Eric Clapton has spent much of his career retreating from his own success — into drugs, reclusiveness or retirement. “The bit onstage, that’s easy,” he said in 2014. “For me, the struggle is the travel.” The up-and-down nature of his career has given Clapton, 71, a spotty catalog, but he has racked up so many good songs that it’s easy to forgive the lesser ones. Here are his Top 20 songs, from his solo work to his collaborations with the Yardbirds, Derek and the Dominos and many others.
20. RIDING WITH THE KING Clapton’s last couple of decades have been more about finding a comfort zone (mostly in blues covers) than breaking new musical ground. And 2000’s “Riding with the King” album, with friend and mentor B.B. King, has a lazy feel, but they’re enjoying themselves on the John Hiatt title track and it’s nice to hear them together.
19. YER BLUES The Who stole the otherwise spotty Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus in 1968, but Clapton previews his superb work on “Live Peace In Toronto” as a member of Lennon’s makeshift band Dirty Mac.
18. MONEY Clapton’s presence in John Lennon’s Plastic Ono Band enlivens and anchors old-school covers like “Dizzy Miss Lizzy” and “Money.” The band had never played together, as a raw, energized Lennon announces to start what would become the “Live Peace in Toronto 1969” album.
17. THE RED ROOSTER Clapton has dismissed 1971’s “The London Howlin’ Wolf Sessions,” starring the great Chicago bluesman, who was ill at the time, and it certainly doesn’t have the brutal force of classics like “Smokestack Lightnin’ ” or “Spoonful.” But it has an endearing, slapdash spirit, especially on the “Red Rooster” false start in which Clapton successfully begs Wolf to join the band on acoustic guitar.
16. COMIN’ HOME Taking a break from his celebrated British bands before launching his solo career, Clapton joined duo Delaney & Bonnie’s live R&B revue on the road in 1969 — along with his friend George Harrison. This 7-minute track, from the duo’s 1970 smash album “On Tour With Eric Clapton,” runs on an exhilarating guitar-and-horn-section drone, with Clapton and Harrison going solo crazy by the end.
15. HIDEAWAY Approximately 47 trillion guitarists have tried this instrumental classic by blues hero Freddie King — with John Mayall and the Bluesbreakers in 1966, Clapton nails it better than any of them.
14. FORTY-FOUR Clapton has been comfortably tossing off blues covers for some 25 years — he titled one album “Old Sock”! — but he sounds truly inspired on this 2011 Lincoln Center collaboration with veteran jazzman Wynton Marsalis. Both veteran interpreters are at their best, spitting out trumpet and guitar solos in round-robin jazz style and chuckling heartily.
13. SLUNKY The first song on Clapton’s 1970 solo album is 3:34 of New Orleans crossed with Led Zeppelin, an instrumental with Clapton’s inimitable fast fingers banging up against Bobby Keys’ saxophone.
12. I SHOT THE SHERIFF It’s absurd to suggest Clapton’s 1974 cover outdoes Bob Marley’s original — this one lacks the reggae star’s desperation and political sharpness. But Clapton has a fantastic band full of perfect backup singers and his voice and style were ideal for the song’s vibe.
11. I AIN’T GOT YOU Clapton-is-God guitar-hero worship begins with the Yardbirds’ 1965 Jimmy Reed cover written by Calvin Carter. It’s rough and ragged and only 2 minutes long. He would leave the band after it recorded “For Your Love” to get on the radio. Replacement: Jeff Beck.
10. AIN’T GOING DOWN Clapton’s 1983 album “Money and Cigarettes” mostly represents his tossed-off ’80s period, but “Ain’t Going Down” is a raucous, resilient exception, with an arrangement resembling Bob Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower” and a car alarm of a solo.
9. MOTHERLESS CHILDREN Clapton’s best solo album remains 1974’s “461 Ocean Blvd.,” and it opens on a fast and lively note, with guitars attacking each other from both stereo channels.
8. PRESENCE OF THE LORD Clapton lasted just one album in supergroup Blind Faith, starring singer Steve Winwood, and his only songwriting credit “Presence of the Lord” isn’t as iconic as “Can’t Find My Way Home.” It chugs along on gospel until Clapton takes full command with his solo.
7. BADGE Cream gets a bad rap as an overly bombastic classic-rock band, but when they focus on capturing the heart of a song rather than trying to outdo each other, they’re fantastic. “Badge,” co-written by Clapton and (nonmember) Harrison, is thick and herky-jerky in all the right ways.
6. LAY DOWN SALLY The mawkish “Wonderful Tonight” became the wedding staple, but the song that comes immediately afterward on Clapton’s 1977 album, “Slowhand,” is the low-key, classic-rock keeper.
5. COCAINE Written by J.J. Cale, this 1977 recording (and a live version three years later) became one of the British star’s signatures. It has personal resonance due to his drug problems at the time.
4. LET IT RAIN Written by Clapton and his pals Delaney & Bonnie Bramlett, “Let It Rain” is the flip side to “Why Does Love Got to Be So Sad?” It’s gentle and fragile, with a persistent guitar riff and long jam.
3. WHILE MY GUITAR GENTLY WEEPS Laboring over one of his best Beatles songs, George Harrison finally decided his friend Clapton needed to provide the crucial wailing lead guitar. It made the song, from which guitarists continue to find inspiration — after Prince died, mourning fans exchanged an otherworldly 2004 clip of him replicating Clapton’s part.
2. LAYLA If Mount Rushmore contained classic-rock guitar solos instead of presidents, this one would be Abraham Lincoln — the Dominos’ “Layla” is a radio immortal, a tortured love song to Clapton’s muse Pattie Boyd.
1. WHY DOES LOVE GOT TO BE SO SAD? “Layla” and “Bell Bottom Blues” get the attention on this 1970 Derek and the Dominos collaboration between Clapton and Duane Allman, but this one is fast, urgent and, yes, sad.