The Cars: Albums Ranked from Worst to Best

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’.

#6 Panorama

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.

#1 Candy-O

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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  1. The debut is my favourite, it showed that The Cars were ahead of their time. By “Heartbeat City,” though I really like that album too, time had caught up with them.

    • I would probably argue that they adapted to the times quite well – I’ve seen people suggest that they helped shape what the 1980s would sound like with their early work. I think they just didn’t have the material on Door to Door – there was a bit of infighting between Orr and Ocasek, apparently.

    • Have you heard ‘Breakaway’, a b-side from the Heartbeat City era? Would have made the album a bit stronger IMO.

  2. For any teenager from the 80s this was a first class group. In restrospective is not that great. But a genuine representative of the biggest bands from the New Wave / US, up there with Blondie and The Talking Heads. Anyway, I prefer the British New Wave movement (The Police, The Pretenders, XTC) or even what INXS was doing in Australia. Regarding your ranking, Door to Door is not that bad. Maybe repetitive. And The Cars first album is the best. Good songs one after another.

    • They’re a great singles band. I think maybe Ocasek just ran out of stuff to say faster than some of his contemporaries. Talking Heads and XTC have much higher album peaks IMO.

  3. Great post and cool to see that you ranked the albums. Panorama will always be a special one for me as that was my entry point into The Cars back in 80. Sure there are better albums like Heartbeat City but I have that soft spot for that quirky Panorama album.

    • It’s cool you started with Panorama – I imagine most people jumped in with the debut or with Heartbeat City.

      • I was 14 when I get that album in 81 as I bought the 45 of Touch And Go as my main bands that year were KISS, Cheap Trick, Queen, New England,AC/DC and I was discovering Def Leppard, Van Halen, Triumph, RUSH… So Ocasek hit me at the right time so to speak so I went and bought Panorama..

        • I was only 1 year old for the majority of 1981, so I only get to hear all that stuff in retrospect. I’ve never heard of New England though….

        • Funny that you had the 45 of Touch and Go because a few years ago i got a big box of old disco and New Wave records at a garage sale, and there was a 12-in single of Touch and Go. I think it was called Special Disco Mix or something like that, but it was only like 1 minute longer than the original. And it didn’t even include an extended instrumental mix, which most of those disco singles did. I would have loved that because Touch and Go is my favorite Cars song, even though I don’t like the album very much. I wish it would have had like a 10 minute extended mix. lol

  4. I think your first sentence of the third paragraph perfectly captures my sentiment about the Cars: They were a great singles band. While I feel I know a good deal of their songs, it mostly comes down to their singles.

    Overall, with 13 top 40 singles in the U.S. alone, The Cars had a pretty good run. I was surprised to see their very last album “Move Like This” from May 2011 made it all the way to no. 7 in the US on the Billboard 200 – a remarkable contrast to their excellent debut that “only” peaked at no. 18 there, though eventually it became their best-selling album reaching 6x Platinum certification.

  5. The only two I would change are the top two…I would switch them for me anyway. I just listened to their debut again and 6 songs still get played today. The others 3…I like Don’t Cha Stop… but as you said…they are more of a singles band.
    That might be unfair because honestly, I haven’t listened to Candy-O recently…probably 3-4 years.

    I’ve always had mixed feelings about Heartbeat City…a little too much 80s production but…I still liked it. I want to check out more of Move Like This…Thats my next Cars album to listen to.

    • I was thinking the same thing about Heartbeat City. Too 80s. They started to sound like all their imitators, and all those goofy New Wave and synthpop bands. And the songs just weren’t as good anymore. Drive was a big exception though. and the song Heartbeat City was good enough that it could have been on one of their better albums

      • I’m glad I’m not the only one that feels that way. I have nothing against some of the songs except the production left me kinda cold. Like you I do like some of the songs on it. For me…their debut was my favorite…they even called it their greatest hits.

      • Magic and You Might Think are pretty good as well. There are enough solid songs IMO, even though I don’t love what Lange did with them.

    • Noone else has backed Candy O yet – seems like a two-horse rwxe between the debut and Heartbeat City.

      The songs are pretty good on Heartbeat City. Its drum machines actually sound better than the reverbed live drums on Door to Door.

      • Some people who grew up in the 80s…it takes them back…as it does me but not in the same way. I rebelled against it then. I agree…many of the songs on Heartbeat City were good.

        I have seen a few lists with Candy-O at #1. It’s a great album no doubt…it has a great lead off single for sure…one of their best. As far as the first album…it had those hooks and flawless backup vocals.

    • I just went back and read yours – we’re pretty similar really – have the albums in the same three tiers.

  6. I’d have to put the debut on top of the roster, if for no other reason than because of the punch it landed when it came out . . . so distinctive, so perfect, so ubiquitous, and so popular with so many audiences who didn’t often agree on much that that the radio was feeding us at the time. I saw them live in ’79 (Bram Tchaikovsky opening) right around the time that “Candy-O” came out, and it really felt like AN EVENT to attend, as the debut’s songs were still feeling strong and ever-present and important. “Panorama” felt like a disappointment when it landed, though “Shake It Up” seemed like a decent return to form. Then I stopped paying attention until “Heartbeat City” became unavoidable. It was very nice to see its success . . . it felt like an old favorite had caught up with the changing times, even if my own changing times meant that what they were doing didn’t really connect with me that much anymore. Respect.

    • I can see how the debut connected with a wide audience. Even though they’re new wave, they also had a proficient lead guitarist to appeal to classic rock fans.

      You might enjoy Move Like This? It’s a return to the energy of the first two albums in some way.

  7. One of my favorite bands! Move Like This is a marvelous comeback / farewell. I have heard some people bash it, but I think it rocks all the way through. My favorite by them is Heartbeat City. Yeah, maybe it’s too slick, but those hooks are just so good.

    • Yeah, I was impressed by Move Like This – their first album for 25 years, missing Orr. It could have easily been their worst.

  8. And here I am, the Boston guy who owns exactly zero Cars albums. But God, the Seventies were magical in these parts, not only with Boston bands but also radio stations that helped break bands like U2 and Police. As to the Cars, I like ’em but mostly a radio band for me. Elliot Easton is a good guitarist, his solo on “Shake It Up,” perfection.

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