The Cars exist in an interesting cultural space that I think I can best describe by discussing their initial break-up. In 1984 – after Heartbeat City – the band was huge. They had as deep a song catalog as any of their contemporaries. They released their follow-up, Door to Door, in 1987 and it seemed that literally everyone had lost interest in the band – the fans, the radio stations, MTV and even the band itself. When they announced their break-up, it barely registered as news. Post break-up, all of the members of the band remained active and relatively successful in music (notably Ric Ocasek as a songwriter and producer). They weren’t nominated to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame until 2015 even though they’d been eligible to be nominated since 2003. Its like they’d just been sort of forgotten by everyone.
This is kind of outrageous since they were really one of the most successful and influential “new wave” acts. They had five excellent albums (and also Door to Door) featuring tight, crisply played rock classics. They remain a staple on both classic rock and pop radio. They had cutting edge (for the time) and influential videos on MTV despite the fact that they didn’t fit the pretty-boy mold for rock stars. I have no idea why they don’t get more respect. Maybe they’re all jerks? I mean, there’s no evidence for that, but I just can’t explain why they’re not widely recognized as one of the great bands of their era. Even their Wikipedia page is lackluster.
Anyhow, I’ve used the same method I always use to rank these tracks. First, I consulted Wikipedia and Discogs to get a definitive list of singles. Then, I created a chronological order playlist that I listened to a bunch. I made an initial ranking based on “do I like each song more than the last song” and then listened to a playlist in that order a bunch. I moved songs around as I settled into my opinions. Since my opinion is a moving target, I finally said “ok, close enough” and started writing this entry. Usually, I worry that some of my choices are going to be controversial but, because The Cars seem to get no respect, I am more worried this time that none of my choices are going to be controversial. Because as much as you might like The Cars, they’re not your favorite band. The world is unfair. Specifically, its unfair to The Cars.
Not going to lie here, I love The Cars and spent a full year in the 1990’s listening to Just What I Needed: The Cars Anthology on cassette almost every day, especially when I was touring with Honolulu Theatre for Youth. I might not love every single one of their songs, but this band has brought me nigh-infinite happiness over the years. I’d be content to rank like 30 of their songs (especially many of their deep cuts) at #1. But there can be only 1 #1. Anyhow, let’s do this.
29. Coming Up You
From 1987’s Door to Door, Third Single
The Cars embraced a pretty substantial change to their sound for the 1984 Heartbeat City album and were rewarded with mega-success. I think if you listen to the kind of nervous guitar oriented work that was the focus on albums leading up to Shake It Up and compare it with the more keyboard-driven work on Heartbeat City, you can hear the change I’m talking about. There was a sense on their first four albums that the band were edgy outsiders. The band sounds much more self-assured both musically and lyrically on Heartbeat City and this translated (at least in part) to songs that were even more radio friendly (and they were pretty darn radio friendly to begin with). On that album, they worked with legendary producer Robert John “Mutt” Lange. On the follow up, Door to Door, Cars front-man Ric Ocasek produced and the result had the smoothed-over pop style of Heartbeat City but lacked the two things that made the former album successful – strong songwriting and enthused band members. The group was on the verge of breaking up and the album sounds more like an after-thought – “The Cars were a thing we used to do.” This is sort of a decent single from Door to Door featuring the late Ben Orr on vocals but it doesn’t especially sound like The Cars – more like a Ben Orr solo single.
28. Think It Over
From 1981’s Shake It Up, Fifth Single
I had Shake It Up on cassette. Indeed, the only Cars album I owned on vinyl was Panorama because it was in the cut out bin*. I’ve long believed that the medium you use to listen to music effects how you listen to music. Rewinding and forwarding cassette tapes was a pain in the butt because you usually couldn’t determine where the next song was with precision and because short and fast rewinds and fast forwards could result in the tape player “eating” your cassette. Thus, I tended to listen to whole albums (or at least whole albums sides) more often when cassettes dominated my collection. In the case of Shake It Up, this meant that I would often listen to the first two songs and then immediately rewind to the start to listen to them both again. “Think It Over,” which was on side 2, wasn’t a song I often heard. In fact, when I added it to my iTunes library for the purpose of this list, it sounded complete alien to me. I’ve listened to it a bunch now and I’ve concluded that its a reasonably all right song but I have no regrets about focusing on the start of Shake It Up only during the salad days of my youth.
27. Heartbeat City
From 1984’s Heartbeat City, Sixth Single
I also owned Heartbeat City on cassette and I did listen to both sides regularly (because “You Might Think” was on side 2). The title track is a cool atmospheric piece that is somewhat less-poppy than the rest of the album – indeed, it almost hearkens back to the slightly more experimental Panorama album. It is a song I admire but I don’t necessarily dig all that much if that makes any sense at all. I really like when keyboardist Greg Hawkes goes all Brian Eno-style soundscape on their songs so that’s a bit of a highlight of this tune for me.
From 2011’s Move Like This, “Promotional” Single
The Cars surprised everyone by reunited in 2011 to record Move Like This. Bassist Ben Orr had, sadly, passed away in 2000, but the four remaining members got together and recorded a really excellent album. They only released one official single but they teased the album on their website with sections of two others – “Blue Tip” and this song. I’m just going to say in the 2010’s, I’ll count this as a promotional single. Its a track used to promote the release of the album, so there you go. “Free” is the least interesting of the three songs we’re including from Move Like This, simply because its not quite as catchy as the other two (or as catchy as most of the rest of the album).
25. You Are the Girl
From 1987’s Door to Door, First Single
Aw, man, sure this song is full of hooks, but, I mean, jeez. In the mid-90’s, when I was spending hours and hours listening to Just What I Needed: The Cars Anthology every day, this song just made me cringe every single time. It sounds like The Cars trying to sound like themselves during the Heartbeat City era but just sort of sounding uninspired and a little bored. The video is not “Rock Me Tonight” by Billy Squire level bad, but its kind of horrific. Ocasek’s lover dies when the entire planet Earth is blown up. Then Greg Hawkes manages to accidentally horribly murder all of the women on the ship. Then Ocasek, who I guess isn’t that bothered by the death of his lover (and all humanity), destroys the “pleasure bot” because he can’t figure out how to operate a joy stick. Finally, the men of the Cars meet their dream women – space aliens in lingerie. I think its supposed to be 80’s sex-comedy level “ha ha” funny but I remember cringing when I first saw it in back in ‘87. Anyhow, as is the case with “Coming Up You,” this track is a reasonable pop song just one that doesn’t really sound like The Cars in a good way. I mean, any top 40 pop band in 1987 could have recorded this track. What’s the point of having guitarist Elliot Easton in your band if you’re not going to let him play something decent?
24. Why Can’t I Have You
From 1984’s Heartbeat City, Fifth Single
Ok, ok, I am prejudiced towards the first four albums (though the 2011 album is really good, too). The thing I like the most about this longing ballad is the Greg Hawkes “wha wha…. shikdoo wha wha” keyboard line that wends its way through everything else. The thing I like the least is the tempo. I don’t know if its a little slow or a little fast, but it always has seemed a little off. Ocasek’s vocal style has a sort of natural hiccup to it that is very effective (especially at faster tempos) but sounds a little too mannered at this tempo for my taste (“oh baby… just one more time to te…e…ell you you’re on my mind…”). I’ve read several different accounts of The Cars in concert (most recently in a Facebook comment from my old friend Steve) and every one of them stresses that the band was a bore when they performed live. I think this is, in part, because they do everything very, very deliberately. When they play fast, this allows them to sound tight. When they play slow, this risks them sounding dull or disconnected. I don’t think they quite sound bored here, but I hear a sacrifice of passion in favor of precision.
23. Victim of Love
From 1981’s Shake It Up, Fourth Single
Neither “Victim of Love” or “Think It Over” were included in my much-loved Just What I Needed: The Cars Anthology cassette. Since “Victim of Love” was the fourth song on Shake It Up and I almost always rewound before I had to listen to the third song (“I’m Not The One,” coming up next), I also didn’t spend a whole lot of time listening to this song as a youth. In retrospect, I rather like it so I’ll mark this as the “every Cars song from here out is one I’d keep on a ‘best Cars tracks ever playlist.’” This track maintains the classic Cars sound (pumpin’ keyboards, nervous guitar work and an anxious lyric/vocal from Ocasek) and if it doesn’t break any new ground, well, it really doesn’t have to. Tight, mid-tempo rock.
22. I’m Not the One
From 1981’s Shake It Up, but released as a single from 1985’s Greatest Hits
I must have just hated this song in high school because I almost never got past it on my Shake It Up cassette. It was remixed for their 1985 Greatest Hits album in a way that pumped up the drums a bit and my opinion changed pretty drastically. It might be that I just started listening to it without prejudice or it might be because the drum issue was actually getting in the way of my enjoyment of the tune. Who can say what was happening in the seething mass of hormones and bad ideas that was my adolescent brain? I sure couldn’t. The “spinning round and round” chorus is especially appealing. Ocasek sounds into this song – he sounds patient, sad and resigned to having to let the woman he’s talking to know that he’s not the one for her. He chooses to speak sing the verses which means they sound less mannered than, say, “Why Can’t I Have You.”
21. You Might Think
From 1984’s Heartbeat City, First Single
I don’t know, should this one be higher? I can’t tell anymore. I loved it in 1984, but even when I listened to it in the 90’s it sounded painfully dated in a way that earlier Cars classics do not. I mean, honestly, is this a song that you’d rather here than any random track from the first two Cars records? No, right? The video was considered cutting edge at the time and I still get a kick out of watching it as long as I turn off the part of my brain that is horrified for Susan Gallagher. She is stalked by Ocasek in several horrific forms and is ultimately run over and flattened out. I think she falls for him in the end, though the moment they seem to be getting along ends with their boat sinking. Metaphor! Don’t hook up with your stalker, even if can turn into a fly. Greg Hawkes’ keyboard hook on this song is one for the ages and, frankly, the whole band sounds tight and excited. They knew this was going to be huge and, sure enough, it was. Thirty years ago, this would have been one of my top five Cars singles and I still enjoy it, but I can’t replay it anymore and, just as often as not, would choose to skip over it if it popped up on shuffle.
Coming Soon: Songs from the first three albums.