There’s plenty of good reasons that the Cars and their songs have retained their power long past the expiration date of most new wave bands. For one, though their cool-geek look was a part of their appeal, they never relied on it the way other bands had to rely on their appearance. For another, they brought together multiple influences – rock, pop, synth, punk – and created a sound with deep roots that was both edgy and fresh – no mean feat, that.
Most importantly, the songs that (mostly) Ric Ocasek and Benjamin Orr wrote for the band were strong and memorable, loaded with hooks and containing lyrics that take on more meaning the more you look at them – is “You’re All I’ve Got Tonight” a positive or negative? What does it mean if you “needed someone to bleed”?
Their self-titled debut album is their strongest, and Heartbeat City may be their biggest, but the Cars are primarily known as a singles band, with over a dozen of them reaching the top 40. So it seems appropriate that a list of the best Cars covers should echo that. Here are the top forty cover songs of a band whose best songs won’t be tied down to any one era, preferring instead to resonate to all the generations that followed.
Typically, the world of cover songs does not change that much year-to-year. You can point to big shifts across decades, sure, but the difference between cover songs in 2018 and 2019, broadly speaking? Negligible. But 2020 was – in this as in everything else – very different.
As concerts ground to a sudden halt, musicians turned to live-from-quarantine home performances, first on their social media, then, once some kind of business model got built up, on various paid platforms. And cover songs were a big part of that. Some musicians did themed covers nights, like Ben Gibbard on YouTube early on or Lucinda Williams’ more produced Lu’s Jukebox series more recently. Others just felt the freedom in such an intimate environment to try things out, spontaneously covering influences, inspirations, or even songs they only half knew. We collected dozens of those early home covers in our Quarantine Covers series, and still only hit a small fraction.
Musicians eventually settled in, and productions got a little more elaborate than the staring-at-your-iPhone-camera look. Witness the heavy metal comedy series Two Minutes to Late Night, which transitioned from a long-running live show in New York City to a series of YouTube covers with dozens of metal-scene ringers covering songs from their couches, corpse paint and all. Witness Miley Cyrus’s endless series of killer cover locales, from a fire pit to an empty Whisky a Go Go. Or witness long-running radio covers series like BBC’s Live Lounge or Triple J’s Like a Version – often the source of a song or two on these lists. First they had musicians tape special covers from home, then, in the BBC’s case, they moved to a giant warehouse studio for suitable social distancing. (Triple J’s pretty much back to post-coronavirus business as usual – sure, Australia, rub it in.)
There’s one other major way covers reflected 2020, and it’s almost too painful to think about, so I’ll just list their names. John Prine. Adam Schlesinger. Hal Willner. Charley Pride. So many musicians taken by this virus, many reflected in some of these covers (Pride’s death happened after our list was finalized, but tributes are already rolling in). In a year filled with tragedies, covers offered one place for musicians and fans to find solace.
Many of the songs on our year-end list reflect this terrible year in one way or another. But you know what? Many don’t. Because covers can also offer a fun respite from all the stress. Doom metal Doobie Brothers? Post Malone on mandolin? A viral TikTok hit by a guy who calls himself Ritt Momney? Those have nothing to do with anything! But they’re what we live for.
“Takin’ It to the Streets” marks a point of transition for the Doobie Brothers. The first single from the album of the same name, and the first song to be written and sung by new keyboardist Michael McDonald, the song signals a change from the earlier country-inflected boogie rock to blue-eyed soul and funk-rock. The original song is dominated by McDonald’s distinctive baritone, but also features a propulsive funky bass line.Continue reading »
They Say It’s Your Birthday celebrates an artist’s special day with other people singing his or her songs. Let others do the work for a while. Happy birthday!
Ric Ocasek, who turns 64 today, may be best remembered for buzzing around in the “You Might Think” video, but between 1978 and 1988 he led the Cars to FM radio immortality with a string of successful singles and albums (and two quality solo albums to boot). After the Cars folded, Ocasek’s skills as a producer became much in demand, and he stood behind the glass for bands such as Bad Brains, No Doubt, Nada Surf, and Weezer’s multi-platinum Blue and Green Albums. In both musician and producer roles, Ocasek’s influence has proven huge and lasting; bands such as The Strokes, Weezer, Fountains of Wayne, and even Nirvana owe Ocasek debts of gratitude for his style and sound, melding ‘50s rockabilly to ‘70s new wave with ‘80s rock and pop sensibilities. Continue reading »