The best music of 2010

The best music of 2010

Here’s how The A.V. Club comes up with our yearly list of the Top 25 albums: We collectively try to decide what the mythical “hipsters” want us to put on the list, then vote accordingly. Wait, no, that’s not what we do at all. We ask 16 writers who regularly contribute record reviews to the site to disperse 100 points each over no more than 15 albums. No album can receive more than 15 points or less than one point from any given contributor. Then we tally, and you hopefully post your favorite albums of 2010 in the comments section. (And hopefully not by starting, “You guys are retarded,” because it’s much harder to take your selections seriously that way.) We mean it, too—we want to know what you loved this year as well. In a separate feature, you’ll find each contributor’s ballot, along with some commentary on favorite albums that didn’t make this list.

Spoon
Transference
(17 points, 3 votes)
Three years after Spoon released the polished, catchy Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga, bandleaders Britt Daniel and Jim Eno rediscovered deconstruction on album number seven, producing a set of songs that teeter toward collapse before finding a beat or a riff that the band can follow like a homing beacon. Spoon has been so consistently good over the past decade that Transference was greeted with only mild enthusiasm when it was released back in January, but it’s worn well as 2010 has rolled on. In a year that has seen established acts pushing themselves and exciting new acts emerging, Spoon still feels relevant, if only for the way Daniel and Eno keep discovering new ways to reinvest themselves in their work. They diligently pull songs apart, searching for that inspired moment that Transference dubs “The Mystery Zone.”

Four Tet
There Is Love In You
(18 points, 2 votes)
This has been a year of bad news, but somehow that didn’t apply to electronic music. The blissful streak running through mixes, albums, and tracks by artists like Caribou, Lone, Juan MacLean, Pawel, and Tensnake managed to cut through everything, and no dance-identified artist made a record as purely agog as Kieran Hebden’s fifth album as Four Tet. Its big tracks start simple and unfold patiently, the music building evenly and with great delicacy, its climaxes occurring when all the elements are woven together at once, rather than when the dynamics start to heave. There Is Love In You is meditative, but it’s also active: The shifts in the arrangements stir and settle with the attention to detail of headphone music and the moving, breathing rhythms of a body in restless motion. Four Tet did a lot in 2010: terrific remixes of Bob Holroyd, The Dining Rooms, Rocketnumbernine, Jon Hopkins, and Anti-Pop Consortium, among others; fine DJ sets for Fact Magazine and Essential Mix. But the album is the one that’s built to last.

Titus Andronicus
The Monitor
(19 points, 2 votes)
Don’t get too hung up on all the Civil War-concept-album talk surrounding this Jersey quintet’s second release. Sure, The Monitor hosts monologues from Abraham Lincoln recited by Craig Finn, but that’s as far as the War Between The States motif goes. More salient to The Monitor is the war between states of mind: on one side, crippling depression wrought from the allure of go-along conformity, and on the other side, crippling depression wrought from embracing the idea that we all are totally fucking alone. In other words, Titus Andronicus is attacking the entire human condition, which helps explain why the band felt okay making an absolutely gargantuan, so-overstuffed-it’s-genius album. Most of the songs feel like free-association punk novellas, chugging for interminable minutes and quavering not only between both sides of the loud/soft borderline, but also, for example, between hatred/triumph, self-reflection/self-immolation, and no-bagpipes/bagpipes. It’s a lot to take in, but the band’s vehemence is addictive, as is Patrick Stickles’ quotable gargling. (“You ain’t never been no virgin kid, you were fucked from the start!”) Proportion and tact don’t factor into the album’s design, but the same goes in love and war.

Flying Lotus
Cosmogramma
(20 points, 2 votes)
Arguably the most ambitious electronic album of the past decade, Flying LotusCosmogramma is a monstrous document whose secrets only begin to show after the 10th listen. Naturally, this makes for a prohibitively dense first impression, but Lotus never punishes his listeners for diving deeper. Instead, he rolls back one musical galaxy after the next, folding Squarepusher’s drums and bass into Burial’s dubby darkness into Mr. Fingers’ deep house into Sun Ra’s freewheeling jazz. With few breaks between tracks, it’s essentially a 45-minute bout of astral traveling where even the hallowed alien coo of guest vocalist Thom Yorke is disembodied, sent careening down a wormhole lined with shards of glass and circuitry. Elsewhere in the maelstrom is the better part of a string section, saxophonist Ravi Coltrane (Lotus is John’s great nephew), at least one sample sourced from a basement ping-pong game, and the most badass bassist this side of Mingus—a man called Thundercat. With so many potentially rogue elements bouncing off one another, Cosmogramma should’ve been an unholy mess, but Lotus proved himself with this one. The end result, orchestrated with a virtuosic touch, instead feels closer to the divine.

Baths
Cerulean
(20 points, 2 votes)
Precocious, brilliantly sloppy, and equipped with the semi-improvised percussive palette of a skiffle artist, Will Wiesenfeld, a.k.a. Baths, constructs bedroom symphonies with the luxurious, high-thread-count atmospherics of Toro Y Moi and beats granular and glitchy enough to underpin a Prefuse 73 track. It may be no great shakes at this point to pull a drum pattern or two out of phase or to let a ream of magnetic tape blister in the sun before popping it in, but unlike many of his colleagues in distressed beatsmithing, Wiesenfeld seems more likely to build a kick-ass pillow-fort than to drop psychedelics. Naïve and sophisticated in equal measure, Cerulean prunes its classical-piano figures before they grow too ornate, and drops the eerie baby-talk for restrained earnestness as the situation demands. Mostly though, it’s an album that feels as sweetly sharp-edged—yet still kid-safe—as shattered candy glass.

Dessa
A Badly Broken Code
(21 points, 2 votes)
Dessa’s fluid, spoken-word-derived delivery and beautifully sung (sans Auto-Tune) hooks place A Badly Broken Code on the outskirts of the traditional “rap” designation, but her debut full-length is all the more exciting for the hip-hop conventions it flouts. The sole female in the Twin Cities-based Doomtree collective, who split production duties on Code, Dessa hews close to the group’s introspective, punk-derived aesthetic, but with a well-honed literary sensibility, resulting in sharply crafted lyrics that are clever and forthright in equal measure. Code’s lyrical wordsmithery—heavy on metaphor, allusion, and allegory—is dense but inviting, thanks in large part to Dessa’s rich, honeyed vocals, which are strong and confident whether she’s rapping or singing a cappella. It’s a remarkably self-assured debut that showcases Dessa’s background in philosophy and creative writing without flaunting it, and introduces an intriguing new voice in the Midwest indie-hip-hop scene.

Yeasayer
Odd Blood
(21 points, 3 votes)
There was no indication on Yeasayer’s debut album, 2007’s All Hour Cymbals, that the Brooklynites were fans of electro-pop. But the surprising, delightful Odd Blood somehow plugs a love of Erasure into the tribal/freak-folk/whatever mixture. Most brazen is Chris Keating’s decision to really belt out his words this time around, and to leave no falsetto unturned. It’s a gamble that could’ve ended horribly, but there’s just so much weird glee on Odd Blood that it’s impossible to dislike. From the cheery “Ambling Alp” to the Depeche Mode-y “Madder Red” to the clattering, almost-goofy “O.N.E.,” it’s a weird genre-jumper, and it raises the question of what the hell they’ll do next.

Call Me Lightning
When I Am Gone My Blood Will Be Free
(21 points, 3 votes)
With a name like Call Me Lightning, this Milwaukee power trio should probably have a lot of records that sound as Who-like as When I Am Gone My Blood Will Be Free. But Call Me Lightning’s unabashed embrace of Pete Townshend’s stadium-rock period on its third album is a surprising (and, it turns out, invigorating) evolution for a scrappy post-punk band that’s been whipping up mosh pits at basement shows all over the Midwest for nearly a decade. The pulverizing combination of Shane Hochestetler’s overcaffeinated Brontosaurus beast and Nathan Lilley’s relentless power chords on overwhelming chest-thumpers like “Called To The Throne” and “Beyond The Beasts” is an obvious nod to the mighty thunder of Live At Leeds. But embedded in the ferocious shit-kicking is a yearning for transcendence in the midst of spiritual and emotional crisis that recalls the epic intimacy of Who’s Next. An album about confronting the realities of lost love and the inevitability of adulthood with clenched fists and a pried-open heart, When I Am Gone is an achingly personal scream of bruised triumph echoing across the twentysomething wasteland.

Avi Buffalo
Avi Buffalo
(22 points, 3 votes)
Will Avi Buffalo’s helium-voiced singer-songwriter Avigdor Zahner-Isenberg look back on Avi Buffalo and wince? Maybe, but not in the same way most people do when revisiting their old high-school journals and garage-band demo tapes. For a guy born in the early ’90s, around the time that epochal records made by Built To Spill and Modest Mouse formed the swirling indie-pop sound that Avi Buffalo draws from, Zahner-Isenberg already shows an impressive command of instant-classic hooks (the beatific “What’s In It For?”) and dreamy guitar workouts (the climactic “Remember Last Time”). As a lyricist, Zahner-Isenberg shrugs his way through bracingly frank odes to teenage lust that touch on the pain (“Five Little Sluts”) and bliss (the heartwarming, stomach-turning “Summer Cum”) of being a teenager with an uncommon lack of self-consciousness. Someday Zahner-Isenberg might regret being too open, but for now, Avi Buffalo is a charmingly wide-eyed first-person account of adolescence rapidly drawing to a close.

Arcade Fire
The Suburbs
(22 points, 4 votes)
Arcade Fire frontman Win Butler grew up in the suburbs of Houston, an archetype of U.S. cities designed around the automobile: a giant, sprawling mess of endless pavement, strip malls, and tacky prefab buildings that looked rundown before their time. The band nails the landscape on one of The Suburbs’ standout tracks, “Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains),” when Régine Chassagne sings “Living in the sprawl / dead shopping malls rise like mountains beyond mountains / and there’s no end in sight.” Butler understandably feels suffocated by the environment, but on his band’s not coincidentally sprawling third album, he makes a startling discovery underneath the disdain: affection. Sure, there’s a weary resignation in songs like “Modern Man” and “City With No Children” (“You never trust a millionaire quoting the sermon on the mount / I used to think I was not like them, but I’m beginning to have my doubts”), but this place made Butler who he is. He even owes a debt to the light pollution described in “Sprawl II”: “’Cause on the surface the city lights shine / they’re calling to me, come and find your kind.” Like its predecessors, The Suburbs can be dense and overbearing, and it’s needlessly extended, but it also features some of Arcade Fire’s finest moments.

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Wavves
King Of The Beach
(23 points, 3 votes)
Rarely has one dude’s transformation from slack-off loser to bratty stoner resulted in the creation of an album that so confidently straddles the wide gulf between musical antagonism and aspiration. For two albums, Wavves’ Nathan Williams dealt exclusively in grating guitars, muffled vocals, experimental ambience, and clanging drums. The songs were the aural equivalent of shrugs—tossed-off things that felt like they’d been created by some pre-adult whose deferred dreams landed him in his parents’ unused SoCal pool house with a pile of broken instruments, a computer, and a bong. As it turns out, that’s exactly how those tracks were made, so when word got out that Williams had enlisted a couple of real live bandmates (the wayward rhythm section of the late, great Jay Reatard) and booked actual studio time with an established producer (Dennis Herring of Modest Mouse fame), expectations varied wildly. What no one saw coming was an album that ditched the No Age-styled indie skronk for an unironic tribute to Green Day and Blink 182, Nirvana and Phil Spector. Without the fuzz, King Of The Beach does nothing to hide Williams’ incessant whining, and that’s actually the best part.

Deerhunter
Halcyon Digest
(27 points, 4 votes)
Syd Barrett’s heir apparent, Julian Casablancas’ long-lost twin, the sexiest, gawkiest chanteuse Phil Spector never produced—Bradford Cox has proven over the course of several excellent Deerhunter and Atlas Sound records that he can make himself sound like whoever he wants to be. On Halcyon Digest, he brings all his influences together into a virtual greatest-hits collection drawing from the inexhaustible psych-pop jukebox in his head. “Revival” and “Memory Boy” frolic atop his splashiest hooks; “Helicopter” is inspired, fractured R&B. Lockett Pundt contributes two songs that hearken back to the lush brilliance of 2008’s Microcastle, “Fountain Stairs” and the stunning “Desire Lines,” which boasts 2010’s three most hypnotically luscious minutes in its instrumental back half. Compared with Microcastle, Halcyon Digest isn’t as cohesive over its 11 tracks, which range from the affecting first-take rambling of “Sailing” to the swaggering Strokes/Springsteen tribute “Coronado.” But it all fits together on Halcyon Digest where it matters—it’s all great.

Dum Dum Girls
I Will Be
(28 points, 4 votes)
Throwbacks to ’60s pop and blown-out noise aren’t particularly noteworthy in the current music scene, but rarely do the two sounds combine into such an alluring, sweet-and-salty confection as Dum Dum GirlsI Will Be. Catchy melodies, girl-group harmonies, and sweet lyrical come-ons are filtered through just enough fuzz and grit to make the whole affair seem vaguely skeezy without getting too hazy. The lo-fi murk and echo-y vocals don’t obscure the huge choruses of “It Only Takes One Night” and “Everybody’s Out,” or the catchy hooks of “Bhang Bhang, I’m A Burnout” and “Jail La La”; they enhance the pop texture by adding some grit for ears to latch onto, making the songs even catchier than they’d be as slick bubblegum pop.

The Black Keys
Brothers
(28 points, 4 votes)
For a band named after an Akron artist’s term for unappetizingly “off” individuals, The Black Keys plays some pretty universally appealing mud-caked blues-rock. The danger for Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney was keeping one foot lodged in the red clay and the other on the garage-floor epoxy for so long that they never took a step forward—which made their 2008 shake-up Attack & Release with Danger Mouse such a canny move. Now, the duo comes to make good on those sometimes-uneven explorations with Brothers’ combo of unapologetic smarts and unmatched muscle. From the T. Rex strut and falsetto of “Everlasting Light” to the buzzing cover of Jerry Butler’s “Never Gonna Give You Up” to the pulpy “Ten Cent Pistol,” Auerbach stretches out his vocal cords and attaches ear-catching new guitar tones to some of The Black Keys’ most dynamic sonic workouts since Rubber Factory.

Frightened Rabbit
The Winter Of Mixed Drinks
(30 points, 2 votes)
Following an album as justifiably lauded as 2008’s The Midnight Organ Fight must have been daunting for Frightened Rabbit, but the band wrestled that disc’s emotions—longing, heartache, the usual Scottish stuff—into a slightly shinier package of terrific songs for The Winter Of Mixed Drinks. Singer-guitarist Scott Hutchison covers everything from the futility of possessions (“Things”) to the desperate joy of testing your limits (“Swim Until You Can’t See Land”) to the desperate joy of a rebound fuck (“Nothing Like You”), all with a poet’s eye and a half-broken heart. There’s a grimness to the whole affair, but it’s ultimately overshadowed by toweringly good, touching songs.

Robyn
Body Talk
(31 points, 3 votes)
Collecting selections from three mini-albums released throughout 2010, Robyn’s Body Talk contains three of the best dance singles of the year—“Dancing On My Own,” “Indestructible,” and “Call Your Girlfriend”—but those are just the shiny candied cherries atop a sweet pop sundae. The tracks between those driving anthems are dance music of the highest order, whether it’s the electro-house stomp of “Don’t Fucking Tell Me What To Do,” the dancehall strut of “Dancehall Queen,” or the cheeky hip-hop bounce of “Fembot” and “U Should Know Better.” While it’s a shame the Body Talk Pt. 1 highlight “Cry When You Get Older” was left off the final Body Talk album, Robyn turns out more than enough standout tracks to justify the hype the project has received this year, proving she deserves certified pop-star status.

Vampire Weekend
Contra
(37 points, 4 votes)
Vampire Weekend had all the makings of a flavor-of-the-moment when the band released its self-titled debut in 2008. The group drew on unexpected influences—namely Afropop—and shared an unusual origin story, with its members all graduating from Columbia. But the catchy songs were clearly the work of a band that took a lot of pride in popcraft, and the lyrics took a scalpel to the privileged world that spawned the band. It worked. But an even better way of assuring your band has legs is to release a follow-up that builds on its predecessor’s strengths in every way, like Contra, an alternately giddy and world-weary collision of clanging guitars and tales of cultural tourism.

Superchunk
Majesty Shredding
(42 points, 5 votes)
Superchunk released some of the finest indie rock of the ’90s, but began the millennium with a whimper on 2001’s subdued Here’s To Shutting Up. The silence and infrequent performances that followed didn’t bode well, but also inadvertently set the stage for 2010’s best comeback, Majesty Shredding. Now fortysomething adults with families and “normal” lives, Superchunk’s four members show plenty of youthful exuberance on the album’s 11 tracks, particularly the opener, “Digging For Something” (a new Superchunk classic), “My Gap Feels Weird,” “Crossed Wires,” “Learned To Surf,” “Winter Games,” and “Rope Light.” Majesty Shredding undoubtedly hits a sweet spot for people weaned on ’90s indie rock, but dismissing its appearance on our list as nostalgia is doing a disservice to Superchunk. Majesty Shredding isn’t a throwback; it’s one of the finest indie bands ever doing what it does best.

Big Boi
Sir Lucious Left Foot… The Son Of Chico Dusty
(42 points, 6 votes)
What a relief. It had been four years since either member of OutKast issued an album, and while the occasional web freebie surfaced, it was hard to figure out what, if anything, the absence might mean. Big Boi’s first standalone solo album (his previous one, 2003’s Speakerboxxx, was co-released with Andre 3000’s The Love Below) shows that his instincts for just about every aspect of record-making haven’t dimmed. He paces Sir Lucious Left Foot like a pro, all 64 minutes moving as one thing, even as it’s studded with tracks served up to radio, like the fabulous “Shine Blockas,” the slow burner “Follow Us,” and “Fo Yo Sorrows.” There are a lot of guest stars—none of which are Andre 3000, due to contract disputes long since circumvented by technology. More synth-based than usual and less overtly dynamic than before, the album’s production is always crafty and deep: The heaving percussion of the down-home “Tangerine” and the trunk-rattler “You Ain’t No DJ” are especially enticing. But there’s pleasure in everything here.

Janelle Monáe
The ArchAndroid
(43 points, 4 votes)
Whatever planet Janelle Monáe came from, she shouldn’t ever be allowed to go back. From more or less out of nowhere, the cosmic mastermind and OutKast protégé unleashed The ArchAndroid, an orchestral, science-fiction concept album that's ambitious, theatrical, chilling, and danceable all at the same time. From the Big Boi-guested “Tightrope” to the Philip K. Dick-inspired “Neon Valley Street,” ArchAndroid projects funk, soul, and hip-hop into a future that’s as lush and joyous as it is dystopian. She’s comfortably toured with both Erykah Badu and Of Montreal, which speaks volumes about Monáe’s crossover potential; that’s ironic, seeing as how she embodies a genre (hell, a galaxy) unto herself. It may seem reductive to crown anyone the Kate Bush and/or Björk of R&B, but if such a title existed, Monáe would have it in the bag. And The ArchAndroid would be her Hounds Of Love and/or Post.

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The Roots
How I Got Over
(55 points, 5 votes)
After the dark, stripped-down, paranoid intensity of 2006’s Game Theory and 2008’s Rising Down, The Roots made a triumphant return to the coffeehouse-friendly, jazzy airiness of its early albums on How I Got Over, a lean, melodic tour de force featuring some of Black Thought’s most introspective lyrics and the group’s most elegant compositions. ?uestlove and company had a busy, insanely fruitful year, moonlighting as both the most overqualified band on late-night television and John Legend’s backing band for Wake Up!, a collection of smartly chosen covers of politically tilted soul anthems. The Roots devoted 2010 to smart protest music past and present, to connecting the dots between its predecessors’ Afrocentric social consciousness and its own restless muse and breathless ambition. Well, that and making Jimmy Fallon look good. Everybody’s got to pay the bills somehow, and The Roots’ day job backing up the musical guests on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon injected an electric energy to each night’s musical performance, even when the group backed up Christopher Cross on a transcendent version of “Ride Like The Wind.” Seriously.

LCD Soundsystem
This Is Happening
(57 points, 6 votes)
Over the course of only two albums, James Murphy’s LCD Soundsystem evolved from basement-recording project to festival headliner, from the self-aware hipster-baiting of songs like “Losing My Edge” to the sentimental “Someone Great.” This Is Happening both embodies that growth and completely ignores it, undercutting its moments of introspection and warmth with sarcastic asides and wry, hedonistic paeans to basement bashes and “Drunk Girls.” As Murphy articulates in “Pow Pow,” as regards getting older and wiser and staying young and stupid—the difference between being uptight and being all right—“There’s advantages to each.” So even though This Is Happening is suffused with grown-up concerns like making genuine human connections and getting over the hang-ups of being cool, Murphy balances that depth with instant gratification, whether it’s the massive, propulsive synth hook of “Dance Yrself Clean” or the sublime Brian Eno/David Bowie aping of “One Touch” and “All I Want,” making for the smartest dance party of the year. If it is, as Murphy has threatened, LCD Soundsystem’s final album, it’s one hell of a definitive statement.

The National
High Violet
(61 points, 7 votes)
There’s a consistency to The National’s last three albums—Alligator, Boxer, and High Violet—that the weak-eared could mistake for sameness. But even if Violet feels like part three, it’s part three of an opus that could explore its own dark corners for 10 albums and still just scratch the surface. There’s a bit more gray—and even some color—this time around, as Matt Berninger opens up his vocal range to more distinct melodies. (See the gorgeous slow-burner “Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks” for evidence, as well as the fantastic single “Bloodbuzz Ohio.”) The big picture here, though, is of a band on a five-year peak, getting stronger with every song and intense live show. A dozen more like this would be just fine.

The Walkmen
Lisbon
(72 points, 6 votes)
The Walkmen have always been superior mood-spinners, but with Lisbon, the band created an entire sonic world for listeners to roam around in, where the arcane rituals of ancient European towns co-exist with the spooky old hamlets of the American South and the distant call of downmarket Pacific Coast beaches. It’s even more remarkable that The Walkmen accomplished this with as little instrumentation as possible; it’s like they handicapped themselves just to show off. Songs like the zippy “Angela Surf City” and “Woe Is Me” and the hushed, reverent “While I Shovel The Snow” are as strong as any The Walkmen have ever written, and command attention just on their own. But when strung together, Lisbon’s songs serve as a tour of secluded, forgotten spaces, populated by people living out little dramas largely in their own heads, and trying not to be defined by the slights against them.

Kanye West
My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy
(91 points, 8 votes)
To quote another musician with a yen for big ideas, “It’s such a fine line between stupid and clever.” Kanye West has been heel-toeing that line for years now. His fifth album is his wobbliest walk yet, and that’s what makes it so fascinating. As embodied by its ridiculous, ridiculously apt title, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is a bipolar, bombastic screed that volleys emotionally between Kanye’s mad-god complex to contemplations of suicide, from big-dick bluster to “I’m a douchebag” self-pity, with moments of excoriating introspection brushing up against petty bitching and jokes about reupholstered vaginas. Kanye’s fussy, gilded production incorporates King Crimson and Aphex Twin samples, string adagios and Auto-Tuned club bangers, choir-backed grandeur and porn-star squalor—an “everything to everybody” approach that would prove annoying if every song didn’t wrap them around instant earworm hooks. And it boasts special guests from Jay-Z to Bon Iver, Raekwon to Chris Rock, Nicki Minaj to Gil Scott-Heron, even cramming Rihanna, Alicia Keys, John Legend, Fergie, Kid Cudi, La Roux’s Elly Jackson, The-Dream, The Gap Band’s Charlie Wilson, Ryan Leslie, and Elton John onto a single song—a genre-blurring United Nations of pop culture whose impressive presences are nevertheless subjugated in service of Kanye’s own massive ego. 

And yet for all the reasons it should be an overblown folly, Fantasy is an idiot-savant smash, an example of a musician overreaching, yet triumphing through dumb bravado and an imagination gloriously unfettered by logic. Kanye actually set out to make the album of the year when nobody listens to albums anymore, much like he wants to be Michael Jackson in a generation where “stars” are also the illiterate jackasses in our Twitter feeds. His attempt makes MBDTF both admirable and oddly relatable: After all, 2010 was defined by our social-networking self-absorption, and our belief that anyone can be a superhero. And every superhero needs his theme music.

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