THE STROKES First Impressions of Earth (Hed Artzi) The problem with releasing an almost perfect debut album is that all subsequent work is measured against it - and usually comes up short. There's nothing like the thrill of hearing a young band take an established genre and turn it on its ear, and The Strokes' 2000 debut Is This It did just that, with its gritty but melodic New York punk and inventive guitar interplay. Unfortunately that moment of exhilarating discovery for a listener usually doesn't appear that strongly ever again, even if the band in question continues their inspired ways. And that's been the case with The Strokes. Perhaps feeling the pressure after the mixed reception and poor sales of its underrated followup Room on Fire, the quintet felt that they had to produce an epic "make or break" album. Therefore First Impressions of Earth is almost the length of the first two records combined, sort of a contradiction for a band that prides itself on its slash and burn pop conciseness. That dreaded word for garage bands - maturation - comes to mind, but for the most part, the music is still undeniably and identifiably The Strokes. And that means great. The band's meat and potatoes continues to be the call and response counterpoint parts provided by guitarists Nick Valensi, Albert Hammond Jr. and bassist Nikilai Fraiture, and the inspired braying of vocalist Julian Casablancas - based on the model provided by CBGBs pioneers Television. In fact the opener "You Only Live Once" practically channels that band and makes you wonder where Tom Verlaine is these days. Other highlights include "Juicebox", which finds them attempting a heavier Foo Fighters sound before surrendering to a jittery pop chorus, and "Ask Me Anything" which sounds like a gentle classical concerto topped by Casablancas' repeated moaning of the line "I've got nothing to sayâ€¦" The infectious reggae-tinged "On The Other Side" provides a great sing along pop moment, and on and on we could go - the album is rock solid. There's just nothing that makes you go 'wow', and in today's recording industry climate, only the word blockbuster is operative. While First Impressions of Earth provides rock & roll salvation to all who seek it, whether it will be The Strokes' salvation remains to be seen. SHAKIRA Oral Fixation (Vol. 2) (Hed Artzi) It's impossible to categorize Shakira, Latin pop's biggest female crossover singer since J-Lo. Ever since becoming a sensation with her first English-language release in 2001, Laundry Service, she's swum against the tide of traditional pop stardom. Instead of cashing in on the sexy rhythms and disposable dance pop that made her a star, she decided to release the traditional Spanish-language Fijaci n Oral followed by the all English rock-oriented Oral Fixation. With master producer Rick Rubin helping out, Shakira reinvents herself as a serious rocker with a penchant for power chords - let's say a cross between Alanis Morissette and Pat Benatar. And it's not bad. Her unique guttural vocals provide an extra dimension to the standard arena rock of "How Do You Do" and "Animal City". And she throws enough curve balls in the likes of the torchy "Costume Makes the Clown" and the dance protest of "Timor" to almost make you forget the belly dancing from her old video clips. She still manages to mention her breasts in the lyrics as well as the fact she has a 24 inch waist, but if anyone can do that and retain credibility, it's Shakira.