Not so fast: Overlooked albums of 2011

by Ryan Snyder

Thundercat — The Golden Age of Apocalypse

As the son and brother respectively to the prolific Bruner line of jazz drummers, bassist Steve “Thundercat” Bruner has the pedigree of a brilliant musician, that much is for certain. On his solo debut The Golden Age of Apocalypse, he spins it into what can best be called “grown-man’s funk.” Produced by electronic music wunderkind Flying Lotus, it’s a significant departure from his work over the last decade playing bass with thrash-punk legends Suicidal Tendencies. Equal parts jazz and electronica, Thundercat’s amazingly fluid bass sound is both a throwback to the glistening fusion of Tutu-era Miles Davis, a love letter to late-night quiet storm groove, and a treatise on jazz music in the era of Abletons and mp3s. It light and poppy, dense and cerebral all at once. Above all, it’s a head-spinning statement from easily one of the best young bass players alive.

Juicy J & Lex Luger — Rubba Band Business 2

“You say no to drugs, Juicy J can’t,” the Three 6 Mafia leader raps on Rubba Band Business 2, his second collaborative mixtape with perpetually stoned beatmaker-for-the-stars Lex Luger. The sprawling release’s 28 tracks are an ode to a Caligulan level of debauchery, all of which come off as just another day in the life of Juicy J — “We trippy, mane!, he constantly reminds. But if Snoop Dogg is like the cool uncle that you want to get stoned with, then the 36-year old Juicy is the one you want nowhere near your kids. When he’s not rapping about the collegian visitors to his hotel room, his gallantry in the face of the other Red Menace or the famous names he claims as neighbors, he’s rattling off a stream of substances that may or may not have been present in his bloodstream at the time, (…marijuana/ you can do it if you wanna). Rubba Band Business 2 has more nasty quotables than a full season of “Eastbound & Down” that range from a Luther Campbell-level of vulgarity to straight-up brilliant ignorance that he wields like Garry Kasparov does doubled pawns. Sure, it’s easy to pass disdainful judgment on something like this, but remember: Juicy J has an Academy Award. Do you?

Black Joe Lewis & the Honeybears — Scandalous

While Gary Clark, Jr. was busy pulling in all the accolades as the young savior of black blues music in 2011, Joe Lewis put out an album that recalled a vastly different segment of it. As Clark was positioning himself as the heir apparent to Buddy Guy and Otis Rush, the second album by the young Austin, Texas axe slinger and his impossibly funky band take blues back to the salacious days of Theodis Ealey and Marvin Sease. Songs like “Booty City” and “Black Snake,” where he’s not talking reptiles, speak for themselves. The album’s highlight, however, is a narrative romp inspired by “One Bourbon, One Scotch, One Beer” called “Mustang Ranch” that finds Lewis and co. holed up in the titular Nevada cathouse with Lewis and bassist Bill Stevenson, bearing only $20 between them, trying to get, err, their hams glazed. Instrumentally, it’s the rawest of roadhouse music, and it’ll rip your throat out as quick as it moves your booty.

Cass McCombs — Wit’s End

As shadowy artistic personas go, itinerant folk singer Cass McCombs is the Jesus of Inscrutable. To say that his first full-length release of 2011, Wit’s End, (Humor Risk was the other, released in November) was bleak would be like saying that being buried alive is just one way to meet your maker. He tackles that very subject on Wit’s End with a puppeteer’s grace, turning a topic so absolutely mortifying into music that’s haunting and elegant. He has a gift for nuance, no doubt reflected by the tellingly placed apostrophe in the album’s title. He channels it not only through his lyrics, but through his curious choices of instruments. Peculiar choices of instrumentation, notably the chalameau, portatif, celesta and bass clarinet, make noteworthy impressions, but it’s McCombs militant verse structure that make Wit’s End such an intriguing listen.

David Sylvian — Died in the Wool

Former Japan frontman David Sylvian’s solo career has been a series of increasingly bold choices since the synth-pop band formally disbanded in 1982. Using his 2009 release Manafon as the mash for an expanded, two-disc set Died in the Wool, he crafts an expansive set that’s as stark as it is sublime. It can be looked upon as free jazz with a melodic structure that speaks to his pop roots as easily as it could be seen as a folk-pop work with a free jazz foundation. Either way, it challenges the novice’s preconceptions of what a song can be and is destined to be loved by open-minded jazz fans for a long time to come.