1. “Southern Accents” – Southern Accents (1985)
For many fans Southern Accents is a mixed bag of song quality, as it contains some of Petty’s work as well as songs muddied by ’80s overproduction. “Southern Accents” and “Rebels” are both incredibly telling songs and highlights on this album, but “Southern Accents” has the edge because of the powerful and raw emotion it exudes despite its minimal instrumentation. The song is Petty’s voice and piano accompaniment, but Petty’s lyrics read like a love letter to the South, an anthem of sorts, and his vocal performance can make even someone who doesn’t live in the South swept up in the emotion. Johnny Cash later covered the song and for a good reason. Petty’s arrangements can get pretty grand, but when he goes for the basics, there’s no lack of a wallop.
2. “The Waiting” – Hard Promises (1981)
By the time Petty and his band released Hard Promises they already had three successful albums to their name and a solid following. Petty found another big hit with “The Waiting”. Most people dislike having to wait for things, so it’s fitting that Petty wrote a song about it. The song starts with a classic Mike Campbell riff before Petty starts singing about the hardships of waiting: “Every day you see one more card / You take it on faith, you take it to the heart / The waiting is the hardest part.” When things are going slow, this lyric may come to mind.
3. “Runnin’ Down a Dream” – Full Moon Fever (1989)
In some ways, Full Moon Fever helped revitalize Petty’s career. Petty’s first solo album, produced by fellow Traveling Wilbury, Jeff Lynne, is full of highlights including the never-back-down tag-team of “I Won’t Back Down” and “Runnin’ Down a Dream”. In addition to featuring excellent Mike Campbell guitar riffs, Petty’s lyrics are great motivation to attacking life head-on. The lyric “me and Del were singin’ little runaway” also offers a clever reference to Petty’s work with the late ’60s crooner, Del Shannon.
4. “Mary Jane’s Last Dance” – Greatest Hits (1993)
Sometimes a great song comes unexpectedly, and you have to release it however you can, even on a Greatest Hits album. Petty wrote “Mary Jane’s Last Dance” while he was working on his second solo album, Wildflowers. The Rick Rubin produced song featured the final appearance of original Heartbreakers drummer Stan Lynch. The lyrics are vague enough that some people have taken the lyrics to mean anything from a drug reference to simply a goodbye dance with a girl (and the video takes the latter to strange places). Either way, Petty creates a vivid story of grappling with a changing life and holding onto a moment or a person as long as possible.
5. “Refugee” – Damn the Torpedoes (1979)
Because Damn the Torpedoes is so full of the best of Petty’s music, including “Here Comes My Girl” and “Refugee” it’s hard to believe that the album almost didn’t get released. In 1979 Petty became a voice for artist rights in one of his numerous battles against the music industry when his recording contract was reassigned, and his label was sold. That didn’t sit well with Petty, so he declared bankruptcy to void his contract. That tactic worked, and he got his rights and formed his own Backstreet Records label. “Refugee” probably isn’t specifically about that experience, but one can’t help but imagine that it probably crossed his mind. Damn the torpedoes and full speed ahead, indeed.
6. “American Girl” – Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers (1976)
Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, when it formed, was essentially the conglomeration of prior groups Mudcrutch (Petty, Mike Campbell, Benmont Tench) and Road Turkey (Stan Lynch and Ron Blair). It’s mind-boggling that the self-titled first album was largely overlooked in the US. Perhaps radio didn’t know what to do with a band whose sound didn’t fit a single genre. Nowadays, the album is an easy favorite: listeners could throw a dart and hit a great song. The raw rock and roll atmosphere permeates each of the songs, including “Breakdown” and “Fooled Again (I Don’t Like It)”. “American Girl” is one of Petty’s biggest hits and rightly so. The first verse especially is pro-American Dream: It’s a song with a lot of energy and often Petty ends his live sets with it.
7. “You Got Lucky” – Long After Dark (1982)
Long After Dark was the first album to feature the late Howie Epstein on bass and harmony, who had taken over for original bass player Ron Blair until his tragic death in 2003. Epstein added a new dimension to the Heartbreakers’ sound and Long After Dark features plenty of his contributions, including songs like “You Got Lucky” and “Change of Heart”. “You Got Lucky” is one of the album’s highlights and became popular in video form on MTV. In it, Petty sings that “good love is hard to find” and while his lover is told that if they find someone better to go but to realize that they should feel fortunate to have fallen in love with him. Petty later voiced a character named Lucky in the animated series King of the Hill, a nod to this song. I really like the sci-fi video filmed for this song.
8. “I Need to Know” – You’re Gonna Get It! (1978)
While it might not be as solid as their debut, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers’ sophomore album is a pretty fantastic collection of songs and follows in some of the same footsteps. With the album, the band earned its first Gold record. There’s a little bit of restlessness in some of the lyrics, like “I Need to Know” and “Restless”. In “I Need to Know”, Petty is trying desperately to get to the bottom of things and figure out whatever he’s dealing with. There was probably temptation to go off on his own — “I Need to Know” talks about there being talk about going solo — but in hindsight, it’s a good thing Petty waited awhile to try out the solo thing.
9. “Wake Up Time” – Wildflowers (1994)
In 1994 Petty released his second solo album Wildflowers with the help of producer Rick Rubin. As a whole, the collection of songs contain some of his most introspective and thoughtful lyrics to date. While “You Don’t Know How It Feels” is one of the album’s more popular and played songs, I tend to gravitate more towards some of the other songs like album closer “Wake Up Time”. In the song, Petty uses the simple act of waking up from sleep as a metaphor for waking up from life and realizing your true self or potential. Some lyric highlights: “It’s time to open up your eyes and rise and shine” and “I’m just a poor boy, a long way from home.”
10. “Into the Great Wide Open” – Into the Great Wide Open (1991)
Following the success of Full Moon Fever, Tom Petty decided to have the Heartbreakers record their next album with Fever producer Jeff Lynne. There are some well-written songs about chasing the American Dream including “Learning to Fly” and “Into the Great Wide Open”. “Into the Great Wide Open” has a fascinating and vivid story told throughout the song. Petty creates a character Eddie Rebel, who goes out to Hollywood searching for success. He finds it, but that success goes to his head. As Petty puts it, he’s a “rebel without a clue”. Going after the American Dream is something a lot of people strive for and just about anything can happen in the great wide stretches of this country, so this song is pretty relatable.
11. “Rebels” – Pack Up the Plantation: Live! (1985)
Pack Up the Plantation was Petty’s first live album and showcases the raw energy that comes from a live Heartbreakers show and Petty’s command as a frontman. The album features a six-minute version of “Rebels” that’s a definite highlight. I’m fond of the chorus: “I was born a rebel / Down in Dixie on a Sunday morning / Yeah, with one foot in the grave / And one foot on the pedal.”
12. “Walls (No 3)” – Songs and Music from “She’s the One” (1996)
“Some days are diamonds, some days are rocks.” For “Walls (No 3)” and “Walls (Circus)”, Petty talks about the walls in peoples’ lives that act as roadblocks. The character in the song is determined to keep his lover as “even walls fall down”. “Walls (Circus)” is the more upbeat and festive version but “Walls (No 3)” is equally as good. Sometimes it’s easy to discount a soundtrack as a bunch of throwaway tracks, but Petty and his band didn’t sleepwalk for this collection of songs.
13. “Saving Grace” – Highway Companion (2006)
For his third solo album Highway Companion, Petty asked Jeff Lynne to join him as producer once again. “Saving Grace” is one of the album’s highlights. It might not be quite the level of an “I Won’t Back Down”, but the song finds Petty vocally and lyrically in fine form and showed that he could still write a catchy song. The song is about searching in high and low places for a little bit of saving grace in life. Live, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers rearranged the song to give it an even greater emotional punch.
14. “Scare Easy” – Mudcrutch (2008)
In 2008, Petty got his pre-Heartbreakers band Mudcrutch together to record their first official album and go out on a small tour. Some might have seen it as a big gamble, but Petty and company quickly found success with this little experiment and churned out a stellar collection of songs. The band recorded the tracks live together in one room, and it shows in the energy of the songs. “Scare Easy” is one of the album’s highlights and could be looked at as a close cousin of “I Won’t Back Down”. As a songwriter, Petty is like a prize fighter who refuses to go down, with “Scare Easy” being another song about staying tough in a rough world. I can’t wait to see what Mudcrutch has in store for their second album that is in the works.
15. “Something Good” – Mojo (2010)
Tom Petty has shown many times in his career he’s willing to shake things up to keep things interesting. On Mojo, Petty and his bandmates go from a more bluesy approach. They took a page from the Mudcrutch album and recorded the tracks live, giving the tracks even more power. “Something Good” is one of the album’s highlights. In it, Petty sings of his hopefulness that something good is coming in the future. It’s one of many Tom Petty songs where things might not be great, but there’s always a glimmer of hope that things will turn around.
16. “Lonesome Sundown” – Echo (1999)
Echo was recorded during one of the most turbulent periods in Petty’s life, which included his divorce from his wife of over 20 years and Howie Epstein’s health issues, among other things. Altogether, it made life pretty gloomy. It’s not surprising that the many of the songs tackle the breakup and gloomy theme head-on. Petty creates many story songs about love, but these groups of songs feel pretty autobiographical. “Lonesome Sundown” is one of the highlights. Petty talks about it hard having to move on with life by himself even though there are still strong feelings for someone. But he seems somewhat at peace with the notion by the end of the song wishing her well.
17. “Like a Diamond” – The Last DJ (2002)
Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers’ The Last DJ is often thought as the anti-music industry album (not to say that’s bad as I like the title track) but there are some songs that don’t deal with that issue. One of my favorite songs from that album is “Like a Diamond”. It’s a beautifully lush song that features some great imagery. Despite all the perils of life, he sings about his lover being a beacon of hope, which shines brightly like a diamond.
18. “Fault Lines” – Hypnotic Eye (2014)
Petty promised a return to rock on Hypnotic Eye after the bluesy Mojo, and that’s exactly what we got. He’s in top form vocally and lyrically. One of the album’s highlights is “Fault Lines”, which uses geographical fault lines as a metaphor for the faults within each one of us that collide and leads to things like a “promise broken”. Petty doesn’t hide the fact that he has his faults, but this song is not one of them.
19. “The Damage That You’ve Done” – Let Me Up (I’ve Have Enough) (1987)
Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers’ 1987 album is often overlooked as it doesn’t contain a hit song like many of his previous album had. But at its essence, the album is just a fun little rock and roll album. “The Damage That You’ve Done” is one of the highlights. I like the line “Well I wish I had a dollar / For every piece of my broken heart / Yeah if they gave out a quarter / For every thread of my shattered life / Baby you’d make me a millionaire / But it wouldn’t repair / The damage you’ve done.” There’s a country version of the song on Playback worth checking out too.
20. “Cool Dry Place” – Traveling Wilburys – Volume 2 (1990)
Getting noticed by your music heroes is something most musicians wish and hope for. For Petty, he got to play with some of his favorite songwriters in the Traveling Wilburys. In the late ’80s, Petty was part of the star-studded band, which also included Bob Dylan, Roy Orbison, Jeff Lynne and George Harrison. They recorded two albums, the second without Roy Orbison who had sadly passed away. As with the other Wilburys, Petty went by a different Wilburys nickname on the two albums. As Muddy Wilbury, Petty sings lead vocals on “Cool Dry Place”, a fun little song that doesn’t take itself too seriously. In the song, he references Lynne’s first band, the Idle Race. Every Wilburys song feels like a bunch of friends having fun together, and this one is no exception.
Joshua M. Miller is a Wisconsin-based freelance writer published in a variety of Wisconsin publications including Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Shepherd Express, and Capital Times, as well as national outlets like Paste, A.V. Club, Relix, Guitar World, Under the Radar, and American Songwriter. His writing can be found at joshuamichaelmiller.com.
In 2016, Tom Petty celebrated an impressively big milestone in his career: the 40th anniversary of his band Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. In 1976, the Gainesville, Florida-based band released its self-titled debut, a stunning collection of raw rock and roll songs. Petty and his bandmates soon found much success with each following show and album and for good reason: listeners could relate to Petty’s often character and story-driven lyrics about everyday life in America and standing your ground and fighting for what’s important. He also had a knack for writing catchy rock and roll songs like “American Girl”. During their 40-plus years, the band released an impressive 13 studio albums, including 2014’s Hypnotic Eye. Petty also released three solo albums, including the perennial favorite Full Moon Fever. He also was part of the star-studded Traveling Wilburys and reunited his pre-Heartbreakers band Mudcrutch.
Throughout his prolific career, Petty challenged himself to keep things interesting and reinvent himself, while also staying true to himself and not giving in to what a label wanted him to do. Narrowing a 40-plus-year career to 20 songs can be a daunting task (especially if you consider the deep album cuts and B-sides from the 1995 boxset Playback), but here are some of the standouts from Petty’s four-decade-long career, limited to one song per album.
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This article originally published on 16 February 2016.