The Cars guitarist Elliot Easton once said that the band jokingly considered naming their debut album The Cars' Greatest Hits. But here's the thing: it's not terribly far off the mark. When it was released in 1978, that self-titled record was some of the most unique rock and roll in America, combining strutting power pop, sizzling guitar solos, shimmering synthesizers and the unique vocal tag team of frontman/principal songwriter Ric Ocasek (whose nervous vocal hiccup recalled Buddy Holly) and bassist Benjamin Orr.
All nine tracks on The Cars are unquestionable winners, but here's five we can't live without.
"Good Times Roll": The album's opening track is ostensibly a bit of a wink at rock and roll's basest fun-and-free stereotypes. ("Let them brush your rock and roll hair"? Okay, sure.) But then, after the pumping guitar riff and synth warbles, producer Roy Thomas Baker - who helped Queen find their distinctive, layered sound - unleashes what feels like dozens of vocal harmonies on the title line, simultaneously blowing the listener away and reeling them in for more. It was a move that, originally, Ocasek had second thoughts about. "I told Roy that I thought it was way, way too much," he later admitted in an interview. "But you know, it grew on me later and it sounded so smooth. It was a nice process to do it because Roy, you know, was fortunate enough to have a 40-track machine...so he could do layering of vocals a lot."
"My Best Friend's Girl": The Cars' second track and second single (reaching the Top 5 in the U.K.) was a prime example of the group's ability to connect classic rock ideas to the sounds of the present. "Nothing in that song happened to me personally," Ocasek said. "I just figured having a girlfriend stolen was probably something that happened to a lot of people." This song got people amped up in the band's native Boston before it was even properly recorded; Ocasek gave demo tapes to local radio station WBCN, and the phone lines were flooded as a result.
"Just What I Needed": But if you lived outside of Beantown, this is likely the first Cars song you heard. The band's debut single - a Top 40 hit on both sides of the Atlantic - was one of four on the record sung by Orr, and his cool-but-lovestruck delivery pairs perfectly with Easton's guitar and Greg Hawkes' iconic synthesizer riffs. "That's pretty cool. It's got something sort of unique about it, its, like, nice and concise and...fairly short pop song format," Hawkes recalled upon hearing it the first time. That's one way of putting it; another way is that it totally rocks.
"You're All I've Got Tonight": From the top of David Robinson's flanged opening drums to the harmonies packed into the chorus, this is what Easton meant by that The Cars' Greatest Hits comment. It at once sounds familiar and reassuring to bop along to, and yet in 1978 there was nothing else quite like it.
"Moving in Stereo": That synth whine at the top, Orr's haunting and expressive vocal panning across the song (making the title of the track quite literal!), the eight-note synth riff: "Moving in Stereo" made the influence of The Cars' sound plain. Of course, it's one of the band's best-known deep cuts thanks to its use in a, uh, pivotal fantasy sequence in the '80s teen comedy classic Fast Times At Ridgemont High. (We'd put the song below, but it's not what you would call safe for work.)