Essentials: The Top 10 Ry Cooder Albums

Ry Cooder August 2015

Ry Cooder occupies a very special place in the canon of Americana, as an instrumentalist, songwriter, collaborator across many genres and interpreter of American traditional music. A highly rated guitarist, especially on slide where he is undoubtedly one of the world’s best, Cooder also excels on mandolin. He first emerged as a member of Rising Sons, whose recordings from 1965/66 were released in 1992, and subsequently featured on Taj Mahal’s 1968 self-titled first solo release, after credits on Captain Beefheart’s ‘Safe as Milk’ in 1967.

There are several albums that on a different day would feature in my top 10, notably ‘Paradise and Lunch’ and ‘Jazz’, and have a look at Wikipedia to see the extraordinary number and scope of his other collaborations and film scores, so much more to explore.

My listing is chronological, rather than trying to find a way to rank such treasures!

Number 10: ‘Ry Cooder’

His self titled debut album was released in 1970, establishing a unique niche from the start, as an interpreter of traditional American songs, with new arrangements centred on his rhythm and slide guitar, and mandolin, and always with an eye on the hardships of the downtrodden, a continuing theme of his music throughout his career. With highlights including ‘Dark is the Night’, his instrumental reworking of the Blind Willie Johnson composition previewing his later ‘Paris, Texas’ recordings, and ‘One Meat Ball’, recorded by Josh White and the Andrews Sisters in the mid 1940’s, the tale of the lone diner who could only afford that meagre repast, my choice is ‘How Can a Poor Man Stand Such Times and Live’ written and recorded by Blind Alfred Reed in 1929, reflecting the impact of the Great Depression on the poor.

Number 9: ‘Into the Purple Valley’ 

Cooder’s second release in 1972 rates amongst his finest work, again mining traditional songs or songs from different genres to fine effect. ‘F.D.R. in Trinidad’ is a nod to the breadth of his musicality, a reworking of a Trinidadian calypso recorded by the wonderfully named Attila the Hun, while ‘Teardrops Will Fall’ is a wistfully sung ballad which transforms the 1959 duo wop original by Dicky Doo and the Don’ts. My selection from this album —and it could have been any one of its 11 tracks—is ‘Billy the Kid’, a traditional song, first recorded by Vernon Dalhart in 1927 as a waltz on guitar and harmonica, transformed by Cooder into a percussive number on mandolin and guitar, telling of the outlaws life as folk hero.

Number 8:  ‘Boomers Story’

Following later in 1972, ‘Boomers Story’ effectively forms the final part of a trilogy, following the model of its predecessors in re-imagining traditional songs, with a leaning to the humorous—‘Crow Black Chicken’, and sensitively drawing emotion, as on ‘Rally ‘Round the Flag’, a Civil War song, and ‘Coming in on a Wing and a Prayer’, with an arrangement leaning towards New Orleans.

The album features three instrumentals, all perfect renditions ‘Cherry Ball Blues’, ‘Maria Elena’ with hints of Cooders later work with a Tex Mex flavour, and ‘Dark End of the Street’ written by Chips Moman and Dan Penn and first recorded by James Carr, a classic soul number which Cooder transforms to a sensitive piano and slide guitar instrumental.

Number 7: ‘Chicken Skin Music

Released in 1976, undoubtedly one of Cooder’s best,  highlights include his reworking of the Jim Reeves ballad ‘He’ll Have to Go’ with a bolero rhythm, ‘Stand By Me’ rendered as a soul ballad, both with fabulous accordion from Flaco Jimenez, and ‘Always Lift Him Up/ Kanaka Wai Wai’, another Blind Alfred Reed composition.

Number 6: ‘Bop Till You Drop’ 

Released in 1979, the album was the first digitally recorded major-label album in popular music, and finds Cooder revisiting some more lesser-known tracks to fine effect, notably opening track ‘Little Sister’, an Elvis Presley original, ‘Go Home’ Girl’, an Arthur Alexander original now with a Tex Mex feel, and ‘I Can’t Win’, a soul classic with a wonderful lead vocal from Bobby King over a trademark chilled Cooder track.

Number 5: ‘Borderline’

From 1980, ‘Borderline’ features established collaborators John Hiatt and Jim Keltner, among his ‘A’ list band, who featured with Nick Lowe in the one-album supergroup Little Village. Including a John Hiatt composition, ‘The Way We Make a Broken Heart’, and a Cooder original instrumental ‘Borderline’, ‘634-5789’ is a soul classic composed by Eddie Floyd and Steve Cropper and originally recorded by Wilson Picket, here given a fine up-tempo treatment.

Number 4: ‘Paris, Texas’ 

Perhaps the recording that Cooder is best known for, his soundtrack for the Wim Wenders movie starring Harry Dean Stanton and Nastassja Kinski centres around his atmospheric slide guitar instrumental, with ambient sounds capturing the sound of the desert. Based on Blind Willie Johnson’s ‘Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground’, Cooder described the original as “the most transcendent piece in all American music”, having recorded a version himself on his debut album, as noted above.

Number 3: ‘Get Rhythm’

A fine album, released in 1987, with Cooders usual ‘A’ list support including Flaco Jimenez on accordion, Jim Keltner on drums and Van Dyke Parks on keys, highlights include Cooder’s version of the Elvis classic ‘All Shook Up’, and the title track, originally recorded by Johnny Cash, but the standout track is ‘Across the Borderline’ a Cooder original (with Jim Dickinson and John Hiatt), a gentle ballad reflecting on the sad reality of many migrants journeys to the USA, with a glorious slide instrumental, and vocals shared with Harry Dean Stanton. One of my desert island discs.

Number 2: ‘Buena Vista Social Club’ 

Vying with the soundtrack to Paris, Texas as his best-known work, ‘Buena Vista Social Club’  is a collaboration with Cuban musicians recorded in six days in 1996, and released the following year. Cooder plays guitars, oud and percussion, but the upfront stars of the show are Eliades Ochoa, Compay Segundo, Ibrahim Ferrer, Ruben Gonzalez and a full supporting cast of Cuba’s finest on brass, percussion, bass and guitar, with the 14 tracks including Cuban son, boleros, and jam session descarga. Every track is a winner, here is ‘Dos Gardenias Para Ti’, a bolero, sung by Ferrer.

Number 1: ‘The Prodigal Son’ 

For his most recent solo release (in 2022 he released a collaboration with Taj Mahal, Get On Board’), from 2018, Cooder returns to the roots of his successful gospel-tinged releases, with son Joachim on percussion and sharing production credits. Songs include a couple by Blind Willie Johnson, ‘Everybody Ought to Treat a Stranger Right’ and ‘Nobody’s Fault But Mine’, but the stand out track here is ‘Straight Street’, an uplifting gospel number.

About David Jarman 116 Articles
Long time fan of Americana genre, from early days of Ry Cooder, through to today's thriving scene. Regular visitor to USA ( Nashville/Austin/Memphis/LA ) live music junkie, I play guitar, mandolin, harmonica, plus vocals, run monthly jam session in Broadstairs
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Martin Johnson

Hi Fred, a big part of the fun of these lists is the debate over what, to my mind, are ultimately subjective preferences. From my subjective point of view, I would have found room for “Paradise and Lunch”, and probably one of his story albums, “Chavez Ravine”.


That’s absolutely right but, due to an editing error, this came out in my name but the Feature belongs to Dave Jarman so hopefully it is being republished in his name, and you can make the point to him!!

P Hagger

I absolutely agree with Mr. Johnson, “Paradise & Lunch” has to be included & “Chavez Ravine” is definitely a strong contender. So much choice though !

Pete Feldon

Great list. Reminded me of some songs I had not listened to for a long time. I like it it better than the Apple Music list of Ry Cooder Essentials. This has 16 songs and the only one in common is Paris, Texas.