Sunday, March 29, 2009

Unplugged: Five (mostly) acoustic records you should own

I've been strumming my acoustic guitar a bit more than usual the last few days, and it's gotten me thinking about some of the really good acoustic records by normally hard-rocking artists. When people decide to unplug, it's not always great. If you're a child of the 1980s like me, you probably remember MTV's "Unplugged," which featured a lot of bands that should have stayed plugged in. For every brilliant performance like Aerosmith's, there were plenty of painful performances, like, say, Poison. But some bands can do both just as well. Read on for my five favorite (mostly) acoustic records by otherwise hard-rocking bands.

1. Alice in Chains, "Jar of Flies." This, to me, is the epitome of a great acoustic hard rock record. It's not some phony, staged unplugging for a TV show. The seven tracks here are all raw and honest. It's an emotional, often dark journey from start to finish, and despite being perhaps the band's softest moment, it's just as heavy as anything they did plugged in. Jerry Cantrell's sometimes simple and sometimes intricate guitar work provides the base, and the moody drone of the late Layne Staley brings it all home. My only complaint is that it's far too short. An acoustic metal masterpiece.

Get "Jar of Flies."

2. Tesla, "Five Man Acoustical Jam." Laugh if you want, but I think Tesla got a bad rap in the 1980s by being lumped in with the Poisons, Warrants and Wingers. They were a great blue jean, roots hard rock band, and they prove it with this set that mixes acoustic versions of their own songs, a number of covers and some just for fun stuff. It's one of those rare live albums that makes you feel as though you were there and having a great time, and the performances are top notch as well. You know their cover of "Signs," of course, but also check out the acoustic version of "Gettin' Better" and their cover of CCR's "Lodi."

Get "Five Man Acoustical Jam."

3. Black Label Society, "Hangover Music, Vol. 6." Like Alice in Chains' "Jar of Flies," there's an honesty here that doesn't often come across in acoustic records by hard rockers. Admittedly, there are a few snoozers here, but it's hard to deny the power of songs like "Once More" and "No Other." Zakk Wylde's gravelly voice is perfect for these moody acoustic numbers, and this record is a powerful testament to what he can do when he turns the Les Paul down a little. (I don't want him to do that often, mind you.)

Get "Hangover Music."

(Sorry, for some crazy reason, there's no widget available for "Hangover Music.")

4. Nirvana, "Unplugged in New York." It's no secret that I think Nirvana is the most overrated band in the history of recorded music. Sure, they ushered in a new style of music, but there were far superior bands in that style -- Alice in Chains, Soundgarden, even Pearl Jam. Still, I agree with the Nirvana worshippers on one point: this record is brilliant. From the gritty opener "About a Girl" to a cool cover of Bowie's "The Man Who Sold the World" to a rocking cover of the Meat Puppets' "Lake of Fire," there aren't many skips on this record. It showed an artistry that I didn't believe Nirvana capable of prior to this record.

Get "Unplugged in New York."

5. Opeth, "Damnation." Perhaps it's a daring move for a progressive death metal band to take a break from the distortion and growls, but I'm glad they did. The result is a very haunting set of 1970s-influenced rock that continues to set the band apart from their contemporaries in the metal genre. While I certainly wouldn't want Opeth to turn to this full time, it's a welcome diversion.

Get "Damnation."

A few more worth checking out:

Godsmack, "The Other Side." I was actually quite surprised with this record. I couldn't really see Godsmack as an acoustic act, until I saw them do their live acoustic set. The performance really put me in mind of Alice in Chains, as does this record. It's perhaps not a comparison that the band would want, seeing as it's one they've gotten their whole career, but in this case it's a high compliment.

Alice in Chains, "Unplugged." Not as strong as "Jar of Flies," but a solid set of songs and a very powerful performance just the same.

Zakk Wylde, "Book of Shadows." This record was very jarring for me when it came out, and I still haven't come fully around to it, but I do have a great appreciation for it. And "Sold My Soul" is just an incredible song, maybe one of his best.

Disagree with me, or think I missed one? Let me know about it.

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