Recently, the shaggy green cardigan Kurt Cobain wore on MTV Unplugged was auctioned off for a staggering $334,000. The fact that Cobain’s sweater has become a pop-cultural artefact is just one more example of how Nirvana’s performance on MTV Unplugged In New York – which turned 25 just days after the auction – has seared itself into the timeline of popular music. Not only one of the best MTV Unplugged performances in the show’s three-decade history, it remains one of the greatest live performances of all time.
Defining an era
MTV Unplugged first aired on 26 November 1989, though it’s difficult to say what exactly inspired its creation. Some point to well-received acoustic sets on MTV by popular acts like XTC and Bon Jovi earlier that year. Some go a little further back to 1982, when The Secret Policeman’s Other Ball, a British benefit show, spawned a live album and film that were successful on both sides of the Atlantic, thanks in part to some spirited acoustic performances. Whatever the case may be, MTV’s new series had no trouble attracting huge names right out of the gate, including the likes of Sinéad O’Connor, Elton John and Aerosmith within its first year. Further bookings would include R.E.M., Neil Young, Bob Dylan and, the first artist to release his performance as a live album, Paul McCartney.
Collectively, the MTV Unplugged performances define an era that now seems long past. James Corden’s Carpool Karaoke and NPR’s Tiny Desk performances are perhaps today’s equivalents: one offers meme-ready snapshots of an artist letting their lighter side shine, the other allows for musicianship and more introspective performances to take centre-stage; arguably neither, however, quite have the same cultural impact. Three decades after its initial launch, MTV Unplugged made space for both, offering fans the opportunity to see their favourite artists in a new light.
Here are the 15 best MTV Unplugged performances of all time. Think we’ve missed one of yours? Let us know in the comments section, below.
Best ‘MTV Unplugged’ Performances: 15 Era-Defining Appearances
15: Katy Perry (2009)
MTV gave Unplugged another go in 2009, rolling out six episodes over the summer to drum up interest in the rebooted series. One of the inaugural performers was Katy Perry, just a year after the release of her debut album, One Of The Boys. Naturally, her short setlist included early hits like ‘I Kissed A Girl’ (still one of her best songs) and ‘Thinking Of You’, but Perry also saw an opportunity to show her audience the kind of artist she wanted to be, and she made the most of it: “I think that some people have an idea of who I am… but I get to show off and tell the story about the songs, why I wrote them,” she said in an interview that accompanied her MTV Unplugged EP. Mission accomplished.
14: Shawn Mendes (2017)
Shawn Mendes was barely of legal drinking age in his native Canada when he appeared on MTV Unplugged. By then, he’d topped Billboard’s US Adult Contemporary and US Adult Top 40 charts three times, debuted two albums atop the Billboard 200 and embarked on three headlining tours. In other words, he was a bona fide superstar when he recorded his MTV Unplugged special. All three of those chart-topping hits – ‘Stitches’, ‘Treat You Better’ and ‘There’s Nothing Holdin’ Me Back’ – got the acoustic treatment, as well as deep cuts like ‘Roses’ and ‘Patience’. Mendes’ MTV Unplugged performance reminded us what we already knew – that he’s as talented a pop songsmith as John Mayer or Ed Sheeran, and he’s got a very long and fruitful career ahead of him.
13: Bryan Adams (1997)
Part of the fun of watching an established artist go on MTV Unplugged is the question of what surprises they might have in store. Are they going to just play the hits straight or are they going to have some fun with the formula? Bryan Adams’ MTV Unplugged performance swings to the latter. After opening with his beloved hit ‘Summer Of ’69’, Adams rolled out ‘Back To You’, the first of three new songs he’d introduce in his set. He also brought out some unexpected guests to spice things up: uilleann piper Davy Spillane, composer Michael Kamen and a group of music students from the Juilliard School. But, overall, the success of Adams’ Unplugged album boils down to good songs and good performances.
12: Neil Young (1993)
Neil Young wasn’t satisfied with his first MTV Unplugged performance, filmed in December 1992 (so much so that it never aired), so, just a few months later, he took another go at it. His second attempt was more successful, and was released as Unplugged a few months later. The hits are few and far between: there’s Buffalo Springfield’s ‘Mr Soul’, CSNY’s ‘Helpless’ and Young’s solo ‘The Needle And the Damage Done’. For the most part, however, Young mines for deep cuts, like Tonight’s the Night’s weary ‘World On A String’, Rust Never Sleeps’ chilling ‘Pocahontas’ and Trans’ robotic ‘Transformer Man’ (which sounds surprisingly warm and affecting as an acoustic song). But the real treasure here is ‘Stringman’, a heartbreaking piano ballad that Young recorded in his mid-70s heyday but never released.
11: KISS (1995)
How does a band like KISS sound on acoustic instruments? Pretty good, apparently. KISS Unplugged is an exercise in fundamentals: even without the make-up, pyrotechnics and bone-crunching distortion, KISS’ Unplugged performance still delivered the irresistible guitar riffs and shout-along choruses that made the band such a commercial juggernaut. But what elevated the show from good to great was the surprise participation of former founding members Ace Frehley and Peter Criss, who joined frontmen Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley (and their replacements) onstage for a four-song run of classics: ‘2000 Man’ (a Rolling Stones cover), ‘Beth’, ‘Nothin’ To Lose’ and, of course, ‘Rock And Roll All Nite’. Frehley and Criss’ appearance kicked off months of speculation that the original line-up might get back together – and, sure enough, they did, embarking on a massively successful world tour, following one of the best MTV Unplugged performances in history.
10: Florence + The Machine (2012)
Florence Welch has the kind of gale-force vocals that seem to fill whatever room she’s singing in, so it’s appropriate that her MTV Unplugged performance took place in what used to be a synagogue. (Also appropriate: Florence + The Machine were backed by a ten-person choir.) As a showcase for Welch’s abilities as a singer, MTV Unplugged is unparalleled. Of course, some of the big (in more than one sense of the word) hits are here (‘Dog Days Are Over’, ‘Shake It Out’), but some of the performance’s best moments come when Welch dials things back, as on ‘No Light, No Light’ and her cover of the Stax soul classic ‘Try A Little Tenderness’, made famous by Otis Redding, which makes for one of the best MTV Unplugged performances.
9: Lauryn Hill (2001)
The Miseducation Of Lauryn Hill remains Hill’s lone studio album. More than two decades later, the closest thing it has to a sequel is MTV Unplugged No.2.0. Hill’s appearance on MTV Unplugged is unique in that it’s the only one where the artist’s entire performance consisted of new material. Debuting a new radical new folk-indebted style, and interspersed with deeply personal spoken interludes, it feels as much like a diary as it does a live album. In contrast to Miseducation… ’s unanimous acclaim, critics were polarised over MTV Unplugged No.2.0, with some praising the raw, unfinished state of its songs (as well as the woman singing them) and others lambasting the album for the same reason. It certainly wasn’t the follow-up album we were expecting from Hill, but listening to it now, it’s remarkable how many of its songs, such as ‘Mystery Of Iniquity’ and ‘I Find It Hard To Say (Rebel)’, sound strikingly prescient. Out of all the historic MTV Unplugged performances, this one’s well worth revisiting.
8: Eric Clapton (1992)
Paul McCartney’s performance might have helped put MTV Unplugged on the map, but there’s a strong case to be made that Eric Clapton inspired classic rock compatriots like Neil Young and Bob Dylan to make their own appearances on the show. Unplugged didn’t just give Clapton’s career a shot in the arm, it’s legitimately one of the most successful albums ever made, picking up six Grammy Awards and selling a staggering 26 million copies around the world. In stripping his songs down to their roots, Clapton enhances their essential qualities: ‘Tears In Heaven’ feels even more sorrowful, ‘Layla’ feels even more seductive, ‘Malted Milk’ feels even more haggard. Clapton has spent his whole career emulating the blues, but MTV Unplugged marked the first time he really captured the genre’s weariness.
7: R.E.M. (1991, 2001)
This one might be cheating a bit, but part of what makes R.E.M.’s two MTV Unplugged shows so spectacular is how different they are. While both lean heavily on new material, R.E.M. throw older fan favourites into the setlist: ‘Perfect Circle’ and ‘Fall On Me’, in 1991; ‘Cuyahoga’ and ‘The One I Love’, in 2001. (‘Losing My Religion’, of course, is the one song the band played on both nights.) The 1991 set evokes the more folk-rock-indebted sound of the band’s early years, while the 2001 set feels a little fuller and poppier, stripping away the more synthesised elements of Up and Reveal. If nothing else, R.E.M.’s MTV Unplugged performances – released three years after the band’s break-up as Unplugged: The Complete 1991 And 2001 Sessions – remind us what a strange, special band they were.
6: Jimmy Page And Robert Plant (1994)
Led Zeppelin’s 1985 and 1988 reunions were unsatisfactory affairs, by Jimmy Page and Robert Plant’s own admissions. But when Page and Plant joined forces again in 1994, for No Quarter: Jimmy Page And Robert Plant Unledded, they recaptured the old magic. Much like Nirvana before them, Page and Plant took their Unplugged sessions as an opportunity to breathe new life into their back catalogue: the folk-rock of ‘The Battle Of Evermore’ meshes very nicely with an orchestra, while ‘Four Sticks’ draws on Moroccan and Middle Eastern music to wondrous effect. Part of the album was recorded in Marrakesh, where Page and Plant recorded four new songs – ‘City Don’t Cry’, ‘Yallah’ (later retitled ‘The Truth Explodes’), ‘Wonderful One’ and ‘Wah Wah’ – that can hang with the album’s best moments.
5: Björk (1994)
Björk is one of the most forward-thinking and consistently surprising artists of the last three decades, and while a lot of this stems from her use of cutting-edge electronic beats, her MTV Unplugged appearance reveals just how innovative she is. Björk performed her 1993 album, Debut, almost in full during her appearance on the show, and was joined onstage by some of the musicians who helped make the record possible – harpist Corky Hale, saxophonist Oliver Lake, tabla player Talvin Singh, as well as the South Bank Gamelan Orchestra. In putting the focus on her collaborators, Björk radically reinterpreted her own material: ‘One Day’ and ‘Big Time Sensuality’ incorporate Indian and Javanese instrumentation to wondrous effect, while ‘Violently Happy’ finds new life as a jazzy, groovy tempest. (Björk released the album ten years later, with a later recording of ‘Venus As A Boy’, as Debut Live.)
4: Shakira (1999)
Shakira had four albums under her belt by the time she appeared on MTV Unplugged, and this performance was her big breakthrough. The singer was the first Latin pop artist – and the first solo Latina artist – to appear on the show, and she made the most of the opportunity by playing all but one song off her then recently released album, ¿Dónde Están Los Ladrones?. (You don’t have to understand a word of Spanish to enjoy songs like ‘Ciega, Sordomuda’, ‘Inevitable’ and ‘Ojos Así’.) Shakira went supernova after MTV Unplugged, winning a Grammy Award for Best Latin Pop Album and selling five million copies worldwide; her next album, Laundry Service, would sell nearly four million in the United States alone.
3: Jay Z (2001)
The second iteration of MTV Unplugged began in 2000, and by the end of the following year, the series had produced another essential Unplugged album. Jay Z took the stage at MTV Studios just two months after releasing his masterpiece, The Blueprint, and his setlist splits the difference between that album’s highlights – ‘Heart Of The City (Ain’t No Love)’ and ‘Takeover’ – with some of his earlier classics, including ‘Hard Knock Life (Ghetto Anthem)’ and ‘Can’t Knock The Hustle’. Jay-Z: Unplugged presents Jay Z at what was arguably his peak, and while that alone would be worth the price of admission, the icing on the cake is the presence of The Roots, who provide live instrumentation for Hova to rap over. Who needs drum machines and samplers when the world’s greatest hip-hop band has your back?
2: Paul McCartney (1991)
Always a head of the pack, the former Beatle was the first artist to release his MTV Unplugged performance as a live album. His setlist offered an eclectic mix of classic rock’n’roll covers (Gene Vincent’s ‘Be-Bop-A-Lula’, Elvis Presley’s ‘Blue Moon Of Kentucky’), Beatles deep cuts (‘Here, There And Everywhere’, ‘Blackbird’) and solo material, including ‘I Lost My Little Girl’, the very first song McCartney wrote, at the age of 14. He and his band also took “unplugged” as literally as one could, using strategically-placed microphones instead of amplifiers to capture the sound of their instruments. As such, there’s a warmth and clarity to Unplugged (The Official Bootleg) that’s unmatched. Out of all the MTV Unplugged performances, the album was a critical and commercial success, but perhaps the highest praise came from Unplugged producer Alex Coletti, who later attributed much of the series’ success to McCartney’s performance.
1: Nirvana (1993)
You were expecting something else? Nirvana’s MTV Unplugged appearance wasn’t just the single best episode of the show’s run, but the album that came of it stands as one of the band’s most essential releases. In silencing the loud, distorted roar that typically defined Nirvana’s work, MTV Unplugged In New York laid bare the melodies and emotional intensity of Kurt Cobain’s songwriting. His decision to eschew the group’s big hits in favour of deeper and darker material, which struck producers as stubbornly anti-commercial, only heightened the intimacy of the performance, and the selection of cover songs – especially Lead Belly’s arrangement of ‘Where Did You Sleep Last Night’, the shattering final song of the night – felt transformative, as if Cobain was making them his own. When MTV Unplugged In New York hit the shelves, on 1 November 1994, seven months after Cobain’s death, it carried the weight of a tombstone. Now, it feels like a living, gasping thing, the work of a band on the cusp of evolving into a strange and beautiful new form.
An expanded 2LP edition of Nirvana’s MTV Unplugged In New York, featuring rehearsal recordings only previously available on DVD, has just been released. Buy it here.
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