When The Cars’ self-titled debut album entered the Billboard chart on July 1, 1978, the United States (and much of the rest of the world) was still in the throes of disco.

And though disco dominated the radio and the dance floor, this Boston rock quintet made up of quiet, nerdy musicians obsessed with synthesizers and guitars steered their way into the hearts and minds of rock fans. The visionary behind their unique sound was their leader, Ric Ocasek. The tall, lanky Ohioan was found dead in his New York apartment on Sept. 15, 2019. By all accounts, he was 75 (he had kept his true age from the media for years).

The Cars, inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame last year, had it all. They appealed to the punk crowd, they were considered new wave but leaned more toward power pop, they were arty rock but entirely pleasing to radio ears. At the center of it all was Ocasek’s quirky vocals and defiant lyrics.

We salute you, Ric … along with Elliot Easton, Greg Hawkes, David Robinson, and Ocasek’s partner in crime, the late Benjamin Orr.

The Cars (Elektra, 1978)

Quite frankly, it’s one of the most impressive debut albums in rock history. It generated three hit singles, “Just What I Needed,” “My Best Friend’s Girl” and “Good Times Roll,” but the non-hit album cuts were just as formidable: “Moving in Stereo,” “You’re All I Got Tonight,” “Don’t Cha Stop,” “Bye Bye Love” and “All Mixed Up.” Surprisingly, it only reached No. 18 on the Billboard 200, but it spent 139 weeks on the chart and sold more than 6 million copies, and The Cars were named Best New Artist in Rolling Stone’s Reader’s Poll.

(BTW: “Moving in Stereo” was used in a rather memorable scene in 1982’s “Fast Times at Ridgemont High.”)

Producer: Roy Thomas Baker

Candy-O (1979)

It’s not as strong as their debut, but that’s a difficult bar to overcome; still, there was no sophomore slump. “Let’s Go” and “It’s All I Can Do” were radio-friendly, and “Double Life” failed to chart but was certainly worthy of airplay. Chartwise, “Candy-O” fared much better than “The Cars”; it peaked at No. 3 for four weeks.

Other highlights: “Candy-O,” “Dangerous Type,” “Since I Held You.”

Producer: Roy Thomas Baker

Panorama (1980)

Not as commercially successful as their first two albums, “Panorama” showed a more experimental sound. The lead single, “Touch and Go,” found them at their power-pop best, while they had moments of harder rock and Gary Numan-like electronic forays. The critics were lukewarm to it, but over the decades, “Panorama” has won converts for its eclectic touch.

Other highlights: “Panorama,” “Gimme Some Slack,” “Don’t Tell Me No,” “Running to You.”

Producer: Roy Thomas Baker

Shake It Up (1981)

Their last session with longtime Queen producer Roy Thomas Baker, their fourth LP was a return to their distinctive pop-rock roots, ignited by the bouncy title track. It would be their biggest hit up to that point, reaching No. 4 on the Billboard Hot 100.

Other highlights: “Since You’re Gone,” “I’m Not the One,” “Cruiser,” “Victim of Love,” “Think It Over.”

Producer: Roy Thomas Baker

Heartbeat City (1984)

Released at the height of the MTV era, the glossy “Heartbeat City” scored five Top 40 singles: “You Might Think,” “Magic,” “Drive,” “Hello Again” and “Why Can’t I Have You.” “Drive,” with Orr on lead vocals, proved to be the most successful song in the band’s career: It reached No. 3 for three weeks. And “You Might Think,” one of the first videos to use computer graphics, won the first MTV Video Music Award for Video of the Year.

(BTW: The video for “Drive” was directed by actor Timothy Hutton and featured 18-year-old model/actress Paulina Porizkova, who would marry Ocasek five years later. In May 2018, Porizkova announced she and Ocasek had amicably separated a year earlier.)

Producer: Robert “Mutt” Lange, The Cars

The Cars Greatest Hits (1985)

Their first best-of featured 11 hits, plus a new song, “Tonight She Comes,” and a new remix of “I’m Not the One,” which originally appeared on “Shake It Up.” “Tonight She Comes” made it to No. 7 on the Hot 100 and would be their last Top 10 hit.

Door to Door (1987)

By 1987, the writing was on the wall; their sixth album lacked the magic of their previous releases, and a year later they disbanded but remained friends. The first single, “You Are the Girl,” would be their last Top 40 hit, and two other singles, “Strap Me In” and “Coming Up You,” would be their final Billboard chart appearances.

Producers: Ric Ocasek, Greg Hawkes

Move Like This (Hear Music, 2011)

Orr died of pancreatic center in 2000, and in 2005, The Cars became “The New Cars,” sans Ocasek and Robinson, with Hawkes and Easton touring for two years alongside Todd Rundgren, drummer Prairie Prince and bassist Kasim Sulton. Then came 2010. A re-energized Ocasek teamed again with Easton, Hawkes and Robinson. Ocasek sang all the lead vocals, and told Rolling Stone at the time: “I was aware that on half of the new songs, Ben would have done better than I did. But we never wanted anybody from the outside.” It was a classic Cars album, regardless. In the liner notes, the band saluted Orr: “Ben, your spirit was with us on this one.”

Highlights: “Blue Tip,” “Sad Song,” “Too Late,” “Keep On Knocking.”

Producers: Jacknife Lee, The Cars

Other compilations

“Just What I Needed: The Cars Anthology” (Rhino, 1995)
“Complete Greatest Hits” (Rhino / Elektra, 2002)
“The Elektra Years 1978–1987” (2016)
“Moving in Stereo: The Best of The Cars” (2016)

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