These ten selections, some more obscure than others, are chosen to represent the songs where the British power trio Cream was most focused, most locked-in, and most original.
5. "Politician" (Wheels of Fire, 1968)
One of rock music's most cynical and, sadly, factual songs alongside the Beatles' "Taxman". The lyrics aren't terribly sophisticated ("I support the Left, though I'm leaning toward the Right / But I'm just not there when it's coming to a fight"), but then neither is the subject matter. Opportunistic weasels who pollute public office are taken acerbically to task, while a cascade of filth, courtesy of Clapton's multi-tracked majesty, supplies an appropriately muddled soundtrack. Bruce, as always, delivers the goods, and he seems to be enjoying himself and disgusted at the same time when he croaks "I wanna just show you what my politics are."
4. "World of Pain" (Disraeli Gears, 1967)
Disraeli Gears is definitely a gift that never stops giving. Not only the band's masterpiece, but a masterpiece among the many miraculous albums made during its era. On Cream's first album there were the inescapable blues influences (some refreshing; others more stale and uninspired); by the second album the band had figured out exactly what it wanted to do, and very little if anything (by others or even Cream) sound anything like the best moments on Disraeli Gears. "Strange Brew", "Sunshine of Your Love", and "Tales of Brave Ulysses" get most of the attention, and still receive most of the airplay, but it's the deeper cuts, like "World of Pain", that illustrate how peerless Cream was, at its best.
3. "Badge" (Goodbye, 1969)
This is the song George Harrison inadvertently named (Badge = Bridge), and the one he played on, depending on who you believe (to this writer, the Quiet One's guitar licks are unmistakable, especially when you think of side two of the Beatles' Abbey Road). It's tracks like "Badge", free-flowing yet not facile, laid-back but not lazy, that makes so much of what Clapton went on to do disappointing by comparison. Once God became Slowhand he was calling his own shots, and while he had earned every right to do so, he arguably needed some tension -- and competition -- to bring out the best in him. In any event, this is one of Cream's irresistible tunes, impossible to tire of, even after four decades and change. It's a mellow pinnacle of sorts, and will always be a bittersweet tease of what Cream could/should/might have done if they'd kept their act together.
2. "I Feel Free" (Fresh Cream, 1966)
This is the one that kicks off Cream's catalog, and it's less an introduction than a declaration: yes, as a matter of fact, we are a super group and this is how we roll. Multi-tracked harmonies, hand-claps, and a single pounded piano note sounding like a telegraph dispatching the news, "I Feel Free" has hit single written all over it. But the pop sensibility is undercut by what might be best described as a cocky nonchalance: we are not trying to please anyone but ourselves. There is no pandering, no false familiarity with the would-be audience, and above all, no clichés. The music, of course, was the thing: cleaner and crisper than what anyone else (including the Fab Four) was doing at this point; "I Feel Free" signaled the ascendance of a major new act, and a reminder in real time that nothing was ever going to be the same.
1. "White Room" (Wheels of Fire, 1968)
Perhaps the ultimate commentary on this remarkable song as that, overplayed as much as it has been over the years, it still manages to defy becoming stale. In fact, it still manages to confound expectations and is capable of the thrill of surprise. Or the simple shock of recognition: this is what it sounds like when some of the best musical minds of their time were clicking on all cylinders. Boasting career-best work by all involved, "White Room" cemented the post-Sgt. Pepper proposition that rock music could be art; rock music could matter. Clapton is on-point, using his wah-wah more ingeniously than anyone not named Hendrix, Baker offers "Bolero" drum rolls, and Bruce, in addition to his typically supple bass playing, turns in what may be his ultimate vocal performance. Making the most of principal lyricist Pete Brown's surreal poetics, "White Room" is a decidedly darker slice of psychedelia (see: "Where the shadows run from themselves"). It squeezes the last drops of Summer of Love whimsy and pours it into a simmering cocktail of bad trips, wrecked dreams, and fear. It is intense and unremitting; it sums up happier and/or headier times and peeks, presciently, at the disillusion waiting around the corner. And, in spite of how heavy it is, the prevailing vibe is one of resilience, not despair. "White Room" compresses the sounds, colors and feelings of an era and manages to make it all into something beautiful.