Six Unforgettable (And Wildly Varied) Episodes of MTV Unplugged.

MTV Unplugged: Nirvana

There is an undeniably cathartic element to acoustic music. It just tends to soothe the soul, no matter the state you are in. And classic MTV knew this and (brilliantly) cashed in on it with the Unplugged series, which would run on Sunday nights. It was evident fairly early on in the history of the series that they had tapped a very smart corner of the market. To be honest, whether or not a band is good live pretty much dictates the talent that band has, so if you sucked as a band or were talentless hacks, most likely you were not getting your own episode of Unplugged.

For this reason alone, there are very few bad MTV Unplugged episodes. Don’t get me wrong, there are some bands and acts you just don’t really need to see acoustic (Um, LL Cool J?), but even the bands or artists you didn’t like would still often shift how you felt about them if they delivered a good Unplugged set. While it is quite clear MTV is not the network they once were, I thought it would be a good time to reflect on some of the better performances from the Unplugged series. Remember, you don’t have to come from the 90’s or adore these bands to know some of these sets are remarkable. And to anyone under 30, sorry if this post seems foreign, but I will include some video performances so you can see I am talking about. Alright, before we go any further, a quick moment of silence for the 90’s. What a glorious time it was to be alive, huh? Speaking of Alive…

Pearl Jam


if I didn’t emulate Eddie Vedder as a teen, I would have never gotten laid. Just saying.

This list will OBVIOUSLY be somewhat influenced by 90’s “grunge” (hate that term), which worked incredibly well on the acoustic format and was the primary target demographic for the show, so if bands like Pearl Jam enrage you, I suggest going elsewhere, right now. For the rest of us, the Pearl Jam Unplugged was the Unplugged that changed how we felt about Unplugged. Can you tell I am getting paid by the “Unplugged”?

What people underestimated about Pearl Jam was their passion. Pearl Jam were (and very much still are) a band filled with people who LOVE what they do, and believe in what they do. All you had to do was watch the Porch performance from this Unplugged (a song about pro-choice) to see just how enigmatic and amazing a front man Eddie Vedder is, and in this performance, we saw a much more raw side than we had ever seen before. And that moment where he stands up on the stool is just so rock n’ roll. Here, peep it for yourself and try NOT to get swept up in the magic.


I am not gay, but I also wouldn’t kick Eddie Vedder out of bed for eating crackers, if you get my drift.

Paul Simon


Such an awesome, massive guy for such a little man.

I want to make it very clear that it is purely a coincidence that two of the bands I just mentioned were also mentioned on my “best music documentaries” list. I have very versatile taste in music, though the reoccurring artists here may lead you think otherwise. In the same breath, anyone who would insult Paul Simon can just walk right out of my life right now, because I have no desire to be associated with anyone who can’t recognize awesome. That out of the way, everything Paul Simon touches turns to musical magic, and his Unplugged set is no exception.

While I wear my adoration for the Graceland album on my sleeve, Paul Simon has always made stunning music, and this set is more a representation of his career than just that album. But also, this reminds us that the songs we knew him for before Graceland were ALL acoustic, folk songs. So in essence, Paul was right at home here, and that is evident from the first notes of this spectacular episode.


That, my friends, is a PERFECT hook for a song.

Lauryn Hill


That is the real, true power of music on full display.

To me, there are very few things as raw and powerful as watching an artist getting proverbially naked behind an acoustic guitar and just showing their soul, as scary as it can be for any of us. And that is just what Lauryn Hill did when she made a return to Unplugged in solo form in 2002 (the last hurrah for Unplugged, really). What transpired that night was a woman, known for her bravado and honesty, completely stripping away that bravado. What we are left with is a woman, baring her soul, and getting so intimate with the audience as she works through her new music that she actually begins to weep openly at one point.

I get chills just writing about it. Words do no justice. See for yourself.


This honesty and intimacy is all but missing in modern music.

Neil Young


I am still bitter Neil Young is not my grandpa.

To me, I see Neil Young as the wild, old sage, living in the mountains and sometimes coming down from those heights to bestow lessons on life and beautiful melodies upon us. He is the great grandfather of the crunchy, grunge sound (even though he had no intention to be), yet, much like Paul Simon, at the heart of it lay a folk artists, adjusting to and evolving with the times. Neil Young’s Unplugged was one of those “still moments” from the 90’s. What I mean by that is, he reached into a very hectic time and he slowed us down for a moment, offering us a quiet moment as the whole world changed around us. And again, like Lauren Hill, he was very much naked to the world in those moments.

What we see, as the result of that is a gentle old man with the voice of an angel, telling his stories through music, like a bard in days of old. It was very disarming for me, and after seeing it, I fell in love with Neil’s music, and his overall badassness. But here, we see gentle Neil, and it is a remarkable thing to witness. Also, I think the following song is one of the saddest, prettiest songs ever written.


That “when I last saw you alive” line chokes me up every time I hear it.

10,000 Maniacs


Purple leggings are so 1994.

Did I lose you? I hope not, but if I did, so be it. The 10,000 Manics Unplugged changed my life for one reason and one reason only. For some reason, in my own life up to that point, I was not a huge fan of female vocalists. I’ve no idea why that is, but that is. But there was  something so utterly selfless about watching 10,000 Maniacs on Unplugged that night. What I mean by selfless is, up to that point, my image of female musicians was vastly “off”, and for some stupid reason, I thought that half naked pop stars were just how women were represented in music. The idea of women as being almost dehumanized in the industry (think Madonna) was not an ideal I was (or am) a fan of. But there was something so genuine about Natalie Merchant’s performance that night. There was just an old-world sensibility to 10,000 Maniacs music that I had never experienced before. It ultimately ended up opening my eyes, musically, and as a result, I suddenly had Tori Amos music, and Ani DeFranco music, and Fiona Apple music, and it was like I rubbed my eyes and finally had cleared them after years.

And that was all the result of this song from this Unplugged. I was never a “happy music” guy, but this was just that, and I loved every minute of it.


Having a bad day? Put on this song and the bad days peaces out.



You see a man, I see an angel. To each his own.

I love Kurt Cobain, and I make no attempts to hide that. Some think less of him because of his drug addiction and suicide. I don’t. I look at him for his music, and his music affected me deeply. Whether or not he wanted it, he was a spokesman for a generation (a title that would eventually kill him), and his final poem he wrote for that generation was his Unplugged performance. It was very much a suicide letter, written five months before he would actually do it. Why do you think it was all mostly covers that the band was not known for playing? Hear me out.

From his song selection that night, it was quite evident that Kurt knew where his life was heading. Think about it. Man Who Sold The World (He was very upset at how popular they were). Lake of Fire (Where do bad folks go when they die? They don’t go to heaven where the angels fly). Plateau (see a lot up there, but don’t be scared, who needs action when you got words). Jesus Don’t Want Me For A Sunbeam (Jesus don’t want me for a sunbeam. Sunbeams are not a man like me. Don’t expect me to cry for all the reasons you want to die). Oh Me ( I would lose my soul the way I do) Come As You Are (and I swear that I DON’T have a gun) and ofcourse, Kurt’s death wail on the end of Where Did You Sleep Last Night, which was directly addressing infidelity rumors circling the wife of his child, Courtney Love. So what do I mean by Kurt’s death wail?

That is the chilling final moments of Unplugged, when Kurt let’s out an absoluetly chilling scream at the end of the song, and looks at the camera with his bright blue eyes all wide, exhausted, and beaten down. He lets out an exhausted sigh, and that is it. The last moment of Kurt we will ever see or hear. For many, we would be haunted by those last, haunting notes we would ever heard Kurt exhale. It fucks me up. Like, you can see, he KNEW he was going to die. That was it. The musical death blow to a whole generation, and one my generation has never gotten over. Now if you’ll excuse me, I am covered in goosebumps right now.

Here, watch the final moments of this, when he says “I’d SHIVVVVVEEERRRR” and let’s out this massive exhale, looking directly at the camera with wide, wounded eyes. It is like watching a man’s soul leave his body, and it something I have never forgotten.


The moment I speak of happens at the 4:48 mark, and you will never unsee his eyes from that moment. Oh well, whatever, nevermind…

the final moment

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  1. Couldn’t agree more about the end of the nirvana performance. Gives me chills every time an my eyes well up. You can feel his pain through that one vocal note. It gave me chills just reading this.

    It’s too bad this wasn’t “seven best” as the Alice in Chains one was mind blowing simply from a vocal standpoint. AIC has always had amazing harmonies between Staley and Cantrell, but this performance really highlighted this. The opening with nutshell with them all coming out one by one was also great. I miss unplugged.

  2. Great list. The Nirvana performance is one of the first musical performances I can think of that genuinely brought me to tears. Also worth mentioning in my opinion, is Alice In Chains’ performance on Unplugged. Did you avoid it to keep the list from being half “grunge” (I hate the term too) titans?

  3. Cobain looks crazy stoned in that gif….
    Can’t unsee, right?

    Come on, no love for Cool J? Madness. How brave is it for an old school MC to do an ACOUSTIC set in a style of music that had almost always been two turntables and a microphone? Personally, I think LL’s career marks the instant hip-hop stopped being about talent and started being a high school popularity contest, but I can’t really fault his music and the acoustic version of “Mama Said Knock You Out” complete with tribute to the almighty Otis Redding in awesome riff form is just sweet.

    Sadly, I haven’t seen most of these since when I was in high school (during the height of “Unplugged”) I was still in my punk/metal/shred guitar phase and my appreciation for the purity of acoustic guitar didn’t come until later. Still, great list.

  4. Nah, I def tried to shoutout LL in the intro, it was def a one of a kind episode, but I never got past his deodorant clumps hanging in his armpits.
    And you guys are spot-on about the Alice in Chains. I LOVED it, too (even STP had a sick episode), but I didn’t want this list to be too much “grunge’, def tried to keep it more eclectic, but I agree with all of you.

  5. I hate to turn this into that kinda thread, but Clapton Unplugged was also phenomenal. Takes some chutzpah to completely rework a fan favorite (Layla). Some of my friends are still unhappy about it – sort of like when Dylan went electric. Great article 🙂

  6. Yeah AIC was the best one for me. I was (am) a huge Staley fan, and what better way for him to flex his vocal talents than on an Unplugged set?

    Same logic for Bjork. Also, she went deep in her set, using all sort of unplugged instruments. Truly one of a kind.

    LL was great. They’re Jiggling Baby! That shit was smoooooooth!

  7. Your response to this post as readers has reinvigorated my soul.
    Unreality does, and always will, have the freshest and coolest reader base on all of webdom, and I say that as a lover of the site and not a writer.

  8. Mariah’s episode was a pretty big deal. It was one of her first live performances and many people thought her voice was too good to be true and that she was a studio singer. Then she came out and blew the doors off with that voice. And we got a really great cover out of it with “I’ll Be There.”

  9. Good article. I miss those days.

    The embedded video for 10,000 Maniacs is not Natalie Merchant, it’s from a couple years ago with the much-less-talented new lead singer. Just letting you know.

  10. The AIC episode is similar to the Nirvana one where in hindsight, you can clearly see Layne Staley was on the way out. They hadn’t played live for a few years before this show and wouldn’t again before his death. Staley looked like a ghost at times, barely lifting his head and unable to remember his own lyrics, but there were also a few transcendent moments where he was back full force. Watch Jerry Cantrell’s face during (IIRC) “Down in a Hole” and you can see the pure joy of watching Layne briefly recapturing his former brilliance.

  11. Just have to echo Billy Baloney, Clapton Unplugged is one of the best sets I’ve ever heard, period. It’s the only CD I’ve ever had to repurchase because it wore out, and it totally changed my opinion on Clapton and even blues, as a genre. All the ones you mentioned were well done, but you can’t mentioned Unplugged and not give a nod to Clapton’s performance.

  12. Right there with Billy and RC12…to exclude Clapton’s unplugged performance is a travesty 🙁 It’s simple, it was the greatest recorded live performance of all time. It’s the best Album Eric Clapton ever made, that includes anything he did with Blind Faith, Cream, Bluebreakers, Yardbirds, Derrick and the Dominos.

    “Tears in Heaven” might be the single most touching song ever written… If I could play guitar the only song I would ever play is “Signe”

  13. Thanks for this. I know I’m biased, but 90’s music was the shit. When real music started taking over from the hair metal bands, the whole landscape just shifted and you could tell that a lot of this music was going to be timeless. Everything seemed to shift back to garbage about the time Britney Spears came out. That said, things are picking up again in music, though in a very different direction.

    And yes, I also miss old MTV that still played music. You can see that same shift toward ratings-grabbing reality tv crap in nearly every specialty channel now. My 10-year old son is pissed that Animal Planet no longer has nature documentaries, and my wife now hates her once beloved History Channel for moving from history docs to top ten list history-bites featuring stand-up comedians.

    Anyway, good picks. I see a lot of love for AIC, but I found their set almost unlistenable. Layne was too far gone. I’d have included the STP set for sure.

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