The 50 Best Albums Of 2013

The 50 Best Albums Of 2013

Earlier this year, New York Times pop critic Jon Caramanica wrote a piece about pop’s Summer Of Smooth, about how many of this year’s big warm-weather crossover hits were soft and breezy and immaculately produced and comforting pieces of throwbacky, slick pseudo-R&B. Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines” drove the narrative, but it also encompassed Bruno Mars and Justin Timberlake and Daft Punk and Drake. If you wanted to reach a bit, you could also extend the same story to indie rock. This is, after all, the year Ariel Rechtshaid became a smart-pop production baron by helming albums from Vampire Weekend and HAIM and Sky Ferreira and Charli XCX. It’s the year the National once again affirmed their calm, tasteful, wood-scented dominance. It’s the year that Phoenix inoffensively ascended to festival-headliner status, and that Disclosure crossed over to indie by goosing its dance music with high-stepping and laser-precise R&B hooks.

But it’s also the year a lot of other stuff happened. Even as Drake arguably became rap’s center, this was the year that its margins overflowed with scarily talented wiseacre noisemakers, MCs unafraid to yelp and snarl and yammer over backfiring 808s and slice-your-face synths. It’s the year old-timer processed-guitar monsters like Kevin Shields and Trent Reznor returned with guns-blazing, sounding better, once again, than we ever could’ve hoped. It’s the year superstar acts got weird and confrontational and maybe self-undermining, making some fascinating and sometimes great music along the way. And if it’s not the year metal got smart and tough, it sure as hell is the year metal stayed smart and tough.

If you’re looking at our list as an indicator of the Year Of Smooth, you’ll find plenty to support your hypothesis. There are plenty of clean and friendly and professional melodies contained therein, and many of the Summer Of Smooth movers are represented. But there’s even more rupture: Mavericks fighting against the flow of their genres and of music in general, making messily ambitious, noisy, sprawling, smoke-emitting monsters when many would’ve been happy to see them hit their marks and get out. Our #1 pick is top-shelf superstar self-sabotage, and its close runner-up is darkness-and-light sprawl that seems, in many ways, targeted toward annoying the genre faithful. Further down, you’ll find plenty that’s both agreeable and disagreeable: Synth-drone wizards, heartfelt ’90s-indie revivalists, spacey guitar noodlers, DIY shit-starters, two different A$AP Mob members.

The cast of writers who put this list together is quite different from last year’s rogue’s gallery. That means our list is as much a reflection of those changes as it is of the year itself, and it’s part of the reason you’ll now see a word like “Gorguts” on a list like this. But all those different enthusiasms — sometimes working together, sometimes flying on cross-currents — mean a diverse and passionate mess of opinions, and at least a couple of great albums that you almost certainly haven’t heard yet.

The countdown starts below.

50 Phosphorescent – Muchacho (Dead Oceans)

Phosphorescent - Muchacho

Let’s start things off with one of the most laid-back and easygoing records of the year. Muchacho is a remarkable thing, filled with twinkling piano, sunny synthesizers, and a rhythm section that always keeps things at a lazy-river pace. And that’s still only the surface layer. There’s so much exquisite instrumentation here that it must have taken considerable skill to make everything sound quite so relaxed. At the center of all this is Matthew Houck, whose cracked and charming voice, for all its wordplay, gave us one simple command in the first track that we were happy to obey: “Be easy.” –Miles

49 Justin Timberlake – The 20/20 Experience Pt. 1 (RCA)

Justin Timberlake - The 20/20 Experience Pt. 1

From the first blast of swooning strings that introduces “Pusher Love Girl,” it’s clear that The 20/20 Experience is an old-fashioned kind of album: reverently mining classic sounds, defying attention deficits, celebrating that ancient virtue of comfortable, quiet monogamy. It’s great! And as you’d expect for music of this vintage, it gets better with age. Operating in a luxuriant pleasure zone courtesy of a revitalized Timbaland, grown-and-sexy JT showed us a few things about love. (Let’s just agree to forget the sequel ever happened, K?) –Chris

48 Carcass – Surgical Steel (Nuclear Blast)

Carcass - Surgical Steel

It’s nothing new at this point for a legend of yore to reemerge from the murk of ancient history and release an album of considerable artistic value. But Carcass’s first new album in 17 years came as a shock just the same. There were so many hurdles to clear: The band’s last album, 1996’s Swan Song, was a largely reviled work that has been disowned by the band. Their founding guitarist, Bill Steer, long ago declared himself done with metal, and went on to play generic blues-based rock with an outfit called Firebird, while their second guitarist, Mike Amott, quit Carcass prior to Swan Song to form melodic death metal pioneers Arch Enemy. Carcass’s founding drummer, Ken Owen, quit music entirely after suffering a brain hemorrhage in 1999. But after spending six years on the festival circuit, a reunited Carcass — built around Steer and bassist/vocalist Jeff Walker — went into the studio, dug up some old unused riffs, and produced, perhaps, the best album of their career. Surgical Steel operates as though Swan Song never existed, and instead, acts as the album the band should have released after 1993’s legit classic Heartwork. Surgical Steel sinks anthemic, indelible melodies deep into songs built of caustic elements — primarily Walker’s vocals and new drummer Dan Wilding’s ferocious, superhuman foot- and stick-work. Steer is the band’s euphonic center, and he’s never sounded better. Masterfully produced by Colin Richardson, much of the album feels European in style, the way the hard, pugilistic elements combine with sweeping melody. These songs could’ve been written 30 years ago — or at any time over the last 30 years — but their clarity, precision, and full-bodied sound are distinctly of the moment. –Michael

47 A$AP Rocky – Long.Live.A$AP (ASAP Worldwide/Polo Grounds/RCA)

A$AP Rocky - Long.Live.A$AP

Remember this record? It leaked way back in December of 2012 and came out officially in January. Its purple hype cloud has long since dissipated, but it bangs artfully to this day. There’s so much more to Long.Live.A$AP than (the admittedly rad) “Fuckin’ Problems,” the one single that really soared at radio thanks to its all-star guests. Speaking of all-star guests, perhaps you recall the exhilarating mic-pass that is “1Train” or the giddy goofiness of the Skrillex-assisted “Wild For The Night” or Schoolboy Q going full giggity on “P.M.W.” Not that the album’s appeal is all about Rocky’s buddies; we’re talking about a gold-toothed Harlem rapper who, on the first track, sings in falsetto over guitar arpeggios like it’s Radiohead’s “Scatterbrain” up in here. At a time when almost every major label hip-hop debut suffers from cookie cutter syndrome, Dat Pretty Motherfucker made a record after his own heart that found its way into ours. –Chris

46 Yo La Tengo – Fade (Matador)

Yo La Tengo - Fade

Ira Kaplan and Georgia Hubley have been married to each other and making music together since before many of the artists on this list were born, and there’s an intuitive comfort to Yo La Tengo’s 13th proper studio album. Their voices curl up together like a middle-aged couple at the end of a long day, and Kaplan’s guitars swell up in the exact places where you know, and hope, they will. But that unforced ease doesn’t mean they’re stagnating. On Fade, they work with Chicago post-rock producer John McEntire for the first time, and the motorik spirals and impressionistic string-figures of songs like “Ohm” and “Before We Run” show a band still finding new ways to push itself. Fade is an unrelentingly pleasant album, sure, but in no way is it a boring one. –Tom

45 Youth Lagoon – Wondrous Bughouse (Fat Possum)

Youth Lagoon - Wondrous Bughouse

We can now see how perfectly titled Youth Lagoon’s debut, Year Of Hibernation, was with the way Trevor Powers burst forth from his sonic chrysalis with this starry-eyed stunner. Not to say this was a happier record — songs like “Mute” and “Dropla” were struggling with anxiety more than ever, but with that came melodies and color previously only hinted at. Powers addressed his, and our, existential demons with a musical grandeur that imbued even our scarier thoughts with a sense of magic and wonder. Wondrous Bughouse indeed. –Miles

44 A$AP Ferg – Trap Lord (ASAP Worldwide/Polo Grounds/RCA)

A$AP Ferg - Trap Lord

Trap Lord came out in the dog days of summer, but its spooky sonics are more befitting of Halloween. Fergenstein’s monster is a product of its time — if anybody embodies the internet rap sensibility of ominous fashion-minded trap music, it’s A$AP Mob — but like his pal Rocky, Ferg has an appreciation for his forebears. Hence formative influences Onyx, Bone Thugs, and B-Real share space with contemporary stars French Montana, Schoolboy Q, and Waka Flocka Flame. That kind of guest list belies the always-entertaining “All this shrimp and nobody to share it with!” skit, but the Hood Pope really is a man alone. No one else this year owned his aesthetic so fully or had more fun with such mournfully bleak music, setting his burly sing-song free to wreak havoc in a house of horrors. –Chris

43 Cassie – RockaByeBaby (Bad Boy)

Cassie - RockaByeBaby

Cassie certainly doesn’t have the best voice in circa-2013 R&B, but she might have the coolest one: An icily direct and eerily composed sing-speak that carries volumes of insinuation with every precise enunciation. And on her mixtape RockaByeBaby, her first full-length in seven years, she knows just how to use that voice, hovering above gleaming electro-blips or snaking its way through tinkly minimal club music. RockaByeBaby has A-list guests — Rick Ross, Wiz Khalifa, Meek Mill — but they all disappear completely into Cassie’s chilly house-of-mirrors style. “I make music to numb your brain,” Cassie purrs on “Numb,” and she succeeds like no R&B singer since Aaliyah. –Tom

42 Autre Ne Veut – Anxiety (LABEL)

Autre Ne Veut - Anxiety

It might seem like a trick the way Arthur Ashin pairs songs of incredible hurt and fear over ass-shaking jams like the ones found on his album Anxiety, but that title is hardly a misnomer. Ashin is someone expressing his deepest anxieties as best he can, by belting his vocals to the back room and wrapping them in maximalist R&B — the genre of music he listened to with his parents as he grew up,

41 Janelle Monáe – The Electric Lady (Wondaland/Bad Boy)

Janelle Monáe - The Electric Lady

It’s always the right time for an OutKast reunion, but I like to think The Electric Lady brought interest to a fever pitch. Janelle Monáe is a protege of theirs, after all, and she’s been traipsing through the same retro-futuristic funky wonderland they inhabited, as did the likes of Prince and George Clinton before them. But even if she wears her influences like they’re black-and-white formal wear, Monáe’s her own woman, and a fierce one at that. The Electric Lady is the sound of her grabbing music history by the balls, yanking it onto the dance floor and making it her bitch. –Chris

40 Pharmakon – Abandon (Sacred Bones)

Pharmakon - Abandon

We were introduced to Margaret Chardiet via the most bloodcurdling scream on a record this year. It’s not theatrical, it’s not noticeably manipulated, it’s not done with the skill you get from metal singers — it’s simply recorded and uncomfortably raw. It sounds like something that was genuinely painful to make. It doesn’t go away either, the tail end of it hanging in the air, stretching into what becomes the opening drones of Abandon. Those five seconds are in miniature what you’ll find on Pharmakon’s volcanic debut. Composed with a surgical precision, but delivered with the heavy force of an abattoir knocker, Abandon is more than just one of the best albums of the year, it is a great service to noise music specifically. The entire album, and most notably the throbbing war march of “Crawling On Bruised Knees,” has the power to introduce newcomers to this world and remind old fans why they fell in love with the genre to begin with. Abandon will be remembered as a landmark in noise music, and we’re looking forward to to Chardiet’s next move. –Miles

39 Pure Bathing Culture – Moon Tides (Memphis/Partisan)

Pure Bathing Culture - Moon Tides

Few albums this year were quite as luxurious as Moon Tides, right from those sparkling opening moments of “Pendulum.” It’s an album where ethereality is delicately woven with a grounded smoothness, all stargazing while floating in the water. It flows as naturally as the elements, making every dynamic shift feel right, peaking with “Scotty,” which hit “Time After Time” levels of slow-dance perfection, and riding it out to the closer “Temple Of The Moon,” which is just slightly colder, like the first brisk day in autumn. A special mention is merited by “Evergreener,” which musically and lyrically captures the childhood love of nature — and nature of love — that XTC perfected on Skylarking and remains near-impossible to replicate. But Pure Bathing Culture do that and more here, all while making it look as natural as a leaf flying in the breeze. –Miles

38 The Knife – Shaking The Habitual (Rabid)

The Knife - Shaking The Habitual

There’s something to the fact that the Knife and Scott Walker both released their defining records in 2006, shortly before disappearing from the spotlight. As on Walker’s 2012 outing, Bish Bosch, the Knife finally came back with a record that’s as likely to be deemed unlistenable as it is a work of genius. Even without the oblique lyrics and fascinating politics, Shaking The Habitual is a funhouse of an album, from manic tropical rushes like “Tooth For An Eye” and “Without You My Life Would Be Boring,” to the sparking circuit techno of “Full Of Fire” and “Networking.” It has to be reiterated, though, that even in their most experimental moments, the Knife don’t falter. The 20-minute dark, ambient abyss that makes up “Old Dreams” and the noise bombardment of “Fracking Fluid Injections” feel vital in context, while the rhythmless float of “A Cherry On Top” balances abstraction with one of the most emotional deliveries of the band’s career. Shaking The Habitual does exactly what its title pledges while positioning the Knife as current stars of experimental music. They’ve come a staggeringly long way, and, to think: Once upon a time we thought they were just a synth-pop band. –Miles

37 Forest Swords – Engravings (Tri Angle)

Forest Swords - Engravings

There were darker albums this year, and there were groovier ones, but nothing juggled the two quite like Forest Swords’ long awaited debut album, Engravings. On four central foundations — murky drones, hip-hop-inflected beats, spiraling guitar riffs, and ghostly vocal samples — Matthew Barnes gave us the album that the Dagger Paths EP promised. The songs revolve around those core elements, but shift their focus constantly, like on the vocal séance in “Gathering,” or the lonesome guitar in “The Plumes.” The moments when Barnes hits us with all of his strengths at full force, like in “Thor’s Stone,” result in some of the most mysterious and hypnotic music of the year. It came out in the sweltering summer days of August, but slap on a pair of headphones and this thing chills you to the bone. –Miles

36 Julia Holter – Loud City Song (Domino)

Julia Holter - Loud City Song

It’s appropriate that Loud City Song, Julia Holter’s third and best album in three years, opens with a song called “World,” as that is exactly what Holter creates for us throughout the course of the album. Starting with just her quiet voice floating in a vacuum of silence, she carefully puts all her pieces in place: the literary inspiration of Colette’s 1944 novella Gigi, her orchestral arrangements tuned up, and her layered voice at its best. It’s the most restrained song on the album, but immediately you can tell Loud City Song is the most exquisitely recorded album of Holter’s career. Holter’s voice transforms from song to song, as do her orchestrations. No two songs sound alike, but they all sound like Julia Holter, who in turn sounds like no one else. It’s a beautifully crafted and recorded piece of work, and for the first time it lives up to the grand and dreamy symphonies that always seemed to live in the artist’s head. –Miles

35 Gorguts – Colored Sands (Season of Mist)

Gorguts - Colored Sands

“Gorguts” was a terrible name when Luc Lemay chose it for his band in 1989, and nearly a quarter-century later, it’s demonstrably worse. It’s not just that it’s a goofy-ass, not-even-clever portmanteau/pun that brings to mind the very basest proclivities of death metal’s Fangoria fringe. It’s that — unlike, say, Cannibal Corpse or Autopsy (both better names than Gorguts, mind you) — Gorguts don’t even sort of cater to that fringe. They never really have, but in 2013, that name may as well qualify as false advertising. Colored Sands is the first Gorguts LP since 2001, their first since the suicide of drummer Steve McDonald in 2002, their first since Lemay reformed the band in 2008 with Dysrhythmia members Kevin Hufnagel and Colin Marston (the latter also of Krallice) on guitar and bass, respectively, and John Longstreth (Dim Mak, Origin) on drums. But don’t call it a comeback — call it a triumph. Honestly, even that feels like an understatement: Colored Sands is about as technically ambitious as metal gets, bringing together polyphonic, avant-grade insanity with rich strains of unexpected melody — all of it, alternately, in sky-blackening clouds of armor-piercing carbide shells and/or dreamlike expanses of spacious zen stillness. The Conservatory-trained Lemay is Gorguts’ chief composer, but his own vision allows for those of his bandmates to shine through, too: Much of Colored Sands feels like workshopped versions of the jazzy/proggy/math-y wizardry produced by Dysrhythmia or Krallice. But Lemay’s strong compositional gifts provide structure for his occasionally structure-averse co-workers, so that the astonishing instrumental mastery here services the songs, rather than the reverse. Colored Sands is especially notable for all its frankly beautiful cutaways and digressions, not least of which being the classical-style piece “The Battle Of Chamdo,” which Lemay wrote on piano for a string quartet. I assume “Gorguts” mashes up the words “gore” and “guts” to offer a new word that sort of sounds like — but is the diametric opposite of — “gorgeous.” But for Colored Sands, “gorgeous” would have been a whole lot closer to the truth. –Michael

34 Yuck – Glow & Behold (Fat Possum)

Yuck - Glow & Behold

Bill Simmons, the wildly popular ESPN columnist turned Grantland founder and TV personality, has long espoused the Ewing Theory, a concept invented by his pal Dave Cirilli in the ’90s. Cirilli noticed that the NBA’s New York Knicks (and the collegiate Georgetown Hoyas before them) played better when superstar center Patrick Ewing was injured; rather than propping his teams up, Ewing was holding them back. Simmons even applied this theory to the music world in a column earlier this year, citing New Order’s rise after Ian Curtis hung himself (“the most depressing Ewing Theory ever”) and Courtney Love’s career immediately after Kurt Cobain blew his brains out (“the second-most depressing example”). Here’s a less morbid example: When frontman Daniel Blumberg left the prodigious UK ’90s revivalists Yuck this year after just one album, everyone assumed the band would soldier on as a shadow of its former self. Instead, Yuck delivered Glow & Behold, a shimmering guitar opus that surpasses their debut in every way. It was — what’s the opposite of yuck? Mmmm? Glow & Behold made ‘em say mmmm. (Plus we got that rad Hebronix LP out of the divorce, so, win-win.) –Chris

33 The Field – Cupid’s Head (Kompakt)

The Field - Cupid's Head

Axel Willner’s career as the Field is like one mesmerizing fractal. Whether scanning over his entire discography of ambient techno, looking at the flow of a particular album, or focusing in on a single song, you see the same shape, with repetition and gradual evolution dominant at every scale. Yes, Cupid’s Head is a return to the same sound he perfected on his debut and continued on later albums, though with a subtly gloomier flavor. That chillier quality dominates in the acid house coda of “Black Sea” or the buzzing drones and vocal skips of “No. No…” but it’s also a record laced with unbearable beauty. The blurry closer “20 Seconds Of Affection” ends with hope, and “A Guided Tour,” one of the very best songs of Willner’s career, glows brightly in the center. Built of mantras as much as melodies, Cupid’s Head is pure joy in which to get lost. –Miles

32 Iceage – You’re Nothing (Matador)

Iceage - You're Nothing

There are a lot of ways to open a record, but few of the albums on this list could match the insane one-two punch that Iceage deliver on You’re Nothing. “Ecstasy” jumps right into the dissonant punk that the Danish band delivered on their first album, and then exactly one minute in, the noise clears to reveal the ragged screamed chant of “PRESSURE.” Maybe this young band did feel a bit of that after all eyes were cast on them … it’s understandable when you’re the best new punk band to emerge in years. But pressure and stress are not always bad. Sometimes they’re essential natural responses, like a fever or the endorphin rush that comes from being genuinely frightened. A lot of bands could have succumbed to that stress, but as soon as “Coalition” hits, you know this group has taken that built-up pressure and released something explosive. From the warlike instrumental “Interlude,” through the crisp thrash of “In Haze,” to the violently heartfelt closing title track, and everything in between, Iceage keep their inferno burning, and the pressure building. –Miles

31 Speedy Ortiz – Major Arcana (Carpark)

Speedy Ortiz - Major Arcana

The now-exploding music scene that orbits Boston often feels like it’s made up of underdogs. These bands have produced so many songs about self-doubt, depression, and frustration that their inherent humor seems like a defense mechanism. But Speedy aren’t underdogs in the wake of their incredible debut; they’re champions. Champions to other bands and, in Sadie Dupuis’ razor-sharp poetry and painful imagery, to kids who feel bad about sitting alone at lunch or think for even a moment that they’d be better off dead. With hyperactive melodies and searing noise, Major Arcana could put a ton of crappy guidance counselors out of work. –Miles

30 Oneohtrix Point Never – R Plus 7 (Warp)

Oneohtrix Point Never - R Plus 7

Exactly one year ago the Pope joined Twitter; two years before him it was the Dalai Lama. It’s a sign of the times, particularly of how completely un-detachable from technology we are. So people tweet @pontifex, and if you flip on TV you can find scientists discussing bizarre Rapture-esque scenarios like “the singularity” with a preacher’s zeal. It gives the idea of faith in technology a completely different context — a context that has allowed Daniel Lopatin to make one of the most spiritual pieces of art released this year. Oneohtrix Point Never examines this dichotomy by smashing and blending together the mangled remnants of everything from church hymns to infomercial Muzak. Opener “Boring Angel” lays it all out, pairing a church organ with a synth arpeggiator, and finds beauty in each before culminating in an overwhelming organ and choir crescendo. It’s a unique spirituality that Lopatin first tapped into on Eccojams Vol. 1, and drafted on Replica, but on R + 7 he’s made something transcendent. These 10 songs are beautiful, grotesque, wondrous, and never more appropriate-sounding than when he performed them at Our Lady Of Lebanon. As puzzling as the impossible equation in its title, R + 7 is Oneohtrix Point Never’s masterpiece. –Miles

29 Phoenix – Bankrupt! (Glassnote/Atlantic)

Phoenix - Bankrupt!

Coming off their biggest album — and coming into a summer that included arena dates and a headlining spot at Coachella — Phoenix probably should have crafted a fifth album full of sing-along singles, or at least Cadillac-worthy jingles. Instead, they gave us Bankrupt!, 40 minutes of their loosest, airiest material to date — a full seven of which were dedicated to the album’s most inscrutable number: its Jan Hammer-eque title track. Bankrupt! is not a weird record, but it is the weirdest Phoenix record. It’s full of sublime, gossamer music, but even its lead single — opening track “Entertainment” — isn’t really a single; it’s an assortment of disparate fragments of songs cropped, cut-and-pasted together, and run through an Instagram filter or two. So goes the majority of Bankrupt!: These are deliciously sweet, richly textured songs that fill the space between the headphones with an intoxicating floral pungency, but melt away as quickly as a scoop of mint chip gelato spilled on a New Orleans sidewalk. I might venture to say these are the sleekest, smoothest contours Phoenix has ever produced, and even when that means gliding across them like raindrops along the hood of a freshly waxed SRX cruising comfortably at 75, with no hope of hanging on to anything at all, it’s still a sweet, sweet ride. –Michael

28 Drake – Nothing Was The Same (Cash Money)

Drake - Nothing Was The Same

Drake wasn’t kidding about that ‘worst behavior’ business. Rap’s leading softie dropped the gentleman routine in 2013 and let the feelings flow all the way from passive aggression to their logical conclusion: an asshole on parade. (On record at least;

27 The National – Trouble Will Find Me (4AD)

The National - Trouble Will Find Me

“You should know me better than that.” Is there a knowing wink behind Matt Berninger’s mantra at the start of Trouble Will Find Me? The National’s identity is so entrenched at this point that we know exactly what to expect from Brooklyn’s foremost grown-ass indie rockers. “There’s a science to walking through windows without you,” and to writing National songs. But science has improved our lives immeasurably, and so does this band’s well-worn formula. Their music is the ultimate drinking buddy for life’s most melancholic moments, those times when you need a steady shoulder and not a ripped-up foundation. Not that Trouble Will Find Me is all morbid navel-gazing — “Sea Of Love”‘s relentless churn fulfills the “Mr. November” memorial rock climax quota. And, hey, if you insist on something out of the ordinary, how about Berninger calling himself “a white girl in a crowd of white girls in the park”? –Chris

26 Migos – YRN (Self-released)

Migos - YRN

The sounds and ideas on YRN — sproingy cheap synth melodies, cave-in-your-eardrum bass, candy-colored cartoon-thug sentiment — have been staples of Atlanta’s rap underground for many years, but we’ve rarely heard them with the sort of spirited glee that the young guys in Migos bring here. They bounce their voices off these cheap and ingratiating melodies with such goony energy and rhythmic inventiveness that you almost don’t notice that most of the songs are about selling drugs. And if old heads have trouble divining the appeal of, say, the drilling-into-your-brain “Versace” chorus, they should consider that the words-as-superballs beats-as-playground spirit is the same thing behind, say, Das-EFX’s Dead Serious. –Tom

 

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