Good acoustics: The 20 greatest MTV 'Unplugged' albums (2023)

"MTV Unplugged" premiered rather quietly in the fall of 1989 as an acoustic showcase for serious musicians (like 10,000 Maniacs and Michael Penn) who didn't go in for the glitz and glam most closely associated with the network. Within a year, those glitz-and-glam artists were eager to prove themselves as serious musicians, too, at which point "Unplugged" became a prestige platform for the music industry. The show's popularity quickly skyrocketed when Paul McCartney appeared in 1990, prompting MTV to begin releasing LPs of the most notable performances, including an iconic show from Nirvana that was filmed on Nov. 18, 1993. "MTV Unplugged in New York" would go on to be first album released by the band after Kurt Cobain's death the following spring.

These 20 albums are the best of the best.

1 of 20

Rod Stewart

Good acoustics: The 20 greatest MTV 'Unplugged' albums (1)


Rod Stewart had long been lost to the insipid world of Adult Contemporary pop when he used MTV’s acoustic format to, briefly, return to his old rock 'n' roll form. “Unplugged…and Seated” reunited Stewart with his Faces bandmate Ronnie Wood, and they have a blast tearing into classic hits like “Stay with Me” and “Every Picture Tells a Story.” He even digs out some more obscure tracks like “Handbags and Gladrags,” which, years later, would become the theme song for the U.K. version of “The Office.”

2 of 20

Paul McCartney

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The only downside to Paul McCartney’s “Unplugged (The Official Bootleg)” is that it contains just 17 songs and not, like, 100. Ever the crowd-pleaser, McCartney’s sure to work in plenty of Beatles tunes, but he throws some curveballs to keep you on your toes. The album opens with a cover of Gene Vincent’s rockabilly classic, “Be-Bop-A-Lula” and works in a hugely unexpected (and wonderful) rendition of Bill Withers’ “Ain’t No Sunshine.” You wind up wishing McCartney would release an "Unplugged" LP once a year.

3 of 20


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Shakira was already a recording superstar in the Latin music world when she recorded this scorcher of an acoustic set in 1999. The album’s ecstatic closer, “Ojos Asi,” crossed over to U.S. Top 40 radio, and within a year, Shakira was on America’s radar with a vengeance. She’s a global phenomenon now, but it’s possible that she’s never topped this album. You can hear a young singer coming into her own — and claiming the moment. It’s a virtuoso performance.

4 of 20

Tony Bennett

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Let an old crooner show you kids how it’s done. Tony Bennett was a spry 68 when he made a welcome comeback in 1994 with this collection of pop standards. As expected, he’s in tremendous voice, ambling his way through “It Had to Be You," “Rags to Riches” and, of course, “Fly Me to the Moon” like he’s on a Sunday stroll. He might be a little too relaxed, but he’s earned the right to hang back in the cut. He’s joined by Elvis Costello for a lively rendition of the Gershwins’ “They Can’t Take That Away from Me.”

5 of 20


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Hip-hop has always been shown off to exhilarating effect via the "Unplugged" format (see LL Cool J’s 1991 performance of “Mama Said Knock You Out”), and Jay-Z’s 2001 session with The Roots is no exception. Right from the opener, “Izzo (H.O.V.A.),” Jay-Z is dialed in and ready to spit hot fire from the microphone. It’s a party all the way through, especially when Mary J. Blige shows up to perform “Can’t Knock the Hustle/Family Affair.”

6 of 20

Eric Clapton

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The legendary rock 'n' roll guitarist got back to his bluesy roots with this 1992 "Unplugged" set. It’s among the top-selling live albums of all time (10 million units moved and counting), and it’s best known for the rearranged “Layla” and Clapton’s heartfelt performance of “Tears in Heaven.” But it’s the blues tracks — like “Before You Accuse Me” and “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out” — that really stand out.

7 of 20

Neil Young

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Neil Young had just come out of a hard-rocking, distortion-heavy phase with his band Crazy Horse when he recorded this acoustic set in early 1993. “Unplugged” closely followed the release of “Harvest Moon,” his critically acclaimed return to the folk-country sound of 1972’s “Harvest,” and he sounds right at home with a band that includes old friends Nils Lofgren and Spooner Oldham. The highlight is Young’s pump organ rendition of “Like a Hurricane.”

8 of 20

Alice in Chains

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It was Alice in Chains’ first concert in over two years, and sadly, it would be their last with lead singer Layne Staley. There are signs of rust in their performance, and the acoustic arrangements are pretty basic, but Staley gives it his all despite his personal struggles with depression and substance abuse. The best tracks are “Nutshell,” “Rooster” and “Would?”

9 of 20


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Performing without their customary theatrics (including the face paint), Kiss unexpectedly rose to the occasion in 1996 and delivered an energetic set that played like a rebuke to their longtime critics: Take away all of the razzle-dazzle, and we’re simply a great rock 'n' roll band. This live set marked the return of lead guitarist Ace Frehley and drummer Peter Criss, who delivers the album’s highlight by performing his classic power ballad “Beth.”

10 of 20

Jimmy Page and Robert Plant

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A long-expected reunion — of sorts. Jimmy Page and Robert Plant weren’t exactly shy about getting Led Zeppelin back together for special occasions like Live Aid, but this 1994 concert felt like the start of a new chapter in the band’s history — one without bassist John Paul Jones. The resulting LP, “No Quarter,” was released by Atlantic and was so popular that Page and Plant took the show on the road for a world tour the following year (again without Jones). It’s a solid album that builds to a rousing conclusion with Plant tearing into “Kashmir.”

11 of 20

Mariah Carey

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More of a promotional EP than an actual album, Mariah Carey’s 1992 “Unplugged” performance is a precisely arranged and polished affair that eschews the looseness often associated with the format. Carey mostly plays it safe and sticks to the hits (e.g. “Emotions,” “Someday” and “Vision of Love”), though she does bring the house down with a virtuoso rendition of the Jackson 5’s “I’ll Be There” (which later became Carey’s sixth No. 1 hit).

12 of 20

R.E.M. (1991, 2001)

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Released three years after the R.E.M.’s 2011 breakup, “Unplugged: The Complete 1991 and 2001 Sessions” is a feast for anyone who enjoyed the band’s music. The 1991 set is R.E.M. in its commercial prime, with most of the 17 songs being drawn from the recently released “Out of Time." Ten years later, the band goes heavy on tracks from 2001’s “Reveal,” but the clear highlight is “So. Central Rain (I’m Sorry)” from its 1984 release “Reckoning.”

13 of 20

Bob Dylan

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This 1994 performance is essentially an Intro to Bob Dylan course for young music fans who’ve always wondered why their parents won’t shut up about the legendary singer-songwriter. Dylan’s known for drawing up eclectic set lists when he tours, so this 11-song LP feels unusually conventional. “All Along the Watchtower,” “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door,” “Rainy Day Women #12 and 35” and “Like a Rolling Stone” all get obligatory run-throughs, but hardcore Dylan fans were thrilled with the inclusion of the rarely performed “With God on Our Side.”

14 of 20

Alicia Keys

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Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY

Alicia Keys celebrated her newly minted stardom in 2005 with this exceptional “Unplugged” set that shows off the singer’s vocal and instrumental talents. The duet on The Rolling Stones’ “Wild Horses” with Adam Levine falls flat, but she does wonders with Prince’s “How Come You Don’t Call Me” and her trademark hit “Fallin'." The hip-hop finale, “Love It or Leave It Alone/Welcome to Jamrock” (featuring Mos Def, Common and others), concludes the set on a rowdy high.

15 of 20

Bruce Springsteen

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First, the obligatory caveat: Bruce broke the rules and plugged in. MTV reportedly wasn’t thrilled, but Springsteen wasn’t happy with the acoustic rehearsals, and, well, who’s going to argue with The Boss? The 1992 set goes disappointingly heavy on singles from his two most recent LPs, “Human Touch” and “Lucky Town,” but he salvages what could’ve been a disaster with stellar performances of “Atlantic City,” “Thunder Road” and “Light of Day.”

16 of 20

"Uptown MTV Unplugged"

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Currently out of print, this 1993 LP is a showcase for Uptown Records top recording artists at the time, and it’s a savvy piece of promotion. Jodeci leads off with a soulful performance of “Forever My Lady,” but the real star of the show is Mary J. Blige, who scorches the microphone with “Sweet Thing,”“Reminisce” and “I Don’t Want to Do Anything.” Heavy D & the Boyz bat clean up with some good-natured funk.

17 of 20


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Soul crooner Maxwell was new on the scene when MTV handed him the keys to “Unplugged,” and while he never lived up to the lofty expectations of critics and fans, he made his brief moment in the spotlight count with a shattering rendition of Kate Bush’s “This Woman’s Work.” It is impossible to listen to his delicate yet impassioned vocals without breaking out into goosebumps. It will stand for all time as one of the great soul performances.

18 of 20

10,000 Maniacs

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The alternative music darlings finally broke through to the mainstream in 1992 with “Our Time in Eden.” Their commercial victory lap was this 1993 “Unplugged” release, which produced a hit single with a perfectly competent cover of Patti Smith’s “Because the Night.” If you’re a fan of safe, unthreatening music, this is your “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.”

19 of 20


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Nirvana’s “MTV Unplugged in New York” is a majestic album that cruelly hints at Kurt Cobain’s unrealized potential. It was recorded five months before the gifted songwriter took his own life, and you can hear the anguish in his voice. The band is joined by the Germs’ Pat Smear, cellist Lori Goldston and the Meat Puppets’ Curt Kirkwood, and the additional instrumentation gives songs like “Come as You Are,” “Polly” and “All Apologies” extra emotional weight. But this is really Cobain’s show, and, sadly, his farewell.

20 of 20


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Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds was one of the founding fathers of New Jack Swing, but he didn’t really hit it big as a solo artist until 1996’s “The Day.” This “Unplugged” LP arrived a year later and opens with the Eric Clapton duet, “Change the World.” The set doesn’t come alive until Babyface cuts loose with his classic “Whip Appeal.” Shanice and Sheila E. drop by for a song apiece, but it’s all set up for the ecstatic grand finale with Stevie Wonder.

Jeremy Smith is a freelance entertainment writer and the author of "George Clooney: Anatomy of an Actor". His second book, "When It Was Cool", is due out in 2021.

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