A few weeks ago, Eric Clapton released a new album. Everyone who knows me knows I had this pre-ordered. Clapton is pretty much responsible for my picking up the guitar when I was seventeen. That said, I was not optimistic. Clapton hadn’t put out a really excellent solo album in a long time, and I was all set to be disappointed. I even had plans for a post where I compared Clapton to Richard Thompson and pointed out how totally opposite their career directions were (Thompson hasn’t released an album that was anything other than really good or excellent in about 15 or 20 years). But then, I got the album and I waited until the child went to sleep to put it on. And it was really good.
So instead, I’m going to write three posts giving my opinion of more or less everything Clapton has put out. Why? Because what is a blog for if not writing about things that only I care about?
Part 1 (today) will be his solo studio albums. Part two will be live solo albums. Part three will be collaborations. Let’s get to it.
From best to worst:
5 Star Albums:
Eric Clapton (1970) – This album actually predates Layla. Clapton worked closely with Delaney Bramlett during these sessions and it is notable for being the first time in his career when Clapton really stepped out in front on vocals. Personally, I question opening the album with an instrumental, but there isn’t a bad song on this album and the production is excellent. Let It Rain is so epic, I thought it must be a Cream song the first time I heard it. Highlights: Let It Rain, I Don’t Know Why, Easy Now, After Midnight
From the Cradle (1994) – This is an album of blues covers, all of which were recorded live in the studio. Clapton is typically better live and this does a good job of capturing that while still counting as a studio album. The material is excellent and the guitar playing is out of this world. Several of my favorite Clapton solos are on this album. Highlights: Five Long Years, Tore Down, Someday After a While, Third Degree
4 1/2 Stars:
461 Ocean Boulevard (1974) – This is the start of laid back Clapton and the debut of a band that he would stick with for most of the ’70s. It’s also the album that, with his cover of I Shot the Sheriff made him a star as a solo artist. Lots of J.J. Cale like grooves and excellent material selection. What keeps this from being a 5 is actually the big hit. I like what he does with Sheriff live, but his first recording leaves me cold. Otherwise, a wonderful album. Highlights: Let It Grow, Motherless Children, Mainline Florida
Backless (1978) – I really love this album. I’d put it at a 5 except that the fourth track, Roll It, is absolutely terrible. I don’t know why you put that on an album. The rest is really wonderful, though. This is probably Clapton’s most country album and one of my favorites. Golden Ring is a wonderful song about the whole Clapton-Harrison-Patti Boyd mess. Highlights: Golden Ring, Tell Me That You Love Me, Early in the Morning
Another Ticket (1981) – A lot of people do not like this album. Certainly, it came at a low point for Clapton. This is a time period where he was drinking so heavily, there are months he doesn’t remember. The tour was canceled when he collapsed on stage because of ulcers. A bad time for him, and it shows on the album. Everything about this is plaintive. The whole thing is just heartbreaking. Also, Rita Mae sounds like a dark, Richard Thompson-inhabits-a-character song. Highlights: Another Ticket, Rita Mae, Black Rose
Pilgrim (1998) – In a way, this is the most disappointing album in Clapton’s catalog because it could have been a masterpiece. The material on this is as good as anything Clapton has ever done, including Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs. It’s the production that falls short. There’s barely a live drum to be heard, and not in a good way. At times, some very beautiful songs end up feeling machine-cold. Honestly, I think he just tried too hard. I have an alternate version of this where I plug in live recordings of some the tracks and that makes it one of my favorite records ever. Highlights: Pilgrim (such an awesome, Curtis Mayfeild inspired track with a beautiful, unique solo), She’s Gone, Fall Like Rain, River of Tears (especially live)
Journeyman (1989) – This was Clapton’s resurrection from substance abuse. He is, very clearly hitting on all cylinders here. Some of his very best rock guitar is found on this album. Only an Awful cover of Hound Dog and some too-much-of-the-moment production keep this from being higher. Highlights: Old Love, Hard Times, Before You Accuse Me
Sessions for Robert J (2004) – An odd release. He put out a tepid album, of Johnson covers and, I think, realizing it, recorded these songs “live” in a series of locations mostly around Dallas, where he was holding the first Crossroads Guitar Festival. Among the locations is a building where Robert Johnson himself recorded. These covers are far superior to the initial album. Much more energy and grit. Highlights: If I Had Possession Over Judgment Day, Little Queen of Spades, Ramblin’ on My Mind.
Clapton (2010) – The album that caused this post. This is the kind of album a 65-year-old should make. I mean that in a good way. It’s mature and appropriately retrospective, but still adventurous. Plenty of blues, of course, but also a bit of New Orleans-style jazz and a few standards. a very pretty album. Highlights: Run Back to Your Side, River Runs Deep, My Very Good Friend the Milkman
3 1/2 Stars:
Slowhand (1977) – Until Unplugged, this was probably Clapton’s biggest commercial success as it featured three top ten singles. But, as any good music fan knows, popularity doesn’t automatically equal quality. This album is just pretty good. While I never need to hear Wonderful Tonight again, the original version is the most palatable. There are some nice gems here, and it’s easy to understand why this album was successful. Not Clapton at his best, though. Highlights: We’re All the Way, May You Never
Behind the Sun (1985) – The first of two albums Clapton made with the help of Phil Collins. This sounds like a bad idea, but if the record company had left them alone, this would have been a very good album. Sadly, they rejected the initial album and Clapton, afraid of being dropped, agreed to record a handful of songs that were, let’s just say, reflective of the contemporary sound of the time and remove a couple of very nice cuts. The result is an uneven album that has some very high highs and some unfortunate stumbles. A good illustration of why record companies suck. Highlights: Just Like a Prisoner, Forever Man, Same Old Blues
Reptile (2001) – This was the start of a bad turn for Clapton, though it didn’t seem like it at the time. When it came out, I liked this album, and I still like a great deal of it, but there’s a little too much production and many of the choices are awfully self-indulgent. Quite a bit more good than bad, but there is some bad. Highlights: Come Back Baby, Superman Inside
There’s One in Every Crowd (1975) – Now we’re starting to get into albums that suffer from seriously weak material in places. At his best, Clapton writes wonderful, personal songs. At his worst, he writes trite cliche. See Opposites on this disk for an excellent example. A fair bit to be fond of, but this is the kind of album that makes you think, “You can do better.” Highlights: Pretty Blue Eyes, Better Make It Through Today
No Reason to Cry (1976) – Record with the help of most of The Band, this album is more potential than results. Clapton was deep into alcoholism at this point and The Band was falling apart, and this album smacks of that kind of disorder. That said, Black Summer Rain is one of his best songs and deserves to have the cobwebs dusted off of it. Also notable, he dusted off the Gibson for a run through the Otis Rush classic, Double Trouble. Highlights: Black Summer Rain, Double Trouble
2 1/2 Stars:
August (1986) – Mostly recorded before he finally dried out for good, about half of this album is good, the other half is utterly forgettable. Highlights: Miss You, It’s in the Way that You Use It
Me & Mr. Johnson (2004) – In a word: tepid. Robert Johnson songs require fire and/or pain. Many of these have neither. Some do. With Session for Robert J out there, there’s little reason to listen to this. Highlight: They’re Red Hot
Back Home (2005) – Sign you need someone who will tell you no: When you open your album with a song featuring the lyrics: Momma’s gettin’ snappy/cause daddy won’t change no nappy. Ick. Some good covers, but the originals are mostly dreadful. Highlights: Lost and Found, One Day
Money and Cigarettes (1983) – This was released not long after Clapton came out of rehab the first time (it didn’t take). The whole thing is awful. His voice is shot. He’s playing through some weird amp that makes his guitar sound thin and shrill. The production is lazy. And the songwriting is just terrible. He covers something called Crazy Country Hop, which is one of the worst songs I’ve ever heard. Highlight: Realizing there’s plenty of other Clapton to listen to better than this.