Top 10 MTV Unplugged Performances

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The launch of the MTV Classic channel means the return of MTV Unplugged. Sort of. As we willingly jump back into the chuckles of Beavis and Butthead, we are now graced with the reruns of some of the most epic MTV Unplugged episodes. It’s a program that ranks amongst the most popular ever to be on MTV.

As a songwriter, many, if not all of the songs you write start on one simple instrument. A piano, a drumbeat or your standard acoustic guitar. As Writer/Director and original MTV Unplugged Producer, Bruce Leddy, recently explained in his brilliant Green Room guest column, a song is often in its purest state when played on its original single instrument.

Pearl Jam guitarist Mike McCready told Rolling Stone, “It forces you to play differently. You can’t rely on feedback. It forces you to use dynamics, and to look at each song in a different way.”

For the past 27 years, MTV Unplugged has demonstrated that. It’s no surprise there has been countless official MTV Unplugged releases as the platform served as one of the best performance points in many of careers of the artists that partook in the program. Late in its first season, Unplugged began to gain popular momentum with noteworthy appearances by Sinead O’Connor and Aerosmith. It was a second-season appearance by Paul McCartney however, that brought a new element to the show when McCartney released a recording of his performance. 106 live albums and 80 video recordings would follow as a result of the respective performances.

The Unplugged stage also served as a setting from some unique and unexpected “happenings.” It’s there where Simon Le Bon made his return after a lengthy hiatus, tending to a significant vocal strain. Concerned Duran Duran fans were put to ease as they witnessed Le Bon’s strong return. Songs such as “Serious” would climb that charts as a result.

Nirvana’s 2004 boxset, With The Lights Out, featured a single entitled “You Know You’re Right” – an original track that previously never been officially released. On February 14, 1995, Courtney Love and Hole performed the song during their Unplugged set, under the moniker, “You’ve Got No Right.”

In April of 1996 we saw one of the more bizarre moments when Oasis was scheduled to perform on Unplugged. At the last moment frontman Liam Gallagher pulled out of the performance claiming he had a “sore throat.” Instead of cancelling, brother and guitarist Noel Gallagher took the mic, earning much praise as brother Liam heckled the band from the balcony.

Nonethless, each MTV Unplugged performance has contained something special. In this feature, we look at 10 of best Rock moments of the show:

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10. Neil Young – February 7, 1993. Universal Studios, Los Angeles, CA.
When Neil Young speaks you just listen. Young has a natural ability to have that effect through his music. Somehow, when you strip it down to just Young and an instrument, you listen even more intently. A perfect format to showcase the true element of song.

9. Hole – Brooklyn Academy of Music – Brooklyn, NY, February 14, 1995
A raw Courtney Love performance. At a sensitive time, Love opens up and even plays a Kurt Cobain song in honor of her late husband who had passed less than a year earlier.

8. REM – April 10, 1991. Chelsea Studios, NY, NY.
Michael Stipe was one of the most underrated voices in Rock music. Probably just the way he liked it.

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7. Oasis – August 23, 1996. Royal Festival Hall, London, England.
Noel at the helm. Handled an uncomfortable situation perfectly, with Liam out. Spurred the question – is he even needed?

6. Paul McCartney – January 25, 1991. London Limehouse TV Studios, London, England
The performance that is largely responsible for the launch of multidimensional Unplugged with McCartney officially releasing a recording of his show. The 21st episode and one of the longer sets ever to grace the program at 23 songs.

5. Stone Temple Pilots – November 17, 1993 (aired in 1994). Sony Music Studios
“Big Empty” was debuted. But furthermore… the rocking chair.

4. Eric Clapton – January 16, 1992. Bray Film Studios, Windsor, England.
Clapton is so out-of-this-world on guitar you often lose sight of just how great his songs are. There was a vulnerability to Clapton’s performance here that made it pure artistic gold.

3. Nirvana – November 18, 1993. Sony Music Studios, NY, NY.
Kurt Cobain’s expressions throughout this performance really made you feel something and furthermore, think about the guy. You found yourself forgetting about their massive success and the electric frenzy that was around them and thinking two things. 1 – these are really great songs. Cobain was a melody master. 2 – maybe he really is in pain. During that specific version of “All Apologies,” you really believed him.

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2. Pearl Jam – March 16, 1992. Kaufman Astoria Studios, Astoria, Queens, NY
Fresh off a flight from a 27 date European tour. Pearl Jam had just played a similar impromptu acoustic set in Switzerland a month earlier, upon noticing the stage was too small. Play acoustic? – Yeah we can do that. A soaring, heartfelt version of “Black,” and an epic rendition of “Porch.”

1. Alice in Chains – April 10, 1996. Brooklyn Academy of Music, Brooklyn, NY
A band that was built off an acoustic foundation where Layne Staley and Jerry Cantrell perfectly duel. They were made for this type of performance. “I would have to say, this is the best show we’ve done in three years,” said Staley during the show.

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  • Bella Corday

    I have to agree Alice in Chains deserves the top spot here. Layne had no played with the band in three years yet everything about it was beautiful. He and Jerry picked up where they left off and ran with it. Layne was so thin and junk sick but his vocals shone through as usual.

    Nirvana had moments of sheer brilliance. I am not this huge Nirvana fan but I have to give credit where it is due. Is it messed up my favorite moments were when Kurt sang songs he did not write? He put so much into Where Did You Sleep Last Night.

    And the Stone Temple Pilots…Creep. Enough said.

    • Chris Edwards

      Absolutely true! The AiC show is magic, forever preserved, for the millions of fans who didn’t get to attend the show. One thing, though: they had played together prior to this in the three-year absence from regular touring. They did a one-off gig, also acoustic, in 1994 in LA, and they’d rehearsed together that summer (in preparation for the Metallica tour that wound up a no-go) and the next year for their album.

      • Bella Corday

        Interesting fact, i did not know. Always ready to learn something new about Alice in Chains, especially Layne.

  • qisto

    nirvana at no. 3 = joke of a list

    • Corndog

      Yeah, because *everyone* automatically likes Nirvana and loves the Unplugged session, right? Get on with that shit….

      Personally, Nirvana Unplugged does nothing for me, and my favourite session is the Pearl Jam one, but i’m not about to moan because it’s not number one. Different strokes…

  • Fran

    Top 3 belongs to our lovely so-missed grunge time. I don’t care whether #1 is Pearl Jam, Nirvana or Alice in Chains, I’m a big fan of all 3 bands 🙂 Ohhh those years when MTV was actually a (great) music channel.

  • Bram

    Amazing performance by Alice in Chains.

  • Hutttrash

    Stp No.1 for me. STP forever! Time to live, time to lie, time to laugh, and time to die!

  • nomad

    LL Cool J doing “Mama Said Knock You Out” That was awesome!

  • dakotablue

    Yeah, I also figured Nirvana had the top spot when I saw the photo with this story. Pleasantly surprised Jeff bucked convention. But of course AIC rules!

  • dakotablue

    Some great stuff. Personally I’d put Neil Young in top 5, but glad to see AIC and STP way up there–fantastic shows.
    Also, after Layne called Unplugged their “best show in three years,” drummer Sean Kinney said, “But Layne–it’s the ONLY show we’ve done in three years.” Layne’s reply: “Still the best!”

  • Bella Corday

    I saw the picture at the top and thought, “Great, Nirvana number one again.” So happy I was wrong.

  • grungil

    Agree! AIC is the best unplugged.

  • Hwang Sunghyeop

    for me, Cranberries, NIrvana and STP.
    they played a lot of good song with traditional feeling. that was different.