The Cars Meet Mutt Lange: Ranking the 5 Best Songs on the Classic Album ‘Heartbeat City’

The Cars found a simpatico producer in Mutt Lange for their 1984 hit album Heartbeat City. Lange accentuated the songs’ hooks and brought ever-so-subtle pop sweetening to leaven some of the acidity in Ric Ocasek’s songs. The end result was the biggest hit of the band’s career.

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Many of the songs on Heartbeat City became staples at both pop and rock radio, while even the deeper album cuts sound great today. That’s why it’s so tough to come up with the finest five songs on this landmark Cars’ record.

5. “Why Can’t I Have You”

What’s fascinating about Heartbeat City is how moody it is from a lyrical standpoint, containing some haunting evocations of frustration and loss. On the singles, Lange’s sheen tended to hide away some of that (and the band also picked the more upbeat stuff for the radio songs anyway). But album tracks like “Why Can’t I Have You” are allowed to wallow. For what’s ostensibly a ballad, this one has a lot going on in terms of its music, with many strange and exotic sounds in the mix. But what really sticks is the frustration in Ocasek’s voice as he moans his way through it.

4. “Hello Again”

What a great way to start the album and to introduce the world to the partnership of The Cars and Lange. Lange tends to produce in exclamation points, and those punctuation marks are all over this song. Every time you hear it, you can get tricked into thinking it’s a remix, so full is it of sonic doohickeys. Yet for all the aural candy on display here, the urgency of the chorus delivers the biggest impact. A song with a title like “Hello Again” might lead you expect a stroll through the park. This is a race to get there in time.

3. “Heartbeat City”

There aren’t too many songs in The Cars’ catalog with a kind of linear narrative from start to finish, as Ocasek always liked misdirection too much for that. “Heartbeat City” comes somewhat close to that story-song style, even if there are chunks of the story left out. We do know the narrator is languishing in the titular location (And happy days count on thumbs), and barely hiding his resentment at the fact that his former flame Jacki, who’s about to visit, has made it out. The chilly atmosphere conjured by the music (including Greg Hawkes’ synths sounding like seagulls) suggests an unhappy reunion.

2. “You Might Think”

Ocasek kept the lead single tight enough for radio consumption, even as he slipped enough idiosyncrasy into the lyrics to keep this from getting anywhere near basic. The narrator is so self-deprecating that he almost comes out the other side sounding like he’s mocking this girl (Maybe you think I’m lucky / To have something to do). And yet there’s something sweet when the refrains come around, and he admits that she’s pretty much his ideal, especially when Ocasek gets support from those inimitable Cars backing vocals. Add in a unique middle eight and a sprinting Elliot Easton guitar solo, and you’ve got a sparkling pop smash.

1. “Drive”

“Drive” is the song that we didn’t know The Cars had in them. No arched eyebrows, no innuendo. Just an earnest, heartfelt, yet clear-eyed song about a girl who’s probably too far gone to save, not that it’s stopping the narrator from trying. The melody is simple yet deeply affecting, and the production touches, specifically the soft onrush of the synths and those ghostly backing vocals, are all on point. All of that takes a backseat to the vocal performance of Ben Orr. Always one of the most underrated rock vocalists, well, there was no way you could underrate Orr after all the soul he exudes here.

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Photo by Theo Wargo/Getty Images For The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame

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