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Retro Crimbo 2014: George’s Journal’s official top 40 tinseled tunes (20-1)

December 24, 2014

slade_christmas

Angelic anthemists? They’re the glam rock gods who conquered Christmas 1973 with their incredibly enduring Holiday hit, but is Slade’s festive classic top of the pops and this chart’s numero uno…?

So then, my merry mates, following hot on the reindeer-hooved-heels, of yesterday’s post detailing the first half of George’s Journal’s Christmas tune chart countdown, here is… yes, that’s right, the concluding half. Again, admittedly there are few rarities here, but there may be one or two surprises – in short, these are merely this blog’s top 20 favourite/ greatest seasonal songs ever to be released.

Just one thing, though, please don’t shoot the messenger, this is just a festive, frolicsome exercise of fun. Oh, all right, you can throw a snowball my way if you have to. Even better, though, you could pour me a snowball. Or some eggnog. Or some mulled wine. Or…

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20. The Most Wonderful Time Of The Year ~
Andy Williams (1963)

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What? The Christmas song as a jingle, you might say; the effort specially written to open the legendary US TV special The Andy Williams Christmas Show back in ’63

Well? That voice deliciously delivering those lyrics like a knife spreading syrup and then soaring up like a balloon to reach those high notes… ah yes, it could only be Andy Williams’ original (and unquestionably definitive) version of this most celebratory and – sure, in a silly and super clichéd way, but hey – seasonal of Crimbo tunes.

Wow? It was only commercially released as one of several songs on 1963’s The Andy Williams Christmas Album and then never as a stand-alone single – until 44 years later when it hit #21 on the UK charts thanks to heavy exposure in a Marks & Spencer TV ad

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19. Blue Christmas ~ Elvis Presley (1957)

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What? Elvis’s always welcome blues-at-the-yuletide hit, detailing a lovelorn soul’s far from most wonderful time of the year

Well? Who needs three kings when you can have The King himself doing his thing, shuffling and shambling his way in trademark fashion through this complete and utter Christmas classic? Recorded at the height of his early career for inclusion on a festive-themed LP and not released as a single for another seven years (when it promptly made it to #11 in the UK), this isn’t just a fun blues-tinged country tune, but always works as something of an antidote to all the saccharine, cheesy, cowbell-fixated pop and, yes, glam rock of the season – you know, if you’re starting to tire of it all (heaven forbid).

Wow? In something of a musical joke, the backing singers on the track (the Jordanaires) deliberately sing pronounced neutral and septimal minor thirds, as opposed to major and just minor thirds. Why? Because the former are commonly appreciated as ‘blue(s) notes’

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18. Sleigh Ride ~ Arthur Fiedler
and the Boston Pops Orchestra (1949)

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What? The original light orchestral instrumental tour de force, as performed by the wonderfully named Boston Pops Orchestra under their legendary conductor Arthur Fiedler

Well? You know how it is, you’re chugging along in your pristine sleigh behind your steed chomping at the bit, looking all splendid in your Sunday best and no doubt (should you be of the female kind) your beautiful bonnet, but what tune to throw on to the sleigh’s CD player? Well, this has to be the only possible choice. Leroy Anderson’s oh-so sprightly and jubilantly jolly 1946-48-composed piece that was written exactly for that purpose. Even though he wrote it during an American heat-wave.

Wow? Film fans (from outside the US) may recognise the Boston Pops Orchestra name thanks to its association with movie composer extraordinaire John Williams – he was its conductor from 1979-95

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17. Peace On Earth/ Little Drummer Boy ~ Bing Crosby and David Bowie (1977)

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What? The jolly yuletide duet from Bing and Bowie, as featured in the former’s 1977 US TV special

Well? If any tune proves the miracle of Christmas, it’s this one. The White Christmas king and The Thin White Duke curiously combining to deliver a duet of a semi-seasonal medley that surprisingly isn’t a merry mess, but actually a festive highlight. It drips with charisma and, thanks to the quality of their voices, is even rather moving. And the daft banter, making the most of the pair’s incongruity, also works splendidly – one wonders whether this is still Duncan Jones’ (aka Zowie Bowie’s) favourite. Frankly, I suspect it is. The stuff of television history.

Wow? It was recorded in the autumn of ’77 in the UK, for Crosby’s final ever Christmas special – he died only weeks later in early October, just over a month before the show’s TV transmission

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16. In The Bleak Midwinter ~
Julie Andrews (1973)

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What? The marvellously moving Christmas carol performed by Mary Poppins herself for her ’73 seasonal special on US TV

Well? Really, you can keep your O Holy and Silent Nights and your Harks! and Royal David’s Cities, for this is by far and away my favourite traditional carol. And it’s sung angelically by the angelically-voiced Julie Andrews. Quite frankly, when performed properly this is such a beautiful piece (irrespective of whether you go on its religious message, which apparently is a little controversial among Biblical experts anyway), its melody just as mellifluous and melancholic in the hands of Ms Andrews as it is in those of Cambridge’s King’s College choir.

Wow? The writing of In The Bleak Midwinter is usually credited to either Gustav Holst (1906) or Howard Darke (1911), but these were the composers whom set to music the original text – the words themselves dating back to around 1870, being a poem sent in to the Victorian magazine Scribner’s Monthly by Christina Rosetti, sister of the far more famous pre-Raphaelite artist Dante Gabriel Rosetti

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15. Santa Claus Is Coming To Town ~
Fred Astaire (1970)

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What? Ginger Rogers’ other (dancing) half, in the guise of the North Pole’s answer to Postman Pat, delivers that age-old classic Crimbo track

Well? There are many very popular versions of this seasonal standard – not least those courtesy of Bing Crosby (1943), Frank Sinatra (1948) and The Jackson 5 (1970) – yet I just have to stump for this effort from Astaire. Sure, he doesn’t dance while he sings this, but he’s a Claymation character and starring in perhaps the greatest of all the great Rankin/Bass Claymation Christmas specials.

Wow? When John Frederick Coots and Haven Gillespie’s tune, having been rejected by many radio DJs as too silly to air, was first sung on Eddie Cantor’s NBC radio show in November 1934 it led to the shifting of 100,000 copies of sheet music and 30,000 records within just 24 hours. By Christmas the following year, it had sold 400,000 records.

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14. Last Christmas ~ Wham! (1984)
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What? Cheesy but more melancholic than cheery ’80s festive pop fest from one-time mega-band Wham!

Well? Easily the naffest entry in this Top 20 (er, probably), it’s been the slow-dance centre-piece of countless Christmas parties for the last 30 years. Yes, this combination of bouncy, synthy silliness and earworm-tastic pure pop is older than either Home Alone (1990) or Santa Claus: The Movie (1985). Much of its greatness, actually, lies in its video, in which the group while-away a Crimbo in an Alpine chalet like a bunch of smug yuppies. With all the hairspray applied on their bonces, it’s a wonder the whole place doesn’t go up when they throw all those logs on the fire.

Wow? Although enormously popular, Last Christmas didn’t make it to #1 in the UK, as it came out at the same time as Band Aid’s Do They Know It’s Christmas?. Instead, it hit a high of #2 (where it remained for 13 whole weeks), but made no money whatsoever – perhaps at George Michael’s instigation, whom was involved with Band Aid, the Whamsters agreed to waive any profits and donate it all to Band Aid’s Ethiopian famine appeal.

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13. Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas ~ Judy Garland (1944)
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What? The bittersweet Crimbo cracker, as first sung by Judy Garland in movie musical Meet Me In St. Louis (1944)

Well? One of the most popular of all seasonal standards  – in 2007, the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP) ranked it the third most performed yuletide tune over the previous five years – and arguably one of the very best, this original version surely tops every esteemed other. Written specifically for Garland’s film character by Hugh Martin (co-composer Ralph Blane apparently wasn’t actually involved), its melancholic melody simply melts the heart, especially when Garland hits those top notes. No wonder it became so popular with US servicemen in WWII – Garland’s wartime performance of it at the Hollywood Canteen apparently reduced troops to tears.

Wow? The song had never made it on to the main US Billboard Hot 100 chart until this month, when a version by UK singer Sam Smith hit #90

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12. Do You Hear What I Hear? ~
Whitney Houston (1987)

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What? Glorious gospel version of the mid-20th Century Christmas standard, recorded by Houston for the Special Olympics-profiting A Very Special Christmas album

Well? Sure, this is as unquestionably ’80s-tastic as Last Christmas (with all that synth and echoey percussion going on), but if you can excuse that then it’s surely impossible not to be stirred by the emotive power of Houston’s extraordinarily soulful delivery. What an enormous talent she was back then. If you yearn for an era when Eddie Murphy was the king of cinema comedy, when the seasonal TV schedules were crammed with Family Ties and Magnum, P.I. specials and when peeps substituted E.T. for the baby Jesus in church cribs, then this is the yuletide track for you.

Wow? The tune was composed in October 1962 by songwriting pair Gloria Shayne Baker (music) and Noël Regney (lyrics), despite their distaste for the commercialism of Christmas and its music, as an idealistic appeal for peace during the febrile climate of the Cuban Missile Crisis

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11. Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow! ~ Vaughn Monroe (1962)
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What? Sensationally popular seasonal ballad to be heard over the closing credits of that oh-so merry movie Die Hard (1988)

Well? Yes, (maybe) contrary to popular belief it was this smooth, classic version of Jule Styne (music) and Sammy Cahn’s (lyric) legendary jolly wintry tune (which soon became a Christmas standard after Monroe’s original 1946 effort became a huge hit) and not Dean Martin’s hugely-radio-friendly 1959 take on it that closed the Bruce-Willis-besting-terrorists-actioner-to-end-all-actioners. Yippi-ki-yay, er, Mother Clauses!

Wow? Following Monroe’s five-week Billboard Hot 100-topping effort of ’46, an incredible cacophony of artists have had a crack at letting it snow (er, letting it snow, letting snow), including in more recent years The Wurzels, Jewel, Mika, Seth MacFarlane, The Marshall Tucker Band, Twisted Sisted and The Polyphonic Spree

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10. Do They Know It’s Christmas? ~
Band Aid (1984)

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What? Original, utterly unavoidable charity-raising monolithic mega single performed by Bob Geldof and Midge Ure’s mid-’80s mulletted pop collective. And Status Quo.

Well? It has its detractors (and, following its third redo in 30 years, maybe rightly so this year), but I’ll always maintain that there was something fundamentally admirable about the first Band Aid project and something rather magical about it too – all those hair-lacquered popsters back then were somehow less cynical and genuinely more workaday yet more starry than today’s. Plus, many loathe it and few actually seem to like it (maybe even including Sir Bob), but I’ve always thought the song itself is better than all that, its Ure-produced synthy goodness a victim of over-exposure for obvious reasons. Sorry, folks, but almost every time I properly give it a listen, it still gets me.

Wow? Boy George was harrangued into taking part by Geldof despite waking with an über-hangover in New York City the morning of the recording. Eventually, after being repeatedly woken up by Geldof’s phone calls, he was persuaded to get on a plane and fly to London. He arrived after everybody else had left to record his contribution – and got through it thanks to some serious hair of the dog from a local off-licence.

Read more on the making, result and legacy of Band Aid’s Do They Know It’s Christmas? here

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9. I Believe In Father Christmas ~
Greg Lake (1975)

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What? One third of prog rock godly trio Emerson, Lake and Palmer’s assertion that he believes in St. Nick despite trying to demystify the yuletide in one foul swoop, which hit #2 in the UK

Well? If any Crimbo pop effort is underrated, then it has to be this one. Lake’s somewhat spoilsport intention to produce a tune that would criticise the modern yuletide and all its commercialism in fact turned out to be a beguiling acoustic-guitar-driven paean to the true meaning of Christmas (peace and goodwill to all men and all that). Smartly and marvellously, it incorporates between its verses that awesome, oh-so seasonal seeming (if actually non-festive) classical suite that’s Sergei Prokofiev’s Troika from the Soivet film Lieutenant Kijé (1934).

Wow? Unusually, to the say least, for a Christmas record, its video – shot in the Sinai Desert and Qumran in the West Bank – features footage from the Vietnam War (including even air strikes), presumably to drive home the song’s message of loss of innocence and the importance of warmth, forgiveness and acceptance

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8. Fairytale Of New York ~
The Pogues featuring Kirsty McColl (1987)

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What? The utterly unique folk festive hit from the Celtic punksters and guest vocalist Kirsty MacColl

Well? By turns, down-at-heel and downright rude (listen to those lyrics charting an argument between faded lovers after years of drink- and drug-addiction), irresistibly swinging (that cèilidh-friendly melody is so danceable) and genuinely grandiose (the piano intro, strings, harp and horns give the whole thing a fairy-tale-like resplendence), this is an unusual modern pop standard that also happens to be a terrific off-kilter Christmas classic

Wow? Although it hit #2 on the UK charts on original release, Fairytale Of New York’s popularity has grown enormously in recent years, having charted within the UK Top 20 for each of the last 10 Christmases and within the Top 10 on the last three of those occasions – it’s also apparently the most played Christmas song on UK radio of the 21st Century. As to the video, yes, that is Matt Dillon (friend of Pogues’ lead singer Shane MacGowan) playing the police officer at the start, but no, in fact no NYPD Choir exists.

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7. Step Into Christmas ~ Elton John (1973)
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What? Reg The Dwight’s entry in the Christmas ditty canon, partly an imitation of the Phil Spector-produced ‘Wall of Sound’ Christmas records of the early ’60s

Well? Given it was produced by Elton John at the height of his quality output in the early to mid-’70s, Step Into Christmas is an often oddly overlooked seasonal song. It’s no Crimbo oddity, though. With its glam rock associations (check out Elton in those enormous bins and even more enormous platforms), it’s a swaggering, tumbling party tune – indeed, wordsmith Bernie Taupin’s lyrics suggest the yuletide’s a big party to which we’re all invited as ‘the admission’s free’, especially the lines “Welcome to my Christmas song” and “So hop on to your turntable and step into Christmas with me”. And did I mention that repetitive guitar riff? Boy, is it infectious.

Wow? Again, maybe surprisingly, it only hit a high of #24 on the UK charts on its original release in late ’73 – mind you, there were two more rather big Christmas singles released that year…

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6. I Wish It Could Be Christmas Everyday ~ Wizzard (1973)
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What? … And here’s the first of them: the unforgettably, simply superb glam rock foot-stomper from Roy Wood’s Wizzard

Well? It doesn’t get much more glam than this – just look at the state of the band in that video; they look like The Village People dressed for the circus. Formerly of The Move and a founder member of ELO, of course, Wood ensures the tune runs the full glam gamut, with its marvellous melody that crashes along backed by saxophones, big percussion, daft sound effects and the contribution (“OK, you lot, take it!”) of Birmingham’s Stockland Green Bilateral School’s First Year choir – billed on the single’s sleeve as ‘Miss Snob and Class 3C’ – whom were coached down from the Midlands to London to record their vocals during the autumn half-term holiday.

Wow? Despite its huge popularity (it’s never charted lower than #46 in the UK in the last eight Christmases), the song scaled no higher than #4 when first released, where it remained for four weeks in December ’73 and into January ’74

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5. Walking In The Air ~ Aled Jones (1985)
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What? Then cherubic 14-year-old choirboy Aled Jones’ version of the tune that forms the centre-piece of the classic Christmas animation The Snowman (1982)

Well? An unquestionably atmospheric, wintry wonderful, nay magical orchestral piece (first conceived actually by The Snowman’s composer Howard Blake back in 1975), which in the mid-’80s took Britain by storm; for many, it was quite unlike anything else to be heard at Christmas – or at any other point of the year. Quite rightly, the timeless tune also did the business for its record label (Stiff Records – yes, that’s right, Stiff Records), mixing it with the pap pop and heavy metal of the day by climbing to a high of #5 in the UK charts that winter.

Wow? The version of the Walking In The Air that appears in The Snowman was recorded at least three years earlier and didn’t even feature Jones’ voice; instead boy soprano Peter Auty had been enlisted. Jones’ involvement with the song only came about because retailer Toys “R” Us requested use of the song for a Christmas TV ad campaign, by which time Auty’s voice had broken.

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4. Merry Xmas Everybody ~ Slade (1973)
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What? Completely and utterly unavoidable classic Crimbo glam rock hit from the West Midlands foursome – Band Aid aside, perhaps the ultimate Christmas UK #1

Well? Overplayed, oversaturated, overstated and overblown… all these adjectives could be levelled at Slade’s defining tune and in some ways fairly; in others not at all. Merry Xmas Everybody achieved enormous popularity on first release and remains hugely popular now because it’s a simply great rock song. Less campy and silly, actually, than, say, Wizzard’s effort, it features a rather haunting melody driven along by a heavy bass line and topped off by Noddy Holder’s irresistible vocals, making the listener, as he does, curiously nostalgic for an old-fashioned working class Christmas.

Wow? Holder has referred to this song as his pension fund; that may not be an exaggeration. It debuted at #1 (a rare achievement at the time) in December ’73 and remained there for five weeks, but that only tells half the story. Within its first week of release, it had sold 350,000 copies and, to sate demand at one point, Polydor Records had to have 250,000 copies shipped over from Los Angeles and apparently had 30,000 a day coming in from Germany, where they were being pressed. It has charted every Christmas since 2007 and, in total, is estimated to have sold in excess of 1.2 million copies.

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3. Happy Xmas (War Is Over) ~
John & Yoko/ Plastic Ono Band (1971)

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What? The former Fab’s fabulous anti-war anthem cunningly wrapped up as a Christmas pop song, which worked its magic in the UK, making it to #4 in 1972’s festive charts

Well? This tune, conceived and produced in more or less the same era as Imagine, is very much of the same principle, giving musical voice to the late ’60s peace movement’s ideals – or to paraphrase Lennon: putting his political message across with a little honey. Musically, it’s rhythmically lilting, almost like a lullaby with mandolin-like riffs, but builds verse-on-verse and opens up majestically in the chorus with the Harlem Community Choir (and, yes, the Plastic Ono Band) chipping in. Meanwhile, an engaging end-of-year reflective, could-you-have-done-more? underscore is to be heard in Lennon’s vocals (“And so this is Christmas/ And what have you done?”) before getting to the point at the end (“War is over / If you want it”).

Wow? May Pang, the woman with whom Lennon had an affair during his ‘Lost Weekend’ period in the mid-’70s, sings backing vocals; at the time she was actually working as Lennon and Ono’s personal assistant

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2. The Christmas Song (Merry
Christmas To You)
~ Nat King Cole (1961)

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What? Commonly subtitled – and known to millions by its opening line – ‘Chestnuts roasting on an open fire’, it’s Bob Wells and Mel Tormé’s 1944-written, pretty much perfect festive phenomenon

Well? As smooth as (ahem) the smoothest silk Christmas stocking, as rich as the richest brandy-filled Christmas pudding and as satisfying, after all the presents have been opened, as the Christmas wrapping paper always is… well, for the pet cat, Cole’s definitive ’61 version (with his deep, sonorous tones, that sublime orchestration and that stereophonic sound) of the near definitive Christmas song is pretty much as good as it gets this time of year. And, yes, I mean as good as anything gets this time of year.

Wow? Perhaps the most iconic ingredient of The Christmas Song is its lyrics, but according to writer Tormé they were never intended as such; they were actually notes he jotted down merely to get him in the mood for writing the song on a blistering hot summer’s day (‘Chestnuts roasting… Jack Frost nipping… Yuletide carols… Folks dressed up like Eskimos’). Apparently, just 40 minutes later, every word of the song was written.

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1. White Christmas ~ Bing Crosby (1947)
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What? It is, and could only be, Bing singing the one and only White Christmas – it is the biggest selling song of all-time, after all

Why? This is the definitive Christmas song, no question. Although, it’s not actually the first version, which was recorded in May 1942; this 1947 version effectively replaced that one as the ‘original’, owing to the former’s master copy becoming damaged due to being overplayed. Accompanied by the Trotter Orchestra and the Darby Singers, Crosby’s deep, smooth, perfect delivery of the lyrics which, like the music, drip with nostalgia and melancholy, ensured the tune became hugely popular during the war-ravaged 1940s and then, well, forever after.

Wow? Covered a ludicrous number of times by countless different artists, White Christmas is definitely the biggest selling song ever (estimates put the number at around 100 million copies), but Crosby’s version is also the biggest selling single ever (having shifted around 50 million copies). However, for its first few weeks on release, it was outperformed on the US charts by Be Careful, It’s My Heart, another song from Holiday Inn (1942), the film in which it originally featured. Moreover, it had been initially planned that Crosby’s co-star in the movie Marjorie Reynolds would sing the song alone and not as a duet with him, which was how the scene (which effectively constitutes the song’s ‘video’) eventually played out. Ah, just how different history – and all our Christmases – could have been…

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One Comment leave one →
  1. December 25, 2014 11:34 am

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts. I truly appreciate your efforts and I will
    be waiting for your next write ups thanks once again.

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