The 15 best MTV Unplugged performances of all time
28.10.2020

The 15 best MTV Unplugged performances of all time

Words by Will Brewster

Historically, MTV has been a major source of contention for many within the music industry.

On one hand, they’re the groundbreaking channel that helped to break some of the most important bands and genres of the ’80s and ’90s; and on the other, they’re just another platform for brands to spew bile in the slots between tacky reality shows and pop star drama.

However, if MTV ever got one thing right, it was with the series MTV Unplugged. Airing regularly from 1989 through to 1999, the program proved to be a huge cultural force throughout the ’90s, giving the opportunity for older artists to reinvent themselves and younger bands to prove themselves on the big screen.

Armed with acoustics and often performing to hushed crowds in intimate venues, MTV Unplugged was particularly seen as an essential vessel for bands in the grunge movement, and as such, is considered a holy relic of the grunge era. However, the show also proved to be a major hotbed for showcasing a number of other styles, with several hip-hop acts taking advantage of the show to prove their genre was so much more than just samples, bars and beats.

Today, we’re taking a walk through the holy pantheon of music television to uncover the 15 greatest MTV Unplugged sessions of all time, exploring the greatest moments of each set and their impact upon music today.

15. The Cranberries 

Some bands are just tailor made to shine in an acoustic setting, and there’s no better example of this than with The Cranberries’ MTV set. Performing a relatively short set of nine songs – sans covers – the Irish alt-rockers kept things simple and cranked out the hits, playing ‘Zombie’ and ‘Linger’ to a huge response from the crowd and even using the show to debut two new songs in ‘I’m Still Remembering’ and ‘Free To Decide’.

14. Midnight Oil 

Taking to the stage in 1993 to film an Unplugged set of their own, Australian rock heroes Midnight Oil certainly pulled no punches with their dynamite acoustic performance. Even in an unplugged setting, Peter Garrett still manages to contort and twist his limbs in tandem with his explosive vocal delivery on ‘Truganini’, and the band’s ridiculously tight performance of ‘Bed’s Are Burning’ is simply unbeatable.

13. Soda Stereo 

There’s a good chance you mightn’t have heard of Soda Stereo before, and if not, here’s a great opportunity to sink your teeth into what makes them great. Considered as one of the most important Latin rock groups of all time, the Argentinian power trio’s MTV Unplugged set is dripping with musicality, with the group somehow forgetting the acoustic-only memo for the majority of their set and flexing their mind-boggling instrumental prowess on cuts like ‘En La Ciudad De La Furia’ and ‘Ella Usó Mi Cabeza Como Un Revolver’ to make for an incredibly memorable set. If you know, you know.

12. Oasis

Filmed shortly after the release of What’s The Story Morning Glory?, Oasis’s MTV Unplugged appearance marked a pivotal point in the story of the group, with Liam Gallagher deciding not to play the show at the last minute due to a sore throat and forcing Noel to assume lead vocal duties. Funnily enough, Liam would later show up halfway through the set to heckle Noel and smoke cigarettes from a balcony, yet his absence turned out to be a blessing in disguise: Noel absolutely kills it as lead vocalist, and for many Oasis fans, the band had never sounded better in an acoustic setting.

11. Yo! MTV Raps

One of the earliest episodes of MTV Unplugged saw the production team take an unlikely gambit by pairing up with Yo! MTV Raps to showcase a variety of hip-hop artists in an acoustic setting, and against all odds, it paid off. A Tribe Called Quest’s rendition of ‘Can I Kick It’ is pure bliss, and De La Soul and MC Lyte’s own sets are certainly commendable, but the real talking point for this episode is undoubtedly LL Cool J’s roof-raising performance of ‘Mama Said Knock You Out’, with the MC’s untouchable energy setting a huge precedent for those who dared to follow.

10. Stone Temple Pilots

It’s a shame that Stone Temple Pilots’ appearance on MTV Unplugged doesn’t attract the same attention as many of their fellow grunge icons: Scott Weiland’s vocal performances over the duration of the set are razor sharp, and the genius of Dean DeLeo’s guitar playing is put front and centre in an acoustic context. Make sure to pay attention to how tight the band sound throughout ‘Plush’, and seeing Scott Weiland hit the long notes on ‘Creep’ while effortlessly chilling in a rocking chair makes for one hell of a sight.

9. Alicia Keys

Regarded as one of the finest Unplugged sets to air after the series’ glory days Alicia Keys brought her Brooklyn crowd to church with her soulful appearance on the program in 2005 and affirmed herself as a once-in-a-generation talent. Backed by an ensemble of backing vocalists, brass and string players, Keys’ renditions of ‘Unbreakable’ and ‘If I Ain’t Got You’ both snagged Grammy nominations the following year, while a duet of the Rolling Stones’ classic ‘Wild Horses’ with Maroon 5 frontman Adam Levine also proved to be an unlikely highlight from the set.

8. Jimmy Page & Robert Plant 

On what was only their second reunion since the dissolution of Led Zeppelin in 1980, Jimmy Page and Robert Plat took to MTV to remind the world just why they were considered as one of rock’s all time greatest acts. Despite neglecting to invite John Paul Jones – a woeful oversight by all accounts – the iconic duo turned in a performance for the ages with their stripped-back versions of some of the band’s most beloved tracks, with the pair’s performances of ‘The Rain Song’ and ‘The Battle Of Evermore’ ranking up there with some of the best from the band’s glory days.

7. Neil Young

Neil Young is no stranger to an unplugged setting: many of the Canadian rocker’s finest ever moments came from him pouring his soul out with acoustic in hand, and on paper, you’d think an MTV Unplugged session would’ve been a walk in the park for him. In reality, Young’s Unplugged set was an absolute disaster, with the singer randomly walking out of his performance mid-set and refusing to allow the producers to air the show. Somehow, MTV managed to secure Young for another crack at the show two months later, and the results were nothing short of sensational, even sneaking a performance of the previously unreleased deep cut ‘Stringman’ to go down as an all-time fan favourite.

6. Lauryn Hill 

Potentially the most controversial MTV Unplugged session of all time, Lauryn Hill’s appearance on the program proved to be immensely polarising upon release in 2002, with the neo-soul star eschewing her popular hip-hop roots in favour of a sound that drew upon hushed acoustic and spoken word interludes. Despite garnering mixed reviews and flopping commercially at the time, Hill’s Unplugged performance is now considered as one of the boldest career moves of the modern era, with artists such as Solange, Sam Smith and Adele citing the raw and introspective performances as major influences upon their own works.

5. Jay-Z

Released mere months after his 2001 triumph The Blueprint, Jay-Z’s appearance on MTV Unplugged turned out to be one of the most pleasantly surprising acoustic sets in the show’s history, with the Brooklyn MC teaming up with The Roots to serve as his backing band for the entirety of the show. Backed by the breakneck pulse of Questlove’s drumming and accompanied onstage by Mary J. Blige and Pharrell, Hova brought an energy to the MTV Studios that few had ever witnessed before, with versions of ‘Can’t Knock The Hustle’ and ‘Girls Girls Girls’ portraying the legendary rapper at his creative peak.

4. Eric Clapton

There was an era in the ‘90s – and even beyond – where Eric Clapton’s MTV Unplugged performance was near inescapable: in 1993, the record won six Grammy Awards, and to this day, it’s the biggest selling live album of all time. Performing a setlist dotted with solo singles, blues standards and even deep cuts dating back to his days in Cream, Clapton’s low-key acoustic reinterpretation of his back catalogue thrust him back into the mainstream, with standouts like his swaggering rendition of ‘Layla’ and the emotional gut-punch of ‘Tears In Heaven’ – a harrowing track about the tragic passing of his four year old son – still being mainstays on rock radio to this day. 

3. Alice In Chains

Despite receiving mixed reviews upon airing in 1996, Alice In Chains’ appearance on MTV Unplugged has subsequently gone down as one of the series’ most riveting episodes yet. The band, who hadn’t played a show in over two years due to frontman Layne Staley’s crippling addiction to heroin, managed to pull off the impossible and deliver a performance packed with gut-wrenching emotional weight, with their renditions of ‘Rooster’ and ‘Down In A Hole’ being considered as some of the most haunting to ever air on the program.

2. Pearl Jam 

Fondly remembered by survivors of the grunge era as one of the most flawless acoustic sets of the era, Pearl Jam’s appearance on MTV Unplugged in 1992 proved to be a massive moment for the emerging band, who were still riding hot on the tails of their titanium debut Ten. While the band have since expressed their regret at not making their all-too-short set more of a special occasion, Vedder’s vocal performances on ‘Black’ and ‘Jeremy’ rank among some of the best in his career, and the band’s cover of Neil Young’s ‘Rockin’ In The Free World’ is simply untouchable.

1. Nirvana 

You’d be hard-pressed to not immediately think of Kurt Cobain donning a green cardigan when the phrase MTV Unplugged is uttered: after Nirvana’s legendary appearance on the show, the two parties have essentially become synonymous with the grunge era. Despite the band’s apprehension at the prospect of playing an acoustic show – and the TV station’s dismay when they opted for a set primarily comprised of deep cuts and covers – Nirvana’s appearance on MTV Unplugged was a resounding triumph, with Cobain spilling his soul out on tracks like ‘Where Did You Sleep Last Night?’ and ‘The Man Who Sold The World’ in a manner few listeners had ever heard him do so before – and sadly, ever would again. 

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