The Year’s Best Music DVDs: Kurt Cobain, From 20 Years Ago, Or Taylor Swift, Two Days Ago?

Chris Willman
Stop The Presses!

Sometimes it seems like it's only the divas putting out music DVDs nowadays. In just one two-week period at the end of November, we had new concert DVDs from Lady Gaga, Taylor Swift, Adele, Britney Spears, and Beyonce. At the risk of sounding sexist, the takeaway might be that these gals didn't spend all that time in hair, makeup, and the costume change pit not to be seen in close-up.

But the music DVD medium continues to be a boon for anyone with a taste for classic rock, too, whether to you that denotes the late '50s or early '90s. Our 10 essential music DVD buys from 2011:


"Ain't no greased-up men up here," Adele tells her royal audience, describing her homey stage set-up. "The tours are getting bigger and bigger. Maybe I'll order some greased-up men. Just for the dressing room, not for the stage." If a breakup album as potent as 21 led you to imagine Adele as a delicate wallflower, eternally wounded by lost love, this concert disc was the corrective to that. "He left me a couple of weeks after I wrote this song," she tells the audience, introducing "Turning Tables." "It was for the best, though. He was an ass and I was a b----. It wasn't going to work."

Later in the evening, she confides, "I do give as good as I get. I know I play on the victim on the album, but pffft. That poor boy!" Her language gets more Cockney-colorful, so if you want to preserve a certain reserved image of her, you'd best stick with the CDs. But if you're up for an informal dish session in the most formal of settings, her just-us-girls chatter is a delight. As a bonus, the singing's pretty ace, too.


Swift's secondary motto might be "Sell now." She struck while the touring iron was still hot, issuing this audio-video document of her Speak Now trek two days before the U.S. leg wrapped up at Madison Square Garden in November. Its freshness serves it well. All the pageantry that is missing from Adele's disc is on this one in force, but you don't get any less of a sense than you do with Adele that you're seeing the real artist, albeit one who likes to pop up out of trap doors as much as sing about romantic traps.

There's a lot to look at: the costume and set changes that occur every three songs or so; literal fireworks to accompany the emotional fireworks spoken of in "Dear John"; the sight of Swift flying over the audience at the end, singing "Love Story" from Juliet's airborne balcony. (In Swift's version of Shakespeare's tale, Romeo must ingest Dramamine instead of poison.) All the choreography and window dressing augments the core sentiments of Swift's songs, as if she'd written them to be live-action music videos. But she's at her best playing an acoustic guitar or ukelele by herself on the rear stage, mid-set, able to keep an arena rapt without whistles and bells. (You may want to go with the Target-only deluxe version, which includes extras like her acoustic cover of Gwen Stefani's "Sweet Escape.")


How in the name of all that's holy did it take 20 years for this to come out? Nirvana has been represented by a few previous live discs—including the Live! Tonight! Sold Out! DVD that included tantalizing excerpts from the show seen in full here. But there's never been anything quite so representative of the band in its prime as this 16mm rendering of a Seattle show filmed on Halloween of 1991, right when the trio stood on the precipice separating gold status from ruinous iconography. Krist Novoselic cracks a joke about there being "more cameras… than a 7-11," and the terrific multi-camera coverage of the three players (and two ironic go-go dancers) just makes you wonder all the more why this video never saw the light of day in the band's lifetime… and almost not in ours, either.


The second (and, sadly, final) season of Costello's interview-and-performance program brought on its two arguably biggest guests, Bruce Springsteen and U2. So you get to hear Bono and The Edge cover "Alison," while Elvis covers U2's "Dirty Day"; Costello and Springsteen team up on a medley of "Radio Radio" and "Radio Nowhere," whereas Costello and U2 join together for a mash-up of the stylistically identical "Pump It Up" and "Get On Your Boots." And that's not even acknowledging non-superstar guests like Neko Case, Nick Lowe, Richard Thompson, Ray Lamontagne, and John Prine. Costello is predictably great at being Charlie Rose and Paul Shaffer wrapped into one, and then some… inquisitor, fan, collaborator.


Actor Michael Rapaport made what was certainly the most controversial music documentary of the year—controversial within the group A Tribe Called Quest, anyway. Q-Tip railed against the movie on Twitter and boycotted the film's premiere, while MC Phife Dawg showed up at Sundance to champion the film and support Rapaport's depiction of the reunited outfit. The director's crime: revealing that veteran groups getting back together after a long split can have long-standing, unresolved rifts. Shocker! Petty stuff aside, Beats more than makes the case for ATCQ's crucial influence and is a must for anyone seriously interested in the history of hip-hop. After he calmed down, even Q-Tip dug it.


If nothing else, this release—which snuck out in late November with no fanfare—is easily the most elegantly packaged music DVD of the year. It comes in hardback-style "digibook" packaging, with a booklet that includes lots of art and a vintage essay by the late Lester Bangs that David Byrne particularly appreciated. But even if it came in a typically ugly plastic clamshell, Chronology would still be essential for aficionados of good old new wave. There's not a "music video" to be found here, just vintage performances from CBGB in 1976 to their one-off Rock & Roll Hall of Fame appearance in 2002 after an 18-year split.

The audio commentary by all four members makes for a great garage-to-riches oral history. (Byrne, who has resisted all reunion tour pleas, recorded his comments separately from the other members, of course.) Over black-and-white VHS from when the band was a mere trio, Byrne discusses "Psycho Killer" as "an exercise" in trying to write "kind of a folky, introspective version of an Alice Cooper-type song" that became "an albatross around our necks." The band members discuss the ethos that was just then developing that didn't allow for guitar solos of any type or length—"except (the group) Television." It's a fascinating glimpse at the real indie-rock revolution, decades before anyone thought to use the "I" word.


Neil Young has been putting on these annual benefits in the Bay area for, yes, a quarter century. So, amid some more recent footage, it's a little shocking to see late-'80s Bob Dylan showing up not looking like Vincent Price, or Bruce Springsteen with his full Born in the USA-era musculature. You also have to adjust your expectations for the square-ish aspect ratio, since much of this stuff was shot before the advent of widescreen TVs. Wonderful performances abound, not the least of them David Bowie's semi-acoustic reading of "Heroes" with Reeves Gabrels and Me'shell Ndegeocello.

Finally getting to see excerpts of sets from Simon & Garfunkel, the Who, Patti Smith, R.E.M., Tom Waits, Metallica, Gillian Welch and many more is great fun. But prepare to be frustrated, because 25 years of all-star shows are represented here by a mere 24 performances. (And if they had to boil it down that much, was there a reason for Billy Idol's "Rebel Yell" to be one of the 24?) But it's unlikely we'll get a bigger Bridge School boxed set before the 30th anniversary, so this skimpy-seeming sampler will have to do.


Maybe it's wrong to complain about the 20 years that Nirvana concert sat in the vault when this one has gathering dust for 33 years. For many fans, the Some Girls era was the Stones' last great one, and this superlative show won't make anyone think any different. Mick Jagger looks and sounds genuinely rude, as opposed to an athletic caricature of rock rudeness, and the interplay between Keith Richards and then-newcomer Ronnie Wood is fresh and lively. It's not the crispest filming of any Stones concert ever, so the Blu-Ray version is definitely optional on this one. But it's a thrilling document of a band then thought to be aged, proving just what whippersnappers we can only now realize they really were.


When Cameron Crowe's documentary made a brief appearance in theaters this year, some critics knocked it for focusing too much on Crowe's own adoration and not enough on tougher topics. But it's a love letter, for fans and by a fan, so once you accept that any examination of the balance of power between Eddie Vedder and the other members is only going to come under so severe of a microscope, you can go along for the ride and understand why a feature filmmaker with bigger or better things to do remains so evangelistic an enthusiast. And, since Crowe made himself a character so successfully in Almost Famous, you can almost consider this a sequel.


Why'd it take five years for this superlative concert special to come out on home video? (Then again, considering the Nirvana and Stones delays, cited above… never mind.) "I don't know if you know yet, but I kind of like to talk—it's perfect for me," Natalie Maines says of the don't-shut-up-and-sing format. VH1's show allowed the trio to go into detail about the confessional impetus behind Taking the Long Way, their 2006 album-of-the-year Grammy winner, which dominates the set list… although the "Not Ready to Make Nice" girls did get to the not-ready-to-be-righteous oldie "Sin Wagon."

Of course, we can't stop at 10, so here are five more DVDs from 2011 well worth your A/V attention:


The bad news was that this show treated all of Beyonce's output up until 4 as a mere prelude to her latest album, to be bundled into a half-hour narrated medley. The good news is that the full run-through she gave 4 proved the record is better than its reputation—and could never be better than when she's selling the material like she is here, at a series of New York shows that had to sub for a full tour due to the preggers factor. Just be sure you have tolerance for a full hour's worth of indoor windswept hair.


One of the great bands of the '70s finally got the full-scale documentary it deserved. Stick around for the bonus features, which have Ian Hunter talking in 2008 about what a mistake it would be to get everyone back together and let the public see a group that's "no longer powerful or desperate"—followed by footage from their 2009 reunion shows, their first in 35 years.


The two discs of live material included here have previously been released, but they've been cleaned up—allowing fans a better look at clips ranging from Steve Allen's show in '56 to the feature film years to some rather less galvanizing pre-post-mortem performances.


Two oft-requested rock docs finally got their much-belated DVD releases this fall—one focusing on Sonic Youth (with a side dish of Nirvana) in the early '90s, the other on one of the great L.A. bands of all time, X, caught between punk breakouts in the mid-'80s.