New CDs from Rihanna, Lee DeWyze, Nelly, Keith Urban

Rihanna, "Loud" Grade: A Rihanna is back. Forget the concerns with last year's dark, disappointing "Rated R," which awkwardly dealt with her all-too-public breakup with Chris Brown. With the bright and shiny "Loud" (Def Jam), she rebounds with he...

Rihanna performs at the 38th Annual American Music Awards on Sunday in Los Angeles. Rihanna rebounds with her best album yet with the bright and shiny album "Loud" (Def Jam).

Rihanna, "Loud" Grade: A

Rihanna is back.

Forget the concerns with last year's dark, disappointing "Rated R," which awkwardly dealt with her all-too-public breakup with Chris Brown. With the bright and shiny "Loud" (Def Jam), she rebounds with her best album yet.

Though Miss "Umbrella" is understandably best known for her singles, "Loud" rewards those who listen to it as a whole.

The first half is filled with StarGate-produced club anthems, starting with the clever, up-tempo "S&M" and ending with the massive Euro-trance "Only Girl (in the World)," which brings the drama as well as the BPMs.


She slows things down -- for "What's My Name," which is already No. 1 and deservedly heading for omnipresence, and the soon-to-be smashes "Cheers (Drink to That)," which likely will spawn catch phrases and countless drunken sing-alongs, and "Fading," a playful kiss-off. But they all fit together as social tales set in public places.

The epic ballad "California King Bed" is a worthy centerpiece, showing off how Rihanna's vocals have grown and how she has adapted the seriousness from "Rated R" into a more workable sound.

The second half of "Loud" is more private, filled with regrets and worries, from the ska-influenced "Man Down" to "Love the Way You Lie (Part 2)," the sequel to her hit duet with Eminem, telling the tale from her point of view.

With "Loud," Rihanna shows that pop albums can be complex and upbeat, thought-provoking and successful. And, man, is "Loud" going to be successful, since every song here is a potential hit. Drink to that, RiRi.

Lee DeWyze, "Live It Up" Grade: B-plus

Yeah, Lee DeWyze's post-"American Idol" single and tour were greeted with a collective cultural yawn and the reigning "Idol" looked destined for the Taylor Hicks House of Low-Level Stardom.

But DeWyze is a scrapper and "Live It Up" (RCA) shows it. He crafted the best post-"Idol" debut since Carrie Underwood by playing to his strengths and knowing where he could fit into the pop landscape. The grand, piano-driven "Brooklyn Bridge" and catchy "Earth Stood Still" cast him as an earnest John Mayer. The lovely ballad "Beautiful Like You" is like a fired-up version of The Fray. The title track is part laid-back Jack Johnson, part playful Jason Mraz.

His only misstep turns out to be the first single, "Sweet Serendipity" -- an upbeat but bland cousin to Kris Allen/ The Script's overstuffed "Live Like We're Dying" that feels more like a record label ploy than an artistic choice. They'd be better off letting Lee be Lee.


Nelly, "5.0" Grade: B-minus

It seemed like Nelly had reinvented himself for his new "5.0" (Universal Motown) album, with the Europop-leaning, guitar-tinged single "Just a Dream."

After all, the St. Lunatics style that made him one of the Aughts' biggest hip-hop stars had gotten stale by 2008's "Brass Knuckles," and he needed to shake things up.

"Just a Dream" does just that, putting Nelly's distinctive flow into more timely surroundings. "Nothing Without Her" takes it even further, as he sings over a One Republic-ish ballad, complete with guitar solo, while the dance-oriented "Liv Tonight," featuring Keri Hilson, has more in common with David Guetta than "Country Grammar."

Unfortunately, Nelly can't let go of his past completely and gets stuck in some dated sounds (the plodding "I'm No. 1") and dated ideas (the annoying "Broke").

The result is that "5.0" doesn't sound quite done -- maybe "4.5," at best.

Keith Urban, "Get Closer" Grade: B-plus

After testing the poppier and rockier boundaries of country on the Grammy-winning "Defying Gravity," Keith Urban has returned to more straightforward country on his new album, "Get Closer" (Capitol).


Though he still tries to inject some rock guitar solos into the proceedings, Urban's sweet spot is the heartwarming ballad, and he delivers some lovey-dovey doozies this time out. "All for You" is touching in its simplicity, an acoustic weeper that seems primed for wedding receptions, while "Right on Back to You" will work as a well-crafted apology. "Without You," with its fragile guitar and lush fiddles, is all about offering a vulnerable sentiment -- "The fast cars, the guitars, they are all just second to this life, this love that you and I've been dreaming of for so long."

Even when he rocks it up in the single "Put You in a Song," Urban is still trying to cover being smitten with some clever analogies.

"Get Closer" doesn't break any new ground for Urban, but sometimes even the adventurous just want to stay home and snuggle.

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