The Cars were The Cars in both form and function. Their many hits throughout the late ’70s and ’80s were sleek, steady, piston-pumping pieces of gleaming machinery, marvels of modern science. Not uncoincidentally, they also sounded fucking fantastic in any vehicle on four wheels, better perhaps than any rock band’s catalog since the Beach Boys.
But Ric Ocasek, the band’s primary singer, full-time songwriter and rhythm guitarist, and general MTV avatar was not quite Brian Wilson in electrified hair and dark sunglasses. He was blessed with Wilson’s gift for writing riffs and choruses as mighty as the Pacific without being cursed with his ambitions to capture the divine on 12-inch vinyl. Ocasek’s teenage symphonies were not to God or anyone else in particular; most of them were largely incoherent as prayers anyway.
God might not have been the target for The Cars’ neon cruise missiles, but The Almighty almost certainly jammed out to them between the years 1978 and 1984. Just about everyone else did: The band may be best remembered for their FM-blanketing self-titled debut and their MTV-conquering Heartbeat City, but so popular were The Cars at the time that even less-recalled efforts like 1980’s inverted Panorama or 1982’s oversimplified Shake It Up still went Platinum. Along with Blondie, they were American new wave’s foamy peak, maybe the only band that could credibly list both XTC and Van Halen as peers.
Ocasek, who died this Sunday (Sept. 15) at age 75, was the rare frontman who didn’t sing on several of his band’s best-enduring singles — many of which were delivered by bassist Benjamin Orr, a more conventional rock star in both look and sound — but still remained the band’s unquestioned voice. Even coming out of Orr’s mouth, the songs were unmistakably Ocasek’s, sly and detached, with a speeding ticket’s worth of danger and a boundless supply of cool. He might not have gotten to sing the band’s biggest Billboard Hot 100 hit, but he did still get to star with his supermodel future wife in the video, which was as it should have been.
Reducing the catalog of a band who had two albums that functionally served as Greatest Hits sets on their own to its 15 finest entries is no easy task, but here is Billboard‘s best attempt at streamlining the Rock and Roll Hall of Famers’ discography to only its leanest and meanest. Windows down, volume up, and make sure to fill up on premium before we get started.
15. “Dangerous Type” (Candy-O, 1979)
The Cars probably would’ve made crappy glam rockers — their writing and performance was a little too angular and anxious to really fit in with glam’s limber decadence. But there was enough musical and ideological overlap for them to make inspired use out of one of the genre’s defining riffs, T. Rex’s “Bang a Gong (Get It On),” for the backbone to their own Candy-O closer, “Dangerous Type.” Ocasek gets positively Blonde on Blonde on the verses (“Museum directors with high shaking heads… they want to crack your crossword smile”), but he knows the song’s real power is in its understated chorus (“She’s a lot like you/ The dangerous type”). And to prove it, he devotes more than half the song’s four and a half minutes to an outro that repeats it over and over, until it becomes something like transcendent.
14. “Hello Again” (Heartbeat City, 1984)
Recalibrate the synth riff just the tiniest bit and you have a Bon Jovi song, but The Cars make things just spiky and quirky enough on their Heartbeat City opener that it could also plausibly boast an Andy Warhol-directed video. Calling a truce between their artiest and poppiest instincts allowed the band to become one of MTV’s biggest, even during a boom period for nearly all of popular music. “Hello Again” serves as a perfect intro to this Cars era, with its piercing hook as visceral as any of the band’s, and its Trevor Horn-like drum break — complete with orchestral stabs and garbled vocal dispatches — proving they still had new tricks stashed in the glove compartment. Electric and eclectic, indeed.
13. “Touch and Go” (Panorama, 1980)
Maybe the musically riskiest of the big Cars singles, attempting to reconcile a flaring synth pattern with a roaming bass line and out-of-time drum shuffle on its verses — the band was undoubtedly listening to a lot of Rush at the time. Of course, calling it a “big Cars single” is probably a misnomer in the first place; though “Touch and Go” marked the fourth of the band’s 13 Top 40 entries, it stalled at No. 37 and set Panorama on pace to be their most underperforming set yet. But the song’s alien pop-funk is surprisingly legitimate, anchored by Ocasek at his horniest (“All I want is you tonight/ I guess that dress does fit you tight”) and convincingly switching to a near-country gallop on the chorus, a rare mid-song lane change for The Cars.
12. “Good Times Roll” (The Cars, 1978)
Play anyone unfamiliar with The Cars the first ten seconds of the first song on their first album, and that should answer just about any questions they have about why the band went on to be so successful. The barbed-wire guitar hook blares in one ear while a dying fire ember of a faux drum loops in the other, and the combination is so unfamiliar and so exhilarating that even 40-plus years later, it still sounds like a new frontier of pop-rock is being breached. It’s not Ocasek’s strongest lyric or greatest chorus — though that gang vocal on the title is pretty undeniable — but the good times were already off and rolling for The Cars in the decade to come before his voice even graced the track.
11. “Double Life” (Candy-O, 1979)
Complete Greatest Hits was a fairly credible claim for The Cars’ semi-canonical 20-track 2002 best-of, which did include the great majority of the band’s most winning singles. But if one of the band’s A-sides could have a considered grievance about being left behind, it’d be “Double Life,” the commercially disregarded third single off Candy-O. The composition remains one of Ocasek’s most beguiling, its enigmatic lyric twisting around hissing drums and chugging guitars, more than living up to its title as the tightly coiled verses give way to the gorgeous harmonies of its brilliantly satisfying outro refrain (“It’s all gonna happen to you!“). For a band where just about any song you haven’t already heard 100 times without even asking registers as a deep cut, “Double Life” remains well worth diving for.
10. “Shake It Up” (Shake It Up, 1981)
For all the enduring FM dominance of The Cars’ first two albums, it took until fourth album Shake It Up and its thoroughly irresistible title track for them to actually hit the Hot 100’s top 10, ultimately getting as high as No. 4. Ocasek later expressed regret over the song’s unchallenging “dance all night” lyric — like anyone would confuse the band’s other hits for Leonard Cohen — but the sheer momentum of the “Shake” groove really needs no further expounding; nobody ever asked Sam Cooke to smarten up “Twistin’ the Night Away” either. Also essential: the demo “Shake” found on the recent Shake It Up reissue, which double-tracks Ocasek’s vocal and winds up the drum machine a little tighter, giving it a new wave nerviness that’s even more infectious than the glossy single version.
9. “You’re All I’ve Got Tonight” (The Cars, 1978)
The Cars were not generally a band known for their fury, but Ric Ocasek was not above letting lust get the better of him on certain occasions. Such thirst was the lyrical inspiration for The Cars’ hardest-rocking perennial, the positively growling “You’re All I’ve Got Tonight,” as Ocasek moans over pounding toms and chainsaw guitar about all the things his lover can do to him, as long as she complies with his most base, urgent demand: “I need you…. TONIGHT!” Classic rock play has normalized it a little over the years, but the song’s frenzy is still stunningly vicious; there’s a reason both why it wasn’t actually released as a single in the album’s original run, and why it remains one of the band’s most unkillable songs anyway.
8. “Let’s Go” (Candy-O, 1979)
Worries abut any sophomore slumping for The Cars following their multi-Platinum debut probably lasted until the synths started croaking ten seconds into Candy-O‘s first track and lead single, “Let’s Go.” The song probably shouldn’t work as well as it does, since in essence it’s an awkward hodgepodge of pop ephemera — including the clapping hook from The Reuters’ 1962 hit of the same name, the keyboard spin on Peter Frampton’s talking guitar from 1976, and a less-committed version of Alicia Bridges’ signature refrain from the year before. But as with “Shake,” movement and momentum rule the day with the streamlined groove here: Once this baby starts humming, it’s only green lights ahead.
7. “You Might Think” (Heartbeat City, 1984)
Winner of the first-ever Video Music Award for video of the year, “You Might Think” might be best remembered for the bent-universe slapstick of its famed visual. The song it accompanies is just as dynamite, though, a gem that marries ’70s power-pop energy to ’60s pop classicism — down to Ocasek’s unforgettable spoken-word break (“But you kept it going… till the sun fell down”), delivered halfway between Orbison and Elvis. The surreal video does do well to illustrate that as cute a song as “You Might Think” is, it’s still deeply strange, with lyrical sentiments like “Well you might think I’m delirious/ The way I run you down/ But somewhere sometimes, when you’re curious/ I’ll be back around” forever toeing the line between the dangerously insidious and the laughably nonsensical.
6. “My Best Friend’s Girl” (The Cars, 1978)
You know things are going good for your debut album when you get to save “My Best Friend’s Girl” for the second single. Entire bands have sprung from this song’s clap-along intro and shout-along chorus. At least two of the best pop-rock singles of the following half-decade exist essentially as tweaked permutations of this song’s thematic DNA. Ric Ocasek probably could guess even in 1978 that they would name a crappy Dane Cook comedy after it 30 years later. And yet, not only is it not the best single in the he band’s catalogue, it’s not even the best on The Cars Side A. That alone should to be enough to prove that their 2018 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction came well over a decade late.
5. “Heartbeat City” (Heartbeat City, 1984)
The Cars had so much success pulling singles off Heartbeat City — five top 40 hits on the Hot 100, all but one of them top 20 — that they sorta just ran out of juice before getting to the album’s closer and indelible title track. Too bad: Marrying the synth-rock stomp from Corey Hart’s “Sunglasses at Night” to the jaunty dreaminess of ’80s Fleetwood Mac — and with an out-of-nowhere break for a synth version of a singing saw — “Heartbeat City” is one of Ocasek’s most unshakeable compositions, and a weird and wonderful note for an album of smashes to end on. The song was half-heartedly released as a single in the U.K.; in the U.S. the best it could do was as the “You Might Think” B-side. Real fans know, though — just like they know that Hart owed Ocasek one anyway for swiping his nocturnal shades-donning.
4. “Moving in Stereo” (The Cars, 1978)
It never needed Phoebe Cates. I mean, it certainly never hurts a song to soundtrack one of the most famous scenes in teen movie history, but “Moving in Stereo” made the Fast Times at Ridgemont High sequence eternal, just as much as the other way around. A lurching groove with an unusually Zen lyric for Ocasek, “Stereo” showed that as much as Perfect Pop Songs was about to become the Cars’ signature brand, empirical formulas were far from the only thing they were interested in: five-minute koans with eerie stereo panning and unnervingly patient riffs were just as critical to their pop-rock experimentation. This one worked so well that it’s now one of several Cars album tracks more iconic than 90% of their peers’ biggest crossover hits.
3. “Since You’re Gone” (Shake It Up, 1981)
The Cars almost always went for the kill with their singles, but for whatever reason — maybe exhaustion after four albums in four years — they let off the throttle a little with Shake It Up‘s “Since You’re Gone.” Not to say that the song wasn’t all there, but Cars singles had always been so strongly kinetic that it’s not surprising the clomping shuffle of the lovelorn “Since You’re Gone” failed to really connect with new wave audiences, peaking outside the Hot 100’s top 40. But “Gone” has a resonance few other Cars songs do: There’s a heaviness, an emotional weight that feels very lived in and very real, Ocasek sounding absolutely lost as he bleats “Since you’re gone, I missed the peak sensation/ Since you’re gone, I took the big vacation.” And though the song drags, it also soars, thanks to the buoyant guitar work of Elliot Easton, and the gang vocals that power Ocasek through every wail of the title.
2. “Drive” (Heartbeat City, 1984)
The first big ballad for The Cars, a risk that paid off with their biggest chart success, a No. 3 hit in September 1984. Some longtime fans may have bemoaned the change-up — down to Orr taking the lead vocal — as a softening of the band’s edge. But there’s little denying 35 years later that “Drive” remains singular among all the era’s pop music, a song of such tremendous emotional intensity, lyrical intimacy and overwhelmingly lush production that it feels like a love song even though no lyrics specifically reveal it as such. Obviously, interpretations varied: Live Aid used the song to soundtrack footage of the effects of the Ethiopian Famine, and that also worked, as did covers by artists ranging from Tim McGraw to the Deftones. It’s a song that everyone seems to find their own truth in — not something that can be said about many songs, Ocasek-written or otherwise.
1. “Just What I Needed” (The Cars, 1978)
Yes, The Cars wrote countless Perfect Pop Songs. But there’s Perfect Pop Songs, and there’s pop songs that deserve a Nobel prize. “Just What I Needed” undoubtedly falls under the latter camp: For its stupefyingly simple and brilliant stop-start intro, for its addictive post-verse synth whine, for its full-release chorus rush, for its first two lines summing up toxic romance better than any entire song has in the 40 years since (“I don’t mind you coming here, and wasting all my time/ ‘Coz when you’re standing oh so near, I kinda lose my mind.”) Even the little things that the song does to stay engaging as they’re repeating that line in the third verse, singer Orr repeating “time, time,” drummer David Robinson unexpectedly putting a hitch in his swing. It’s a song that realizes there are so many great things you can do in a pop song, and decides to do all the best ones.
Maybe more than anything, “Just What I Needed” is the sound of a 35-year-old Ocasek, having bounced around bands from Cleveland to Boston, getting a late start with a band finally worthy of his talents — yes, “Just What I Needed” was their debut single — and deciding that he’s gonna make it count, goddamn it. The result was a song whose shine just can’t be dulled, even after 40 years’ worth of radio overplay, unnecessary covers and infuriating commercial syncs have tried. And while their ensuing career would result in dozens of pop-rock classics to come, The Cars got it so very right the first time that it’s almost surprising that they didn’t just dust their hands and walk away immediately after. You don’t improve on perfection, and The Cars never had another song obviously better than “Needed.” But then again, neither did anyone else, really.