Making the Case for the Dark but Brilliant ‘Candy-O’ as The Cars’ Greatest Album

The Cars still loom large in the classic rock world, with their songs sounding as fresh and invigorating today as when they were first released. Few bands lumped in with the New Wave movement of the late ’70s enjoyed as much success, especially those from America. And the quintet did serious damage on the pop singles charts as well, crossing over with relative ease.

Videos by American Songwriter

When it comes to deciding on the best ever Cars album, there are a couple obvious choices. And then there’s the correct choice: their dark, uncompromising, brilliant sophomore record Candy-O, released in 1979. Let’s make the case for it as their masterpiece, first by talking about the near-misses.

The Other Contenders

Let’s be honest here: We don’t think any of The Cars’ seven studio albums are a total loss (although the disinterested Door to Door from 1987 is clearly the weakest of the bunch). A casual fan of the band would probably point to one of two albums as their best: their 1978 self-titled debut or their 1984 record Heartbeat City.

The justification for these choices is obvious: Those records have the most hits. The debut album comes off almost like a greatest hits package, with stalwarts like “Just What I Needed,” “My Best Friend’s Girl,” and “Good Times Roll” coming at you nonstop. The band came out of the gate fully formed on that record, armed with Ric Ocasek’s seemingly endless supply of hooks and one-liners.

In 1984, The Cars went unabashedly for the gusto with Heartbeat City. They enlisted producer Mutt Lange to put the sonic exclamation points all over the record, and they made showy videos that displayed their arch sense of humor. And, just for good measure, that record included “Drive,” quite possibly the best ballad of the decade.

As good as those albums are, they don’t quite match up to Candy-O when it comes to ambition, consistency from song to song, instrumental wizardry, and sheer brilliance. The Cars simply shrugged off any worries about a sophomore slump as simply as taking off a pair of Ray-Bans.

Nothing Sweeter

Candy-O starts off with “Let’s Go,” which scales many of the same radio-friendly heights as the songs from the debut. (As a matter of fact, it scored higher on the singles charts than anything from The Cars). But that was simply the band’s way of drawing audiences into an album that digs a little bit deeper, even if it requires closer scrutiny from the listener to get those vibes.

Ocasek and the band took greater control of the sound on Candy-O, even if Roy Thomas Baker still acted in official capacity as the producer. Hence, you’ll find less gloss, a few more sharp angles, and a bit more moodiness on the whole. Even when they make catchier moves, like the chirpy synths running through “Lust for Kicks” or the crunchy groove of “Double Life,” the songs themselves are filled with barbed observances from Ocasek on vocals.

The band could also turn to bassist Ben Orr when they were looking to convey more straightforward emotion. Orr could do this naturally, without deviating from the melody. Listen to the bittersweet mid-tempo number “It’s All I Can Do,” and he stoically delivers the hurt around the woozy synths of Greg Hawkes and the precision guitar work of Elliot Easton.

Candy-O features a killer closing track in “Dangerous Type,” propelled by the muscular drum fills of David Robinson and Ocasek’s wry lyrical attack (Can I touch you / Are you out of touch). Candy-O peaks with the quasi-medley to end Side One. Some dissonant tones start to work their way into the final strains of “Double Life,” eventually unspooling into the pinball chaos of “Shoo Be Doo.” That song ends with Ocasek’s voice twisted into a horror-movie scream, which is then immediately replaced by the clean, thunderous guitar crunch of the title track. It’s one of those chill-inducing moments that you can only get from listening to a complete album.

If you don’t know The Cars’ catalog beyond the radio staples, you’re missing out on subtleties like that. Those individual moments that you hear blasting from automobile speakers certainly still enthrall. But for the best example of the band delivering a full-length, cohesive statement of their excellence, you just can’t top Candy-O.

When you purchase through links on our site, we may earn an affiliate commission.

Photo by Kevin Winter/WireImage

Leave a Reply

Cody Jinks

Cody Jinks’ “Outlaws and Mustangs” Music Video Features Wholesome Candid Shots of Family Moments