By Brian Ives
This month marks the 50th anniversary of Cream’s debut album, Fresh Cream. It wasn’t the first—or even second—classic band or major album that Clapton had been a part of. In 1963, Clapton joined a fledgling young British blues/R&B band called the Yardbirds (he replaced original guitarist Anthony “Top” Topham), and they put out the classic live album, Five Live Yardbirds. Soon, however, he would leave that band to join John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers for their classic Bluesbreakers with Eric Clapton album. Cream, though, was a band that Clapton formed with two equal talents: bassist/vocalist Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker.
In honor of the 50th anniversary of Cream’s debut, we decided to go through the entire Clapton catalog—solo albums, the Yardbirds, Cream, Derek & the Dominoes, Blind Faith, Delaney & Bonnie and one fateful film soundtrack—and select the best song on each. Feel free to disagree; tweet at us and tell us what we missed.
“Smokestack Lightning” from the Yardbirds’ Five Live Yardbirds (1964) – Eric Clapton’s guitar playing, in any era of his career, is obviously top-notch. But on Five Live Yardbirds it’s bursting with the energy of a young guy looking to prove himself, something Clapton never had to do again. This Howlin’ Wolf cover is one of the highlights of Five Live Yardbirds (an album that should be included on any list of the best live albums ever).
“I Ain’t Got You” from the Yardbirds’ For Your Love (1965) Clapton didn’t stick with the Yardbirds for too long (a pattern he’d follow with most of his bands), lasting just from 1963 – 1965. Of the studio sides he recorded with them, this is one of the best.
“Ramblin’ on My Mind” from John Mayall and the Bluesbreakers’ Bluesbreakers with Eric Clapton (1966) After Clapton quit the Yardbirds, he joined John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers (which featured future Fleetwood Mac bassist John McVie) for one album. Even at such an early stage in his career, Clapton was such a big deal that they put his name in the album’s title. Mayall was the band’s singer, but Clapton took the lead vocals on this Robert Johnson number, showing off not only his skills as a guitarist, but also as a singer.
“Spoonful” from Cream’s Fresh Cream (1966) The Yardbirds and John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers offered different takes on the blues; Cream, however, was a more trailblazing band, taking the blues to new places via their improvisational jams. A perfect example is on this Willie Dixon song.
“Sunshine of Your Love” from Cream’s Disraeli Gears (1967) One of Cream’s, and Clapton’s, most iconic songs; the riff is one of the greatest in rock history. While Cream never wanted to be “blamed” for hard rock and metal, lots of bands in those genres see this era of Cream — who pre-dated Led Zeppelin — as ground zero, along with Jimi Hendrix. This song was co-written by Cream’s Jack Bruce and Eric Clapton, along with poet Pete Brown, and is one of Clapton’s first great original songs.
“White Room” from Cream’s Wheels of Fire (1968) Another crushing hard rock masterpiece from Cream. And another incredible riff.
“Badge” from Cream’s Goodbye (1969) Where the earlier Cream material was distorted hard rock, “Badge” was hint of what was to come from Clapton in the future: mellow vocals and a laid-back, clean riff. Clapton co-wrote this one with George Harrison.
“Presence of the Lord” from Blind Faith’s Blind Faith (1969) – “Can’t Find My Way Back Home” is the most popular song from the album, but this is a Clapton list – and Clapton wrote “Presence of the Lord.” It’s one of his best songwriting efforts. But we’ll give a strong honorable mention here to the album’s Winwood-composed opening track, “Had to Cry Today,” as well as, of course, “Can’t Find My Way Back Home.”
“Comin’ Home” from Delaney and Bonnie and Friends’ On Tour with Eric Clapton (1970) Delaney and Bonnie were the opening band for Blind Faith; Clapton often jammed with them, and when Blind Faith split up he joined the band for a tour. “Comin’ Home” was a song he co-wrote with Delaney and Bonnie Bramlett. The song pointed towards the rootsier, more Americana-influenced direction Clapton would soon go in.
“Let It Rain” from Eric Clapton (1970) Like Cream’s “Badge,” this song, co-written by Clapton with Delaney and Bonnie, was built around a clean guitar riff, and this one had a catchy chorus as well.
“Layla” from Derek and the Dominoes’ Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs (1970) This might be Clapton’s greatest album, and there are tons of amazing songs here, including “I Looked Away,” “Bell Bottom Blues,” “Keep on Growing,” “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out,” “Anyday” and “Tell the Truth,” among others. And while it’s always fun to be a contrarian and not go for the obvious, “Layla” is an undeniable masterpiece.
“I Shot the Sheriff” from 461 Ocean Boulevard (1974) Clapton’s comeback album showed the more laid back direction he’d spend much of his solo career in. And yes, this is an obvious choice, but Clapton’s cover of the Marley classic was great, and helped turn on a new audience to reggae music.
“The Sky is Crying” from There’s One in Every Crowd (1975) This was a mellow album, but Clapton showed that he could still burn the fretboard on blues classics, like this one by Elmore James.
“All Our Past Times” from No Reason to Cry (1976) This is one of the more underrated albums in Clapton’s solo catalog; there’s Bob Dylan’s “Sign Language,” the Clapton original “Hello Old Friend” and Otis Rush’s “Double Trouble.” But “All Our Past Times,” a collaboration with the Band’s Rick Danko, is the real gem here.
“The Core” from Slowhand (1977) This is one of Clapton’s more solid albums – it has “Wonderful Tonight,” “Lay Down Sally” and “Cocaine,” but “The Core” – a duet with backing singer Marcy Levy, who co-wrote it with Clapton – was the album’s highlight. This has another of Clapton’s coolest riffs.
“Promises” from Backless (1978) A mostly acoustic song, it’s a classic bit of ’70s mellow rock. You could imagine Jimmy Buffett, James Taylor or the Eagles covering it. The star on the song is Clapton’s vocals, more so than his guitar playing.
“Floating Bridge” from Another Ticket (1981) The Clapton-penned “I Can’t Stand It” was the biggest hit from this album, but this chill Sleepy John Estes cover is even better.
“Crosscut Saw” from Money and Cigarettes (1983) This isn’t one of Clapton’s stronger efforts, but his rollicking version of this delta blues number is fun.
“Behind the Sun” from Behind the Sun (1985) This album was a big one for Clapton; produced by Phil Collins, it yielded a few radio hits including “Forever Man” and “She’s Waiting.” But the stripped down title track, which closes the album, is the unsung highlight here. It’s just Clapton playing electric guitar and singing, accompanied by Collins on synthesizer.
“Miss You” from August (1986) His second album in a row with Phil Collins, this one was more successful (although not as strong of an album as Behind the Sun). “Miss You” is a solid bit of guitar driven ’80s adult contemporary.
“Old Love” from Journeyman (1989) This may well be Clapton’s best solo album, and there’s a lot of great songs to choose from – “Pretending,” “Bad Love,” his cover of Ray Charles’ “Hard Times,” or his cover of Bo Diddley’s “Before You Accuse Me” were all fantastic. But this blues burner co-written by Clapton and Robert Cray – is the cream of that very impressive crop.
“Tears in Heaven” from the Rush soundtrack (1992) Not a Clapton album as such, but he scored the film Rush, and contributed two songs, including this one, which transcended the movie. Written about the death of Clapton’s 4 year old son the year before, it’s possibly his finest moment as a songwriter.
“San Francisco Bay Blues” from Unplugged (1992) A few years earlier, the idea of Clapton playing an entire concert on acoustic guitar would be hard to imagine. But his Unplugged episode was a triumph, and won Clapton three GRAMMYs, including Album of the Year, and has sold over 26 million albums. The album is pretty flawless, but we’ll give the edge to this Jesse Fuller cover, if only for Clapton’s kazoo solo. It was fun to listen to him having fun, particularly on an album that featured a very emotional “Tears in Heaven.”
“Five Long Years” from From the Cradle (1994) Clapton’s album of blues covers didn’t have a bad tune on it, but this Eddie Boyd song was the best. Feel free to argue, though.
“Pilgrim” from Pilgrim (1998) Pilgrim saw Clapton drawing influence from electronic music, contemporary R&B and Curtis Mayfield. Not every song on the album worked, but the title track, co-written by Clapton and producer Simon Climie, is a great song (“My Father’s Eyes” is a strong contender for the album’s best song as well).
“Riding With the King” from B.B. King and Eric Clapton’s Riding With the King (2000) Clapton shares billing with his idol and friend, and they sound like they’re having a hoot on this John Hiatt cover.
“I Ain’t Gonna Stand for It” from Reptile (2001) This Stevie Wonder cover, featuring backing vocals from Curtis Mayfield’s former band, the Impressions, is the highlight here. (Another one is his cover of James Taylor’s “Don’t Let Me Be Lonely Tonight”).
“All Your Love” from John Mayall’s 70th Birthday Concert (2003) This is a guest appearance, not from a Clapton album. But Clapton showed up to perform with his old boss for the first time in about four decades, marking one of the first times Clapton would get back together with a former bandmate on stage. In the following years, he’d reunite with Cream and with Steve Winwood.
“Come On In My Kitchen” from Me and Mr. Johnson (2004) It’s hard to choose a highlight from this collection of Robert Johnson covers. But “Come On In My Kitchen” was one of the album’s great moments.
“Terraplane Blues” from Sessions for Robert J (2004) A follow-up to Me and Mr. Johnson, this was another release filled with Robert Johnson covers. This acoustic romp was one of (many) highlights here.
“I’m Going Left” from Back Home (2005) Clapton returns to the Stevie Wonder songbook again.
“Politician” from Cream’s Royal Albert Hall London May 2-3-5-6 2005(2005) Cream shocked the world by reuniting for a series of dates at the Royal Albert Hall in 2005; they did a few dates at New York’s Madison Square Garden the following year, before splitting again. This whole live album is pretty great, and this lesser-known song (a Jack Bruce/Pete Brown composition) was one of the highlights.
“When The War Is Over” from J.J. Cale and Eric Clapton’s The Road to Escondido (2006) J.J. Cale was as big an influence on Clapton as many of his blues heroes (and Cale covers also provided Clapton with a few big hits, including “Cocaine” and “After Midnight”). In 2006, the duo finally collaborated for a full album. This Cale-penned song, sadly, still resonates: “When the war is over, it’ll be a better day/ But it won’t bring back those poor boys in their graves.”
“Forever Man” from Eric Clapton and Steve Winwood’s Live From Madison Square Garden (2009) In 2008, citing “unfinished business,” former Blind Faith bandmates Eric Clapton and Steve Winwood got together for a duo tour. It was a mostly old-school affair: they backed themselves with a small band of bass, keyboards and drums, and stuck to mostly Blind Faith-era material (also drawing from Winwood’s Traffic and Clapton’s Derek & the Dominos catalogs) but they each pulled one of their monster ’80s hits. This one worked especially well as a duet.
“Rockin’ Chair” from Clapton (2010) Clapton has avoided doing a “Great American Songbook” type album — because, really, the blues are the great American songbook! — but he does a nice job on this Hoagy Carmichael number.
“All of Me” from Old Sock (2013) The album’s cover tells the story: it’s a selfie taken by Clapton while on a beach in Antigua. It’s laid back as laid back gets. This song is another one from The Great American Songbook, and features Paul McCartney on backing vocals and bass. You could imagine them working this one out on the sand while the waves roll in the background. That may not seem very rock and roll, but hey, they’ve earned the right to kick back.
“Lies” from The Breeze: An Appreciation of JJ Cale (2014) A year after Clapton’s friend and influence JJ Cale passed away, he curated this tribute to the man, including a number of big guests. Here, one of Clapton’s most famous disciples, John Mayer, contributes.
“I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine” from I Still Do (2016) A lovely Bob Dylan cover, from what may be Clapton’s final studio album.