Susan McKeown, "Belong" (Hibernian Music)
Having now spent half her life in America, Irish-born singer/songwriter McKeown, 45, commemorates that milestone with a CD featuring her original material presented in an Americana context. Her delivery is a little more histrionic, a little more precise than Americans are accustomed to, yet the pure sound is more sublime than affected, her clear voice reaching straight to listeners and enchanting with words and melody. In addition, "Belong" includes two duet partners -- including Irishman Declan O'Rourke on the gorgeous opener "On the Bridge to Williamsburg" -- who serve just enough tatter to scuff her polish. McKeown's smart lyrics are a constant source of intrigue, whether she's articulating the tale of a woman of ill repute who reaches her breaking point (the grim "Delph") or questioning the last stand of a relationship ("Our Texas").
CHUCK CAMPBELL, Scripps Howard News Service
The-Dream, "Terius Nash: 1977" (Island Def Jam)
The-Dream, the songwriter/producer behind Rihanna's latest and Beyoncé's upcoming album, wrote the bulk of this record after his divorce from singer Christina Milian in 2010. He released it last year as a mixtape, a more fitting outlet for the grittier, more expletive-filled R&B here than a full-fledged commercial release. However, the rawness of such ballads as "Wake Me When It's Over" and the cleverly expressed anger behind "Real" touch a nerve. "1977" doesn't quite stack up against The-Dream's more polished work, but the intensity of the emotion keeps it interesting.
GLENN GAMBOA, NEWSDAY
Chief Keef, "Finally Rich" (Glory Boys/Interscope)
Arriving amid the holiday good cheer, the studio debut of this Chicago gangsta rapper offers infectious odes to nihilism and tirades against haters that are as simple-minded and catchy as they are brutal. Musically, the album shimmers with power, which makes the dozen songs feel even more dangerous. "Hallelujah" is filled with venom, for example. Supported by bass-heavy exclamation points and crunk-suggestive skittering high-hat runs, the track is about how, at 17, he's "finally" rich.
RANDALL ROBERTS, Los Angeles Times
Brubeck Brothers Quartet, "Lifetimes" (Blue Forest)
Dave Brubeck is no longer on this earthly bandstand, but his sons play on, mining the artistic and entertainment values the old man championed. Bassist and trombonist Chris and drummer Dan Brubeck create a warm, mainstream quartet that covers a bunch of tunes linked to dad, ranging from Paul Desmond's iconic "Take Five," done here as more electric and stiff, to "Kathy's Waltz," a winsome tribute to his daughter. The quartet, with guitarist Mike DeMicco and pianist Chuck Lamb, presents a well-honed sound that is perfectly respectable, if kind of safe.
KARL STARK, Philadelphia Inquirer