MTV Unplugged Turns 30: Here Are the 30 Best Performances
Long ago, in the days before there were multiple MTVs glutted with reality shows about sexually active teens, network producers came up with a concept that was novel for the time: Inspired by Bon Jovi’s acoustic performance at the 1989 Video Music Awards, they planned to lure some of the music world’s top talent to New York City for a series of stripped-down live performances in front of a studio audience seated inches away in the shadows.
MTV Unplugged first aired on November 26, 1989, with British rockers Squeeze, songwriter Syd Straw, and Cars guitarist Elliot Easton each playing sets. An almost immediate success, it quickly became an effective promotional tool for artists with new albums hitting record shops, and provided bands and vocalists with a high-profile opportunity to display their formidable talents. Over the years, the series also brought about some of the most interesting, unexpected, and effective collaborations ever conceived, and spawned best-selling CDs that typically opened at the top of Billboard’s albums sales chart.
Three decades later, Unplugged is still around—if not nearly as popular—and taping with less frequency. In light of the former MTV juggernaut turning 30, we decided it was high time to take a look back and rank the show’s 30 best episodes.
30. Lauryn Hill (2002)
The critics blasted her Unplugged performance as being self-indulgent, as Hill broke up the songs with her recollections and commentary. But perhaps it was also because she decided not to play any of her hip-hop hits, and instead, with only a guitar and her natural talent, hit the stage to perform a variety of folk and soul songs she’d written—save for her subtle rendition of Bob Marley and the Wailers’ “So Much Things to Say.”
Performance Highlight: “I Find It Hard to Say (Rebel)”
29. 10,000 Maniacs (1993)
Having New York’s 10,000 Maniacs unplug their instruments for MTV made sense. After all, compared to their contemporaries, the alternative folk act possessed a rather soothing sound. The taping occurred months after the release of Our Time in Eden, and featured songs from the band’s back catalogue as well as a cover of Bruce Springsteen and Patti Smith’s “Because the Night” that would become a modern rock radio staple. Songstress Natalie Merchant would end up leaving the band soon after the recording of their Unplugged session, which was subsequently released as an album that clung to the charts for months.
Performance Highlight: “Like the Weather”
28. Dashboard Confessional (2002)
Before emo went mainstream, producers invited a little-known band called Dashboard Confessional in for an acoustic session, packing the audience with hardcore fans who ended up singing along—to every song—with pompadoured crooner Chris Carrabba. Given their status as up-and-comers, Dashboard decided against doing any covers, instead focusing the entire set on their own tunes.
Performance Highlight: “So Impossible”
27. Maxwell (1997)
R&B poet laureate Maxwell agreed to a seductive, stripped-down performance in 1997. He was invited to appear on the series despite having just one album (the critically hailed Maxwell’s Urban Hang Suite) under his belt. Before he was finished, Maxwell, accompanied by an orchestra, delivered a touching set that included his take on Kate Bush’s “This Woman’s Work” and a bizarre cover of Nine Inch Nails’ “Closer.”
Performance Highlight: “This Woman’s Work”
26. Kiss (1995)
A world that wasn’t looking for a Kiss reunion got one in 1995. The fine folks at MTV orchestrated a revival of the original band, persuading Paul Stanley and Gene Simmons to reach out to former members Peter Criss and Ace Frehley to gauge interest in an acoustic set. Sans makeup, the ostentatious rockers sounded tight as ever, bringing an arenalike atmosphere to Sony Music Studios in Manhattan. In addition to “Beth,” “Goin’ Blind,” and “Domino,” Kiss took the Rolling Stones’ “2,000 Man” and made it their own. The overwhelming fan reaction to the special fueled more reunion shows. (The reunion of the original lineup fizzled out in 2001.)
Performance Highlight: “Rock ‘N’ Roll All Nite”
25. Midnight Oil (1993)
The extraordinary Australian rockers traveled all the way to the Big Apple to deliver an energetic 17-song set for MTV that included acoustic versions of “Truganini,” “Beds Are Burning,” “Blue Sky Mine,” “Feeding Frenzy,” and “The Dead Heart.” In addition, the veteran rockers put their own spin on a cover of “We Gotta Get Out of This Place,” originally recorded by Eric Burdon and the Animals.
Performance Highlight: “Truganini”
24. 30 Seconds to Mars (2011)
Jared Leto’s band 30 Seconds to Mars got the call from the Unplugged producers in 2011, and were happy to oblige, as they were pushing their record This Is War. The American rockers later released a four-song EP that boasted an ampless version of “Hurricane” along with covers of the Police’s “Message in a Bottle” and U2’s “Where the Streets Have No Name,” with Leto’s crisp vocals backed by a gospel choir.
Performance Highlight: “Where the Streets Have No Name”
23. Korn (2006)
The nu-metal masters pulled off the impossible in 2006, performing an entire set of their songs while sitting in place. Known for their high-octane live shows, Korn was an interesting choice for an Unplugged set. But the end result was magnificent: an intimate, passionate concert that featured Evanescence’s Amy Lee guesting on “Freak on a Leash” and The Cure joining the Bakersfield Boys for an acoustic mash-up that blended Korn’s “Make Me Bad” with The Cure’s “In Between Days.”
Performance Highlight: “Creep”
22. Rod Stewart (1993)
Rod the Mod sweated through his barely buttoned shirt inside a Los Angeles soundstage during the taping of an Unplugged, and months later, released the set as an album, which spent several weeks as America’s best-selling CD. As is customary, Stewart rolled through several of his hits (“Maggie May,” “Hot Legs”) before putting his own stamp on Van Morrison’s “Have I Told You Lately,” Sam Cooke’s “Having a Party,” and Cat Stevens’ “The First Cut Is the Deepest.”
Performance Highlight: “Forever Young”
21. Miley Cyrus (2014)
In early 2014, Miley Cyrus and her backing band delivered one of the most enjoyable Unplugged shows, filled out largely with songs off her album Bangerz. The audience spent the majority of the evening standing up, feeding off of bikini-clad Cyrus’ energy. During the set, she put her own special spin on Dolly Parton’s “Jolene” before Madonna emerged from the audience to join her for a mash-up of her “We Can’t Stop” and the Queen of Pop’s “Don’t Tell Me.”
Performance Highlight: “Don’t Tell Me/We Can’t Stop”
20. Bryan Adams (1997)
Canadian rocker Bryan Adams took over Manhattan’s Hammerstein Ballroom, running through his extensive catalogue of hits with the assistance of Irish piper Davy Spillane, his co-writer Michael Kamen, and several amateurs he enlisted from Juilliard’s student body. No covers, alas, but Adams did perform 16 songs, debuting three new tunes for fans: “Back to You,” “When You Love Someone,” and “A Little Love.”
Performance Highlight: “Summer of ’69”
19. Alanis Morissette (1999)
With two records’ worth of personal material to pull from, Alanis Morissette got the Unplugged treatment in 1999, and issued an album from that session less than two months later. Along with rousing reinventions of hits such as “You Oughta Know,” “Ironic,” and “Head Over Feet,” the Canadian songwriter paid homage to Sting and the Police, doing justice to their track “King of Pain.”
Performance Highlight: “You Learn”
18. Queensrÿche (1992)
Seattle metal group Queensrÿche—riding high off the success of their radio hit “Silent Lucidity”—played an Unplugged set of just seven songs before a captivated audience. In addition to “Silent Lucidity,” the band performed “The Lady Wore Black,” “Della Brown,” “I Will Remember,” and “The Killing Words.” The Geoff Tate-fronted act also covered Neil Young’s “Rockin’ in the Free World” and a well-received rendition of the traditional English ballad “Scarborough Fair.”
Performance Highlight: “Killing Words”
17. Florence and the Machine (2011)
Florence and the Machine recorded a soulful performance in New York City’s oldest synagogue. The English indie rockers, fronted by Florence Welch, dazzled those lucky enough to have attended. The evening featured several magical moments, including Queens of the Stone Age frontman Josh Homme joining the group for “Jackson,” a song popularized by June and Johnny Cash, and “Try a Little Tenderness,” a song made famous by Otis Redding.
Performance Highlight: “Shake It Out”
16. Duran Duran (1993)
The English rock legends had the Unplugged audience in its collective pocket during their performance. Simon Le Bon and crew ran through 11 tracks—both timeless hits, such as “Rio,” “Notorious,” and “Hungry Like the Wolf,” as well as deeper tracks including “The Chauffeur”—before tackling The Doors’ “Crystal Ship” and delivering a rousing rendition of “Come Undone.”
Performance Highlight: “Come Undone”
15. The Cranberries (1995)
Simple, beautiful, yet elegant in their own way, Irish rockers The Cranberries sat close together in chairs and churned out nine glorious tracks, including “Yesterday’s Gone,” which was never officially recorded in a studio setting. Another Unplugged with no covers, the band did use their appearance on MTV as a chance to debut two songs that would eventually appear on their forthcoming album, To the Faithful Departed: “I’m Still Remembering” and “Free to Decide.”
Performance Highlight: “Free to Decide”
14. Shakira (1999)
Before her Unplugged performance at New York City’s Grand Ballroom, Shakira’s fanbase was largely Spanish-speaking. That all changed after she agreed to go cordless in 1999. The 11-song set featured some of her best loved tracks, including “Ojos Asi” and “Ciega, Sordomuda,” and introduced English audiences to her immense talent. Two years later, she’d issue her breakthrough LP, Laundry Service.
Performance Highlight: “No Creo”
13. Annie Lennox (1992)
MTV approached Eurythmics alum Annie Lennox about an Unplugged show in 1992, and she obliged, allowing the network’s cameras in for her scheduled performance at the Montreux Jazz Festival in Switzerland. All smiles throughout, Lennox performed a number of her former band’s songs acoustically before doing a few of her own. She also delivered epic covers of “River Deep, Mountain High” by Ike and Tina Turner, “Don’t Let Me Down” by the Beatles, and “Feel the Need,” a song written by the Detroit Emeralds.
Performance Highlight: “Little Bird”
12. Bob Dylan (1994)
For his Unplugged, Bob Dylan tapped several musicians (including record producer Brendan O’Brien and his longtime sideman, bassist Tony Garnier) and taped a dozen songs over two days—all with MTV’s cameras there to capture it all. The Godfather of Folk’s set was a veritable best of, with tracks such as “All Along the Watchtower,” “The Times They Are a-Changin’,” and “Like a Rolling Stone.” Critics hailed Dylan’s contribution to the series as outstanding, and when the album hit store shelves, Bob enjoyed some of his best sales in years.
Performance Highlight: “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door”
11. George Michael (1996)
A crowd of close to 300 fans sat in awe as pop megastar George Michael rearranged a dozen of his songs for an Unplugged set that was filmed in London. Michael’s riveting, lively performance included tracks “Father Figure” and “Freedom,” along with a beloved tune from his Wham! days: “Everything She Wants.” The concert, which was the final one Michael’s mother would see him perform before her death, also included covers of Elton John’s “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down” and Bonnie Raitt’s “I Can’t Make You Love Me.”
Performance Highlight: “Freedom! ’90”
10. Mariah Carey (1992)
In an effort to silence critics who’d started writing her off as a “studio artist,” Carey agreed to appear on Unplugged, delivering a smooth, soulful, and short set of her hits, all capped with an unforgettable cover of the Jackson 5 classic “I’ll Be There.” The show was a ratings winner and helped to establish Carey as a legitimate touring musician—though, she hasn’t toured much since.
Performance Highlight: “Vision of Love”
9. Jimmy Page and Robert Plant (1994)
It took the Unplugged producers to pull off what countless festival organizers could not: get Jimmy Page and Robert Plant to share the same stage and make music together. For 90 minutes captured over three days, cameras rolled as the Led Zeppelin legends reworked some of their most famous songs and deeper album cuts—including “Thank You,” “Gallows Pole,” and “Kashmir—with help from the London Metropolitan Orchestra and an ensemble of Egyptian musicians, assembled by the late Hossam Ramzy. A physical album followed and has since been certified platinum in several countries.
Performance Highlight: “That’s the Way”
8. Alice in Chains (1996)
Sadly, the Alice in Chains Unplugged set would be one of their last concerts with late singer Layne Staley, who died of an accidental cocaine and heroin overdose in April 2002. It also marked the band’s first live performance in three years. Throughout the performance, Staley’s voice sounds as brooding and haunting as ever. The rest of Alice in Chains also displayed their gifts, delivering tunes including “Angry Chair,” “No Excuses,” “Rooster,” and “Heaven Beside Me” effortlessly.
Performance Highlight: “Nutshell”
7. Stone Temple Pilots (1993)
San Diego rock sensation Stone Temple Pilots agreed to an Unplugged set in 1993, a year after their debut, Core, dropped like an anvil. Foregoing electricity suited the band, who immaculately performed nine of their songs (“Plush,” “Wicked Garden,” and “Sex Type Thing,” among them). Punctuated by Scott Weiland’s unmistakable pipes, the band’s legendary appearance on MTV’s hit show would also introduce the world to one of their biggest hits: It was the first time Stone Temple Pilots played “Big Empty” outside of their practice space or a recording studio.
Performance Highlight: “Creep”
6. Pearl Jam (1992)
Intense, exhilarating, and intimate, Pearl Jam’s Unplugged set was recorded in a small studio in Queens in front of fewer than 50 fans. Consisting of eight flawlessly performed songs (mostly tracks from their debut, Ten, plus a cover of Neil Young’s “Rockin’ in the Free World”), Pearl Jam set the bar high for every single artist who’d follow them on Unplugged. That bar would be surpassed, but still, they set it.
Performance Highlight: “State of Love and Trust”
5. Paul McCartney (1991)
You have to respect Paul McCartney and his solo output. According to MTV lore, Sir Paul jumped at the chance to unplug his guitar. No amps were used during the extensive 17-song set, which McCartney clearly enjoyed; the wide-eyed rocker enthusiastically smiled as he relished in the audience’s reaction to Beatles classics such as “Blackbird,” “And I Love Her,” and “We Can Work It Out.” His relaxed performance boasted a number of blues covers, too, as well as an arresting take of Bill Withers’ “Ain’t No Sunshine.” This would be the first of many Unplugged sessions to go from the TV set to the record stores: It was released as Unplugged (The Official Bootleg) four months after it occurred.
Performance Highlight: “Every Night”
4. LL Cool J (1991)
The ladies love him and so did Unplugged’s producers, who, in 1991, made him part of a special featuring hip-hop artists going acoustic. For the first time, rappers were asked to appear on the program, and they made quite an impression. MC Lyte performed her track “Cappuccino,” while A Tribe Called Quest let loose with “Can I Kick It?” Meanwhile, De La Soul joined a live five-piece band to bring “Ring Ring Ring (Ha Ha Hey)” to life. But what endures as one of the most dynamic performances of Unplugged’s history came from a sweat-drenched, topless, deodorant-caked LL, who had the audience rocking out to “Jingling Baby” and “Mama Said Knock You Out.”
Performance Highlight: “Mama Said Knock You Out”
3. Alicia Keys (2005)
Soulful songwriter Alicia Keys overwhelmed the audience at the Brooklyn Academy of Music when she went Unplugged, rearranging a number of her own songs for MTV, who were trying to revive the series after a three-year hiatus. Fans were treated to stripped-down versions of “You Don’t Know My Name,” “A Woman’s Worth,” and “If I Ain’t Got You,” as well as covers of Prince’s “How Come You Don’t Call Me” and Ed Cobb’s “Every Little Bit Hurts.” Guests Damian Marley, Common, and Mos Def joined Keys for an invigorating mash-up of Etta James’ “Love It or Leave It Alone” and Marley’s “Welcome to Jamrock.” There was even a cameo from a still-humble Adam Levine of Maroon 5 on Keys’ touching cover of the Rolling Stones’ “Wild Horses.”
Performance Highlight: “Wild Horses”
2. Eric Clapton (1992)
Perhaps the most touching and personal of the Unplugged shows, Clapton agreed to do the MTV show less than a year after the tragic death of his 4-year-old son Conor, who died after falling out the window of a New York apartment building. The iconic guitarist strummed through 14 moving tunes, including “Layla” and several exemplary covers of well-known blues songs for the enthralled audience at Bray Film Studios in the United Kingdom. But it was his heartbreaking performance of “Tears in Heaven,” a wrenching track about the pain he’d endured in the wake of Conor’s death, that stole the show. The following year, the album took home six Grammy awards and, to this day, remains one of the biggest selling live records of all time.
Performance Highlight: “Tears in Heaven”
1. Nirvana (1993)
Nirvana’s Unplugged set was legendary, with the defiant grunge act rejecting practically every one of the producers’ suggestions. A seemingly subdued Kurt Cobain and the rest of Nirvana delivered an uncompromising, melancholic acoustic set that featured just three of their hits—“Polly,” “All Apologies,” and “Come As You Are.” Instead, it was the band’s masterful covers of David Bowie, Lead Belly, and the Meat Puppets (who performed their songs with Nirvana during the taping) that resonated the most with fans. The taping occurred five months before Cobain’s suicide, and a Grammy-winning album from the Unplugged session was released a little more than a year after the show. Several of the record’s impeccable songs remain rock radio mainstays.
Performance Highlight: “Where Did You Sleep Last Night”
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