Today marks a bittersweet day in rock history, as on this day in 1994, the world was able to pick up MTV Unplugged in New York, the first Nirvana album released after the death of frontman Kurt Cobain. Recorded nearly a year earlier at Sony Studios in New York City, the album collected all of the songs that aired on the original episode of “Unplugged” that aired in December 1993 and added two new tracks in “Something in the Way” and “Oh Me” (a third Meat Puppets cover). The album debuted on top of the Billboard album chart and went on to sell five million copies (and also turned “About a Girl” — a song from Nirvana’s first LP Bleach — into a surprise MTV and radio hit).
Despite his anti-corporate stance (he famously wore a T-shirt that said “Corporate Magazines Still Suck” on the cover of Rolling Stone, though that never stopped him from appearing on the cover of Rolling Stone), Cobain always had a friendly relationship with MTV, and conversations about doing an episode of “Unplugged” had been going on for a while when Nirvana finally agreed to do it in 1993. After a short tour supporting the just-released In Utero, the band got together for two days to run through acoustic rehearsals. Cobain struggled with some of the arrangements and was uncomfortable with the acoustic sound (he ended up running his acoustic guitar through some effects pedals and an amplifier, the results of which are most obviously heard during the band’s cover of David Bowie’s “The Man Who Sold the World”). The performance itself was unusual for “Unplugged,” as it featured six cover songs (making up nearly half of the setlist) and very few of the band’s biggest hits. Still, it was an incredibly intense performance that saw Cobain’s voice crackle in all the right places.
After Cobain died, the “Unplugged” performance lived on as one of the frontman’s last great live moments, and the fact that the stage was dressed to look like a funeral added an unfortunately prescient tone to the whole ordeal. MTV Unplugged in New York was initially supposed to come out as the second disc of a live album called Verse Chorus Verse, but surviving band members Dave Grohl and Krist Novoselic couldn’t deal with selecting other live tracks in the wake of Cobain’s suicide, so that project was tabled. (The band would later put out a hit-heavy electric live album called From the Muddy Banks of the Wishkah in 1996.)
Nirvana’s MTV Unplugged in New York ended up being a huge moment in the histories of both Nirvana and MTV, and many people felt that Cobain ended up enjoying the acoustic setting so much that he would have ended up writing songs that sounded a lot like his cover of Lead Belly’s “Where Did You Sleep Last Night” (which is also known as “In the Pines”). The band’s acoustic rendition of “Come As You Are” remains one of their more haunting moments captured on film.