The Key's Year-End Mania: Emily Herbein's top unplugged and intimate performances of 2018 - WXPN | Vinyl At Heart
Mac Miller | photo by Elsah Attar for NPR

Year-End Mania is the Key’s annual survey of the things below the surface that made 2018 incredible. Today, Key contributing writer Emily Herbein reflects on her favorite stripped down performances of the year.

When artists go acoustic, they tend to reveal a whole new layer of their songwriting that we didn’t notice earlier. Whether it’s a touring artist stopping by a radio station to give an unplugged performance, or a band using their YouTube channel for an intimate take of a known-and-loved song, these performances have the ability to forge new emotional connections or solidify existing ones. Here are my top unplugged and intimate performances of the year.

The 1975 “102” Acoustic Performance

After posting a string of acoustic performances of new and new-ish tracks following the long-awaited release of A Brief Inquiry Into Online Relationships album, The 1975 took us all by surprise and recorded an acoustic version of an old song, “102.” You can’t even find this one on an album. It’s a YouTube-only original, and Matty Healy redid it beautifully. Somehow, he managed to make a sad song sadder. I scrolled through the comments on the video and one user couldn’t have said it better: “In the original version he sounds broken, in this one he sounds bittersweet.” I love that. I was so beyond surprised when this popped up on my To Watch list, and I haven’t stopped listening since. Healy’s voice is subdued, a drastic change from the singles off the latest album, and the lyrics are clear and melancholic and worth remembering. He’s one of my favorite lyricists, and this song is one of the biggest reasons why.

Anthony Green Studio 4 Acoustic Session

Before he surprise released his latest solo record, Would You Still Be In Love, in June, Anthony Green took to his second home at Studio 4 in Conshohocken to record eleven live tracks with longtime friend and producer Will Yip. Aside from the songs he chose, one of the best parts of this seemingly out of nowhere release is the fact that Green interacts with the audience between tracks, or explain songs, and we get to hear it. It makes the session that much more personal and special.

This session pulls from nearly every solo album he has, along with a cover and an exclusive early Circa Survive song. In typical Green fashion, none of these songs sound exactly like their recorded counterparts. He’s a fan of changing lyrics to fit his mood or the context of his life. He almost always reworks specific sections of “Babygirl” and adds extra, almost forgotten lyrics to the verses that feel like they could have been there all along. Ever original, nothing is ever set in stone with an Anthony Green performance. He also explained his choice for the cover “Love,” originally from Disney’s animated Robin Hood film, which until I listened to this session, I had no idea what his reasoning was, other than the fact that it’s a beautiful song. (He heard it while waiting in the dentist’s office with his kids).

Mac Miller Tiny Desk Concert

We have to talk about Mac Miller’s Tiny Desk Concert, recorded just two months before his sudden passing. This was the first time he’d performed tracks from his newest, and final, release, Swimming, for an audience. You can see a change in him just by looking at him – and that makes watching this that much harder. He looks happy. He didn’t look like a guy who’d been in the spotlight because of a relationship. He looks like he knows that he’s about to take the whole world by storm with this album. During the opening song, “Small Worlds,” there’s this feeling of optimism within the lyrics and his demeanor. He’s calm and collected, singing to himself. Whether that’s due to nerves of not knowing how the new music will be received, or because he was at ease with the work he’d done and was truly just singing for himself, it leaves the viewer with a sense of longing. Mac Miller loved working with others, and the backing musician Thundercat on bass was a longtime friend and collaborator. This Tiny Desk was just a small glimpse into what the world would have seen with Swimming. Mac Miller was the epitome of potential. He was a true poet and musician, and the chance to debut new songs on a small, stripped down scale looked like it meant something special to him.

Found Wild Key Studio Session

Following the arrival of a new Good Old War side project, Found Wild, the duo picked up a tremendous amount of speed in Philly. After joining Anthony Green on his Avalon tour this past summer, Found Wild stopped by the WXPN studio for a Key Session. If you kept up with The Key at all this summer, then you will have seen their name floating around various articles and headlines a handful of times. The melancholic project, headed by Tim Arnold, Found Wild is a redemptive undertaking supported by Keith Goodwin, and their lifelong friendship is completely evident in these new songs. The session included stripped down versions of “No One At All,” “Nothing Gold Can Last,” and “Ghosts on Paper,” the only track that is not included on their debut self-titled EP. The performance contemplative, earnest, and passionate. Their live, onstage persona is typically fun and easy going, but this private recording is taken much more seriously. It shows the two sides of the band – the heaviness of the lyrics that stem from Arnold’s own life, and the relief that comes from the friendship between Arnold and Goodwin. It’s an incredibly beautiful and deliberate rendition of three of their songs.

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Maggie Rogers Live at The Current

Powerhouse vocalist Maggie Rogers visited The Current studio a few weeks ago and played  “Fallingwater” with a single acoustic guitar, and if your jaw wasn’t on the floor after watching this, then you need to press restart and watch it again. This eclectic, illuminating soul is fresh off her SNL debut and currently on tour with Mumford & Sons, and has her first LP scheduled for release in early 2019. This performance is intimately raw, untouched, and strong. Rogers has this incredible ability to jump into epic belted notes and then immediately dial it back and flutter her voice in this contemplative and vulnerable way. She plays both ends of the vocal spectrum intelligently and purposely, and she varies the power of her voice throughout this heartbreaking performance in the best way she knows how.

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