1997 was the greatest year for soundtracks

1996 had absolutely nothing on Men In Black.

July 19, 2017

Earlier this month, we celebrated the 20th anniversary of Men In Black, which is arguably (ED NOTE: inarguably?) one of the greatest movies of all time. But while the onscreen chemistry between Tommy Lee Jones and Will Smith is rivalled only by that of Titanic’s Jack and Rose, the movie itself is still trumped by one thing: its soundtrack—a solid representation of what the year’s soundtracks did.

Many of us talk about the nineties like the decade consisted only of a few fleeting years. We romanticize grunge, bask in the magic of Empire Records and Clueless, and arguably forget that a particular year was instrumental in the way we consume soundtracks today. Largely because unlike its predecessors, 1997 seamlessly wove different genres together and tapped into the evolving state of music consumption. Hell, even Titanic’s expanded soundtrack delivered spoken word (via film dialogue), Edwardian classics, and James Horner’s score; it borrowed from mixtape culture that would eventually be capitalized on by Napster, playlists, and streaming services. Ultimately, 1997 set us up for success twenty years down the road. And it did so with the following four soundtracks.

Men In Black

An introductory course to today’s biggest names

Before Destiny’s Child and Alicia Keys were universally renowned (and DC consisted of four members), the Men in Black soundtrack quickly introduced them to anyone already living for the only Will Smith hit that explicitly described a secret government agency.

Plus, by featuring music by Snoop Dogg, Nas, Ginuwine, A Tribe Called Quest, and De La Soul, the Men In Black soundtrack introduced younger listeners to hip-hop and R&B pioneers they may not otherwise have properly heard yet. (Keeping in mind the film appealed to attendees of all-ages dances or listeners of parent-approved radio.) And this made Men In Black’s soundtrack the equivalent of a starter course in music that existed outside the peripheries of BSB, Hanson, and even Will Smith’s movie tie-in… Even if “Killing Time” isn’t exactly Destiny’s Child most memorable jam.

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Introduced the legacy of an artist

The fact that we don’t talk or write about this movie and soundtrack every day makes me angry and ill. But here we are, finally using our time wisely.

Opening with her disco medley at the Houston Astrodome, the soundtrack takes listeners through the Selena’s musical evolution, which largely parallels the trajectory of the film. And that’s important: because Selena was murdered in 1995, the movie became an easy way to access the legacy of Quintanilla-Perez in an era lacking the internet as we currently know it. Where we would now jump off and download or purchase the complete Selena discography, the soundtrack served as a way of properly exposing would-be fans to her talent in both English and Spanish, and opened the door to tracks beyond the perfect, “Dreaming Of You.”

Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion (Volumes 1 and 2)

Infusing the past with the present

A soundtrack so nice they hooked us up twice! While the movie’s first musical instalment serves as a collection of eighties hits (appropriate, since Romy and Michele graduated in 1987), the second (More Music from Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion) delves a little deeper into the music they embraced ten years later. Specifically: La Bouche and N-Trance.

That’s the point of a bankable soundtrack: where it’s easy to divide music between genres and eras, placing nineties club anthems after artists like Tiffany and Devo is a quick reminder of the way preceding years set up musical trends. Duh. (Now, we just call doing this, “DJ nights.”)

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Titanic (Volumes 1 and 2)

Instrumental clout

Face facts, you freaks: “My Heart Will Go On” changed the ballad game forever. Plus, let’s not underestimate the power of a movie/movement so influential that countless pre-teens, teenagers, and twenty-somethings chose to listen to James Horner’s score on repeat in hopes of reconnecting with everything they felt during “An Irish Party In Third Class.”

Or whatever that song was where there was dialogue of Rose promising never to let go.

If Titanic ended with 'Tubthumping'

If Titanic ended with Chumbawamba's "Tubthumping" instead of Céline Dion's "My Heart Will Go On."

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No, not that one…

The thing is, the majority of all soundtracks released in 1997 followed the same pattern. My Best Friend’s Wedding combined adult contemporary with oldies, while The Full Monty followed Titanic’s instrumental lead and fused it with disco classics. (Proving the score of a good composer can jump into contemporary tracks, no problem.) Soul Food, brilliant in its use of Timbaland, heavily featured Babyface (almost as much as Selena’s own film featured her) and delivered the #1 R&B single, “Mama.” (It also peaked at #4 on the Billboard charts, similar to Men In Black’s soundtrack, which stayed at #1 for two weeks.)

Even I Know What You Did Last Summer, a soundtrack steeped in not-so-great late nineties alternative (like Scream 2, which featured ska), still presented itself as a means of educating and introducing fans and listeners to lesser-known artists yet to completely break. And while all decent soundtracks do the same, the trend arguably crystallized in 1997.

Plus, 1996 had absolutely nothing on Men In Black.

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