Album of the Year: Tony Bennett’s MTV Unplugged (1995)

With the 2022 Grammys coming up, I’ve decided to take a look back and review the albums that have won the Album of the Year award. Some of these albums have already been covered or will be covered in the Best Sellers so I won’t be touching those. I’ll be doing as much of these as I can of these until the Grammys on January 31st.

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Tony Bennett is an artist that has lasted longer than probably anybody would have imagined. The last major living star of the pre-rock era has been in the public eye for 70 years now still making the kind of music that made him a star for my grandparents. Yet in his later life, he has also appealed very greatly to a younger crowd happily partnering with young artists most notably Lady Gaga for two collaboration albums. The fact that he’s just now retiring from performing due to Alzheimer’s at age 95 is impressive in itself. A lot of us would be lucky to still be active at that age. 

Even in the ‘90s, Bennett’s attempt at being hip with the youths was already in full effect. This effort is thanks in large part to his son Danny who took over as his father’s manager after going through a rough patch in the ‘70s and early ‘80s that involved almost dying from a cocaine overdose, battles with the IRS, and his music just not connecting with people as it did during his early prime. Danny had the smart plan of having Tony perform in places that would expose him to a younger audience that had grown up with music far from the Great American Songbook crooner standards Bennett exemplified.

Without changing one bit of his image and music, Tony Bennett was back in the spotlight with his albums selling again while being embraced by the ‘90s alternative rock kids to the point where his songs were getting played on MTV believe it or not. All of this culminated with his 1994 performance on the hugely popular MTV Unplugged series which proved to be a good place for aging stars in the ‘90s to play their music to a younger crowd.

The funny thing about listening to Tony Bennett do an Unplugged concert is the fact that as he puts it, he’s always been unplugged. He might have an electric guitar in his band but ultimately the album doesn’t sound all that different from your usual Bennett show. The intimate setting of an Unplugged concert also isn’t all that out there for Tony Bennett who’d been used to playing in such small crowds for his entire career. Listening to the album, you can close your eyes and imagine yourself in a lounge club seeing Bennett perform. Compared to most other artists, Tony Bennett could adapt to the Unplugged format with ease.

For Unplugged, Bennett stuck to his usual performing routine singing 22 songs of Great American Songbook standards some of which he turned into his own hits like the signature “I Left My Heart In San Francisco” and his biggest Billboard Hot 100 hit “I Wanna Be Around.” For two tracks he brings out guests with k.d. lang on “Moonglow” and Elvis Costello on “They Can’t Take That Away From Me.” Ultimately, what works about the album is Tony Bennett himself. The effortless old-school swagger and audience banter are all Bennett trademarks that never gets old. He sounds like he’s enjoying himself and the audience while the audience sounds like they’re enjoying seeing a legend doing what he does best.

Overall, Bennett’s Unplugged record is a fine album but not one that I would say I love or would go back to all that much. That reaction is mainly due to the fact that I’m not the audience for this album. It’s an album clearly meant for Tony Bennett fans as a kind of souvenir. It’s not that I don’t like Tony Bennett. He’s certainly a good singer and performer but his music and a lot of the old-school crooner pop for that matter isn’t the kind of music that appeals to me much. If you’re a fan then you’ll certainly enjoy it more than I and other non-fans do.

Tony Bennett’s MTV Unplugged was hardly a cultural phenomenon despite people’s renewed appetite for Bennett and the popularity of MTV Unplugged. That didn’t stop the Recording Academy from giving it the coveted Album of the Year award at the 1995 Grammys. The Grammys were no stranger to Unplugged as a couple years earlier gave Album of the Year to Eric Clapton’s recording for the show. And with Bennett’s comeback, perhaps the Recording Academy wanted to show its support for a music legend. But unlike Bennett, Clapton’s Unplugged was a huge commercial hit going to #1 eventually going diamond while also spawning hits. By comparison, Bennett’s Unplugged has sold only 300,000 copies sold making it among the lowest selling albums of all Album of the Year winners. On the album charts, it only went to #48 right after its Grammy win.

Usually, when a middling late-career album wins the award, it tends to win over more exciting and relevant albums that fans will get mad about for being snubbed. But for 1995, Unplugged turned out to be one album in a horrifically lame Album of the Year nomination year. The album won against Eric Clapton’s From The Cradle, Bonnie Raitt’s Longing In Their Hearts, Seal’s self-titled, and a 3 Tenors live album. I haven’t listened to these albums but already they don’t sound that interesting. Even for the older middlebrow tendencies of the Grammys, this was too much for people. Considering this was the era of acclaimed albums in alt-rock and rap, the Grammys clearly couldn’t go on nominating these kinds of mediocre works by comparison.

The next year, the Academy instituted secret nominating committees for the top categories in an attempt to get more relevant pieces of music nominated. While there would be popular albums that won in the years ahead with Alanis Morissette’s Jagged Little Pill winning the year after Bennett, many more inessential older leaning albums would still win making these nominating committees look not all that effective. After years of artists and fans complaining about their secretive nature, the Grammys this year did away completely with the nominating committees.

For the upcoming Grammys, Bennett has been nominated again in Album of the Year for Love for Sale, his second collaboration album with Lady Gaga which will most definitely be Bennett’s final album. Considering his retirement from performing and his now publicized Alzheimer’s diagnosis, perhaps he’ll pull off a win again with the Academy wanting to once again honor a legend and to give him a high note to go out on as he won’t be around for much longer. Honestly, I doubt it. While the nominating committees are gone, the Academy of 2021 is much different from the Academy of 1995. As I mentioned in my Raising Sand review, we’re mostly past the point of Album of the Year awards going to older legends in favor of younger and exciting artists who are more in tune with what’s popular now. Still, Tony Bennett has had an incredible run.

2 thoughts on “Album of the Year: Tony Bennett’s MTV Unplugged (1995)

  1. Even though I rarely listen to this type of music, a classic is a classic that will never go out of style. Tony Bennett is an amazing artist, no question. A true gem!

    I caught the tail end of CNN’s “60 Minutes” segment about Bennett the other day, and it was just amazing to see how this visibly Alzheimer-stricken 95-year-old man became a totally different person once the music started playing. Not only was he still able to sing beautifully, but he sang the words without looking at any sheets – like a switch had been flipped!

    Liked by 1 person

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