I don’t think there’s anything especially surprising in the top ten. I’ve enjoyed digging into The Cars catalog again and sincerely hope they find a place in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame sooner rather than later. There’s a whole Facebook page dedicated to getting them in (The Cars Nomination For The Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame And…) just in case you want to join the cause. I haven’t, but I’m lame.
10. Strap Me In
From 1987’s Door to Door, Second Single
I’ve been pretty down on Door to Door this whole time but it does have one legitimate high point – the hard rocking “Strap Me In.” I missed this song completely when it was released in the 80’s and first encountered it while obsessing over Just What I Needed: The Cars Anthology. Lyrically built around a double entendre (buckling into a car or bucking into a Car IF YOU KNOW WHAT I MEAN RIGHT RIGHT?), “Strap Me In” opens with a little keyboard sketch by Greg Hawkes before being taken over by meaty guitar work from Elliot Easton. This was arguably the band’s hardest rocking song since “Cruiser” and must have been a welcome change of pace back when it first came out. Unfortunately, I (and the rest of the world) didn’t notice it at the time.
9. My Best Friend’s Girl
From 1978’s The Cars, Second Single
Guitar – hand claps – nervous singing – drums and keyboards – backing vocals and bass. By the time the whole band kicks in there, you’re hooked. The Cars’ first album is full of hooks. Like every 15 seconds, hook. Its impossible to turn off once you start playing it because as every single track hooks you in right away. There’s plenty of songs out there about feeling obsessed with a person who you can’t have but the great 50’s teenage romance twist of this one if that the lady in question is Ric Ocasek’s best friend’s girl… but she used to be his. This is sort of the secret of the best Cars songs – underneath the cleanly produced new wave pop are 1950’s teen rock songs about, well, girls and cars and music. The Cars never really attempted to be politically or socially relevant with their songs. They didn’t explore Tolkein or sing about vikings or draw lyrics from Bronte. No, they were trying to navigate break-ups and complicated, frustrating relationships. Not very punk but very 50’s rock.
8. It’s All I Can Do
From 1979’s Candy-O, Third Single
Hey, have you ever been in a relationship with somebody who didn’t get ready in time when you had to get somewhere? Like who did this regularly? And are you passive aggressive? If so, boy do I have a tune for you to sing to yourself while angrily sitting on the couch. I encourage you to sing it just softly enough so they don’t ever actually hear it. Why address the issue when you can stew and sing a Cars song instead? The lyrics are all over the place (though I love the line ‘When I was crazy/I though you were great”) and are more about waiting for somebody to be ready for a relationship (or a stable relationship) than about waiting for them to get out of the bathroom already because the play starts in 10 minutes and its a 12 minute drive. Anyhow, Ben Orr sings this one so add this to the list of absolute classics that the world thinks Ric Ocasek sings
7. Sad Song
From 2011’s Move Like This, First Single
If you love The Cars and haven’t listened to Move Like This, really do yourself a favor and seek it out. If I were going to rank all The Cars albums, it would look something like:
Shake It Up
Move Like This
Door to Door
So basically, in my opinion, Move Like This is the fourth best Cars album. And I like albums five and six, so… As soon as “Sad Song” begins, you’ll hear Elliot Easton’s riff and feel like you’re in very familiar territory. Then there’s the hand claps and a borderline nonsensical lyric and a great counter melody keyboard part on the chorus. The song is about a sad song and is not a sad song itself. In fact, its a buoyant, energizing song in the spirit of the 70’s Cars but with a sound that is grounded in the 21st century. To whit, they sound both like The Cars and like the bands that were inspired by The Cars. Seriously, play it if you’ve not heard it. If you’re anything like me, it will make you hope they record another album
6. All Mixed Up
From 1978’s The Cars, Promotional Single
When I first heard the backing vocals sing “Leave it to meeeeee,” I was sold on this song. I love backing vocals so much and The Cars were a band that mastered the art of compelling group singing. You’re not going to hear harmonies, but you’re going to want to sing along. I’m also a sucker for songs with sudden builds – Ben Orr sings the first verse and chorus accompanied only by David Robinson’s softest drumming and a spacey keyboard line but after he sings that first chorus, the whole band kicks in and the song takes off. This is one of my all time favorite Cars songs and I was overjoyed when I learned from Discogs that it had been released as a promotional single. Its one of Orr’s finest vocals (he hits falsetto occasionally and does it with clarity and confidence – he’s really great) and his interplay with the backing vocals at the end is one of the finest examples of a vocalist going to town at the emotional climax of a song. The whole band just sounds so darn sweet – there’s even a little bit of an instrumental fill after the second chorus that sounds like it was lifted from some of the great 50’s girl group songs. You’ll know it when you hear it. And then Greg Hawkes kicks in with the saxophone because OF COURSE HE DOES. Just a stone cold classic.
5. Tonight She Comes
From 1985’s Greatest Hits, First Single
Another song built around a smash-you-in-the-face-obvious double entendre. This song came out when I was first working as a DJ at WRBC and holds the distinction of being the only Cars song that both overlapped with my DJ time and that I actually played on the air. Yes, its late period Cars pop and based on my previous opinions I shouldn’t be so crazy about this one, but I love it in all its goofy glory. The band sounds like they’re having a blast and Elliot Easton really goes to town on the guitar solo (its one of his career best moments and starts around 1:40 in the video if you don’t want to listen to the whole song). Ric Ocasek sings his lyric with such naive commitment that its possible to think that (in the words of Elliot Easton) that the lady in question is maybe just “coming over to make popcorn.” The song is a great deal of fun and deserves a place here near the top.
4. Touch and Go
From 1980’s Panorama, First Single
The next four songs were all the first singles from their parent albums. I don’t think that’s happened before in my rankings. But what does it mean? WHAT DOES IT MEAN? “Touch and Go” is musically fascinating to me. According to Wikipedia, the distinct sound of the track was created by employing polymeter with the bass and drums playing in 5/4 time and the rest of the band playing in 4/4. Ben Orr’s bass track in particular is terrific – I encourage you to listen to the song just focusing on his playing at least once. He was really, really good. Holy cats. Also according to Wikipedia, John Lennon dug on this song and heard the 50’s rock influence at its heart. Well, heck, you can do a lot worse in life than having a Beatle dig your work. There’s a bunch of great little touches to this song (Elliot Easton busts out another classic solo – the resolution of the verse turning to the chorus is fantastic) but I understand why it wasn’t a bigger hit – its not as immediately catchy as many of their earlier songs. It is, on the other hand, one of their songs that best rewards repeat listenings. There’s a dozen or so cool things to discover about it and even the lyrics are consistently good. A favorite.
3. Shake It Up
From 1981’s Shake It Up, First Single
My favorite single with a Ric Ocasek vocal. After Panorama suffered relatively poor chart success, The Cars went back into the studio and retooled their sound on Shake It Up. They took the stuff they learned from recording Panorama, combined it with their predilection for writing tight pop songs and produced an album that pointed them in the direction of their massive 1984 pop success. The first single (and title track) is a classic New Wave party tune that pretty much just exhorts you to dance. Its elegant and catchy in its relative simplicity and includes many of The Cars’ signatures – strong backing vocals, a great guitar solo, 50’s rock pretensions, etc. The video, in short, is every early 80’s teen sex comedy (without the sex) – people from every walk of life are drawn into a party and it turns out the cops are hot. You’re not necessarily going to learn anything about the human condition from listening to this song but, darn it, its got a good beat and you can dance to it. You should dance to it. The Cars have earned your dancing.
2. Let’s Go
From 1979’s Candy-O, First Single
My choices for their top two songs are both sung by Ben Orr. I have no evidence for this, but I always thought part of the inspiration for Nigel Tufnel’s look in This is Spinal Tap (see center) was Benjamin Orr in the late 70’s. If you’ll take a moment to overlook that line about how “She’s so beautiful now/she doesn’t wear her shoes,” you’ll find one of the finest power pop songs of all time. Listen to what the band does on the “I’m going to hold you down/ before you break her crown” part of the chorus – bass and guitar drop out, David Robinson starts playing a different kind of beat and Greg Hawkes starts noodling around on the keyboard as if he’s playing on a different song. Its then resolves into the “I like the night life baby” chorus with handclaps leading up the “Let’s Go” shout. You can write a tight, catchy pop song and still noodle around so long as you resolve it. I just love that part of this song – its one of the little things that makes me love this band overall. I’ve mentioned this before, but The Cars always sounded to me like studio perfectionists who really cared that you heard every single thing that was going on in their songs (this is part of why I felt the comparably muddy production of Door to Door didn’t generally work for them). You can dance to any instrument you want to when you dance to “Let’s Go” because you can hear them all. I like to dance to the keyboard part because then I get to noodle around too.
1. Just What I Needed
From 1978’s The Cars, First Single
I know that it doesn’t really matter if a band is inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame or not. That’s not the only way great music is validated. But even if you think The Cars’ tunes were too bubble gum or they were too hit oriented or if you just don’t think they were heavy-weights… I mean… Benjamin Orr, man. Sure, ignore the fact that Ric Ocasek is one of the most successful song writers and unique vocalists of the era. Set aside Greg Hawkes’ pioneering and inventive keyboard work. Cast away Elliot Easton’s catalog of guitar hooks and excellent solos. Snub David Robinson’s solid, expertly simple drumming But, holy cats, Benjamin Orr as a bass player and a vocalist? He deserves to be recognized (I mean, and obviously so does the rest of the band, but roll with me here). Everything about “Just What I Needed” is perfect but its Orr’s vocal – joyful in spite of himself, confident and beautifully sung in a true rock and roll way – that lifts the song into the stratosphere of elite rock songs. Do him justice, world of music, for once do the right thing. Enshrine this man forever with rock luminaries like Chuck Berry, The Beatles, Janis Joplin and Gene Simmons (seriously? Kiss but not The Cars?). I had sort of forgotten about this song until I heard a cover version one of my friends made (Ju Lia, I think) that really pushed forward the social anxiety at the heart of the song – the lyric suggests that the singer is trying to awkwardly let somebody who is interested in him know that he’s interested in her, too. As confident as the whole band sounds, most of Ocasek’s lyrics are about being nervous outsiders (and, in this case, possibly a vampire who needs someone to bleed). This is sometimes easy to miss and sometimes impossible to miss. Anyhow, “Just What I Needed” is exactly what the title suggests every single time. Its one of the all-time best songs by anybody ever. I’m going to listen to it like ten times in a row right now and you can’t stop me because I’m an adult and adults can do things like that.
But seriously, The Cars into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2018.
Coming Soon: Madonna (101 singles) – or maybe Fiona Apple (17 singles). Or Thomas Dolby (26 Singles). Or maybe The Clash (24 Singles). Its hard to say really and it depends on how much headway I make with Madonna.