Twenty one years ago today, Unplugged aired its first-ever show featuring Squeeze. Only two years later, it had upgraded to Paul McCartney and earned brand-name recognition. Tracking the kind of artists that were deemed worthy to appear on Unplugged throughout the years presents an interesting picture of popular music in the 90s and 2000s, with its selection as curated as Saturday Night Live appearances, and maybe only a notch under an exclusive Rolling Stone cover. In 1995, Kiss played without makeup; Nirvana’s 1993 version was the first album released after Kurt Kobain’s death. Many artists actually went on to release albums of their Unplugged appearances and cement their status as the real thing — as SuChin Pak said in a MTV special on Unplugged: “It was the show that gave lip synching the finger.” Earlier today we wondered about its future, and now here are some of our favorite appearances, with the help of former Unplugged director Matt Mills.
Nirvana, 1993 Perhaps the most well-known Unplugged, Nirvana’s set is a favorite among many for capturing the nakedness that Kobain usually showed live, and for the moment it embodied. Matt Mills writes in: “He took his life not long after the show aired and I just remember being shellshocked. I taped the show on my VCR and must have watched it 50 times.”
Oasis, 1996 Noel Gallagher claims that Liam showed up extremely drunk only an hour before the show was about to start. As always, they pulled it off.
Lauryn Hill, 2002 Mills: “If you didn’t cry along with Lauryn Hill, then you weren’t watching the same show I was. This is a tour de force. A solid performance with stellar musicianship backing it up. I’d pay a lot of money to see her do this again.”
LL Cool J, 1991 Mills: “Are you kidding me? Rap? Unplugged? Never! Don’t call it a comeback. Call it a startup.”
Alanis Morissette, 1999 Alanis is totally the girl you want to see practicing her songs in the park, or in the corner of a coffeshop. The Unplugged set is just as cheesy as the collegetown shop where you might run into her, so it works out perfectly. Also, “King of Pain”!
Eric Clapton, 1992 Mills: “If Eric Clapton is God, then Unplugged was his church. The performance haunts me to this day. I’ve always wondered what Clapton is thinking when playing, or if he’s just in a trance. Watching his facial expressions during this concert is like watching a flower blossom, bloom, wither and wilt all on an endless loop. I love this one so much.”
Bjork, 1994 Mills: “I think there was more percussion on stage than I’d ever seen in an Unplugged. Bjork is more understated than ever, from her soft lilt of a voice in the quieter moments, to her little yellow dress. Perfection.”
Shakira, 1999 Shakira’s Unplugged was the first of the series to be performed in another language. Shakira was featured in 1999, two years before she hit it big in the US and released an English-language record. Remember she was huge worldwide for her evocative, shaky vocals before she even slimmed down to become young boys’ VMA fantasy.
Katy Perry, 2009 Mills: “This was the debut of Katy’s cabaret side. I walked up to her manager during rehearsal and jokingly said, “Holy shit, Bradford. We’re gonna get an Emmy nomination for this.” Little did I know, she’d help get us the win. Thanks, Katy Perry. You’re the best.