MTV Unplugged—5 Intimate Performances to Remember

There are acoustic sessions, and there are MTV Unplugged sessions. Since 1989, MTV has played host to hundreds of musicians from studios across the globe, offering up new takes on beloved songs in front of a live audience, and broadcasting on TV.

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While MTV Unplugged, one of the first to spotlight the power of acoustic sessions, has been a household name since the channel began airing episodes, their sessions have been less frequent, marketed as “limited-run” since 2000, and some only appearing online. However, back in the series’ heyday, not only would artists sometimes receive a television broadcast of the performance, but select artists would also receive an album release; these included acts like Mariah Carey and Alice in Chains. Some have even won Grammys for their sessions.

Here are a few of the finest performances to be released under the MTV Unplugged name.

1. Sinéad O’Connor (1990)

A newfound, well-deserved respect has been placed on Sinéad O’Connor’s name and music in recent years. The Irish singer-songwriter received much scrutiny in the 1990s for her unapologetic, radical stances, famously ripping up a picture of Pope John Paul II on Saturday Night Live in protest of the Catholic Church. She was later rejected by the music industry and listeners alike for her actions.

Sinéad O’Connor, with special guests The Church, was among one of the first to perform for MTV Unplugged. The show took place at the National Video Center in New York City on January 30, 1990. She performed both “Black Boys on Mopeds” and “I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got,” with only a microphone and an acoustic guitar as audience members surrounded the stage. She delivered a gut-wrenching performance, though, surrounding the audience herself and forcing them to confront racist systems in England and beyond.

2. Nirvana (1993)

Excluding Nirvana’s Unplugged performance would be a disservice. Dropping just after Kurt Cobain’s death in 1994, the MTV Unplugged performance garnered a cult following from Nirvana fans. The acoustic guitar Cobain donned on stage even sold for $6 Million at auction in 2020.

No one could have predicted the hold Nirvana had over the 1990s, starting out as Seattle punks and rising to a level of radio stardom comparable to Kylie Minogue. They helped to pioneer both the grunge genre and its aesthetic. But their music spoke to the broken globally, with uncomfortable, but necessary songs like “Lithium” and “Heart-Shaped Box” as discography staples. And who could forget “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” one of the biggest radio rock songs of all time?

“Smells Like Teen Spirit,” however, is nowhere to be found on their Unplugged setlist. Cobain, Dave Grohl, Krist Novoselic, Pat Smear, and cellist Lori Goldstone played some of the band’s most popular titles, such as “Come As You Are” and “All Apologies,” but much of the session was deep cuts and obscure covers. They closed the performance with “Where Did You Sleep Last Night?” a chilling rendition of “In The Pines,” famously sung by African-American folk artist Lead Belly, whom Cobain honors.

3. Lauryn Hill (2001)

Lauryn Hill’s MTV Unplugged session, named MTV Unplugged No. 2.0, was highly anticipated, as it was the direct follow-up to The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill (1998), which received critical praise and won the artist five Grammys. The switch from R&B and hip hop to the stripped-down acoustics of the Unplugged soundstage, however, was off-putting to many critics.

On full display, though, is Hill’s voice, heard both singing and rapping and lends itself to the no-frills nature of an acoustic album. Complimented by the video from the live recording session, which features audience members seated around Hill on the floor, it is an intimate look into her lived experiences. However, the project was largely dismissed due to critical reception. It is worth a revisit, for the project proves to be ahead of its time, if not timeless.

4. Florence + The Machine (2011)

As one of the titular alternative voices of the 2010s, it’s no surprise that Florence Welch, with Florence + The Machine, was invited to perform on MTV Unplugged. The session premiered as an online exclusive for those who otherwise could not attend in person.

The show was held at Angel Orensanz Center in New York City, a synagogue turned glittery, seated music hall that provides the perfect backdrop for the band’s earthy aesthetic. That’s not to mention Welch’s voice itself, which rains over the venue in both her head voice and deep drops. With acoustics being Florence + The Machine’s bread and butter, the format set Welch up for success. Many of Florence + The Machine’s early hits off of Lungs and Ceremonials made the cut, including “Shake It Out,” “Dog Days Are Over,” and “No Light, No Light.” They also performed a cover of “Try A Little Tenderness” by Otis Redding.

5. a-ha (2017)

Norwegian pop band A-ha is often dismissed as an ‘eighties’80s fad, but in 2017, they were granted the opportunity to show off their musical prowess in big ways. Up until this performance, MTV had tried desperately to get the band onto Unplugged for a decade, but busy schedules kept pushing it back.

The session received a DVD and album release as MTV Unplugged: Summer Solstice, and it shows in the production quality. Compared to past MTV Unplugged sessions, greater attention is paid to the shot composition and editing to capture a cinematic feeling. A live audience at Giske Harbour Hall in Norway towers over the stage, but quietly takes in the session’s magnitude.

A-ha, of course, performed a rendition of their 1985 smash hit “Take On Me,” but other standout tracks include “The Living Daylights,” and “The Sun Always Shines,” joined by Ingrid Helene Håvik.

Photo by Joseph Okpako/Redferns via Getty Images

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