Discog Fever - Rating and Reviewing Every Cars Album

by Jeff Fiedler

Discog Fever is a regular feature on thegreatalbums.com, rating and reviewing a band's entire catalogue of studio albums.

The Cars (1978, Elektra)                                                                   

A +

Like Boston’s self-titled debut album from two years earlier, nearly every song on this debut album (produced by Roy Thomas Baker, best known for his work with Queen) has gone on to become a staple on classic rock stations. The album’s two Top 40 hits are still knockouts to this day. The iconic power-pop single “Just What I Needed” (sung by bassist Ben Orr, whose phrasing and ad-libs here are absolutely perfect, right down to the “so bleed me” tacked on at the end of the final chorus) is arranged brilliantly, most impressively in Elliot Easton’s guitar solo and the final verse, where drummer David Robinson suddenly changes the emphasized beat midway through to remarkably great effect. Ric Ocasek’s “My Best Friend’s Girl” is arranged just as cleverly, adding handclaps and Robinson’s electronic drums to the mix and sporting another first-rate guitar solo from Easton. The hypnotic and slightly eerie album-opening mid-tempo pop of “Good Times Roll” just missed the Top 40 by one spot, but it gets more radio play these days than a lot of the band’s bigger hits. It’s remarkable in hindsight that none of the other cuts were singles, because the hooks never quite let up: the frenetic overlooked gem “Don’t Cha Stop” is the most danceable track here, the early-Roxy-Music-like “Moving in Stereo” would later be immortalized on the silver screen in the movie Fast Times at Ridgemont High, and “Bye Bye Love” is the most deliriously catchy Cars song to never get issued as a single. While the band would certainly go on to make albums that charted even higher and yielded even bigger hits, this remains one of the finest debut albums in rock history, and it would deservedly ultimately go platinum six times over in the U.S. alone.

Candy-O (1979, Elektra)                                                                   

A –

The Cars’ debut album was so perfect that it really was inevitable that their sophomore outing would be a disappointment in comparison, and it is, but it’s still a first-rate new-wave album, highlighted by two top-notch Ben Orr-sung Top 40 hits. The album-opening Top 20 hit “Let’s Go” is easily one of the band’s finest singles, sporting the catchiest chorus in the band’s catalog and making what might very well stand as the greatest use of handclaps in any pop song. The softer “It’s All I Can Do” boasts one of Ocasek’s prettiest melodies and is also aided in the verses by some fun interplay between Greg Hawkes’ synth lines and Easton’s choppy guitar.

Panorama (1980, Elektra)                                                                 

B

Panorama is easily the least commercial album in the band’s catalog, but this album is much better than critics typically give it credit for, and it contains what is arguably the group’s most underrated single in the impressive rhythmic experiments of “Touch and Go,” in which Orr and Robinson intentionally play in a different time signature than their bandmates during the song’s verses and then shift gears and lock in with their bandmates on the 4/4 meter of the choruses and guitar solo. On paper, this is a real train wreck of an idea (not in the least since Easton also employs heavy echo on his guitar during the verses as well,) but Orr and Robinson pull it off brilliantly against all odds and you can’t help but marvel at the fact that the band can hold it together on a cut as complicated as this. Nothing else here made the Top 40, but there are still more hooks and fun cuts here than you may have been led to think, and there are several overlooked gems here that are worth owning, particularly the punchy “Down Boys,” the album closer “Up and Down” and the aggressive rocker “Gimme Some Slack,” yet another of the band’s most underrated singles.       

Shake It Up (1981, Elektra)                                                               

A –  

The band has ditched the more blatant experimentation of Panorama here and is back to penning more naturally commercial material. The album admittedly lacks a little of the spark of the first two, slightly-more-rock-influenced albums, but the band’s returned attention to hooks does mean that the album is more memorable on a song-by-song basis than its predecessor. The best moments include the party-rock of the band’s Top Ten title track, the captivating ballad “I’m Not the One” (the synth lines of which would have perfect soundtrack fodder for an early Nintendo game), the more new-wave-styled “Think It Over” (inexplicably not released as a single in America, though it’s arguably the second-catchiest song on the album), and the playful “Since You’re Gone,” in which Ocasek and Easton each appear momentarily to be paying tribute, respectively, to Bob Dylan (just listen to Ocasek’s inflection on the line “You’re so treacherous”) and Robert Fripp.

Heartbeat City (1983, Elektra)                                                           

A  

This album can admittedly be a little polarizing for older fans, if only because the band has traded Baker for Def Leppard producer Robert John “Mutt” Lange and largely abandoned the more pronounced rock elements in their sound here, even employing programmed drums on most of the cuts. Still, if you can get beyond the shift in style under Lange’s direction, this album does boast the catchiest and most consistent set of songs the band has come up with since their debut album, and it’s easy to see why this album ended up going platinum four times over and spawning five Top 40 hits. “You Might Think” is one of Ocasek’s finest moments as a songwriter, while Ben Orr reveals himself to be a more emotionally powerful vocalist than could ever be detected before on the gripping ballad “Drive,” deservedly the band’s first song to ever crack the Top Three on the pop charts. The synth-driven “Hello Again” finds the group in more familiar new-wave-styled territory, while the more pop-oriented “Magic” is nearly just as fun and “Why Can’t I Have You” is nearly hypnotic. Even the lesser-known songs here, such as “Stranger Eyes” and “It’s Not the Night” are still much catchier than the band’s usual filler material. The production means this isn’t quite as natural-sounding an album as its predecessors, but judged primarily on the songwriting, it’s a clear improvement on the spottier Panorama and Shake It Up and is a true return to form.

Door to Door (1987, Elektra)                                                                        

C

The self-produced Door to Door, the band’s first outing after a three-year hiatus, isn’t necessarily bad so much as it’s just uninspired. Ocasek and Orr had both made relatively good solo albums (This Side of Paradise and The Lace, respectively) during the hiatus, each man even scoring a well-earned Top 40 hit on their own (Ocasek with the hypnotic ballad “Emotion in Motion,” and Orr with the glossy adult-contemporary-leaning pop of “Stay the Night.”)  Had Ocasek and Orr saved some of their better solo material for Door to Door, this might have been a much stronger album, but the band sounds creatively spent here, and two of the more appealing cuts here (“Leave or Stay” and “Ta Ta Wayo Wayo”) are, in actuality, new recordings of songs that were first attempted during the recording sessions for their debut album. Even the leadoff single from the album, “You Are the Girl,” is easily the least interesting of the band’s Top 40 hits. “Strap Me In” is probably the best cut here, but even that song still lacks the immediate hooks of “Emotion in Motion” and “Stay the Night,” sadly.

Move Like This (2011, Hear)                                                  

B          

The band’s first album together in an astounding twenty-four years, Move Like This is a much more fitting coda to the band’s discography than the lifeless Door to Door. The band seems much more inspired and reenergized here, and there are plenty of impressive songs here, highlighted by “Blue Tip,” “Sad Song,” and “Free.” The only thing that really prevents the album from having the same spark as such efforts as their late ‘70s and early ‘80s albums is that, by the time this album was recorded, one of the band’s two lead vocalists, the much underrated Ben Orr, had sadly passed away. Not to say that Ric Ocasek isn’t a fine vocalist himself, but he has his own distinctive quirky style that’s different from Orr’s more passionate tenor, and part of the joy and intrigue of the earliest Cars albums was in seeing how Ocasek’s songs were divvied up between the two very different vocalists. While it’s quite admirable that they opted to continue as a quartet and not replace Orr, the album’s lack of vocal variety keeps it from having quite as much character as those early records. Still, this is about as fine a comeback effort from an Eighties band as has been made in the last ten years, and the surviving members still have great chemistry and sound fantastic.