MTV Unplugged in New York

MTV Unplugged in New York is a live album by American rock band Nirvana, released on November 1, 1994 by DGC Records. The album features an acoustic performance recorded at Sony Music Studios in New York City on November 18, 1993, for the television series MTV Unplugged. The show was directed by Beth McCarthy and aired on the cable television network MTV on December 16, 1993. In a break with MTV Unplugged convention, Nirvana played mainly lesser-known material and covers of songs by the Vaselines, David Bowie, Lead Belly, and Meat Puppets, whose members Cris and Curt Kirkwood joined Nirvana onstage.

MTV Unplugged in New York
Nirvana mtv unplugged in new york.png
Live album by
ReleasedNovember 1, 1994
RecordedNovember 18, 1993
VenueSony Music, New York City
Genre
Length53:50
LabelDGC
Producer
Nirvana chronology
In Utero
(1993)
MTV Unplugged in New York
(1994)
Singles
(1995)
Nirvana video chronology
Classic Albums: Nirvana – Nevermind
(2005)
MTV Unplugged in New York
(2007)
Live at Reading
(2009)
Singles from MTV Unplugged in New York
  1. "All Apologies (promo)"
    Released: February 5, 1994[1][2][3]
  2. "About a Girl"
    Released: October 24, 1994
  3. "Polly (promo)"
    Released: 1994
  4. "The Man Who Sold the World (promo)"
    Released: 1995
  5. "Where Did You Sleep Last Night (promo)"
    Released: 1995
  6. "Lake of Fire (promo)"
    Released: 1995

Following the cancellation of another live album, Verse Chorus Verse, MTV Unplugged in New York was the first Nirvana album released following the death of Kurt Cobain. It debuted at number one on the US Billboard 200, and is Nirvana's most successful posthumous release, having been certified 5x Platinum by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) in 1997.[4] It won the Grammy Award for Best Alternative Music Album at the 38th Grammy Awards and has been ranked one of the greatest albums of all time. The performance was released on DVD in 2007.

BackgroundEdit

MTV Unplugged began airing on MTV in 1989, with artists performing their hits on acoustic instruments in intimate settings.[5] Nirvana had been in negotiations to appear for some time; Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain finally accepted while touring with the Meat Puppets.[6] Nirvana wanted to do something different from a typical MTV Unplugged performance; according to drummer Dave Grohl, "We'd seen the other Unpluggeds and didn't like many of them, because most bands would treat them like rock shows—play their hits like it was Madison Square Garden, except with acoustic guitars."

The group looked at Mark Lanegan's 1990 album The Winding Sheet for inspiration. Among the ideas the band members came up with included covering David Bowie's "The Man Who Sold the World" and inviting members of the Meat Puppets to join them on stage.[7] Still, the prospect of an entirely acoustic show made Cobain nervous.[6]

RehearsalEdit

Nirvana rehearsed for two days. The rehearsals were tense and difficult, with the band running into problems performing various songs. During the sessions, Cobain disagreed with MTV about the performance. Producer Alex Coletti recalled that the network was unhappy with the lack of hit Nirvana songs, and with the choice of the Meat Puppets as guests, saying: "They wanted to hear the 'right' names - Eddie Vedder or Tori Amos or God knows who."[8]

The day before filming, Cobain refused to play, but he appeared at the studio the following afternoon. Cobain was suffering from drug withdrawal and nervousness at the time; one observer said, "There was no joking, no smiles, no fun coming from him ... everyone was more than a little worried about his performance."[6]

RecordingEdit

Nirvana taped their performance on November 18, 1993, at Sony Studios in New York City. Cobain suggested that the stage be decorated with stargazer lilies, black candles, and a crystal chandelier. The show's producer asked him, "You mean like a funeral?", to which Cobain replied, "Exactly. Like a funeral."[9]

Nirvana was augmented by guitarist Pat Smear and cellist Lori Goldston, who had been touring with the band. Despite the show's acoustic premise, Cobain insisted on running his acoustic guitar through his amplifier and effects pedals. Coletti built a fake box in front of the amplifier to disguise it as a monitor wedge. Coletti said, "It was Kurt's security blanket. He was used to hearing this guitar through his Fender. He wanted those effects. You can hear it on 'The Man Who Sold the World'. It's an acoustic guitar, but he's obviously going through an amp."[8]

Unlike many artists who appeared on the show, Nirvana filmed the entire performance in a single take.[10] The 14-song setlist included one song from their debut album Bleach, four songs from their second album Nevermind, three tracks from the recently released In Utero, and six cover songs.[9] In Utero's "All Apologies" had not yet been released as a single, which means the only contemporary hit the band performed was the Nevermind single "Come as You Are".[10]

Cris and Curt Kirkwood of the Meat Puppets joined the band onstage to perform three Meat Puppets songs with Nirvana. The set ended with a performance of the traditional song "Where Did You Sleep Last Night", following the arrangement of blues musician Lead Belly, whom Cobain described before the song as "his favorite performer ever". After the band finished, Cobain argued with the show's producers, who wanted an encore. Cobain refused because he felt he could not better the performance of that song.[11]

ReleaseEdit

The Nirvana episode of MTV Unplugged was first broadcast in December 1993.[12] It was 45 minutes long and omitted the songs "Something in the Way" and "Oh, Me." After Cobain was found dead in April 1994, MTV aired the episode repeatedly.[13] To meet demand for new Nirvana material and to counter bootlegging, in August 1994, DGC announced in a double album, Verse Chorus Verse, comprising live performances including the entire MTV Unplugged performance. However, the task of compiling the album was too emotionally difficult for the surviving band members, so the project was cancelled a week after the announcement.[14] Instead, Novoselic and Grohl opted to release just the Unplugged performance.[15] Scott Litt, who had produced the performance, returned to produce the record.[8] The performance was released on DVD in 2007.[16]

ReceptionEdit

Professional ratings
Review scores
SourceRating
AllMusic     [17]
Blender     [18]
Chicago Sun-Times    [19]
Christgau's Consumer GuideA[20]
Entertainment WeeklyA[21]
NME9/10[22]
Pitchfork9.5/10[23]
Q     [24]
Rolling Stone     [25]
The Rolling Stone Album Guide     [26]

MTV Unplugged in New York was released on November 1, 1994. It debuted at number one on the Billboard 200 and sold 310,500 copies, the highest first-week sales of Nirvana's career.[14] By March 1995, the album had outsold In Utero with 6.8 million copies sold.[27]

The album received positive reviews from critics.[28] Q magazine said that as an acoustic ensemble, Nirvana sounded "most moving, possessed of a ragged glory".[24] Rolling Stone found the record "stirring and occasionally brilliant" with "spare and gorgeous spots everywhere", highlighting the band's chemistry on "All Apologies" and Cobain's unaccompanied performance of "Pennyroyal Tea".[25] Ben Thompson from Mojo felt that unlike most "unplugged" releases, the format's "colourless, generic aspect" and not seeing the actual performance benefits Nirvana's record because of how intense it seems in light of Cobain's death.[29][clarification needed] In Entertainment Weekly, David Browne felt unsettled listening to it: "Beyond inducing a sense of loss for Cobain himself, Unplugged elicits a feeling of musical loss, too: the delicacy and intimacy of these acoustic rearrangements hint at where Nirvana (or at least Cobain, who was said to be frustrated with the limitations of the band) could have gone."[21]

MTV Unplugged in New York was voted the fourth best album of the year in Pazz & Jop, an annual poll of prominent American critics published by The Village Voice.[30] Robert Christgau, the poll's supervisor, also ranked the album fourth in his own year-end list,[31] deeming it a testament to Cobain's depth of feeling, "sincerity" as a vocalist, and distinction from other sensitive alternative rock types such as Eddie Vedder and Lou Barlow: "The vocal performance he evokes is John Lennon's on John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band. And he did it in one take."[20]

RetrospectiveEdit

In a retrospective review for AllMusic, senior editor Stephen Thomas Erlewine said MTV Unplugged in New York was "fearlessly confessional", as it found Nirvana and Cobain "on the verge of discovering a new sound and style".[17] Jason Mendelsohn from PopMatters believed its intimate folk rock quality was radical from Nirvana and Cobain, "as crass of a business move as it was" by their record label.[32] In The Rolling Stone Album Guide (2004), journalist Charles M. Young called it Nirvana's "second masterpiece" after Nevermind, and claimed that Cobain could have "revolutionized folk music the same way he had rock" because of his striking voice; he said his songs worked equally well with "a loud band bashing away behind you" or "with just an acoustic guitar".[26] Maeve McDermott of USA Today called it "an album of transcendent folk rock that glimpsed what could’ve been the band’s next post-grunge era, had frontman Kurt Cobain survived long enough to see its musical leanings through."[33]

The performance of "Where Did You Sleep Last Night" has been regarded as one of the greatest live performances of all time.[34] In 2013, Atlantic critic Andrew Wallace Chamings wrote:[34]

For the final line, "I would shiver the whole night through," Cobain jumps up an octave, forcing him to strain so far he screams and cracks. He hits the word "shiver" so hard that the band stops, as if a fight broke out at a sitcom wedding. Next he howls the word "whole" and then does something very strange in the brief silence that follows, something that's hard to describe: he opens his piercingly blue eyes so suddenly it feels like someone or something else is looking out under the bleached lank fringe, with a strange clarity.

According to Acclaimed Music, MTV Unplugged in New York is the 309th most ranked record on critics' all-time lists.[35] In 2012, it was placed at number 313 on Rolling Stone's list of The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time.[36] Rolling Stone also named it the 95th best album of the 1990s.[37] The readers rated it the 8th best live album of all time.[38] NME placed MTV Unplugged in New York at number 1 on their list of the "50 Greatest Live Albums".[39] Kerrang listed it among the 11 best live albums of all time.[40] In July 2014, Guitar World ranked MTV Unplugged in New York at number 30 in their "Superunknown: 50 Iconic Albums That Defined 1994" list.[41] The same magazine listed it at number 4 on their list of "The 10 Best Live Albums You Must Hear".[42] The album was also included in the book 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die.[43]

Reviewing the MTV Unplugged in New York DVD release in 2007, the Los Angeles Times wrote that it "deserves a place on the rock TV history shelf alongside the informal, sit-down section of Elvis Presley’s epic comeback special in 1968".[16]

Track listingEdit

All tracks are written by Kurt Cobain except where noted.

No.TitleWriter(s)Original releaseLength
1."About a Girl" 1989 ~ Bleach3:37
2."Come as You Are" 1991 ~ Nevermind4:13
3."Jesus Doesn't Want Me for a Sunbeam" 4:37
4."The Man Who Sold the World"David Bowie 4:20
5."Pennyroyal Tea" 1993 ~ In Utero3:40
6."Dumb" 1993 ~ In Utero2:52
7."Polly" 1991 ~ Nevermind3:16
8."On a Plain" 1991 ~ Nevermind3:44
9."Something in the Way" 1991 ~ Nevermind4:01
10."Plateau"Curt Kirkwood 3:37
11."Oh, Me"Curt Kirkwood 3:26
12."Lake of Fire"Curt Kirkwood 2:56
13."All Apologies" 1993 ~ In Utero4:23
14."Where Did You Sleep Last Night"(Traditional; arranged by Lead Belly) 5:08

25th anniversary reissue bonus tracks

  1. Come As You Are (Rehearsal)
  2. Polly (Rehearsal)
  3. Plateau (Rehearsal)
  4. Pennyroyal Tea (Rehearsal)
  5. The Man Who Sold the World (Rehearsal)

PersonnelEdit

Nirvana

Additional musicians

  • Lori Goldston – cello, except on tracks 1, 2, 5, 10, 11, and 12

Meat Puppets

  • Cris Kirkwood – acoustic bass and backing vocals on tracks 10, 11, and 12
  • Curt Kirkwood – acoustic lead guitar on tracks 10, 11, and 12

Production

ChartsEdit

CertificationsEdit

Region Certification Certified units/sales
Argentina (CAPIF)[80] 3× Platinum 180,000^
Australia (ARIA)[81] 5× Platinum 350,000^
Austria (IFPI Austria)[82] 2× Platinum 100,000*
Belgium (BEA)[83] 3× Platinum 150,000*
Brazil (Pro-Música Brasil)[84] Platinum 250,000*
Canada (Music Canada)[85] 9× Platinum 900,000^
Finland (Musiikkituottajat)[86] Gold 24,373[86]
France (SNEP)[87] 2× Platinum 600,000*
Macao (IFPI Macao)[88] 3× Platinum 90,000*
Mexico (AMPROFON)[89] Gold 100,000^
Italy (FIMI)[90] Platinum 100,000*
Japan (RIAJ)[91] Platinum 200,000^
Netherlands (NVPI)[92] Platinum 100,000^
New Zealand (RMNZ)[93] Platinum 15,000^
Norway (IFPI Norway)[94] Platinum 50,000*
Poland (ZPAV)[95]
Certification for original release
Platinum 30,000*
Poland (ZPAV)[96]
Separate certification for re-issued version
Gold 10,000*
Spain (PROMUSICAE)[97] 2× Platinum 200,000^
Sweden (GLF)[98] Gold 50,000^
Switzerland (IFPI Switzerland)[99] 2× Platinum 100,000^
United Kingdom (BPI)[100] 3× Platinum 900,000^
United States (RIAA)[101] 8× Platinum 8,000,000 
Summaries
Europe (IFPI)[102] 2× Platinum 2,000,000*

*sales figures based on certification alone
^shipments figures based on certification alone

DVD releaseEdit

The MTV Unplugged In New York performance was released on DVD on November 20, 2007. The DVD release featured the entire taping, including the two songs ("Something in the Way" and "Oh Me") excluded from the broadcast version. Bonus features consisted of the original broadcast version of the performance, a 1999 MTV special titled Bare Witness: Nirvana Unplugged featuring the recollections of MTV producers and audience members, and five songs taped during the pre-show rehearsal: "Come as You Are", "Polly", "Plateau", "Pennyroyal Tea", and "The Man Who Sold the World".[103]

ChartsEdit