10 Best 'MTV Unplugged' Sets

In 2012, MTV may be best known for comedy shows, but a couple decades ago, it also helped songwriters redefine and rejuvenate their art.

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In 2012, MTV may be best known for comedy shows called "I Just Want My Pants Back", but a couple decades ago, it also helped songwriters redefine and rejuvenate their art. There's a long-standing theory that if a song is really good, it works with just an acoustic guitar and a voice. "MTV Unplugged" helped prove that to be true. For some, MTV Unplugged was merely old songs in a new context. For others and listeners it changed their music. Here are 10 of the best Unplugged appearances

KISS

KISS are nothing without high heels, makeup and rocket-firing Les Pauls, right? Well, they showed another side here. Their MTV Unplugged performance marked the first time the original lineup performed live without their trademark makeup (other than at Ace Frehley's wedding) and proved so successful, it even got the original band back together. A highlight is Peter Criss punching the air singing "Beth", proof that behind the bombast KISS do write a fine Beatle-esque ballad.

R.E.M.

It was no surprise R.E.M. worked so well on MTV Unplugged they often wrote on acoustics alone. Even so, this was a bravura performance. Peter Buck was heavily into his "mandolin phase", Peter Holsapple helped out on guitar and the whole thing just clicked. "It's The End Of The World (As We Know It)" was a struggle on acoustics, but "Fall On Me" showed R.E.M. to be what they really were a great modern folk band.

Nirvana

Nirvana's MTV Unplugged performance is the most notorious. Recorded in late 1993, only a few months before Kurt Cobain's suicide, it set the band's frenetic grunge tunes in a new light. Many have suggested this was the sound Cobain wanted to develop but, of course, we never found out. Dave Grohl said, "We'd seen the other Unpluggeds and didn't like many of them, because most bands would treat them like rock shows play their hits like it was Madison Square Garden, except with acoustic guitars." Nirvana did exactly the same, though Cobain's acoustic was amplified and sometimes pushed through fuzz pedals. He was understandably uneasy about his guitar skills being laid bare. The show has become rock folklore. When Cobain asked the set designer for stargazer lilies, black candles, and a crystal chandelier, it prompted the show's producer to ask him, "You mean, like a funeral?" To which the Cobain replied, "Exactly. Like a funeral." And in many ways, it was just that. The covers (Meat Puppets, LeadBelly, David Bowie) are perhaps the most remarkable, though it irked some. Bowie soon grew tired of fans referring to "that Nirvana song", "The Man Who Sold The World".

Eric Clapton

Eric Clapton's Unplugged session has been one of the defining moments in a career spanning 50 years. EC was becoming AOR-safe before Unplugged, despite guitar-hounds still lapping up his every lick when he played live. But Unplugged re-connected Clapton with the blues that were his musical education and the source of his 1960s fame. There were covers of "Walkin' Blues" and "Rollin' And Tumblin'" and a shuffling re-work of "Layla" was supreme. But it was "Tears In Heaven" for his late son Connor that hit hardest. Clapton won six Grammys for his Unplugged performance. A decade later, Eric was still digging back into acoustic blues with his "Me And Mr. Johnson" album of Robert Johnson covers.

Rod Stewart (with Ronnie Wood)

Rod Stewart will always be a brilliant singer. Ronnie Wood will always be The Rolling Stones guitarist who is NOT Keith Richards. But the two ex-Faces band-mates worked magic on Rod's Unplugged set. It's full of great renditions of many hits, but "Maggie May" is the key moment. At the end, Rod kisses "Woodie" on the head for some superb acoustic playing on a Gibson J-200.

Neil Young

No surprise that Neil Young could make an Unplugged performance legendary. But his was, eventually, a great set. In 1993, Young had come off the back of the mega-grunge "Ragged Glory" album, but then cut the delicate "Harvest Moon" a companion to his legendary "Harvest" album of the '70s. "Harvest Moon" is surely up there with his greatest, but Young was unhappy for much of Unplugged. The show, on Young's insistence, was recorded twice.

Aerosmith

Typically Aerosmith, their Unplugged session wasn't exactly hushed. Joey Kramer played a full drum kit, but the acoustics wielded by Joe Perry and Brad Whitford did bring Aerosmith back their bluesy rockin' roots. And they prove the adage: great songs do work on acoustic guitars the Unplugged "Dream On" sounds like an ancient piece of European baroque music, yet still works brilliantly. Seek it out.

Paul Simon

Paul Simon has never been really "plugged" in his career, but this 1992 set for MTV was still special. Why? Simon's songs. "The Boy In The Bubble", "Bridge Over Troubled Water", "Graceland", "Still Crazy After All These Years", "Cecilia", "Fifty Ways To Leave Your Lover", "The Boxer", "Homeward Bound"... That's only half of it. MTV Unplugged took Simon back to his natural environment. Art Garfunkel's voice was maybe missed, but few can argue with Simon's MTV Unplugged version of "Mrs. Robinson" and other gems of the pop-rock era.

Paul McCartney

Like Paul Simon, Paul McCartney didn't need much electricity for his songs to shine. His '91 MTV Unplugged set recorded in London is simply great popular songcraft delivered with minimal fuss. "Unplugged (The Official Bootleg)" album became one of Macca's biggest hits in years. And to be fair, the guitars were truly "unplugged" - all was recorded by microphones close to the players' acoustics and drums.

Alice In Chains

For MTV Unplugged in 1996, Alice In Chains gave their first performance in three years and one of their last concerts as an original group. Singer Layne Staley was visibly weak due to his addictions, but delivered a strong performance that reworked the band's grunge anthems into surprisingly delicate yet doomy anthems. Fans claim it is one of the best and most memorable MTV Unplugged sessions ever. You?
10,000 Maniacs deserve a mention, as do the Eagles for the "Hell Freezes Over" recording on MTV Unplugged. Which is your favorite? Thanks for the report to Michael Leonard, Gibson.com.

93 comments sorted by best / new / date

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    milanio
    My favourite unplugged sets are Nirvana (the best in my opinion), Stone Temple Pilots, and Alice in Chains. What can I say, I'm an alternative/grunge guy
    refizzled
    Quite a decent list - didn't know about some of these. But really, no STP or Pearl Jam?
    iommi600
    My favorite is Alice in Chains' unplugged. Dude, the mood on that one... a completely ****ed up Layne Staley, which gave the songs a darker mood.
    milanio
    Also, Nirvana didn't play their hits, the most known song from the set is come as you are. Most songs are either slightly unknown songs (to the masses anyway) or Meat Puppets songs. Despite that, good job on the list
    aic_rooster
    Love that AIC is on the list. Absolutely justified compared with something like Pearl Jam's unplugged performance was OK but certainly not one of their better efforts.
    Sebassie88
    Personally I'm a great fan of the acoustic sessions of the Golden Earring. But I'm afraid I'm the only one here =P
    jrcsgtpeppers
    kill it wrote: ok i admit i was trolling with the tesla thing
    trolling what? 5 man acoustic jam was amazing, and im not a hair metal fan.
    LightxGrenade
    I don't disagree with the list, those were some great shows. Personally though, the STP unplugged was my favorite. The acoustic version of Plush and Big Empty are so great. And though not the classic that the others are I LOVED the Silversun Pickups' unplugged set.
    Mr.-Bungle
    Where the hell is Pearl Jam? Has no one seen their performance of Black on it?!?!?
    Force Reaver
    I know Im going to get yelled at but I really enjoyed the Korn unplugged set. They played their songs a little bit differently and I actually enjoyed most of those versions over the originals. Sad it didnt make the cut...
    Miyagi84
    jackson_kingv wrote: Alice in chains for sure laynes voice was just so damn good and with cantrell singing backup you cant go wrong
    As long as Alice in Chains Unplugged was on this list, I'm okay with it.
    jackson_kingv
    Alice in chains for sure laynes voice was just so damn good and with cantrell singing backup you cant go wrong
    swave75
    theblackwell wrote: I'm really surprised KISS made the list. Their my favorite band and yet it still surprises me.
    Me too. But it was really good. KISS, Nirvana, R.E.M., Alice in Chains, and dare I say, Duran Duran and The Cure are my favorites on Unplugged. I would love to see someone like Roxy Music or PiL or some band totally leftfield do it.
    Maiden95
    sickassfoo wrote: didnt lil wayne do an unplugged session ?
    unplugged from the computer? I doubt it.
    EnglishToolRage
    Alice in Chains' Unplugged inspired me to learn the guitar, six years ago, even though I'd been listening to Rock, Punk and Metal for eight years before that... So they win...
    SorgFamily
    aic_rooster wroteearl Jam's unplugged performance was OK but certainly not one of their better efforts.
    The lead guitar was turned way down which kind of ruined it for me. Nirvana would get my vote and I did like STP's back i nthe day when Weiland still had bass in his voice. Wasn't even aware of the McCartney one either, will be looking into it.
    6-String_Madman
    Floyd Phoenix wrote: Does everyone here hate Bon Jovi? They never get mentioned anywhere, and I know they didn't exactly do an MTV unplugged, but they did their own album like it, and didn't they supposedly invent the whole idea with an acoustic rendition of 'Wanted Dead or Alive' in the late 80s?
    You have to give it to the band that started it all...
    FN77
    Oasis was the best. It was the one where Liam refused to go on so Noel had to do all the songs. It was the first time the world really got to understand who was the talent behind Oasis. Liam sat in the balcony and heckled Noel the whole show, but he was great. Hail to the Chief
    andreschr
    Man that Aerosmith performance was epic.. probably the best versions of Hangman Jury and One Way Street ever.. Also Claptons acoustic version of Layla was phenomenal.
    Maestro1600
    I'm not a massive Kiss fan, but their Unplugged was good, and did show a different side. Alice In Chains Unplugged is still one of my favourite albums. Nutshell is magnificent. Tesla's 5 Man... was pretty cool, but not an MTV Unplugged! And didn't LL Cool J do an Unplugged with The Roots?
    sn00ze
    thkoby wrote: KISS's first unmasked appearance was on MTV, and live on October 11, 1983 in Lisbon, Portugal. Their unplugged appearance is from 1995. It'd be nice if Ultimate Guitar came with a [citation needed] mark.
    "first time the original lineup performed live without their trademark makeup" Criss and Frehley wasn't in the band in 1983.
    420Tool
    Not a bad list for once. I think STP and Pearl Jam should be in it though.
    AmalgamOfMeat
    So many awesome, memorable, and relatively unknown songs were played by Nirvana in that session, and you choose Come As You Are as an example? For shame, UG. One of my favorites was Where Did You Sleep Last Night?, a cover of an old folk song. Though, easily my favorite version is when they played it live 2/14/94 in Paris:
    theblackwell
    I'm really surprised KISS made the list. Their my favorite band and yet it still surprises me.
    RealGuitarHero
    If this was acoustic albums and not just unplugged I feel like Skin and Bones would have made the list.
    Nero Galon
    Force Reaver wrote: I know Im going to get yelled at but I really enjoyed the Korn unplugged set. They played their songs a little bit differently and I actually enjoyed most of those versions over the originals. Sad it didnt make the cut...
    Wasn't that when Amy Lee and Robert Smith joined them? Because if so then yes they were great.
    RichieJovie
    Floyd Phoenix wrote: Does everyone here hate Bon Jovi? They never get mentioned anywhere, and I know they didn't exactly do an MTV unplugged, but they did their own album like it, and didn't they supposedly invent the whole idea with an acoustic rendition of 'Wanted Dead or Alive' in the late 80s?
    This^
    rip3149
    Layne's voice on Got Me Wrong at MTV Unplugged was amazing. AIC had the best one IMO, but I also really liked the Clapton and McCartney sets
    Gibson1983
    I'm always struck by the similarities between Kurt Cobain in Unplugged and the young (unplugged) Neil Young (just look up Young's unplugged performance of Old Man on Youtube). Cobain was known to be a great fan of Young, and it wouldn't surprise me if Cobain had watched Young's unplugged performances for inspiration.
    ShakeMe90
    Alternative Big Four for sure; Alice in Chains, Pearl Jam, Nirvana, and Stone Temple Pilots are my favorite Unplugged sets