Beyond Nirvana: 8 'MTV Unplugged' moments that changed music forever

Nirvana’s performance 26 years ago today was arguably the series’ most iconic show – but plenty more artists had career-defining performances on the MTV stage

Other than Nirvana's history-making set, many other artists, including Jay-Z and Alicia Keys, made waves at 'MTV Unplugged'.
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On this day 26 years ago – November 18, 1993 – the frazzled threesome of rock band Nirvana assembled at Sony Music Studios in New York City to play for a small, hand-picked ­audience.

The stage was dressed for a funeral: white lilies and black candles set a sombre mood for the angsty outfit to ­perform stripped-down, acoustic ­versions of their ­normally noisy songs, a show that would redefine the band's legacy forevermore. Within six months, frontman Kurt Cobain would be killed by a self-inflicted shotgun wound.

Nirvana's performance for MTV Unplugged was the series' most iconic entry – the ­cigarette-holed cardigan Cobain wore that night sold last month for $334,000 (Dh1.2 million) at an auction, reportedly unwashed since.

But it was far from the only career-defining performance embracing the unplugged ­format. Amid grunge’s ­overdriven scream and hip-hop’s block-rocking beats, something about stripping things back to basics clearly chimed with the times.

The lo-fi aesthetic pervades today in the content-­hungry streaming age, replicated by everything from the intimate Spotify Sessions to the secret Sofar Sounds and NPR’s Tiny Desk Concerts.

To celebrate the ­anniversary, here are eight of the most memorable performances for MTV Unplugged, most of which spawned stand-alone albums that would go down as classics in their own right.

1. Paul McCartney (1991)

Paul McCartney's entry gets included for one simple reason – it was the first in the then-two-year-old series to be released on CD, as Unplugged (The Official Bootleg). And thankfully, the purist former Beatle was the ideal artist to set the template so many others would come to follow – turning to a strict acoustic palette and side-lining his most familiar repertoire in favour of beloved covers and overlooked misses, just as Cobain would do so searingly two years later.

2. Pearl Jam (1992)

Taped a year before Nirvana's episode, Pearl Jam's performance is instructive because it shows just how much more holistically Cobain and co approached the party. ­Unprepared and fresh off the plane from Europe, Pearl Jam basically rented some acoustic guitars and played their high intensity electric set – at that point, basically classic debut album, Ten.

The result of which is thrilling, especially when lead singer Eddie Vedder clambered on to his stool and scrawled "Pro Choice" on his arm in ­marker pen. But clocking at just 36 minutes and clearly shown up by their grunge rivals, the ­performance remained unreleased for years, despite being a fan favourite. However, it will receive a vinyl issue on Friday, November 29, to mark Record Store Day Black Friday.

3.Eric Clapton (1992)

Love 'em or hate 'em, Eric Clapton's latter-day career has largely been defined by two timeless nuggets that came from the electric guitar legend's restrained unplugged appearance.

First, the heartfelt version of Tears in Heaven everyone knows – the song he wrote about his 4-year-old son falling to his death from a balcony – was birthed from this session. Then, 1970s air guitar anthem Layla found a second life as a lounge staple thanks to this solid reworking, devoid of all earlier pyrotechnics.

Released simply as Unplugged, the LP went on to win six Grammys – and sell 26 million copies. Such stratospheric sales caused many ageing rockers, from Bob Dylan to Rod Stewart, to book their own slot on the show ASAP, with inevitably variable results.

4. Neil Young (1993)

Among those to reluctantly follow in Clapton’s shadow was Neil Young, who was in an apt moment reinventing his chilled 1970s country-folk payday persona with 1992’s Harvest Moon album – a blatant sequel to 1972’s bestseller Harvest.

But while harrowing solo concerts were long a forte, he had never before released a fully unaccompanied LP, and even a disgruntled Young on autopilot gifted fans radically reworked solo staples on the ensuing album. Among the highlights of Unplugged are a head-nodding World on a String and the epic guitar wig-out Like a Hurricane, played only on pump organ and harmonica. The set's second half, backed by a band, was less remarkable.

5. Alice in Chains (1996)

If this list appears to have an unhealthy skew towards ­grunge, it says more about the company MTV kept in its ­heyday than any writerly bias. But this one couldn’t fail to earn a place, the die-hards tell us at least, because once again, it found the show ­bookending a moment in music history.

Then four albums into their career and way behind Seattle contemporaries, Alice in Chains hadn't played live in two and a half years when they rocked up to tape this brooding set – largely thanks to lead singer Layne Staley's drug troubles. He would pass away six years later, leaving the simply titled Unplugged as his recorded swansong.

6. Lauryn Hill (2001)

Lauryn Hill's MTV Unplugged No. 2.0 wasn't just a routine live date, it was the long-awaited second album of the former Fugee, and a complete revamp to boot. Struggling to follow the majesty of 1998's era-defining debut The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, she chose to use the MTV Unplugged format to unveil a whole raft of new songs, performed entirely unaccompanied on a rudimentary acoustic guitar and interspersed by meandering monologues.

The resulting 106-minute set was roundly panned by critics at the time, but in the absence of any substantial follow-up, has been warmly reassessed as the third word from an artist time refuses to forget.

7. Jay-Z (2001)

If this list seems tailored towards six-string-slinging white rock stars – well, look at the guitar-centric concept of Unplugged. But, not to discount LL Cool J, A Tribe Called Quest and De La Soul's early 1991 joint outing – cringily titled as Yo! Unplugged Rap – it was Jay-Z who made the concept something else a whole decade later.

Taped at the peak of his power, in the aftermath of career-high The Blueprint, slickly backed by The Roots and featuring guest turns from Pharrell and Mary J Blige, this sonic reinvention (released as MTV Unplugged) helped solidify Jay-Z's status to industry non-believers yet to wake up to hip-hop. Like nearly all of his work now, you need his streaming platform Tidal to hear it. 

8. Alicia Keys (2005)

After nearly three years off the air, Alicia Keys resuscitated the MTV Unplugged format in 2005 with live reworkings of tunes from multi-platinum bestsellers Songs in A Minor and The Diary of Alicia Keys. Released as the album Unplugged later the same year, it debuted at number one – the highest entry of any Unplugged set since Nirvana – and went on to sell 2.5 million copies, garner four Grammy nominations and effectively reintroduce the series to a new generation. Guests included Adam Levine, Mos Def, Common and Damian Marley and the lead single Unbreakable, written by Keys, Kanye West and Harold Lilly, was a brand new tune. Keys's set outing is yet to be beaten – although the show rumbles on to this day.