Top 10 Cars Songs
Although it’s tempting to consider the Cars‘ top songs just their entire 1978 debut and call it a day, the Boston quintet had more to offer than nervy post-punk/classic rock hybrids. As their career progressed, the band dabbled in moody new wave and sophisticated synthpop, becoming MTV staples and an arena-sized draw. But perhaps not given as much credence is vocalist/guitarist Ric Ocasek’s songwriting. The shades-wearing singer is a master at understated desolation and subtle bitterness — so subtle, in fact, that only close lyrical readings reveal them. In honor of his talents, here are the top 10 Cars songs.
‘Bye Bye Love’
One of the many great Ric Ocasek-penned, Ben Orr-sung tunes in the Cars’ catalog (heck, on the Cars’ debut LP), ‘Bye Bye Love’ is more abstract than direct. Ostensibly about chances for romance being dashed, the midtempo AOR cruiser boasts more than a few cryptic momenets. For starters, right before the chorus Orr either sings “It’s just a broken lullaby” or “It’s just a broken alibi”; his voice is obscured enough that either word fits. The effect adds mystery—and yet another layer of depth to the band’s already-sterling debut.
‘You’re All I’ve Got Tonight’
The patchwork ‘You’re All I’ve Got Tonight’ shouldn’t work as well as it does. Its verses and the bridge are full of sludgy proto-punk and metal guitar flash — check the mini-solos throughout — while the choruses brighten into synth-driven pop with chipper harmonies. A sturdy tempo adds consistency, while desperate-but-obsessive lyrics ensure the protagonist is equal parts suffocating and casual: “I don’t care if you hurt me some more / I don’t care if you even the score” boils down to “You’re all I’ve got tonight.”
Sonically, ‘Candy-O’ was a far darker record. ‘Dangerous Type’ exemplifies this shift: A seedy glam brood, the song boasts slicing guitar, swaggering riffs (paging T. Rex!) and tinny new wave synths. Lyrically, the tune also insinuates far more sinister climes; a woman in the song is referred to as the “dangerous type,” but we’re never quite sure to whom the protagonist is referring.
‘My Best Friend’s Girl’
On the surface, ‘My Best Friend’s Girl’ is just your average country-tinted rocker with a retro-rock heart. But beneath the sockhop handclaps and lovelorn lyrics (“I like the way she dips / Cause she’s my best friend’s girl”) is something more devastating. “Well she’s my best friend’s girl / And she used to be mine,” Ric Ocasek chirps, with more than a hint of longing in his voice—which ensures the descriptions of her dancing and “suede blue eyes” are more sentimental than anything.
Unrequited teenage lust has never sounded as good as it does on ‘Let’s Go.’ The lead-off track on the Cars’ sophomore effort boasts jaunty keyboard high-stepping in lockstep with Ben Orr’s bass, as well as handclaps and easygoing guitars. The song’s object of affection, meanwhile, is a wild child who knows she’s able to manipulate anyone because of her beauty: “She says, let’s go / She’s laughing inside ’cause they can’t refuse.” And as with many early Cars songs, there’s more than a faint trace of bitterness and wistfulness in these lyrics.
‘Good Times Roll’
One of the best side ones, track ones ever, ‘Good Times Roll’ heralded the Cars’ arrival. Needling guitar jabs, gang harmonies and Ric Ocasek’s robotic yawps poke through the song’s atmospheric synths and sweeping strings. Despite its name, ‘Good Times Roll’ unfolds at a strolling pace — a paradox matching sardonic lyrics full of scorn for the supposed good times.
‘All Mixed Up’
The Cars were always more diverse than people gave them credit for. Exhibit A: ‘All Mixed Up,’ the final song on their debut LP. Prog-like keyboards burble and skip merrily underneath Ben Orr’s pastoral vocal delivery and layers of post-punk and garage-psych guitar. Unsurprisingly, disorientation and confusion dominate the lyrics; still, the song’s intricate details — from Queen-like gang harmonies to a bittersweet Greg Hawkes sax solo—are what elevate it high in the Cars’ song canon.
‘Moving In Stereo’
It seems somehow wrong to separate ‘Moving In Stereo’ from ‘All Mixed Up,’ since the songs blend together seamlessly on ‘The Cars’ (and were often played that way on the radio). However, the ‘Fast Times At Ridgemont High’ movie staple gets a slight nod for its entirely futuristic, experimental tone. Space-junk synths hum ominously underneath prickly guitar riffs and worried keyboards, combining for a plodding proto-new wave dirge that wasn’t afraid to take risks with arrangements and effects.
By ‘Heartbeat City,’ The Cars had shed most of the wiry, nervous energy that marked their early albums, in favor of commercial-friendly sounds and neon-hued keyboards. The No. 3 Billboard hit ‘Drive’ matched these sophisticated, synth-softened textures with appropriately moody (but deceptively simple) lyrics. The questioning narrator, speaking to someone in denial about a relationship collapse, reminds the delusional recipient how good he/she has it by repeatedly asking, ‘Who’s gonna drive you home tonight?’ Bassist Ben Orr handles lead vocal duties, and the regret permeating his voice lends ‘Drive’ an emotionally devastating edge.
‘Just What I Needed’
On a near-perfect debut album, the Roy Thomas Baker-produced ‘Just What I Needed’ was a near-perfect song. The Cars’ entry on the Top 100 Classic Rock Songs list succeeds because of its tension — do the lyrics express love or disdain for a beauty? — as well as for its minimalist guitar, clipped rhythms and the indelible siren-like keyboard melody. Fresh enough for new wavers, but traditional enough for classic rockers, ‘Just What I Needed’ hits the (sweet) spot.