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MTV Unplugged Turns 30: Here Are the 30 Best Performances

Alicia Keys, Kurt Cobain, Layne Staley on MTV Unplugged

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.

RELATED: MTV Unplugged Performances That Should Get Vinyl Reissues

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)”

Buy Lauryn Hill’s Unplugged vinyl on Amazon

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”

Buy 10,000 Maniacs’ Unplugged CD on Amazon

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”

Buy Dashboard Confessional’s Unplugged vinyl on Amazon

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”

Buy Maxwell’s Unplugged CD on Amazon

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”

Buy Kiss’ Unplugged vinyl on Amazon

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”

Buy The Very Best of MTV Unplugged, Vol 2 vinyl on Amazon

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”

Buy Korn’s Unplugged CD on Amazon

RELATED: Nirvana’s MTV Unplugged Is 25: Meat Puppets and Bobcat Goldthwait Take Us Back

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”

Buy Rod Stewart’s Unplugged CD on Amazon

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”