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“Dolby’s Top 25 Unplugged Songs of All Time”

25 Bob Dylan – “All along the Watchtower” (MTV Unplugged)

It seems like every year I hear a new version of this song, whether it’s from Dave Matthews, whoever else or in this case just a hearty Dylan version I’d never heard before, but is peppered nicely with some ambient Hammond organ and spirited vocals. Interestingly, that’s Pearl Jam/Stone Temple Pilots producer Brendan O’Brien cranking out those chords, with Dylan handling the guitar solo work. 

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24 Stone Temple Pilots – “Plush” (MTV Unplugged)

Not to be confused with the “Plush – Acoustic” that appears on the band’s Thank You greatest hits comp., this version comes fresh from a Spotify PLAYLIST entitled “Stone Temple Pilots — MTV Unplugged, 11/17/93,” and offers a nice tinge of bongos and dual guitar as an easy backdrop for that brilliant chord progression. Now, lots of things are confusing about this operation, such as why this music would be available on Spotify when there’s not an entry for the unplugged “album,” but then just now I noticed that it’s part of the Core Super Deluxe Edition. Then, there’s the query of why they call it “unplugged” when the guitars are clearly electric, but you gotta admit it’s still fun eh?

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23 Nirvana – “Lake of Fire” (MTV Unplugged in New York)

It seems like a pretty unanimous opinion that Meat Puppets – II is a listenable document of music in any way. Well, I’m going to deviate slightly from this school of though and say it’s easily the most bizarre source of covers material in the history of recorded music, a distant second manifesting perhaps as the tickling “Jolene” White Stripes cover of Dolly Parton. Well, this only makes it a more ingenious take on the part of Cobain and company, and adds to cement their unplugged album as an undeniable classic and a singular achievement in live rock music that will probably never be reapproximated. 

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22 10,000 Maniacs – “Like the Weather” (MTV Unplugged)

At the beginning of this version of this song, for just a second, I miss the warbled, undulating guitar sound we get on the version on the band’s blistering debut album In My Tribe. Overall, though, the songwriting moxie makes up for the clean deadness of these “unplugged” guitars and then at the chorus, even sonically, things go rolling into supremacy with that Hammond organ that once only whispered now singing boisterously to pepper the Maniacs’ rich, almost jubilant brand of melancholy.

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21 Pearl Jam – “Oceans” (MTV Unplugged)

“Oceans” is kind of a forgotten Pearl Jam track, wedged right around the start of side B of Ten (an album which nobody really seems to listen to in its entirety anyway). It’s got its way of hanging around various different live sets and settings, though, and finds itself the opener on the band’s seven-song Unplugged album, which judging by my curious Ebay search a second ago was vinyl-only. Overall, it’s a very serviceable midtempo PJ dirge, and one you haven’t heart a million times, hence potentiating it above certain other tunes by the band. Also, at the end Vedder tabs it as “a love song (he) wrote for (his) surfboards.”

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20 Bob Dylan – “The Times They are a-Changin’” (MTV Unplugged)

Well let’s see how many people I pi** off here. Here goes nothin’. The “plugging in” at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival is the best career move Bob Dylan ever made and MTV Unplugged is his best-SOUNDING live album, yes, THAT MTV Unplugged that Robert Christgau gave one star. Well, maybe that’s Robert Christgau’s way of saying he liked it. I mean, he didn’t give it, like, a monkey fu**ing a coconut, or any of his other paltriness-suggesting (or just paltry) little symbols. I actually savor the sound that these guys summon up for this old classic from The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, anyway, and the souped-up rock and roll treatment sounds like what should have been the tune’s natural habitat all along. 

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19 Neil Young – “From Hank to Hendrix” (Unplugged)

“From Hank to Hendrix,” a tune originally on Young’s ’92 album Harvest Moon, caps off the songwriter’s excellent, titanic Unplugged album in style, a song written about his guitar which features the grandiosity and orchestral swagger of a true love song. In general, Harvest Moon fed this acoustic set with some pretty timely gems to bolster what’s otherwise a pretty sporadic collection. 

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18 Alice in Chains – “Killer is Me” (Unplugged)

Something about the basic blueprint of these unplugged albums seemed to produce classic closeurs, like this Alice in Chains gem about fighting off thoughts of suicide: “Loaded gun / Pointed at me / Need to run / Killer is me”. Calling this song haunting would be a strong understatement and really, amidst all the relentlessly dark and brooding subject matter, it never becomes ham-handed: it’s a well drawn tune, through and through, that doesn’t appear on any other AIC collection (that I know of) which I think in a way only adds to its appeal within this particular unplugged setting. This whole AIC acoustic disc comes throroughly DD-recommended, too — maybe a close third behind Neil Young’s and Nirvana’s. 

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17 10,000 Maniacs – “I’m Not the Man” (MTV Unplugged)

I guess I’m like that dude who likes stuff that’s “haunting”… I promise I don’t have like 1,000 skulls on the wall in my basement (which this one lady whose house I visited in Cicero actually did). Anyway, this is the spine-tingling closeur on the band’s ’92 installment Our Time in Eden, about a convicted criminal going to death for a crime he didn’t do. I’d imagine it’s based on a true story but it’s beside the point — the concept itself is thrilling and what puts it over the top is the zeal with which Natalie Merchant sells it on vocals, as well as the unsettling liquidity with which the chords change from minor to major and back, echoing perhaps the volatile patterns of life itself amidst killers.

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16 Eric Clapton – “Tears in Heaven” (Unplugged)

“Tears in Heaven” might be the rare track where the volume actually gets turned UP a tad for the unplugged from the original version (Nirvana’s “Something in the Way” maybe representing another example of that anomaly) and in general I think the whole ambience works pretty well here. The live setting and eclectic mix of horns, guitar and backing singles give the track a rich feel, aside from the relatively sterile outlay of the original studio track, and Clapton has a way of delivering his songs live with great, natural genuineness, almost as if he modifies the vocal parts without even trying, by simple accumulation of feeling and purpose.

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15 Nirvana – “About a Girl” (MTV Unplugged in New York)

Now, with “About a Girl,” I think Kurt Cobain might have been on my wavelength because, jibing with how they slotted it first on the album, this is a track that UNQUESTIONABLY benefitted from the unplugged setting. I mean, it’s “cool” — it’s like a sleek cafe type of song that could be on the High Fidelity soundtrack, so to emaciate all that unneeded guitar fuzz and pare the song down to its beautiful rudiments is certainly a natural and also invigorating enterprise, resulting in this near-perfect album opener that’s held water in all our hearts all these years.

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14 Neil Young – “Harvest Moon” (Unplugged)

“Harvest Moon,” not to be confused with the album its on, Harvest Moon (1992), and also not to be confused with the song “Harvest” or the album that’s on, Harvest (1972), is a stately little crawler that had always eased its way along with pretty much an unplugged level of intensity anyway, so its inclusion on this album should come as a natural progression and also a boon for any Neil Young fan craving a live performance of his. Again, like with Clapton, he seems to live and breathe these songs to the extent where he doesn’t need to TRY to modify the vocals for the concert setting — it just happens naturally. 

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13 Stone Temple Pilots – “Wicked Garden” (MTV Unplugged)

To be honest I’ve never really been the most enormous fan of STP’s debut album Core which bequeaths a loud, grunge version of “Wicked Garden,” but maybe that’s part of why I find this unplugged version so pithy and fertile — it shows a versatility of the track belied by all the homogeneous grunge “mania” that probably drove critics batty the point of giving Bob Dylan’s unplugged album one star, in the first place. I mean, that’s some frickin’ misanthropic sh** right there.

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12 Bob Dylan – “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35” (MTV Unplugged)

You know how expensive Blonde on Blonde vinyls are online these days? It’s criminal. It’s that Bob Dylan album we all secretly run to, after our pretentious rants about the primitive brilliance of The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, the moral purity of “The Ballad of a Thin Man” or the geographical zeitgeist of Nashville Skyline. Combine the comedic brilliance of this classic album opener with the streamlined, leather-cool feel of a Dylan concert in the ’90s and you get this unassuming but solid version here, in all its expedited swagger and cheeky kiss-off.

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11 Neil Young – “The Old Laughing Lady” (Unplugged)

I have to admit, though I tenuously regard myself as a Neil Young fan I’ve never actually HEARD his self-titled debut in its entirety, or in any segment, for that matter. Judging by “The Loner” and the general disregard for it I’d pegged it as expendable, I guess, while a huge fan of Everybody Knows This is Nowhere, his first album with his eventual permanent band Crazy Horse. Even Spotify jettisons you to Unplugged, and not Neil Young, when you search for this song, tellingly, a tune that crawls along with acoustic majesty and which features Young’s projecting, fertile voice as both the loudest instrument and also the utmost artistic firebrand.

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10 Nirvana – “Pennyroyal Tea” (MTV Unplugged in New York)

Take what I said about “About a Girl” and multiply it by 10 for “Pennyroyal Tea” — Steve Albini’s swarthy grunge production bows this song’s feet and it’s only truly freed on this stunning acoustic version where, again, the singer’s voice is left to reign supreme and sovereign above all the other instruments, as it’s supposed to. This scintillating piece of acoustic rock makes it fully understandable why around this time the band was experimenting with “secret sets,” which were actually segments of the concert peformed completely acoustically. 

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9 Bob Dylan – “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” (MTV Unplugged)

Here we have obviously an undenaible classic, a song beaten thoroughly into the ground by Guns ’N Roses, a stand-alone Bob Dylan single from the early ’70s just like the excellent “Watching the River Flow,” the titular arbiter of Bob Dylan’s Heaven’s Door brand of whiskey and here, the provider of a version that miraculously seems to retain the spirit and feel of the original yet also, once again, slot in with this incredibly brisk, electric ’90s Dylan show FEEL that, again, has never seemed to work so well as it does all over this one-star unplugged album. 

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8 Bruce Springsteen – “Human Touch” (In Concert/MTV Plugged)

Why they termed this concert “plugged” when it saunters at about the volume of all the unplugged albums I have to admit is beyond me and in general the setlist appears pretty arcane and unprovocative. Here is this gem, though, which I swear is the most underrated Boss song, a seven-minute jaunt that goes by like four and the benefactor of one of the best verse-chorus key changes we’ve ever been privy to as listeners of American rock and roll. 

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7 10,000 Maniacs – “Candy Everybody Wants” (MTV Unplugged)

This tune has always been a light, breezy and easy-to-dig rocker off of Our Time in Eden and furthermore, I think it betokens the possible rule that with this band, a certain tinge of the dark or ominous helps to make for a more meaningful, exciting listen. I think even their stuff from In My Tribe like “What’s the Matter, Here?” and “City of Angels” would suggest the same thing. 

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6 Alice in Chains – “No Excuses” (Unplugged)

“No Excuses,” an excellent song and decently popular single from Alice in Chains, originally came from the Jar of Flies EP, which was pretty much all acoustic, so it’s not too much of a leap of faith to envision it working well on the unplugged collection. Well, it does, anyway, with the apparent and understandable mission statement of minimizing the extenuating variables that would come between this classic swatch of songwriting and a commendable result. 

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5 Eric Clapton – “Layla” (Unplugged)

This version of “Layla,” originally a Derek and the Dominos song, was ALL OVER MTV in the early ’90s, to the point where I actually thought it was the primary version of the song. Actually, to this day, I prefer it to the Dominos cut, and you’ve got to credit Clapton for being probably the only artist to ever modify a song this much for the very purpose of performing it unplugged — slowing it down and jazzing the eighth notes, giving it that sleek, ’90s, cafe type of feel. And to think, Clapton started out as a non-singing lead guitarist in Cream (another fact I was embarrassingly oblivious to for a while).

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4 Nirvana – “The Man Who Sold the World” (MTV Unplugged in New York)

Ah, maybe I should just stop hating on David Bowie. Well the truth is, I don’t hate on him THAT much. It just pi**es me off when people say he was the “best rock star of all time” because I think Lou Reed and Neil Young so thoroughly outmode him in terms of longevity of musical quality and meaning. But I have to admit, I listened back to his version of this tune and it was rather droll and digestible, with this incesant guiro providing eccentric percussion throughout, nonetheless. And why would I so completely extol Nirvana’s unplugged album and dismiss one of their proteges as an arbiter of rather commendable fast-food jingles? This song occupies a robust part of my music listening mind, anyway, and sure, some credit goes to Cobain’s guitar sound, which, even in the unplugged environment, seems to carry this natural, defiant and mystically cool quality that all of their music in general seemed to. 

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3 Neil Young – “Long May You Run” (Unplugged)

We’ve had one Neil Young song already that was devoted to his guitar (“From Hank to Hendrix”) and now we come to a superb paean to an automobile: “With your chrome heart shinin’ / In the sun / Long may you run”. The song originally appears on Young’s album with Stephen Stills of the same name and seems to carry the same wide-open, rustic spirit of other opuses like “Four Strong Winds” (which is actually an old folk standard from the ’60s covered by Young) which find the songwriter reallly branching out and getting in touch with his pastoral, expansive self, to often winning results.

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2 Nirvana – “Where Did You Sleep Last Night” (MTV Unplugged in New York)

Short of getting into what might have been going on in Kurt Cobain’s personal life and marriage at this exact time (and the speculation is deemed pretty pertinent by Everett True’s brilliant Nirvana: the Biography, shall we say), let’s just treat this as, again, brilliant scouting material on the part of the singer to siphon founding Delta Blues singer Leadbelly here, and in the meantime make the material infinitely more accessible to the masses than it otherwise would have been while also, miraculously, retaining its emotional feel and devastating yowl.

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1 Bob Dylan – “Desolation Row” (MTV Unplugged)

With me being a kid of hippies, my mind when I think of this tune automatically shifts to the Grateful Dead’s version of it. Now, I know a lot of you out there are rolling your eyes, but honest to God, their run-through, with Bob Weir’s clear, stalwart delivery and the uptempo, rocking stylistic modulation, pretty much does justice to the original, which can certainly manifest as pretty depressing and “bare,” upon enough listens to Highway 61 Revisited. The unplugged version opens with a beautiful dual guitar of rhythmically strummed acoustic and languid, idyllic lap steel taking lead. Dylan’s voice, then, when it enters on vocals, is beguilingly nasal, and almost even sounds like another person singing entirely, but it’s like an actor stepping into a different persona and living and feeling it to the point where it seems like another person entirely. “Desolation Row,” though, within the beleaguered enterprise that is Bob Dylan unplugged in any right, shape or form, represents a meaningful, memorable divergence from that black leather, Grand Funk brand of streamlined concert blues rock, to shed percussion, usher in a textural synthesized harpsichord and in turn, assemble the absolute ideal and elite version of this strange and imposing piece of music. 

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