Favorite Albums of 2021

25. Gami Gang — Origami Angel

A 20-track double album in 2021 might seem excessive but Gami Gang manages to rip all the way through. What really sells Origami Angel’s style of emo-pop is how earnest they are with their goofy lyrics and frenzied energy. Their confidence makes sappy lines like “They keep telling me ‘bout heaven/It sounds a lot like when I’m with you” come across as endearing. The easycore melodies strike a nice balance with the heavier sections of mathy riffs.

Gami Gang plays up its clichés of love and sadness with such sheer charisma that it’s impossible to pull away. Although Origami Angel experiments a little with songs like “Bossa Nova Corps”, listeners know exactly what they’re going to get on Gami Gang. Yet for all its predictability, the consistency and passion in their songwriting keeps you coming back for more.

Must Listens: Noah Fence, Neutrogena Spektor, Kno U

24. Cull Ficle — Asian Glow

On the surface, Cull Ficle is unassuming with its childish MSPaint cover and murmuring vocals over noisy instrumentals. There’s a certain familiarity given how Seoul-native Asian Glow sounds like other new-wave emo acts influenced by lo-fi rock, noise pop, and shoegaze elements. Beneath the surface though, there’s a melancholic tenderness that hints at sentimentality and nostalgia.

What makes Cull Ficle so compelling is its melodic structures that take on a personality of their own behind the noisy distortion. It’s covered in a haze of distorted guitars and muffled drumming but there’s a distinct warmth to the vocals that hold back explosive bursts of emotion. Cull Ficle stands well on its own thanks to its stunning instrumentation and while it doesn’t break new ground, the journey is unforgettable.

Must Listens: Circumstances telling me who i am, 5:21:2000, No Exit

23. Tread — Ross From Friends

Tread sees UK producer Ross From Friends shift away from the outsider house sounds on his debut album in favor of future garage. Born of a desire to record music the way he wanted to, Tread is compiled with a plugin he created called Thresho. Without needing to constantly index and catalog recordings, the album is built from a massive library of samples. The pitched vocal samples, rhythmic 2-step drums, and swelling pads are intricately constructed from the bits and pieces.

The off-kilter grooves found in Tread are reminiscent of artists like Burial but maintain a lifeforce of their own through the glitchy IDM-inspired samplework. Vocal melodies fade in and out against the synths with a surprising sleekness. Although the transformations of the songs can be slow, there’s something hypnotic about the gradual changes that are barely perceptible underneath the surface of Tread.

Must Listens: The Daisy, Revellers, Life In A Mind

22. Maybe Tomorrow… — Low Roar

Maybe Tomorrow is yet another transformation in sound for Low Roar as they take their folksy ballads in a more ambient, indietronica direction. Slowing down the instrumentation and applying abundant vocal effects, the songs have a weightless quality to them. The glimmering keys and spacey synths are contrasted by the melancholy in the restrained vocals that sing of loss and faded memories.

While Maybe Tomorrow feels like familiar territory, Low Roar have continued to hone their sound and expressiveness to greater heights. The poignant songwriting is stirring as Ryan Karazija’s musings and ruminations come to life. Balanced precariously against the delicate compositions, Maybe Tomorrow carries an underlying somberness that pulls at your base emotional instincts.

Must Listens: Fucked Up, Hummingbird, Bye Bye

21. Do It For Demon — Sahbabii

Over the past few years, Sahbabii has carved out a name for himself in the Atlanta rap scene thanks to his eccentric ad-libs, airborne flows, and nonstop sex puns. On Do It For Demon, Sahbabii takes his music in a more serious direction as he dedicates the album to his late childhood friend, Demon Child. While his bizarre sense of humor is still imbued throughout the album, there are darker undertones as he works through grief and anger.

Sahbabii’s talent for sharp wordplay and punchlines have always set him apart but there’s a certain poeticism on Do It For Demon. The witty one-liners conceal the feelings of frustration and sadness with Demon’s passing. “Bitch I’m having blues like Imaginary Fosters” he croons on “Bad Thoughts Mixed With Weed”, reflecting on his struggles with paranoia and mental health. It’s rare to see Sahbabii open up a vulnerable side in his music but Do It For Demon is a heartfelt tribute that doesn’t hold anything back.

Must Listens: Rewind, Other Side, Bad Thoughts Mixed With Weed

20. Summer City — Kim Areum

The intersection between K-Pop and City Pop isn’t anything new but Kim Areum takes the formula to addictive heights on Summer City. A nostalgic trip backed by glossy production, bright instrumental solos, and groovy synths, the album is nonstop fun throughout. Her natural gift for songwriting and hooks shine here as every song slowly melts into the next. The clear centerpiece of the album is “Diving”, a disco-inspired anthem reminiscent of groups like Lovelyz and GFriend.

While a lot of modern city pop releases sound like cheap attempts at 80s nostalgia, the compositions on Summer City effortlessly express their influences without sounding contrived. Composer Spacecowboy ensures the melodic grooves are refreshing while Areum’s vocals are delicately balanced against the saxophones, guitars, and synths. From jazz to funk to synthpop, the album doesn’t hesitate to explore beyond its city pop foundation. The colorful palette of sounds and charming nostalgia go hand-in-hand to put a distinct flair on Kim Areum’s unique style of K-Pop.

Must Listens: Summer Days, Diving, Drive

19. Glow On — Turnstile

Sure, Glow On will sound pretty familiar for any fan of melodic hardcore but the appeal isn’t so much innovation as it is Turnstile’s pure kinetic energy ripping through 15 tracks. At its foundation, Glow On is an album that discards conventions in favor of simply going full-throttle. The dreamy synths, blood-pumping grooves, and chanting hooks all bounce off each other relentlessly.

There’s something about Glow On that’s so viscerally stirring that you can’t help but get sucked into the moshpit of noise. The clean pop-sheen of the album gives it an air of accessibility and Turnstile refine their sound into a tight package. Balanced halfway between its piercing melodies and unruly shouts, Glow On never dilutes Turnstile’s infectious energy. Primed to go at all times, this record is the most fun you’ll have all year.

Must Listens: Mystery, Blackout, Endless

18. To Hell With It — PinkPantheress

Following a breakout year with multiple viral Tik Tok hits and a record deal, PinkPantheress released her highly anticipated debut, To Hell With It. Concocting a unique blend of atmospheric drum n’ bass and R&B, the mixtape distills 2000s nostalgia into a short 19 minutes. Her breathy vocals align naturally with the woozy melodies and samples that dissolve into her garage-influenced beats.

The nostalgia yearning on To Hell With It rarely feels contrived thanks to its impressive sample flips. With sounds extracted from Linkin Park, Sweet Female Attitude, and Crystal Waters, the mixtape feels distinctly grounded in the 00s era. The dreamy keys on “Noticed I Cried” sound like the menu music of a PS2 game while the 2-step groove on “Just For Me” channels alt-pop melodies of a bygone time. To Hell With It is an impressive debut and if this is what a UK garage/DnB revival sounds like, I’m all for it.

Must Listens: I Must Apologize, Just For Me, Noticed I Cried

17. Floating Mountains — Soshi Takeda

On Soshi Takeda’s debut album Floating Mountains, he works with 90s hardware to style his own brand of aquatic house music. Takeda has an incredible ear for melodies and he intertwines them together with vaporwave, Balearic beat, and new age influences. The dreamy atmospheres crystallize with the pulsing rhythms and sounds like something straight out of Donkey Kong Country.

The glimmering synths on Floating Mountains give the songs a structure like waves crashing in and out. Though Takeda plays it relatively safe, he makes up for it through the fluidity and consistency of the beats. The album sounds best when Takeda directs his focus towards cultivating an intimate ambiance. Floating Mountains is a refreshing take on house music that never seems to falter despite its simplicity.

Must Listens: Floating Mountains, Ancient Fish, Quarry

16. An Evening With Silk Sonic — Bruno Mars & Anderson .Paak

An Evening With Silk Sonic is an effortlessly fun collaboration between Bruno Mars and Anderson Paak that revives the sounds of 70s smooth soul with a distinct flair. Though the Motown, funk, and R&B influences aren’t anything new, it’s the pair’s natural chemistry that transcends a simple recreation of the sound. Each of the nine songs is bursting with addictive hooks, lush melodies, and sleek production. Dripping charisma and humor, the pair volley verses and hooks as they play up their extravagant personas.

The lush arrangements on An Evening With Silk Sonic are undeniably influenced by Philly Soul with glockenspiels, smooth strings, and soft piano. At the same time, the production has just enough contemporary flair and brings a cinematic quality to its sequencing. The narration from the legendary Bootsy Collins is smooth as butter and Paak even gets to show off his rapping skills on tracks like “Fly As Me”. An Evening With Silk Sonic doesn’t reinvent the wheel but their performance and showmanship are mesmerizing.

Must Listens: Fly As Me, Smokin Out The Window, Skate

15. The Fool — Bladee

On The Fool, Bladee embraces the gloss of hyperpop and dreamy atmospheres to form his most melodic project to date. Where earlier projects like Eversince felt depressive and drenched with existentialism, The Fool lets all that go in favor of childlike wonder and spirituality. Produced by RipSquad, The Fool features crystalline synths and thick basslines that underscore a newfound sense of optimism. There’s a lingering sentimentality throughout the album as the dreamy production blends together with Bladee’s autotuned vocals.

Bladee’s confidence as a songwriter and performer has also grown alongside the colorful shift in sound. His hooks are absolutely addictive and the melodies sound effortless against the trance-inspired beats. The laughs, breathing, and subtle falsettos give the album a degree of intimacy and endearing naivety. There’s something so pure about The Fool that manages to transcend all sentiment and feels wholly liberating.

Must Listens: Hotel Breakfast, egobaby, Trendy

14. When Smoke Rises — Mustafa

In 2018, Toronto mourned the loss of Smoke Dawg, one of the city’s biggest rappers on the edge of international stardom. His impact in shaping Toronto’s rap scene was undeniable and was part of Regent Park’s Halal Gang collective. His senseless death was heartbreaking for fans but for childhood friend and fellow Halal Gang member Mustafa, the wounds cut deep three years on. While he’s had demos floating around for years, it wasn’t until 2020 that he finally decided to compile them together into When Smoke Rises, a tribute to Smoke Dawg and Regent Park.

Mustafa has always been a poet so it’s fitting that When Smoke Rises sounds more like a folk album than a traditional rap or R&B project. With production from Frank Dukes, James Blake, and Jamie xx, the acoustic instrumentation gives off a more intimate singer-songwriter feel with Mustafa’s soft melodies. As he recounts tales of violence, gentrification, guilt, and revenge, there’s lingering existentialism for the future of Regent Park and his friends entangled in the city’s politics. Though he’s unsure of what the future holds, When Smoke Rises captures the hopes of those still fighting and the memories of those lost along the way.

Must Listens: Stay Alive, Air Forces, The Hearse

13. 時間 — Betcover!!

On 時間, Betcover!! takes influence from art rock, punk, and jazz to craft a dizzying adventure that never loses its appeal. A slow, hazy burn of jazzy riffs and precise drumming, 時間 sounds a little like King Krule mixed with 70s Japanese folk music. At the same time though, Betcover!! is willing to experiment far more with strange compositions, odd time signatures, and pitching vocal effects. The result is an album where you’re never quite sure of the direction it’s headed next.

Though there are moments where the songs come precariously close to collapsing on themselves, the album continues to chug forward with sheer confidence. On songs like “二限の窓”, the transition from muffled vocals and distorted riffs into a pumping synth line are executed with ease. 時間 is built upon a strong foundation of instrumentals: piano, guitar, drums, and bass all collide into one another with a sense of purpose. While the chaotic sounds feel a little jarring at first, the clever use of underlying melodies maintains the energy throughout. Even the abstract lyrics feel natural against the constantly changing instrumentation. Brimming with confidence, 時間 sounds unlike anything else and takes pride in its quirks.

Must Listens: 回転・天使, 二限の窓, piano

12. Promises — Floating Points, Pharoah Sanders & The London Symphony Orchestra

I know that Promises is supposed to be this cool generational crossover that showcases how ideas from different eras can mesh together into something unique. But I cannot get over the fact that Pharoah Sanders is 80 years old and still playing the saxophone as effortlessly as breathing. Promises is quite minimalist, almost to the point of being an ambient record at times. Floating Points sets up a singular composition of synths and piano which is then filled with passages of Sanders’ saxophone playing.

There’s almost a conversation-like quality to each of the movements as the synth arrangements fade in and out alongside the saxophone. String arrangements from the London Symphony Orchestra fill out the motion of the compositions as they add more weight to the movements. The climax of strings on Movement 6 is phenomenal and the slow build-up is crafted to perfection. Despite how minimal the album can get at times, the tone always remains warm and expressive. A celestial journey through the drifts of the universe, Promises is proof that jazz music will remain timeless.

Must Listens: Movement 1, Movement 6, Movement 7

11. Sinner Get Ready — Lingua Ignota

On Sinner Get Ready, Lingua Ignota shifts away from the thematic elements of abuse and vindication found in her previous work to explore her complex relationship with religion. Religious themes have always been a major aspect of her music but they become the foundation in Sinner Get Ready. Taking influences from neo-folk and Christian liturgical music, the album is quite a departure from her previous death industrial work. Alongside her conflicting relationship with religion, Lingua Ignota explores the unsettling aspects of blind devotion and the portrayal of God as a vengeful being.

Lingua Ignota’s operatic voice is what enables her to capture violent imagery and haunting atmospheres. Though her vocals on Sinner Get Ready are more reserved, their dynamic range is still forceful and anguished. On “I Who Bend The Tall Grasses”, the church organ slowly dissolves into echoes of dissonance as she contorts her vocals into screams of retribution. “Pennslyvania Furnace” is a delicate, piano-driven ballad that examines loneliness and the inevitability of God’s judgment. Drawing upon her own experiences, historical stories, and Christian iconography, Sinner Get Ready is an uncompromising examination of religion’s darkest aspects.

Must Listens: I Who Bend The Tall Grasses, Pennslyvania Furnace, Perpetual Flame of Centralia

10. Stand For Myself — Yola

Stand For Myself is a retro blend of 70s soul with Nashville country that captures Yola’s incredible voice and unwavering spirit. Produced by Dan Auerbach, the album builds upon Yola’s debut Walk Through Fire by emphasizing its soul, disco, and countrypolitan influences. The arrangements feel timeless and give Yola room for grand buildups with catchy hooks. The gloss is dialed up a notch and Auerbach’s style of retro-pop production fits naturally with Yola’s powerful vocals.

While the production is impressive, it’s Yola’s vocals that consistently steal the show. Full of vigor and warmth, she’s never afraid to explore her own vulnerabilities and struggles. Much of the songwriting in Stand For Myself revolves around finding happiness and refusing to give in to life’s limitations. As she goes through her experiences with a transient relationship, the exasperation of inequality, and tokenism, she nevertheless finds the optimism to push through. Her expressive vocal range and confidence instill a sense of triumph and makes her one of the most unique voices in country music right now.

Must Listens: Dancing Away In Tears, Diamond Studded Shoes, Starlight

9. 上出来 — Tricot

上出来 signifies a return to form for Tricot and for them, that means experimenting and pushing the boundaries of math rock. Where 10 and 真っ黒 felt like a band coasting on familiarity, 上出来 brings back the creative force that made them one of the most unique rock acts today. Continuing with the poppier direction they’ve recently embraced, Tricot smoothly drifts between time signatures and wonky riffs.

上出来 thrives on its diversity in sound and Tricot’s ability to converge their disjointed rhythms in a melodic way. They still retain their raw energy on songs like スーパーサマー that play around with hardcore influences. At the same time, slowing down on 夜の魔物 with the bluesy solo riff and explosive vocals allows Tricot to explore uncharted territory. Their melodic intuitions manage to shine through even the most eccentric innovations found on 上出来.

Must Listens: いない, スーパーサマー, 夜の魔物

8. Sometimes I Might Be Introvert — Little Simz

On her fourth studio album, Sometimes I Might Be Introvert, Little Simz continues to evolve her sound and seems destined to carve out a path beyond the UK scene into a global phenomenon. The title itself is an acronym of her real name Simbi and the concept of the album revolves around keeping to herself in an industry that constantly demands an engaging persona. While it’s natural for artists like Little Simz to express themselves through their music, their introversion also stops them short of opening up to the world at large.

Produced entirely by Inflo, Sometimes I Might Be Introvert is laced with expansive orchestral arrangements influenced by neo-soul, jazz, and electronica. The sweeping strings, layered horns, and crisp percussion help take the storytelling of Little Simz in a cinematic direction as her charismatic presence takes center stage. As she reconciles both sides of Little Simz and Simbi on Sometimes I Might Be Introvert, she manages to reflect on how far she’s come as a musician and as a person. Sometimes I Might Be Introvert cements her status as one of UK’s brightest and is an artistic triumph that showcases the subtle beauty of the things we keep tucked away.

Must Listens: Introvert, Woman, Protect My Energy

7. Infinite Granite — Deafheaven

A stylistic departure from Deafheaven’s traditional blackgaze sound, Infinite Granite dives headfirst into their experimentation with shoegaze and dream pop. Though the change might be surprising for some, Deafheaven has always prided themselves on taking risks and Infinite Granite is a testament to that innovation. What’s most impressive is how textured and dynamic the instrumentation feels on each song. The long-winded guitar passages and ethereal vocals hold a surprising amount of energy as the band changes movements.

The obvious star is Daniel Tracy’s powerful drumwork that makes up for the loss of intensity. The fills, blast beats, and grooves are razor-sharp, continually driving the momentum forward. The subtleties give way to moments of beauty on songs like “The Gnashing” that culminate in an explosive climax of riffing and swirling vocals. Coming full circle with George Clarke’s shrieking and their blackgaze roots on “Mombasa”, Infinite Granite closes with a grand crescendo that unleashes everything they’ve built up. Emotionally resonant the entire way through, Infinite Granite is a breathtaking journey into a different side of Deafheaven.

Must Listens: Great Mass of Color, The Gnashing, Mombasa

6. Faith In Persona — Death’s Dynamic Shroud.wmv

Since their first release in 2014, death’s dynamic shroud have become cornerstones in the vaporwave scene for their eerie use of mangled pop samples and a pervasive feeling of uncanny. Their deconstruction of dance and pop hits through plunderphonics have become influential within the genre and Faith in Persona is no different. The first solo effort of Keith Rankin for the group, Faith in Persona is a masterclass in the alchemy of manipulating vocals and samplework.

Taking the familiar sounds of Taylor Swift, Dua Lipa, Demi Lovato, and Olivia Rodrigo, Faith in Persona twists them beyond all recognition while retaining a semblance of their pop structures and danceability. The end result feels nostalgic and melancholic in the same way that vaporwave does but the glitchy, high-fi arrangements also carry a sense of unease. Faith in Persona excels at the slow mutation of samples and there’s almost a narrative component to how each song is sequenced. From energetic dancefloor beats to glitchy synth movements to mellow guitar ballads, Faith in Persona pushes the limits of what sample-based music can be.

Must Listens: Tear in Abyss, Just to Be Needed, Pop Chin

5. The Life of Pi’erre 5 — Pi’erre Bourne

The final entry to Pi’erre Bourne’s The Life of Pi’erre series, The Life of Pi’erre 5 tightens his dreamy production while simultaneously overhauling his vocal performances. Borrowing stylistic elements from frequent collaborator Playboi Carti, The Life of Pi’erre 5 makes use of the empty spaces within his beats far better than before. The vocals are mixed to feel more distant and as a result, the melodies are stronger while still showcasing his gift for production. As always, the bubblegum synths, silky transitions, and springy percussion elevate Pi’erre as a producer but on The Life of Pi’erre 5, his rapping feels more natural than ever. 

Pi’erre sounds a lot more confident on The Life of Pi’erre 5 and brings plenty of charisma to match the colorful sounds laid out. “HULU” is Pi’erre’s formula being executed flawlessly as he bounces through ad-libs and airy verses backed by retro ear candy in the production. The clever transitions feel natural with his repetitive vocal melodies and it’s incredible listening to the ever-evolving sounds morph together. While The Life of Pi’erre 5 doesn’t reinvent his formula, it feels like Pi’erre has finally found the proper balance between his production and songwriting. 

Must Listens: HULU, Groceries, 4U

4. memoryland — CFCF

Memoryland is a kaleidoscopic collage of the electronica sounds from the late 90s and early 00s that conjure up nostalgic memories of youth. It blends together alt-rock and grunge riffs with jungle, house, and UK garage to form perpetually shifting compositions. The wide range of genre overlapping forms an identity crisis similar to the Y2K era of music colliding together.

Memoryland is impressively ambitious with how CFCF lays a foundation for these distinct ideas to meld together. The lo-fi guitar riffs on “Punksong” feel just as vital as the recursive 2-step pattern on “After the After”. The darker undertones and riffs draped in a pop/EDM sheen play up the duality between rose-tinted fantasy and reality. Memoryland is the soundtrack to looking back on the angst and messiness of our early 20s. It’s a bittersweet reflection on fleeting aspirations that were never fulfilled and before we knew it, it was too late.

Must Listens: Punksong, Night/Day/Work/Home, After the After

3. Foreign Exchange — Rx Papi & Gud

On paper, a collaborative effort between Bronx rapper Rx Papi and Swedish producer Gud sounds like something that shouldn’t work. Rx Papi’s style of absurdist rapping is shrouded in dark humor and a gruff bark that conceals pain and anxiety. On the other hand, Gud’s production takes on the cloud-rap stylings of his work in Sadboys together with icy synths and futuristic atmospheres. Yet on Foreign Exchange, the gritty rapping and ethereal production somehow align with one another and is a stellar performance showcasing the duo at their best.

Despite Rx Papi’s deadpan delivery, it’s his frantic, off-balance flow that hints at a deeper pain. Gud’s mellow, synth-heavy production is the perfect match to bring out that introspection and raw emotion within. On “12 Stout Street”, Rx Papi recounts the pains of growing up, being abandoned by his mother, and his life in the streets. Against the slow-moving backdrop of glacial synths, the pain that stifles itself in his screams is devastating: “I never in my life wanted to sell drugs/I would’ve been cool with playing games and shit, but instead I’m running with the gang and shit”. Foreign Exchange is unlike anything else in rap right now and Rx Papi’s storytelling doesn’t waste a single bar. 

Must Listens: 12 Stout Street, Albino Steve, Rahkel

2. …And Again Into The Light — Panopticon

Panopticon has become one of the most intriguing atmospheric black metal acts in the past few years by drawing upon themes of nature, long-winded acoustic arrangements, and folk/Americana influences. The cold, doom-inspired riffs that slowly give way to acoustic guitars and banjos feel like stepping out into the sun for the first time as winter ends. And Again Into the Light similarly acts as a rebirth of sorts as it explores themes of atonement and a promise of growth.

To achieve this thematic contrast, And Again Into the Light is quite distinct in how it combines the black metal and folk elements together. The eruptive intensities in the harsher sections feel like genuine anguish but the passages of respite are also incredibly cathartic. On tracks like “The Embers at Dawn”, the hopeful swells of string arrangements carry emotional weight behind chord progressions that slowly explode into a barrage of devastating noise. The elements of regret, survival, and growth are punctuated by the sweeping crescendos and impactful transitions. By the time you hear the birds sing on “Know Hope”, you can feel yourself casting off the wintry darkness to step into a brand new light.

Must Listens: Dead Loons, Rope Burn Exit, The Embers At Dawn

1. To See the Next Part of the Dream — Parannoul

To See the Next Part of the Dream is the sophomore album from Parannoul, a Korean shoegaze artist whose identity remains unknown. On first listen, the album isn’t anything groundbreaking. It feels like traditional shoegaze or emo framed through the lens of nostalgia, bittersweet memories, and existentialism. But upon closer inspection of the lyrics that peel away from the distorted instrumentals, To See the Next Part of the Dream reveals itself to be a brilliant balance of existentialism and potential dreams. Despite using virtual instruments, the densely layered components contain an unmistakable lifeforce.

Much of the nostalgia is derived from its samples and references to Welcome to the N.H.K., Neon Genesis Evangelion, and Goodnight Punpun. At the same time though, the nostalgia is corroded as self-loathing, anxiety, and regret overwhelm the music. The lyrics illustrate the ugliness of self-depreciation and inferiority but while they don’t promise a contrived sense of hope, Parannoul wants to break out of the fantasy to face bittersweet reality. As Parannoul says, “I can’t give you a sweet word of consolation. I can’t say ‘It’s gonna be okay someday’. I just hope there will be more active losers like me in the world.” There are no promises about the future but each day brings a new opportunity to stretch your hand out a little further.

Must Listens: Beautiful World, Analog Sentimentalism, White Ceiling

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I turned my incoherent ramblings on music, anime, and video games into an entire blog.

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