MTV Unplugged was like health food for your soul during its heyday on the music channel, which was full of junk food. When artists stuck to the template and went untethered to electronic instruments and really dug into their music with new eyes it was amazing.
Debuting in 1989 with Squeeze as the first guest, the show wouldn't totally catch fire until Paul McCartney and Eric Clapton's respective editions made the world turn their head. For some, this was their first exposure to those artists, and to older fans, it was a palatable way for their favorites to update their songs in a more mellow setting.
In a word, it was good background music, and it gave both younger bands like Pearl Jam and their idols (Neil Young) a new adventurous way to reinterpret the hits. Jay-Z teamed up with the Roots for his episode, and damn near reinvented the whole series.
Newer artists like Katy Perry (who actually can play guitar) and 30 Seconds To Mars have filmed episodes, but they aren't the same as the ones from the show's "golden era." Sure, people like Lil' Wayne and Korn can try to be evocative and steely, but they can't hold a candle to the first decade or so of the show.
Even some episodes that should have been knockouts, like Bob Dylan's, weren't as life-changing as they could have been, but as a portrait of an icon totally turning his catalog inside out, it was thrilling. Bruce Springsteen filmed an episode but he went almost fully electric. That nullified the whole "unplugged" thing, but it's still a decent Bruce set.
KISS' 1995 Unplugged episode, with the band in their street clothes and sans-makeup was what many super-fans consider the catalyst for their official reunion and major tour the next year. Then there was the Eagles' Hell Freezes Over special which had Satan putting on another layer. It wasn't technically an Unplugged, but it was very stripped-down.
Perhaps the most iconic of the episode of the series had been Nirvana's, which was filmed just months before Kurt Cobain's suicide. If there had to be a fitting, eerie aural suicide note for the man to leave, his edition of Unplugged was it. Plus, it showed a playful side to the tortured singer that many would never see otherwise. The audio recording, MTV Unplugged In New York, is to some the band's best work together, aside from Nevermind, obviously.
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