Nirvana’s sensational “MTV Unplugged in New York” album is celebrating its 25th anniversary. Recorded around five months before frontman Kurt Cobain’s passing, the legendary performance was recognized for famously avoiding most of the band’s well-known hits and instead filling the set with covers and deep cuts—a different approach for a mainstream show of this magnitude. To commemorate this piece of music history, it was recently announced that the album will be re-released on vinyl on Nov. 1—featuring five rehearsal recordings that were originally featured on the performance DVD.
The appeal of Nirvana’s “MTV Unplugged” performance had a lot to do with fans seeing them in a whole new setting—switching from the loud arena grunge to a more understated, intimate atmosphere. Airing regularly from 1989 to 1999, the show’s aim was to give artists an opportunity to offer different versions of their songs with a more traditional setting—no gimmicks, focusing on simply the music.
Along with airing on MTV, these acclaimed performances were often repurposed in an album format—most selling millions of copies. Although it’s impossible to incorporate all of the great live albums from the show’s glory days, here’s a short list of “MTV Unplugged” must listens.
Mariah Carey’s “MTV Unplugged” (1992)
It is crazy to even visualize critics categorizing Carey in the beginning stages of her long-standing career as merely a studio creation who lacks the ability of replicating the same quality vocals live. With the exception of talk show and awards season appearances, Carey had not toured around the time of her second album “Emotions” released in 1991—making “MTV Unplugged” a perfect opportunity to prove herself as an undeniable vocal force.
The EP opens up with “Emotions,” which relishes in the energy of the background vocalists and instantly shuts critics up with the ease of her signature whistle tone. Carey performs her classic debut single “Vision of Love” along with the uplifting “Make It Happen” and soul-bearing “Can’t Let Go.”
For any other artist, it would be a bold choice to cover any song from The Jackson 5, but Carey’s stunning version of “I’ll Be There” is perhaps the only exception. Accompanied by long-time background singer Trey Lorenz, the live cover ended up being Carey’s sixth chart topper—being one of the only songs to reach number one by two different artists.
Maxwell’s “MTV Unplugged” (1997)
At the genesis of the neo-soul movement in the late ‘90s, the singer-songwriter’s debut record “Maxwell’s Urban Hang Suite” was one of the albums to make the subgenre gain mainstream visibility. Even though he had just stepped on the scene, MTV recognized his emerging popularity—knowing that his laid-back, soulful style would be perfect for an unplugged setting.
The EP of the performance has a jazz-esque freedom to it—emphasized in opening tracks “The Suite Urban Theme” and “Mello: Sumthin (The Hush).” The mood slows down in the romantic “Whenever Wherever Whatever” and uplifts in the funky “Ascension (Don’t Ever Wonder).”
Maxwell’s cover of Kate Bush’s “This Woman’s Work” is arguably the most outstanding and emotionally convincing moment of the set. His angelic falsetto never breaks and remains breathtaking throughout the entire duration. The version was so well-received that it was re-recorded for his 2001 album “Now.”
Babyface’s “MTV Unplugged NYC 1997” (1997)
It’s difficult to imagine music in the late ‘80s through the entire duration of the ‘90s without Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds’ prominence—both as his own artist and as a producer and songwriter for other talents. This unplugged album is the perfect conglomerate of his work—accentuating his undisputed musicianship and love for collaboration featuring artists from K-Ci & JoJo to Stevie Wonder.
The album features gems from his solo material like “Whip Appeal” along with the work he’s done for other artists. Letting bandmates have their shine throughout, he gives singer Shanice the honor of paying homage to Toni Braxton with her rendition of “Breathe Again” and joins his brothers—Melvon and Kevin Edmonds—in their version of Boyz II Men’s “End of the Road.”
Any music lover would geek out knowing the artists involved in the first track “Change the World.” Not only is it a duet between Babyface and Eric Clapton, legendary percussionist Sheila E. also plays in the background—serving as a true explosion of talent.
George Michael’s “Listen Without Prejudice/MTV Unplugged” (2017)
Following Michael’s passing in 2016, the 1990 album “Listen Without Prejudice Vol.1” was reissued into a two-disc set—adding the original remastered album along with his 1996 “MTV Unplugged” concert. The live performance features infectious hits “Freedom! ‘90” and “Father Figure” along with a solo rendition of Wham!’s “Everything She Wants”—throwing it back to Michael’s beginnings as an artist.
Accompanied by a group of insanely gifted background vocalists, Michael’s vocal clarity and sincere delivery go hand and hand with the effortless arrangements. It’s evident that Michael and company especially had a great time with “Fastlove”—making it hard for people to resist the song’s smooth, easy groove. When listening to the alluring performance, it’s remarkable to see an artist like Michael truly in his element.
Although “MTV Unplugged” isn’t as prominent as it once was, the idea has inspired other projects including Tidal’s new program “Tidal Unplugged”—incorporating the same premise of an intimate setting, but giving unknown artists an opportunity to establish themselves. As new adaptations of unplugged performances come and go, one thing is for certain: there is nothing like the feeling of live music.
Rylee Jackson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, or on Twitter @rybyjackson.