Removing the Cars' excellent first two albums (1978's The Cars and 1979's Candy-O) from consideration would seem like a pretty devastating handicap, but the band's consistency during its career of just under a decade ensures plenty of great '80s tunes to choose from for a best-of list. The uncanny combination of Ric Ocasek's songwriting and vocals with Greg Hawkes' keyboards and Elliot Easton's guitar proved to be an irresistible one for music fans of the era. Here are eight of the biggest reasons why, presented in glorious, stunning chronological order.
Armed with a mesmerizing wash of synthesizer and a hauntingly syncopated rhythm, this tune from 1980's Panorama begins interestingly enough. But in typical peak Cars style, the song quickly becomes something else entirely once Ric Ocasek's unbelievably keen sense of melody kicks in for the bridge. This great American band often found a way to elevate its best moments by making surprising use of various components, and in this way Elliot Easton's energetic and creative guitar solos bring an entirely different but welcome dimension to this fine track. A solid beginning to a decade of pop music domination.
Yes, Ric Ocasek was the Cars' primary songwriter and lead vocalist, and he certainly cut a mighty if moody swath in that role. But I still contend that this well-known hit single, the title track from the band's hit 1982 release, runs mostly on the fuel of its great foundational bass line, supplied by the late, great Benjamin Orr, and its uproarious, commanding guitar solo from Easton. Without these two elements, I dare say the song would be reduced to little more than a new wave novelty, a very danceable but ultimately ethereal relic of the era. Maybe that's overstating the case, but I do think the Cars' greatness goes so much deeper than Ocasek's dominant contributions.
As one of the decade's finest singles, this tune also got a lot of mileage out of an innovative if dated music video featuring what now seems like primitive computer animation. In fact, the iconic image of Ocasek's head attached to a digital flying insect has become as integral to '80s nostalgia as leg warmers. But the song itself has much to offer from a strictly sonic point of view, particularly in Ocasek's stylized, eccentric and spacey vocal delivery. The a cappella vocal break in the middle of the track represents a classic '80s moment, which in turn leads into a repetition of the song's recurrent, brilliant riff.
Although Ocasek unmistakably wore the pants in this band, he also had an uncanny and unusually generous ability to remove the focus from himself at just the right points in order to guard the group's best interests. This song, one of the multiple hits from 1984's smash album Heartbeat City, represents one such case, as Ocasek gave Orr this song to sing, probably because he understood that the bassist's romantic, aching style better suited the hauntingly beautiful ballad. Of course, perhaps he was in an advantageous position to be so generous, having landed dreamy '80s supermodel Paulina Porizkova around this time despite his significant limitations in the traditional handsomeness department.
As carefree anthems of summer go, it doesn't get much better than this, even when you happen to be drinking an ice cold can of Old Milwaukee. The blend of keyboards and power chords perfectly sets up one of Ocasek's finest offerings of ear candy, which the Cars' leader seems to understand quite well leading into the tune's great bridge ("Got a hold on you..."). And even though there's little trace of the edgy darkness sometimes present in the band's other material, the display of songcraft is eminently pleasing. It's a sorcerer's brew of pop music bliss, delivered with none of the threat uaually associated with enchantment.
This dreamlike offering brings back some of the quirky, otherworldly sound of the band's earlier days, and its communication of desperate longing succeeds wildly through its straightforward lyrics combined with a deliberate, mesmerizing rhythm. Greg Hawkes' synth work dominates the song but always leaves room for some intriguing, arpeggiated guitar and, of course, the singular vocal stylings of Ocasek. The plaintive "Baby" of the chorus perfectly matches the song's post-new wave, almost synth pop-ready keyboard flourishes and textures, making this track an underrated gem from the band's catalogue.
This song, one of the band's few offerings that never appeared on a studio album, comes across as a great way to sum up all the charms and singular elements of the Cars at their best. From Hawkes' striking and varied keyboard layers to Ocasek's trademark, near-hiccup vocal style, this track seems at first glance to be merely a pleasant pop confection. But as usual, Easton's raw, muscular lead guitar work chimes in at the right moment to remind listeners that the Cars were a great rock band as well as a pop act. His solo here goes all over the place in the best possible way and deftly sharpens the song's otherwise extreme sweetness.
This 1987 track from Door to Door, the Cars' disappointing swan song, probably stands as the band's last high-quality effort, as Ocasek's apparently declining interest in the band would lead to an official announcement of the group's demise early in 1988. Nonetheless, it contains the familiar elements that made the band great, particularly in the sense of confident lyrical melodies layered atop memorable instrumental riffs. If the band could deliver a tune this strong while on its way down, there should be no questioning its status as seminal '80s keepers of the flame. Not that anyone would, anyway.