Brian's Totally Opinionated Clapton Reviews

These ratings are completely subjective. I thought about not rating the albums, because I figured that people would just argue about the stars, rather than read the comments. Please don't prove me right.

key to ratings
*****Top 15%
****Next 20%
***Middle 30%
**Next 20%
*Bottom 15%

The ratings are a reflection of (a) how likely I am to pick that album out of the stack, and (b) how likely I am to be riveted to the album the whole way through when I put it in. So albums with a couple of great tracks but weak filler rate lower with me than stuff that is solid all the way through.

Despite being forcefully presented and stated as facts, these are just opinions. Other opinions are also valid. If you disagree, you should write your own list.

July 1966 - Bluesbreakers ****

This album was a revelation when it came out -- white guys can take the blues seriously and do it well. The four original compositions not only fit in, but also hold up well against the cover versions that surround them. John Mayall's singing isn't on a par with any of the blues greats, but it's pleasantly distinctive, and it's at least in the same league. Clapton, on the other hand, proves that he is on a par with the blues greats -- the guitar work is fantastic. I've spent weeks listening to this album with guitar in hand, trying to pick apart the riffs and fills. Rounding out the quartet are John McVie, who went on to fame with Fleetwood Mac, and Hughie Flint, who I think is working as a bellhop somewhere.

December 1966 - Fresh Cream ***

The introduction of a powerful new musical force. The cream of the London scene joined together into a band that would take America by storm, record some of the most enduring music of the rock era, and dissolve in a flare of egos, all in the space of about two and a half years.

Jack Bruce establishes himself as the strongest composer of the three -- "N. S. U." and "Dreaming" are among his best, and he and poet Pete Brown are responsible for the band's first two singles. Aside from those tracks, the songwriting is spotty. Ginger Baker's "Toad" is mostly drum solo, and half of the album consists of blues covers, including "Spoonful" by Willie Dixon, "Four Until Late" by Robert Johnson, "Rollin' And Tumblin'" by Muddy Waters, "I'm So Glad" by Skip James, and the traditional "Cat's Squirrel".

The album has been significantly improved with the CD release, with the addition of three tracks -- Cream's early singles, "I Feel Free" and "Wrapping Paper", plus the lovely "The Coffee Song".

November 1967 - Disraeli Gears ***

This is not a record, it is a dose. One of the quintessential pieces of 60's psychedelia, it is great but it makes no sense. The blues covers that filled half the group's first album are almost gone, and the void is filled by the deranged imagery of Pete Brown and Martin Sharp. The songs are rarely about anything in particular -- this album is pure sonic impressionism. Some of those visions feel timeless, such as the lyrics to "Sunshine Of Your Love" and "Tales Of Brave Ulysses". At the other extreme are songs like "World Of Pain" and "SWLABR", which are firmly rooted in the 60's and feel a bit dated. The sound of Eric's guitar stays in step with the psychedelic feel of the songs, with the addition of the wah pedal and other gadgetry.

As a side note, "Mother's Lament" always reminds me of Van Halen's rendition of "Ice Cream Man" -- it's such a startling stylistic divergence that it takes you a moment to realize how good it is.

August 1968 - Wheels Of Fire **

This release is a double album, with one disc of studio material and one disc of live material. Disc one opens up with "White Room" and disc two opens up with "Crossroads". It's all downhill from there, but those are high enough starting points to sustain a little bit of a slide.

Eric has often said that in 1968 he heard "Music From Big Pink" by the Band, and it changed his life -- this album makes it easy to see why. The Band emphasized the craft of songwriting over virtuoso performances, while Cream took the exact opposite approach. This album marks the furthest extension of the trend toward virtuosity. The songs tend toward the goofy, such as "Pressed Rat And Warthog", and the jams on the live disc are prolonged to the point where there are only four songs on the entire record. Unfortunately, "Spoonful" just isn't an interesting enough riff to hold my attention for that long, and I've never been big on extended drum solos, so "Toad" doesn't really work for me either. People who like long jams will have a greater appreciation for this album than I do.

March 1969 - Goodbye *

This album was recorded after the breakup of the band had already been announced. As such, it feels like an afterthought. It's barely an album, with only three new songs padded out with live material to fill up a whole disc. And of those tracks, only "Badge", written by Eric with George Harrison, shows some promise. Given how different that song is from the mainstream of Cream's music, this is clearly a promise that will be better fulfilled by going their separate ways, not with another Cream record. Clapton and Harrison's work together continues soon after with the fantastic triple album "All Things Must Pass".

August 1969 - Blind Faith **

Frustrated at his lack of control over Cream, Clapton escaped, only to be reunited with Ginger Baker, probably the most forceful personality from Cream, and dumped into the spotlight with no new material and unmanageable expectations. Steve Winwood and Rick Grech round out the short-lived quartet.

The high points of this album, Clapton's first solo songwriting effort "Presence Of The Lord" and Winwood's "Can't Find My Way Home" are transcendent, but the band was clearly straining to fill the album. The Buddy Holly cover, "Well All Right" doesn't add anything to the original, and I always stop the CD before reaching "Do What You Like", Ginger Baker's formless, atonal 15-minute-long nuisance.

August 1970 - Eric Clapton ****

At last, Eric is finally free to make the album he wants, and the result is record is full of life and innocence. I think this and "Backless" are his two most underappreciated albums.

The band is a large gathering of friends, mainly the musical entourage of Delaney and Bonnie Bramlett. This group included the nucleus of the Dominos, but the horn section of Jim Price and Bobby Keys, plus the presence of Rita Coolidge on background vocals, gives the album more of a Motown feel.

Like his previous albums, this has the requisite FM radio classics in "After Midnight" and "Let It Rain", but the filler has taken a quantum leap in quality. "Lonesome And A Long Way From Home", "Easy Now", "Lovin' You Lovin' Me" and "Told You For The Last Time" are all wonderful.

December 1970 - Layla And Other Assorted Love Songs *****

The words don't exist to describe this tour de force. A double album, recorded during the depths of Clapton's heroin addiction and depression about Patti. An already solid band was joined by surprise guest Duane Allman for most of the tracks.

There are a few blues covers here, such as "Nobody Knows You When You're Down And Out", "Key To The Highway", and "Have You Ever Loved A Woman", plus a cover of "Little Wing" by Jimi Hendrix, but most of the songs are originals written by Clapton and the keyboard player, Bobby Whitlock. "Layla" is the one that everybody knows, but "I Looked Away", "Keep On Growing", "Anyday" and "Why Does Love Got To Be So Sad?" also rank as instant classics.

The 20th Anniversary boxed set includes two additional discs. The first has five long jams that are so good that even I like them. The second contains alternative masters to many of the songs, as well as "Mean Old World", a previously unreleased track.

March 1973 - Live At The Fillmore ****

This originally appeared as "In Concert", but recently received a incredible facelift. The running time almost doubled, the track list expanded to include every song performed at the two shows that were recorded, and the packaging took a turn for the beautiful. And on top of all that, this album has a certain magic, which I think is the key to making a classic live album: it makes you feel like you are there. The track list looks like the set list of an actual concert. All the recordings are from the same arena with the same band during the same time period. "Just One Night" is the only other album on this list with all that going for it, but the performance isn't as good. In my opinion, this is the essential Clapton live album.

September 1973 - Eric Clapton's Rainbow Concert *

After three years of heroin-induced hiatus, Pete Townshend dragged E.C. back into the limelight. The January 13, 1973 show featured an all-star band that included Rick Grech, Pete Townshend, Steve Winwood and Ron Wood and most of Traffic, as is evidenced by the inclusion of "Pearly Queen", a Traffic staple that E.C. hasn't done before or since.

The concert recording was released more as a confidence-booster than anything else. Clapton was out of shape, and the group wasn't really used to playing together. I won't say that the album isn't worth getting, but I will say that if you're going to buy it, buy it close to last.

Originally released in September 1973, the album was remixed and rereleased in October 1995. The remix features 14 tracks instead of 6, but several tracks were edited for length. This just gives purists another reason to hate it.

August 1974 - 461 Ocean Boulevard ****

Eric's first studio session after kicking his heroin habit took place in Miami, with a band assembled by Dominos alumnus / bass man Carl Radle and producer Tom Dowd. The resulting record topped the US album charts and has stood the test of time as one of his better releases. The CD release inexplicably includes "Better Make It Through Today", a track from the next album.

Clapton had made a conscious decision to break with the guitar hero image, so the guitar work is subdued, with more emphasis placed on the songs. The track list covered all the bases, including great rockers like "Motherless Children", blues covers (including a haunting version of "I Can't Hold Out" by Elmore James and "Steady Rollin' Man" by Robert Johnson) and ballads like the FM staple "Let It Grow". During the session, rhythm guitarist George Terry introduced Clapton to Bob Marley, and the reggae influence is noticeable on several tracks, including "Get Ready", the Johnny Otis shuffle "Willie And The Hand Jive" and, of course, their cover of "I Shot The Sheriff". I like Bob Marley a lot, but that's never been my favorite track, and while E.C. has proved that white guys can play blues, he hasn't done the same for reggae. (Though Sheriff wound up as a #1 single, so somebody must have liked it.)

April 1975 - There's One In Every Crowd **

The apogee of Clapton's reggae orbit. In an attempt to capture the spirit of the music, the band went to the source, recording in Kingston, Jamaica and including former Bob Marley sideman Peter Tosh in the sessions. The result was an album unlike any other Clapton record. In fact, it was even unlike any Clapton tour -- "Better Make It Through Today" was the only song from the album to make the band's touring set list. A bit of an acquired taste.

This album includes more Clapton originals than the previous release, but the only standout is the beautifully melodic "High". "Pretty Blue Eyes" and "Don't Blame Me", Clapton's sequel to "I Shot The Sheriff", are forgettable, and the annoyingly redundant "Opposites" is one of my three least favorite E.C. numbers. Covers include a reggae arrangement of "Swing Low Sweet Chariot" and a fairly uninspired version of Elmore James' "The Sky Is Crying".

September 1975 - E.C. Was Here **

An adequate live set of electric blues numbers, put out almost immediately after There's One In Every Crowd to reassure the faithful that E.C. was still a blues guitarist and not metamorphosing into a big ganja-smokin' rasta mon. The track list includes two Blind Faith numbers, "Presence Of The Lord" and "Can't Find My Way Home", and four long blues jams, which became even longer with the extended CD release. Hardly an essential album, especially since it was pretty much supplanted by disc one of the Crossroads II set.

August 1976 - No Reason To Cry ***

One of Eric's favorites, though probably more for the atmosphere of the sessions than for the music. The setting was Malibu, California, and several of Clapton's good friends dropped in; The Band, Ronnie Wood and Billy Preston played on most of the album, Bob Dylan and Georgie Fame joined in for a track apiece, and Van Morrison and Pete Townshend also made appearances, though their contributions didn't make it onto the album.

The party atmosphere comes through strong on "Carnival" and "Hungry", but this album has a lot of variety going for it -- the other two standout tracks, "Hello Old Friend" and the superb Dylan duet "Sign Language", are quiet and moving. On the down side, the shifting amalgam of musicians never really seems to gel. Much as I love The Band, I think their compositions ("Beautiful Thing" and "All Our Past Times") seem slightly out of place on a Clapton album, and it sounds as if they couldn't quite figure out what to do with the pair of blues numbers, Otis Rush's great minor blues "Double Trouble" and Alfred Fields' "County Jail Blues". "Innocent Times" is Marcy Levy at her most shrill.

November 1977 - Slowhand *****

The track list needs no introductions, opening up with consecutive classics "Cocaine", "Wonderful Tonight" and "Lay Down Sally". "The Core" simply scorches, the guitar work is good even on the slow countrified numbers like Don Williams' "We're All The Way", and his voice is really coming out on its own. The album comes to a nice landing with the quiet instrumental "Peaches And Diesel" bringing up the rear.

Slowhand wins the best of breed award in the "1970's Studio Album" category, and this is coming from someone who can stand to listen to "Wonderful Tonight" about twice a year. An essential part of any Clapton collection.

November 1978 - Backless ****

The first thing the public saw of this album was the lead single "Promises", an innocuous piece of fluff. Once you get past that track, "Golden Ring", and the improvised and aimless "Roll It", you'll find one of the best collections of songwriting to appear on a Clapton album. Standouts include the wry storytelling of "Watch Out For Lucy", the intensely erotic "I'll Make Love To You Anytime", and a pair of great songs given to Clapton by Bob Dylan as a present, "Walk Out In The Rain" and "If I Don't Be There By Morning". The CD features the complete version of "Early In The Morning", which was already the longest song on the album before it was extended.

Backless suffers from having very little guitar. If you really enjoy EC's voice, if you like good storytelling in songs, if you like the sound of a honky-tonk bar band getting into a groove, this album will be among your favorites. If you worship at the altar of the six-string, you're just going to hate it.

May 1980 - Just One Night ***

After Backless, Eric decided he needed a change of scenery, and hired an all-British band. This double live CD documents their tour of Japan. They recorded two shows, but in keeping with the title, all the songs on this album are genuinely taken from just one night. The track list is a nice selection of blues standards and songs from his solo studio albums, plus a version of Dire Straits' "Setting Me Up" with Albert Lee handling the vocals.

February 1981 - Another Ticket *

This album is actually the second stab at recording a studio album with his new British band, the first attempt having been discarded almost in its entirety. (I think "Rita Mae" was the lone holdover.) Presumably those sessions were more lifeless than these, though I have trouble imagining how. To add to the negative vibe, the album is dedicated to EC's long-time bass player Carl Radle, who drugged himself to death after being fired.

The standout track is "I Can't Stand It", and I am a big fan of the soulful "Black Rose", but most of the material is fairly nondescript. The album includes "Floating Bridge", another of my least favorite Clapton songs and one which is even more annoyingly redundant than "Opposites". (10 distinct lines of lyrics and a 6:32 running time -- you do the math.) This album is the signpost that reads "80's slump starts here".

February 1983 - Money And Cigarettes *

This is the sound of an artist trying to find himself. Clapton fired his whole band again, though he eventually rehired the keyboard player, Chris Stainton. The group didn't stay together long, and never really established any sort of identity. The guitar work on the album is competent, though given the lineup of Clapton, Ry Cooder and blues great Albert Lee, it probably should have been better.

This album puts a big emphasis on Clapton's songwriting, which I think was a mistake. Eric is usually at his best when he is contributing three or four songs per record, or working in collaboration with more prolific songwriters. Of the six Clapton compositions on this album, "The Shape You're In" is the only one that isn't disappointing. The choice of covers is also somewhat peculiar. "I've Got A Rock 'n' Roll Heart" is a lot of fun, but it doesn't seem to fit with the rest of the album, and "Crazy Country Hop" and "Everybody Oughta Make A Change" don't even have the benefit of being a lot of fun. Only "Crosscut Saw" really feels like it belongs here.

March 1985 - Behind The Sun **

Part one of the oft-reviled Phil Collins era. Phil gets a lot of flack for this album, but I disagree with that for two reasons. First, the truth is that Warner Brothers heard the album as Phil and Eric intended it, and forced Eric back into the studio, joined by the studio hacks behind Toto, to record some more commercial tracks. Of the three songs, "Forever Man", "See What Love Can Do" and "Something's Happening", only the first is outstanding. (The silver lining here is the introduction of Clapton to the songs of Jerry Lynn Williams, whose compositions eventually formed the foundation for "Journeyman".)

Second, there is some really good stuff here. "She's Waiting" is a great song, "Same Old Blues" is a great showcase for Clapton's guitar work, and the sparse title track makes for a beautiful ending to the album. Plus, it's great to see Marcy Levy back again, both for her vocals and for her songwriting contribution, "Tangled In Love". This isn't a great album by any means, but I genuinely believe it's better than either of the two that preceded it.

November 1986 - August **

This album is just bizarre -- it was as big a departure for Eric as "There's One In Every Crowd", but at least there was some warning of his move into reggae. This release features the introduction of former Michael Jackson sidemen Nathan East and Greg Philinganes on bass and keyboards, Tina Turner singing on "Tearing Us Apart" and "Hold On", and two covers from Motown songsmith Lamont Dozier. Eric has been playing "black" music all his life, but the fans are usually talking about blues when they use that term. I suppose rap would have been a more surprising direction, but not by much. Adding to the confusion is the appearance of "Behind The Mask", a song by the Japanese techno band Yellow Magic Orchestra.

For those fans that don't like synthesizers and soul, there is "Holy Mother", one of the most powerful spirituals Eric has ever written, which by itself is almost enough to justify buying the album. "It's In The Way That You Use It" and "Miss You" were the two songs off of this release to get a lot of airplay.

April 1988 - Crossroads ***

A clinic on how boxed sets should be done. A great place to start your E.C. collection, since it includes all the big hits, and a great place to finish it, since it has all of the non-album singles and studio outtakes that you can't get anywhere else. The variety of styles on this collection serves as a reminder of exactly how many different things E.C. does well.

November 1989 - Journeyman *****

He's back. People talk about Unplugged being Clapton's comeback album, since it was the big commercial success that won all the Grammies. In retrospect, this was his first really strong album since Slowhand, and the one that kicked off the streak of outstanding releases.

This album has occasional traces of the synth sound that defined the previous two albums (examples include "Anything For Your Love" and "Breaking Point") but a wide variety of styles appear throughout. A look at the number of guest artists and songwriters listed in the credits will explain why. Jerry Lynn Williams, whose songs are also featured on "Behind The Sun", has returned with a vengeance in the form of five tracks, the best of which are "Pretending", "Running On Faith", and "No Alibis". Other ingredients in the mix are a rockabilly version of the Lieber / Stoller classic "Hound Dog", a traditional blues in the form of "Before You Accuse Me", and the distinctive sounds of George Harrison on "Run So Far" and Robert Cray on "Old Love".

The two Clapton compositions here are "Bad Love", where he and Mick Jones revisit the formula that produced "Layla" and somehow manage to avoid sounding dated or derivative, and "Old Love", a song about the woman who inspired "Layla", his ex-wife Patti Boyd.

December 1991 - 24 Nights ***

My primary criteria for judging live albums is whether or not a small metal disc can magically transport me back in time, into the audience on that particular night. On this album, given the fact that a whole new band appears every three songs, the spell never quite works. That said, this is a very nice collection of truly excellent performances.

The real tragedy for the true fan is what got left off of this release. A glance through Marc Roberty's "The Complete Studio Recordings" reveals a wealth of fantastic material that was taped but remains unreleased, including a horde of blues covers and the capstone of the orchestral nights, the 30 minute "Concerto For Electric Guitar".

January 1992 - Rush ***

For those of you that missed the movie, Rush is a disturbing film about undercover cops becoming addicted to heroin, a demon that Eric knows fairly intimately. Not to mention the fact that this album was recorded soon after the death of Eric's son Conor. The result is a dark masterpiece.

Seven of the ten tracks are instrumentals, so the guitar work is featured prominently, and the full digital recording means you can hear the sizzle of strings on frets. The album closes with three outstanding vocal tracks, the lovely "Help Me Up", a duet with Buddy Guy on the blues standard "Don't Know Which Way To Go", and the original recording of "Tears In Heaven". Quite possibly the best of his soundtrack work, though a definitive judgment on that matter will have to wait until the BBC releases "Edge Of Darkness" in America.

August 1992 - Unplugged ****

This album is about half of a live session at Bray Studios on January 16, 1992. Despite selling 7 million copies and winning six Grammies, I think it was overrated album born of a tired fad. It was good, but not that good.

The single from the album was a version of "Layla" with none of the fire of the original. This took a bit of a critical beating, but I thought the rearrangement was quite appropriate. "Layla" was a passionate love song to Patti Boyd -- after marrying her and then divorcing her, it's only appropriate that the song be rearranged as a quiet lament. How are you supposed to burn with desire after getting what you wanted and finding out it wasn't everything you'd hoped it would be?

The rest of the album was pretty strong, though if you can find a bootleg of the outtakes, you'll realize what this CD could have been. You can hear how much fun the band was having from the chatter and amusing band introductions, plus there's a pair of incredible E.C. compositions about the death of his son, which remained unreleased until Pilgrim.

September 1994 - From The Cradle *****

Coming off the commercial success of "Unplugged", Clapton finally had the clout to record the album he had always dreamed of. This is an entire album of blues, a tribute to the artists and songs he loved as a young guitarist, recorded almost entirely without overdubs or other studio wizardry.

The most surprising thing about the record is the amount of fire Clapton instills in these old chestnuts. The guitar work is phenomenal, and the result is the most personal album I've ever heard where the artist didn't write a single track. It's a perfect counterpoint to the "Bluesbreakers" album, recorded 28 years earlier.

March 1998 - Pilgrim ***

The first album of new material after a four-year gap, during which Clapton spent time experimenting with jazzy electronica as part of TDF. Some of that feel carries over here, with the help of hot producer Simon Climie.

One view of this album is that Eric is continuing to experiment with new styles, broaden his list of influences, and bring hot new artists into his creative process. Another view is that the electronic sound is harsh and soulless, and there is a lot of dead time in the songs, making much of the album too easy to ignore. I'll confess that my opinion of the album started out as the latter, and has improved since. It's still not one of my favorites, though.

Clapton is more involved in the songwriting than he has ever been. This album is almost completely filled with Clapton compositions. "Born In Time" by Bob Dylan and the blues classic "Goin' Down Slow" are the only covers on the album. The best of the originals, "My Father's Eyes" and "Circus", had made their debut six years earlier at the Unplugged show, but were unreleased until now. "Sick And Tired", a song Clapton describes as a parody, caused some controversy for its depiction of violence against women.

June 2000 - Riding With The King ***

This album has the feel of something recorded over a weekend with friends. It probably was. Clapton and B.B. King go way back, and this project had been talked about for years. It's a joy to see it finally happen.

In terms of material, this album is similar to From The Cradle, consisting almost entirely of blues covers. Here, of course, they are mostly B.B. King numbers. The title track is John Hiatt's tribute to a different king (Elvis), but I think the song has more B.B. about it than Presley. The brightest spot is the appearance of Doyle Bramhall II, one of the only guys who writes really rockin' songs in the blues idiom that don't sound just like something you've heard before. He contributes guitar work throughout and two great songs, "Marry You" and "I Wanna Be". And finishing off the album is "Come Rain Or Come Shine", an old Mercer / Arlen showtune that fits in surprisingly well.

March 2001 - Reptile **

This album is pleasant and agreeable enough, though it's hard to get too excited when your favorite guitar gunslinger starts to cover old James Taylor chestnuts. Eric is aging gracefully -- maybe a little too gracefully. This album shows a lot of range, from jazz to easy listening to soul to rock to torch songs to blues, and he's added doo wop vocal combo The Impressions to the band. But a couple of those categories are things I'd rather not have lying around the house.

The high points are two songs by familiar songwriters, "Travelin' Light" by J. J. Cale, and "Superman Inside", co-written by Clapton and Doyle Bramhall II. Honorable mention goes to "I Ain't Gonna Stand For It" by Stevie Wonder, the single of which is essential for its smoking non-album version of "Losing Hand". And the jazzy EC original "Modern Girl" is quite nice; a guy who has dated a lot over five decades is going to have an interesting perspective on that subject.

Other than that, the album is somewhat shaky. Clapton's other original compositions, "Find Myself", "Second Nature", and especially "Believe In Life", are trite. When Clapton needs to get something off his chest, he writes songs like Layla and Tears In Heaven; this album has the sound of contentment. The other covers aren't terribly inspiring. Clapton's singing has grown to the point where he can cover Ray Charles in the style of Ray Charles, which is damn impressive, but I already have some perfectly good Ray Charles albums.