Speaking personally, Ry Cooder is one of the most important musical influences in my lifetime.
Cooder's music has, for me, been the perfect entry point for many genres and styles, from an introduction to the early (often blind!) blues masters such as Blind Willie McTell, Sleepy John Estes and Blind Willie Johnson, via a treasure trove of US folk lineage (Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger) as well as gospel, Tex-Mex, Hawaiian and Bahamian styles. He then collaborated with African musicians including Malian guitar maestro Ali FarkaTouré, teamed with Hindustani classical musician V.M. Bhatt, and perhaps most celebrated of all, Cuba's 'Buena Vista Social Club', an enterprise which also cost him a $25,000 dollar fine for violating the US embargo against Cuba.
His film scores are legendary, not least 'Paris Texas' and 'Southern Comfort' and his recent solo albums have offered more of an allegorical, sociopolitical bent, with tracks such as 'No Banker Left Behind' positioning his political beliefs firmly centre stage.
Here are 10 of his greatest albums. It's a random and esoteric choice. There is much more where this came from...
1 Bop Til You Drop
The first digitally recorded album (1979) is a delightfully upbeat grab-bag of 50s and 60s covers and r’n’b. From a rousing interpretation of Elvis’ gospel-flavoured ‘Little Sister’ to instrumental slide-fest‘It’s Gonna Work Out Fine’, where he trades licks with David Lindley, it demonstrates why Cooderwas ranked eighth on Rolling Stone’s 2003 list of 100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time. Coodertruly finds his voice on this album, not least on the spirited workout with ChakaKhan – ‘Don’t Mess Up a Good Thing’. Critical acclaim was widespread, given the stellar line-up of iconic musicians gathered on the album. Healthy sales elevated him to a new level, to a point where he was able to sell out eight consecutive nights at Hammersmith Odeon.
2 Paris Texas
By the early '80s, Cooderhad become one of the most prolific film soundtrack composers. This mesmerising album and its title song was based on Blind Willie Johnson’s ‘Dark Was The Night’, which he described as "the most soulful, transcendent piece in all American music”. David Lindley and Jim Dickinson’s shimmering touches add to the wide-screen soundscapes of intrigue and desolation, whilst Harry Dean Stanton’s vocal on ‘CancionMixteca’ is the jewel in the crown. Be sure to check out Cooder’s soundtrack to ‘Southern Comfort’ too.
3 Into The Purple Valley
Cooder’s second album is a roots manifesto, introducing him as a master curator of the sort of material many new listeners never dreamed existed, opening the door to Woody Guthrie, Bahamian legend Joseph Spence (who influenced Coodergreatly over the years), US blues masters and calypso standards. The album's front cover is number 12 on Rolling Stone's 100 Greatest Album Covers.
4 Paradise and Lunch
Cooder’s fourth album is filled with treasures from a musical world where eras and styles blend without ever sounding forced or contrived. A diverse range of jazz, blues and roots standards meld together with surprising ease. ‘Tamp Em Up Solid’s railroad mythology opens, and the salvation army-style march of ‘Jesus on The Mainline’ has become iconic in his repertoire.
5 The Prodigal Son
2018’s welcome comeback heralds a much-anticipated return to form – and to the road - for 71 year old Cooder. His son Joachim’s concept to revisit the roots of earlier works has yielded a rich, textured album with a studio vibrance. The politics may be less direct, but Cooderstill manages a swipe at material excess, gentrification, climate change and fascism. The gospel flavour of Blind Alfred Reed’s ‘You Must Unload’ (featuring a fine violin solo from Aubrey Haine) and two Blind Willie Johnson covers deliver a strong statement of intent from one of American music’s greatest guardians.
6 Chicken Skin Music
The title is a playful nod to the Hawaiian expression for ‘goosebumps’ and the choice of material on this 1976 masterpiece doesn’t skimp on its shivers down the spine, featuring Cooderas a multi-instrumentalist – bajosexto, mandola, French accordion, tiple, slack-key guitar and of course, vocals. Gabby Pahinui-influencedslack key and steel guitar from Honolulu sit serenely alongside a first sighting of accordionist FlacoJimenez-led Tex Mex. Flacois also all over a glorious cover of ‘Stand By Me’.
7 Buena Vista Social Club
The debut album by the eponymous ensemble of Cuban musicians was directed by Juan de Marcos Gonzalez and Cooderin 1996 to revive the music of pre-revolutionary Cuba and released on the World Circuit label. Despite its success, it remains the only standard studio album exclusively credited to the Buena Vista Social Club. It showcases Cooderas a masterful curator, putting together 14 tracks in just six days, and has now sold over 12 million copies.
8 Boomers Story
Although much of this Jim Dickinson / Lenny Waronkerproduced third album from 1972 is downbeat and bluesy - such as his fine side-guitar instrumental version of ‘Dark End of The Street - there are some exalted moments from the pantheon of American music here. The syncopated shuffle of ‘Cherry Ball Blues’ introduces a polyrhythmic dexterity that chimes with the emergent Americana zeitgeist of the time, whilst ‘Crow Black Chicken’ is playful and ridiculously funky.
9 Talking Timbuktu
Cooder’s 1994 meeting with Malianguitar maestro Ali FarkaTouréfeatures in the book ‘1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die’ and is probably the only example of ‘desert blues’ to grace its pages. Cooder’s stripped down production transports the listener to a new frontier of cross-cultural collaboration, lending a joyous freewheeling quality to tracks such as ‘Soukora’, whilst ‘Ai Du’ is rooted in the blues.
10 Ry Cooder
After attempts at stardom in The Rising Sons in 1965 (with bandmates Taj Mahal and Ed Cassidy, who later formed Spirit), Cooder appeared on sessions with artists such as Captain Beefheart, Randy Newman, Little Feat and Van Dyke Parks. It was a natural evolution to his first album. It demonstrates his mastery at blending social-consciousness vocals and tasteful guitar licks with a compelling storyline song, such as on the Depression-era styled blues classic ‘Police Dog Blues’ and Blind Alfred Reed’s ‘How Can a Poor Man Stand Such Times and Live’.
Thanks to @Kate Edgley for sub editing x