Rihanna’s Raunch, Alicia’s Glamor Outdone by Fagen: CDs

The cover of Rihanna's album "Unapologetic." The star's seventh studio album continues a fourth year in her tradition of releases every November. Source: PRNewsFoto/Island Def Jam via Bloomberg

Rihanna’s best-selling album is called “Unapologetic.” It might as well be called “Autopilot.”

This is the fourth straight year that the Barbadian singer has released an album before Christmas. Each one shouts a little louder her claim to be the new Queen of Pop. As the sales rack up, I wonder whether she needs to yell as much.

It’s true that the 24-year-old shines as bright as Beyonce at times, such as on the single “Diamonds.” There’s sexy raunch with attitude everywhere. Still, there’s nothing on her latest CD as headline-grabbing as her offstage antics.

On the song “Nobody’s Business,” she insists her personal life is hers alone. This plea for privacy from a publicity seeker looks absurd.

The track, after all, is a duet with Rihanna’s on-off boyfriend Chris Brown, who in 2009 pleaded guilty to assaulting her. Now they are singing “you’ll always be mine, sing it to the world.” Nobody’s business except it’s on every front page. Rating: **

Alicia Keys’s latest CD is also mistitled.

“Girl on Fire” has piano-led lukewarm ballads which rarely get hot. Even in its “Inferno Version,” the glamorous title track is never exactly inflammatory.

Keys reflects on marriage and motherhood with a classy collection of R&B, all too frequently lapsing into cliche on numbers such as “Brand New Me.” Rating: **

The Bruno Mars album “Unorthodox Jukebox” is an uneven piece of work with a fun single in “Locked Out of Heaven.” I’m both hoping and fearing he will turn into Michael Jackson in a few years’ time. For the moment, he has more potential than good material. Rating: *

Donald Fagen’s “Sunken Condos” is as excellent as his work with the band Steely Dan. Fagen remains a perfectionist who certainly doesn’t rush recording -- he’s made just four solo albums since 1981. This one matches 2006’s “Morph the Cat.” The jazzy rock is lush and sophisticated, with the first title, “Slinky Thing,” pointing the way. Rating: *****

Amadou & Mariam, Ali Farka Toure, Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu, Staff Benda Bilili, Tinariwen. No, this isn’t some top-secret code or magical spell from “The Hobbit.”

It’s a list of some of the best names in world music. Tinariwen fashions the most amazing harmonies in the Algerian desert for its latest, the likeable “Tassili.” Rating: ***

The Enid is a veteran U.K. band for whom the word “cult” might have been invented. I first saw them more than 20 years ago and the new CD “Invicta” is a late-blooming beauty worth investigating. The disc mixes churchy chorals with sweeping prog rock. Rating: ****

Rock’s favorite brainbox is back. Brian Eno’s CD “Lux” is a return to his trademark ambient music. It’s not as good as the outstanding “Thursday Afternoon,” though on par with the minimalist “Neroli” and “Music for Airports.” Rating: ***.

Rock’s second-favorite intellectual, Eno’s friend David Byrne, isn’t content with a cerebral new book, the fine “How Music Works.” He also has a CD with St. Vincent, “Love This Giant,” a quirky piece of songwriting as baffling as it is beguiling. Rating: **

Blur’s “ParkLive” is now out, capturing the band’s concert in Hyde Park for the end of the London Olympics. There are soaring versions of hits such as “This is a Low” and “The Universal.” I saw fans weeping at the prospect of this being Blur’s last show. For those who were there, and for the rest, this is a fine record of a great performance. Rating: ****

Rihanna is on Island, Keys on RCA, Mars on Atlantic, Fagen on Reprise, Tinariwen on Anti, Eno on Warp, Byrne on 4AD and Blur on Virgin. The Enid is on import from Seraphim Records. The CDs are priced from $9.99 and download prices vary across services.

What the Stars Mean:
*****      Exceptional
****       Excellent
***        Good
**         Average
*          Poor
(No stars) Worthless

(Mark Beech writes for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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