First airing on November 26 1989, ‘MTV Unplugged’ offers artists a unique platform to showcase their talents while reinventing live music in the process. It was a cultural phenomenon that defined an era, featuring acoustic performances from some of the biggest names in popular music: Paul McCartney, Nirvana, Mariah Carey, Jay-Z, and Oasis, to name but a few. Laying the foundations for future live performance shows, without Unplugged we may never have had NPR’s Tiny Desk series, COLORS, or even Radio 1’s Live Lounge.
To coincide with the release of Liam Gallagher’s ‘MTV Unplugged’ album, we look back at 20 of the best performances in the series.
20Alanis Morissette (1999)
Bursting at the seams, Alanis Morissette’s Unplugged had it all: album cuts, B-sides, hidden tracks, unreleased tour songs, and a Police cover (‘King Of Pain’). Recorded at Brooklyn’s Academy of Music, the Canadian singer-songwriter’s clean, underrated vocals, combined with slower instrumental arrangements, shone throughout – especially on the tracks ‘No Pressure Over Cappuccino’, ‘Princes Familiar’, and ‘Uninvited’.
Best moment: Her dramatic rendition of ‘You Oughta Know’ that hears the chattering snare drum intro replaced with a teary piano composition.
19Rod Stewart (1993)
Dubbed Unplugged…And Seated, Rod Stewart’s MTV live set saw him reunited, for the first time in almost 20 years, with former Faces bandmate Ronnie Wood. Reminding us why his songs matter, the ‘Da Ya Think I’m Sexy?’ singer manoeuvred through a string of dad rock hits with unwavering heart, successfully improvising at times while throwing in the odd questionable statement – like when he admits he cut ‘Reason To Believe’ when his wife was one year old. Shudder.
Best moment: When Stewart’s hilarious dance moves during ‘Stay With Me’ makes it seem as if he’s playing musical chairs with himself.
18Biffy Clyro (2018)
The human imperfections that make live performances so unique played a huge part in the success of Biffy Clyro’s Unplugged. Frontman Simon Neil’s discernible Scottish accent offered a more honest and intimate experience for those in attendance at London’s Roundhouse, sometimes cracking as it cut through the often polished sound of the band’s final product. From the clarity displayed on ‘Bubbles’ to their majestic rendition of The Beach Boys’ ‘God Only Knows’, Biffy’s acoustic set is easily one of their best.
Best moment: Simon Neil revealing that the band have a cassette of them practising Nirvana’s Unplugged “which no one wants to hear partly because the accents are awful.”
Recorded in the midst of ‘Morning Glory’ mania, and just two weeks after their historic Knebworth shows, Oasis’ Unplugged was supposed to be a landmark moment for the band. But when Liam failed to join them on stage due to a ‘sore throat’, Noel – who had sang all the songs in rehearsal – was forced to run point at London’s Royal Festival Hall. Regardless of the drama, the songs spoke for themselves over a beautiful string backdrop.
Best moment: The transformative strings on ‘Don’t Look Back In Anger’ take the song to a whole other level.
16Lauryn Hill (2001)
Lauryn Hill’s Unplugged played like a cathartic release for the former Fugees frontwoman. Stepping back into the spotlight after a few years away, armed with just a guitar, she chose self-indulgence over fan favourites, playing new songs only, often complaining that her fame had come at a cost. One such song, ‘Mystery Of Iniquity’, would later be sampled by Kanye West on his breakthrough hit ‘All Falls Down’.
Best moment: You can’t help but be moved by her thought-provoking performance of ‘Oh Jerusalem’.
15Shawn Mendes (2017)
Kicking off a new season of Unplugged in 2017, Shawn Mendes’ acoustic set at LA’s Ace Hotel boosted his star power. Sure, the Canadian singer-songwriter already had two #1 albums, but his stripped back renditions of chart-toppers ‘Stitches’ and ‘Treat You Better’, as well as deep cuts ‘Patience’ and ‘Roses’, further confirmed his place as a modern day wonderkid. For those wishing John Mayer would strap on his guitar for an Unplugged, this is the next best thing.
Best moment: His flawless cover of Kings Of Leon’s ‘Use Somebody’.
14Yo! Unplugged Rap (1991)
Giving rap its first bite at the Unplugged cherry, Yo! Unplugged Rap came at a time when the genre was earning an increased respectability among mainstream critics. The line-up consisted of A Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul, MC Lyte, and LL Cool J, who each took it in turns to perform raw, stripped back renditions of their biggest hits, which would later inspire Unplugged’s by Jay-Z, Lauryn Hill, and K-Os.
Best moment: LL Cool J’s rip-roaring, shirtless performance of ‘Mama Said Knock You Out’.
13R.E.M. (1991 & 2001)
R.E.M. are one of the few bands to appear twice on MTV Unplugged. The acoustic series proved the perfect showcase for frontman Michael Stipe’s remarkable voice, as he and the band delivered a crowd-pleasing set in 1991, including the hits ‘Losing My Religion’ and ‘It’s The End Of The World As We Know It’. 2001’s performance was a more self-serving offering in order to promote their 12th studio album, ‘Reveal’.
Best moment: You’ll be hard pressed to find anything better than hearing ‘Losing My Religion’ sung in a live setting.
12Alicia Keys (2005)
Seeing Alicia Keys live is always special, but seeing her at the height of her fame was something else. The quality of the ‘If I Ain’t Got You’ hitmaker’s Unplugged is a testament to her exemplary songwriting talents and impeccable piano playing, which dazzled throughout, and her ability to effortlessly riff off-the-cuff while joking with the crowd was riveting.
Best moment: The rearrangement of her Prince cover, ‘How Come You Don’t Call Me Anymore’.
1130 Seconds To Mars (2011)
Thirty Seconds To Mars’ Unplugged played like an impassioned rallying cry delivered over a stunning backdrop that included a string quartet and gospel choir. Predominantly made up of songs from their 2009 album ‘This Is War’, their performance included covers of The Police’s ‘Message In A Bottle’ and U2’s ‘Where The Streets Have No Name’, as well as short instrumental versions of songs by The Cure, Pantera and Slayer.
Best moment: Jared Leto’s chilling opening vocal acrobatics on ‘Hurricane’.
10George Michael (1996)
Recorded at Three Mills Studios in London in 1996, George Michael’s Unplugged was the last performance the singer’s mother saw before her death a year later. On top form from start to finish, this critically acclaimed set saw Michael, accompanied by a string quartet and eight-person choir, revisit his Wham! days, skip between the albums ‘Listen Without Prejudice Vol.1’ and ‘Older’, and cover Bonnie Raitt’s ‘I Can’t Make You Love Me’.
Best moment: His heartfelt, pitch-perfect performance of ‘Father Figure’.
9Neil Young (1993)
Neil Young’s Unplugged almost didn’t happen. He originally recorded an episode in December 1992 in New York, but after numerous false starts the show ended with Young walking out the door and being chased down the street by show producer Alex Coletti. Having another go in February 1993, Young brought a band to Universal Studios in Los Angeles and laid down what would become one of his finest live performances, recorded during a fertile creative period for the legendary musician.
Best moment: The no-frills performance of ‘Stringman’, a song originally recorded for his unreleased ‘Chrome Dreams’ album, which is nothing short of majestic.
8Paul McCartney (1991)
Paul McCartney’s Unplugged is credited as being the one that helped the MTV concept achieve cult status, according to show producer Alex Coletti. Made up of a handful of Beatles records, some rarer McCartney tracks, including ‘I Lost My Little Girl’, a song he wrote when he was 14, and an entrancing cover of Bill Withers’ ‘Ain’t No Sunshine’, Macca put on, as you’d expect, one hell of a show, without a single amplifier in sight.
Best moment: It’s hard not to get lost in the gorgeous instrumental break on ‘And I Love Her’.
He was offered an Unplugged after just one album (1996’s ‘Maxwell’s Urban Hang Suite’), such was the demand for neo-soul star Maxwell to deliver an acoustic set. The singer’s rousing performance of Kate Bush‘s ‘This Woman’s Work’ alone was enough to support the show’s decision to cast him. It’s just a shame ‘Pretty Wings’ hadn’t been recorded yet because in this setting it might just have gone down as the greatest moment in MTV Unplugged history.
Best moment: The way he channel’s Prince with such confidence on ‘Gotta Get: Closer’.
6Mariah Carey (1992)
By the time Mariah Carey came to record her Unplugged in 1992 she had already notched up five consecutive Number One singles and bagged herself two Grammys. However, the then 22-year-old still had a lot to prove having never taken her act on the road. Critics questioned her live performance capabilities, but they were soon shut down when her angelic tone and effortless vocal runs contributed to one of the biggest selling albums in the Unplugged series.
Best moment: The way she goes off when she hits the bridge and key change during ‘Can’t Let Go’.
5Alice In Chains (1996)
Recorded during an emotionally vexing time for Alice In Chains, the band’s Unplugged is best remembered for being one of original vocalist Layne Staley’s final performances with the band. He was experiencing serious substance abuse problems at the time and the beautiful vulnerability of his voice was numbing, arming the band with an edge that spurred them on their way to having one of the most memorable Unplugged’s in the show’s 31-year history.
Best moment: Layne Staley’s agonising opening cries on ‘Nutshell’.
Jay-Z’s performance at MTV Studios in New York in 2001 far exceeded the efforts of its Yo! Unplugged Rap predecessor, delivering a more refined take on rap in acoustic form. Backed by The Roots and featuring guest appearances from Mary J. Blige and Pharrell Williams, it was recorded exactly two months after the tragic events of 9/11 and the release of Jay’s much celebrated sixth studio album ‘The Blueprint’.
Best moment: When Mary J. Blige joined Jay for a performance of their 1996 single ‘Can’t Knock The Hustle’.
3Pearl Jam (1992)
Pearl Jam were in the early stages of their rise to prominence when they recorded their Unplugged at New York’s Kaufman Astoria Studios in 1992. Demonstrating a range and poise way beyond their years, the strength and ferocity of frontman Eddie Vedder’s voice proved regal. There’s nothing like it. It can take you from one emotion to the next in a millisecond, so it was sublime to hear it set to a muted backdrop.
Best moment: Watching Eddie Vedder wrestle with the urge to scream his soul out during ‘Oceans’.
2Eric Clapton (1992)
Aside from being the best selling album in the Unplugged series, Eric Clapton’s performance at Bray Studios in Windsor also earned him six Grammys, including Album Of The Year. Recorded during an emotionally turbulent time for Clapton, his acoustic set featured a sorrowful new take on ‘Tears In Heaven’. Composed months after the death of his four-year-old son, Conor, Clapton, in an understandably fragile state, tapped into the blues in a way he had never done before – and it was glorious.
Best moment: His gut-wrenching performance of ‘Tears In Heaven’ is enough to make anyone cry.
Was it ever going to be anything else? Nirvana’s acoustic set in New York isn’t just the best Unplugged, it remains one of the greatest live performances of all-time. Stripping back the loud, snarling backdrops that often defined the band’s music, Kurt Cobain’s emotionally intense songwriting took centre stage in a set that skipped over most of their commercial hits. Recorded just five months before Cobain’s death, between his unnerving rendition of ‘Come As You Are’ – where his eerie repetition of the line “no, I don’t have a gun” would later become very hard to watch given his cause of death – and his insistence that the set be made to look like a funeral, the performance felt like a final farewell.
Best moment: Nirvana’s stirring rendition of David Bowie’s ‘The Man Who Sold The World’ will always be one of the greatest cover songs in rock and roll history.