Friday, January 8, 2010

My Decade in Music, #20-1

So here we are. Born to be kings, we're the princes of the universe.

Oh wait, sorry. It took a long time to cut this list down to 100, and even longer to write it up. Throw in a few last minute winners like Strike Anywhere's Iron Front, and I don't think this list would've gotten done if I'd been employed from its inception. Still, though, I'm glad I got it done. Listmaking is a very important business, you know.

Speaking of work, my time at Whole Foods is cutting into my time writin', so updates on this here blog are probably going to be fewer. Then again, I've got a good stockpile through January, thereby giving me a few weeks to build up more stuff for my readers. So consider this a semi-announcement of a not-quite-hiatus-or-something. Yeah.

As for the top 20 albums below, well, these are the records that made me choose life, and for once I can say that without irony. I get angry whenever someone tells me a genre is dead, or that music was better in a previous decade. The glory and hassle of the Internet is that millions of albums are available to us now. But you still have to do some crate-digging to find gold. When people tell me music isn't good anymore, I feel bad for them, because they're just not hearing the right songs.

Go buy these albums. Maybe they'll make you want to live too.

The Top 100 Life-affirming, Heart-breaking, Soul-shaking, Pretty Good Albums of the Decade, #20-1

20. Band of Horses - Cease to Begin (2007)

This title should really be Cease to Stop. After a surprisingly strong debut with the expansive indie pop/alt-country mash-up Everything All the Time, Band of Horses kept up the pace with Cease to Begin. With less reverb masking frontman Ben Bridwell's vocals and more energy going into his song structures, the band developed a more confident style. Tighter and more country-tinged, Cease to Begin is every bit as glorious as the more spacious Everything All the Time. Sometimes, it’s my preferred BoH record, thanks to excellent love songs like “No One is Ever Gonna Love You” and “Marry Song.” Of course, rockers like “Islands on the Coast” get the job done too.

19. Nine Inch Nails - Year Zero (2007)

Nearly 20 years after he began Nine Inch Nails, Trent Reznor continues to find new things to itch his craw. On Year Zero, these things happen to be the United States government and RIAA. A concept album, Year Zero tells the (hypothetical) story of what will happen in the year 2022 if the U.S. government’s rampant religious zealotism is not checked (apparently, Reznor thinks this will bring about the apocalypse). Despite the dark subject matter, Year Zero is one of the strongest, sexiest NIN releases in quite some time, offering a bundle of danceable grooves. At the same time, though, it manages to also be Reznor’s most experimental release since his underappreciated 1999 album, The Fragile. Either way, it’s a huge step up from the good, but tame, NIN-by-numbers of the 2005 comeback album With Teeth.

18. New Found Glory - New Found Glory (2000)

Ah, the more assured follow-up… I got into New Found Glory through their first single, “Hit or Miss,” freshman year of high school. When I found out the song was on two albums, I settled for getting both as quickly as possible. While I still prefer Nothing Gold Can Stay, New Found Glory is still an improvement in some ways. Foremost is the better recording quality. The band took the time to make sure you feel every bass boom. Frontman Jordan Pundik comes through better too, aided by his lower singing range, which he’s stuck with. The group’s sound has been co-opted by many pop punk/emo bands hoping to step to the throne, but for me NFG will always be the kings. In their early years, the hooks, energy, and honesty were plentiful. And while the band doesn’t quite touch me lyrically anymore like a Bruce Springsteen or a John Darnielle, there is something desperate and searching there that I still identify with. New Found Glory is truly one of the finest mixtures of pop punk, emo, and hardcore to date.

17. Death Cab for Cutie - Plans (2005)

Did you ever forget you like a band as much as you do? This happens to me all the time with Death Cab for Cutie, with Modest Mouse and Metric taking a distant second and/or third. As much as I love Transatlanticism and The Photo Album and the recent Narrow Stairs, they’re just not albums I instantly think to put on. But whenever I do put on a DCFC record, I fall in love all over again, if only for a little while. Like, right now I’m listening to Plans as I write this paragraph, and I still can’t believe how uncompromised the band’s sound is for this, their major label debut. Ben Gibbard is still a sentimental sap and the tunes are still gentle and calming yet mildly muscular. This record meant a lot to me in fall ’05. I was back at college and had fallen out with a lot of my high school chums. As always, I was existentially and romantically troubled. Plans centered me a bit and calmed me down (like a neck rub!).

16. Bloc Party - Silent Alarm (2005)

Everyone I meet influences my music taste, but no one has had a stronger pull than my special lady friend, Michelle. A few months into our dating experience, she started playing me “This Modern Love” by Bloc Party. A LOT. Like, every time we drove somewhere. Bit by bit, as I fell more and more in love with Michelle, the more I loved that song. In the event that we ever get married - we can't quite decide how best to give in to that old patriarchal form of oppression - this will probably be the song we dance to our (potential) wedding. Other contenders include "Sweet Avenue" by Jets to Brazil and "Werewolf Bar Mitzvah" by Tracey Jordan.

My appreciation for the album as a whole soon followed, but it was “This Modern Love” that kindled that appreciation. Frontman Kele Okereke accurately covered all the highs and lows of two people trying to connect. He assures his lover not to get too offended if he seems absent-minded, that sometimes lapses are mere brain hiccups, not signs of a less than stellar love. And while I could be “so damn absent-minded,” and Michelle could at times be “so scared of romance,” we found a way to fill all the appropriate gaps, Tetris-like.

That the song is so dang catchy is a nice plus. Okereke’s voice is appropriately aching without sounding broken. He perfectly captures that fine line between agony and ecstasy that comes with a new love. Am I being cool enough? Am I too loud? Should I floss? Should I make sure this is OK and that is OK and this is…? It’s all there in his delivery. Drummer Matt Tong has long been known as the band’s secret weapon, so much so that remarking on his incredible beats and energy is almost a cliché. So I’ll keep it brief… Tong rocks this track. But it’s when the synth lines kick in at the end of the song that it really starts to jolt forth. The song is infectious throughout, but there’s a lot of restraint in the beginning. There’s a little guitar here, and Tong’s drum fills are quick flashes, spontaneous like conversations with your crush. If the music is to be symbolic for awkward flirting, and I really think it is, then the Moog explosion at the end is the first real passionate kiss. Not necessarily the first kiss, but definitely the first kiss after deciding, “Hey, this guy and/or gal is kinda neat. This could be more than one night. This could be more than one month. But I’m getting ahead of myself. SMOOCHES

15. Death Cab for Cutie - Transatlanticism (2003)

If you live in southeastern Pennsylvania, sooner or later you go through a right of passage: You get lost in Jersey when trying to drive to and/or from Philadelphia. I’m still slowly figuring out my way around the city, and the first place I ever learned how to get to consistently was St. Joe’s University, during my senior year of high school. Two of my older high school friends, Dave Drayton and FITZ!, had a student-run radio show there on WSJR. I listened to it pretty much every week while doing my homework, and eventually they asked me to come over to do the show with them. I got there without a hitch, had a lot of fun, and even learned how to use a soundboard. Then, somehow, I completely fucked up the drive back. I missed the on-ramp to 76-W and, unaware of my mistake, just kinda kept driving straight. For an hour. Freaked out, I kept driving and driving, eventually pulling over and asking for directions. I got home at like 9:30 p.m. that night and proceeded to desperately halfass my math anal homework.

Two things made my stupid, stupid driving experience tolerable: I got some help from my mom, courtesy of my new fangled cell phone. And I was listening to my recently purchased copy of Death Cab for Cutie’s Transatlanticism. I listened to the album for the first time on the drive down to the university, and ended up listening to it many, many more times on the way back. Songs like “Title and Registration,” “A Lack of Color,” and especially “Transatlanticism” made me just sane enough to not crash my car. The title track’s slow build from somber piano to chiming guitars made me feel calm as unknown buildings and lines wizzed by. I’ve had a lot of records help me while I felt lost; Transatlanticism is the only one to guide me while I was literally so.

14. The Mountain Goats - The Sunset Tree (2005)

Would it surprise you to know that I was initially underwhelmed by The Sunset Tree? Or that when I wrote a list of my top five albums of 2005 at the end of that year, it only ranked fifth? I was originally let down by the sullen lyrical and musical shift. I’ve always loved “This Year,” but as a whole the record lacked the raw energy of All Hail West Texas, or even We Shall All Be Healed. Now, of course, it’s one of my most frequently played TMG records.

The Sunset Tree opens with “You or Your Memory,” a slight, subtle hint at the depths yet to be spiraled into on follow-up Get Lonely. The records tell the story of John Darnielle’s strained relationship with his stepfather, in life and in death. And while Get Lonely rarely finds the strength to roar, The Sunset Tree finds plenty to feel alive about. While much of the record details the abuse Darnielle suffered, there’s a defiant jubilation buried underneath. “This Year” is about John’s teenage years – drinking, making out, playing video games, and, finally, fucking up his pop’s car. Everything feels more raw and intense when you’re a teen, and Darnielle captures that feeling perfectly in his descriptions of his relationship with a girl named Kathy. Hindsight lets us all know that they’re not together now, but she feels like his sole source of positivity, his whole world, when John recalls them “locking eyes / holding hands / twin high-maintenance machines.” For me, though, the line that’s stayed with me, and most of my friends, is the chorus, repeated over and over as a mantra: “I am going to make it through this year / if it kills me.”

Of course, John has another bright spot: dance music, described on… um… “Dance Music.” “So this is what the volume knob’s for,” Darnielle realizes as he buries himself in sonics to blot out his parents fighting. Musically, the record does dip into mellower fare, like on “Dinu Lipatti’s Bones” or “Pale Green Things.” But it’s the stompers that keep us all going, like “Up the Wolves” and its discussion about the things you can’t let go about family members. It covers so many different angles – Darnielle promises listeners from abusive families that there’s hope, yet lines later he’s scoping out every way he can topple his own tormentor. “I’m going to get myself in fighting trim /scope out every angle of unfair advantage / I’m going to bribe the officials / I’m going to kill all the judges / It’s going to take you people years to recover from all of the damage.”

The Sunset Tree is a bonding experience. A story about pain. A message of hope. A catchy folk/rock album.

13. The Mountain Goats - The Life of the World to Come (2009)

I’m a bad Catholic and a firm Mountain Goats fan. The two collided on The Life of the World to Come. A lot of the album’s topics have been covered by frontman John Darnielle before: addiction, loss, failure, the Bible – but having one album collect all of these themes together hits awfully hard. This is one of those “I’ve been waiting my whole life for this” albums.

12. Joe Strummer and The Mescaleros - Streetcore (2003)

Joe Strummer died way too soon. Sure, he had enough fun to last several lifetimes, and he gave the world at least nine incredible albums of music (I still haven’t heard his soundtracks or 101ers material, so I might need to upgrade that number). But if Streetcore is any indication, the guy was just warming up for his second wind with The Mescaleros. The album comes off more focused than Rock Art and the X-Ray Style or Global A Go-Go, perhaps due to Strummer’s premature death. The finished tracks, like “Coma Girl” and “Get Down Moses,” are still firmly planted in world music, but a clearer pop focus. “Coma Girl” is easily one of the catchiest songs Strummer ever wrote, and it’s arguably my favorite. Streetcore is rounded out by demos Joe left behind, such as covers of “Redemption Song,” “Long Shadow,” and “Silver and Gold,” as well as a mix of segments from Joe’s radio show entitled “Midnight Jam.” “Silver and Gold” in particular is affecting for the line “I’m gonna do everything silver and gold / but I have to hurry up before I grow too old.” At 51, Saint Joe Strummer still had a lot to do.

I got into The Ramones’ after Joey Ramone died, and the same happened with The Clash and The Mescaleros when Joe passed on. The Singles Collection taught me about ’77 British punk, but it wasn’t until Streetcore came out the year after Strummer’s death that I really learned to love the man. I’ve become a huge fan since then. I make it a point to spin Streetcore every time I go to the beach. The album’s mix of raga and pop seems appropriate. Plus, Joe was a big fan of staying in touch with nature. But man do I wish he had stuck around to write more.

11. Silversun Pickups - Carnavas (2006)

Silversun Pickups’ 2006 release was arguably one of the greatest alt-rock sleeper hits of 2007, thanks to the atmospheric love song “Lazy Eye.” Music shorthand demands I compare this L.A. band to The Smashing Pumpkins, and admittedly, the two do share similarities: A rock band from the indie circuit with dreams of bigger, arena rock moments. Plus, they have the same initials. But while there are “big guitar” instances on tracks like “Well Thought-Out Twinkles” and “Future Foe Scenarios,” the record is more like a companion piece to The Smashing Pumpkins’ moody albums Adore and MACHINA than a tribute.

Musically, Carnavas is a record of convergence. You’re never totally sure what’s guitar and what’s keyboard. Or if those vocals are completely male or backed up by lady bassist Nikki Monninger. Sure, the lyrics don’t always quite make sense (there’s another similarity with Billy Corgan’s earliest and latest work!). But they do create vivid images. The little lover who’s so polite; the moment you’ve been waiting for your whole life but isn’t quite right; revolution, baby. Carnavas is a great record to feel. You can dance to it and rock to it and sleep to it and cuddle to it and maybe even eat a sandwich to it.

10. Band of Horses - Everything All the Time (2006)

Beautiful and ethereal, Band of Horses is a solid indie band with some solid Southern hooks in their solid arsenal. Everything All the Time floats by quite easily; it’s hard to believe it’s only 36 minutes long. But then, that’s part of its easy-going nature. Singles “The Funeral” and “Great Salt Lake” both sum up the album perfectly – soft but forceful, elegant but rocking. And while follow-up Cease to Begin doesn’t tweak the sound much, there’s no need. These guys have found a nice a groove, and I fully intend to see how long they can keep it going. I hope they keep up the tradition of including limited edition photos with each album.

9. The Mountain Goats - Get Lonely (2006)

John Darnielle delivered another mellow folky soon-to-be-classic with Get Lonely. His previous effort, The Sunset Tree, dealt with Darnielle’s mixed feelings towards his abusive stepfather’s death. Get Lonely is that album’s companion piece, dealing with the aftermath. After his stepfather’s funeral, Darnielle struggles to move on over the course of 12 tracks. But amid the quiet introspection, The Mountain Goats provide anthems. Lines like “Half Dead”’s simple chorus of “Can’t get you out of my head / Lost without you / Half dead” is conveyed with such emotion, resignation, and at the same time determination, that it’s nearly impossible not to bond with this record. It’s sad bastard music, but it’s the most gloriously sad bastard music since Morrissey himself.

8. Strike Anywhere - Change is a Sound (2001)

As I stumbled around the Tweeter Center parking lot after the 2002 Warped Tour, delirious from sunburn and kicks to the face, I ran into a fellow selling four comps for $10, which is exactly how much money I had left in my wallet. Anyone who’s been to Warped knows it isn’t just a concert; it’s a got-damn flea market. My cargo shorts were already stuffed with shirts and CDs, but seeing that this stranger was selling Stop Racism discs took from me what Drive-Thru pop-punk act Homegrown could not: My last 10 bucks.

This was a good life decision, a great one. For hidden on one of those Stop Racism comps was “Sunset on 32nd Street,” by the Virginian hardcore/punk act Strike Anywhere. Clocking in at 4:19, the song provides a surprisingly balanced discussion about police brutality. Frontman Thomas Barnett beautifully describes the ugliness of a forced entry, summing up all the unresolved hatred I’ve held towards police officers (though my anger has always been more of a result of discrimination than abuse). And while hating the police isn’t new, Barnett takes the time to remind listeners that not all cops are bad (“I wish the good cops if they exist / the very best!”).

When I obtained Change is a Sound, I was thrilled to learn the album was filled with passionate debates like “Sunset.” Melodic and charged and pounding and alive, Change is a Sound taught me the importance of seeing both sides of an issue, of avoiding stereotyping, and remembering that in order to make a democracy thrive, we all have to find a compromise. “Stand up! Speak out!”

7. Ben Kweller - Sha Sha (2002)

Picking up where Weezer’s “Blue Album” left off, Ben Kweller tapped into both my dorky and angsty veins. The result, Sha Sha, was about love and loss and yearning, but it was also about Planet of the Apes and pizza and goofy similes such as “I’m maxed out like a credit card.” It was about family trees, remembering where you came from. Where you want to get to. Feeling like you’ve found the one (“Falling”), but remembering your momma (“Lizzy”). And like any good Weezer-esque album, it’s got some ridonkulous guitar solos (“Harriet’s Got a Song,” which I played for my Art of Listening class, thank you very much).

6. The Weakerthans - Left and Leaving (2000)

I was introduced to The Weakerthans in college, when my band wanted to play “Left & Leaving” for a covers show. I was hooked by the mp3 my bandmates gave me, and I purchased the whole dang album not long after that. Like Darnielle, Weakerthans frontman John K. Samson is a hyper-literate songwriter. I was struck by the moment in the title track when Samson is so angry and sad at his ex-lover that all he can do is forlornly list the things (s)he left him. Another hitter was “Aside,” which rose to prominence on the Wedding Crashes soundtrack. No wonder; the song is quick and chock full o’ pep and neurosis. My favorite, though, was and is “Exiles Among You.”

The song talks about some woman, a Kate Winslet in The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind-type, trying to keep it together. “Wish on everything / pray that she remains / proud and strange and so hopelessly hopeful” goes the chorus. That final guitar squalor that follows after she “shoplifts some Christmas gifts and a bracelet for herself and considers phoning home” is devastating. As she “sits down on the sidewalk and bites her bottom lip and spends the afternoon waiting for traffic lights to change,” I find a solace in the dissonant chords that surround her.

5. Against Me! - Searching For a Former Clarity (2005)

I keep changing my mind about which AM! record I prefer. Right now Reinventing Axl Rose is winning, but Clarity has been more dominant for a long time. It’s a little more intricate and a lot more confessional. Sure, there are songs that take aim at politics (“From Her Lips To God's Ears (The Energizer),” “Justin”), but a good chunk of the album deals with AM!’s rising fame. Before they took shit for signing to a major, AM! took shit for signing to a better-than-average indie. It’s all in the past now, but the band was actually attacked for working with Fat Wreck Chords. Their tires were slashed at shows and zines even started running articles on how to sabotage the band’s shows. To that end, it’s no surprise that “From Her Lips To God's Ears (The Energizer)” brings the topic of DIY vs. careerism, in which frontman Tom Gabel breaks down what the band has to do to stay afloat, even going so far as to list where all the money Against Me! generates goes. The topic is further covered in “Even At Our Worst We're Still Better Than Most (The Roller).

But the whole “Against Me! = selloutz?” topic is played out. There’s a certain point where I just stopped giving a shit and focused on got-damn much I love the songs. LP 2, Side B is one of my favorite suites of all time; it’s right up there with Born to Run’s B side in perfection. “Even at Our Worst…” is incredible with its jangled guitars. It marks a moment where Gabel finally collapses under the weight of punk rock elitism, telling any and all detractors that he’s done with the whole thing. “You know they’re waiting to tear us apart,” Gabel and co-vocalst/guitarist James Bowman shout to each other. After a kick-ass guitar solo, though, the band completely dissolves that tension and segues into “Problems,” which is about the lack thereof. Pushed to the breaking point, Gabel resolves that “here in the worst / I will become the best of them all.” As if to prove that point, the band then delivers a real honest to gosh pop song, “Don’t Lose Touch,” before closing out with the somber title track. So is Searching for a Former Clarity a concept album about integrity? I suppose so. Does that make the album a failure because of what happened next? Well, perhaps you should refer back to the start of this paragraph.

4. The Mountain Goats - Heretic Pride (2008)

On Heretic Pride, John Darnielle finally united the fury of his early work with the full studio/band experience of his more recent 4AD, and the result is pretty gosh dang awesome. Not only does the music feel as propulsive as those hissingly lo-fi days, but Darnielle has switched back to impersonal story telling after a two-album stint detailing life with, and the death of, his abusive stepfather on The Sunset Tree and Get Lonely. There’s so much to discuss about Heretic Pride, like the subtle wisps of Jamaican music in tunes like “New Zion” and “Sept 15, 1983,” or The Mountain Goats’ stance on sea monsters in “Tianchi Lake.” There’s the orchestral indie rock of “Lovecraft in Brooklyn” and “In the Craters on the Moon.” The best song, though, is the title track. “Heretic Pride” is of the “you better play this live for the rest of your career” caliber. A story about a heretic about to be executed for, ya know, heresy, the narrator finds joy in his situation, which leads to the best lines of the entire album – “I feel so proud to be alive / I feel so proud when the reckoning arrives.”

Darnielle is great at writing affirmations, and this song is one of them. “Heretic Pride” is just that – pride and ecstasy over never breaking under societal norms, always standing for what one believes in, even finding meaning in death. And that’s what being into punk rock has always meant to me.

3. The Mountain Goats - All Hail West Texas (2002)

All Hail West Texas feels like the culmination of Darnielle’s boom box aesthetic. This album isn’t just symbolic of the last seven years of my life, it’s symbolic of the lo-fi sound -- lurking in the murky depths is a phantom orchestra, unleashing the most complex constructions you’ve literally ever imagined. I can hear drums buried in the mix, even though I know they’re not really there. It’s fitting then, that Texas became the last lo-fi TMG record, as Darnielle would make the jump to 4AD and high fidelity later in the year with Tallahassee.

Musically, TMG is pretty basic with just acoustic guitar chords. And Darnielle’s nasally voice can be a deal-breaker for some. His greatest strength lies in his words, although I’d argue that he knows how to deliver a hook or two. Every Mountain Goats record has at least one song that will change your DNA, like The Sunset Tree’s “This Year” or Zopilote Machine’s “Going to Georgia.” Texas knocks out two of ’em up front without breaking a sweat. First comes “The Best Ever Death Metal in Denton,” the tale of “a couple of guys who’d been friends since grade school / One was named Cyrus and the other was Jeff / and they practiced twice a week in Jeff’s basement.” What follows is the band’s history. Though they never settled on a name, “the top three contenders / after weeks of debate / were Satan’s Fingers, and the Killers, and the Hospital Bombers.” The band gets dumped on, Cyrus goes to art school and gets dumped on some more, and then the guys get angry, swearing that “The best ever death metal band out of Denton / will in time both outpace and outlive you.” Oh yeah, and uh, “Hail Satan!”

2. Against Me! - Reinventing Axl Rose (2002)

Against Me! got me back into punk. It sounds dumb now, because punk rock was all I thought about for the first three years of high school, but by senior year I was sick of all the in-fighting and hostile, Puritanical attitudes. There’s a reason why the Face to Face documentary is called Punk Rock Eats Its Own. I just felt like the music I was hearing recycled the same three chords and topics and isolationist view points, although in hindsight I just hadn’t learned how to tune out all the shitty music that comes out each year. Enter Against Me!. My friend Rachel thought I’d be into them and, after hearing “Pints of Guinness Make You Strong” on an AMP compilation, I realized she was right. I bought Reinventing Axl Rose ASAP and fell in love. Since then, I’ve spent a lot of time in mosh pits and parties screaming along to “We Laugh at Danger (And Break All the Rules)” and driving around getting all types of wistful to “8 Full Hours of Sleep.” AM! has since been kicked out of the underground for being too popular, which is all types of stupid, but 24-year-old me can’t let go of these records. Who knows, maybe I’ll feel different in 2020, when I’ll be working on my next best of the decade list and considering the band’s 2010 record White Crosses. Shit, I’ll be in my 30s…

1. Bouncing Souls - How I Spent My Summer Vacation (2001)

I’ve spent about six months deliberating which meant more to me, How I Spent My Summer Vacation or Reinventing Axl Rose. Rose was my pick for the longest time, until it hit me: In my life, The Bouncing Souls were my gateway to punk, a band that changed my life eight years ago and whom I still listen to regularly. I first saw them live when they toured on Anchors Aweigh; the last time I was them was for this year’s 20th anniversary show at the Trocadero. If anyone wanted to understand my music taste, they could put on this record, and get a huge piece of the puzzle.

I bought the album not long after hearing “True Believers” on Punk-o-Rama 6, and I was hooked. Summer Vacation converts alienation and depression into a fuel source for determination. The album’s closing track, “Gone,” explains it all: “It was a darkness all my own / a song played on the radio / but it went straight to my heart / I carried it with me / until the darkness was gone... / I built this cloud I can break it / The world can’t change how I feel / Because I know it’s a lie / My heart is real.” This song actually got played when I went on a religious retreat called Kairos senior year of high school. I’m not supposed to discuss the specifics of Kairos, but I will say that the kid who played it used the song to explain his deep Catholic guilt and suicidal delusions, and the conversation really helped shake me out of my own malaise. We’re all a little fucked up, but we can help fill in each others gaps.

In my universe, it starts and ends with the Souls. The other 99 records on this list came after.

NEXT WEEK: The Top 50 EPs of the Decade.


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