The Cars (Elektra ‘78) Rating: A
This Boston-based quintet showed that a basic rock band could conquer FM radio in the late ‘70s. The album tracks here are generally very good and the hits, of which there were several (“Let The Good Times Roll,” “My Best Friend’s Girlfriend,” and “Just What I Needed” were the biggest ones), are generally great, though the majority of these songs are so overplayed on classic rock radio that I rarely listen to this album anymore. All nine of these melodic yet rocking songs were written by Ric Ocasek, whose twitchy, nervous vocals are joined by the others on catchy, harmonized choruses. Bassist Ben Orr, who has a smoother, more soulful (though not that dissimilar) voice, also sings several leads, while Elliot Easton’s streamlined guitar riffs and Greg Hawkes’ colorful keyboard/synthesizer decorations were also major components of The Cars’ sleek, hook-filled sound. The album starts strongly with “Let The Good Times Roll,” which has all of the aforementioned qualities in abundance even if it lacks a certain energy. Better yet is “My Best Friend’s Girlfriend,” a supremely catchy, wistful classic that’s almost impossible not to sing along with. “Just What I Needed,” another certifiable classic whose beginning and ending are particularly memorable, contains rocking riffs, unforgettable synth swooshes, and yet another catchy harmonized chorus, as does “You’re All I’ve Got Tonight,” another dramatic rocker that’s only a hair less great. Among the impressive album tracks are the fast-paced “Don’tcha Stop,” which is lightly melodic and singable, with big beats from Greg Robinson (ex-Modern Lovers), and the poppy “Bye Bye Love,” which manages to sound both futuristic yet contemporary, and is undeniably slick yet undeniably rocking just the same. The album’s weakest entry is probably “I’m In Touch With Your World,” which is decent enough but simply isn’t that memorable, certainly not when compared to the surrounding songs. Still, that's the only even semi-sub par track, as this album is uncommonly strong from start to finish, and it ends with a pair of particularly impressive tracks in that they see the band branching out from their undeniably tuneful yet slightly formulaic sound. “Moving In Stereo,” which will forever be linked to the famous Phoebe Cates scene in Fast Times At Ridgemont High (you know the one), presented a darker, more atmospheric and danceable side to the band, while the also comparatively adventurous yet still catchy “All Mixed Up” revealed its considerable charms only after repeat listens; its surprising yet classy sax solo closed out an album that many consider to be a quintessential new wave classic.
Candy-O (Elektra ‘79) Rating: A-
Although The Cars never topped their debut album, whose songs are so omnipresent it almost seems like a greatest hits album, Candy-O follows a similar blueprint and is also quite good. The ultra catchy “Let’s Go” was the big hit here, but the intense rocker “Dangerous Type” and the gently melodic ballad “All I Can Do” are terrific album tracks that you’re also likely familiar with via classic rock radio stations. There’s more, too, including more subtly catchy (rather than instantly ingratiating) winners such as “Double Life,” the tensely mechanical title track, and the fast-paced, hard charging “Got A Lot On My Head.” These songs further demonstrated that Ric Ocasek wrote some of the best songs of the new wave era, an era that The Cars helped define and a quirky style that they further embraced on this album. By this I mean that the "bouncy" quotient has increased this time, as has the band's reliance on keyboards, which are at times a tad too dinky for their own good. Although Ocasek was the brains behind the band, Orr sang several of this album's best songs ("Let's Go," "All I Can Do," and the title track), while synthesizer specialist Greg Hawkes and guitarist Elliot Easton actually dominated the band’s hook laden sound. (Though not featured quite as prominently as on the debut, Easton really shines on “Since I Held You,” which features some gorgeously melancholic riffs, and "You Can't Hold On Too Long," on which he really wails away in the last minute.) In short, The Cars were a band in the best sense of the term, and though a few so-so songs keep Candy-O at a definite notch below their stellar debut, I probably listen to it more since its songs are much less instantly familiar. Besides, even if it didn't contain good music (thankfully it does), this album is still a must-have in your collection due to its sexy Roxy Music-inspired cover!
Panorama (Elektra ‘80) Rating: B
The Cars changed the formula this time out, and though the results were less than what came before it, the attempt was admirable and I've grown to appreciate the album the more I've gotten to know it. You see, although this critically maligned album is known as the bands pretentious art rock record, it really isn't as inaccessible as it's often made out to be. Granted, the album is more about mood and texture, and is a cold, brooding affair whereas the first two albums were hook-filled and upbeat. Unsurprisingly, only one hit originated from this album, and "Touch and Go" was a minor one at that and isn't among their top-tier singles. Like most of the songs here, it is still good, though (I'm partial towards Easton's guitar soloing in particular), and easily graspable vocal hooks are also present on the last two tracks, "Running To You" and "Up and Down," both among the album's better efforts. That said, I also quite like the title track, one of several groove-based songs on which Ben Orr's bass (as opposed to his vocals) is more prominent than previously. Sure, this track is overly repetitive, robotic, chilly, and obtuse, but it's not uncreative, and I also like "Gimme Some Slack," a groovy dance rocker heavy on the synth-y embellishments, "Misfit Kid," another one of the album's more melodic songs, and "You Wear Those Eyes," a moody ballad with a strong vocal from Orr. Granted, none of these songs are great, and the tunes I haven't mentioned are pretty skippable, but on the whole Panorama is an admirably experimental and atmospheric affair that will likely win over most committed Cars fans. That said, this album certainly isn't the place to start with The Cars, since it’s simply not as memorable the band's first two albums.
Shake It Up (Elektra ‘81) Rating: B+
More upbeat and catchy than its predecessor, Shake It Up starts with one of the band's best songs ever with the melancholic classic "Since You're Gone." Buoyed by a creative video (MTV was beginning to embrace the band), the song's "I've thrown it all away line" gets me in the gut every time, and the fragile, symphonic "I'm Not The One" is also one of the band's better ballads and is extremely affecting, as this album is more direct and emotional than Panorama. The bouncy new wave pop of the title track became the band's first top 10 hit (also in large part due to its popular video), and it too is a good tune (with a very good guitar solo), though it can be a bit annoying with overexposure. Elsewhere, "Victim Of Love" and "Think It Over" return the band to dinky new wave keyboard territory, but the former is cute and catchy, and the latter is goofy yet agreeable. If that makes these songs sound slight, well, they are, but that doesn't mean that they're not enjoyable, and "Cruiser," another minor hit, is a good, surprisingly hard-hitting riff-based rocker even if it is rather one-dimensional. Elsewhere, the synthesizers are even more prominent than usual, and are especially (and unsurprisingly) dominant on the Greg Hawkes co-written (with Ric who writes all the other songs as usual) "This Could Be Love," one of the album's slower, moodier efforts. Hawkes also adds a good keyboard melody to "A Dream Away," but the distracting synth drums that at times marred the last album again detract; isn't it funny how what was cutting edge technology back then can sound so dated now? Anyway, that song and the rather dumb but still fun "Maybe Baby" are also overly long, but overall my complaints about this album are fairly minor. Don't get me wrong, it's not particularly substantial and it certainly isn't any kind of major statement, and they've done better before and (briefly) after, but I enjoy pretty much every song, or at least parts of every song, on this entertaining album.
Heartbeat City (Elektra ‘84) Rating: A-
After the band took a break to pursue some solo projects, The Cars came back with the massively successful Heartbeat City, which contained five top 40 hits: "Hello Again," "Magic," "It's Not The Night," "Drive," and "You Might Think," the latter two of which cracked the top 10. Continuing in the same vein as Shake It Up (it's very synth-based and new wavey) but being a definite improvement, this highly enjoyable record was probably the band's most blatantly pop oriented effort. The album's sales were propelled in no small part due to the band's major presence on MTV, which seemingly continuously aired their creative videos; remember, this was back when MTV actually played videos and influenced the charts (i.e. before it became the total joke that it is today). Anyway,
as for those hits, “Hello Again” has hooky riffs and those dinky synths I complained about previously, but the song sure is catchy, and “Magic,” with its great riffs and really catchy keyboards and chorus, is simply a great summertime rocker. The quirky pop of “You Might Think” is the song most synonymous with its video (who that saw it can forget Ocasek as an animated fly?), while Orr's vocals take a spectacular starring turn on the moving ballad “Drive,” whose video featured the future Mrs. Ocasek, Paulina Porizkova,; Ric thereby joined Billy Joel as the poster boys for non-photogenic rock stars who managed to marry supermodels (and in Ric’s case the marriage actually lasted, at least it has as of this writing). Supposedly "Why Can't I Have You," a memorably desperate, Ocasek-sung ballad, was a minor hit as well (wikipedia says so, so it must be true!), but I don't remember hearing it much back then. Then again, "Looking For Love" (a groovy, highly hummable pop song whose sunny harmonies - an underrated asset in The Cars' arsenal - always put a smile on my face), "Stranger Eyes" and "It's Not The Night" (a pair of moodier and more rocking entries), and "Heartbeat City" (which hits on a cool keyboard groove) are instantly appealing album tracks as well, as Heartbeat City is no hits-plus-filler affair. Sure, there's a little filler ("I Refuse"), and the slickly synthetic, overly electronic
sound spearheaded by new producer Robert "Mutt" Lange takes some getting used to and unfortunately dates the album to the mid-'80s.
Still, though Lange's overproduction robs the band of some of their earlier edginess and angularity, thereby leading to the inevitable complaints that they "sold out," this is more than made up for by the fact that Ocasek has delivered a ton of catchy tunes, which his bandmates bring across in their own inimitably charismatic way.
Door To Door (Elektra ‘87) Rating: B-
After a botched Greatest Hits album in 1985 that at least included a great new song in "Tonight She Comes," the band again pursued solo projects before reconvening for the disappointing Door To Door. Now, this album isn't nearly as terrible as many would have you believe, but it is very slick and AOR sounding, and as a result it sounds rather lifeless at times. Still, there are some good songs, including guitar-driven rockers such as "Strap Me In" and "Double Trouble," though the bulk of the album is comprised of mellower "soft rock" entries. "Leave Or Stay" starts the album with fairly hooky riffs and synths, not a bad start at all, and "You Are The Girl" continues with the album's best and best-known song. This romantic, catchy pop nugget was a minor hit that proved that Ocasek had one last gem up his sleeve, and elsewhere songs such as "Coming Up You" and "Go Away" are also pleasantly melodic if unremarkable, with the far too smooth sound again screaming '80s even though Ocasek took over the production duties from Lange. In addition to the albums less than ideal sound, filler is a problem as well. For example, the moody, mellow "Fine Line" is atmospheric enough, but let's face it, it isn't much of a tune (it's about 5 1/2 minutes but it seems much longer), and the title track delivers big riffs and fast beats but is hook free. "Ta Ta Wayo Wayo" is about as annoying as you'd expect a song called "Ta Ta Wayo Wayo" to be, and Easton's synths float by rather soullessly on "Everything You Say," which at least has some pretty good guitar and a solid, fast-paced groove going for it. So, this album has its problems, and in retrospect I suppose it wasn't surprising that Door To Door turned out to be the band's last album, as I suspect that their hearts weren't 100% into this one in the first place. That said, this album doesn't deserve the complete condemnation it has received in many quarters, and fans of the band already on board are advised to give it a try, 'cause it's not half bad. Of course, it isn't especially good, either. Note: After Door To Door the band returned to solo projects, with Ocasek and Orr predictably having the most success, though nowhere near the same success that they had with The Cars. Ocasek also had considerable success as a producer, most notably with Weezer. Sadly, Orr died of pancreatic cancer in 2000. Finally, in a shocking move, Todd Rundgren replaced a not interested Ocasek in a regrouped version of The Cars called The New Cars, who in 2006 toured and released a live album called It's Alive!.
Complete Greatest Hits (Elektra ‘02) Rating: A
I already mentioned the bungled 1985 Greatest Hits attempt, and in 1995 a much better but quite frankly overly generous 2-cd compilation called Just What I Needed: The Cars Anthology was released. Well, this should've been simple the first time around, but at least the third time's the charm, because Complete Greatest Hits finally gets it right and is a terrific compilation containing The Cars' biggest and best hits. You know, I never tended to think of them as a great band, and it’s easy to take them for granted since many of these songs are often (over)played on classic rock radio, but not too many bands can put so many catchy, memorable songs onto a single filler-free cd (certainly not from that era). With four easily recommendable albums and a slew of great singles, maybe The Cars were a great band after all; they were certainly a terrific singles band, as this compilation proves in no uncertain terms. Sure, some of their tunes could be described as "disposable pop," they're too synonymous with new wave for my liking (slightly cheesy synth-driven pop rock usually isn't my thing), and Ocasek may not be the deepest or most creative lyricist around. But when he gets it right he does write some cool lyrics, like on "My Best Friend's Girlfriend," "Dangerous Type," and "Since You're Gone," and in the unflashy Elliott Easton The Cars' had one of the more enjoyably tasteful (if unsung) guitar heroes of that era. Ultimately, these songs sound readymade for radio, without pretending any grander design, and when I'm in the mood for fun, catchy songs to put me in a good mood, this album delivers.