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“At Some Point During The Very Best of Cream the Outside World Ceased to Exist”

It’s a shame but when I’m at work, usually, I’m trapped in something resembling a four-bar-phrase Cask of Amontillado, with my sous chef hogging the music. And if it were a believable story, I’d gladly divulge to you the music he regularly puts on.

Suffice it to say, anyway, that when I get my chance to take control of the Bluetooth speaker, if my sous chef isn’t there, or if he’s feeling transcendently philanthropic, it’s a pretty soothing affair. Lots of times I’ll go for hip-hop, as in some of the excellent new sh** like Bruiser Brigade, Mello Music Group, Solemn Brigham or Fly Anakin. Other times I’ll let it rip with some DJ music, which is like hip-hop without the rapping, basically — beats rife with sampling, usually some scratching and often enough melodic moxie and structural creativity to qualify as bona fide music on its own. Some good artists within this are DJ Nobody, DJ Logic and DJ Z-Trip.

When it comes around to the weekend, though, I usually get a different vibe, one more of relaxation, so the busy, beat-heavy shindig doesn’t always seem right. And I never fear because I go deepest with the classic rock and ’90s alternative, as well as Wilco, my favorite band, a band so hard to categorize that they were once dropped by a Warner group and then signed again by a different subsidiary on that same label. 

The other day, there seemed to be some extra tension (which is troubling seeing as it was Memorial Day weekend and beautiful outside), and so I needed something really ferocious. I was in the mood for classic rock but not anything that was too ubiquitous — something veering off of the beaten path.

Then I remembered Cream, a band that has always kind of struck me as a novelty act (perhaps for their very short lifespan in the late ’60s) but that definitely forged a brand of music very distinct, permanent and influential. Cream had always kind of been in their own world, to me, with my default album selection of The Very Best of playing in my mind like some sort of movie within an ulterior realm of reality, like music so certain and substantive that it comprises a cinematic aspect in its outplay. 

And I think oftentimes it’s endemic in classic albums we really adore to furnish new favorite songs to us, or have certain tracks show their greatness after umpteen listens, or so. Soundgarden’s Superunknown is definitely that sort of meteor for me — I think I’ve had something like seven different favorite songs on that album, none of which have been “Black Hole Sun,” oddly enough.

The last time I put on The Very Best of Cream in work, I found the production brilliant, as always, Clapton’s guitar sound to really slay on “I Feel Free”; and Jack Bruce’s brutal, world-weary honesty on “N.S.U.” really refreshing, hitting the spot in a world of empty cordialities and well-wishing. I got to the track “Sweet Wine,” whereas, and at some point it was like the superficial foreground of our everyday lives dissipated away and I was left beholding the glorious, infinite, smoldering cosmos. I was working with this utter bundle of joy in the hot, stuffy kitchen on the Sunday (race day), and I even forgot about him. And the thing was that the song seemed to accumulate energy, like it were a living organism reaching its prime, in turn, rather than a scientific or mathematic achievement of which one section can act as an authentic modicum, or indicator. I’ll always love the side B cover of Howlin’ Wolf’s “Sitting on Top of the World” [1] [2]. But there was something about the functionality of that track “Sweet Wine,” whether it was the juxtposition of real words with the “Bob-bop-bahhs,” or that urgent and awesome chorus throwing shade at pretentious urbanites and masquerading Bohemians, that caused this almost cataclysmic transformation in me into classic rock Valhalla, leaving me no choice but to slot them as the best all time within the style [3] [4], with all due respect to Led Zeppelin’s strident efforts in rhythm and groove [5].

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[1] You’re not going to believe me but Cream ONE UPS Wolf on this cut, slowing things down, making them more swampy, embellished and Dionysian.

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[2] I’m not sure if it matters in any phenomenological way but it’s kind of interesting to note the pluralistic wealth of songwriters contributing to this album’s interface, with “Sweet Wine” actually penned by drummer Ginger Baker and auxiliary scribe Janet Godfrey, contrasted with the default Jack Bruce.

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[3] Jimi Hendrix would actually likely agree with me, evidenced by the instance in Winterland when he breaks into banter bemoaning Cream’s impending split, to then launch into an instrumental cover of “Sunshine of Your Love,” a Cream original. While we’re on the subject, I’d like to state that “Sunshine of Your Love” tends to be what people think is the only good Cream song, a fallacy of ungodly proportions.

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[4] There was something so gratifying about looking at the Wikipedia page for The Very Best of Cream and seeing just two critic ratings, both five stars out of five, hence free from the typically obligatory trolling of the “greatest hits” record in criticism and the hilariously petulant Robert Christgau.

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[5] I don’t mean to refer to the “rhythm and blues” style, although I do find that Blues Brothers shtick kind of amusing for its sheer pretentious Bohemianism, but rather just to explicate Led Zeppelin’s expertise in grafting out music that’s rhythmically complex and beholden to an instrumentation interface that amounts to a physical, visceral experience. 

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