When Cream got set to record their third album in mid-1967, they probably had no idea the course Wheels of Fire would take before its release in June 1968.

Sessions were divided into two parts, first in London and then in New York. But because the trio was on the road so much promoting Disraeli Gears, they didn't feel that the material they had was sufficient for an LP. So at the start of 1968, they went back into Atlantic Studios in New York. Then they decided to make the LP a double record: one disc featuring the best of the studio songs, and another spotlighting the band's famously loud live shows.

Because of this, Wheels of Fire may be Cream's most representative album, combining slick new studio songs with blazing concert performances. It's a tossup as to which is the better half.

The lead-off track, "White Room," is one of the band's all-time greatest songs, a sonic tour de force that charges out of the speakers like a crusade on a kingdom-shaking quest; studio covers of "Sitting on Top of the World" and "Born Under a Bad Sign" are British blues at its most electrifying and ostentatious.

Listen to Cream Perform 'White Room'

Elsewhere, the four live cuts – recorded at two shows in San Francisco in March 1968 – give the power trio the time and space they needed to air out their egos. Curiously, the album's most celebrated track, a blistering cover of Robert Johnson's "Crossroads," checks in at four minutes – one-fourth of the time given to the 16-minute drum solo "Toad" that closes the album.

Wheels of Fire climbed to No. 1, making it Cream's only chart-topping album. "White Room" and "Crossroads" were both released as singles, with the former making it all the way to No. 6 ("Sunshine of Your Love," the band's only other Top 10 song, reached No. 5).

But the album's legacy stretches further than that: Things were pretty much falling apart for the contentious group by this point, so when they entered the studio for their fourth and final album the following year, the seams were unraveling. You can hear it everywhere on the resulting Goodbye, which mostly brims with apathy and carelessness.

Wheels of Fire displays Cream at their peak, as both a recording unit (the studio songs are the band's most focused and confident) and as a live act. It's excessive, sure. But the statements this album makes are never anything but grand.

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