Steve's been an online music writer for seven years and has personal experience organizing his equipment for gigs.
The 1990s was a time of major change in the world of popular rock music, unlike any that had been seen before—or since. The excess and showmanship of the '80s had grown tired, and a new paradigm emerged, temporarily obliterating every hair-metal and glam-rock band.
The generation that grew up in that decade has now reached the age where they have real jobs, have money to spend, and can afford to go out to see cover bands in bars and clubs. More and more, those patrons are requesting songs that represent their youth, and as a cover band musician, it's essential to roll with the changes.
What follows is a list of 50 rock songs from the '90s that are most-often played by cover bands—largely due to their popularity and ease for musicians of most skill levels in a basic four- or five-piece band. The tracks are listed in alphabetical order, so as to give equal weight to all of the tunes. Even if you or your band don't currently play any of these songs, they're easy to learn, and are good to have in your arsenal as a working musician.
1. "3 a.m." by Matchbox Twenty
Released in 1997, the third single on the band's debut album scored a top three or better position on five Billboard charts, including a #1 spot on the Hot Adult Top 40 Tracks. Today, it ranks as the most popular Matchbox Twenty song played in a cover band.
2. "Alive" by Pearl Jam
There are a handful of great Pearl Jam songs to play in a cover band. In fact, there's one a little further down in this list. But this first single from their debut album in 1991 is the most instantly recognizable of their early hits. The three-chord progression at the end of the song lends itself well to extended jamming, and it's a lot of fun to play.
3. "All Mixed Up" by 311
From their triple-platinum, self-titled album released in 1995, this second single scored a #4 spot on the Billboard Modern Rock Chart the following year and can be considered 311's signature song. Cover bands have also been known to play the first single "Down" as well, but it's this track that gets covered most often.
4. "All the Small Things" by Blink 182
Although the song wasn't released until January, 2000, this second single off the band's 1999 album Enema of the State reached a peak of #6 on Billboard's Hot 100 chart and can still be considered a '90s tune. It's a fun, upbeat party tune that usually goes over well with the bar scene.
5. "Ants Marching" by Dave Matthews Band
Dave Matthews once said, "This song is our anthem," and it is certainly one of the most recognizable tunes from the band. The second single from 1994's Under the Table and Dreaming is the DMB tune most-often played by cover bands. Many have been able to even play it without the horns and still make it sound good.
6. "Are You Gonna Go My Way" by Lenny Kravitz
Covered by such acts as Metallica, Tom Jones, and Robbie Williams, this first single off of Kravitz's album of the same name reached #1 on Billboard's Album Rock Tracks after being released in early 1993. With a blistering guitar riff to open the song, this is usually a winner for any cover band to include in their set.
7. "Basket Case" by Green Day
As the third single off the band's third album Dookie, "Basket Case" spent five weeks at the top of the Modern Rock Tracks chart in late 1994. Singer Billie Joe Armstrong wrote the song about his troubles with anxiety, and it helped propel Green Day to superstar status. Bands all over the world play this song, even if they don't focus on '90s songs in particular.
8. "Bitch" by Meredith Brooks
One of few of the one-hit-wonder songs on this list, "Bitch" has been lumped in with the "angry chick rock" of the '90s, largely due to the success of Alanis Morissette and other Lilith Fair-type artists. Most female singers in cover bands are at least familiar with this song, and it usually gets the other girls in the venue singing along.
9. "Black" by Pearl Jam
Another Pearl Jam song on this list from their groundbreaking album Ten, "Black" was never actually released as a single, but it did enjoy some chart success in 1992. With its slow-build to an explosive climactic ending, howling vocals, and fierce full-band sound, this tune works well in rock cover situations just about all of the time.
10. "Bulls on Parade" by Rage Against the Machine
RATM has another, even more popular song on this list (any guesses?), but this track from the 1996 album Evil Empire rocks just as hard. Most cover bands tend to play this one later in the night or set, and it's even been known to rile a rowdy crowd up to the point of a barroom fight. But with the friendlier folks, it just gets their fists pumping and heads banging, making for a killer addition to your setlist.
11. "Counting Blue Cars" by Dishwalla
The only hit song for American rock group Dishwalla, "Counting Blue Cars" was a crossover success on several Billboard charts in 1996. For cover bands that want to keep the patrons relatively mellow but still singing along, this mid-tempo track is great to include in your '90s classic rock set.
12. "Creep" by Radiohead
As the debut single for Radiohead in 1992, "Creep" was not an initial success, but became a worldwide hit once re-released in 1993. The song has been covered several times on popular reality singing shows like American Idol and The Voice, and many bands find that it works just as well in a club/bar setting.
13. "Cumbersome" by Seven Mary Three
Seven Mary Three's first and only hit song was released in 1996. The single led to big album sales for the band, but also pigeon-holed the group into one-hit-wonder status. "Cumbersome" reached #1 on the Billboard Mainstream Rock Tracks chart, and received heavy airplay well into the next decade. Most rock cover bands will play this song at one time or another.
14. "Enter Sandman" by Metallica
This song could easily be included in a lot of other cover band must-know lists (like this one). Since this is a '90s rock song list, it must be included here as well. "Enter Sandman" achieved platinum status, selling over a million copies since its release in 1991. It's one of the songs that Metallica has played the most during their career, and it has been covered by over a dozen other artists in several different styles and genres.
15. "Far Behind" by Candlebox
The band's best-known hit peaked on the Billboard Hot 100 at #18 in 1994 after nearly a full year on the chart. It was one of a few '90s songs that were written in tribute to late Mother Love Bone singer Andrew Wood (Alice in Chains' "Would?" and Temple of the Dog's "Say Hello 2 Heaven" were among the others). Although it's considered a power ballad, the song works well for cover bands in just about any live performance situation.
16. "Good" by Better Than Ezra
New Orleans' own Better Than Ezra released "Good" in 1995 as the first single off of their major-label debut album Deluxe. The song went to #1 on the Billboard Modern Rock chart and peaked at #30 on the Hot 100. It's the same four chords throughout the entire song, save for a brief whole-step modulation. This is one that is a no-brainer to learn, goes over well, and should definitely be included in your library of nineties songs.
17. "Hey Jealousy" by Gin Blossoms
The Gin Blossoms' hit was originally recorded for the 1989 album Dusted, but didn't enjoy success until its re-release on the 1992 breakthrough album New Miserable Experience, where it reached #25 on the Billboard Hot 100. This is a '90s rock tune that most girls dig, and you definitely want to make the ladies happy!
18. "I Alone" by Live
Live released "I Alone" in August, 1994 as their second single from the multi-platinum album Throwing Copper, where it reached #6 on the Billboard Modern Rock Tracks chart. Some cover bands will include "Lightning Crashes" and "All Over You" in their master setlist, too, as they can also go over well at a club or bar gig.
19. "If You Could Only See" by Tonic
Tonic released this song back in 1997 and it was the biggest hit single from their debut album Lemon Parade. "If You Could Only See" reached #1 on the Billboard Mainstream Rock Tracks chart and enjoyed significant airplay for over a year.
Fun fact! I've played in bands that play this song in A minor and some that play it in B minor, but the band actually plays the song in A minor with a capo at the first fret, making it sound like Bb in standard tuning.
20. "Inside Out" by Eve 6
"Inside Out" hit the top of the Modern Rock Tracks chart three separate times in a matter of four weeks in the summer of 1998. Eve 6 hasn't had a hit since then, making them yet another artist to join the ranks of the one-hit-wonderers. Most thirty-somethings know this song, and will be happy that you played it.
21. "Interstate Love Song" by Stone Temple Pilots
Ranked by VH1 as the 58th greatest rock song of all time, "Interstate Love Song" is considered one of Stone Temple Pilots' biggest hits ever. It succeeds "Vasoline," STP's previous single from the #1 multi-platinum album Purple in the Fall of 1994, and remained in the top spot for 15 weeks. Rock cover bands all over the world have been playing this song ever since, and it works every time.
22. "Just a Girl" by No Doubt
As the lead single off of No Doubt's third album Tragic Kingdom, "Just A Girl" helped break Gwen Stefani and company into the mainstream when they hit #23 on Billboard's Hot 100 chart in 1995. It's another "girl power" anthem from the '90s that many female singers in cover bands know and perform often. It kinda rocks, too.
23. "Killing in the Name" by Rage Against the Machine
In the early '90s, rap-metal was all the rage, fusing two genres of music that hadn't previously coexisted. Arguably the first band to have success with this marriage was the Los Angeles-based band Rage Against the Machine. The 1992 single off of their debut album didn't chart in the United States, most likely due to its liberal use of the "F" word, but "Killing in the Name" put the band on the map, and paved the way for future rap metal artists such as Limp Bizkit, Linkin Park, and even Kid Rock.
24. "Kryptonite" by 3 Doors Down
The breakthrough hit for 3 Doors Down was officially released in January, 2000 but rose to success the previous year when it was released as a demo for local play at a radio station in Mississippi. Most rock cover bands will play "Kryptonite" at one time or another, so it's a good one to know.
25. "Laid" by James
The 1993 single for the band James was their one and only hit, largely due to its popularity on American college radio. "Laid" works well with the party crowd, and with only three chords following the same exact progression throughout the entire song, it's a no-brainer to learn. Bands do well when playing it a little faster than the original recording.
26. "Low" by Cracker
Cracker's 1993 hit landed on a number of charts late in the year and well into 1994. "Low" is another bar band staple song, with the same 4-chord progression throughout the entire tune (D-C-E-G), making it an easy song to learn and remember.
27. "Machine Head" by Bush
Bush had more success in '95 and '96 with "Comedown" and "Glycerine" from the album Sixteen Stone, but it's "Machinehead" that gets played most often by rock cover bands. Of those three hit songs, the latter is the most upbeat and dance-able, lending itself well to the bar and club scene.
28. "Man in the Box" by Alice in Chains
1991 was the year that grunge was introduced to the masses, and one of the pioneers was Seattle's Alice in Chains. The album Facelift was released the prior year, but the band broke through with the single and video for "Man in a Box" and never looked back. Even after the passing of lead singer Layne Stayley in 2002, AiC continues to put out new material and tour. But this song defines the group, and just about every cover band musician knows and has covered it at some point.
29. "Mary Jane's Last Dance" by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers
Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers released a Greatest Hits album in 1993 and included this song, which may or may not be referencing a popular herbal party favor. The song hit #14 on the Billboard Hot 100, making it Petty's first Top 20 hit of the '90s. Even though the song rides along at a moderate tempo, it usually gets people onto the dance floor.
30. "Mr. Jones" by Counting Crows
"Mr. Jones" was the first radio hit for the Counting Crows in 1993, and remains their most popular song to this day. As a cover, this song works well in both bars and clubs, as its upbeat groove and memorable chorus keep people dancing and singing along.
31. "My Own Worst Enemy" by Lit
This single from Lit's second album A Place in the Sun spent 11 weeks at the top of the Modern Rock Tracks chart in 1999 and crossed over successfully to the Mainstream Rock chart. It became a staple for the band at their live shows, and for rock cover bands. It's an easy tune, and it gets people to bang their heads and dance.
32. "No Rain" by Blind Lemon
Blind Melon's second single off of their debut album was one of MTV's most-played hits of the '90s. "No Rain" also enjoyed a great deal of success on the charts in both the U.S. and abroad. Cover bands have been known to play different versions of this song in their set, making it unique while still honoring the spirit of the original.
33. "Outshined" by Soundgarden
This song can be a tricky one for some bands, as it doesn't represent your run-of-the-mill rock number. With the stratospheric vocals of Chris Cornell, drop D tuning, and a 7/4-time signature, Soundgarden's 1991 single from Badmotorfinger is not an easy one to pull off. But if you've got the goods, it's a killer rock song to include in your '90s set.
34. "Plush" by Stone Temple Pilots
"Plush" was one of the biggest hits for Stone Temple Pilots, and it still gets considerable radio play today, long after its 1993 release. The song was a huge hit for the band, and is probably the most popular song by STP that cover bands perform.
35. "Possum Kingdom" by The Toadies
Another song on the list that utilizes 7/4-time (alternating with 4/4), "Possum Kingdom" was the second single released from The Toadies' 1994 album Rubberneck. The band saw some chart success with this tune in 1995, and it still holds up to this day as a great song to include in your setlist.
36. "Santeria" by Sublime
The first of two Sublime songs on this list, "Santeria" was released as the second single from their self-titled album in early 1997. It peaked at number three on Billboard's Hot Modern Rock Tracks chart, and remains one of the band's most popular tunes.
37. "Say It Ain't So" by Weezer
Weezer's third single off their self-titled debut album peaked at #7 on the Modern Rock Tracks chart in 1995. It's a favorite party tune for bands and club-goers alike, and never fails to get people singing along with the chorus.
38. "Semi-Charmed Life" by Third Eye Blind
Third Eye Blind's first single off their self-titled debut album saw huge success in the '90s, scoring a #4 spot on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, as well as being named the 34th best song of the '90s by VH1. It's yet another fun, upbeat party tune that works well for cover bands in bars and clubs.
39. "Shimmer" by Fuel
"Shimmer" peaked at number two on the Billboard Modern Rock Tracks chart after its release in 1998 as the first single off of Fuel's album Sunburn. The song was hugely popular for cover bands well into the following decade, and it still works great today as a part of your '90s rock repertoire.
40. "Shine" by Collective Soul
"Shine" was named the number one Album Rock song of 1994 by Billboard the year after its release. It also topped the Album Rock Tracks chart for eight straight weeks in the same year. It's another drop-D song, something that became quite popular in the '90s for rock bands. If you're playing any Collective Soul, you should include this track in your set.
41. "Slide" by The Goo Goo Dolls
The Goo Goo Dolls' sixth studio album finally broke the band into the mainstream, largely due to the success of "Slide." It hit #1 in 1998 on three different Billboard charts and reached #4 on the Hot 100 late the same year. It's very popular on the rock cover band scene as well. The song was originally recorded in the key of Ab, but the band plays it live in the key of G, making it easier to play open chords, as well as on singer Johnny Rzeznik's voice.
42. "Smells Like Teen Spirit" by Nirvana
It's the quintessential '90s rock tune, and the song that single-handedly turned the popular music world upside-down. A new era of alternative and "grunge" music was born in 1991 with this song (aided by significant MTV airplay) and made Kurt Cobain and Nirvana household names. If you play in a classic rock cover band that emphasizes '90s tunes, you need to know this song.
43. "Smooth" by Santana
In 1999, veteran guitarist Carlos Santana reinvigorated his career with the multi-platinum-selling album Supernatural, which featured guest vocalists such as Rob Thomas of Matchbox Twenty who also co-wrote this song. "Smooth" went on to win three Grammy awards and was the last #1 Hot 100 hit of the decade. Even without the extra percussion and horns that are sometimes lacking in cover bands, this tune rocks.
44. "Sober" by Tool
Released in 1993 as the second single off of Tool's album Undertow, "Sober" still gets regular airplay to this day on radio stations across the country. The driving bass intro makes this song instantly recognizable, and music fans at any venue can't help but throw their fist in the air for this powerful rocker.
45. "What I Got" by Sublime
Although released in 1996, Sublime's second single from their self-titled album was one of the most popular songs of 1997 in the U.S. It reached #1 on the Modern Rock Tracks chart, and was ranked by Rolling Stone magazine as one of the Greatest Guitar Songs of All Time. "What I Got" uses a very simple two-chord structure through the entire song, and is always a crowd-pleaser at a gig.
46. "What's Up" by 4 Non Blondes
"What's Up" was the second single from 4 Non Blondes' debut album in 1993, and it enjoyed chart success in over a dozen countries. Singer Linda Perry has since gone on to be a very successful songwriter for other artists such as Christina Aguilera, Gwen Stefani, and American Idol's Adam Lambert. This is another song that most female singers in cover bands know, and it usually goes over well with the bar crowd.
47. "When I Come Around" by Green Day
Green Day's fourth single off of the mega-popular album Dookie was released in 1995 and became the band's most successful single early in their career. There are a few other songs from Green Day that cover bands will include in their catalog, but this one is definitely easy to learn and usually goes over well.
48. "Wonderwall" by Oasis
The third single off of Oasis' 1995 album (What's the Story) Morning Glory? was a huge success, hitting the top ten on over a dozen charts worldwide. "Wonderwall" has been covered by a wide variety of artists, from Ryan Adams to Jay-Z, and it's a popular tune for bar and club cover bands around the globe.
49. "You Oughta Know" by Alanis Morissette
In 1994, Alanis Morissette took the rock world by storm with her insanely popular debut album Jagged Little Pill. The record spawned several subsequent hits, but "You Oughta Know" was the first single for the Canadian singer, and it elevated her to superstar status overnight. Just about every female singer in a rock cover band knows this song and has performed it many times.
50. "Zombie" by The Cranberries
Yet another four-chord song that never deviates from the progression, The Cranberries "Zombie" charted in over a dozen countries, including hitting the #1 spot on Billboard's Modern Rock Tracks after its release in 1994. The chorus usually gets the ladies singing along, and of course, we all want to make the ladies happy.
© 2014 Steve Witschel
Isaac on December 26, 2017:
I'd include songs like Closing time and Friday im in love and maybe What's my age again
guest muso on March 13, 2017:
I agree there are many great songs on here, but Tonic's If You Could Only See is a terrible song to play. It cleared the floor EVERY time it was played, and it is a whingey, whiney durge.
walkrichcharlie on January 26, 2016:
I agree with all these songs. Great list!
Frank on September 04, 2015:
Why is there nothing here from Rush or Marillion on this list? They did some important work in the 90s.
cricket on February 04, 2015:
really 2 manyto count