The members of The Cars were all experienced musicians when they formed. Drummer David Robinson had already played with another famous Boston act, Jonathan Richman’s Modern Lovers. The band’s two vocalists – bassist Ben Orr and songwriter Ric Ocasek – had played together in Milkwood, a folk rock band. They eventually joined forces in The Cars, along with Berklee-trained guitarist Elliot Easton and keyboardist Greg Hawkes.
Inspired by British acts like Roxy Music and David Bowie, The Cars’ forward-looking music fitted perfectly into the new wave era. Their debut was immediately successful – reaching the Billboard top 20, and featuring hits like ‘My Best Friend’s Girl’ and the typically ironic ‘Let The Good Times Roll’. The band faded a little in the early 1980s, but regained momentum with 1984’s Heartbeat City. Their 2011 reunion album Move Like This is surprisingly accomplished.
The Cars were an excellent singles band, and are perhaps best enjoyed on a compilation like 1985’s Greatest Hits. But there are enough impressive deep cuts to make it worth exploring their albums too.
The Cars Albums Ranked
#7 Door to Door
The Cars were riding a wave of renewed success in the mid-1980s, with Heartbeat City and Greatest Hits. Their career momentum, however, was killed stone dead by 1987’s Door to Door. They were distracted by solo projects – Orr and Easton both released solo albums in 1986, but it’s simply bereft of good songs. The minor hit ‘You Are The Girl’ is pleasant, but it’s as though Ocasek’s songwriting gift deserted him after the 1985 single ‘Tonight She Comes’.
The Cars’ third album is a curious affair, low on energy and short of hits. The twitchy, synth-driven ‘Touch and Go’ is an odd choice for lead single, but it is the catchiest track on this oddly subdued record. The band stretch out on the lengthy title track – it’s fun to hear them abandon their usual economy. Even though Panorama is a relatively weak Cars album there are worthy tracks buried on the second side, like ‘Misfit Kid’ and ‘Down Boys’.
#5 Move Like This
The final Cars album appeared after a quarter century gap. It’s their only album without their usual five-piece lineup – Orr passed away from pancreatic cancer in 2000. Producer Jackknife Lee and Hawkes take bass duties. Without Orr’s soulful singing, Ocasek wisely plays to the remaining band’s strengths. Move Like This features a batch of smart rockers that showcase the instrumental abilities of Easton, Hawkes, and Robinson. It’s an impressively enjoyable swansong for the band.
#4 Shake It Up
The Cars’ fourth album is in the middle of their discography, both in terms of chronology and quality. It’s representative of the band overall – some great singles, and a first side that’s much stronger than the second. The band’s transition away from quirky new wave makes them more sincere – Ocasek’s able to front the pretty resignation of ‘I’m Not The One’.
#3 Heartbeat City
With the help of producer Robert “Mutt” Lange, The Cars streamlined their sound for the slick mid-1980s. The emotional ‘Drive’, beautifully delivered by Orr, was the big hit. The power pop of ‘Magic’, the hyperactive opener ‘Hello Again’, and the moody title track are all excellent as well. It’s a shame that ‘Breakaway‘ was relegated to b-side status.
#2 The Cars
I was surprised to learn that the band’s debut, rather than Heartbeat City, was their highest-selling release. It’s an impressive start to their career, opening with a clutch of hits like the 1950s-flavoured ‘My Best Friend’s Girl’ and the superlative ‘Just What I Needed’. There are also beloved deep cuts like ‘Moving In Stereo’ and ‘Bye Bye Love’, but the record flags a little in the middle.
The Cars perfected their approach on their second album, committing to a new wave sound. It’s shorter on hits than the debut – ‘Let’s Go’ is the only song from this record I’ve heard on the radio. But that means there are more deep cuts to discover – songs like ‘Dangerous Type’ and ‘Shoo Ba Doo’ are beloved fan favourites.
Did I underrate your favourite Cars album?
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Aphoristic Album Reviews is almost entirely written by one person.
Graham Fyfe is probably the only music blogger to appreciate both Neil Diamond and Ariana Grande. Based in Fleet Street (New Zealand), he's been writing this blog since around 2000. Aphoristic Album Reviews features reviews and blog posts across a growing spectrum of popular music.
Read about the discographies of musical acts from the 1960s to the present day. Browse this site's review archives or enjoy these random selections:
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