The Fifteen Best Ry Cooder Records, and Why You Should Drop Everything and Study Them Now

Ry Cooder has put out, by quick reference, over 80 albums, collaborations, and soundtracks over his 50-year career. Along that time he has innovated technically (his 1979 record Bop Till You Drop was the first DDD album – recorded, mixed and mastered digitally!) and musically (his direct influence on the Rolling Stones, Little Feat, and Captain Beefheart is clear and undeniable). He also introduced many musical geniuses to the world stage – Flaco Jimenez, Gabby Pahinui, Ali Farka Toure, and the whole Buena Vista Social Club, for example. AND his soundtrack work in the 1980s painted memorable moments in Paris, Texas and a dozen or so other movies (I particularly enjoyed Alamo Bay and, yes, Crossroads).

His playing runs the gamut from acoustic stomps to electric firestorms and was always rooted in the American tradition, and in spite of being a masterful technician, the emotional content always reigns supreme.

In addition to the musicians mentioned and implied above, Ry Cooder has worked with many of the finest songwriters and musicians in the world. The list includes Taj Mahal, Neil Young, The Monkees, John Hiatt, Randy Newman, Jim Keltner, Van Dyke Parks, David Lindley, Chaka Khan, Earl Hines, Milt Holland, and on and on.

Cutting this down to 25 seems more appropriate, and easier in many ways, but I think 15 seems a more manageable amount, so let’s dig in shall we?

The Fifteen Best Ry Cooder Records

15. Jamming with Edward! (Let It Bleed sessions, 1969, with Nicky Hopkins, Mick Jagger, Bill Wyman, Charlie Watts) (1972)
Apparently, Keith didn’t much care for Ry being in the Let It Bleed sessions as support guitarist, and he walked out in a bit of a huff. So the stones plus Ry and Nikki Hopkins jammed some stuff out anyway with the tape rolling. It’s too much of a jam to be higher on the list, but it is a very enjoyable listen. (Ry ended up playing some mandolin on Let It Bleed, and some slide on Sticky Fingers)

14. Paradise and Lunch (May 1974)
This album is archetypal Ry Cooder – great guitar playing, throughout, and a couple of my favorite songs – “It’s All Over Now,” “A Married Man’s a Fool,” “A Fool for a Cigarette.” The playful “Ditty Wah Ditty” is the most memorable track, featuring Earl Hines on the piano.

13. Rising Sons featuring Taj Mahal and Ry Cooder with Rising Sons (recorded 1965/66, released 1992)
These guys were friends coming up and had a band together before they went off and got famous (another Rising Son, Kevin Kelley, went on to be in the Byrds and play on Sweetheart of the Rodeo!). This record, produced by Terry Melchor, has a spirited vibe, and includes several songs that became staples of Taj’s set – “Take A Giant Step,” and “Corrine, Corinna.” Other Fun tracks are Rev Gary Davis’ “Candy Man,” Earl King’s “Let The Good Times Roll,” and Bob Dylan’s “Walking Down the Line.”

12. Boomer’s Story (November 1972)
Certainly, a personal favorite – The title track is one of my go to numbers when confronted with a slide and need to sing a song. There is some aspirational guitar tone throughout, acoustic and electric, and his mandolin playing on “Ax Sweet Mama” is sublime. “Crow Black Chicken,” and “President Kennedy” (featuring Sleepy John Estes’ vocal) are a couple of standouts on a record that is pretty great throughout.

11. Get Rhythm (November 1987)
Holy shit, the slide playing on the title track. And Flaco. On a Johnny Cash tune. The rest of the record is fantastic and features a more experimental bent than many of the 70s records – probably due to everything he was learning from all of the soundtrack work. “Okinawa,” “All Shook Up,” and “I Can Tell by the Way You Smell,” are all classic Ry, and Harry Dean Stanton singing on “Across the Borderline” is the icing on the cake.

10. Chávez Ravine (May 2005)
Nominated for “Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Folk Album” in 2006, this album tackles the story of a Los Angeles Mexican-American community demolished in the 1950s. It is enjoyable to see Ry spread out into a full long form story – so many of his other records being compilations of covers and originals, this one stands out. And every instrument sounds fantastic. You should listen to it all the way through, but if you want to sample a track, I love the Tom Waits-y “It’s Just Work for Me.”

9. Bop Till You Drop (August 1979)
The first digitally recorded major-label album in popular music! In 1979! This record is just a whole lot of fun – the band is a very rocking outfit, the arrangements are tight and straight ahead, and the singing and harmonies are amazing. “The Very Thing That Makes You Rich (Makes Me Poor)” is one of my favorite track of all time. I misremember it at ” the very thing that makes me rich makes me poor,” but no matter. Listen to that damn guitar breakdown. And the duet with Chaka Khan, “Don’t Mess Up a Good Thing,” is predictably fantastic. And “Down in Hollywood,” is perfectly grimy.

8. Ry Cooder (December 1970)
The self-titled debut. That stabby guitar on “Alimony” hooks me right off the bat. If this record only had that tune and Blind Willie Johnson’s “Dark is the Night” it would be a masterpiece. But it has so much more – the depression classic “One Meatball,” Woody Guthrie’s “Do Re Mi,” and “How Can a Poor Man Stand Such Times and Live?” “Police Dog Blues is an incredible performance. He is joined, amongst other long time friends like producer Van Dyke Parks, percussionist Milt Holland, and bassist by Chris Ethridge, by Richie Hayward and Roy Estrada from Little Feat. Oh and that Airstream on the album cover.

7. Talking Timbuktu (1994) (with Ali Farka Touré)
I have to give a little Shout out to my buddy George Brainard. I had missed this record, and he played it for me, and I’ve never been the same. Track 3, “Gomni,” is my favorite, and you probably recognize Track 10, “Diaraby,” from NPR. Put this record on and be transported, I dare you.

6. I, Flathead (June 2008)
“Drive Like I Never Been Hurt.” This sentiment is classic Ry Cooder and is the lead off track on this album. The third album in a trilogy started with Chavez Ravine and continued in 2007s My Name is Buddy (also a fantastic record, but hey I had to cut some). This album uses more bass, guitar, drums, keys arrangements, and is a little more electric than the other two parts of the trilogy, and thus is a move back to a more playful form. Check out “Steel Guitar Heaven,” if you think your guitar playing is pretty good lately – it’ll fix your head.

5. Little Village (1992)
The supergroup. With Ry, John Hiatt, Nick Lowe, and Jim Keltner. I remember seeing them on Letterman. The hits were “Solar Sex Panel” and “Don’t Go Away Mad.” I always find myself singing “Do You Want My Job,” even today, so clearly that is a great song. If you don’t already know this record there is a lot to learn from it, so get on it.

4. Into the Purple Valley (February 1972)
For me, perhaps this should top the list. It is the record most likely to be out of its sleeve and on the turntable – in spite of just as many listens as every other record. But alas, it is not number 1, merely number 4. Every track is fantastic, from “How Can You Keep Moving (Unless You Migrate Too)” to Woody Guthrie’s “Vigilante Man.” I want to play mandolin like he does on “Billy the Kid.” I need to practice, and you all need to listen to this record.

3. Buena Vista Social Club (September 1997)
What number three? Why? How? If you disagree, make your own list. An amazing record, as you all know since you have heard it twice a week or so since it came out in 1997. Perhaps you own one or two of the 12 million copies of the CD sold. It is great, a non-risible record as my father would say (meaning you can’t make fun of it). I love the way the band plays the tunes and the exciting rhythms and melodies, and I especially love how Ry tastefully carves out a space to call his own in the middle of all of that musical heritage.

2. Paris, Texas (February 1985)Ry Cooder Paris Texas
Sam Shepard died this week, and he wrote this movie, which is prolly why I started thinking about doing a post on Ry Cooder. RIP, Sam. This soundtrack is everything in the whole world – you can hear the windings on the strings as that slide settles across. Loneliness cascades along with the isolation of the characters and the setting. Beautiful. (check out this scene for great writing, acting, music and filmmaking).

1. Chicken Skin Music (October 1976)
I won’t go along track by track on this post – I plan to do a Listen Along post in a week or two – but I will say the song selection is sublime. “He’ll Have to Go,” “Yellow Roses,” and the nastiest “Goodnight Irene” of all time have all provided me with hours of mystery and joy. This album marked the debut to the national stage of both accordion wizard Flaco Jiménez and master of the slack-key guitar Gabby Pahinui, both of whom are national treasures. And Ry’s playing is as good as it gets. I get chicken skin from music rarely – the performance has to be perfect – yet this album delivers every time.

Bonus Performances

As if that wasn’t enough, here are a few examples of Ry Cooder sitting in with other bands of note.
Safe as Milk (1967) with Captain Beefheart

Head (1968) with The Monkees

Sticky Fingers (1971) with The Rolling Stones

Little Feat (1971) with Little Feat

If you’re a fan of Ry Cooder, you’ll likely enjoy Zirque Bois d’Arc’s The Fall Will Probably Kill You, or Extended Play by The Fence Cutters.

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