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Best Atlantic Records Soul Albums: 20 Thrillers From The Home Of Soul
List & Guides

Best Atlantic Records Soul Albums: 20 Thrillers From The Home Of Soul

The best Atlantic Records soul albums not only invented soul music, they shaped it over decades, making history with each new record.

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Atlantic Records was the home of soul before the music had a name, and has released every iteration of this exhilarating sound ever since. Choosing the 20 best Atlantic Records soul albums is a daunting task, but it’s one our feet, hearts and hips insisted we try. Here are 20 thrilling albums from the awesome Atlantic catalogue, from obscure to widely-known, and in a wide range of styles, that every soul lover should hear – and adore.

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20: Ben E King: ‘Don’t Play That Song!’ (1962)

One from soul’s kindergarten, if not its maternity suite, Don’t Play That Song! was released in 1962, when soul music barely had a name. Ben E King had been there from the start with The Drifters, and this album contains something of that group’s purring Latin rhythms and precise arrangements. But it also had two classics rendered in a manner that would become one of soul’s trademarks: a singer coping with overwhelming emotions that he or she had to confess. The title track is an example, its protagonist heartbroken and deceived, tortured by hearing “our song”. The album’s other major hit is Stand By Me, a cornerstone of rock’n’roll and a foundation of soul. It’s beyond classic, and it cements Don’t Play That Song!’s place among the best Atlantic Records soul albums.

The album holds other, less-remembered gems: the understated Ecstasy finds King in raptures; First Taste Of Love, ditto; and Yong Boy Blues releases a roughhouse element in his voice, rarely displayed this early in his career. On The Horizon laments absent loved ones, suggesting the Vietnam War without mentioning it, and King plays it straight amid an over-egged arrangement. Accept Don’t Play That Song! as a product of its time to realise how great Ben E King was: a soul man before soul knew what it was.

Must hear: Stand By Me

19: Joe Tex: ‘Buying A Book’ (1969)

Joe Tex was one of soul’s thinkers, but often sang about relationships in a wry manner, wailing country-style, or talking through songs before he bust your heart with the beauty of his voice. But he was never as explicitly politicised as he was on We Can’t Sit Down Now, and there’s not a streak of his renowned irony in the song. He is angry: the people are on the move; do what’s right. It’s the opening cut of 1969’s Buying A Book because Joe wanted it heard. He then obliges fans with more Tex-ish fare, though Sure Is Good, sung in several languages, might have foxed them. It Ain’t Sanitary is a table-turning tale about OCD; The Only Way dismisses a wannabe interloper; and the funky Get Your Lies Together was likely built for onstage comedic impact. Buying A Book’s title track is yet another warning for lovers – slow, standard Joe, even if electric sitar puts in an appearance. It may be one Joe Tex album among many, but it’s the perfect one, and it reveals his deeper feelings. Buying a book? Buy this instead.

Must hear: We Can’t Sit Down Now

18: Aretha Franklin: ‘Spirit In The Dark’ (1970)

You might imagine that any album which opens with Aretha Franklin’s luminous version of Ben E King’s Don’t Play That Song would be much lauded, but Spirit In The Dark sometimes slips under the radar when compared to some of Franklin’s 60s records. Perhaps the somewhat downbeat-looking sleeve didn’t sell it enough. A pity, because Franklin’s second album of the 70s, released in September 1970, is full of musical miracles that earn it a spot among the best Atlantic Records soul albums.

The Thrill Is Gone, generally thought of as BB King’s territory, gets a deeply bluesy rendition with nothing on it that’s surplus to requirements. That’s All I Want From You, a country ballad suited to soul and reggae (as A Little Love), is brilliantly refreshed, with vibrant horns, sizzling organ and Franklin relaxed and glowing. Try Matty’s, one of five songs she wrote here, is a rolling blues head-nodder; One Way Ticket gets to where it is going when it suits it, a chilled reminiscence of love with gospel roots; the version of Dr John and Jessie Hill’s When The Battle Is Over churns with righteous determination, one of several songs about relationship friction. There’s even a popping update of Maxine Brown’s Oh No Not My Baby, coolly funky yet with a touch of rock grit. Franklin rarely sounded this contemporary and sure of herself again, just delivering songs she clearly enjoyed. It’s the “Queen Of Soul” with the spirit in full flow.

Must Hear: Don’t Play That Song

17: Ray Charles: ‘Ray Charles’ (1957)

Welcome to church. It’s reasonable to assume many people who heard this album for the first time had never been there. The tambourine that opens Ain’t That Love told them where they were. But when Ray Charles opened his mouth to sing, it was clear hardly anybody had been to a church like this before. Musically, it was a house of God, but lyrically and emotionally, it was about sexily physical, heartbreaking love. That’s what Ray Charles did: unite the carnal world with the spiritual one.

The best Atlantic Records soul albums? Ray Charles’ self-titled debut album was the first soul album. It was also a rock’n’roll, R&B and jazz album, but soul music was born here. Listen to Come Back Baby and you are witnessing a template, in its horns and Charles’ wailing, for the Stax Records sound. Sinner’s Prayer? It’s a blues, but the smacking snare drum could be mid-60s Motown. But you’re not playing this album for its historical import or it’s influence. You’re buying it to hear “The Genius” setting his, and everyone else’s, soul free. That’s still exhilarating.

Must hear: I’ve Got A Woman

16: Various: ‘This Is Soul’ (1968)

This is a compilation. A stack of old records stitched together is one of the best Atlantic Records soul albums? You bet, though This Is Soul barely made it out of the UK, where it was assembled in 1968. One look at that cover, showing Wilson Pickett in front of a gaggle of mods, with jigsaw shapes imposed over it, can send generations of soul fans into nostalgic goosebumps. An all-thriller, no-filler collection that helped bring affordable Southern sounds to Britain, it introduced many people to soul, and “got people up” at a million 60s and 70s parties. Mustang Sally, B-A-B-Y, Keep Looking, I Got Everything I Need, Warm And Tender Love, Land Of 1,000 Dances… This collection is titled to answer Ben E King’s eternal question: what is soul? This is soul.

Must hear: Carla Thomas: B-A-B-Y

15: Dusty Springfield: ‘Dusty In Memphis’ (1969)

When Memphis became a hitmaking city in the mid-60s, countless artists flocked there – Aretha, Dionne, even Elvis. One of the least likely was an Englishwoman with half a decade of hits behind her: Dusty Springfield. The superb vocalist – hailed by many as one of the best 60s female singers – was a soul fan and wanted to join Atlantic Records, the home of her hero, Aretha Franklin. But when Springfield arrived at American Sound Studios in September 1968, she was anxious: what if her talent did not measure up to that of her idols?

She disliked most of the songs Atlantic suggested she performed, leaving her requested producer, Jerry Wexler, exasperated. But both agreed on Son Of A Preacher Man, and this downbeat tale of sexy devotion became a Top 10 hit. Randy Newman’s lament about urban romantic humiliation, I Don’t Want To Hear It Anymore, is delightful on Springfield’s lips, and the sultry Breakfast In Bed cunningly quotes from You Don’t Have To Say You Love Me, a previous Springfield smash. There was no better female-fronted take of Gerry Goffin and Carole King’s So Much Love, and the songwriting duo also donated the gospel-toned No Easy Way Down and I Can’t Make It Alone. The album was not a runaway success, but it’s now seen as a classic. Made amid anxiety, Dusty In Memphis was the record of a lifetime.

Must hear: Son Of A Preacher Man

14: The Drifters: ‘I’ll Take You Where The Music’s Playing’ (1965)

The Drifters aren’t considered cool. They weren’t even cutting-edge in the 60s, being inclined towards ballads and naïve dreamy ditties. Some might say they’re not even soul, though they did give us two of the era’s best soul singers, Clyde McPhatter and Ben E King. But I’ll Take You Where The Music’s Playing might surprise you. There are soppy songs on offer, such as the cod-Latin of Spanish Lace and I’ve Got Sand In My Shoes. But place yourself in the sandy shoes of listeners in the first half of the 60s: Spanish Lace’s sentimentality might make a young romantic dream of Mexico, its dusty pulse reminding them of Western movies.

Elsewhere on the album, the gentle chug of He’s Just A Playboy is a song of jealous contempt which should rank alongside Jerry Butler and Curtis Mayfield’s He Will Break Your Heart. So far, so standard Drifters, barely distinguishable from the early 60s model. But they did contemporary sounds, too. The title track is Motown plays The Searchers, jangly guitar meets big beat. Far From The Maddening Crowd makes use of twangy licks and punchy brass. The cinematic The Outside World is best of all, a cynical look at everyday life perfectly sung by Charlie Thomas in a rare leading role. Throw in the hits At The Club and Come On Over To My Place, and it turns out I’ll Take You Where The Music’s Playing is a killer among the best Atlantic Records soul albums.

Must hear: The Outside World

13: Roberta Flack: ‘First Take’ (1969)

It took years for the world to catch up with Roberta Flack, soul star for the singer-songwriter generation. She honed her act in a restaurant on Capitol Hill, Washington, DC, playing other people’s songs in a uniquely elegant, spirited way. In 1969, she joined Atlantic for her debut album, First Take, so titled not just because the songs were recorded that way, but because the company knew her artistry would develop.

Released in June 1969, First Take was not a hit. It was good, but was it soul? Jazz? MOR? Rock? Gospel? Flack sang Leonard Cohen (Hey, That’s No Way To Say Goodbye), gospel (I Told Jesus) and Gene McDaniels’ ball-of-confusion classic, Compared To What. Where were the fans for this music? Not ready yet. The album barely charted. Flack recorded two further albums, and then First Take’s astonishingly atmospheric adaptation of Ewan MacColl’s The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face was heard in Clint Eastwood’s movie Play Misty For Me, and the album took off, hitting No.1 in the US charts in April 1972. Flack’s audience had finally found her. Since then, First Take has been regarded as a classic among the best Atlantic Records soul albums.

Must hear: The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face

12: Arthur Conley: ‘Sweet Soul Music’ (1967)

Arthur Conley enjoyed great luck and suffered tragic luck. The struggling singer had released a few singles on small labels when Otis Redding signed him to his Jotis label via Atlantic. Redding had exceptional ears: Conley could sing. In 1967, they wrote Sweet Soul Music, based on Sam Cooke’s Yeah Man, and it took off. Atlantic wanted an album, so singer and mentor put together the Sweet Soul Music album in double-quick time, and it’s a scorcher.

While the title track suggests Conley was as subtle as a thrown milkshake, the gentle side of his work is just as arresting. I’m A Lonely Stranger, the song which attracted Redding’s attention, is beautiful, Conley tenderly explaining his predicament over luminous organ and rumbling bass. There’s A Place For Us is equally fragile, recounting its confidences in a voice that cries out to be heard. Who’s Foolin’ Who ranks with the finest Memphis dance tunes, and the rollicking I Can’t Stop (No, No, No), resembles Sam & Dave in full cry. The most touching track is Let Nothing Separate Us, penned by Redding; he’d given his protégé a song worthy of his own wonderful talent, and produced his debut album to boot. A few months later, Redding was dead, leaving Conley to find his own way. Despite releasing great records, he never again gained the attention Sweet Soul Music garnered. He should have. This album is magnificent.

Must hear: Sweet Soul Music

11: Blue Magic: ‘Blue Magic’ (1974)

OK, we all know about the Big Man/Big Woman In Town school of soul, and the funky dudes who rule the dancefloor, and teenage-heartache girl groups. But there was another way, and Blue Magic perfected it. They played it sweet, tender, lush and touching. The question is: how sweet is too sweet? Some listeners find them an acquired taste, but this Philadelphia fivesome’s fans know they are awesome.

Built around Ted Mills, a stratospheric tenor with an uncanny ability to sound bereft, Blue Magic cut an impeccable string of albums from 1974 to 1977, plus several comeback records. But they never improved on their original formula, which arrived fully formed on their debut album, Blue Magic: ballads, polished to a dazzling gleam, bedecked with silky orchestrations but bearing a definite soulful feel, fronted by Mills’ vocal catnip and the group’s edible harmonies. At times it teeters towards cheesy, such as the fairground barker on the hit Sideshow, but even that is bittersweet: he’s urging you to watch a guileless sap get his heart shattered. Tear It Down has an appalling intimacy; Stop To Start is a confession dressed as a heavenly cloud; and their lengthy take of Just Don’t Want To Be Lonely is intoxicating. One of the best Atlantic Records soul albums, this is soft as a marshmallow bath, but, unlike some rivals in super-sweet soul, the group were adept at uptempo material, so Welcome To The Club and Look Me Up offer dazzling dancefloor Philly soul. Blue Magic might be sugary from start to finish, but it’s never saccharine.

Must hear: Answer To My Prayer

10: Average White Band: ‘AWB’ (1974)

In the late 60s and early 70s, Atlantic signed many British bands with hippie hair and washed-out jeans. Most of these groups rocked and took themselves seriously, but one of them bucked that trend. And while they were serious musicians, their name suggested a sense of irony: Average White Band were not just another British rock group; this Scottish outfit delivered funky soul. They charted with the first of those two styles of music, they never forgot the second, and they are most remembered for mellow groovers such as Person To Person and Nothing You Can Do, which still play on two-step dancefloors in Europe.

North America’s soul people took to the group quickly and made the pin-sharp instrumental Pick Up The Pieces a US No.1 in 1974. It’s present on AWB, as are the aforementioned steady groovers, plus a dynamite take of The Isley Brothers’ uplifting Work To Do, the laidback Keeping It To Myself, the Johnny Guitar Watson-ish There’s Always Someone Waiting and the brisk You Got It. They add up to a deliciously different soul. Sparkling, undemanding, satisfying, it’s an anything but average entry among the best Atlantic Records soul albums.

Must hear: Person To Person

9: Jackie Moore: ‘Sweet Charlie Babe’ (1973)

Clean Up Your Yard, a chunky soul groover that faintly resembles The O’Jays’ Backstabbers. If, a moodily funky, steady soul tune with a conscience. Precious, Precious, a delightful lilting love song… Jackie Moore, one of soul’s best-kept secrets, could do it all.

Sweet Charlie Babe was Moore’s debut album, recorded in Philadelphia, in Jackson, Mississippi, and in Miami, with a variety of producers and writers, including Moore herself on the stunning Precious, Precious. But while the production styles vary, it works, because you’re listening to it for Moore, whose brilliant, approachable voice pulls it all together. It’s hard to think of another singer who so brilliantly combined the sophistication of early-70s Philly soul and down-South passion on one album. So the Northern dancer Both Ends Against The Middle and the conscious If display the delights of The City Of Brotherly Love, while the touching Cover Me and a remake of The Elgins’ Darling Baby are full of Southern heat. The aficionados’ choice among the best Atlantic Records soul albums, Sweet Charlie Babe is adored by hardcore soul fans. It’s time to spread the word and worship Jackie Moore, too.

Must hear: If

8: Donny Hathaway: ‘Live’ (1972)

Vocal partner to Roberta Flack. Gifted, educated arranger, producer, composer… Donny Hathaway somehow found time to make his own records amid all that work and bouts of depression that ended with a horrible, tragic passing. Each of his (only three) studio albums has plenty to commend them, but his most satisfying release is the in-concert album Live, from 1972, recorded on both US coasts. The band is stunning, Hathaway is in joyous form, and everybody gets down.

Hathaway possessed one of the few voices sufficiently distinctive to make covering Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On a worthwhile venture, though many others tried. There’s a killer version of The Ghetto, Hathaway’s gutsy celebration of this hive of connectedness, and Little Ghetto Boy joins it as one of the best Donny Hathaway songs. Carole King’s You’ve Got A Friend receives a rock-steady rendition, and John Lennon’s Jealous Guy acquires a hitherto unnoticed soulfulness. The album concludes with a patient, lengthy visit to Hathaway’s Everything Is Everything (Voices Inside), in “four movements” which do move you. So much joy, so much pain: Hathaway would never sound so free again.

Must hear: The Ghetto

7: Sam & Dave ‘Hold On, I’m Comin’’ (1966)

Signed to Atlantic, recorded at Stax, Sam Moore and Dave Prater were the premier male soul duo of the 60s: hot steppin’, wailin’ entertainers whose all-action act was unforgettable. But they could squeeze their big-hearted sound onto plastic, too. The sleeve of Hold On, I’m Comin’ depicts the twosome atop a tardy cartoon turtle, but the album rapidly delivers the goods. The title track, one of eight songs penned by Isaac Hayes and David Porter, is archetypal energetic soul. The driving I Take What I Want embodies the 60s macho ideal. By contrast, I Got Everything I Need is deliciously touching, balancing elegance and emotion, and the upbeat hit You Don’t Know Like I Know tells of a love so deep, friends can’t comprehend it. The album ends with one of the greatest Stax ballads, Blame Me (Don’t Blame My Heart), its mournful horns creating a palpable “my bad” regretfulness. Demanding inclusion among the best Atlantic Records soul albums, Hold On, I’m Comin’ rocks your emotions and your body. Get shakin’, turtle: Sam & Dave have got soul galore to deliver.

Must hear: You Don’t Know Like I Know

6: Solomon Burke: ‘King Solomon’ (1968)

Solomon Burke, “The King Of Rock’n’Soul”, does not look especially regal on the front of King Solomon. He looks like he’s been out all night with this album’s Party People, and has a court appearance in the morning. But maybe he appears like that because he’s been testifying himself into a sweat on this thrilling inclusion among the best Atlantic Records soul albums. Until now, the most able male soul singer of his generation had recorded on the US East Coast, but for some of this album, he drove south to Memphis. He already “sang Southern”, so the move worked like a dream.

King Solomon is a touch more dusty than his earlier material: hear that guitar on his version of Pops Staples’ It’s Been A Change, or Detroit City. A tale of distant love with gospel overtones, Someone Is Watching resembles the music Burke made his name with. Keep A Light In The Window brings mournful bells to the story of a soldier with an uncertain future: Vietnam’s ugly head raised again. When She Touches Me Nothing Else Matters finds our monarch humiliated but beguiled, and churchy organ supports Burke while he ladles on pathos during Take Me As I Am. Don Covay’s Party People, which contains the DNA of Sam Cooke’s Having A Party, provides perky leavening.

King Solomon was not His Majesty’s most commercial proposition – not one of its six singles hit the US Top 50. But Solomon’s soul speaks (sometimes literally) volumes throughout; you’ve got to witness his royal proclamations.

Must hear: Detroit City

5: Wilson Pickett: ‘The Exciting Wilson Pickett’ (1966)

It’s one of the darkest, most pensive intros in soul. The bassline grumbles. A rimshot taps time. Tambourine shakes like a rattlesnake, stirring subliminal fear. A guitar chops idly, waiting to strike. Then a voice bursts in: not one warming up, but already aggravated, speaking a grievance that’s been whirling though the singer’s mind for weeks and must now be aired. It’s Wilson Pickett, and he wants it all baby: Ninety-Nine And A Half (Won’t Do).

The track is truly great. But it has to fight to be heard on The Exciting Wilson Pickett, which is jam-packed with many of the best Wilson Pickett songs. Most artists would have spread tracks of this quality across several albums, but Pickett was so hot, there were plenty more where they came from. Ninety-Nine And A Half (Won’t Do) isn’t even the opening cut; that honour goes to his explosive take on Chris Kenner’s Land Of 1,000 Dances. There’s also In The Midnight Hour, one of the key 60s soul records. 634-5789 (Soulsville USA), is practically the definition of swinging ’66 Memphis soul. Try the bustling Danger Zone, unusually sensible advice from soul’s most volatile figure. Or his version of Barefootin’, blessed by Junior Lowe’s murderously funky bassline. Every note stands up to scrutiny. Sock-it-to-’em soul may be extinct, but The Exciting Wilson Pickett still feels alive.

Must hear: Ninety-Nine And A Half (Won’t Do)

4: Spinners: ‘Spinners’ (1973)

Detroit vocal group Spinners recorded for Motown for seven years, but the company’s focus lay elsewhere. In 1971, the group sought a contract at Atlantic and acquired a new singer, Phillippe Wynne, who joined Bobby Smith and Henry Fambrough as brilliant lead voices. Atlantic teamed them with producer-arranger Thom Bell in Philadelphia, and they cut this dazzling album; it yielded five US hits and launched of a run of 14 soul chart albums. Spinners showed off almost everything the group could do, opening with the solid, heartfelt Just Can’t Get You Out Of My Mind, taking in ballads (I Could Never Repay Your Love), fat jazz (Don’t Let The Green Grass Fool You), and rising to dizzyingly peaks (I’ll Be Around, Ghetto Child and Could It Be I’m Falling In Love). Built to be smooth without losing its edge, Spinners is a tour-de-force among the best Atlantic Records soul albums.

Must hear: Ghetto Child

3: Betty Wright: ‘I Love The Way You Love’ (1972)

Released in 1972, Betty Wright’s second album was made when she was just 18. You wouldn’t know it: I Love The Way You Love bears all the hallmarks of a mature artist. One of the best female soul singers of all time, Wright stood head and shoulders above her Miami hometown competition in the 70s. From the opening I Love The Way You Love, which packs a soulful band, an orchestra and all Wright’s mighty soul into a very small space, to the finale of Let’s Not Rush Down The Road Of Love, on which Wright sounds older when she’s singing than she does in the opening rap, the album is sophisticated yet earthy, clever yet direct, and totally satisfying. We get a version of Bill Withers’ Ain’t No Sunshine, an over-covered song handled in an original manner – she is clearly singing it because she loves it. There’s the joyfully funky All Your Kissin’ Sho’ Don’t Make True Lovin’ and the equally chiding If You Love Me Like You Say You Love Me, which is disco-soul arriving early. The laidback Pure Love is a template for the kind of music Big Crown Records makes today, and if you don’t know Clean Up Woman, you don’t know soul. The arrangements of Clarence Reid and Mike Lewis are focused on delivering Wright’s soul to your ears; Little Beaver’s guitar is wonderfully decorative, and the rhythm section is on the money. This record should be in every collection: love the way it loves.

Must hear: Clean Up Woman

2: Aretha Franklin: ‘Lady Soul’ (1968)

It was William Bell who sang All God’s Children Got Soul. But some got more of it than others. Aretha Franklin’s Lady Soul was her third album in ten months, yet it found her in dazzling form, delivering the goods on ten songs, making each one her own. She co-wrote two thrillers, Since You’ve Been Gone (Sweet Sweet Baby), a No.5 hit in the US, and Good To Me As I Am To You. Her sister “Baby Dynamite” Carolyn donated the glowing Ain’t No Way, which reached No.16. Aretha added extra gospel to The Impressions’ People Get Ready and topped James Brown’s original cut of Money Won’t Change You. She tried funky country in Niki Hoeky and made The Young Rascals’ Groovin’ even more sunny. And there were two of the best Aretha Franklin songs of all time, too, in the swamp-funk of Chain Of Fools and the gorgeous statement song (You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman. Aretha sounds relaxed throughout, as well she might have: Lady Soul caught her at her peak.

Must hear: (You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman

1: Otis Redding: ‘Otis Blue/Otis Redding Sings Soul’ (1965)

There’s a reason why this album keeps appearing in lists like this: it’s wonderful. Redding moans, wails, growls and pleads through an apparently random selection of tunes which, in his hands, become contenders among the best Otis Redding songs. Three are his own: the misery-strewn Ole Man Trouble, a tune about a domestic dispute which became a universal anthem called Respect, and I’ve Been Loving You Too Long, written with another soul legend, Jerry Butler. There are three by the lost soul pioneer Sam Cooke, and another by Stax’s underrated tunesmith, William Bell, You Don’t Miss Your Water. How about Solomon Burke’s fake folk number, Down In The Valley; a BB King blues, Rock Me Baby; The Rolling Stones’ Satisfaction, of all things; and My Girl, a recent hit from Stax’s northern rivals, Motown. Can this rag-bag of material create a classic album? For sure, because Redding handles every song as if it were bespoke for him.

Otis Redding thrived in 1965. He could barely open his mouth without another great record bursting out: he was a blast, a creative vibe incarnate, and, topping our list of the best Atlantic Records soul albums, Otis Blue/Otis Redding Sings Soul was his second album of that year. Lamenting or raving, suffering or celebrating, Redding expresses every mood perfectly. The Memphis horns wind around him and the Stax house band, The MGs, are tender and tough below, delivering supreme soul. Otis Blue/Otis Redding Sings Soul: you bet he was, you bet he did.

Must hear: Change Gonna Come

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