Madonna
(Maverick/Warner Bros.)
Critic's Choice

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In the liner notes to her ninth studio disc, Madonna thanks Gibson manufacturers "for my bitchin' new guitars." The instrument, which the singer played on her Drowned World tour in 2001, is all over her latest, although Madonna leaves the actual strumming to producer-musician Mirwais Ahmadzaï. The result is one of her most artful, adventurous albums, a work that deftly combines the pulsing electronica of 1998's Ray of Light and 2000's Music with the kind of organic-sounding acoustic guitar that you might expect on a Jewel CD. Call it futuristic folk.

This electro-acoustic approach, which Madonna earlier experimented with on her fab 2001 hit "Don't Tell Me," breathes Life into her and Ahmadzaï's bottomless bag of techno tricks on songs like the propulsive title track. Meanwhile the disc's more hardcore electronica numbers, such as the zig-zagging "Nobody Knows Me," have an almost rockish feel; you can imagine a garage band playing them live. Best, though, is "Nothing Fails," which, with its spiritual lyrics ("I'm not religious/ But I feel such love/Makes me want to pray") and glorious background vocals by the London Community Gospel Choir, is a "Like a Prayer" for the 21st century.

BOTTOM LINE: Great American dream

Pete Yorn (Columbia)

With this impressive follow-up to his critically acclaimed 2001 debut, musicforthemorningafter, singer-song-writer Pete Yorn doesn't hit a sophomore slump. This tight, 12-song set is virtually filler-free, boasting consistently catchy melodies and uncommonly intelligent lyrics. "I'm looking for my best friends/ I'm tired of all the people I'm seeing through," he sings in his earnest Everyman voice on the reflective "Pass Me By." As on his first CD, Yorn, who brings to mind a less country but more down-to-earth Ryan Adams, is essentially a one-man band, resourcefully playing guitar, bass and drums while delivering his alternative pop-rock for grown-ups.

BOTTOM LINE: Memorable Day

The White Stripes (Third Man/ V2)

Singer-guitarist Jack "White and his ex-wife, drummer Meg White, who comprise this garage-rock revival band, change their stripes on their fourth disc by finally pumping up the bass. Your subwoofer will quickly get a workout on the ominous opener, "Seven Nation Army," which begins with just a thick, thumping bass line that anchors the blistering attack. Throughout, the Detroit duo cranks out the raw, witty rockers that marked its 2001 breakthrough release, White Blood Cells. Jack wrote all but one tune, a radical reworking of "I Just Don't Know What to Do with Myself" that, with his anguished wail, subverts the '60s gem more than Cameron Diaz did in My Best Friend's Wedding.

BOTTOM LINE: A roaring success

She's been recording for 20 years. Here are the pop diva's five essential albums:

Madonna (1983). A dance-floor classic from start ("Lucky Star") to finish ("Everybody").

Like a Virgin (1984). Sassy, sexy synth-pop defining the Material Girl.

Like a Prayer (1989). An inspired Madonna expresses herself better than ever before vocally and lyrically.

The Immaculate Collection (1990). This CD of all the '80s hits shows her uncanny knack for great singles.

•Ray of Light (1998). Electronica gives Madonna a creative charge.