I chose the title I did because Ry Cooder has displayed such consistent excellence over so many forms of modern music. As an indication of his versatility, he has partnered with such artists as The Rolling Stones, Taj Mahal, Mavis Staples, Van Morrison, Randy Newman and The Buena Vista Social Club. And that is a highly incomplete list.
He has been at it since 1967, a time when bigger, splashier acts were grabbing all the attention. Still, Cooder managed to grab enough of it for himself that I knew who he was by 1973. Keep in mind, I was in the Army through 1972, where the choice of ambient music was often one between bad and really bad. I heard his 1972 album (which was his second), Into the Purple Valley, and knew I was listening to a very talented voyageur on the road less travelled.
Into the Purple Valley is one of my favorite Ry Cooder albums, but I would not quite put it at the top of my list. Mind you, it is excellent, but ahead of it in overall quality, I would rate Paradise and Lunch (1974), Chicken Skin Music (1976), Bop Till You Drop (1979) and Jazz, a mostly but not entirely instrumental album he put out in 1978. On the Jazz album, if we did not already know, we learn what a remarkable guitarist he is.
If I felt I could only put you, the highly skeptical reader, on to one of his albums, I would recommend you give Paradise and Lunch a listen, even if it means having to go out and buy the thing. Not only does this album clearly demonstrate Cooder’s versatiltiy, it does so with some of the classiest stuff you would hope to hear.
There are some sort-of well-known songs on the album, such as Bobby and Shirley Womack’s “It’s All Over Now” (Not to be confused with Dylan’s “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue.”), and Arthur Blake’s wonderfully hip, “Ditty Wah Ditty,” which I someday hope to muster up the courage to sing at a piano bar.
Oh, and did I mention that Mr. Cooder tends to surround himself with some top-notch musicians in their won right? Earl “Fatha” HInes plays piano on that “Ditty Wah Ditty” number.
Also on this album is a straight-ahead presentation of the gospel song, “Jesus on the Mainline,” a raucous song called “If Walls Could Talk” and an entire bunch of really fine blues, the best of which, I think, is J.B. Lenoir’s “Feelin’ Good.” Trust me, it’s all quality stuff, every track.
Perhaps the ultimate and classiest representation of Cooder’s creative exploration is one of the best concert DVDs I ever saw, The Buena Vista Social Club. Our subject cheerfully plays sideman to a number of spledid Cuban musicians, but it is plain to see he is the one who made the experience happen. You should really check it out.
I do not mean to imply that Ry Cooder was one of those “one-decade wonders.” He has stayed active and creative, even to this day. His latest album, I, Flathead, is highly not bad.
I would not quite go so far as to recommend every album Ry Cooder put out or participated in, although none are horrible, but the overwhelming majority of the stuff he has put out over the years has been excellent.