It was the height of disco, the era of Saturday Night Fever and other mega blockbuster film and soundtrack tie-ins like Grease. Yet somehow the Cars managed to gain a toe hold on the charts with their stark, cynical new wave power pop, cracking open the Top 40 with a self-titled debut album that was replete with numbers like “You’re All I’ve Got Tonight”—a love song to an abuser.
The Cars is rightly seen as one of the classic debut albums of all time (the kind of record where it sounds like every track could’ve been released as a single), and it heads up the new box set The Elektra Years 1978-1987, which features the six Cars albums with the original lineup (Benjamin Orr, bassist and one of the group’s two lead singers, died in 2000). It’s certainly the critical favorite of all the band’s albums, though the Cars enjoyed more commercial success with their later work.
Such as Candy-O, released in 1979, which quickly landed in the Top 3 and went platinum in just two months. It’s like a tamer version of The Cars, the same clinical coolness (unsurprising, since both albums were produced by Roy Thomas Baker), but lacking the spiky edge of its predecessor. Panorama (1980) is punchier in places, being kicked off by the delightfully swirling title track, which spins on for over five and a half minutes. There’s also a more pronounced darkness, due to the doomier cast of the music; it was easier to overlook the band’s generally pessimistic lyrics when the music was more upbeat.
There’s a stronger synthesizer presence on Shake It Up (1981), which spawned a Top 5 hit in “Shake It Up,” thought despite its entreaty to party down sounds like it needs an injection of energy. It’s something that could actually be said of the rest of the album as well. “Victim of Love” is terribly low-key, when it’s the kind of song whose lyrics should be spit out with decided venom. “Cruiser” would also have benefitted by being more up-tempo.
There’s a more of a pulse in evidence on Heartbeat City (1984), from the sprightly bounce of the opening “Hello Again” to the cool send-off of the closing song (the title track). In between are kind of delectable slices of power pop you might’ve found on The Cars, and the group was rewarded with a clutch of chart hits, including “You Might Think,” the strutting, full-bodied “Magic,” the synth-heavy “Drive,” and the reflective “Why Can’t I Have You.” For those fans who yearned for the band’s late ‘70s heyday, the Cars had got their mojo back.
Except there would only be one more album on which to enjoy it, Door to Door (1987), which comes roaring out of the gate with the sarcastic “Leave or Stay,” a song dismissive of l’amour in the best Cars tradition. There’s a sense of tiredness on the album; on occasion the banks of keyboards create a decided smothering effect (there’s too much bombast on a track like “Double Trouble,” for example). But there are also moments of good sunny fun, like the buoyant “Ta Ta Wayo Wayo.” Alas, before going further down that path, the Cars announced their breakup the following year.
The box set is a straight reissue of the original albums; no bonus tracks are included. It’ll be followed in May by Moving in Stereo: The Best of the Cars, which will feature a few previously unreleased cuts. Whatever your preferred format (the box and best of set will be available on the CD and vinyl), The Elektra Years is a great way to snap up the catalog of one of America’s most intelligent and engaging bands in one fell swoop.