The Cars’ Ric Ocasek was best known for fusing classic rock and new wave on innovative Billboard Hot 100 hits like “Just What I Needed,” “My Best Friend’s Girl” and “Shake it Up.” But he was just as adept at taking promising material by 1990s alternative rockers -- Weezer, Nada Surf, Guided by Voices -- and tuning it up from rough-hewn to radio-ready.
Perhaps most famously, he helped Weezer find their voice on 1994’s Weezer (or The Blue Album), elevating them from an ignored L.A. bar band to mainstream rock’s most inexhaustible juggernaut. In 1999, he helped the low-fidelity Guided by Voices come within spitting distance of commercial success with Do the Collapse, briefly opening a wormhole where a schoolteacher’s drunken, tape-recorded band could soundtrack Scrubs and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. He was also an undersung punk producer, helping albums by Bad Religion and Bad Brains land with blunt-force impact.
Ocasek, who passed away Sunday (Sept. 15) in New York, was just as beloved for his Cars hits and solo albums as his production work. From Suicide’s synth-rock provocations to Motion City Soundtrack’s skyscraping emo, here are 10 essential albums Ocasek produced for other artists.
Suicide, Suicide: Alan Vega and Martin Rev (1980)
The electro-punk pioneers Suicide’s 1977 debut got mixed responses in its day: Rolling Stone called it “absolutely puerile.” After being dropped by their label, Red Star, and hitting the road with the Cars, Ocasek offered to produce its follow-up, Suicide: Alan Vega and Martin Rev, for Ze Records. Their new label head, Michael Zilkha, wanted the band to pivot to a danceable sound a la Donna Summer’s No. 6 hit “I Feel Love.” Ocasek helped swap their shabby gear for high-dollar synths, like a Sega 78 and a Prophet 5. Their next tour as support for the Cars didn’t make them disco stars; according to his biography, Vega screamed obscenities at the audience, who responded with a hurled knife into the Cars’ drum riser. But on Suicide: Alan Vega and Martin Rev, they rode the dance-rock wave in their own prickly, brilliant way.
Bad Brains, Rock for Light (1983)
In the early 1980s, Bad Brains were young punks taking their reggae-hardcore fusion across the U.S. when they came across an unlikely ally at a show: Ocasek. “He said, ‘Give me a chance to take you in the studio and we’ll see what we can make of it,'” their frontman, H.R, later told Consequence of Sound. “He’d just polish up those rough edges and wow, the next thing you know, man, the groove was set.” Rock for Light, produced by Ocasek, marked an improvement from their 1982 debut’s promising-but-tinny sound, and it was proof positive that he could adjust his pop-tuned approach for forward-thinking hardcore.
Alan Vega, Saturn Strip (1983)
After their Ocasek-produced second album and its chaotic tour, Suicide went on an eight-year break, giving vocalist Alan Vega room to stretch out as a solo artist. On his excellent third solo album, Saturn Strip, he largely dropped the morbidity of songs like “Frankie Teardrop” for bouncy pop like “Video Babe” and “Goodbye Darling,” and smartly kept Ocasek around to shine up his sound. The teeth-grinding noise of Suicide is still there, but mixed far back, letting cheerful, Cars-style synth burbles lead the way.
Weezer, Weezer (Blue Album) (1994)
Before he came along, Weezer were a garden-variety bar band, formed from the ashes of Fuzz and 60 Wrong Sausages. When Geffen came knocking, they had to pick a producer — and Cuomo, then absorbed in The Cars’ Greatest Hits, found his man. “Once I learned of Rivers’ history with heavy metal, it made perfect sense,” Ocasek told Rolling Stone. “[Weezer’s songs] didn’t have metal riffs, but they had real power. And at the time that kind of approach wasn’t really available.” Though his suggestions were on the “boring, technical” side (Rivers Cuomo’s words), his attention to detail quietly defined their sound. “Before we met him, we always had our guitars on the rhythm pickup, which has a bassy, dull sound to it,” he told Rolling Stone. “It made a huge difference, I think, in the way we sound.” Today, the Blue Album is widely considered a classic marriage of metal guitars and Beach Boys-style melody; when you hear “Buddy Holly,” “Say It Ain’t So” or “Undone — The Sweater Song” slam into stadium-sized release, thank Ocasek for simply flipping the pickup switch.
Bad Religion, The Gray Race (1996)
Although best known as the skate-punk stalwarts who founded Epitaph Records, the members of Bad Religion found longevity in taking influences far beyond the pit. “I really idolize Todd Rundgren and Ric Ocasek,” their frontman, Greg Graffin, told Epitaph.com, citing his love for old-school production. “If I could have been a [...] bandleader like Ric Ocasek, I would have been stoked when I was little.” Graffin’s childhood wish somewhat came true in 1996 when Ocasek produced their album The Gray Race; he helped them weather the loss of a key member and deliver a solid mid-period album. Gems like “A Walk” and “Spirit Shine” show that Ocasek didn’t try to make punk bands unpunk; he simply guided their hooks into the light.
Nada Surf, High/Low (1996)
In the mid-1990s, Nada Surf frontman Matthew Caws handed Ocasek a cassette of their music, thinking little of it. “Never in a million years did I think [Ocasek] would listen to it,” he told AM New York. “But he did. And he said, ‘Whatever this cassette is, if you ever want to rerecord it, I’ll do it for you really cheap.’” Soon after, an Elektra Records rep came knocking. “In a matter of weeks we had both a label and a record producer,” Caws said. Their Ocasek-produced debut album, High/Low, maintained their live energy while emphasizing their chuggy melodies -- and “Popular,” their send-up of the high school pecking order, became a surprise hit, launching to No. 11 on the Alternative Songs chart. “It was accepted at face value,” Caws said later. “The video had gotten out so much that at shows we kept seeing cheerleaders and football players.”
Jonathan Richman, I’m So Confused (1998)
Ocasek was most famous for his radio-ready hooks, but he could also reel it back; he’s a tasteful, muted presence on Jonathan Richman’s I’m So Confused. By 1998, the ex-Modern Lovers singer had largely abandoned proto-punk for the classical guitar, crooning internationally-flavored folk songs instead of yowling “Roadrunner.” It doesn’t sound like Ocasek tried to nudge Richman back into his old form; rather, he simply accentuates quirky, toe-tapping songs like “Nineteen in Naples” and “Hello From Cupid” with backing singers and subtle synth lines.
Guided by Voices, Do the Collapse (1999)
Guided by Voices were lo-fi pioneers with radio-rock impulses when they decided to take a leap with their 1999 album Do the Collapse. “I'm a terrible producer. I'm only good at producing lo-fi music. I know how to f--k s--t up,” their frontman, Robert Pollard, told The A.V. Club. Where Pollard usually sabotaged his most beautiful songs with banged trash cans and snoring noises, Ocasek took his most anthemic pop songs (“Teenage FBI”) and show-stopping ballads (“Hold On Hope”) and made them radio-ready.
“That’s how I get, I get comfortable. I'm not very ambitious when it comes to exploring other ways to do things,” he told The A.V. Club. “Now I want to do records with him all the time, from now on, you know?” The band would never go as polished as Do the Collapse again, and the album remains a point of contention among fans of their earlier, rawer albums, like Bee Thousand. But if you’re more hung up on songwriting than sound quality, Collapse truly shines.
Weezer, Weezer (Green Album) (2001)
Weezer made a departure from their nerdy-cute debut with 1996’s self-produced Pinkerton, an aggressive, self-lacerating album that explored the dark side of their image. Today, Pinkerton is widely viewed as an influential classic, but when it commercially flopped, Cuomo was mortified, calling it “hideous” and a “hugely painful mistake” for being so confessional. They decided to walk it back with 2001’s Weezer (or The Green Album), in which they brought Ocasek back behind the boards and leaned all the way back into bubblegum. In the shadow of Pinkerton, “Don’t Let Go,” “Hash Pipe” and “Island in the Sun” can come off as both lighthearted Weezer classics and careful songs that shrank from emotional honesty. Green may have drawn a line in the sand among Weezer fans, but contains the sound we most identify with the band, and remains among their strongest albums. Ocasek would return for 2014’s solid Everything Will Be Alright in the End.
Motion City Soundtrack, Even if It Kills Me (2007)
Motion City Soundtrack arrived right at the peak of the third-wave emo explosion with 2005’s Commit This to Memory, which producer Mark Hoppus of Blink-182 colored with fuzzy synthesized soundscapes. For their next album, they reached back an evolutionary step: Ocasek, perhaps the master fuser of guitar and synth with the Cars. Even If It Kills Me displays subtle signs of Ocasek’s touch, updated for the 21st century: chugged verses leading to spacious choruses; vocal lines and wheedly synths in call-and-response. It shows that Ocasek didn’t just hone his sound for his own purposes; he effectively taught a generation of melody-obsessed youngsters how to fish.