Rihanna – Rated R

What a fascinating career Rihanna has already had.

By 2008, she had sold more than 12 million albums worldwide and notched more #1 singles than any other woman this decade (or century, or millennium). And she was just 19 years old, having gone from an unknown schoolgirl in a small town in Barbados to an international megastar.

And then, on the night of the 2009 Grammys, she became the most famous victim of domestic violence since Tina Turner when her boyfriend, singer Chris Brown, viciously beat her during an argument in his car. The pictures of Rihanna following the incident were horrific, as was the prospect of her returning to Brown’s side — which she did, briefly, before thinking better of it and leaving him for good.

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Lyle Lovett – Natural Forces

When I wrapped up my recent Lyle Lovett theme weeks, I held out hope that he would break out of the slump he’d been in for the past dozen years or so. His last album, It’s Not Big It’s Large, was a step in the right direction — a bit slight, but featuring stronger material than he’d released in years. I figured his next turn at bat would be major.

I was wrong.

Natural Forces is another stop-gap Lyle Lovett album, enjoyable enough for what it is but a shadow of the man’s best work. It contains only four original songs and most of those aren’t even as good as the covers that make up the rest of the album. It’s a pleasure, as always, to hear Lovett and his peerless band perform but it’s a fleeting pleasure when what you really want is the next Road to Ensenada or Joshua Judges Ruth.

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John Mayer – Battle Studies

I’m often intrigued by the group think exhibited by music and movie critics — not so much in their appraisal of a new work but in the angle from which they approach it. The most recent example I’ve noticed is in the commentary on John Mayer’s new album, Battle Studies, which I’ve been enjoying for about a week now.

Almost every review I’ve read has made a point to comment on the dichotomy between Mayer’s public image (including a popular Twitter account, stand-up comedy routines and frequent appearances on tabloid covers with the likes of Jennifer Aniston and Jessica Simpson) and the low-key, earnest music he records.

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Bob Dylan – Christmas in the Heart

christmasintheheartJust what everybody was clamoring for… an album of Christmas classics sung in the dulcet tones of Mr. Bob Dylan! In a career of head-scratching surprises, on the surface Bob Dylan’s latest release, Christmas in the Heart, might just be the head-scratchingest.

Here are 15 traditional Christmas songs — everything from ‘Little Drummer Boy’ and ‘Winter Wonderland’ to ‘Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas’ and ‘Here Comes Santa Claus’ — played totally straight, complete with a choir of backup singers that make Frank Sinatra’s “j-i-n-g-l-e bells” seem downright gritty.

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Elvis Costello – Secret, Profane and Sugarcane

sugarcaneElvis Costello has been releasing albums both major and minor about once a year for three decades now, which is an achievement in itself. That only one or two of them can be considered mediocre, and not one truly bad, is an astonishing accomplishment. And his latest album, Secret, Profane and Sugarcane, puts him in no danger of breaking that streak.

It is, though, one of his “minor” albums, a genre exercise that recycles a few older tunes and doesn’t aim too high. It’s a low-key collection of old-timey bluegrass numbers about carnival men and slave traders, loose women and broken-hearted men. The songs are not as innovative or strong on melody as Costello’s best output, but they work well as a group.

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Bob Dylan – Together Through Life

togetherthroughlifeMy recent post about the new video for Bob Dylan’s ‘Beyond Here Lies Nothing’ reminded me that I’ve been putting off my review of the album on which that song appears, Together Through Life.

It’s hard to believe that, at 68 years old, Bob Dylan is in the middle of a streak that rivals his output in the mid 1960s. From 1965-67, he released Bringing it All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited, Blonde on Blonde and John Wesley Harding. That streak would be a career for most artists.

It took him a little longer this time, but from 1997 through this year, he has released Time Out of Mind, Love and Theft, Modern Times and now Together Through Life — another streak that other artists must envy.

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Eminem – Relapse

relapseIt’s been five years since Eminem’s last album — the mediocre Encore — and I’m torn on whether his new one, Relapse, was worth the wait.

On the one hand, it is a return to form in many ways — the rhymes are fast and furious and Dr. Dre’s production particularly strong — but on the other hand, I wonder if Eminem in form is really enough of a draw anymore. The violent sexual fantasies that were so shocking and unsettling on his first two albums, especially when you found yourself guiltily chuckling through them, feel like retreads all these years later.

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