Exactly 25 years ago, Eric Clapton's "Unplugged" hit No. 1 on the Billboard 200, well on its way to becoming the best-selling album ever to come out of the MTV franchise. Click though for more on that and other unforgettable "Unplugged" performances.
Eric Clapton (1992)
Few rock gods have aged as gracefully as Eric Clapton. Perhaps inspired by his blues idols, Slowhand learned through the years that it wasn't just about musical chops. It was about being able to express with guitar and voice the experience of a life lived, with all its joyous highs and tragic lows. And that's exactly the Clapton we got to witness on "Unplugged"—a great musician just beginning to reach his mature peak as an artist. With the death of his young son Conor less than a year earlier, "Tears in Heaven" weeps from the soul. And Clapton's revamped "Layla" shows that even with an aging shuffle, love can live on.
Rod Stewart (1993)
Rock and roll purists lost faith in Rod Stewart around 1977 when he veered toward show biz pop stardom, putting out such post-Faces dreck as "Hot Legs" and "Do Ya Think I'm Sexy." But even though he performed a couple of those tunes on his 1993 "Unplugged" date, a lot of years had passed and by then we'd all become a bit older and more accepting. So it was a real treat to see Stewart reunite with his Faces mate Ron Wood and dig into classics like "Maggie May," with a few nice covers thrown in for good measure. All was forgiven.
Paul McCartney (1991)
One of the best things about "Unplugged" was that it captured a lot of the greats just before their voices began to weaken with advancing age. Here, Sir Paul is in great voice, backed by truly unplugged instruments. The ex-Quarryman has a lot of fun delving into his early skiffle roots with songs like "Be-Bop-A-Lula" and "Blue Moon of Kentucky." And when he treats us to his Beatles compositions—such as "Here, There and Everywhere" and "I've Just Seen a Face"— it's as if Beatlemania was still in full flower.
Alicia Keys (2005)
One of the glories of "Unplugged" at its best was the opportunity to experience an artist's voice unadorned by studio manipulation. To listen to Keys (in a duet with guest Adam Levine) cover the Rolling Stones classic "Wild Horses" is like sticking your finger into a wall socket. It's electrifying. The album of the show debuted on the Billboard chart at No. 1, making it the first "Unplugged" album by a female artist to reach that spot.
Bob Dylan (1994)
Though Dylan can be funny ("The sun's not yellow, it's chicken"), he's not often fun. Here, Bobby—accompanied by his touring band of the moment—seems to be enjoying himself immensely while offering up some of his greatest songs in typically modified form. Dylan had intended to take the studio stage solo and warble old country-blues tunes. That would have been great, but nervous MTV executives dissuaded him and maybe just as well. It's wonderful to see him fully engaged in classics like "All Along the Watchtower" and "Desolation Row." And we get to hear some great guitar picking, too.
Lauryn Hill (2001)
Few performers went with the all-acoustic "Unplugged" concept as wholeheartedly as Lauryn Hill. What she delivered was just voice and freshly learned three-chord guitar accompanying her new soul-folk songs. And while Hill's performance was widely panned by critics at the time, the pure and simple nakedness of her approach is a warm revelation. It's like you've been invited to be an audience of one for a very talented and talkative friend who wants to share her innermost thoughts with you.
"Unplugged" was born of a high concept, and Kiss meets "Unplugged" was as high-concept as it could get. But it worked. Appearing onstage for the first time without their trademark makeup, Kiss seemed less a cartoon and more a really good band. Simmons, Stanley and the rest of the group's original '70s lineup played hits like "Beth" but delved into some of their deeper cuts, too. With the subsequent positive reaction, a rejuvenated Kiss soon announced an international tour.
Tony Bennett (1994)
It really made not a lot of sense, with a slightly befuddled Bennett himself pointing out, "I've always been unplugged." But the episode's Tony Bennett in-your-living-room singing the Great American Songbook is a knockout. And it also gives guest artist Elvis Costello—who duets with Bennett on "They Can't Take That Away From Me"—the opportunity to redeem his own rather unpleasant Grumpy Elvis "Unplugged" from 1991.
Mariah Carey (1992)
Responding to criticism that she had yet to tour—and questions about the "live" capability of her voice—Carey performed in front of an audience in what would become one of the most-aired episodes of the "Unplugged" series. With a Gospel-style chorus and piano/drum accompaniment, she shook the rafters and proved herself to be no mere studio creation. Her cover of the Jackson 5 hit "I'll Be There" rose to the top of the charts.
Neil Young (1993)
Neil Young had always toggled with ease between electric and acoustic. But he actually filmed two episodes of "Unplugged"—so unhappy with the first that he called a do-over two months later. Sounding wonderfully raw, his "Unplugged" version of the CSN&Y tune "Helpless"—which Young also sang at The Band's "Last Waltz" farewell concert—is the best rendition the song ever.
LL Cool J (1991)
"Yo! Unplugged Rap" was the series' first foray into the world of hip-hop, featuring four acts in a single half-hour. But it was a shirtless LL Cool J, performing just two songs, who stole the show. Said the rapper, "It's going to be a smooth thing, but it's also going to be a rough thing, it's going to be a real big thing, it's gonna happen in a big way." And it did.
Though Nirvana's "Unplugged" concert is arguably the series' finest moment, Courtney Love and Hole, appearing on the show a year after Kurt Cobain's death, provide it with one of the most strangely poignant, especially when Love sings Cobain's "You Know You're Right."
Pearl Jam (1992)
While Pearl Jam had already developed a national following after the release of their 1991 debut album "Ten," it was the band's "Unplugged" appearance that got listeners really hooked. With a stripped-down sound and Eddie Vedder's impassioned vocals, their performance of such songs as "State of Love and Trust" and a kick-ass cover of Neil Young's "Rockin' in the Free World" solidified Pearl Jam's fan base and ushered them on to their journey into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.
Bruce Springsteen (1992)
Well, the Boss pretty much cheated. Without the E Street Band as backup, he was reportedly unhappy with his acoustic sound and, after one song, plugged in. In fact, the episode was subsequently titled "MTV Plugged." Not that Springsteen fans care: Bruce's plugged-in "Unplugged" performance gave them the opportunity to catch their idol singing classics such as "Thunder Road" and "Atlantic City" away from a big arena setting.
Nirvana's single-take, 14-song performance stands as the "Unplugged" series' greatest achievement. Opening breathtakingly with "About a Girl," the frail but agonizingly intense Kurt Cobain leads the band through a brilliantly quirky set that includes six obscure covers. Impossible to forget is a moment at the end of the last song, Leadbelly's "Where Did You Sleep Last Night." A hunched-over Cobain howls the kind of howl that can only come from the deepest darkness of his soul, singing: "I'm going where the cold wind blows / In the pines, the pines / Where the sun don't ever shine / I would shiver the whole night through..." Five months later, he would be dead from suicide.
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