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The best soul music songs

From Al Green to Aretha, we count down the top 50 soul music songs of all time

Matthew Singer
Edited by
Matthew Singer
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The best soul music songs hit you where it hurts – namely, square in the chest. But it’s a misnomer to say all the genre’s greatest tunes are about love. Sure, a great deal of the most classic soul tracks are indeed centred on matters of the heart, whether it’s the euphoria of young romance or the drama of a broken relationship. But just as many are about social injustice, religious salvation and the freedom of letting loose on the dancefloor. Really, a great soul song can be about anything – it just has to come from, well, the soul.

In compiling our list of the greatest ever soul music songs, we’ve touched on as many corners of the R&B landscape as possible, from Stax and Motown to Northern Soul and neo-soul. We also sought the advice of some experts: the world-class DJs from Soul City, the weekly night at Camden’s Jazz Café. So people, get ready: here are the best soul music songs of all time. 

RECOMMENDED:
🎷 The best Motown songs
❤️ The best R&B love songs

🍆 The sexiest songs of all-time
💕 The best love songs of all-time
💔 The best heartbreak songs

Best soul music songs, ranked

‘You Make Me Feel Like A Natural Woman’ – Aretha Franklin

1. ‘You Make Me Feel Like A Natural Woman’ – Aretha Franklin

This song has been covered countless times over the years, but only Aretha Franklin could have been the first to give life to songwriter Carole King’s soaring declaration of being loved-up, big time. With its legendary lyric ‘You’re the key to my peace of mind’, the 1967 song is the perfect marriage of gospel and soul music which makes it pretty hard to not give you all the feels. Matilda Egere-Cooper

‘Let’s Stay Together’ – Al Green

2. ‘Let’s Stay Together’ – Al Green

There are some songs that are so smooth, so passionate, so goddam soulful that the first line alone sends shivers down your vertebrae – just listen to Obama crooning this number mid-press conference and you’ll know what I mean. Released in 1972, this song put Al Green on the map, and it’s a masterclass in laying down a sexy groove that’ll make people move. But it’d be nothing without the sensual vocals – the whole thing sounds like it’s just you and Al, sitting in a room, looking into each other’s eyes and talking about the rest of your lives together. I’m not crying, honestly, I’ve just got something in my eye… Alex Plim

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‘I Want You’ – Marvin Gaye

3. ‘I Want You’ – Marvin Gaye

Damn. This soul song is the closest you can get to being propositioned by a piece of vinyl with only the insistent slap of a bongo. It’s also the greatest declaration of consent – Marv, feminist dreamboat that he is, only wants you if you want him in the same way. It’s enough to make you blush hard. Amy Smith

‘I Heard it Through the Grapevine’ – Marvin Gaye

4. ‘I Heard it Through the Grapevine’ – Marvin Gaye

‘This must surely be one of the most bittersweet moments in the history of recorded sound. I never paid attention to the lyric until I was older. I was always overcome by the tone and expressiveness of Marvin’s voice and the feel of the track always made me want to move but one day the raw emotion of the words struck me like a celestial train and this glorious picture was finally complete in my spirit.’ Dave Okumu from The Invisible.

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‘The Tracks of My Tears’ – Smokey Robinson

5. ‘The Tracks of My Tears’ – Smokey Robinson

This is straight-up masterful songwriting. Everyone can relate to the line: ‘My smile is my makeup, I wear since my break up with you.’ The arrangement is just as tight, right down to Pete Moore’s bass vocal and tambourine shake. And as if further proof was required: this soul song has been inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame and preserved by the United States Library of Congress for its cultural significance. Amy Smith

‘Get Ready’ – The Temptations

6. ‘Get Ready’ – The Temptations

As well as boasting the best intro to any song ever, this classic soul song unleashes the honeyed falsetto tones of Eddie Kendricks, jockeyed along by a fantastic shuffling beat and the greatest use of ‘fiddly dee, fiddly dum’ to date. Then there’s the point half way through when you realise this song is actually just pure filth. Amy Smith

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‘Soul Man’ – Sam & Dave

7. ‘Soul Man’ – Sam & Dave

It’s hard not to imagine Sam Moore and Dave Prater dancing when they recorded this. ‘Soul Man’ was written in 1967 in response to a phenomenon where civil rights protesters wrote ‘soul’ on black-owned businesses to prevent them being looted during riots. Amy Smith

‘Try A Little Tenderness’ – Otis Redding

8. ‘Try A Little Tenderness’ – Otis Redding

Would you believe twinkling, crooner Bing Crosby recorded this song back in 1933? Redding’s version now dominates the public consciousness; his soulful arrangement is led by Booker T Jones’s deeply mournful licks of the organ. It gradually builds until an almost impatient Redding is yelping, frantically tumbling over words – all in the name of being tender. Amy Smith

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‘Living for the City’ – Stevie Wonder

9. ‘Living for the City’ – Stevie Wonder

No one delivers sermons through soul like Stevie. Here he focuses explicitly on the difficulties of growing up poor and black, playing every single freakin’ instrument. A brief interlude depicts a racially profiled arrest; when Wonder resumes singing he forgoes prettiness and it’s AMAZING. Every syllable is at once fought-for and battle-weary. Amy Smith

‘Move On Up’ – Curtis Mayfield

10. ‘Move On Up’ – Curtis Mayfield

You’ve heard it a thousand times, but King Curtis’s greatest song never loses its glow. ‘Move on Up’ is one of those soul songs that changes everything, for a few minutes at least: a paean to progress and positivity lyrically, a warm sunburst of brass, strings and percussion musically. Stick on the album version for nine minutes of total, beautiful soul music immersion. James Manning

‘I Second that Emotion’ – Smokey Robinson and the Miracles

11. ‘I Second that Emotion’ – Smokey Robinson and the Miracles

Nothing captures that queasy-elated feeling of a new relationship like ‘I Second That Emotion’. He’s met someone, he’s doolally for them and if they don’t want something more than to hit and quit it, he’d rather cut them loose. The lyrics are the antithesis of stereotypical ‘male’ sexuality. The whole thing aches with vulnerability, but still makes your stomach jump every time the chorus kicks in. Smokey’s high tenor voice is such a well-tuned instrument it barely needs the band, but a bit of brass is a great remedy for a heartbreak. Katie McCabe

‘A Change Is Gonna Come’ – Sam Cooke

12. ‘A Change Is Gonna Come’ – Sam Cooke

‘Soul music is about profound expression of human emotion, it’s about yearning, hope and transformation. It encapsulates the human experience. This song is one of the heavy hitters on all of these counts. and somehow we are transported on this rich journey, carried by the power and vulnerability of Sam Cooke’s majestic voice and the sensitivity of the musical arrangement, in just over three minutes. This is as close to perfection as it gets.’ Chosen by Dave Okumu from The Invisible. 

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‘La-La (Means I Love You)’ - The Delfonics
Philly Groove

13. ‘La-La (Means I Love You)’ - The Delfonics

No song better encapsulates the head-in-the-clouds euphoria of Philly soul and the majesty of songwriter-arranger Thom Bell. Floating on a bed of 500 thread-count strings, the group’s lush three-part harmonies elevate the sweet nothing of the title into the word of the angels. Matthew Singer   

‘The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face’ – Roberta Flack

14. ‘The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face’ – Roberta Flack

Roberta Flack took Ewan MacColl’s sensitive folk song to a warmer place, adding dancing strings and contemplative keys. Her sweet, tragic voice is a lesson in control, she holds us captive and we have no choice but to follow each cadence. Amy Smith

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‘Your Love Keeps Lifting Me Higher’ – Jackie Wilson

15. ‘Your Love Keeps Lifting Me Higher’ – Jackie Wilson

Every classy wedding needs at least one play of this dizzily romantic, heart-leaping soul banger by falsetto king Mr Jackie Wilson. It’s technically perfect, coming in at exactly two minutes and 59 seconds of by-the-book, verse-chorus-bridge pop music magic. But it’s also got more sheer joy crammed in than most singers’ entire output. Turn it up, then turn it up higher. And higher. James Manning

‘Sitting on the Dock of the Bay’ – Otis Redding

16. ‘Sitting on the Dock of the Bay’ – Otis Redding

This is an emotional bomb. Written on scraps of paper and napkins while on tour, Redding sings about absolute loneliness against a gentle, slipping guitar. His quavering vocals peak with the middle eight: ‘I’ve had nothing to live for and look like nothing gonna come my way’. The fact it was released posthumously after Redding died in a plane crash makes it all the more bittersweet. Amy Smith

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‘Twenty-Five Miles’ – Edwin Starr

17. ‘Twenty-Five Miles’ – Edwin Starr

He comes up just short of a marathon here, but this Motown 45 is still a PB for belting soul giant Edwin ‘War!’ Starr. The bouncing bassline, the impeccable vocal performance and a hefty dose of call-and-response have made it a dependable floor-filler (and a pretty decent motivational running song, I guess). James Manning

‘When Somebody Loves You Back’ – Teddy Pendergrass

18. ‘When Somebody Loves You Back’ – Teddy Pendergrass

‘I’ve been spinning this timeless summer classic again whilst recently on tour in New Zealand and Australia (where they have been experiencing heatwaves) and it’s been going down a real treat with the outdoor party crowds. It’s a beautiful lilting mid-tempo love ballad that only Teddy P could have sung. It’s one of my ‘must-play’ Valentine’s Day tracks too.’ Chosen by rare groove titan and Good Times icon, Norman Jay MBE.

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‘Be Thankful for What You Got’ – William DeVaughn

19. ‘Be Thankful for What You Got’ – William DeVaughn

A true curiosity in the soul music canon, this early ‘70s hit permeated popular culture in differing ways – being both a staple of gospel radio stations and also riffed on by NWA years later for its shout-outs to gangster living. Ah but that groove though... no matter what your morals are, it’s impossible not to be sonically seduced here. Oliver Keens

‘I Only Have Eyes For You’ – The Flamingoes

20. ‘I Only Have Eyes For You’ – The Flamingoes

‘If anyone is uncertain what it feels like to be in love, this song should be utilised as the benchmark. It takes me to that place where another human being makes the universe disappear while simultaneously enhancing my experience of it. Totally magical.’ Chosen by the very excellent Dave Okumu from The Invisible.

‘Try Me’ – James Brown

21. ‘Try Me’ – James Brown

For all his flamboyant showmanship, when the Godfather wanted to strip a song back, he really triumphed. Save for a powerful drum kick and solid backing singers, it’s all about his plaintive, yearning voice – begging for just one chance. Amy Smith

‘Inner City Blues’ by Marvin Gaye

22. ‘Inner City Blues’ by Marvin Gaye

‘It’s a song that is as poignant now as it was when it was released over 45 years ago. The stunning lyrics are as simple and effective as its bass line and drum beat. The struggles we all have with just surviving in this current economic and socially divided environment are superbly highlighted by one of the finest singers there has ever been.’ Chosen by nine-piece Afro-rap band KOG and the Zongo Brigade

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‘Piece of My Heart’ – Erma Franklin

23. ‘Piece of My Heart’ – Erma Franklin

Erma – older sister of Aretha – Franklin was the first singer to record this classic heartbreaker, back in 1967. Janis Joplin and Dusty Springfield later cut very impressive cover versions, but the original remains definitive. It's the way the defiance in Franklin's voice illuminates the down-but-not-out lyrics that makes it truly special. Nick Levine

'Everyday People' – Sly and the Family Stone

24. 'Everyday People' – Sly and the Family Stone

Rarely did Sly Stone's great psychedelic project do anything you could exactly classify as straight. But 'Everyday People' is as timeless and classic a soul song as it's possible to imagine. Anchored to beaming piano chords, its pleas for harmony and integration perfectly matched the band's own groundbreaking diversity. Oliver Keens

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‘People Make The World Go Round’ - The Stylistics

25. ‘People Make The World Go Round’ - The Stylistics

Brilliant socially conscious piece of Philly soul music highlighting industrial action. A tooting trumpet and trilling xylophone keeps the track light while Russell Thompkins Jr’s melancholy falsetto drives home the message. Amy Smith

‘Tainted Love’ – Gloria Jones

26. ‘Tainted Love’ – Gloria Jones

This original to Soft Cell’s synth-ridden cover doesn’t mess about. Jones’s no-nonsense vocal is scathing and dismissive, the unremitting clapping beat doesn’t slow for a second and if you were in any doubt – she is definitely over him. Amy Smith

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‘This Old Heart of Mine’ – The Isley Brothers
Motown

27. ‘This Old Heart of Mine’ – The Isley Brothers

It’s almost confusing how Ronald Isley makes heartbreak and loneliness sound so good and danceable here. It was originally intended for The Supremes but the brothers scored with this slice of pure Motown magic. Amy Smith

‘Have You Seen Her’ – The Chi-Lites

28. ‘Have You Seen Her’ – The Chi-Lites

This doo-wop throwback has songwriter and lead singer Eugene Record delivering a spoken-word intro, revealing his broken heart but it’s the devilishly smooth hook delivered by The Chi-Lites that is a real sonic sucker punch. Amy Smith

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‘Maria’ - Michael Jackson

29. ‘Maria’ - Michael Jackson

‘It’s the B-side to MJ’s 1972 single “Got To Be There”. Michael Jackson is my absolute favourite, but I’d never heard this track until really recently. My boyfriend brought me back a bunch of records from a trip to Miami, and one was this track on a 7-inch. I just love how MJ’s voice sounds so young and so emotional at the same time.’ Chosen by global crate-digger, producer and radio don Throwing Shade

‘It’s Torture’ – Maxine Brown

30. ‘It’s Torture’ – Maxine Brown

A frolicking rush of unrequited lust, this rare Northern Soul song perfectly sums up that pain with its excitable horns and tambourines and Brown’s brilliantly frantic vocals. Amy Smith

‘A House Is Not A Home’ – Luther Vandross

31. ‘A House Is Not A Home’ – Luther Vandross

Everyone knows the late Luther Vandross had the sort of voice that could save marriages, make a baby or win back an ex. Case in point:  ‘A House Is Not a Home’ – the orchestral ballad about a man who’s messed up and hopes his boo hasn’t packed up for good. Burt Bacharach originally wrote the song for Dionne Warwick, but Luther’s velvety tenor took it to a whole other level when it was released in 1981 – and to this day, it’s still considered one of his best songs. Matilda Egere-Cooper

‘Do I Love You’ – Frank Wilson
Discogs

32. ‘Do I Love You’ – Frank Wilson

The backstory to this delightful, sonic smile is a lesson in the machinations of Motown. It is thought label kingpin Berry Gordy was not sold on the vocals and didn’t want to encourage Wilson – who was a producer for the label. But the less-than-perfect vocals makes this a truly joyous burst of romance. Wilson destroyed most of the demos, unaware the track would be become a massive hit at Northern Soul clubs in the ’70s. Today only a couple of the highly collectible original pressings exist. Amy Smith

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‘Heatwave’ – Martha Reeves and the Vandellas

33. ‘Heatwave’ – Martha Reeves and the Vandellas

Inspired by the actual heatwave of 1963, this doo-wop gem from the classic Motown songwriting Holland-Dozier-Holland team hits every mark helped along by Richard ‘Pistol’ Allen’s drumwork. Martha and her Vandellas make it look all too easy, with vocals that tip perfectly between sassy and sensual. Amy Smith

‘Walk On By’ – Isaac Hayes

34. ‘Walk On By’ – Isaac Hayes

Burt Bacharach’s classic is stretched out across 12 incendiary minutes of sexy, lovelorn soul with Hayes adding spun-out, twanging guitar and his own purring, drenched-in-treacle vocals. With his customary orchestral flare, Hayes manages to make a broken heart sound very classy indeed. Amy Smith

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‘On & On’ – Erykah Badu

35. ‘On & On’ – Erykah Badu

Thank you, 1997. That was the year that made way for On & On: a balmy slice of black consciousness and hip-hop-dipped balladry that made a change from the conveyor belt R&B and soul that dominated the airwaves (that is, until Badu arrived). Considered the blueprint for the ‘neo soul’ movement, the radical debut would earn the breezy Texan her first Grammy, which was clearly a sign of things to come. Twenty years on (and on), it still sounds as fresh as the day it was born. Matilda Egere-Cooper

‘Brown Sugar’ – D’Angelo
Virgin

36. ‘Brown Sugar’ – D’Angelo

Four swirling organ notes and a snare tap – that's all it takes for one of the sexiest soul songs ever to get juiced up and ready to roll. Released in 1995, at a time when soul music was being hijacked by lightweights like Michael Bolton, D'Angelo created a slow revolution with this title track from his breathless, devastating debut album. Oliver Keens

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‘All Night Long’ – Aretha Franklin
Columbia

37. ‘All Night Long’ – Aretha Franklin

From the opening trickle of piano, you know this will be a heartbreaker. Aged just 19 when she recorded it, Franklin doesn’t go for big flashy vocal trickery here. When the bluesy soul of her voice meets the aching trombone, it actually hurts in its perfection. Amy Smith

‘The Makings of You’ – Curtis Mayfield

38. ‘The Makings of You’ – Curtis Mayfield

‘One of my favourite recordings ever. Curtis’s lyrics are powerful yet he still admits in the song that “it’s almost impossible” to express what the soul is. I also love the song structure and phrasing, I can listen to this on loop for hours and still not get bored.’ Chosen by superb London jazz-tinged producer Eric Lau 

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‘Let’s Straighten It Out’ – OV Wright

39. ‘Let’s Straighten It Out’ – OV Wright

Covered by everyone from Etta James to Usher and sampled on Wu Tang’s ‘America’. But OV Wright’s version is the one that you need in your relationship. Wright’s liquid-gold tones and pressing rasp coaxes resentment away and steers any pent-up frustration into the bedroom. Amy Smith

‘Back to Black’ – Amy Winehouse
Photograph: Courtesy CC/Wikipedia/SnapSnap/Jack3mani.filed.wordpress.com

40. ‘Back to Black’ – Amy Winehouse

This throwback ballad represents the late, great Amy Winehouse at the peak of her powers. Flanked by Mark Ronson's sumptuous Motown-influenced production, her vocals are loaded with heartbroken emotion as she mourns the end of a messy relationship. 'Life is like a pipe, and I'm a tiny penny rollin' up the walls inside,' she sings despondently, offering one of many stunning couplets. What a singer – but also, what a songwriter. Nick Levine

‘I Can’t Stand the Rain’ - Ann Peebles
Hi Records

41. ‘I Can’t Stand the Rain’ - Ann Peebles

A labelmate of Al Green and OV Wright, Peebles’ biggest hit stands out among the many others produced by Hi Records. Marked by a hard-to-place squeaking sound - actually the blips of an electric timbale - evoking the drops of rain streaking down Peebles’ window and driving her mad, it’s an odd, hypnotic take on the classic, rolling Memphis soul sound. Singular as it is on its own, 24 years later, singer-rapper Missy Elliott flipped the beat into something else entirely and made it a hit all over again. Matthew Singer

‘A Woman’s Gotta Have It’ – Bobby Womack

42. ‘A Woman’s Gotta Have It’ – Bobby Womack

‘I came to certain soul songs through hip-hop that had sampled it. When you discover an original sample, it’s like an extra bonus meaty treat to something you already love! This Bobby Womack track was sampled on a really obscure Dogg Pound track and I love them both equally. It’s got a ridiculously powerful bassline for a soul track!’ Chosen by hip hop maverick DJ Yoda.

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‘Seven Days Too Long’ – Chuck Wood

43. ‘Seven Days Too Long’ – Chuck Wood

This rare track – made famous after being covered by Dexys Midnight Runners – ticks all the boxes for a Northern Soul classic. It’s propelled by steam-engine percussion, impassioned vocals, jostling horns that just won’t quit plus its limited original pressing make it an extremely covetable vinyl find. Amy Smith

‘Untitled (How Does It Feel)’ – D’Angelo

44. ‘Untitled (How Does It Feel)’ – D’Angelo

Arguably the ultimate slow jam, D’Angelo strips the instrumentation down to essentially a hi-hat and some throbbing bass. His voice is barely a velvety whisper at times, as he coaxes and cajoles us all into a wet mess. And then there’s the video… Amy Smith

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‘90% of Me Is You’ – Gwen McCrae

45. ‘90% of Me Is You’ – Gwen McCrae

This soul song was sampled throughout the ’90s by rap artists who snapped up McCrae’s incredulous refrain of ‘What can I do?’, majestic strings and that gorgeous squelchy, warped guitar riff. At no point do you ever doubt that McCrae is the real deal, her powerful vocals have the air of someone who has found herself inescapably in love. Amy Smith

‘Hard Times’ – Baby Huey
Curtom

46. ‘Hard Times’ – Baby Huey

Few artists were as qualified to sing about hard times as Chicago’s James Thomas Ramey, aka Baby Huey. He owed his 400-pound frame to a glandular disorder, struggled with heroin addiction and succumbed to a heart attack at the way-too-young age of 26 - but not before leaving behind this hard-hitting classic. Over ululating flutes, dramatic horns and an insistent thump-thumping beat, Ramey describes life in a ‘crazy town’ where ‘there’s no love to be found’ in a husky, bluesy voice that makes clear he knows intimately the pain of which he speaks. Matthew Singer

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‘At the Top of the Stairs’ – The Formations

47. ‘At the Top of the Stairs’ – The Formations

This Northern Soul favourite of Wigan Casino is a lush shimmer of gorgeous harmonies and ideal for spinning on a waxed floor covered in talcum powder. It’s also perhaps the only song to address that universal fear of unseen steps. Amy Smith

‘I'll Be Around’ – The Spinners

48. ‘I'll Be Around’ – The Spinners

Can anything be smoother than Bobby Smith singing ‘Now it’s up to me, to bow out gracefully’? Though it’s a soul song for all the spurned lovers who are waiting just in case, ‘I’ll Be Around’ never lets desperation get in the way of some fine conga playing and faultless Philly soul music production. Amy Smith

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‘Getting in the Way’ – Jill Scott

49. ‘Getting in the Way’ – Jill Scott

The song that launched the wondrous neo-soul of ‘Jilly from Philly’ onto audiences in 2000, ‘Gettin’ In the Way’ takes a maverick step of combining super-chilled beats with a narrative straight out of WWE – as Scott dresses down a love rival with some brilliant lines like: ‘I’m 'bout to take my earrings off and get me some Vaseline’. Oliver Keens

‘By The Time I Get To Phoenix’ – Isaac Hayes

50. ‘By The Time I Get To Phoenix’ – Isaac Hayes

The first soul song on our list is also the longest (allow a full 19 minutes to enjoy this one, kids) and also perhaps the most experimental. Hayes’s 1969 cover of the Jimmy Webb classic pushed the boundaries of what soul music could be – daring, stark, epic and very very moving. Oliver Keens

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