Before we had NPR’s Tiny Desk Concerts or even BBC’s Live Lounge performances, we had MTV Unplugged.
The series started in 1989 and showcased artist’s talent and singing abilities in a stripped-down, unsynthesized format. The performances were honest, pure, and live—meaning, there was no room for screw ups. While it was announced in April that the show was getting a reboot, almost a year later, we still don’t have any new ones, but we do have some longstanding favorites to reminisce with until that time finally comes.
Here, then, are our 10 favorite Unplugged performances of the past. Let’s bring it back to the days when MTV actually lived up to its Music Television title, shall we?
Lauryn Hill, "I Gotta Find Peace Of Mind"
Lauryn Hill’s MTV Unplugged performance is the (unofficial) second solo album we received from the artist. The performance is impossibly vulnerable and showcases Hill’s incredible singing skills, revealing why people still flock to her concerts today, despite her constant tardiness. Though, at the time, many were upset that she chose to veer from her Miseducation tracks and go down a more political-folk route, today, it holds up as an understated classic. If there's ever any doubt that she has the range, this performance of “I Gotta Find Peace Of Mind” will confirm that and more.
Nirvana, "The Man Who Sold The World"
The format of the Unplugged sets lent themselves well to covers, which tended to be the most stand-out songs from an artist’s session. We know they can sing their own songs on key and well, but can they sing someone else’s with the same proficiency? The answer is almost always yes. Nirvana’s aching rendition of David Bowie’s “The Man Who Sold The World” is perfect evidence of that.
Shakira, "Sombra De Ti"
Shakira got on stage with MTV before Laundry Service came out, the album that launched her into U.S. fame. Staying true to her roots, she played her entire set in Spanish. Later released as an Unplugged album, it won the singer a Grammy for Best Latin Pop Album.
Maxwell, "This Woman's Work"
Now a love song for the ages, Maxwell first debuted his version of Kate Bush’s “This Woman’s Work” on stage back in ‘97. It's up for debate whose is better, but we can’t deny the power of that falsetto.
Miley Cyrus, "Why'd You Only Call Me When You're High?"
People often forget that underneath all of Miley Cyrus’ quirk is a girl with a damn good voice. Every now and then, though, she hits us with a stunning, raw performance, which helps to remind us that she’ll always be relevant in the music space.
Mariah Carey, "I’ll Be There"
Speaking of artists whose vocal ability is often shrouded by their antics, Mariah Carey’s ’92 set gives us the singer at her prime. She does Michael proud with her breathy cover of The Jackson 5’s “I’ll Be There.”
Alanis Morissette, "You Oughta Know"
This subdued iteration of the piercing breakup ballad still manages to cut deep.
Florence and the Machine, "Never Let Me Go"
Have you ever seen Florence and the Machine live? You need to see Florence and the Machine live. Welch's voice is twenty times more enchanting on stage than it is from behind an album.
Jay Z, "Ain’t No Love"
Yes, rappers participated in MTV Unplugged, also. Jay Z upped the ante on his set, with backup from The Roots and surprise appearances from Mary J. Blige during “Can’t Knock The Hustle” and Pharrell for “I Just Wanna Love You (Give It 2 Me).” Unfortunately, footage seems to have disappeared from the internet, but you can listen to the 13-song set on Spotify.
Eric Clapton, "Layla"
Eric Clapton’s performance, later also released as an album, earned him six Grammy nominations back in ‘92 (he won for Album Of The Year, Best Male Rock Vocal Performance, and Best Rock Song for “Layla”). Needless to say, we’d be remiss if we didn’t give it a shoutout. It’s another one of those can’t be found online situations, but the audio should do just fine.