There are, across rock history, a few albums that could be considered perfect. Collections of songs where the composition, production, sequence, context, attitude and a mysterious x-factor all align flawlessly. These exquisite musical artifacts are often identifiable immediately by their titles: Rumours. Car Wheels on a Gravel Road. Achtung Baby. As we assemble a list of perfect albums, I would like to submit for your consideration the eponymous 1978 debut LP by the Boston quintet The Cars. The album, released on June 6, 1978, celebrates its 45th anniversary this summer.

It’s easy to focus on the record’s massive radio smashes like “My Best Friend’s Girl” and “Just What I Needed,” or the atmospheric synth masterpiece “Moving in Stereo.” But, rather than dwelling on those undeniable highlights, I’d like to suggest that the sheer perfection of The Cars can be attributed to the finer details knit into the fabric of the entire album. Subconscious moments for the listener, perhaps, but they nonetheless raise this album to the category of perfect.

Here are some tasty musical treats to enjoy (knowing that there are plenty more that reveal themselves with multiple exposures):

“Good Times Roll”

I checked the tempo with a metronome. The song starts at 105 beats-per-minute, but ends at 110. In between, the band fluctuates naturally in waves. The long words “good times roll…” at the end of each chorus behave as if they’re beneath fermatas, slipping briefly out of time. Despite these irregularities, The Cars never sound like they’re rushing or dragging. They wax and wane together, like all good musical ensembles do. They, both literally and figuratively, rock.

“My Best Friend’s Girl”

Ric Ocasek sings “A reaction to love uh-uv uh-uv” surrounded by Elliot Easton’s chicken-pickin’ guitar leads. Beneath the proto-New Wave sheen and chilly synthesizers that define The Cars’ sound, we hear echoes of Buddy Holly, Elvis, and America’s most fundamental country and rockabilly roots.

“Just What I Needed”

Benjamin Orr appears as the band’s alternate lead vocalist and songwriter on this song, with his identifiable throaty tone and phrasing. His signature move is the upward vocal scoop, sung in words like “near,” “out,” and “deep,” and the deliciously repeated “time time.”

“I’m in Touch With Your World”

It’s the weirdest song on the record, but it plays an important role in the album’s pacing and sequence. The Cars get a lot of well-deserved instrumental attention for Elliot Easton’s guitar solos and Greg Hawkes’ brilliant keyboard hooks, but this jittery, experimental soundscape highlights the tom-heavy drum inclinations of David Robinson. His hard-panned, tribal patterns cross the stereo scope of all the songs on this album.

“Don’t Cha Stop”

The Cars ramp up the tempo and the cute factor, foreshadowing their later-period MTV hits like “You Might Think” and “Magic.”

“You’re All I’ve Got Tonight” and “Bye Bye Love”

These two songs kick off side B of the vinyl LP, but my ears always hear them as one piece with two movements. How can a heavy Ric Ocasek stomp merge so seamlessly with a much poppier Benjamin Orr composition?

A very surprising and effective choice was made in the sequencing and mastering of the album to allow this to happen: Almost no space is left between the final sung lyric “Tonight!” of “You’re All I’ve Got Tonight” and the opening guitar riff of “Bye Bye Love.” In less than one second, the latter song begins, and the listener’s brain makes a sonic calculation. “You’re All I’ve Got Tonight” is centered in the key of B, and the final change, beneath the syllables of “Tonight!” are the chords E (the IV chord) to B (the I chord). Immediately, “Bye Bye Love” begins with a three note ascending riff: B C# D, B C# D, B C# D ending on E, and the settling into the new key signature of E. The listener’s brain pivots, allowing the final B chord of the previous song to retroactively become the V chord in the new key signature, and that bridging riff creates a sense of satisfaction, resolving into the structure of “Bye Bye Love.”

I’m not sure if these musical mathematics were deliberate or not, but I wouldn’t put it past the album’s producer, Roy Thomas Baker. Baker oversaw a nearly identical production trick, also in 1978, on the breakthrough album Infinity by the band Journey. The songs “Feeling That Way” and “Anytime” are sequenced back-to-back with no transitional space, the a cappella outro of the former blossoming into the a cappella intro of the latter. A grand maneuver, and a highlight of both Infinity and The Cars.

“Moving in Stereo”

A testament to the power of a single descending riff, shared between various instruments, and a lot of attitude.

“All Mixed Up”

Producer Roy Thomas Baker leaves his fingerprints on this track as well, most noticeably on the “Leave it to me” bridge. Three years earlier, Baker had recorded Queen’s staggering tour de force “Bohemian Rhapsody,” and those familiar multi-octave vocal arrangements, sometimes double or triple tracked, appear once again. Further exploration of Roy Thomas Baker’s production credits reveal a similar double-tracked vocal approach a few years later on the chorus of Cheap Trick’s “If You Want My Love.”

The Cars went on to record six more studio albums. My favorite extracurricular activities of the band’s members are Ric Ocasek’s production of the 1994 Weezer self-titled album, Benjamin Orr’s solo hit “Stay the Night,” Elliot Easton’s collaborations with songwriter Jules Shear, and Todd Rundgren’s short-lived role as lead singer in the spin-off band The New Cars.


What are some examples of perfect works of art? Can there be such a thing?

About the Author

Jonathan Rundman

Born and raised in the isolated Finnish-American communities of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, and now based in Minneapolis, Jonathan Rundman ( twists literate lyrics, bedroom pop hooks, Nordic folk atmospherics, and garage rock attitude into his critically acclaimed songs.

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