The List 2020

At the end of each year I make a list of the twenty albums I enjoyed the most. To be eligible, a record has to be of album length (at least ~30 mins), and contain entirely (or almost entirely) new material; live albums, cover records, and compilations are ineligible.

  1. Joywave — Possession

Three years ago Joywave announced themselves to me, and took second place on my 2017 list, with their sophomore album Content. At the time I said that I found the band ‘very exciting if they’re going to keep making music this inventive and urgent’ and guess what? Possession is another assured, multi-faceted set of a dozen uncategorisable bops. Of the previous record I listed the genres touched upon as ‘including, but not limited to: math rock, electronica, dance, soul…’ and that’s still all in the mix here though, for some reason I can’t quite put my finger on the new album feels slightly more humane and less coldly electronic than its predecessor.

Opener ‘Like a Kennedy’ is, for me, one of the defining songs of the Trump / Brexit era: a vulnerable, exhausted lament that asks only for the simplest things amidst incomprehensible turmoil. ‘F.E.A.R.’ twists ‘Monster Mash’ DNA into a campy downbeat stomp, whereas ‘Funny Thing About Opinions’ is an upbeat treatise on the state of internet dialogue.

This is another record of surprising, inventive dance-pop-rock cuts that was everything I wanted from more Joywave. I would love to see these guys live when that’s possible once more, though—with the same sense of humour apparent in their music—the band’s faux-Fox News website informs me that their touring has been postponed ‘due to pressure from health experts and communists’.

  1. Oliver Coates — skins n slime

On my spider-diagram of musical influences there would be a large number of lines spreading outwards from Radiohead, and Oliver Coates is the newest addition. It seems like a fitting way to encounter a classically trained cellist making something he’s called (probably with tongue firmly in cheek) ‘pastoral metal’.

It’s a tough task to affix meaningful labels to what Coates is doing on skins n slime, and that’s not a bad thing. Sure, I take his allusion to metal, but there’s also drone influences à la Roly Porter, and minimalist composition à la William Basinski & Steve Reich (with whom Coates has previously collaborated). The result is a singular mélange of a headphone record that I found mesmerising.

  1. Empress Of — I’m Your Empress Of

Despite this being her third record, Lorely Rodriguez—as Empress Of—is a new artist to me this year. She also, drum roll, made my favourite track of the year in the form of peerless, euphoric dance banger ‘Love is a Drug’. But that’s just one of the jewels on offer here. The album’s true opener (though it follows a sweet intro) ‘Bit of Rain’ is a house-infused treat, whereas ‘Shold’ve’ is a more complex, layered affair.

Only three tracks break the three-minute barrier, and the album as a whole is only a little over a half hour, content to show up, put a smile on your face, and dip out leaving you wanting more. This was a trip I took dozens of times since the record’s release back in spring, and I’ll be playing it for a while yet. I’ll also be looking out both for remixes of what’s here, and for what Rodriguez does next.

  1. Phoebe Bridgers — Punisher

Someday, I’m gonna live
In your house up on the hill
And when your skinhead neighbor goes missing
I’ll plant a garden in the yard

Those are the first lines delivered on Punisher, and a fitting testament to the fact that no one told more compelling stories on record this year than Phoebe Bridgers. A stellar lyricist, she paints a series of vivid pictures for the listener, then uses them as the setting for raw emotional openness. It’s the same formula used by her partner in Better Oblivion Community Center: one Conor Oberst. But Bridgers is painting with softer brushes and — for the most part — a darker palette.

The title track is a heart-rending ballad of loneliness, ‘Kyoto’ is a more up-beat invitation to sing along (if you can match Bridgers’ range), and album highlight ‘Savior Complex’ is a brilliantly judged balancing act that manages to be both delicate and devastating.

For whatever reason Better Oblivion Community Center didn’t really work for me last year, but Punisher is persuasive proof that I need to go back to Bridgers’ solo debut (Stranger in the Alps (2017)), and also her work with Lucy Dacus in boygenius.

Side note: Bridgers’ non-album cover of Radiohead’s ‘Fake Plastic Trees’ (with Arlo Parks) is outstanding.

Second side note: despite its June release I was late in coming to this album for whatever reason, and I get the distinct feeling it’s not done growing on me. Ask me in 6-12 months and this may well have climbed up a fair few places.

  1. Holy Fuck — Deleter

HF took 7th place on this list in 2016 with their previous album: Congrats. I never did do the work of going back and exploring their catalogue — which is something I still should do — but when I saw a new LP drop at the beginning of 2020 I jumped on it. This is a record that has stuck around for me all year, and which doesn’t sound like anything else on this list.

HF are a band doing their own thing in their own way: bending all manner of instruments to make a supreme electronic racket with a pulse. However, the guests on Deleter’s opening couple of tracks make for an interesting way of triangulating the band’s place on the musical map. The understated build and break of ‘Luxe’ features Alexis Taylor of Hot Chip, and the more forthright follow-up of a title track includes Angus Andrew of Liars. (I made an additional comparison to Battles last time, and that still stands.)

My favourite track on an inventive, restless record is ‘Moment’, with its build-and-build again dynamic and krautrock hard edge.

  1. Surfer Blood — Carefree Theatre

The last two Surfer Blood records (1000 Palms (2015) & Snowdonia (2017)) haven’t found a spot in my top 20, though I remember enjoying both of them. Happily, Carefree Theatre is very much a return to the heights of Pythons (18th in 2013), if not quite Astro Coast (6th in 2010).

The sunny Florida quartet still have a way with a simple melody, decorated with pretty harmonics, and a knack for undercutting it all with a weirdly twisted lyric or unexpected shift in the tune (eg. the way the guitar line finds an unexpected low note on ‘Parkland (Into Silence)’). I’m aware that I may be being influenced by the fact they have a song referencing the director, but there’s a Lynchian twist at play here: a dive from the white picket vista to the squirming bugs in the soil. It’s the gambit Pixies perfected several decades ago, but it’s nice to hear a different take on it.

I haven’t done the work of going back to the third and fourth records, but I expect I would find that they were weakened relatively by virtue of Surfer Blood stretching to expand their sound. Simplicity is this band’s friend, and seems key to the bright three-minute pieces they’re capable of crafting. On this record they’re embracing it with great results, even if album closer ‘Rose Bowl’ makes for disconcerting listening at the end of 2020:

On the first day of the New Year
Morning, January first
This past year wasn’t great
And I think it’s getting worse

  1. Biffy Clyro — A Celebration of Endings

Previously on this list: 9th in 2007 with Puzzle; 3rd in 2013 with Opposites and, of course, 1st in 2009 with Only Revolutions. Notable for its absence in that list is 2016’s Ellipsis, which I found to be uneven at best and did not get played much after the first couple of listens. For that reason I approached A Celebration of Endings with both hope and caution. I was very pleased to find that it was the former that was warranted.

‘North is No South’ is a statement of intent, and then it gives way to a run of four tracks (‘The Champ’ — ‘Worst Type of Best Possible’) as strong as anything the Scots have ever committed to tape. ‘Space’ is the kind of ballad that probably has Matt Cardle dreaming of another Christmas number 1, and then ‘End Of’ hits you over the head with a blackjack. As was the case with the previous three Biffy albums to make this list there’s not a bad track here. There are weaker moments (‘The Pink Limit’ doesn’t totally work for me), but they’re hugely outnumbered by consistently arresting songwriting and the band’s knack for finding strange new ways to twist a riff or subvert a time signature.

That’s true from the the bruiser of an opening track, right until ‘Cop Syrup’ plays the record out like a weird update of Nirvana’s ‘Beeswax’ (1992).

  1. The Beths — Jump Rope Gazers

There were so many good records two years ago that I ended up appending a ‘next best 30’ list to the main top 20 – that’s how I know that The Beths’ fuzzed-up guitars and playful percussion only just missed a spot on the 2018 list for their debut Future Me Hates Me. The follow-up is a stronger record on which the New Zealand quartet have honed their formidable sense of melody to a fine point.

I’m hearing some that dog. in here, only Elizabeth Stokes’s voice is warmer and lighter than Anna Waronker’s delivery often was. Moments like the vocal somersaults on opener ‘I’m Not Getting Excited’ still thrill me on each listen.

There’s a little dip in quality at the middle of the running order, but it picks right back up with the cheerily plaintive ‘Don’t Go Away’, before heading into album highlight ‘Mars, The God of War’: a sub-three-minute pop rock gem and the best song I know to include the word ‘optometry’.

  1. Deftones — Ohms

As I type this there is a newly released version of Deftones’ best record sat, as yet unheard, on my hard drive. White Pony / Black Stallion is a remaster and a set of remixes in celebration of the 20th anniversary of an album that I would still pack for a desert island.

Deftones are one of the very few bands for whom every one of their records has made my list over the years, so let’s review placements:

White Pony 3rd in 2000 ☨
Deftones 12th in 2003;
Saturday Night Wrist 9th in 2006;
Diamond Eyes 9th in 2010;
Koi No Yokan 1st in 2012;
Gore 20th in 2016

When I looked back on the preceding decade in 2005 I also retroactively had their debut Adrenaline 1st for 1995, and the follow-up Around the Fur 3rd for 1997.

But what of the new offering? After flirtations with Bob Ezrin, Nick Raskulinecz, & Matt Hyde on their last four albums, Deftones reunite here with Terry Date: the producer on their first four albums. The result is a record that sounds every bit as brutal and sonically deep as their masterpiece. There’s proof on every track of Ohms that this is a band still able to wrangle cacophony like no one else, threading it through with both taut wires of urgent passion and flowing ribbons of melody.

‘Urantia’ is a Pantera riff being absorbed into a great lost Soundgarden song; ‘Radiant City’ is restless water chopped up by a sea monster moving slowly in the deep. And, title track and closer ‘Ohms’, is the best song they’ve written in two decades.

I’m relatively confident that if I reviewed this year now White Pony would take 2nd from Eminem’s The Marshall Mathers LP and would be snapping at the heels of Radiohead’s Kid A for the top spot.

  1. Fiona Apple — Fetch the Bolt Cutters

I don’t know where to begin with this record. After having listened to it dozens of times I still feel like I’m barely finding my way into it. And yet it’s mesmerising and breathtaking in new ways each time I give it the attention it deserves – which is to say, when I can lie down with headphones on and do nothing else.

Apple’s previous album (The Idler Wheel…) ended up 17th on my list in 2012, but only four other records on that list have lasted for me over the eight years since. I’m old friends with that album now, I know the raucous ‘Every Single Night’ and the dizzying ‘Hot Knife’ like old friends. But I still recall when I first encountered the album, and how it took time before confusion gave way to awe. Fiona Apple doesn’t make easily digestible, parseable music. But just as years spent loving Extraordinary Machine (2005) were inadequate preparation for Idler Wheel…, eight years spent in the company of that album wasn’t enough to get my brain ready for Fetch the Bolt Cutters.

That’s two paragraphs of preamble to mask the fact that I still don’t really know how to talk about this record, except to say that by the time Apple starts making dolphin noises in the last 20 seconds of opener ‘I Want You To Love Me’, you’re likely either in or out. I, evidently, was in all the way: through the anthem to self belief ‘Shameika’, the self confidence mantra ‘Under the Table’, or the howl in the face of depression ‘Heavy Balloon’.

There is a book to be written about the instrumentation on Fetch the Bolt Cutters, the way it’s layered, the way Apple’s voice (often in duplicate or triplicate) weaves in and out of it, the way it seems to fly in the face of conventional time signatures to create music that keeps you guessing even on the fifteenth listen. I’m not music scholar enough to attempt anything close to the analysis this record deserves. This is the best way I can find to phrase it: nothing sounds like a Fiona Apple record, and no other Fiona Apple record sounds quite like this.

  1. Four Tet — Sixteen Oceans

It will be no surprise to find Kieran Hebden occupying a place on this list: previous appearances include There is Love in You (17th in 2010); Pink (10th in 2012); & New Energy (7th in 2017), and I have a feeling that if I were to rewrite the 2013 list now Beautiful Rewind would make an appearance – it’s certainly had more staying power for me than a number of records on that list. Heck, I still play 2003’s Rounds and 2005’s Everything Ecstatic at least a couple of times each year.

Sixteen Oceans displays the same delicate balances with which Four Tet has been playing for more than two decades: electronic / acoustic; played / sampled; digital / human. These levels shift pleasingly and subtly throughout the runtime of the record, in a manner which made it for me very much an album as opposed to a collection of disparate tracks. As I replayed it, even the four shorter interstitial pieces came to feel like necessary, brilliantly judged transitional moments.

Highlights for me are the singular pulse of ‘Teenage Birdsong’, and the glowing swell of (the otherwise admittedly slight) ‘4T Recordings’. Arguably there’s less innovation on Sixteen Oceans than there has been on previous Four Tet albums, but I don’t necessarily miss it. I still find Hebden’s work captivating, moving, and worthy of frequent revisiting.

  1. Caribou — Suddenly

Caribou previously appeared on one of these lists when he took 11th place in 2014 with Our Love. That was a record that tapped into hazy house music vibes to great effect, and there are still notes of that in evidence on this year’s release. Overall, however, Suddenly is more wide-ranging. It borrows from all over the dance / electronica spectrum, and unifies the results by threading the patchwork through with Dan Snaith’s falsetto.

Album highlight ‘Home’ is as soulful and warm as opener ‘Sister’ is cool and stand-offish: both are sub-three minute musical jewels. Each track here has been painstakingly constructed from a broad array of influences, such that each sounds different from one another and yet uniquely like Caribou. It’s a similar art to that practiced by (former tour mates) Radiohead: somehow you know a piece of music is theirs even when it sounds unlike anything they’ve made before. Amongst my favourite tracks on the record, ‘Never Come Back’ & ‘Ravi’ are imbued with the kind of warmth that just glows through your headphones.

  1. HAIM — Women in Music Pt. III

HAIM’s last album — Something To Tell You — didn’t find a spot on my 2017 list. Despite a handful of very good tracks, and no outright bad ones, it never seemed to reach anything like the heights of the debut: Days Are Gone, which was awarded 6th place back in 2013. Even on first listen it was clear to me that on Women in Music Pt. III HAIM had recaptured the magic of their debut.

The formula should be familiar now: three gifted musicians who also hold the unfair advantage of being sisters, which seems to explain why their voices harmonise so perfectly. Using those tools, and a great ear for melodic hooks, they produce a more thoroughly Californian update of Fleetwood Mac’s blues-infused pop-rock.

And on their third LP they’re making some of their best music. ‘The Steps’ is forthright and foot-stomping; its younger sister — album closer ‘FUBT’ — is a more vulnerable lament. And HAIM are happy and able to play anywhere along that spectrum. Album highlight ‘Don’t Wanna’ is both achingly sweet and vulnerable whilst its percussion and soaring chorus project a core of strength.

There are also a couple of surprises that work surprisingly well: chief amongst them ‘3am’, which sounds like it fell off a Jennifer Lopez record a couple of decades ago, and which I couldn’t get enough of.

  1. Georgia — Seeking Thrills

Only two of the dozen nominees for this year’s Mercury Music Prize also has the (no less prestigious) honour of being awarded a place in my top 20.

Seeking Thrills is one of the year’s most optimistic records; it’s awash with infectious positivity. There are certainly downtempo moments, such as the coy, understated self-belief mantra ‘Till I Own It’, but there are several tracks obviously destined to soundtrack late night and early hours on dancefloors. The chorus of ‘Never Let You Go’ is a burst of beautiful euphoria set in a polyrhythmic bed that’s urging you to dance at two different tempos at once; ‘Feel It’ has the DNA of an MIA track, but with a dance twist; ’24 Hours’ evolves masterfully into an effervescent gem.

The first half of the album is stronger than the latter half, but there are no weak tracks. Since its release in the second week of the year this has been an easy-listening pleasure that I’ve yet to tire of replaying.

  1. Taylor Swift — evermore

This has been the year of disrupted plans and unforeseen twists. Thus it’s fitting that I had this whole list written before Taylor Swift decided to celebrate her birthday by surprise releasing an album, with ~16 hours’ notice, on 11 December. Hence, two weeks’ later, here I am on Boxing Day re-writing things to give this record its rightful place.

As with her other quarantine album (July’s folklore) this is Swift in a storytelling mode, delicately and precisely teasing out the emotional truths of any situation she turns her attention to: failed proposals on ‘champagne problems’, imbalances of affection within relationships on ‘tolerate it’ . She’s telling the story of her own grandmother on ‘marjorie’, and spinning a tale of murder and revenge on the HAIM-featuring ‘No Body, No Crime’ — both the most fun Swift had on record this year, and her catchiest song of 2020.

Sonically though, there’s more of a sense of exploration here than on Swift’s other 2020 release. The template of simply arranged, delicately composed folk pop that was set on folklore is pulled here into slightly different shapes. There’s a drum machine on ‘one story short’, and skittering beats and whooshes underneath the outro of ‘happiness’, and again throughout ‘closure’. There’s one of the clearest nods to her country music roots since Speak Now (2010) on ‘cowboy like me’.

You can probably tell from how this entry is written that, with five entries left to go, we’re not done with Taylor Swift in 2020. I’ll have more to say then.

(Also: shout out to the Detroit post-hardcore quartet Dogleg who held the 20th spot on this list before Taylor dropped a last minute bombshell, necessitating a re-write; their debut Melee is officially my twenty-first favourite LP of 2020.)

  1. Hayley Williams — Petals for Armor

The last three Paramore records have been at four year intervals (not that I’m counting down), and they’ve reliably taken their place in the middle of my lists: 8th in 2009 for Brand New Eyes, 12th in 2013 for Paramore, and 10th in 2017 with After Laughter. As such it’s a welcome surprise to find frontwoman Hayley Williams so far up this list when she’s out on her own.

Musically this solo work is less vibrantly bombastic than Paramore’s more recent output, but no less catchy or endearing. Despite deeply personal subject matter (including depression, divorce, and recovery) Williams has crafted a collection of electronic-tinged pop-rock that it’s impossible not to fall for. Over the course of 15 tracks she explores some more experimental percussion and production (such as on the stuttering-then-flowing, Fiona Apple-esque ‘Cinnamon’) as well as showcasing her ear for a hook, such as on the powerful earworm ‘Dead Horse’ and the Sunday-afternoon radio ballad ‘Pure Love’. The result is an hour of consistently arresting, energising music that draws from an impressively wide emotional range.

Few would deny that the defining characteristic of Paramore as a band is Hayley Williams’s unmistakable voice. Whisper to roar, and across a truly impressive tonal range, few rock singers can match her. Unsurprisingly that is also the strength of her first solo outing, though her consistently evolving songwriting is a close second.

  1. Beach Bunny — Honeymoon

This record is nine tracks and 25 minutes of relentless, sunny pop-rock. It’s proof if proof was needed that throwing four kids into a rehearsal room with a couple of guitars and a drum set can still result in something life-affirming and marvellous.

Opener ‘Promises’ is first light and bubbly, and then strident and anthemic; it’s followed up with the sing-along whilst you dance-along ‘Cuffing Season’, then we drop a couple of gears for the raw, earnest ‘April’. And we’re off to the races on a giddy whirlwind tour of three-chords-and-hummable-choruses pop. By the time you reach cartwheeling closer, and album high point, ‘Cloud 9’ you’re ready to do it all again. Go on, treat yourself. You can find 25 minutes.

I’m a simple man, and Weezer’s self-titled debut is my seventh-favourite record of all time. I needed something this bright and uncomplicated this year, and my thanks go out to this Chicago quartet for delivering it so effectively.

  1. Taylor Swift — folklore

Last year’s number one released this record with 24 hours’ notice back in July, and it has been a staple on my headphones ever since. A very different-sounding record to 2019’s Lover, working (for the most part) in a more subdued register, folklore is another showcase for a phenomenal songwriting talent. There are no anthemic, danceable pop explosions here, but the more muted tone and stripped back instrumentation allow for Swift’s vocals to shine, and for her lyricism to take centre stage.

Whether it’s (on ‘The Last Great American Dynasty’) telling the story of Rebekah Harkness, who used to live in the home Swift now owns, or laying out the dynamics of a love triangle over the course of three songs (‘Cardigan’, ‘August’, & ‘Betty’), Swift displays a songwriting touch as light and dextrous as the voice with which she brings those songs to life. Album highlight for me (at least at present) is Swift’s duet with Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon on ‘Exile’ - a lyrically exquisite heartbreaker wherein the two voices play with and against one another perfectly.

Following the surprise release of the album, Swift also put out a combination making-of documentary / live performance on Disney+ which offered insight on how the record came to be, and how her collaboration with The National’s Aaron Dessner came to bear this fruit. It also serves as an interesting document of how an artist usually wrapped in layers of hype and marketing, found freedom in isolation to make something intimate. The record is a fascinating balance: it represents the furthest Swift has gone into telling others’ stories (fictional and otherwise), yet each song is imbued with deeply personal feeling.

Swift’s work in 2020 has been, frankly, stunning - as evidenced by her having performed the unprecedented feat of securing two spots in the top six places of this list. Having stepped outside of both the aesthetic trappings and sonic bombast usually expected of pop’s reigning queen, she has made a strong case for being recognised as a generational songwriting talent.

  1. Halsey — Manic

When you open your third record on a song titled with your given name (‘Ashley’) you’re making a statement: I’m here to share something; this is coming from the heart. When you close that track with a snippet of audio from Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, you’re signalling an emotional register of earnest vulnerability. Carrying off that conversation over the course of 16 pop songs is a tall order, and yet Manic is an unbridled success.

Someone smarter than me could probably take the musical DNA of ‘Forever … (is a long time)’ / ‘Dominic’s Interlude’ / ‘I HATE EVERYBODY’, examine it under an electron microscope, and figure out why it makes me feel the same way as sections of My Chemical Romance’s The Black Parade (2006). I’m not equipped to work out the reasons, I can just tell you that it happens. The first track uses piano to effect a shift from major to minor key; the second is an organ-backed, multi-tracked, 76 second opera; the third is a series of crescendos hitting like waves on a beach. It’s a masterful seven minutes at the centre of a bewilderingly good record.

Oh, and then the second half of the record kicks off with the barnstorming pop-rock ‘3am’, and then the dimly lit, sultry ‘Without Me’, then the lost KT Tunstall track I didn’t know I wanted: ‘Finally // beautiful stranger’. By the time Halsey is singing an LGBT empowerment duet with Alanis Morissette you feel it’s company they should feel comfortable keeping.

Folk, pop, indie rock, R&B, Korean rap - this record includes a lot, and some reviews read that as coming at the expense of depth. For me it all works seamlessly almost without exception, making Manic read like a personal, and deeply felt record, that also happens to be a pop gem.

  1. Dua Lipa — Future Nostalgia

Here’s the other Mercury nominee, and (I have just learned) Spotify’s most played female artist of 2020. So firmly is the 2020 pop crown sat atop Dua’s head that one of her best tracks of the year isn’t even on this record, it’s over on Miley Cyrus’s Plastic Hearts - the high point of an album that very nearly made this list.

Whilst Taylor Swift was writing folk ballads in a woodland cabin it seems Dua was channeling the attentions of the pop gods to teach a neon-soaked masterclass in funk and disco-infused bangers. This is music designed in a lab to destroy radios, dance floors, and TikTok alike. All of which would be for nothing if it wasn’t, from start to finish, an unmitigated success. You cannot fail to smile, you absolutely will nod along, sing along, and feel some of these beats in your bones.

The Pitchfork review of Future Nostalgia has a good line in which they say that the album ‘sounds like three Madonna eras at once’. As someone who has a huge amount of affection for pretty much all of Madonna’s eras (not you American Life, you can sit down) this is a recipe for success in my mind. Providing, that is, that you can walk in Madonna’s shadow — not an easy thing to do. Dua comes armed with the disco beats of peak Kylie, and a faultless ear for both a groove and a beat. The result is a remarkable pop record that samples White Town on ‘Love Again’, and channels John Deacon on ‘Break My Heart’, but also sounds entirely cohesive and possessed of limitless self-confidence.

The title track, ‘Don’t Start Now’, ‘Physical’, ‘Hallucinate’, and ‘Break My Heart’ could each be career-defining encores for a lot of artists. As it stands, I get the feeling that this is just the beginning of what Dua Lipa is capable of.

• • •

This is the second year that my list has been topped by a thoroughbred pop record, and there are more albums elsewhere on the list this year than ever before which fall in that category. What I find particularly interesting is that the great bulk of my music-listening year is taken up with records from all over the genre map. At the time of writing I’ve listened to 213 records released in 2020 at least once through. From ambient and drone to jazz and metal I found records this year that I really enjoyed. But when the chips are down and I have to pick the records that genuinely gave me the most pleasure, increasingly it’s pop music that I turn to. Perhaps two years in a row is a coincidence, but even if the 2021 list doesn’t end up having a pop album on top I’ll be shocked if there isn’t a handful of them in the mix.

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