While moaning to a local publication about the unenthusiastic response U2 received from critics after its recent Chicago concerts, Bono protested that the band had "Kid A'd itself to death," referring to Radiohead's adventurous art-rock album and making the specious claim that a band can't be sonically adventurous and still make inviting pop music. The eagerly awaited third album from Coldplay -- British musicians who are acknowledged acolytes of both U2 and Radiohead -- not only exposes that notion for a blatant copout and superficial lie, it stands as the best disc this group has made to date.

On their first two albums, Chris Martin and his bandmates achieved multiplatinum sales and established themselves as rock's best bid to reclaim the pop charts with indelible singles such as "In My Place," "Yellow" and "Clocks"; the group's label has, in fact, been banking on this release to assure its fiscal solvency. On those earlier discs, Coldplay may have been a successful band, but it wasn't a great one. As it entered the studio this time, it was determined to show its depth by crafting a new set of songs that were both instantly accessible (a la U2 in its "Vertigo" mode) and modestly experimental (a la Radiohead), and it has largely succeeded.

To be sure, Martin is much too traditional a folk-based singer-songwriter to break real musical ground and fully embrace the avant-garde; he's content to leave that to the likes of Damon Albarn and Danger Mouse with their Gorrillaz collaboration. But just as U2 turned to sonic alchemist Brian Eno to inspire its most adventurous albums, "X&Y" incorporates elements of the swirling ambience of Eno and David Bowie's fabled "Berlin trilogy" -- there's even a song here called "Low" -- as well as nicking melodies and rhythms from several cult-favorite German art-rock bands. (Kraftwerk's "Computer Love" provides the hook for Coldplay's "Talk," which Martin acknowledges by granting co-songwriting credit, though no such thanks are given to Neu! for numerous lifts of its trance-inducing "motorik" rhythm.)

"X&Y" is not without its problems: Coldplay remains inordinately fond of plodding balladesque tempos; the whining quality of Martin's voice is dangerously exposed on the unlisted acoustic bonus track "'Til Kingdom Come," which was originally written for Johnny Cash, and the piano-pounding bandleader's romantic streak is worthy of a lovelorn 13-year-old taking her first poetry class. "What if you don't want me there by your side/What if you don't want me there in the light," Martin moans on "What If," one of about three dozen declarations of undying love for his wife, actress Gwyneth Paltrow.

But these are minor quibbles compared to the distinctive soundscapes and strong melodies that the quartet creates on "Square One," "Speed of Sound" and "Hardest Part," songs that are as infectious as they are inventive. U2 used to make pop music that was both this catchy and this weird, but it hasn't since "Achtung Baby." Thankfully, we have Coldplay to fill the void.



Despite the stepped-up presence of some piano, the surprising introduction of marimba and a few noteworthy production tricks of the sort that Jack and Meg White eschewed in the past in favor of a "live from the garage" rawness, the Detroit duo has hardly compromised its devotion to minimalism on its fifth album, and its best virtue is still its ability to surprise listeners with how much of a musical impact it can make with so few ingredients.

The real departure on "Get Behind Me Satan" isn't a slightly slicker approach, but a turn away from gutbucket blues toward soulful old-school R&B -- a move that was probably inevitable for these Motown residents. On the opener, "Blue Orchid," the group hits as hard as it did with "Fell in Love With a Girl," but this time, there's a hint of funk in Meg's primal pounding, and Jack delivers the tune via an impressive sub-Smokey Robinson falsetto. Meanwhile, the downright groovy "My Doorbell" and "Forever for Her (Is Over for Me)" rank with the most instantly endearing tunes the group has recorded.

Showing what Jack brought home from his celebrated collaboration with Loretta Lynn, there is also one successful foray into country -- "I'm Lonely (But I Ain't That Lonely Yet)" is a memorable waltz that closes the disc -- as well as one failed effort, "My Ghost," which is propelled by a backwoods fiddle. The latter is one of the duo's annoying pseudo-children's-ditty toss-offs, and the White Stripes' biggest shortcoming remains a tendency to overplay that cloying, faux-naive, pseudo-infantile outsider artist pose. Witness also the requisite Meg throwaway, "Panic Manipulation."

However, there are also hints that the band is growing into something much more substantive. "Take, Take, Take" is a standout and a rare "I hate the burdens of celebrity" whine that succeeds because it maintains a sharp sense of humor -- this is clearly Jack's comment on the tabloid frenzy that greeted his relationship with Renee Zellweger. And "As Ugly as I Seem" is a non-apologetic "I'm only human" rock classic that could be the songwriter's non-apologetic mea culpa for his infamous fistfight with the leader of rival Detroit garage-rockers the Von Bondies.



The Northwest trio's slavishly devoted critical cheerleaders are hailing the band's seventh album as a break from its often atonal art-rock past and a surprising move toward classic-rock a la Jimi Hendrix and Creedence Clearwater Revival; there's a little bit of cowbell and harmonica here and there, and a whole lot of guitar soloing, ably recorded by hipster producer of the moment, Dave Fridmann (Flaming Lips, Mercury Rev). But those filigrees do not a Hendrix nor a John Fogerty make.

Sleater-Kinney's gender role-challenging politics have always been more laudable than its actual sounds, and the pretentious, unmelodic caterwauling and pointless thrashing of the 10 unmemorable and thoroughly generic indie-rock ditties on "The Woods" is no exception. You can cheer the sentiment of a line such as "The Red and the Blue now/It's Truth against Truth," from "Wilderness." But the joyless din of the tune itself gives you no reason to want to hear it again.