EW chooses Ray Charles's best works -- See what EW thought about ''The Genius of Ray Charles,'' ''Ultimate Hits Collection,'' and others

By David Browne
Updated June 25, 2004 at 04:00 AM EDT

EW chooses Ray Charles’s best works

The Genius of Ray Charles (Atlantic, 1959) On a striking early set that cushions the supple grit of his voice against lush-life strings and thundering horns (the latter courtesy of young arranger and lifelong friend Quincy Jones), Charles morphs into the black Sinatra, especially when overhauling a standard like ”It Had to Be You.” His near-definitive version of Johnny Mercer and Harold Arlen’s devotional ”Come Rain or Come Shine” is astonishingly intimate; it sounds as if Charles and his honey of the moment were the only ones in the studio. B+

Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music (Rhino, 1962) An African-American jazz-R&B singer-pianist recording an entire album of covers of Nashville standards…and in 1962? The results could be awfully schmaltzy — someone gag that recurring lounge-Muzak backup choir! — but there’s no denying the way this album rewrote the rules on what one was supposed to do, or not, in popular music. Too bad Hank Williams didn’t live to hear the way Charles lent an even heavier sense of heartache to the Hank-associated ”Half as Much.” B+

The Best of Ray Charles: The Atlantic Years (Rhino, 1994) A key collection of the vivacious, self-confident blend of soul, big-band jazz, and gospel holler for which he was initially known. All of his ’50s signature hits — the strutting ”I’ve Got a Woman,” the electric-piano vamp ”What’d I Say (Part I),” the horny ”(Night Time Is) The Right Time” — are here. Even at his most forlorn, on ”Lonely Avenue” and ”Drown in My Own Tears,” Charles sounds down but never out, and the music conjures visions of juke-joint swing-blues performed in the swankiest club in town. A

Ultimate Hits Collection (Rhino, 1999) Covering three decades, this double-disc overview offers the broadest sampling of his career and is a must-own for its hefty chunk of his pivotal ’60s work for ABC-Paramount. Fully unleashing the mixmaster within, Charles on ABC leapt from roadhouse R&B (”Hit the Road Jack,” ”Unchain My Heart”) to even wilder country makeovers (the funkiest ”You Are My Sunshine” you’ll ever hear) to a 1972 rendition of ”America the Beautiful” that evoked both the country’s then-ravaged spirit and its eternal hopefulness. A