MTV Unplugged began in 1989 and has featured countless bands and artists in its 26 year history. Regular sessions stopped in 2000, though the format has been used numerous times since then to feature a variety of modern artists. MTV Unplugged is, however, by and large considered a seminal product of the 90’s, a time which saw it produce some of the best acoustic music sets of all time. Here are my five favourite MTV Unplugged sessions, let me know what yours are in the comments section!
BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN (1992)
This one doesn’t make the top five due to the fact that is slightly deviates from the traditional MTV Unplugged format, and is instead referred to as MTV Plugged. Recorded with a hired band at a time when the E Street Band was dissolved, Springsteen was reportedly unhappy with the acoustic sound and opted for a plugged in version instead. There is no doubt that the E Street Band are a huge part of the Bruce Springsteen identity, the absence is strongly felt. But the album is still strong, kicking off with an acoustic rendition of the previously unreleased Red Headed Woman before delving into a number of underrated classics including Atlantic City and Darkness on the Edge of Town. Even the more well known classics, namely Thunder Road, are played in a way that is more intense than Springsteen performances tend to be – there is a much more serious vibe than fans are generally used to. Whilst it may not be for the casual listener, this is essential listening for any serious Springsteen fans, a reminder that whilst he is always at his best with his beloved band behind him, he is still a strong solo performer.
Best track: Thunder Road – Even without the E Street Band.
5 – KISS (1995)
This one makes the list not only because its fantastic in its own right, but also due to the wider significance that it held. Forming in 1973, Kiss had been around a long time by the time the 90’s hit. However, a variety of factors – most notably the release of the 70’s set film Dazed and Confused (1993) set off a wave of Kiss nostalgia and the band were met with a new wave of mainstream popularity. It was therefore no surprise that they were invited to appear on Unplugged, but the real treat came for fans when the set saw the bands original line up reunited on stage for the first time since 1980. Peter Criss and Ace Frehley joined Paul Stanley and Gene Simmons on stage for the final four songs of the set, making it the only time the original line up performed together without their trademark make-up. This was the catalyst which saw the reunion take place, with Tupac introducing them on stage at the Grammys the following year, with Criss and Frehley remaining in the band again until 2000. You can feel the electricity when the foursome reunite, and it makes for an epic conclusion to a strong set. Kiss are a band which are so well known for the make-up and gigantic arena shows, making it a change of pace to see them perform in the Unplugged format. It also allows for a true appreciation of the sometimes underrated song-writing, with Beth being a particularly good example.
Best track: Rock and Roll All Nite – An epic finish that shows the original line up in all their stripped back glory.
4 – BOB DYLAN (1994):
By the time the 90’s rolled around Bob Dylan had been in the industry for over 30 years, providing the world with a whole wealth of versatile and popular music. Anticipation was thus at a high when he took to the stage to record his Unplugged performance over two nights. Mostly focusing on classics from his earlier albums, Dylan offers a fresh perspective by reworking his tracks for the acoustic format, with Like A Rolling Stone being a particular highlight. There is a different feel to some of the songs, with The Times They Are A-Changin’ and With God on Our Side in particular being tinged with a sadness that wasn’t present in the initial recordings – perhaps a product of Dylan’s life experience. The album plays out like a greatest hits, charting Dylan’s career from the 60’s right through, but is enhanced by the live, acoustic renditions which offer a new take on the old material.
Best track: With God on our Side – Arguably the best rendition of this song Dylan has ever done.
3 – ERIC CLAPTON (1992):
Eric Clapton’s Unplugged album is one of the most wildly successful MTV ever produced, having sold over 26 million copies worldwide and winning three Grammys in 1993, totally revitalising his career. Featuring a totally reworked rendition of his well known track Layla, Clapton also opted for the fresh take on older material. Without a doubt the highlight is Tears in Heaven, which was written about the tragic death of his four year old son, and is a song that is at its most stirring here. Performed in front of a small audience in Clapton’s native England, the acoustic blues set is the perfect mix of relaxed and passionate, emotional and invigorating. Truly a work of Unplugged legend, the album has gone on to establish a whole range of myths and misconceptions, but there is one solid fact – this is Clapton at his very best.
Best track: Tears in Heaven – Puts a tear in your eye, and that’s before you know the tragic circumstances behind it.
2 – ALICE IN CHAINS (1996):
Part of original Seattle formation of the grunge movement in the early 90’s, Alice in Chains were a prime candidate for the Unplugged treatment. By 1996 leading man Layne Staley was struggling increasingly with substance abuse and depression, with this performance proving to be one of his last with the band before retreating into relative solidarity. This is a sad contrast to the likes of Kiss and so many other bands whom used their Unplugged performances to mark the beginning of a new era, with the Alice in Chains set instead marking the tragic end of one. Staley died in 2002, making his raw vocals even more resonant when listening with this in mind. Staley’s performance has a ragged quality that only makes it stronger, with the bands popular tracks Down in a Hole and Rooster finding new depths. The band had played together very little over the past few years by the time the Unplugged gig came along, though it would be hard to believe from the way they respond to each other. It’s far from an uplifting listen, but Alice in Chains unplugged imbues the essential traits of 90’s grunge to a tee.
Best track: Down in a Hole – Haunting and ridden with despair, made all the moreso by Staley’s passing.
1 – NIRVANA (1993):
Not only do I believe this to be the best Unplugged album of all time, it is in my top five albums of all time overall. 1993. New York City. Nevermind (1991) had been out for two years, In Utero (1993) for two months, Nirvana were arguably at the height of their success, and the timing is just right for this performance. Kurt Cobain reportedly asked for the set to be decorated in the manner of a funeral, and the band recorded the performance in a single take, with the almost eery atmosphere carrying into the music. Following Cobain’s death in 1994 MTV played the episode continuously, with the album being released later in the year, unsurprisingly met with critical adoration and massive sales. It is essential listening for any Nirvana fan, capturing the band in a way that only a live performance could. Stripped way back, the impact is incredible. As tends to be the case with deceased musicians, the songs take on a sadder meaning, with All Apologies and Where Did You Sleep Last Night taking on the creepy feeling of Cobain’s final goodbye. Material from all three albums are compiled into a well thought out set-list, making for just over an hour of Unplugged perfection.
Best track: Where Did You Sleep Last Night? – Whilst any track could have taken the top spot, this haunting cover will always be the winner, a perfect finale to a superb album.