The Cars have been one of my favorite bands since around the time I transitioned from middle school to high school, which was the mid-90s, perhaps an odd time to become a fan of 80s New Wave. Nevertheless, I would listen to them obsessively on my Walkman cassette player and later on my Discman—so super cool, I know! Or rad! Or whatever we were saying back then. Anyway, after Ric Ocasek’s unfortunate passing this September, I revisited those Cars albums and decided to rank them in order of my personal favorites, because I’ve already done the same with so many other favorite bands, including my favorite of all time, Tom Petty, so why not The Cars? With that said, let’s go!
7. Panorama (1980)
We’re staring out with a weird one, kids. This third Cars album came after two solid offerings, and while they might have wanted to “shake things up,” the direction they tried didn’t quite work for me. The album always felt oddly disjointed, with jerky guitars and robotic keyboards that seem to cut against each others’ grain. This is definitely their art-house pop album, yet the synthesizers feel thinner and cheaper than in previous efforts. Overall the album sounds hollow and a bit messy. “You Wear Those Eyes” is a prime example of this strange mixture. It’s a strange spoken-word piece (which seems to crop up at least once per album) that hints at Ric’s growing fascination with surreal Beat-poetry lyrics, something he explores in greater depth on his solo albums. It’s not my favorite, but the haunting “Touch and Go” is interesting enough to keep the ball rolling until the band finds their stride again in 1981.
Preferred Tracks: “Touch and Go” (to a lesser degree: “Misfit Kid,” “Up and Down”)
6. Move Like This (2011)
Even when it came out, Move Like This felt less like a return and more like one last time around the block with that classic V-8 that’s been hiding in the garage for too long. And it’s not a bad goodbye, with churning guitar-centric songs complimented by synthesizers, and sometimes the other way around—same old Cars, using each style back and forth, looking for that right blend, a feat keyboardist Greg Hawkes had a knack for. Many of the early tracks sound pretty similar, utilizing Ric’s jerky, poetic lyrics, although nothing truly stands out from the pack until you hit “Sad Song,” which is the clear single and could have been a hit back in the 80s. In fact, that middle stretch of the album is where they peak, with a few songs in a row that are fine additions to the Cars catalog. The saddest part of the project is that you can hear the tracks Ben Orr would have turned into gorgeous ballads, which would have moved this album higher up in my rankings. His passing was a terrible loss for the band. Still, this one’s not too shabby, though far from their best.
Preferred Tracks: “Sad Song,” “Free,” “Drag On Forever”
5. Door to Door (1987)
This “final” album in their heyday had high production values similar to Heartbeat City, but it turned out to be a very mixed bag. There are a couple strong tracks and a few near misses, but the tide was turning against them by ’87, and this album can’t escape that dated glossy sound, including the saccharine “Wound Up On You” and the cringe-worthy “Ta Ta Wayo Wayo.” However, any Cars mix I create still includes the it’s-corny-and-you-love-it tracks like “Strap Me In,” “You Are the Girl,” and “Double Trouble,” with it’s crunchy guitars that border on Hair Metal and where Ben’s vocals are working overtime. It’s a fantastically fun song, but for some reason it fell flat at the time. Also, the punk-wannabe track “Door to Door” sounded so cool to me as a a young kid, but it feels cheesy as hell nowadays, and not in a good way.
Preferred Tracks: “Strap Me In,” “Double Trouble,” “You Are the Girl,” “Go Away”
4. Shake It Up (1981)
This was their “return to form” after the weird, underwhelming Panorama album, and it picks up right where Candy-O left off—loaded with catchy, poppy tracks where everything seems to click, even the heel-clacking sound effects in the leading track where Ric is pleading with a woman who left him in “Since You’re Gone,” one of the album’s best songs. The title song would be hackneyed in anyone else’s hands, but they make it fun and endearing. The tracks on Side A are strong but Shake It Up fades toward the end, relying too much on quirky sound effects and throwaway lyrics, like on the plodding “A Dream Away.” It ends on slightly better ground with the rolling drums and plaintive, echoey vocals in “Maybe Baby,” but the first half is where the action is.
Preferred Tracks: “Since You’re Gone,” “Cruiser,” “Shake It Up,” “I’m Not the One”
3. Candy-O (1979)
This was my favorite album for a while. It just moves, and even the moodier tracks like “Double Life” have an underlying energy to them. To me, this album feels like you’re bar hopping on a Friday night in a neon-drenched downtown with all your friends and everyone is either in love or chasing it. “Let’s Go” and “Candy-O” are a powerful one-two punch, especially with Elliot Easton’s lefty guitar solos and ripping hooks, making them the biggest standouts on the album for me. And I think this is the most consistent Cars album. It’s the one I usually recommend to first time listeners. Their debut album might be more nuanced, and Heartbeat City is where their popularity peaked, but this one flies down the road with the top down. Total fun. And it must be said that on this album and their debut, drummer David Robinson truly makes his mark. He’s phenomenal, so fast and creative, and the producers made sure his precision timing and rattling fills danced right to the front of the mix. He was an ace, and he shows it in this album.
Preferred Tracks: “Let’s Go,” “Candy-O,” “It’s All I Can Do,” “Dangerous Type,” “You Can’t Hold On Too Long,” “Night Spots,” “Since I Held You”
2. Heartbeat City (1984)
I remember seeing this vinyl album at someone’s house back in the 80s and thinking, “This is the sort of thing adults on dates listen to together,” and I don’t think I was wrong. Some songs are still a bit twee for my tastes, like “Looking for Love,” but there’s a lush, alluring quality to many tracks, especially the ones with Ben Orr singing, which isn’t surprising since he’s the best lead vocalist in this and in most bands of that generation. Memorable hits off this album include the swoony prom classic “Drive” and the bouncy, MTV favorite “You Might Think.” I loved the video for “Magic” as a kid, the way Ric walked and preened across the surface of the pool with his mantis-like posturing. It’s still one of my all-time favorite songs, and it just feels like summer to me. And the title track has Ric nailing the whole “avant-garde poetry meets synth-pop” thing down perfectly. This album is a monster and it would be their best if not for a few forgettable tracks mixed in, something the next album doesn’t suffer from. Side note: B-side track “Breakaway” absolutely should have been on this album. It’s a great Ric-sings-it song that smoothly balances the quirky beats and playful lyrics you find on many of the mid-level tracks that hold their albums together.
Preferred Tracks: “Magic,” “Drive,” “You Might Think,” “Heartbeat City,” “Hello Again,” “It’s Not the Night,” “Breakaway”
1. The Cars (1978)
For me, this is the perfect Cars album. It swings from moody to fun to romantic to introspective, prowling through the full range of what a New Wave album should be in the late 70s. “Let the Good Times Roll” is a gorgeous slow burn set against sonic keyboards, an ensemble chorus, and bouncing guitars. “My Best Friend’s Girl” has a charming New Wave-meets-50s teen-rock feel to it, with Ric’s fading “yeah yeah yeah” in the chorus always making me smile. “Moving in Stereo” is especially notorious thanks to Phoebe Cates and that pool scene in Fast Times…, and all the tracks in between find a steady, forward-leaning pace, perfectly balancing keys, guitars, and rhythm. The whole album has a cohesive feel, but one track, “Just What I Needed,” stands out as the quintessential New Wave rocker of that era. To this day the layered guitars and Ben’s vocals (alternating between crooning and soaring) make me stop in my tracks. If I hear a clip on the radio or in a store, I need to hear the whole thing. It pairs perfectly with “Bye Bye Love,” an underrated anthem that got radio play but by all rights should have been a mega hit. The only misstep is the (yet again) odd spoken-word romp, “I’m in Touch With Your World.” Even with this, I’d put The Cars up against anything by anyone as the definitive rock album of that era.
Preferred Tracks: “Just What I Needed,” “My Best Friend’s Girl,” “Let the Good Times Roll,” “Bye Bye Love,” “Moving In Stereo,” “You’re All I’ve Got Tonight”