Unplugged! The 25 greatest acoustic albums ever made
From Bob Dylan to Guns N’ Roses, these are 25 classic acoustic albums that prove not everything has to go up to 11
OK sure, there are shades of electricity in places (no one’s pretending that GN’R Lies didn’t have a plugged-in side, or that Page and Plant totally shook off the need for amplification on Unledded), but what made all these albums was their unplugged core. Underscored by a willingness to embrace their softer side, the artists here proved that you don’t need a stack of Marshall amps to make a first-class rock album. Yes, some made other brilliant acoustic records (Neil Young, Bob Dylan… we’re talking to you), but we wanted to include as many voices as possible, so we’ve stuck to one album per band/artist.
Hush now, and enjoy the quiet riot…
25) J Mascis – Several Shades Of Why (2011)
The onset of middle age brought out a different side of J Mascis. The slacker generation’s first great guitar hero opted to ditch the distorted volume of Dinosaur Jr for a solo album artfully layered with acoustic guitars and subtle, but telling, embellishments. Joined by like-minded chums – Kurt Vile, Band Of Horses’ Ben Bridwell, Broken Social Scene’s Kevin Drew, Pall Jenkins of the Black Heart Procession and Godspeed You! Black Emperor violinist Sophie Trudeau – Mascis fashioned a low-key suite of songs that suggested he may have always been a sensitive balladeer at heart.
His warm, dozy drawl proved an ideal contrast to the liveliness of his finger-picked guitar melodies, especially on the title track, on which Trudeau adds some lovely textures. The pastoral folk of Make It Right is coloured by flute, lap steel guitar and Vile’s slide guitar; the lapping harmonies of Not Enough recall Moby Grape at their plangent best; Where Are You sounds like Here Comes The Sun-era Beatles. Elsewhere, as on Listen To Me and Very Nervous And Love, Mascis channels the gentle troubadour spirit of early Neil Young. Who could have guessed that America’s quintessential noise lord would turn out to be such a convincing folkie? RH
24) The Civil Wars – Barton Hollow (2012)
I’ve been a-waiting for you, and you’ve been a-waiting for me,’ sing Joy Williams and John Paul White amid the swoop of strings on Forget Me Not. And it was true. Rarely had two voices sounded so destined to be together. The pair discovered their telepathy at a Nashville songwriting workshop in 2008, and three years later Barton Hollow applied that rare chemistry to a set of intimate songs that touched all who heard them.
The courtship dance of White and Williams’s intertwined vocals lit up moments such as the stunning To Whom It May Concern and the doomed romance of C’est La Mort (‘You can sink to the bottom of the sea, just don’t go without me’). But Barton Hollow were at their most shiver-down-the-spine poignant on alt.country standout Poison & Wine (‘Oh, I don’t love you, but I always will’). Songs didn’t come more sparse, but to smother it in Marshall stack would only have diminished its emotional power.
Indeed it was the high-profile use of Poison & Wine on US TV drama series Grey’s Anatomy that turned The Civil Wars into mainstream contenders, starting a hot streak that culminated in them grabbing four Grammys (but perhaps hastened their demise, in 2014). Rarely has such a quiet album made such a big noise. HY
23) Joe Bonamassa – An Acoustic Evening At The Vienna Opera House (2013)
Usually an artist you could set your watch by, Joe Bonamassa’s first ‘unplugged’ album arrived with a welcome sense of potential disaster – one not lost on the bluesman himself. “It was, like, this could either go really well, or else we’re really screwed here,” he remembered of taking the stage in July 2012. “ It really is Kryptonite to me, the acoustic guitar.”
Bonamassa had initially planned to play it safe – “Just me sitting in a chair, on my tod, telling stories about the songs…” – before a nudge from producer Kevin Shirley sparked a bolder plan. A crack squad of left-field instrumentalists (glockenspiel, accordion, Irish fiddle) was quickly put together, and after three days of rehearsals the guitarist shed his skin in the Austrian capital, to astonishing effect. Stripped of the monster guitar solos, his songs flew, with Dust Bowl and Driving Towards The Daylight revealing rare poignancy. And his ever-underrated vocals were thrillingly front-and-centre, full of humanity and character.
So …Vienna wasn’t the “lead balloon” that Bonamassa feared. In fact it’s one of the gems of his catalogue. “Honestly,” he says, “it was the most fulfilling musical experience of my life. Nobody wanted it to end.” HY
22) R.E.M. – Unplugged: The Complete 1991 and 2001 Sessions (2014)
The only act to appear twice on MTV Unplugged, R.E.M.’s performances 10 years apart captured them in markedly different phases. In 1991, after a decade of building steadily, they were on the cusp of breakout success with seventh album Out Of Time. Thus the first part of this collection was slanted in its direction, and includes the mandolin-driven Half A World Away and international hit single Losing My Religion.
The truly great moments occurred elsewhere, though, when the stripped-down settings allowed the grainy burr of Michael Stipe’s remarkable voice to locate the inherent grace of Perfect Circle, World Leader Pretend and Fall On Me.
By 2001, drummer Bill Berry had quit and R.E.M. were established global superstars. For their second Unplugged session the core trio was augmented by Scott McCaughey, Ken Stringfellow and Joey Waronker. The recording was fuller as a result, though hardly less impressive. A curious smidgen of Dylan’s Like A Rolling Stone crept into the lyrics of Country Feedback, while some of their newer tunes – All The Way To Reno, At My Most Beautiful – offered conclusive proof that the band had lost little of their emotional wallop.
Catnip for long-time fans, this 33-song set is R.E.M. at their most affectingly raw. RH
21) Status Quo – Aquostic (Stripped Bare) (2014)
The runaway success of 2014’s Aquostic took just about everybody – including Status Quo themselves – by complete surprise. After spending the best part of five decades cranking out 12-bar riffs at thunderous volume the band had become a living, headbanging institution, although those prepared to delve beneath the surface knew of the diversity hidden within their catalogue.
Aquostic (with a humourous cover photo by Bryan Adams) brought all of these foibles to the surface, revising well-thumbed arrangements and using guest musicians including an accordion player, a female backing singer and a six-piece string section to scratch the band’s melodic underbelly in the most celebratory way possible.
Just 10 months before the album’s release, Francis Rossi said: “Quo unplugged? The idea makes my bottom twitch. It would be good for about twenty minutes.” Rick Parfitt was more open to the suggestion but hated the title. “It conjures up something phallic in my mind, like a cock sticking up in the air,” he mused. “A Quo stick.”
But the results spoke for themselves, and following December’s The Last Night Of The Electrics tour it will be ‘aquostic’ all the way from now on. DL