Books | Art | Critical Theory | Music | New York

Today I was in one of four Borders in New York City (compared to the twenty or so Barnes and Noble locations) to spend a gift card. I approached the counter to pay, and a woman wearing a sequined shirt stood at a cashier talking on her cell phone: it was loud, obnoxious and, as conversations by people with cellphones glued to their ears usually go, inane. So the clerk, who was an annoyed-looking early-20s hipster, tells her the total due, which she does not hear because she is fishing in a two gallon purse and has the phone pinned between ear and shoulder. He sighs, reaches under the counter and begins pushing some things around, and, unbelievably, comes out with a cardboard tube. He purses his lips at one end and announces in radio-announcer’s sarcastic enthusiasm, “YOUR TOTAL IS TWENTY-THREE DOLLARS AND EIGHTEEN CENTS.” Everyone stops and looks, and the woman looks up, flushed. She doesn't know what to say.

“I--I can’t believe you’re being rude to me,” she spurts. “I’m talking to my mother.”

The clerk fails to remove the tube from his mouth. “YOU ARE IN THE MIDDLE OF A TRANSACTION. YOU SHOULD NOT BE ON YOUR CELL PHONE.”

“Are you kidding me?” the woman says indignantly.


A few people sort of clapped. Even the clerks laughed a bit nervously. She paid and left. Bravo.

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I. Franzen and Frazier

Since picking up Jonathan Franzen’s essay collection How to Be Alone at St. Mark’s book shop last week, I’ve been cultivating solitude. He is a joy to read: careful but insightful, the sort of writer that brings clarity to a subject and abhors pretension, who invites you along to discover, rather than speaking from an established position. He is very frank. He writes about the erosion of individuality and privacy, of dignity and civil life while at the same time bravely facing a technologically advanced mass culture which has begun, for example, to read less and less novels.

His writing suggests the loneliness that characterizes modern life while refusing to retreat from it; one of his well-known essays written in 1996, which has become known not by its title, but as “The Harper’s essay,” discusses the importance of the “social novel” which engages the public on a large scale. Perhaps this ability for the novel to impact a wider culture is lost, since we now have other ways, faster ways, of apprehending culture-wide information. I’ve heard it theorized that films are the new storytellers, and sometime in the 70s Philip Roth declared that American culture was too stupefying and/or disturbing to sustain a readable “social novel” that could be accurate and aesthetically coherent in any way.

I like the way Franzen ends the essay, with a quote by Don DeLillo, who declares that novelists are simply writing one way at a certain time, and that is our definition of what a novel is. “Writing is a form of personal freedom. It frees us from the mass identity we see in the making all around us. In the end, writers will write…mainly to save themselves, to survive as individuals.” Back to individuality, and perhaps, to loneliness.

In an unimaginative but logical mix-up, my mind had collapsed the writers Jonathan Franzen and Ian Frazier into one generally similar last name, though I’d read neither writer. Out of the blue I also received a collection of Frazier’s essays for Christmas, titled Gone to New York. Through various New Yorker “Talk of the Town” pieces from Frazier’s early career in the 70s, as well as full-length essays, a disparate portrait of New York is painted, written with a kind of straight-faced, serious whimsy--that's kind of a nice larger metaphor for New York. Since Frazier moved here out of the Midwest (Ohio) in his 20s, I feel akin. Except for the part about landing a job writing for the New Yorker, after he turned down an offer to be a fact-checker. I suppose I never did apply.

II. What to read next

This fun website is worth spending 10 minutes at: you enter in a list of your favorite books, as long as you’d like or have time for, and through a simple algorithm your list is compared to others’ and suggestions for what to read next are produced. It’s a simple and effective idea, an unbiased, pretty obvious, and surprisingly helpful formula of recommendation. All of the books are linked to and there you can find out more. You can also select only a portion of your list to base recommendations on—perhaps post-punk British writers, or beat poets. So now you can’t ever wonder what to read next (as if that were some problem—as my bookshelf fills up with books I haven’t had time to read, do I really need to keep looking for more? Yes, of course.)

III. Intelligent Hip-Hop

If, like me, you were a little disappointed by the hip-hop selections from Pitchfork’s Year-end Singles and Albums list (and sort of the list in general—where is Broken Social Scene, Stephen Malkmus, Bright Eyes, Andrew Bird?) then you should see this post by an excellent friend-of-a-friend music blogger with some suggestions. I’ve heard the Cyne album, and it’s refreshingly good. Also, I think that the top 50 list by Stylus Magazine is more interesting and well-argued than Pitchfork’s, and does a better job of both confirming personal choices while suggesting new music. They seem to have a larger scope, and don’t suffer much for it.

IV. One-track mind

I have been abusing the Junior Senior song “Take My Time” incessantly since I downloaded it twelve days ago; it has already reached my top 25 most-played. How did I miss this album? It began as a guilty pleasure, but I don’t feel so guilty anymore. I can’t stop.

V. Periodical Insanity

With both roommates home for the holiday, the apartment is empty, and I am savoring that fact. I think I’ve gotten past the loneliness so that it has turned into solitude, two different things. I am also catching up on weeks of the New Yorker. It is a relentless magazine. This is exactly how I feel. And, in case you're interested, I've never seen it cheaper than 90% off the cover price.
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Photo courtesy of the NYTimes

After the second morning of a three-and-a-half mile walk to work, I am slightly perturbed at the transit strike. This morning there was no longer the collective “let’s be New Yorkers and tough it out together” attitude, and it just felt like a long, cold walk. The problem is that I can’t zone out, because the New York numbered streets tell me, every block, exactly how far I’ve come on the schlep from 73rd to 14th st. Usually, I think I’ve walked further than I really have. Sixty blocks is a long way.

I know that, falling left of center politically, supporting better health insurance and retirement ages is, in principle, something I’m in support of. But I’m not buying it, and here’s why: this is a selfish publicity stunt, a case when the idealism of better worker’s rights has lost hold of the reality of the situation. While these transit workers (who make, on average, more than twice my own yearly salary, I pause to point out) are striking, those who make far less than they do—20-30k per year, perhaps, in service jobs and otherwise—are stuck without the ability to make it to work. In many cases, these people are paid by the hour, so when they can’t make it to the job, they forfeit that day’s wages.

White collar workers have the ability, usually, to work from home via computer, and therefore their business can go on (and isn’t this the group that the transit union is trying to make a statement to?), plus they are likely paid by salary and aren’t going to lose their money. But the union’s demonstration to fight for workers’ rights has left a sizable majority of those very workers--who are far less better off than they are--without the ability to work, who can’t “telecommute” and who are bearing the brunt of this obstacle.

The point I’m making is that striking is not going to help the workers who the union claims it fights for. Considering the final offer the MTA made to the union at the last minute—which made concessions far past the midway point between the original positions of both organizations—it seems clear that the union would get exactly what it wanted or strike.

I completely respect the union’s ideological goals and desire to see better pay, working conditions, retirement pensions, etc. Roger Toussaint, the president of the union, had this to say about it:

This is a fight over whether hard work will be rewarded with a decent retirement and over the erosion or eventual elimination of health benefits for working people. And it is a fight over dignity and respect on the job; a concept that is alien to the MTA. Transit workers are tired of being under appreciated and disrespected. [...] We call on the good will of New Yorkers, the labor community, and all working people, to recognize that our fight is their fight, and to rally in our support -- to show the MTA that the TWU does not stand alone.
These are words that evoke principles one can't really argue with--who would ask for the "erosion and eventual elimination of health benefits"? While he asks the labor community to stand with the union, the strike is simultaneously robbing those workers of the ability to support themselves.

I guess I would be pissed if I spent most of my life underground, too. The subways are pretty depressing, and I was reading a comment on the transit union’s blog (which have since been deleted) by a worker, who railed against people that spit on the workers, piss on the platforms, have no respect, etc.. I don’t really know what to say about that, but stranding 7 million people is obviously not going to make them nicer to you.

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Just under the midnight wire.

5. Stephen Malkmus - Face the Truth
This may be the surprising album on my top ten; it surprises me. I heard this album once or twice and it didn’t affect me very much--it didn’t have enough hooks to make a huge impression, and the songs were just strange enough to be a bit offsetting. The first song was such an odd combination of weirdo guitar work and falsetto repetitions that I kept skipping it. I put it away for awhile and started playing the album in the background when I was reading or cleaning my room. It wasn’t compelling enough for sitting down and concentrating on intensely, but it wasn’t easily swallowed as a categorizable, middle-of-the-road sort of pop record. But it was in this liminal space that the album began working on my psyche. Lyrics I couldn’t consciously remember hearing would end up in my thinking; parts of the album that frustrated me would end up as melodies I would strain to remember and be unable to place. Then, all at once, the whole thing made sense. The tiny guitar riff at the end of “I’ve Hardly Been” was suddenly immensely interesting; “Freeze the Saints” was suddenly a comforting song about feeling feeble towards a desire to love; all the electronic experimentation became a wonderful respite from the thickness of the melodies; the lyric “You’re a maker of minor modern masterpieces for the untrained eye” made sense. I will concede that Malkmus gives in to his indulgences more than once: the waa-waa guitar stuff at the beginning of “Kindling for the Master” can get annoying--but it turns into such a great song. And the 8-minute long guitar jammy thing in the middle is probably a bit much. But I am one who really hates jam-band luxuriating, and I am willing to give it to him. It could be that I have only a cursory interaction with Pavement and so this style was all new to me, but this album went from vaguely interesting to something which I intensely loved and understood overnight.

4. Wolf Parade - Apologies to the Queen Mary
It didn’t take long for this album to floor me--actually, it was the first measure, when the drummer lays down a beat which claims for itself an expansive landscape the size of Montana, and never concedes an inch back. Instantly I was in a frozen tundra of ghosts and howling wolfs and open spaces, a place away from civilization, where I had to reach the end of myself by running, away, “farther than guns will go.” Away from the modern world and all of its complexities, where I am a hero in the daylight and a villain at night. What I’m trying to say is that this is an album of metaphors, harsh and potent ones, and it works marvelously, it transcends the world of metaphors, it feels intensely real. This album reminds me that society and the individual is not completely reconcilable, that in the end, it’s impossible to avoid rejecting it. It reminds me that God is distant. At the same time, the album forced me to examine what it is to love someone, to know that loving them means a desire to escape away into a lonely place, and that loving them means colliding with them in ways that seem strange and awful, going into ones darkest places and believing that there is a light to be found in the center of it, a light which comes from putting oneself aside long enough to care deeply for another person, as Tennessee Williams said it. And beyond all of it, my God, the music is incredible and anthemic and emotional. There’s nothing more to say.

3. Clap Your Hands Say Yeah - Clap Your Hands Say Yeah
At first, this album came across as really silly and a lot of fun (see the first song, which sounds nothing like the rest of the album, though I don’t think it’s as bad as Pitchfork implied). I started playing the album every time I felt like being in an indie-pop sort of good mood, which was often since it was my first month in New York and I had no responsible plans for my life. Obviously, nobody has any idea what the lead singer is saying in any remote way, and that was perfect. So I started playing it in my empty apartment (no time and/or money for furniture) every morning and singing along in non-descript strings of vaguely english-sounding words. I picked out a few things “You look a bit like coffee, and you taste a bit like me” or “You look like David Bowie, have you nothing new to show me?”, which was basically fun nonsense. Oh, and “Who--Will get me to party? Who--do I have yet to meet?”--that, for me, was the essence of summer in New York: ending up at parties full of Spanish people and finding that I speak it fluently, wandering into apartments in Brooklyn which were hollowed-out storefronts and seeing a gentlemen in a bee costume sing pop melodies over homemade electronic beats..and finding out that there was a free Clap Your Hands Say Yeah show on a pier with $3 beer and $1 hot dogs with the sunset and the Brooklyn bridge in the background. I still don’t know what he sings about, but I really don’t want to know, and of what I’ve read it’s all pretty strange and oblique--it’s not the point. All of the songs on this album are so carefully put together, so subtly designed to grow with age, not immensely astounding at any particular point, but on the whole way above the fray, and so irresistibly sing-alongable despite the impossibility of discerning the lyrics. For me, it was all about the mood they set, and the importance of it being a nonsense-lyrics soundtrack to my life.

2. Andrew Bird - Andrew Bird & The Mysterious Production of Eggs
This is an album that, for some reason, made a whole hell of a lot of sense to me. It must be one of those cases when idiosyncrasies align, or something like that. Most people like it and obviously it’s a masterful album, but I literally could not stop listening to the songs on this album since I first listened to it in February, and I don’t understand why nobody else has the same problem. Every season of the year, this album has made immense sense. The whole thing pulses with this magnetic precision, these masterful arrangements, impeccable songwriting, and abstruse lyrics that make sense on a subconscious level. I have tried to dismantle all of these songs and I can’t “figure them out”, which is when, I think, a song can begin to lose its appeal. Every time I try I get turned around and sent in a different direction. The album has a whimsy, a humor, a wisdom, a poetic genius. I love the mathematical aspects of this album, both in the scientific way the music sounds to the lyrics taking about ones and zeros and GPS. At the same time, the entire project seems effortless, like it’s just the result of a set of formulas that Andrew Bird dreamed up. In fact, that’s the sense his live show gave: all the songs sounded different, way different, so they were sometimes only recognizable by the actual words of the lyrics. All the arrangements were changed and they kept changing, the melodies interacting and harmonizing on the fly. It was absolutely amazing, and I think that these songs are really just complicated formulas that are worked out, and so he just plugs in some different ideas and the thing comes out differently every time. Andrew Bird operates in a mathematical world of music, on a different plane. I am completely convinced that he is a genius.

1. Sufjan Stevens - Illinois
This album came out of nowhere and everywhere. I mean, I liked Seven Swans and Michigan was a pretty great album. I liked the literary nature of his approach, his subtle quietness, the way he possessed a disarming honesty in his approach to music. And the first time I went through this one, it sounded about the same. And also the second and third time, despite the many times that Austin would get serious and happy in such alarming proximities while playing this album all spring. It just didn’t click, and I don’t know why. And I don’t know when it began to click, either. I know it had something to do with leaving Chicago and treking across the country. It might have been the chill I started to feel when the opening chords of the album would play, the way they felt like a desert at night. Or, when I listened to “John Wayne Gacy” in the dark and Sufjan’s frail voice cried “Oh my God.” Or the way “Casimir Pulaski Day” became a perfect evocation of growing up in the magical, disquieting contradiction of church youth groups. Or the way “Chicago” conjured up my own trip across the country, when “I drove to New York / in a van with my friend.” Or the moment the female vocalist begins harmonizing in “The Seers Tower,” and the persistence of a gentle symbol builds into a some kind of quiet frenzy. This album’s gift is the way it builds and builds into a collective experience, as each member of the cast joins in, infusing stories and myths, spirituality and religion, death and celebration. Listening to this album, for once I feel some pride in that abstract idea of Americana. This is the kind of album that speaks in many voices, and Sufjan’s gift is his ability to conduct and orchestrate and channel all of that. This is not an album that would have made any sense to me at a younger age. At 74 minutes long, it is sprawling and indulgent, but each moment of sprawl doesn’t feel superfluous, it feels real and correct and a metaphor for the intersections of ethnicity, assimilation, guilt, democracy, ideals, religion, urbanity, imagination, and fear that is the American contradiction. Music just doesn't ever do this sort of thing. An album like this causes America to make sense. I think that’s what he’s trying to do. That’s meant a lot to me.
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10. Bright Eyes - I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning
Despite Austin’s insistence, I still can’t get into most of Bright Eyes’ material. I’m not attracted to the sort of adolescent rawness that characterizes it; in combination with Conor Oberst’s voice, it comes across as whiny. But this album exists in a place more interesting than the riotous country of teenage years: it’s an album of transition to adulthood. Many of the songs deal with New York City and it means a great deal to me to find the familiarity in these songs. It’s a folk album that I actually feel apart of, rather than my usual impression of folk coming from some long-ago, bygone era which I can observe but never quite understand. It reminds me a lot of Ryan Adams’ Heartbreaker, actually--songs about travelling, Emmylou Harris harmony spot, and, most importantly, songs about being young, sad, depressed, and ambitious. There’s a sense in this album of movement and standing still, and wondering which to do--to voice everything or internalize it, to run or sit, to cry or swallow the tears. It’s all very melodramatic, but such has been my post-college life. This album has helped it to make sense.

9. Antony and the Johnsons - I Am a Bird Now
This album made sense when I saw Antony live at Carnegie Hall, and he made a comment during the show about his intention in making his music: to nurture a sense of joy. As I began listening to this album at first, I remember the siren quality of his voice, the melancholy notes, the rending sadness of his lyrics. It was an utterly beautiful album to play over and over again and become enveloped in, especially “Hope There’s Someone,” the opening track. That alone made this album important to me. But seeing an artist live will always add another layer to their artistry, however unfair that may be to use as in influence in making this list. But I was amazed how lighthearted and funny Antony was, how much he joked around and the general happiness of his persona when he wasn’t singing. It provided the contrast, of course, to the songs themselves, and that’s why his comment about joy makes sense: joy exists as something apart from, and even opposite of, happiness. Not to get all philosophical, but this balance of elements is the kind of revelation that I’m amazed a piece of music can provide. When it comes to the album itself, I can only say that it’s achingly, achingly beautiful.

8. M.I.A. - Arular
Once again, seeing M.I.A. live made a difference, though I loved this album before I saw her at Summer Stage in 90 degree heat in Central Park with Salman Rushdie. Nevertheless, the anthemic power of the songs came alive when i saw her perform them. But playing it in the car while driving around in the summer is something close: blending elements of hip-hop and world music and dance and electronic into a contradictory, politically-charged, really fun dance party. To be honest, I’m mostly ignorant to her politics beyond a general desire for pulling up the poor and embracing some sort of anti-capitalist globalism sing-along--and I’m sure if I sat down and thought it through, I wouldn’t agree with her on more than one point--but I think that’s somewhat alright. The essence of her message is infused into the music, which is a feat that doesn’t happen easily. Pop music that is infused with politics is usually bad, just as is pop music that is infused with religion and any other system of thought--in most cases, it detracts from the artistry. But she pulls it off impeccably, intrinsically, naturally. For that reason, this album is, in my opinion, an immense success.

7. Art Brut - Bang Bang Rock and Roll
No, I didn’t get this album at first: I kept looking to the music for something interesting going on. It’s great music, better-than-average song writing, but nothing groundbreaking. But as the ironic pose of the lead singer began to develop (appreciating British human is part of it), the whole thing came into focus. The best moment of any song this year is halfway through “Good Weekend,” when the lead singer declares that he’s seen his new girlfriend naked....TWICE! The combination of self-seriousness and parody is what makes this album one of the funniest and smartest albums of the year. The pose they have going is good for hours of laughs, and this album delivers line after line of the sort of humor that still gets funnier each time you hear it. “Modern Art” might be my favorite song on the album, wherein the lead singer declares that Modern Art makes him want to rock out. Perhaps it’s the Art history major in me, but that has to be among the cleverest songs I’ve ever heard. Somehow all of this never gets cloying, and only gets funnier. It’s really impossible to describe or translate the note of irony that these guys strike; you really just have to listen to it. Really, that’s why it’s good.

6. Spoon - Gimme Fiction
When Kyle downloaded this album and eagerly played it in the living room, it was just a month or two after I began listening to Spoon, again thanks to the Pitchfork Media best albums of 2000-2004. So I was in the midst of having what was basically a nervous breakdown--for a healthy amount of time, they were the perfect band to me. Accessible but complicated, catchy but possessing staying power, stripped down and simple, rough-edged, pop and rock. I was totally enamored. This album is unbelievably good, and though it may not be a leap forward from Kill the Moonlight, that didn’t really matter to me because I was taking all the albums in at once. I used to play the overture-esque first track every time I wanted to feel like I was embarking on a journey (to the library or the bathroom, oftentimes) and it still makes my stomach churn. “I Turn My Camera On” has to the most perfect track of the year: no matter how many times you listen to it, it is impeccable and interesting. I love the way this album makes me feel, its leanness and machine-like endurance combined with melodious songwriting. Each instrument is placed with what seems like mathematical precision, as if it could be no other way. It sounds exactly the same as the first time I heard it, and I have never been able to say that about any other band.
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15. Architecture in Helsinki - In Case We Die

It took me a long time to unpack Architecture in Helsinki, but the coolness of their name kept me on. Being unfamiliar with them before this album, I first went through Fingers Crossed in order to establish some kind of trajectory. But eventually the repeated playing of “Do the Whirlwind” by people I was living with drew me inexorably towards this childish, frenetic, quick-witted knot of an album. That song will never cease to amaze me with its ability to contain sadness and happiness together in one place, to a rhythm and melody you can dance to. I still like Fingers Crossed a bit better, but it wasn’t released this year, was it? In Case We Die remains unparalleled in pure imagination--an exciting, strange, experimental ride.

14. Caribou - The Milk of Human Kindness
This album exists, start to finish, without a reference point. It is a world unto itself, untethered and also unconcerned with what is expected of a normal album. A good balance between electronic and organic, it balances samples with the occasional vocal piece by the man behind the curtain. To put it simply, this is the album I often put on when I needed to think and was tired of listening to The Books. When Brian Eno first began to make “ambient” music, his goal was to create a space in which to think, or something along those lines. This isn’t an ambient album, but it manages to introduce somewhat more traditional song structures and pop elements without them infringing on the holy emptiness of your usual ambient stuff. That’s the best way I can explain it. It’s immensely creative.

13. The Decemberists - Picaresque
I listened to this album probably ten times before I began to learn the stories of the characters in the songs. Musically, it’s adventurous and macabre, very folky, and, compared with lots of bands on this list, mostly straightforward. Lyrically, this is an outstanding, fascinating album. The Decemberists, certainly, are very literary and the creative writing major in me responds to that. In spite of the fact that all the lyrics are impersonal in that they aren’t about the lead singer’s emotional life, I feel remarkably akin to the members of this band, more so probably than most on this list. Even though telling stories isn’t straightforwardly personal, there’s an honesty that can’t be sidestepped in doing it: it’s easy to write ambiguous lyrics, but stories have to be honest to work well. They have their own rules. So I think that the this album resonates with me because of that.

12. Animal Collective - Feels
Sung Tongs absolutely blew me out of the water and I have consistently listened to it since I found it via Pitchfork’s best of 2000-2004. Every song was intricate and subconscious and fascinating, a symphony and a cacophony all at once, calm and busy at the same time, full of unsettling abstractness and highly reminiscent of being a child. At the time it was their closest venture at obeying typical song structures and an aesthetic that had any relation to pop music. This their latest goes even further towards the traditional idea of a rock song, rather than their tendency to escape into landscapes of sound. To be honest, I’m still trying to appreciate it, and I don’t like it as much as Sung Tongs. I read a review somewhere that said that, though it wasn’t as formally interesting as Sung Tongs, it was nonetheless a great album. And that’s exactly right. Sung Tongs was all over the place, using pop structures only enough to blow their tops off into something more fascinating, using instruments and gorgeous vocal harmonies. This is more straightforward, though in the context of Animal Collective that doesn’t hold its usual meaning. I really like this album. It feels apart of a collective unconscious. “In a house so cozy, word are spoken. Let’s take our shoes off and unwind.”

11. Broken Social Scene - Broken Social Scene
This album is a pitchperfect mess that I keep trying to put back together, but can’t. Every hook is hidden under confusion and off-beatness and insensible production, as if the band is doing its best to be frustratingly non-commercial. Sure, they’re an art rock band, I guess. So it’s their job. Well it’s become my job to lie down inside this album and hope in vain to relive their creative process. The problem is that half their creativity lies in covering up their creative process, making them some kind of postmodern. In one sense they’ve covered their tracks and done their best to give the sense that this album just got spat out; in another they have made clear that this is a shambling mess and they make no apologies. This album doesn’t have the wow moments that You Forgot it in People had, but I am amazed by it as a whole nonetheless. It’s wonderful that albums are out there that sound like this, that are impossible to digest at once, that are so crisscrossed and yet together that they take months to understand. Even if there’s nothing to understand at the end. It’s the process of it.
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This list continued from yesterday.

addendum: see Mike Robert's blog, which he created to display a top 25 album list.

20. Bloc Party - Silent Alarm
I understand that putting Bloc Party on an album list is to sacrifice “indie cred,” but I think that’s sort of stupid. Maybe the new-wave/dance-punk movement resurgence has gotten old, and maybe it’s gotten really mainstream, and yes NME is overrun with similar sounding ripoffs--but this album runs a lot deeper. It’s an explicitly political album that you can dance to, the drumming is masterful, there’s a lot of emotion. Sometimes Bloc Party tries too hard, and sometimes Kele’s voice is too full of earnestness, but for the most part I think they put out an impenetrably tight, honest album, and that’s something.

19. Broadcast - Tender Buttons
This is a really weird album, and it’s only beginning to make sense. I’m still on what may be a lifetime search for something that’s as subconsciously interesting as The Books’ first two albums, especially The Lemon of Pink. This comes close, and I think that I haven’t gotten there because it’s so unmelodious. The lead singer’s icy voice hovers over choppy, lo-fi sampled electronica, but it also feels organic. Every time I listen to this album I understand one small part of it. It’s on my list because it took one listen to know that it would continue to come back until I understand.

18. LCD Soundsystem - LCD Soundsystem
James Murphy is an abnormal, well-dressed genius at making singles. Probably it’s safe to say that this is the least cohesive album on my list, and also to say that it has the largest concentration of unbelievably good singles. Having missed the Losing My Edge single, the bonus disc with this album was my introduction, along with Beat Connection, to a song which, despite all odds, is soooo good. Even the actual album has such instantly likeable and enduring songs as “On Repeat,” Tribulations,” “Too Much Love,” Daft Punk is Playing at My House,” etc. If it weren’t for the two or three missteps, this would be a fair bit higher.

17. Iron and Wine - Woman King EP
It was a hard decision whether or not to include EPs in this list of albums, but it was inconceivable to leave this off of any year-end list. I was vaguely interested in Iron and Wine before hearing this, thinking that Our Endless Numbered Days was a bit too homogenous. But I think I listened to “Jezebel” about 60 times this year (if my Itunes playcount hadn’t been lost when I got a new computer in May, I could tell you). This album bared the teeth that Sam Beam’s previous efforts didn’t, and when they came out I really started listening. Nobody sounds anything like this guy. The collaboration with Calexico is also excellent and worth checking out.

16. The New Pornographers - Twin Cinema
I was really excited for this album to come out after Carl Newman’s solo effort as “A.C. Newman” and realizing his trenchant gift for pulling perfect pop songs out of the sky. I loved Mass Romantic, New Pornographers earlier album, and this one I liked better. The support of Neko Case’s airy-while-earthy voice and the other members from various bands have always garnered labels like “super group” for the New Pornographers; in that sense they risk sounding contrived. This is not the case. There’s a darker edge to this album, something slightly less cheeky, but in the end Carl Newman and co. simply write impeccable, tight, compulsively singable songs. That it doesn’t sound like the Gin Blossoms is the magic trick.
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I’m not sure whether to call this “The Best 25 Albums of 2005”, or “My Favorite Albums of 2005”, or just “Top 25 Albums of 2005.” Really, it’s just a list of the albums that I found the time to get into this year, since there were too many good ones to listen to. Music is exploding along with the rest of the internet, and it’s impossible to keep up. So these albums were the ones that were too good to stop listening to, or were too highly recommended to avoid, or hit me in the right mood at the right time, and I so I went back to them repeatedly.

There are other albums that I’ve heard once or twice which I know I would love and potentially rank higher on this list, but it wouldn’t be fair to put them on. So this is a list of albums that I’ve found the time to obsess over, dance to, talk about, sing along with, and incorporate into my life.

They will be posted in installments of five, simultaneously with two friends Austin and Nick, one each day this week.

25. Vitalic - OK Cowboy
The first time I heard this album I had just woken up from a nap, a state in which I feel more able to inhabit a song’s space. The first track is a careful, impeccable balance of rhythm and melody, organic and electronic, consistency and off-kilter rhythm. It stops and starts, speeds up and slows down. The album proceeds to maintain this all-overness along with a sense of cohesiveness. It’s punctuated with exemplary, tight singles, such as “My friend Dario,” yet landscape around those tracks doesn’t ever feel cavernous or Eno-ambient--just consistently interesting.

24. Danger Doom - The Mouse and the Mask
My friend Nick listened to this album for a few days before I picked it up myself, and there was a noticeable increase in his level of happiness. Building with snippets of 70s-sounding melodies, quick, smiley beats, and characters from Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim, the whole thing sets out to blend cartoons, hip-hop, tongue-in-cheekness, and a dose of childhood nostalgia. The collaboration of Danger Mouse and MF Doom is a marriage of the technicolor happy with imaginative silliness--and it works marvelously. Plus, you get to hear Aqua Teen Hunger Force characters rapping.

23. The Boy Least Likely To - The Best Party Ever
I usually don’t have that much patience for the unapologetic cuteness of some indie rock outfits, and The Boy Least Likely To is exactly that--the album starts with the tinkering high notes of a xylophone, and the then a twee banjo comes in and leads the song to the end. But it’s one of my favorite songs of the year, bar-none. The lyric goes “Just be gentle with me, and I’ll be gentle with you,” a plea of self-deprecation whose bravery really stands in relief to a lot of ironic standoffishness that one normally finds in songs these days. The album’s cuteness is balanced by a lot of vulnerability and honesty, and for that reason it’s meant a lot to me. And the songwriting is masterful.

22. Franz Ferdinand - You Could Have Had It So Much Better...With Franz Ferdinand
Speaking of ironic standoffishness. That’s basically what this album is. And it’s so awesome. “Do You Want To,” once you get past the first tinny refrain, opens into the sexiest combination of drums, bass, and guitar that you could ever hope to listen to. Though I really like the tries at more heartfelt moments--”Fade Together”--those times feel like posturing, too . I really, really like two thirds of this album, and I liked it all immediately. Even if the scope seems at times limited, who said rock stars need to be good people?

21. Fiery Furnaces - EP
Maybe this isn’t a real album (it’s a collection of b-sides and re-recorded tracks and things, I think), but anyway, it’s ridiculously good. This was my first introduction to the Furnaces (I managed to miss Blueberry Boat, but I’ve since gone back and scraped my jaw off of the floor), and it took some time to digest. My friend Nick hates them because they’re deliberately difficult, and he’s right, but he’s also wrong. They’re a frenetic, confusing, cacaphonic band, but that’s what makes them so refreshing, since underneath all of it there’s a complete pop genius. Their work doesn’t offer up its secrets easily. They make demands. And the fact that they can do that to me without the benefit of an album’s cohesive setting makes it that much better.
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Austin started a fantastic trend of writing a list and description of the ten songs that got one into music, followedby Nick and Ty. The idea is talking about the songs that got you started into loving music.

We've all taken different approaches to it. In making this list, I have realized that what I first loved about music was the chance it provided to live somebody else's life and to have my own emotions make sense in somebody else's terms. I found the joy of recognition. When I hear these songs I remember lots of firsts, lots of times when I felt something completely new. These ten songs are the songs which, though not necessarily the best, are the ones that meant the most to me at the time. They didn't all lead to other music genres; I didn't really love them for their musical qualities necessarily. I loved them insanely and obsesively because of how they made me feel.

10) Michael Jackson - Dangerous

For what must have been my tenth birthday, a friend of mine gave me Michael Jackson’s Dangerous because his cousin had told him to. It was the first CD that I owned. The title track, Dangerous, was the first song I had heard with the word “damn” in it, as in “Take Away My Money / Throw Away My Time / You Can Call Me Honey / But You're No Damn Good For Me!” At first I listened to the song from “Free Willy” constantly, and I reveled in the scene at the beginning of “Black and White” where the kid is playing music and his dad is pounding on the wall to tell him to turn it off, but this song just opened up new worlds to me. I didn’t understand why she was so dangerous, but jeez did I believe it. And I kept coming back for more.

9) Bush - Little Things

Bush’s Sixteen Stone meant a lot to me, this song the most. It painted this bleak picture of a relationship in which they were poor and hungry and crude and hated each other, and the whole thing seemed so vivid. It was way over my head but I felt the emotion of it. I was attracted to this glimpse of highly sexualized anger and violence, and I couldn’t place it, but I couldn’t stop listening to it. Machinehead was a great song, and Comedown was heartfelt, and Glycerine was airy and emotional. But Little Things was just really pissed off and scared, and these were emotions I wasn't used to hearing or feeling.

8) Goldfinger - Here in Your Bedroom

Goldfinger wasn’t a band that I listened to much, and this song I had just recorded off of the radio. But there was this girl named Celia that I had watched for so long at youth group, and she had started to really show interest and she led me on and then dumped me. Everything was going grand until this winter retreat when she completely blew me off and I was left in the snow of Wisconsin with cheeky youth pastors as comfort. Every time we would meet for the large-group coed gatherings, my heart would beat faster and I would wait for her and her two friends to show up. I volunteered for the comedy skit just so I could get up on stage and hope that she might be impressed.

I came home defeated, and then heard this song. It only took the one line: “You have changed ‘cos I still feel the same.” And I really did feel the same, but she had moved on. This was somehow the most cathartic line, and cathartic song, of my entire pre-highschool life. Every time I listened to it, I fantasized myself singing at youth group in a band, and each time that line would approach, I would stop moving and stare at her while I delivered it. And she would feel ashamed. And then she would love me back.

7) Nirvana - Smells like Teen Spirit

Smells Like Teen Spirit was the song that we would beg the DJ at school dances to play all night, and the teachers would try to stop him. Invariably, the song would start playing and we would begin to “mosh” like mad, and it would stop. But once I remember that the DJ played it the whole way through, and we made a tight circle and pushed each other around for the entire five minutes and three seconds. I lost a shoe and we knocked over a light stand, and the teachers turned on the overhead lights in the gym and the DJ was yelled at, but we had our mosh pit, and it was beautiful.

This song was so explosive and incredible, we all wanted to live inside of it. It was the most collectively exciting song of that entire era. I remember searching the paragraph of lyrics on the liner notes, which has bits and pieces of lines from this song, trying to figure out what it all meant. Meanwhile the picture of Cobain flicking off the camera watched me from the other page. After I bought this album, my father convinced me that it was evil and he burned it on a piece of tin foil on the porch while I watched.

6) Tripping Daisy - I Got a Girl

I heard this song on a Q101 cagematch, which was a thing they did every night, pitting two songs against each other and you could vote. This song reigned for a long time, and I used to tune in every time until I figured out you could record off of the radio. The portrait he painted of this girl was so exciting and sexy and weird: "I got a girl who wears cool shoes" (this part I could relate to) "I got a girl who wears them in the nude." (This part I could pretend to).

5) Smashing Pumpkins - 1979

I am placing this well away from number one so as not to incur the wrath of Nick, but also because it meant more to me later than it did then. It's clearly the best song out of all of these, and Austin is right, it should play everywhere in the world on every set of speakers for all of time. Seriously.

The first Smashing Pumpkins song that I loved was Bullet With Butterfly Wings, because the angst was irresistable and the battle was epic. Billy Corgan knew that Jesus was his only son, but he was pissed about it instead of being happy. And the finale of the song is Corgan yelling that he still believes he cannot be saved.

4) Oasis - Don't Look Back in Anger

Wonderwall is the obvious choice, and man did I love that song, but I liked the one that came after it on the album better. This song was the essence of my continual fascination with seeing relationships as past things. I was all about the nostalgia of telling a girl it was over, and feeling sad about it but remaining strong. I had this mental image of a girl sauntering by in slow motion, an image which was updated as time when on with the various objects of my crush-affection. I would shrug at her, turn to my good friend and smile wistfully, and she would be unable to look back in anger because of my mood. Then I would stop and watch her walk away, and feel sad myself. I have no idea if that has anything to do with what this song is actually about, but that’s how it was for me. But it's the epitome of how I saw my relationships to girls then: from a distance, past-looking, laced with sadness.

3) Offspring - Self Esteem

I heard this song in the back of my best friend’s car the morning after 9 of us stayed up all night in an Embassy Suites for a hotel birthday party. On the floor below us was a group of girls who were having a sleep-over, too, and we spent the night playing elevator tag, stealing do-not-disturb signs from doors, and creating rubber band balls to drop 8 stories in the open courtyard which filled the interior of the hotel. In the morning we had breakfast, and I sat next to the cute girl, feeling elated, who was wearing a fitted baseball cap backwards. She poured my orange juice. On the way home, I was falling asleep as his father drove us home at 9 in the morning, and the song came on the radio. We rolled down the windows and yelled about girls and dessert and self-esteem. That night was also the first time I saw the playboy channel. The next morning, I walked to the music shop and bought my first album.

2) Green Day - Longview

I bought this album, my second real album, after hearing Basket Case. I loved every single song on the album and every instance of youthful disenchantment. On a car trip to Colorado the same year, my mom took the liner notes out of the sleeve and started reading the lyrics. “I declare I don’t care no more” is the first line, and my stomach dropped as I watched her glance through the black and white photographs of Billy Joe and Tre Cool blowing cigarette smoke into each other’s faces, images that I had studied with a mixture of attraction and hesitation, and dreamed of living in.

I loved Longview the most because I could yell “fucking” at the start of three out of four choruses (inside of my head, of course). I wanted to care as little about morals and personal hygiene as Billy Joe did, to be unaffected, to have masturbated enough to have actually gotten bored of it.

Serendipitously, Billy Joe had a strikingly similar name to the singer of River of Dreams, a song which was a centerpiece of my parents musical bequeathing to me. So I threw that crap out immediately.

1) Weezer - Only In Dreams

Perhaps a controversial first pick, but I'm quite confident of it. Weezer’s “Blue Album” was my favorite album in Jr. High. My best friend and I had crushes on two girls who were also best friends, Tori and Kristen, respectively. We spent a great deal of our time singing Rivers Cuomo’s songs and making up our own lyrics to suit our own forlorn, unrequited love situations.

Only in Dreams, however, was my favorite song on the album. It’s epic--just under 8 minutes long--and it starts with simply a bass, to which is added a symbol, to which is added a strumming guitar, to which is added an electric lead guitar, to which is added vocals. It builds to a climax slowly, and then they take apart each element of the song, one at a time, until only the bass is left again with a lingering, exploring lead electric guitar. Then then the symbols get gradually faster, and the snare returns, and guitars get epic again, and the song opens up the sky. It existed between reality and dreams for me. I imagined myself slowly leaving the ground. “You say, 'It's a good thing / That you float in the air (in the air) / That way there's no way / I will crush your pretty / Toenails into a thousand pieces.' “ This song was the essence of my dream girl, the one who I would come to answer all questions and lead me to salvation in the world of dreams. "She's in the air (in the air) / in between molecules of oxygen and carbon dioxide." I would put my discman on “repeat 1” and fall asleep to this song. Every night for a two and a half years.

"But when we wake / it's all been erased. And so it seems / Only in Dreams."
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Maybe Wikipedia isn't the god we all should worship, after all. This guy certainly thinks so, and man is he pissed. Watch out, because "It could be your story", too. Beware of "toxic sentences" and "poison pen intellects." Because in the end, Wikipedia is really just a fluffy feather pillow full of gossip.
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“The illusion of desire has been lost in the ambient pornography, and contemporary art has lost the desire for illusion...After the orgies and the liberation of all desires, we have moved into the transsexual, the transparency of sex, with signs and images erasing all its secrets and ambiguities.”

The French philosopher Jean Baudrillard is best known for his theory of the “simulacram”, which is based in the idea that contemporary society has its roots in images and illusions which give the appearance of freedom, but which are actually a deceitful web of bondage. Bondage like slavery, not bondage like sex. But I'm getting there.

One common example to demonstrate his idea is the United States dollar bill: when dollar bills were first printed, each was meant to represent a piece of of silver or gold in the U.S. treasury’s vaults. As time went on, however, dollar bills came to be an end in themselves. Dollar bills have value since we believe that they have value; they are, in effect, a simulacrum of their original existence. So, Baudrillard theorizes, is the rest of contemporary society. We have learned to see the world in packaged, “hyperreal” images. The media has become more convincing than reality; in turn those media images are how we view the world.

In his usual impenetrable, aphoristic manner, Baudrillard recently answered a few questions in a Times interview based on his reaction to the riots in Paris. He evades most of the questions and pronounces that all our values simulated, from the War in Iraq to the riots in Paris, from the choice of buying one car or another to whether there any more real intellectuals.

JB: When Jacques Chirac says, "No!" to Bush about the Iraq war, it's a delusion. It's to insist on the French as an exception, but there is no French exception.

NYT: Hardly. France chose not to send soldiers to Iraq, which has real meaning for countless individual soldiers, for their families and for the state.

JB: Ah, yes. We are "against" the war because it is not our war. But in Algeria, it was the same. America didn't send soldiers when we fought the Algerian war. France and America are on the same side. There is only one side.

NYT: Isn't that kind of simplistic reasoning why people get so tired of French intellectuals?

There are no more French intellectuals. What you call French intellectuals have been destroyed by the media. They talk on television, they talk to the press and they are no longer talking among themselves.

Baudrillard is championing Deconstruction, the theory that what we call the “real world” is really an oppressive social construct based on illusions which we have mutually agreed to stitch together and call reality. It is similar to Marxism in that society is an oppressive structure which traps us, which pressures us to think a certain way (or agree on the simulated reality), but it is not limited to economic systems (or leftist politics); it is post-Marxism, “cultural Marxism.” Deconstructionists, if they are hardcore enough, must deconstruct leftist politics and claim to be apolitical. They must also, in the end, deconstruct deconstructionism, as Baudrillard does faithfully at the end of the interview:
NYT: Some here feel that the study of the humanities at our universities has been damaged by the incursion of deconstruction and other French theories.
JB: That was the gift of the French. They gave Americans a language they did not need. It was like the Statue of Liberty. Nobody needs French theory.

Nobody needs French theory, so this whole conversation is supposed to eat itself like a snake swallowing its tail. Maybe it does. But Baudrillard also made it into the New Yorker the same week, and he had some things to say in a recent public reading, covered by a “Talk of the Town.” which I found much more interesting.

He covers two things: sex and art. Both, he says, have lost their importance because they, too, have joined with reality in becoming, simply, an image. Sex has lost its ambiguities because it has become overwhelmed with pornography (images of sex), and contemporary art has moved away from the traditional idea of art as “form.” What that means is that art as a “painting”, or art as a “sculpture” is not longer viable. Until the 20th century, these were ways that we accepted art to be made. A painting was a canvas with paint, a sculpture was some kind of three-dimensional object.

The modernists examined this idea by creating works which explored the inherent qualities of the form. Modernist paintings, for example, sought to be flat (since a canvas is flat), meaning the canvas ought not to be a “window” into another world with three dimensions, like in a painting of a landscape, for example; it ought to instead exemplify the flatness of the canvas. So Jackson Pollock made impenetrable canvases that forced you to see a surface.

But back to sex. The implication is that pornography (in the largest definition, including, probably, sexualized advertising and such) has overwhelmed our conception of sex. “In the United is everywhere except in sexuality,” another French lit critic, Roland Barthes, writes.

That’s a really compelling idea, since if there is any possibility of escape from the simulacrum of a simulated reality, it is sex with another person (or, though it isn’t as racy, a transcendant experience with a piece of art). It's too visceral to be denied its intense reality. But Baudrillard believes that both of these things have been overrun by simulated images just like the rest of reality--he paints a pretty bleak picture. Since contemporary art is concerned with aesthetics but not form, it is no longer differentiated from the rest of the simulation, which is only aesthetic. Separating the two is the point.

“As art becomes aesthetics it joins with reality, with the banality of’s a total confusion between art and reality.” The separation of art’s aesthetics from its forms is a great idea--form is what used to save art from being a negative simulation, but that is no longer the case. We no longer believe in the ontological separation of art from reality: it is not something on a higher plane which hands us our morals and spirituality.

Iris Murdoch, the British novelist, critic, professor of philosophy at Oxford, and die-hard Platonist, writes this of art: “Art today is in a turmoil partly because we are all unprecedentedly self-conscious about the images and symbols which make our lives supportable. We know too much psychology. Technological changes which used to be slow and invisible are now fast and perceptible. Religion is not what it was.” Murdoch spent a significant part of her career as an essayist searching for a way to create a defensible moral philosophy out of art: her essays had titles like “The Novelist as Metaphysician” and “Salvation by Words.”

I agree with her on both counts, that Art today is in turmoil, and also that trying to find a defensible moral philosophy in it is a worthwhile quest. How does one extract morality from art? If it has become too self-conscious and collapsed into reality, to where do we otherwise look? Religion certainly is not what it was--postmodernism has not been kind to traditional religion. But the thicket that is literary theory is somehow an attractive replacement: even as postmodernism is highly suspicious of what it calls “metanarratives,” it becomes one--it is as all-encompassing and satisfying as a religious beginning-to-end-of-time way of seeing the world. It is a window by which to explain and examine everything.
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The Poetry Archive is an organization in the UK that has commissioned the recording of many contemporary poets reading their own poetry, and you can listen to many, many samples. Also collected are some historic readings which they have gathered in one place. Poems comes alive in the poet’s mouth. As the website tour notes--and it is a great place to begin exploring--”the pleasures and meanings of poetry depend as much on sound-sense as they do on page-sense.” If a poem is inaccessible via the written page, perhaps it is because the first poets--Homer, for example--depended on oral storytelling for the poem’s power.

Today’s Papers has become my favorite morning reading. A Slate Magazine writer--who presumably wakes up at 4 in the morning--gathers the lead stories of major newspapers and uses their similarities and differences to put together an intelligent, and usually witty, column. It’s a great way not only to get a sense of what’s happening in the world, but to see a larger picture which you can’t get by looking in just one place.

Literally, A Weblog is a blog which keeps track of misuses of the word "literally." Now I’m all nervous. In the same way that I’ve been unable to use the word “ironic” correctly after reading A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. I imagine Dave Eggers shaking his head.

While I am adjusting to my new life as a scantily-paid editorial assistant, I will have less time for blogging. That will change when I’m in a routine again, but for now I am transitioning; I find it difficult to do much writing until things are settled. Also, since I am no longer a temp, I don't feel justified spending half my day wading around on the Internet. So getting the posts up will be more difficult.

In the meantime, the job is great--I was amazed to arrive and find my own office with a window. I am paid to read books that teach English and proofread to make sure that the copyeditor’s changes were implemented. There are a lot of young people in the office and there are free provided snacks in the kitchen. Every morning there is a New York Times on the table in the eating nook. The walls are painted pastel green and blue (though they are currently remodeling, so that may change), they have pretty good art prints on the wall (a lot of Paul Klee), and I get a free book to pick out for Christmas--anything that anyone has ever published, even a first edition. They pay the first $100. I’ve decided on Larousse Gastronomique, which is just under 1400 pages—I’m taking advantage!

Spent the thanksgiving holiday in Dayton, OH with a couple of foodie aunts running the show. Highlight: a butternut squash with cream dish which, being orange-ish, was a suitable aesthetic replacement for the usual sticky sweet-potato-and-too-much-sugar casserole, and far tastier. Nice to see extended family, though my grandmother is in a rough spot health-wise, so I drove their car home to Wisconsin while they took an airplane. Actually, it was nice to drive through green space middle America, even if it was all interstate. The rest stops and fast food along the drive up I-65, which I completed probably twenty times during college, was comforting and familiar. Considering the fact that I went to Toronto to travel with my dad to Ohio, this was a five-state and two-country Thanksgiving. Phew.

I'm quite happy to be no longer working in Midtown--no overwhelmingly tall buildings and a general increase of laid-backness. And, most importantly, the lunch options are vastly improved and often cheaper. Case in point, Nick and I just met for lunch at La Taza de Oro and ate a huge bowl of Spanish beef soup for $3. I'm full. On the way up in the elevator, three people were complaining about spending enough money on nieces and nephews.
"There is no way I am spending $25 dollars each. I mean, if you had one nephew, maybe."
"I just want this holiday to be over."
"Yeah, I can't wait until January 1st."
"It makes me want to slit my throat."
Pause. So I piped in. "Don't you think that's a little drastic? You know, maybe you should cut your arm a little first, just to see how it feels." Chuckle, chuckle.
Serious expression. "Nope. I'm going right for the jugular."

Maybe because it's now December? Personally, I'm totally excited for the snow and the lights.

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  • Blake
  • Chicago, IL, United States

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