Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve mostly featured MTV Unplugged performances that were milestones of one sort or another. Today I’m closing out the series with a performance that’s notable only because it’s a beautiful performance of one of my favorite songs.
10,000 Maniacs was a big enough deal in the early 90s to score two Unplugged appearances within a few years. The band appeared on the third-ever show (along with Michael Penn) in 1989 and returned for this performance in 1993, with special guest David Byrne.
While Eric Clapton’s appearance was the most successful MTV Unplugged set, Nirvana’s performance in late 1993 is the most iconic.
Recorded and aired just a few months before lead singer Kurt Cobain’s suicide, this haunting appearance took on even more meaning following the news of his death. Stripped of the grunge trappings, bearing his soul onstage, it’s hard not to see Cobain’s tragic future in his sad eyes.
Paul McCartney was the first artist to release an MTV Unplugged appearance as an official album. His 1991 set was heavy on old-school covers with a few Beatles and solo tracks in between.
“I liked the idea that there was a show that reduced music to its bare essentials,” he said, and he took that concept to heart. While previous performers used acoustic instruments plugged into amplifiers, McCartney opted to play his instruments truly unplugged.
In April of 1991, MTV Unplugeed featured its first rap artists, with LL Cool J, MC Lyte, De La Soul and A Tribe Called Quest taking the stage backed by a live band.
The performance was hailed as both a breakthrough for the genre and an excellent live set, with most of the kudos going to LL Cool J’s rendition of ‘Mama Said Knock You Out.’ Sadly, that performance is not available on YouTube in the United States.
Many artists released album version of their MTV Unplugged performances, but none was as successful as Eric Clapton. His 1992 release sold 26 million copies, making it the all-time top-selling live album. It also won three Grammys, including Album of the Year.
Critically, it wasn’t as well-loved. Many critics bemoaned the sleepy treatment given to raging guitar classic ‘Layla,’ while the Chicago Tribune called it a “blues album for yuppies.”
R.E.M. appeared on MTV’s Unplugged twice, a decade apart, in 1991 and 2001. The band was arguably a bigger deal on the earlier performance, which followed the release of the multi-platinum Out of Time and hit single ‘Losing My Religion.’
They would go on the achieve massive success through the mid-90s but by the new millennium things had changed. Drummer Bill Berry left the band and their most recent releases sold less than anything they’d recorded since joining a major label.
MTV was hip to the huge Hispanic music audience earlier than most, featuring its first Spanish-language artist on Unplugged in 1995 ( Los Fabulosos Cadillacs received that honor).
They did one or two per year after that, with the most popular coming in August of 1999 when Shakira recorded her acoustic session in Manhattan. Shakira ended up releasing this set as an album which sold 5 million copies worldwide and won a Grammy for Best Latin Pop album.