off), Mark Mancina’s score is the beating pulse that makes its bomb timers tick. The composer’s work on Twister, with its choral nods and soaring strings, caught everyone’s attention with its extremely expressive sounds, but Speed is stripped down and ruthless, blending into the background of the fast cuts and high-octane chases. 

18. Galaxy Quest – David Newman

If Starship Troopers got its bombastic satire from its over-the-top music, Galaxy Quest’s pitch-perfect pastiche of Star Trek comes from David Newman’s score. From the loving echo of the original fanfare to a Khan-like bit of string bashing, the franchise gets it due, but the masterstroke is creating a theme for the fictional TV show that can be blown up to big screen scale with another pomp to bring the cinematic excitement. Superb.

19. GoldenEye – Eric Serra

GoldenEye, also known as the worst James Bond score in the franchise’s history – they even had to hire John Altman to compose some last-minute orchestral work for the St. Petersburg tank chase. But listen 20 years on and Eric Serra’s work is far more impressive, with its percussive use of timpani, synth stings and electronic brass creating an original departure to the series’ sound, one that embraced the Cold War atmosphere and too-modern-for-an-outdated-secret-agent theme.

Combined with U2 and Tina Turner’s theme tune, this is an unfairly slammed soundtrack – one that, crucially, also inspired Graeme Norgate, Grant Kirkhope and Robin Beanland to create one killer N64 score.

20. Muppet Treasure Island – Hans Zimmer (additional music by Harry Gregson-Williams)

Hans Zimmer has become a household name, thanks to his work on Christopher Nolan’s films and countless blockbusters, not to mention – of course – The Lion King. But his best kids’ work is Muppet Treasure Island, a romp that foreshadows his later seafaring shanties and blends perfectly with catchy songs from Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil (who also penned We Gotta Get Out of This Place). Even with Sailing for Adventure On The Big Blue Wet Thing in its catchy line-up, though, this 1996 adventure is undoubtedly – and somewhat unfairly – eclipsed by Muppet Christmas Carol.

21. The Man Without A Face – James Horner

James Horner arguably won the 1990s with his music the box office smash Titanic, ensuring that Celine Dion’s heart would go on forever and ever and ever. But aside from the ship-sinking epic and Sneakers, Horner knocked it out of the park with The Man Without a Face, Mel Gibson’s directorial debut from 1993. Its minor melody, moving in semitones across french horn and flutes, is hugely evocative stuff, building to a stirring orchestral climax that, unlike Titanic’s overplayed music, makes you never want to let go.

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22. Wolf – Ennio Morricone

Is there anything Ennio can’t do? Mike Nichols’ 1994 drama, which sees Jack Nicholson play a man bitten by a wolf, received a mildly warm welcome at the time. Listening back, the strings and synth bring horror to the genre piece, but it’s the gorgeous saxophone that serenades the romance with the attitude of a guy playing on a rooftop at night. The score morphs between the two with overt symbolism, but lingers on the lighter, tender moments and this is scarily beautiful stuff.

23. Gattaca – Michael Nyman

Michael Nyman is most famous for his work on The Piano in 1993. Fast forward to later in the decade, though, and you’ll find Gattaca, the underrated sci-fi debut from Andrew Niccol, who also wrote The Truman Show. Nyman’s signature style is present and correct, with driving chords and repetition building up a lyrical, controlled atmosphere that fits right in to the dystopian world. A unique score in an often familiar genre.

24. The Silence of the Lambs – Howard Shore

Howard Shore is one of cinema’s most overrated or underrated composers, depending on your own personal taste. Before the masterful Lord Of The Rings and The Hobbit scores came along, he could be found scoring everything from Mrs. Doubtfire and Ed Wood to adding to the superbly orchestrated soundtrack to David Fincher’s Se7en (given I’ve written about that at length before, it doesn’t make this list). Back in 1991, he was responsible for much of the chilling tone of The Silence Of The Lambs, with his rising minor strings bringing tension, sadness and shock to Jonathan Demme’s visuals. A textbook example of how to subtly score a horror thriller.

25. Richard III – Trevor Jones / Al Jolson

The 1990s was full of great jukebox soundtracks, from Quentin Tarantino to So I Married an Axe Murderer (There She Goes Again), so it feels right to end this list with something to represent that. The credit falls ultimately to Richard Loncraine’s superb adaptation of Richard III. Trevor Jones’ score tunes into the fascist tone with minor thirds rising in threatening steps but the crowning glory goes to Al Jolson’s I’m Sitting on Top of the World, which accompanies the climax with all the catchy period vibe and dramatic irony you could expect. The best use of a contemporary pop song in a 1990s movie? Not at all, but certainly one of the most underrated.