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Cream

    Fresh Cream (Polydor, 1966)
     Disraeli Gears (Polydor, 1967)
     Wheels of Fire (Polydor, 1968)
    Goodbye (Polydor, 1969)
   Live, Vol. 1 (Polydor, 1970)
   Live, Vol. 2 (Polydor, 1972)
      Strange Brew: The Very Best of Cream (Polydor, 1983)
     Those Were the Days (Polydor/Chronicles, 1997)
     The Millennium Collection (Uni/Polydor, 2000)
     Royal Albert Hall: London May 2-3-4-5-6 (Reprise, 2005)

Cream was rock's first power trio, its first significant psychedelic blues band, and the first to make a fetish of instrumental virtuosity. Its success catapulted Eric Clapton, Jack Bruce, and Ginger Baker to superstardom, and inspired several generations of hard-rock heroes, from Grand Funk to Van Halen. To this day, Cream remains a staple of AOR radio. Yet for all that, it's easy to overestimate the value of the Cream's recorded output. Sure, the group cut some astonishing singles—"Badge," "Sunshine of Your Love," "White Room"—but it also made some incredibly misdirected and embarrassing live albums. It was almost as if Cream existed with two distinct identities, one a pithy singles act, and the other a self-indulgent jam band.

Although neither side completely emerges on Fresh Cream, it's easy enough to see the shape of things to come. "I Feel Free" and "I'm So Glad" were slick and tuneful, handily showing off the group's ability to pull pop from the blues, while "Toad" and "Rollin' and Tumblin'" bore witness to the trio's propensity for showboating. Things on the pop side tightened up considerably when producer Felix Pappalardi came aboard; not only did he dress up Disraeli Gears with odd instruments and exotic sounds, but he kept the band's instrumental interplay in check, so that even a song as seemingly heavy as "Sunshine of Your Love" came across as singles fodder.

Wheels of Fire brought further refinements in Pappalardi's pop eclecticism. It added such exotic sounds as cello, marimba, and tonette, expanded his studio role from producer to player, and offered the first recorded example of Cream's concert approach; from the focused fury of "White Room" to the rambling, 16-minute version of "Toad," it remains the most representative slice of the Cream legacy. Sadly, things went downhill soon after, and Goodbye, recorded in the band's death throes, balances some of the band's most exquisite studio work ("Badge" in particular) with so-so concert recordings; it barely seems a complete album.

Strange Brew is essentially a singles compilation and holds up well to repeated listening, but the two volumes of Live Cream are muddled leftovers released solely to cash in on the band's enduring popularity. Those Were the Days is a box set that compiles all of Cream's output, both live and in the studio. In 2005, Cream reunited for a series of concerts in London and New York; Royal Albert Hall collects highlights from the London gig, showing a band that could still improvise well but didn't rock with the fury of yore.

Portions of this album guide appeared in The New Rolling Stone Album Guide (Fireside, 2004).

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