BORN TO FOLKLORIST PARENTS, Ry Cooder’s penchant for historically
informed forays into traditional American music was already evident in
the folk and blues covers chosen for his debut solo album. During the
intervening years, his interests broadened to encompass R&B,
gospel, country, Dixieland, Tex-Mex, Hawaiian, and numerous other
Cooder has also collaborated with artists throughout the world—most famously on the Buena Vista Social Club projects—and the following are highly recommend: Ry Cooder & V.M.Bhatt, A Meeting by the River (1993); Ali Farka Toure with Ry Cooder, Talking Timbuktu (1994); and Ronu Majumdar/Jon Hassell/Ry Cooder, Hollow Bamboo (2000).
Into The Purple Valley, 1972
Cooder’s follow-up to his debut focuses on Dust Bowl-era music while upping the virtuosity factor. Chockablock with wonderful acoustic and electric guitar playing and tones—including contributions by Bahamian master picker Joseph Spence—this album has it all, and it remains one of Cooder’s most popular recordings.
Music by Ry Cooder, 1995
Cooder’s numerous film soundtracks contain some of his most evocative work. This double-CD compilation provides a nice overview, and it includes the classic “Paris Texas” theme.
Mambo Sinuendo, 2003
Though technically a collaboration with Cuban “surf” guitarist Manuel Galban, this is one of Cooder’s finest albums ever. Both players dish up amazing rhythm and solo work, but it is the uncanny interaction between Galban’s ’60s Telecaster and Cooder’s ’59 Guyatone that elevates nearly every composition to twanguero heaven.
Ry Cooder, 1970
Cooder’s debut combines quirky folk and blues covers with one original. The guitar playing is first rate, particularly the haunting slide work on Blind Willie Johnson’s immortal “Dark is the Night.”
Boomer’s Story, 1972
Essentially a continuation of Into the Purple Valley, the song selection is equally strong, and there’s lots of brilliant acoustic and electric playing throughout. Sleepy John Estes’ picking adds soul to “President Kennedy,” and the moody instrumental version of “The Dark End of the Street” is one of Cooder’s best performances ever.
Paradise and Lunch, 1974
Considered by many to be the finest album in the Cooder canon, Paradise ups the gospel and R&B content in his stylistic gumbo. Highlights include the crisp rhythm and slide guitar interactions on “A Married Man’s a Fool,” and the awesome flatpicking on “Ditty Wah Ditty.”
Chicken Skin Music, 1976
Perhaps Cooder’s boldest multi-cultural mélange, Chicken features Hawaiian maestros Gabby Pahinui and Atta Isaacs (on steel and slack-key guitars, respectively) and Tex-Mex accordion master Flaco Jimenez covering an absurdly diverse repertoire with killer guitar playing throughout.
Bop Till You Drop, 1979
Despite its more commercially conscious and less-adventurous approach, Bop contains some very tasty guitar work by both Cooder and David Lindley. If you dig soulful vocals and smooth grooves, this one’s sure to please, but the emphasis is not on 6-string wizardry.
Cooder has largely disowned this curious disc of Ragtime and Vaudeville tunes, and while not exactly tired, it is a major departure from his other work.
The Slide Area, 1982
Opening with the disco spoof “UFO Has Landed in the Ghetto,” Cooder is largely treading water on Slide—though the funky picking on “Mama Don’t Treat Your Daughter Mean,” and the ripping slide work on “Blue Suede Shoes,” testify to Cooder’s continuing guitar prowess.