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A master of America's music

These, in chronological order, are my picks for the Top 10, greatest film scores I've ever heard:

*Elmer Bernstein's music for "Man With the Golden Arm."

*Leonard Rosenman's music for "Rebel Without a Cause"

*Bernard Herrman's music for "Vertigo."

*Duke Ellington's music for "Anatomy of a Murder."

*Miklos Rosza's music for "Ben-Hur."

*Ennio Morricone's music for "Once Upon a Time in America."

*Ry Cooder's music for "Paris, Texas."

*David Newman's score for "Hoffa."

*Trevor Jones' music for "Last of the Mohicans."

*Carter Burwell's music for "Fargo."

It's a tougher subject than you think because so many of the greatest film scores don't seem that way when you're watching the film. They fully emerge only when you hear recordings of them.

Two of those that leap immediately to mind are Miles Davis' incredibly haunting music to Louis Malle's thriller "Elevator to the Scaffold" and Leonard Bernstein's music to "On the Waterfront" (a score so rich that Columbia Pictures blithely -- and legally -- plundered it for the soundtrack to other, vastly lesser movies).

Of them all, the most radical departures were Elmer Bernstein's driving, semihysterical jazz score for "Man With The Golden Arm" and Ry Cooder's minimalist slide guitar blues preludes for "Paris, Texas," music for a sort of desert melancholy that was copied a few times a week somewhere for the next 20 years (often, and appallingly, as dry cactus music in TV commercials.)

I mention all this because Cooder's astonishing "Paris, Texas" music is the only thing that seems to be given short shrift in one of my favorite disc anthologies of the preholiday season, "The UFO Has Landed: The Ry Cooder Anthology" (Warner/Rhino, two discs).

The liner notes are by Canadian poet and novelist Michael Ondaatje ("The English Patient," "Coming Through Slaughter"), which should surprise no one who suspects that Cooder has always been one of those musicians whose sensibility seems almost as literary as it does musical (a fact confirmed when his last disc, "I, Flathead" came with a piece of fiction attached.)

Cooder's siblings in that regard are an odd lot. They even include America's greatest gum-chewing, checkered jacket Dadaist Spike Jones, whose avant-musical clowning was so beloved that one great Jones anthology on disc even brought Thomas Pynchon out of hiding to do the liner notes.

Ondaatje's notes begin this way: "Who do you go to at 3 a.m. if you want to learn to play guitar like Sleepy John Estes . . . According to stories, it was the ever-curious Bob Dylan who needed the information and needed to call. For Cooder, apart from being a great guitarist, is this wondrous, universal and historical fly-catcher plant and musical encyclopedist who lives in Santa Monica."

And that's what's mind-addling about "The UFO Has Landed." You'll find snatches of all kind of roots music on it: Delta blues, Western Swing, Polka, Tex-Mex Cantina ballads, rockabilly, roadhouse raunch, Country and Western and, at the very end, bless him, Elvis' own "Little Sister" ("Don't you do what your big sister done").

Along with as much slide guitar blues eloquence as you'll find in our time (Bonnie Raitt is musical kin), you've also got Cooder's voice which is that of a boilermaker jokester one bar stool away from Charles Bukowski.

How did Cooder write the music for Louis Malle's film "Alamo Bay?" Cooder, the minimalist poet, explains: "Louis Malle said, 'Make me sound like John Ford, make me sound Chinese, make me sound good. I said, 'We get it for you Louis.' "

And does he ever -- always.

-mail: jsimon@buffnews.com

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