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In addition to helping launch the music video as a temporarily super important medium, MTV also produced many of its own shows catering to different genres and sounds, with one of the most successful being the MTV Unplugged series. Running for two decades—although it has been revived for a number of one-off performances over the past seven years—the series showcased a multitude of musical artists performing their songs in an intimate acoustic setting in front of fans. The Unplugged performances promised the opportunity to hear an artist discuss their work, and strip their songs down to whatever is “real.”
While not all the performances have been released on vinyl, many that have are wonderful examples of artists using the unplugged realm to showcase their body of work in an entirely new way. Here are our picks for the 10 best MTV Unplugged albums to own on vinyl.
The first Nirvana release after the shocking death of Kurt Cobain, MTV Unplugged In New York captures another side of the Seattle grunge pioneers that hints at Cobain’s troubled state of mind. Ignoring the blueprint of previous performances, Nirvana ditched the hits (“Come As You Are” is the only radio single played) for deeper album cuts and a collection of interesting covers. Joined by guitarist Pat Smear and cellist Lori Goldston, the show was remarkably recorded in just one take. Nirvana originals “All Apologies,” “Dumb” and “Something In The Way” suit the gloomy acoustic setting, but it’s the covers that really convey a sense of intimacy previously not associated with the band. The Meat Puppets’ Cris and Curt Kirkwood joined Nirvana for renditions of their own songs “Plateau,” “Oh, Me” and “Lake Of Fire,” while the band’s take on David Bowie’s “The Man Who Sold The World” has become more well known than the original. But it’s the cover of Lead Belly’s “Where Did You Sleep Last Night?” that makes this record worth owning. An intense and ultimately heartbreaking goodbye from Cobain, the final song of the night ends with Cobain’s soulful scream, bringing Nirvana’s performance to a haunting close and leaving listeners wondering what might have been.
One of the very first MTV Unplugged recordings, Paul McCartney’s acclaimed showcase found the former Beatle in a jovial mood as he delved into his hearty back catalogue spanning over four decades at that time. Opening with Gene Vincent and His Blue Caps rockabilly “Be-Bop-A-Lula,” McCartney’s stripped-back take on Beatles’ classics (“We Can Work It Out,” “Blackbird”), early solo cuts (“Every Night,” “That Would Be Something”) and an assortment of covers (Bill Withers’ “Ain’t No Sunshine,” Bill Monroe’s “Blue Moon Of Kentucky) is an invigorating listen. One of the few recordings to feature 100 percent unplugged instruments, McCartney delivered a rollicking record confirming his status as one of the greatest singer-songwriters in music history.
Of all the unplugged releases made available on vinyl, Lauryn Hill’s remains one of the most divisive among music fans. Similar to Nirvana, Hill flipped the script on MTV and her fans with a set of never-heard-before soul- and folk-influenced tracks replacing the hip-hop sounds of her debut (The Miseducation Of Lauryn Hill) everyone expected to hear. Armed with an acoustic guitar and her sublime vocals, Hill’s in a talkative mood as she intertwines tales of her personal and artistic hardships with folk songs focusing on a range of serious topics from police shootings (“I Find It Hard To Say (Rebel)”) through to religion (“Mr. Intentional”). Hill shows glimpses of her hip-hop past on “The Mystery Of Iniquity,” but for the most remains happy indulging her own pursuits, not that anyone present during the recording seemed to mind.
Alice In Chains’ emotional unplugged performance is highly regarded for two reasons: Not only was it the first time in two-and-a-half years the band had played together live, but it was sadly one of the band’s last live appearances featuring troubled frontman Layne Staley before his passing in 2002. Struggling with addiction (something that hovered over him until his death), Staley held it together through heartfelt versions of “Down In A Hole,” “Would?” “Heaven Beside You” and new song “The Killer Is Me,” his striking voice powering over the delicate instrumentation of his bandmates. Interesting fact: Metallica was in the audience and as a tribute, the intro to “Enter Sandman” is played before “Sludge Factory.”
Fourteen years after the Eagles’ Glenn Frey and Don Felder almost got into a fist fight on stage, bringing the end to the band, the seminal country rockers finally reunited for MTV’s Unplugged. The album included four new studio recordings (including “Get Over It” and No. 1 smash “Love Will Keep Us Alive”) alongside their biggest hits (“Take It Easy,” “Tequila Sunrise,” “Life In The Fast Lane) played in front of a rousing audience. The flamenco-tinged “Hotel California” is a real treat and helped the record sell over 9 million copies. The success spurred the Eagles to stay intermittently reunited, embarking on a number of world tours and releasing their first album in 28 years, 2007’s Long Road Out Of Eden.
These days Rod Stewart is best known for his interpretations of classic songs found on his American Songbook series of albums, but in 1993 Stewart was riding a huge wave of commercial success after reinvigorating his career with 1991’s Vagabond Heart. Joining fellow Faces member Ronnie Wood (the two hadn’t performed together in over 20 years), Stewart embraced the unplugged stage with relish, dishing up joyful renditions of “Tonight’s The Night,” “Maggie May” and “Every Picture Tells A Story.” His cover of Van Morrison’s “Have I Told You Lately” charted at No. 5 in the U.S. and U.K., while his widely praised version of “Handbags & Gladrags” remains one of the defining songs of his career.
Kiss’ unplugged recording surprised fans when Paul Stanley and Gene Simmons were joined on stage by former founding members Peter Criss and Ace Frehley; it was the first time the four had played together since 1979. What followed was an energetic and feel-good night of unplugged rock classics from the make-up free quartet. The four seemed to be genuinely enjoying being on stage together as they played hits “Do You Love Me,” “Beth,” “Sure Know Something” and a cover of The Rolling Stones’ “2,000 Man.” A lively arrangement of “Rock And Roll All Nite” brought the album to a close. The reformed Kiss would go on to record Psycho Circus and tour the world multiple times before it all went pear shaped and Criss and Frehley departed once again.
Trading in the alternate-rock sound of her previous two chart-topping albums for the homely feel of MTV’s New York studios, Alanis Morissette delivered one of the more understated MTV Unplugged performances. The 12-track record contains songs from her breakout album Jagged Little Pill (“You Learn,” Head Over Feet”) and follow-up Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie (“I Was Hoping,” “That I Would Be Good”), along with a beautiful cover of The Police’s “King Of Pain” and previously unreleased tracks “No Pressure Over Cappuccino” and “Princess Familiar.” The highlight is the slowed down arrangement of “You Oughta Know,” with Morissette’s vocals soaring over the piano anchored ballad.
Jay-Z was arguably at his creative peak when he recruited The Roots for his unplugged appearance in 2001. Riding high from the success of The Blueprint, Jay focused on the hits as he offered up stripped back versions of “Girls, Girls, Girls,” “Big Pimpin’,” “Izzo (H.O.V.A.)” and a head bobbing “Hard Knock Life (Ghetto Anthem).” Like most hip-hop concerts, this one included a few cameos, with Pharrell Williams featuring on “I Just Wanna Love U (Give It 2 Me)” and Mary J. Blige coming out for the “Can’t Knock The Hustle/Family Affair” mash up. Although often overlooked, Jay’s MTV Unplugged session is one of the series’ most intriguing, as the rapper manages to recreate his songs without losing any of their verve.
Selling over 26 million copies and winning three Grammy Awards, Eric Clapton’s Unplugged album is one of the most commercial and critically successful of the series. Clapton’s instrumental “Signe,” ’70s hit “Layla” and soulful “Lonely Stranger” work well in the acoustic studio, with covers of blues favourites “Before You Accuse Me” and “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down And Out” benefiting from Clapton’s laidback showing. “Tears In Heaven,” a song Clapton wrote detailing the pain he felt following the loss of his 4-year-old son, is the sentimental heart of the recording and one of Clapton’s greatest achievements as a songwriter.
Tobias Handke is a writer and editor from Melbourne, Australia, with a passion for hip-hop, pizza and Kurt Russell.