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MTV Unplugged Turns 30: Here Are the 30 Best Performances

Alicia Keys, Kurt Cobain, Layne Staley on MTV Unplugged

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”

Buy Mariah Carey’s Unplugged vinyl on Amazon

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”

Buy Alice in Chains’ Unplugged vinyl on Amazon

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”

Buy Stone Temple Pilots’ Unplugged vinyl on Amazon

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”

Buy Pearl Jam’s Unplugged vinyl on Amazon

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”

Buy Paul McCartney’s Unplugged CD on Amazon

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”

Buy Alicia Keys’ Unplugged vinyl on Amazon

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”

Buy Eric Clapton’s Unplugged vinyl on Amazon

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”

Buy Nirvana’s Unplugged vinyl on Amazon

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