Music DVDs are typically used as stopgaps between CD releases or to drum up support for some other project (movie cameo, tour, impending jail sentence) that an artist is promoting. Most amount to little more than hastily shot concert films, music-video compilations, or the latest chapters in continuing sagas about horny midgets and one very crowded closet. Here are the best music DVDs of the past couple months — perfect for gift-giving.
Amazing Journey: The Story of the Who (Universal Studios): This feature-length documentary is not as fun as the Who's 1979 performance-clip extravaganza The Kids Are Alright, but it is more revealing. It's also more poignant, since only singer Roger Daltrey and guitarist Pete Townshend are still alive. So there's much reflection. The famously feuding duo (Daltrey once knocked Townshend out cold backstage) is all hugs and kisses in the recent interview sections. You'll want to skip them and head straight to the searing live clips from the '60s and '70s, when the Who could very well have been the best band on the planet.
Classic Albums: Reasonable Doubt (Eagle Rock): Jay-Z's 1996 debut goes under the microscope for this incisive doc featuring recollections by Mary J. Blige, Kanye West, and Jigga himself. Everyone goes out of their way to clarify that Reasonable Doubt isn't gangsta rap; rather, it's a slice-of-life portrait ripped straight from Jay's decaying 'hood — a ghetto opera, if you will. The star offers the most perspective, sitting down with his original producers to reconstruct beats and rhymes on camera.
Flight of the Conchords (HBO): This two-disc set features the first season of HBO's hilarious show about a pair of New Zealand musicians who try to make it big in New York. Like main influences Spinal Tap and Tenacious D, the Conchords' musical satire is sharp to the point of, Are they joking or not? The dozen episodes follow the duo's quest for gigs and girls. The guitar-strumming stars break out in song (no genre is left unscathed: indie-pop, hip-hop, Kraftwerk-inspired robofunk) whenever they feel the urge. It says a lot that the group's only fan is a crazy stalker whose husband drives her around town.
Help! (Apple): The Beatles' second movie (from 1965) is a doobie-fueled romp that riffs on everything from James Bond flicks to travelogue pics to the Fab Four's own mythos. After a nutty religious sect stops a ritualistic sacrifice because it's missing a sacred ring, knife-wielding loonies head to England to pry the jewel from (who else?) Ringo's finger. Mad scientists also join the chase. With bizarre non sequiturs, wacked-out set-pieces, and excellent songs ("You've Got to Hide Your Love Away," "Ticket to Ride," and the title tune among them), Help! remains an amusing period artifact. The two-disc set includes a making-of doc and a deleted scene.
Unplugged in New York (Geffen/MTV Networks/UME): Nirvana's legendary acoustic performance from 1993 (just four months before Kurt Cobain killed himself) still resonates on its DVD debut. Coming off the raw and untethered In Utero album (the most cathartic blast of noise to ever reach the top of the charts), Cobain, bassist Krist Novoselic, and drummer Dave Grohl turned down the volume for an MTV Unplugged taping. Playing covers (David Bowie's "The Man Who Sold the World"), traditional blues numbers ("Where Did You Sleep Last Night?"), and a couple of songs with their heroes the Meat Puppets, Nirvana transcended and perfected the entire "unplugged" concept. Cobain's haunted version of "All Apologies" serves as a fitting requiem.
PopMart Live From Mexico City (Island/Interscope/UME): Yes, Pop remains one of U2's flabbiest albums. But this concert from December 1997 finds Bono and the boys in fighting shape. They keep the set packed with classics like "New Year's Day," "With or Without You," and "One." The second disc is filled with goodies: live audio tracks, previously unseen video footage, and four different documentaries, which chart the tour from its garish start in Las Vegas to a stop in war-torn Sarajevo.
Wild Style (Rhino): The original b-boy flick (from 1982) looks a little wickety-wickety-wack these days, thanks to director Charlie Ahearn's amateur cast. Graffiti artist Lee Quinones essentially plays himself in this streetwise story about South Bronx kids who spend their days and nights tagging railroad cars, vacant buildings, and pretty much everything else that doesn't move. This 25th-anniversary edition includes a documentary starring Fab 5 Freddy and others. But the real stars are the pioneering hip-hoppers — the Cold Crush Brothers, the Rock Steady Crew, and Grandmaster Flash, furiously cutting on the decks and showing the world that hip-hop, in its birth pangs, would not be stopped.