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This is the fifth in a series of Rock & Roll features I'm writing for this site. I'm a rock and roller, so this column is a way for me to feature a different album that I like, from different genres every month.
Certain albums just seem to bring about tremendous change in music, only to be designated more as cultural time capsules, dated and cliche after a while, than as groundbreaking as originally thought. For this month's Rock 'n' Roll feature, I believe the album I have chosen is just such an album.
In the late 1970s there was a change taking place in pop music. Some of the bands to emerge were labeled New Wave, while other just defied classification. The Cars were difficult to classify at their depute, but the album, called simply The Cars, is a unique mix of new wave, punk, pop, rock 'n' roll and progressive rock all rolled into one. This album definitely contains somethings that could be called 80s cliches (despite being released in 78), but remains one of the few mainstream albums of the time that straddles the line between rock and punk/new wave. The Cars overall is a catchy and interesting album to listen to and an album that has had tremendous influence on all the music that came after it.
Although I grew up partially during the 80s, I was too young to be caught up in the Cars music when it was released, and instead came to it through a variety of different covers (mainly a cover of "You're All I've Got Tonight" by the Smashing Pumpkins). On a whim I picked up their first album and for the first week or so after getting it I listened to it non-stop. It has just a certain something that makes it catchy, while still being intellectual and deep enough to merit multiple listens.
The album begins simply enough with "Good Times Roll". It has a little bit of blues (buried very deep) but is far more mechanical, minimal and dark. With huge harmonized choruses, a catchy riff and of course the trademark "80s style" synthesizers, it fits in with the new wave movement but still contains enough rock and roll to hearken back to greats. The second track, "My Best Friend's Girl," sounds both like a classic pop number, right down to the hand claps, but has a slight tongue and cheek or ironic quality to it, like they aren't really serious. This ironic feel is carried through much of this albums lyrics. "Just What I Needed" is a classic radio friendly song that is incredibly catchy, but also has slightly dark lyrics that make the song walk the line between a sweet love song and its darker undertones.
As the album progresses it gets increasingly strange and pushes more towards both new wave and progressive rock. "I'm in Touch With Your World" is a splintered song full of strange sounds and massive trippy choruses while "Don't Cha Stop" is more of a new wave tune; upbeat and catchy, but still hinting at its proto punk roots. "You're All I've Got Tonight" remains my favorite song off this album, although not by much. It has a great, simple, and guttural guitar riff that builds in anticipation till the chorus comes, all synth driven and bordering on arena rock. Along with "Just What I Needed," "You're All I've Got Tonight" is probably the most recognizable song from this album.
The final three songs on this album seem to knit together slightly like a progressive rock work, and I think is the best music on the album when listened as a whole. Each song has its strengths and is good, but they don't rival songs like "Just What I Needed" and "You're All I've Got Tonight." Together though, they flow perfectly and create a great range of music with changing moods.
"Bye Bye Love" is a catchy pop tune driven by its thumping guitar riff and synth melodies. A great guitar solo pushes the song right into "Moving in Stereo." and also, now at least, into yet another massive 80s cliche. "Moving in Stereo," with its seductive guitar riff and simple synth melody was immortalized in the movie Fast Times at Ridgemont High and will remain a pop culture icon from the era of 80s cult movies because of that. It is still a great song though that is a bit mechanical, electronic, and a bit psychedelic with a great riff. This song also transitions perfectly into the final track "All Mixed Up." It starts subtle, but then goes straight to epic progressive rock, while the choruses are surprisingly different, with a more catchy pop rock feel. After "You're All I've Got Tonight," this is my favorite track, but it is even better as a progressive work. The differences in the styles of these three tracks is great as they quite effectively transition, one into the next. They also feature a slightly more fiery vocal style that is a slight contrast to the more mechanical and processed vocals that are on some of the earlier tracks. Although not full fledged progressive rock, the way these three tracks interact does not at all sound like some of their more stripped down new wave and punk brethren.
It is a great conclusion to this album, giving it a bit more of a progressive (and maybe an arena rock) feel than the earlier tracks and hinting at some real depth from a band that could already write catchy pop tunes and would continue to do so for much of the 1980s.
I wasn't a fan of the Cars at all before this album. In general, I'm not a big fan of too much 80s pop and that is exactly what I thought they were: stereotypical 80s pop. When I first heard this album though, I changed my mind immediately. It's unique blend of styles combined with the obvious pop appeal was great. It also features some very subtle, but great guitar work from Elliot Easton. I own other albums by the Cars now, but this one remains my favorite, despite somethings you could call cliches, like the synthesizers. Tracks like "You're Just What I Needed" and "Moving In Stereo" sound a bit like cliches and dated pieces now because of the pop culture and cultural time they evoke, but are still great songs.
This album fits in well with new wave, but doesn't quite sound like the polished new wave punk and pop they would produce later in their career. Instead it is rougher, and more progressive and adventurous (both in a good and a bad way). What I think really makes it an interesting album is that you can hear it's influence in bands like the Smashing Pumpkins, Weezer and other artists who grew up in the era where the Cars were so popular.
I'd recommend this album to anyone who's interested in the early punk scene or the pop of the late 70s, as well as just about anyone who is open to a great album that they might have otherwise not been interested in.
If you can't get past the somewhat obvious "80s sound" that the album has, then you're not going to like it, so take that into consideration.
Overall, I think the Cars self titled debut is a great album and one of the classic albums of rock history, cliches and all.
You can pick up this album from Amazon here: The Cars