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The Late Movies: MTV Unplugged

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MTV Unplugged premiered in 1989, showcasing musicians playing acoustic versions of their songs. It has spawned a series of memorable performances, most notably (to my generation, anyway), Nirvana's excellent set -- likely the first time a Leadbelly song was performed on MTV. So tonight, I bring you some of my favorite Unplugged moments. Share yours in the comments!

Oasis - "Don't Look Back in Anger" - 1996

Apparently lead singer Liam Gallagher bailed at the last minute, so his brother Noel went ahead and sang lead in brother's place. According to Wikipedia, "Liam watched the performance and heckled the group from a balcony." In this clip, Noel sounds great:

REM - "It's the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine)" - 1991

"And this was a request of MTV, and we had to get the words on a computer, and I'm not sure they're right. But we're gonna give it a go, and here -- we -- go." One of many excellent performances from REM's Unplugged gig -- pick up the bootleg if you can find it. (Another standout is "Love is all Around", a Troggs cover.)

Nirvana - "The Man Who Sold the World" - 1994

Nirvana does Bowie. One of many remarkable covers in this Nirvana set. Look how young they all are.

Pearl Jam - "Black" - 1992

Sorry about the burned-in VTR playback timecode. I remember thinking Jeff Ament's hat was ridiculous, even way back then. I think my judgment holds up.

Chris Isaak - "Wicked Game" - 1995

Beautiful, and perfectly suited to the acoustic format.

Paul Simon - "Mrs. Robinson" - 1992

A little funky, and missing Garfunkel, of course. Compare to this 1970 live performance.

Sheryl Crow - "Leaving Las Vegas" - 1995

"I spent the best part of my losing streak in an Army Jeep, from what I can't recall." Catchy, a little sad around the edges, and smart -- I always loved this song, though this version is a little messy -- there are some tuning problems with Crow's guitar. It's still a gem.

LL Cool J - "Mama Said Knock You Out" - 1991

Unlike the Pearl Jam bassist, LL's hat is completely appropriate. Because he hasn't got a shirt on, and he's kicking ass.

The Corrs - "Everybody Hurts" (REM Cover) - 1999

I bet they didn't have to get the lyrics to this "on a computer." (Also check out their cover of Fleetwood Mac's "Dreams."

Post Your Favorites!

Got a favorite Unplugged performance I've left out? Post a link in the comments! See also: our MTV Unplugged: Revisited quiz.

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Big Questions
What's the Difference Between an Opera and a Musical?
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They both have narrative arcs set to song, so how are musicals different from operas?

For non-theater types, the word “musical” conjures up images of stylized Broadway performances—replete with high-kicks and punchy songs interspersed with dialogue—while operas are viewed as a musical's more melodramatic, highbrow cousin. That said, The New York Times chief classical music critic Anthony Tommasini argues that these loose categorizations don't get to the heart of the matter. For example, for every Kinky Boots, there’s a work like Les Misérables—a somber, sung-through show that elicits more audience tears than laughs. Meanwhile, operas can contain dancing and/or conversation, too, and they range in quality from lowbrow to highbrow to straight-up middlebrow.

According to Tommasini, the real distinguishing detail between a musical and an opera is that “in opera, music is the driving force; in musical theater, words come first.” While listening to an opera, it typically doesn’t matter what language it’s sung in, so long as you know the basic plot—but in musical theater, the nuance comes from the lyrics.

When it comes down to it, Tommasini’s explanation clarifies why opera stars often sing in a different style than Broadway performers do, why operas and musicals tend to have their trademark subject matters, and why musical composition and orchestration differ between the two disciplines.

That said, we live in a hybrid-crazy world in which we can order Chinese-Indian food, purchase combination jeans/leggings, and, yes, watch a Broadway musical—like 2010's Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark—that’s billed as “rock opera.” At the end of the day, the lack of hard, fast lines between opera and musical theater can lead composers from both camps to borrow from the other, thus blurring the line even further.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at

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Lost Gustav Holst Music Found in a New Zealand Symphony Archive
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English composer Gustav Holst became famous for his epic seven-piece suite "The Planets," but not all of his works were larger-than-life. Take "Folk Songs from Somerset," a collection of folk tunes composed by Holst in 1906 and largely forgotten in the decades since. Now, more than a century later, the music is finally attracting attention. As Atlas Obscura reports, manuscripts of the songs were rediscovered among a lost collection of sheet music handwritten by the musician.

The Holst originals were uncovered from the archives of a New Zealand symphony during a routine cleaning a few years ago. While throwing away old photocopies and other junk, the music director and the librarian of the Bay of Plenty (BOP) Symphonia came across two pieces of music by Holst. The scores were penned in the composer’s handwriting and labeled with his former address. Realizing the potential importance of their discovery, they stored the documents in a safe place, but it wasn't until recently that they were able to verify that the manuscripts were authentic.

For more than a century, the Holst works were thought to be lost for good. "These manuscripts are a remarkable find, particularly the ‘Folk Songs from Somerset’ which don’t exist elsewhere in this form," Colin Matthews of London's Holst Foundation said in a statement from the symphony.

How, exactly, the documents ended up in New Zealand remains a mystery. The BOP Symphonia suspects that the sheets were brought there by Stanley Farnsworth, a flutist who performed with an early version of the symphony in the 1960s. “We have clues that suggest the scores were used by Farnsworth,” orchestra member Bronya Dean said, “but we have no idea how Farnsworth came to have them, or what his connection was with Holst.”

The symphony plans to mark the discovery with a live show, including what will likely be the first performance of "Folk Songs from Somerset" in 100 years. Beyond that, BOP is considering finding a place for the artifacts in Holst’s home in England.

[h/t Atlas Obscura]


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