While Tom Petty is no longer with us, his legend continues to grow.
In the final year of his life in 2017, Petty and his band The Heartbreakers performed an extensive 40th-anniversary tour that proved to be their most profitable ever. For much of his career, he was inevitably classified as “underrated.” But by that anniversary tour, Petty was universally adored as a rare cultural institution that seemingly everybody — men and women, liberals and conservatives, boomers and their kids and grandkids — could agree on. An icon as comfortable and reliable and well-made as your favorite pair of beat-up blue jeans.
One week after the tour wrapped in Los Angeles, Tom Petty died at the age of 66. And yet he remains a ubiquitous presence. Next month will bring a series of special occasions for fans — his 70th birthday, the third anniversary of his death, and the release of his long-gestating dream project, Wildflowers And All The Rest, an expanded version of his classic (and perhaps best) 1994 LP.
If anything, Petty’s untimely death has only made people love him more. In life, Petty was always there — putting out albums every couple of years, performing summer tours with The Heartbreakers annually, and getting played regularly at every sporting event, county fair, and gas station known to man. But in the past three years, we’ve had to accept the terrible reality that there will never be a “new” Tom Petty song (save for the outtakes that come out on posthumous releases like Wildflowers And All The Rest). What once seemed like an inexhaustible resource has proven to be sadly finite. It makes you appreciate what’s there all the more.
My personal experience with Tom Petty, I’m sure, is pretty typical: Some of my earliest musical memories are hearing songs like “Refugee” and “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around” on classic rock radio. As a teenager, Petty was one of the cool “old guys,” putting out masterpieces like Full Moon Fever and Wildflowers that made him a hero of younger generations. As an adult, I hoped to one day take my own kids to see The Heartbreakers for their first rock show.
That will never happen, and I’m still not over it. However, Petty’s death has given me fresh perspective on his body of work. Petty made many great albums, but what sets him apart from his heartland rock peers — Dylan, Springsteen, Young — is his undying devotion to the song. While those other guys might have made more great albums, they can’t touch Petty as a maker of perfect rock singles. Petty’s superpower was the ability to write dozens of instantly recognizable hits that even people who can’t stand Tom Petty (if those people actually exist) can sing word-for-word. But his greatest talent also obscures the full scope of his catalogue. As good as “Free Fallin,'” “Mary Jane’s Last Dance,” “Breakdown,” “The Waiting” and the other familiar Tom Petty warhorses are, there are many other deep cuts that have never really gotten their due beyond appearing on box sets or on the B-sides of radio smashes. Dig into that work and Petty’s reputation as a pop-rock craftsman deepens. As a truly great American songwriter, he was capable of writing both loopy and hilarious story songs and penetrating confessionals that revealed the sensitive man behind the affable hippie image. We all knew Tom Petty, but we’re just starting to understand him.
You can take that on faith. You can take it to the heart. But perhaps it’s best to just listen. Let’s dig into this incredible songbook. Here are my 100 favorite Tom Petty songs.
100. “Zombie Zoo” (1989)
The most divisive track on the otherwise universally adored Full Moon Fever. For decades, fans have debated whether this arguably perfect album was in fact kept from perfection by the inclusion of the jaunty closing track. I figured I might as well begin this list by stating for the record that I am a staunchly pro-“Zombie Zoo” partisan — it’s undoubtedly the best song ever written about a zombie zoo. Also, the chorus is impossible to obliterate from your brain for at least two weeks after you hear it. (Thank you, and I’m sorry.) If you still can’t stand “Zombie Zoo,” picture this scenario: The song was inspired by an encounter with some punks at a LA diner with Jeff Lynne and George Harrison in tow. If that mental image does not bring a smile to your face, you might as well stop reading now.
99. “Come On Down To My House” (recorded in 1993, released in 1995)
Among my many firmly held beliefs about Tom Petty is that the “Nobody’s Children” disc of Playback — the 1995 box set that is now regrettably out of print — is his great “lost” album. A compilation of unreleased tracks that date from the early ’70s to the early ’90s, the “Nobody’s Children” disc mostly collects tossed-off barnburners that spotlight the garage-band side of The Heartbreakers. “Come On Down To My House,” which was knocked out before the band’s 1993 tour, is the first of several songs from that disc on this list. In the box set’s liner notes, Petty says this furious, blissfully dumb rock song was inspired by Nirvana, who “kicked us in the ass” in the early ’90s. Less a song than an exercise in middle-aged bullshit reduction, “Come On Down To My House” is the first of many examples on this list of Petty — with the possible exception of Neil Young — embracing the energy and influences of each new rock ‘n’ roll generation more effectively than any of his peers.
98. “My Life/Your World” (1987)
The musical story of Tom Petty in many ways is also the story of Mike Campbell, Heartbreakers guitarist and Petty’s near-constant creative companion for more than 40 years. In the early ’80s, Campbell experienced his first flush of real success outside of The Heartbreakers when he wrote the music for Don Henley’s massively popular hit, “The Boys Of Summer,” the demo of which had previously been submitted to and subsequently rejected by Petty. It’s interesting to ponder how “The Boys Of Summer” might’ve come out as a Tom Petty song, and it’s apparent while listening to 1987’s Let Me Up (I’ve Had Enough) that Petty felt the same way. For one album, he was suddenly amenable to his partner’s synth-rock experiments. “My Life/Your World” isn’t the equal of “The Boys of Summer,” but this vibe-y iteration of sci-fi heartland rock clearly influenced subsequent generations of indie bands, most notably The War On Drugs.
97. “You And Me” Clubhouse Version (recorded in 2007, released in 2018)
One of the few times that Tom Petty played the aging reactionary is 2002’s The Last DJ, coincidentally one of his weakest albums. Typically, when Petty expressed cynicism in a song, he was able to balance it with empathy and wry gentleness, especially in his later years, when he suddenly appeared more fragile than he had in the ’70s and ’80s. But on The Last DJ, his diatribe against the modern music industry, he couldn’t put his own rage — a constant if otherwise distant presence on all of his records — in perspective. Perhaps that’s why one of the album’s most winning tracks, “You And Me,” ultimately comes out better in this live rehearsal version recorded five years after, and released posthumously on the An American Treasure compilation. On this version, Benmont Tench — Petty’s other crucial lieutenant, along with Campbell — really shines on the sparkling piano solo.
96. “Crystal River” (2008)
Tom Petty’s reputation is that of the consummate rock craftsman, the guy who wrote more perfect car radio songs than anyone else in the genre. But in the final decade of his career, he seemed to be moving away from a song-centric approach, favoring meandering albums focused on the interplay of the trusted musicians with whom he had spent most of his life. Put another way: Petty was drifting into jamband territory. The first sign of the shift occurred on the first Mudcrutch album, in which Petty reconnected with his early Southern-rock muse, and Campbell finally put on record the quasi-Dead stylings that he had begun indulging in on stage. That album’s showcase, “Crystal River,” essentially is a song sketch that acts as a starting point for Campbell and Tench to play off of each other beautifully for more than nine minutes.
95. “First Flash Of Freedom” (2010)
The Heartbreakers’ LP that followed Mudcrutch, the so-called “blues” album Mojo, was the first time that Petty integrated this new jammy approach into his regular band. You can practically smell the pungent weed stench coming off of “First Flash Of Freedom,” a winning homage to the Allman Brothers Band suggesting that Petty could’ve co-headlined stadiums with Dead & Company. (Quick tangent: I came very close to including the most hated song from Mojo, “Don’t Pull Me Over,” on this list. I like “Don’t Pull Me Over!” Yes, it’s an unlikely reggae experiment from a band of white baby boomers. But I think it succeeds thanks to the reliably deep groove of the rhythm section — take an extremely stoned bow, bassist Ron Blair and drummer Steve Ferrone — and Petty’s endearingly goofy patois. Now, to be fair, a lot of people loathe this song. The Village Voice called it one of the worst tunes of 2010, describing Petty as a “misguided, quasi-hippie dudebro.” Music critics are the worst! “Don’t Pull Me Over,” however, is good.)
94. “Fault Lines” (2014)
Lest The Heartbreakers get too hippie-fied, Petty steered back toward his proto-punk roots on the band’s final album, Hypnotic Eye. Though, again, he was content to luxuriate in the profound instrumental pleasures of his backing band — only this time, instead of extended guitar-and-piano passages, it was the fuzzy, Yardbirds-on-Benzedrine rush of tracks like the ageless “Fault Lines.”
93. “No Reason To Cry” (2010)
This wistful, pedal steel-accented country weepie from Mojo is the American Beauty-style flipside to the era’s jammier indulgences. A common theme of Petty’s post-Wildflowers output — a period marked by addiction, untimely deaths in his inner circle, and bouts with depression and anxiety — is his restless search for a sense of inner peace. (The line in which he says, “Overcome me bitter sweetness” sums up this era more or less perfectly.) To paraphrase an observation once made of Jerry Garcia, Tom Petty was the only person who didn’t have the comfort of listening to Tom Petty to make himself feel better. You feel that burden in this song.
92. “Out In The Cold” (1991)
The third single off of Into The Great Wide Open — after “Learning To Fly” and the title track, more to come on both of those songs soon — “Out In The Cold” instantly reminds me of listening to my local classic rock station, WAPL, in the eighth grade. They played this song endlessly, even though nobody really remembers it now. In the early ’90s, Petty could knock out extremely likable rock songs like “Out In The Cold” while nodding off on the couch. Maybe that’s why he’s dissed the song over the years. (“It’s nothing earth-shaking,” he tells Paul Zollo in Conversations With Tom Petty.) But by the end of the ’90s, a single as effortlessly listenable as “Out In The Cold” would no longer be as easy to pull off for Petty.
91. “Anything That’s Rock ‘n’ Roll” (1976)
In the early days, Tom Petty was mistaken for a punk — perhaps because he wears a leather jacket and a vaguely threatening smirk on the cover of the first Heartbreakers record. His look says, “You’re gonna get it!” (This implication was literalized as the title of Petty’s second album.) The difference is that Petty had no use for the rhetoric of punk, which was supposedly about destroying rock ‘n’ roll. Petty endorsed anything that was rock ‘n’ roll, even as he moved at a pace only slightly slower than “Blitzkrieg Bop.”
90. “Damaged By Love” (2006)
The finest Tom Petty album of the 21st century, Highway Companion, is also one of the most melancholy of his career. A late-career “mortality” record, Highway Companion is preoccupied by the passage of time and the essential loneliness we all feel as we wander through life. Among the saddest revelations of Warren Zanes’ essential biography Petty is how alone he felt even in his own band, who over time came to regard him more as a boss than a friend. It makes sense, then, that for his third “solo” record, he foregrounded that feeling. “In a crowd all alone,” he sings. “Walking ’round in a song.”
89. “Turn This Car Around” (2006)
Has any male songwriter written about women as much (or as well) as Tom Petty? Starting with “American Girl,” he was drawn to plainspoken heroines, chronicling their desire to push beyond the mundane constraints of daily life. Another highlight of Highway Companion, “Turn This Car Around,” could have been called “American Girl Revisited,” tracking the protagonist 30 years down the road at the moment she discovers that she can no longer out-run her life. Appropriately enough, the music is no longer anthemic, but rather a tense, Neil Young-like lurch.
88. “Depending On You” (1989)
This is maybe the ninth or tenth best song on Full Moon Fever. This is not a putdown of “Depending On You,” it’s a putdown of every other album that is not Full Moon Fever.
87. “Too Good To Be True (1991)
Into The Great Wide Open generally gets short shrift from Petty historians, because it’s positioned between two of his unquestioned classics, Full Moon Fever and Wildflowers. It’s also the Heartbreakers LP that sounds most like the Traveling Wilburys, even more than FMF, for good and for ill. In terms of depicting the interplay of the musicians, it’s the opposite of Wildflowers and pretty much every other Tom Petty album that came after that — it’s just a straight-forward pop album, and worked over thoroughly production-wise like a cheater at a ’70s Las Vegas casino. But as Petty himself has said: Nobody cares ultimately how records are made. It’s all about the end product. And “Too Good To Be True” is an extremely well-crafted pop song.
86. “Walkin’ From The Fire” (recorded in 1984, released in 2018)
The conventional wisdom is that Tom Petty made three masterpiece albums: Damn The Torpedos, Full Moon Fever, and Wildflowers. (There’s also The Live Anthology, but that’s another story that we’ll get to later.) The fourth should have 1985’s Southern Accents, a proposed double-LP that would’ve allowed Petty to stretch out as a lyricist like never before, over gritty, earthy Southern rock that evoked The Band and the early-’70s Rolling Stones. The finished album is very good on its own, but the inclusion of some dance-rock clunkers made with Dave Stewart of Eurhythmics distracted Petty from his original idea. (A metric ton of blow being dumped on the studio didn’t help matters.) In the end, Petty opted to include questionable tunes like “Make It Better (Forget About Me)” — “I hate that song,” he eventually confessed to Zollo — over gems of storytelling like “Walkin’ From The Fire,” in which a kid is sent reeling after his brother is arrested for possession of cocaine. While the song wasn’t officially released for another 34 years, it sounds like Tom Petty inventing the Drive-By Truckers a decade before the fact.
If you need more evidence proving that Southern Accents is the great lost opportunity of Tom Petty’s career, dig into this excellent B-side (for “Don’t Come Around Here No More”) also left off the album, about a guy who buys his girl a mobile home and then gets dumped. If Bruce Springsteen wrote “Trailer,” it would have been a despairing howl of pain. In Petty’s hands, however, the tone of the song is sardonic: “Man we used to dance to Lynyrd Skynyrd / Boy she used to look so good at times / But I guess I gave it all to you babe / There’s not room in no trailer for two babe.” Petty eventually revived “Trailer” for his final studio album, 2016’s Mudcrutch 2, but the superior version is the Southern Accents outtake released on the Playback box set.
84. “Gainesville” (recorded in 1998, released in 2018)
This nostalgic tribute to Petty’s hometown was recorded for Echo and apparently forgotten until it was dug out for An American Treasure. (In the album’s liner notes, Campbell claims to have no memory of recording it, as it was “a dark period” for the band.) Given the bleakness of Echo, the most depressed album of Petty’s career, it’s possible that “Gainesville” wouldn’t have really fit on that album anyway. It feels more like a throwback to the Wildflowers era — robust, sunny folk-rock that leaves a melancholy aftertaste.
83. “Billy The Kid” (1999)
In the moment, Echo was commonly referred to as Tom Petty’s “divorce” album, coming as it did on the heels of his separation from his first wife, Jane. In retrospect, Echo is more properly contextualized as the “addiction” album, capturing the vibe of Petty’s lost late-’90s years, when he slipped into severe depression and heroin abuse. (Addiction also had debilitated bassist Howie Epstein, who succumbed to a heroin overdose in 2003 at the age of 47.) While the album retains a grim yet undeniable power, it can be a tough go if you’re used to Petty delivering feel-good arena-rock jams. “Billy The Kid” is typical of the album’s vibe — over a ravaged but steady riffy swing, Petty sings about being betrayed, over and over, by those he thought he trusted. At the end of each chorus, he sings “but I got up again,” though any potential triumph is wiped out by another setback coming in the next verse.
82. “Hard On Me” (1994)
While Damn The Torpedoes made Tom Petty a major star, the “best Petty album” conversation now centers almost entirely on Full Moon Fever vs. Wildflowers. It’s extremely difficult for me to pick one over the other, because it really depends on what I’m looking for in the moment: Full Moon Fever is the “songs” record, a virtual greatest hits collection, while Wildflowers is the “mood” album, the immersive experience worth more than the sum of its parts. Of course, Wildflowers has scores of incredible songs, too. “Hard On Me” is the first one that Petty wrote for the record, and apparently one of Rick Rubin’s personal favorites. “Both of us were a little sad that it didn’t become the big song from the album,” he told Zollo. Fortunately, there were about a dozen other hits from Wildflowers.
81. “Crawling Back To You” (1994)
Years later, Petty would maintain that Wildflowers, and not Echo, was the divorce record, even if it became before the split. These were the songs that he wrote when he was working up the nerve to accept the end of his marriage. (The same could be said of Bob Dylan and the ultimate divorce album, Blood On The Tracks.) “Crawling Back To You” is about that anticipation of making a life-altering decision, and dealing with the attendant uncertainty and dread. While Petty struggled to come to terms with it in his personal life, he offered a pithy truism that’s worth tattooing on your brain: “Most things I worry about / Never happen anyway.”
80. “Won’t Last Long” (1999)
Another song from the Echo sessions that Petty later confessed he had no memory of writing or recording. According to Zollo’s book, he heard it randomly years later and thought, “What a cool song.” He’s right! This is also an example of a phenomenon we’ll be exploring more as this list progresses — Mike Campbell’s mastery of the outro guitar solo. Nearly all of the heavy hitters at the top of this list climax with a killer outro guitar solo. (Campbell’s only rival in this regard is Lindsey Buckingham, but Campbell narrowly edges him out.)
79. “Have Love, Will Travel” (2002)
The Last DJ falters when Petty uncharacteristically succumbs to full-on bile and cynicism on songs like “Joe” and “Money Becomes King.” In contrast, “Have Love, Will Travel” is classic Petty — a Stonesy ballad that pays tribute to yet another American Girl attempting to navigate an uncertain middle-aged period. If cynicism is ultimately a self-defense mechanism against feelings of sadness and vulnerability, the elegiac “Have Love, Will Travel” feels like a less guarded moment. “How about a cheer for all those bad girls / And all the boys that play that rock and roll / They love it like you love Jesus / It does the same thing to their souls.”
78. “The Trip To Pirate’s Cove” (2010)
This deep cut from Mojo is one of the stranger songs in Petty’s catalogue. Over a languid, space-jam soundscape, Petty tells a stream-of-consciousness story about two buddies on an aimless road trip that includes an orgy with two motel maids. If this had appeared on an early Petty record, perhaps the tone would have been darkly comic or even triumphant. But “The Trip’s To Pirate’s Cove” feels more like Sideways if it had been made by David Lynch. It’s creepy and unsettling: “My friend said I don’t like mine / so what do you say we trade / She was a part of my heart / now she’s just a line in my face.”
77. “You Can Still Change Your Mind” (1981)
Hard Promises is the most Tom Petty of Tom Petty albums — it’s so reliable and steady that it often isn’t mentioned with his very best records, even though it is. While Hard Promises can stand on its own as a collection of some Petty’s subtlest and most story-oriented songs, it also feels like a transitional LP steering The Heartbreakers out of the Damn The Torpedoes era. The closing track — a stately ballad presaging other climactic mini-epics like “The Best Of Everything” and “Wake Up Time” — points toward the music that Petty would make later on in the ’80s. It’s also an early example of Petty and Campbell (who wrote the music) dabbling in the Beach Boys influences that would inform Full Moon Fever.
76. “Luna” (1976)
The combative dynamic between Petty and original Heartbreakers drummer Stan Lynch is the most fascinating subplot in the story of the band. The pecking order in The Heartbreakers seemed to be constant for much of their history: Petty, then Mike Campbell, then Benmont Tench, then everybody else. (Tench was probably in the “everybody else” group for the first 20 or so years.) Only Lynch had enough of an ego to be bothered by that. In his defense, he was also the second most charismatic member of the band early on, along with being a good “feel” drummer and a top-notch harmony vocalist. For “Luna,” a curveball highlight from the self-titled debut, Lynch collaborated with Petty more closely than usual, knocking out the track while the two musicians were in Tulsa. The result is atmospheric swamp-rock that sounds nothing like any other Heartbreakers track, with a spooky ARP String Ensemble synthesizer played by Lynch.
75. “All Or Nothin'” (1991)
Shoutout to Mike Campbell’s slide guitar playing, one of many, many things that is underrated about Mike Campbell. (George Harrison put Campbell up with Ry Cooder among his favorite slide players.) Also, you can tell that Petty and Jeff Lynne were fond of a certain kind of chorus around this time — the way Petty staggers the chorus (“you want it all, you want it alllllll, all or nothin'”) recalls “Free Fallin.'”
74. “Love Is A Long Road” (1989)
This is a point about Full Moon Fever I’m going to end up belaboring by the end of this list but so be it: “Love Is A Long Road” was not a single. On pretty much on any other Tom Petty album, it would have been the first single. But Full Moon Fever was the ’90s Chicago Bulls of Tom Petty albums, so “Love Is A Long Road” had to ride the bench.
73.”Hope You Never” (1996)
She’s The One is the most unjustly overlooked album in the Petty canon, probably because it’s associated with a forgettable mid-’90s rom-com (named after a Springsteen song, no less) that nobody saw. Hiring Tom Petty to score an Ed Burns movie is like asking Mozart to write the music for an episode of Suddenly Susan. As it is, She’s The One is basically an extension of Wildflowers, with several songs — including the surly breakup song “Hope You Never” — originating from those sessions. Look out for the harpsichord solo, which Petty played after Tench couldn’t quite capture the feel. It’s perhaps the only time that a harpsichord ever sounded bluesy.
72. “Fooled Again (I Don’t Like It)” (1976)
Petty’s image as a benevolent hippie stoner makes him lovable, but it also conceals more than it reveals. The truth is that he was an anti-establishment malcontent with an authority problem and a profound rage that he struggled to reconcile for much of his life. That side of him comes out most musically on the first two Heartbreakers records, especially this furious, resentful rocker from the debut.
71. “Century City” (1979)
The defining story of Petty’s early “angry” period is the battle with MCA over his woefully unfair original record contract. The mythology of Petty’s breakthrough third album, Damn The Torpedoes, is that he was willing to not put out his best album up to that point if it meant capitulating to the man, man. That mythos is baked into the record itself via “Century City,” named after the section of Los Angeles where Petty had to travel every day during the lawsuit to consult with his lawyers. It’s one of his early “I won’t back down” anthems: “No you can’t run back to daddy / Yeah you tried that once before.”
70. “Dreamville” (2002)
The Last DJ is the angriest album of Petty’s latter career, but again the softer, melancholy numbers hit the hardest. This wistful evocation of Petty’s childhood is the album’s most moving song, even if it also feels incomplete — there’s not much room in “Dreamville” for the abusive father who disapproved early on of his rock ‘n’ roll ambitions. (Unlike Bruce Springsteen, Tom Petty never made his father a central figure in his songs.) Instead, “Dreamville” is about a purer, more joyful moment when Petty discovered music and therefore his path in life: “Going down to Lillian’s music store / To buy a black diamond string / Gonna wind it up on my guitar / Gonna make that silver sing.”
69. “Night Driver” (2006)
Earlier I wrote that Tom Petty “wrote more perfect car radio songs than anyone else.” For the first 20 years of his career, he produced wonderful car radio singles. (CCR is the only American rock band that was better at making singles than Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers, though I’m tempted to give TP the overall edge because he did it over a longer period of time. The Heartbreakers are the San Antonio Spurs of rock ‘n’ roll.) For the next 20 years, Petty’s finest driving songs were album cuts designed by introspective wandering; “Refugee” works on a sunny Sunday afternoon, whereas “Night Driver” is strictly for aimless midnight cruises. As he aged, the road changed from a place of possibility to a physical manifestation of his own psyche, a mental boulevard to plumb for comfort, wisdom or escape.
68. “Square One” (2006)
One of those songs that’s almost too poignant in the years since Petty’s passing. “It’s a dark victory / You won and you are so lost / Told us you were satisfied, but it never came across.” The man wrote his own epitaph years in advance.
67. “California” (1996)
Another great, unresolvable debate among Tom Petty fans is: Are The Heartbreakers a Southern band, or a California band? They started in the South, but they became the Heartbreakers in California. Petty sings with a distinctive Southern drawl, but he was influenced by quintessential LA acts like the Byrds and the Flying Burrito Brothers. He wrote an album literally called Southern Accents, but he also wrote one of the best and most famous songs about LA, “Free Fallin.'” Perhaps there are clues to be found in impossibly sunny “California,” an ode to his adopted state written from a lopsided outsider’s perspective.
66. “Swingin'” (1999)
The cloudiness of the Echo sessions cast a pall over Petty, but it was truly a dire sign of impending doom for Heartbreakers bassist Howie Epstein, a once stalwart player whose heroin addiction impeded his ability to be a fully functioning member of the band. No song captures the ramshackle nature of the sessions quite like “Swingin,'” a mid-tempo number that Petty largely improvised on the mic. Another extemporaneous element was the backing vocal on the chorus – the “dowwwwwwwwwwwn” part — sung by Epstein. His last great moment on record.
65. “Supernatural Radio” (1996)
It’s been a while since we enjoyed an amazing Mike Campbell outro guitar solo, so let’s dive into this oft-overlooked She’s The One banger. When Tom near the end hollers, “I can hear Jesus singing!” he’s not joking.
64. “Shadow Of A Doubt (A Complex Kid)” (1979)
The most noteworthy part of this song — aside from the fact that it captures the early Heartbreakers playing live in the studio and rocking the eff out — is that includes one of Petty’s most memorable nonsense lyrics: “And when she’s dreaming / Sometimes she sings in French / But in the morning / She don’t remember it.”
63. “Scare Easy” (2008)
I could make a list just of classic opening lines from Tom Petty songs. (I’ll be quoting them more and more as we get deeper into this list.) One of my favorites that comes from a less heralded source is the opening line of this track from the first Mudcrutch album: “My love’s an ocean, you better not cross it.” While this was the introductory single from Petty’s sideline Southern-rock ensemble, “Scare Easy” sounds like prime Damn The Torpedoes-era Heartbreakers — all surly menace hiding a supposed tough guy’s tender heart.
62. “Only A Broken Heart” (1994)
One of the things that set Wildflowers apart from the albums that preceded it was the inclusion of songs like “Only A Broken Heart.” I once compared Petty to Clint Eastwood, in the sense that for much of his career he was something of an emotional cipher. He could hint at an inner vulnerability, but he rarely foregrounded it. That started to change with his “divorce album,” in which he contends with the wreckage of his personal life as frankly as he ever would in his songs: “I know the place where you keep your secrets / Out of the sunshine, down in a valley / But I’m not afraid anymore / It’s only a broken heart.”
61. “Change Of Heart” (1982)
Years before he worked with Jeff Lynne, Tom Petty was inspired to rip off the riff to one of Lynne’s signature songs, “Do Ya,” on this deep cut from Long After Dark. The 1982 album isn’t all that well regarded, given that it came at the end of the Iovine “Kings of FM Radio” era and is pretty clearly inferior to Damn The Torpedoes and Hard Promises. Long After Dark basically just delivers more of the same. (Petty himself seems to think of as a marking time album, which prompted him to change things up more radically on the next LP, Southern Accents.) But if overloading an album with very likable if not exactly earth-shattering rock songs like “Change Of Heart” — the kind of tunes that countless indie, Americana, and country groups today try and fail to match — is a crime then put me in jail along with the band.
60. “Runaway Trains” (1987)
Another synth-y heartland rock number from Let Me Up (I’ve Had Enough) that reminds me of The War On Drugs … and also Power Windows-era Rush. Like “My Life/Your World,” it originated as a Mike Campbell demo. (How many other synth-rock jams does Mike have on his laptop? We need a Mike Campbell box set!) “Runaway Trains” perhaps is a little too far removed from Petty’s usual comfort zone, which explains why he’s expressed dissatisfaction with it over the years. But this weirdly sounds more contemporary now than a lot of his material from this period.
59. “The Best Of Everything” (1985)
Further evidence that Southern Accents is the botched would-be masterpiece in Petty’s catalogue is the album’s epic closer, which functions as a near-reunion of one of the album’s mood-board touchstones, The Band. Originally written for Hard Promises, “The Best Of Everything” was sent off to Robbie Robertson as a submission for The King Of Comedy soundtrack. Robertson shortened the song, enlisted his former bandmates Richard Manuel and Garth Hudson to add overdubs, and transformed it into a throwback to The Band’s classic self-titled record. It’s a classic end to an almost-classic record.
58. “Spike” (1985)
This snaky slab of country-funk from Southern Accents also nods to The Band, though it evokes their goofier, more down-home side. Petty doesn’t so much deliver the lyric about a redneck freaked out by a local punk as inhabit it, going into full-on character-actor mode as he slips into a drawling, dumb-guy accent. (“Spike” also manages to convey the coked-out wildness of the Southern Accents sessions better than just about any other track.) There are more profound Tom Petty songs, and much bigger hits. But few of his songs are as funny as this one.
57. “Apartment Song” Demo Version (recorded in 1984, released in 1995)
This track was released in a different from on Full Moon Fever, but it was actually written five years before that album, around the time of Southern Accents. The demo version originally released on Playback features Petty duetting with his good friend Stevie Nicks, and their chemistry coupled with the loose, country-rock accompaniment elevates it above the more polished FMF take.
56. “You And I Will Meet Again” (1991)
When Roger McGuinn first heard “American Girl,” he supposedly wondered if it was a Byrds song he had forgotten about. (McGuinn swiftly recorded his own version of “American Girl” and put it out the year after the original.) But “American Girl” doesn’t sound that much like the Byrds. (They never rocked that hard, for one thing.) This song from Into The Great Wide Open, however, is a complete Byrds rip-off. Of course, what matters most is that it’s an excellent Byrds rip-off.
55. “Nightwatchman” (1981)
The most confounding common thread in Tom Petty books and documentaries pertains to Stan Lynch’s drumming. Producer Jimmy Iovine — who oversaw Damn The Torpedoes, Hard Promises, and Long After Dark before making a billion dollars from selling headphones — hated Lynch’s timekeeping, even convincing Petty to briefly fire Lynch (or compel him to quit, depending on who’s telling the story) during the Torpedeos sessions. But … Lynch is actually pretty great? (Every musician who loves Tom Petty I’ve ever met prefers Lynch to his successor, Steve Ferrone.) This groove-centric track from Hard Promises is a perfect rebuttal to Lynch critics. Yes, Lynch could apparently be a huge pain in the ass. But as a drummer, he makes the rounds!
54. “Angel Dream (No. 2)” (1996)
Written for Petty’s second wife, Dana, as he was falling in love with her while at the same time slipping into heroin addiction. You can hear both the ecstasy of infatuation and the loneliness of addiction in this breathtaking song, particularly the sparser “No. 2” version. He describes drifting into nothingness — first outer space, and then heaven itself — and then finding his angel. “I can only thank god it was not too late.”
53. “Ways To Be Wicked” (recorded in 1987, released in 1995)
Jimmy Iovine famously convinced Petty to give one of his biggest hits, “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around,” to Stevie Nicks. He attempted to repeat this formula a few years later when he lifted this Damn The Torpedoes-era song for his latest proteges, the largely forgotten (though actually pretty good!) mid-’80s roots rock band Lone Justice. “Ways To Be Wicked” was supposed to be their breakout song, but it tanked on the charts, peaking at No. 71. A few years later, The Heartbreakers cut it during the Let Me Up (I’ve Had Enough) sessions, playing it exactly once, resulting in the Sticky Fingers-esque track that ended up on the “Nobody’s Children” disc of the Playback box set.
52. “It’ll All Work Out” (1987)
Let Me Up (I’ve Had Enough) is the most schizophrenic Heartbreakers album, toggling between synth-y heartland rock and sloppy, rambunctious rockers inspired by the band’s recent tour in support of Bob Dylan. And then there’s “It’ll All Work Out,” a song that Petty knocked out during one of the many rough patches in his marriage, and then handed off to Campbell to set to music. Typically, the partners didn’t work this way — if they wrote something together, it started with Campbell handing Petty some music, not the other way around. But Campbell rose to the occasion, utilizing a 13-string Japanese koto, among other instruments, to give the song an otherworldly beauty.
51. “I Forgive It All” (2016)
When Tom Petty died in 2017, many people were shocked. With the benefit of hindsight, however, it seems pretty clear that he was winding down in the years before his passing, as if he was subconsciously preparing for the end. Heard now, “I Forgive It All” (from Mudcrutch’s 2, his final studio record) feels like a definitive closing statement, like Warren Zevon’s “Keep Me In Your Heart,” though perhaps with a smidge less self-awareness. All of the questing, time-obsessed songs that he had been writing for the past decade, dating back to Highway Companion, culminate here: “People are what people make ’em, and that ain’t gonna change / There ain’t nothing you can do, nothing you could rearrange.” But with acceptance comes a sense of calm, and that comes through tenderly here.
“Hello CD listeners …”
“Thank you, here’s side two …”
50. “All The Wrong Reasons” (1991)
Reason No. 298 Why It’s Good To Have Mike Campbell In Your Band: He plays a bouzouki — essentially a Greek lute — on “All The Wrong Reasons.” It’s not clear that he ever played a bouzouki before that. “That’s the kind of thing he’ll do,” Petty told Paul Zollo. “He’ll pick up some odd instrument and incorporate it into what he’s doing.”
49. “When The Times Comes” (1978)
One of the best “side, 1, track 1’s” in the Petty canon. (Some of the other top choices are perched near the top of this list.) Also an example of how closely Petty came to sounding like a punk in the late ’70s, though the man himself never aspired to that. “We played with a lot of punk bands like the Clash, the Ramones, and Blondie, and played at clubs like CBGB’s, so we got lumped into that whole punk thing,” he told Spin in 1989. “To the punks we were slow and wimpy and to the mainstream crowd we were too wild and original. Plus, they couldn’t understand a band from Florida not playing ‘Free Bird.’” Nevertheless, The Heartbreakers are bathed in new wave-y blue light on the cover of You’re Gonna Get It, like they were filmed in one of the interiors for William Friedkin’s Cruising.
48. “Louisiana Rain” (1979)
The truth is Tom Petty didn’t belong in any one scene, because he didn’t stick to any particular scene. He was mistaken for a punk in the beginning because he happened to launch his recording career in the late ’70s. If Tom Petty came along in 2020, he would inevitably be slotted as a country or Americana artist, as practically no artist now — even one as endemically rock ‘n’ roll as Tom Petty — is described as “rock” anymore. “Louisiana Rain” is about as country as Tom ever got back in the ’70s. It’s a shame that Waylon Jennings never covered it. Maybe Chris Stapleton can do it now.
47. “Honey Bee” (1994)
In the mid-’90s, when most of his peers were sent packing to the nostalgia circuit, Tom Petty emerged as nothing less than the president of rock music, the guy with the gravitas to back up Johnny Cash on Unchained and the hipness to cover a song from Beck’s least popular album. Even though he was in his early 40s, he felt like a contemporary artist in a way that even Bruce Springsteen didn’t in that time. Which is why, for a certain generation, seeing Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers briefly accept Dave Grohl into the band, just months after Kurt Cobain’s suicide, for a Saturday Night Live performance was such a big deal. It made you see Tom Petty differently, and it made you see Dave Grohl differently, too. The song they really killed it on is “Honey Bee,” the raunchiest rocker from Wildflowers. Grohl comes in so hard and fast that Mike Campbell actually cracks up. It’s glorious! Unfortunately, that video isn’t available online, or else we would all be enjoying it right now. Why are you denying us a little happiness, SNL?
46. “Something Big” (1981)
One of Bob Dylan’s favorite Tom Petty songs, this is his version of film noir. Songs about inept small-time criminals typically belong in Springsteen’s lane, but Petty has a perverse take that makes it his own — “something big” is alluded to throughout, but we never actually see the crime. We meet the silent partner, and Speedball, and it appears that a dead body pops up on a still-made bed in a hotel room. The rest is a mystery. (Also, the music sounds like the Law & Order theme several years before Law & Order. I bet Mike Post dug Hard Promises.)
45. “Down South” (2006)
Another stop in the ongoing debate about whether Tom Petty is definitively Southern or quintessentially LA. Put this thoroughly charming song in the former camp. The lyric that always makes me smile is the one where he reimagines reinventing himself down south. “Pretend I’m Samuel Clemens / Wear seersucker and white linens.” Sometimes I like to imagine that Tom Petty didn’t actually die, he just decided to disguise himself as Mark Twain and kick it down in Gainesville.
44. “Girl On LSD” 1994 Bridge School Concert Version (1994)
This, on the other hand, is Petty at his most California. “Girl On LSD” apparently was going to be the closing track on the double-album version of Wildflowers, before it was relegated to the B-side of “You Don’t Know How It Feels.” But my favorite version comes from the 1994 Bridge School Benefit, also known as The Heartbreakers’ final shows with Stan Lynch. (This concert also includes Petty’s incredible cover of J.J. Cale’s “Thirteen Days,” which is my all-time No. 1 Tom Petty song not written by Tom Petty.)
43. “Don’t Fade On Me” (1994)
Because there will be no more Tom Petty tours, I am left contemplating the tours I wish he could have played. As great as he was with The Heartbreakers, I wish Petty would’ve made at least one detour for a solo acoustic tour — play theaters, stick to deep cuts, and put the focus on the songs. (By solo, of course I mean “with Mike Campbell.”) This haunting tune from Wildflowers would have really shined in that environment. (It was played only six times by The Heartbreakers in 22 years.)
42. “Insider” (1981)
You know who else should’ve been on this mythical acoustic tour? Stevie Nicks. Have her sing “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around,” the demo version of “Apartment Song,” and this gutting ballad from Hard Promises. By the way, since I’m in the midst of imagining cool things that will never happen, there should be a biopic about the platonic friendship between Tom Petty and Stevie Nicks. I’m not sure if there’s anything in rock history that compares — a man and a woman who were very close and yet never romantically involved, and managed to remain in each others’ lives for 40 years. “Some of my best musical memories of her are sitting on the couch and just playing the guitar while she sings,” Petty said in 2014.
41. “Don’t Do Me Like That” (1979)
There’s been a lot of discussion on this list so far about songwriting. But Tom Petty was also a great rock ‘n’ roll singer. One of the best, really, with an ability to slip into a battery of different voices — the hippie drawl, the punk snarl, the blues purr, the R&B shout — depending on what was required. His vocal on “Don’t Do Me Like That,” his first Top 10 hit, really makes the song, which originated during the pre-Heartbreakers Mudcrutch era. That version doesn’t groove near as hard as the hit version from Damn The Torpedoes. And Petty hadn’t mastered the rhythmic delivery that sells it. I actually don’t love this song all that much. But Petty’s vocal is so good that it always wins me over whenever “Don’t Do Me Like That” comes on for the millionth time on the classic rock station.
40. “Wake Up Time” (1994)
Petty considered the stirring closer to Wildflowers one of his greatest songs. “You write so many of them, and you hope for something like ‘Wake Up Time,'” he told Paul Zollo. Much like the title track feels like a natural album opener for Wildflowers, “Wake Up Time” has the power of a grand journey reaching his climax. If so many Tom Petty songs are about trying to find some grace in an uncertain world, “Wake Up Time” suggests that a little wisdom gleaned from a traumatic experience might have to suffice. “And what’s in there waiting / Neither one of us knows / You gotta keep one eye open / The further you go.”
39. “Two Gunslingers” (1991)
Petty has described this unusual Wild West narrative as an anti-war song: Two guys square off, and instead of pulling out their pistols, they realize the futility of fighting. I’ve always read “Two Gunslingers” as an allegory about growing up and giving up all the macho baggage that’s foisted upon men as children. As Petty eased into middle age in the ’90s, he really was the rare paternal figure in popular music who seemed like he had a good enough sense of himself to treat those around him with decency. (This is where I reveal that I am a child of divorce and I adopted Tom Petty and Bruce Springsteen as my two honorary dads.) Ultimately, so many people from different generations, men and women alike, gravitated to Tom Petty because you can sense that goodness in songs like “Two Gunslingers.”
38. “To Find A Friend” (1994)
This Wildflowers deep cut reminds me a little of “Yer So Bad” from Full Moon Fever — a tragicomic story about people who attempt to make a change of life around 40 and wind up stuck in the same spiritual traps. Knowing that Petty was mentally preparing himself for his own divorce while writing and recording this song adds another layer of gallows humor to the lines about the guy who buys a new car, finds a new bar, and creates “a whole new game” for himself. Truly a pathetic portrait of bachelorhood. And yet the groove stays brisk, thanks to special guest Ringo Starr.
37. “Jammin’ Me” (1987)
How do you explain “Jammin’ Me” to anyone who wasn’t personally acquainted with the uniquely trivial and gakked-out world of 1987? It’s like “Subterranean Homesick Blues” after mainlining cocaine and cable television for 73 hours straight. Only two geniuses, Tom Petty and Bob Dylan, could come up with a tune that rails against acid rain, Joe Piscopo, Vanessa Redgrave, and “angry slander” and have it turn out this amazing. I would read a 10,000-word oral history on the writing session for it. I’m guessing 8,000 of the words are “[laughs].”
36. “Straight Into Darkness” (1982)
In the annals of classic opening lines in Tom Petty songs, “Straight Into Darkness” might very well be the darkest: “There was a little girl, I used to know her / I still think about her time to time / There was a moment when I really loved her / Then one day the feeling just died.” This was around the time that Springsteen put out Nebraska, so clearly there was something in the water in 1982. (Hopefully it was antidepressants.)
35. “Kings Highway” (1991)
Writing exercise: Create a song that instantly evokes an open road on a sunny day. You will not top this song: “Under a big old sky / Out in a field of green / There’s gotta be something left for us to believe.”
34. “You Don’t Know How It Feels” (1994)
I remember this being on the radio and MTV constantly in 1994, and how every time Tom sang “let’s roll another joint,” they did this weird warping sound so it came out like “let’s roll another wahhhhh.” Which only drew more attention to the fact that everybody knew he was saying “joint,” while also making it seem a little more awesome because THE MAN was censoring it. Why don’t the powers that be ever realize this? In a smarter, most-just country, Tom Petty openly singing about smoking marijuana should have been taken as a sign that pot had gone fully mainstream, and therefore should be immediately legalized.
33. “Alright For Now” (1989)
What did parents sing to their newborn children before “Alright For Now”? I have no idea because every lullaby that ever existed before Tom Petty wrote for “Alright For Now” opted to spontaneously combust, for their usefulness to humanity had suddenly evaporated.
32. “A Face In The Crowd” (1989)
When I feel the urge to play Full Moon Fever, which is often — pardon me, gonna step out quick and listen to Full Moon Fever before I finish this blurb — I don’t automatically press play on the first track, “Free Fallin.'” More often than not, the song I head to first is perhaps the least assuming, “A Face In The Crowd.” I don’t think it’s the best song on Full Moon Fever, but it’s the one that I get tired of hearing the least. Which seems counterintuitive, because there’s not much to it — a slightly-slower-than-mid-tempo choogle, maybe a half-dozen layered acoustic guitars, and Petty laconic vocal, about a person who once was, well, just a face in the crowd, and now apparently is something more. But since this is a Tom Petty song, all of that hyper-simplicity is actually secretly complicated, because I’ve played this song at least 15,000 times and it always gives me this tingly feeling in my chest, like I’ve just been reminded in real terms how fleeting life can be and the ways it can change, good or bad, in an instant.
31. “I Need To Know” (1978)
I’ll say it again: Why do people like Jimmy Iovine hate on Stan Lynch’s drumming? Dude kills it on “I Need To Know,” a song that is about nothing other than its own forward momentum. Petty once said that the inspiration for “I Need To Know” was Wilson Pickett’s “Land Of 1000 Dances,” which you would never guess but once you know it you’ll never unhear it.
30. “Room At The Top” (1999)
I can guarantee you that I listen to most songs on this list more than “Room At The Top,” though that has little to do with this song’s quality or emotional honesty. On the contrary, this is probably the single saddest tune in Tom Petty’s canon. The part when he sings, “I love you / Please love me / I’m not so bad” is definitely the most excruciating seven seconds of any Petty record. The fact is that I can’t bear to play “Room At The Top” too much, particularly in the wake of Petty’s death. The titular metaphor is a too-perfect description of how isolating being someone like Tom Petty can be. The sense of despair is just too much. Let’s move on.
29. “You Got Lucky” (1982)
When I hung out in bars nearly every night of my life in my early 20s, this was my go-to jukebox song. Benmont Tench hated playing that big ’80s synthesizer, but I adore it. (This is the sound that Neil Young was chasing on Trans and couldn’t pull off.) The lyric pulls off that classic Tom Petty trick of projecting macho bravado while actually communicating male weakness; the guy tells his babe how she lucky is to be with him, but you get the feeling that he’s probably having this conversation in his head while driving around alone at night. Also: By far the coolest music video he made before the Full Moon Fever/Into The Great Wide Open glory years. And, yes, I’m counting “Don’t Come Around Here No More.” “You Got Lucky” turned Tom Petty into Max Max while also predicting his future involvement in The Postman. Truly some of the finest cinema of the early ’80s.
28. “A Woman In Love (It’s Not Me)”
In a similar vein of “You Got Lucky,” though the pathetic nature of the protagonist is more apparent. Which I guess makes “A Woman In Love (It’s Not Me)” Tom Petty’s Elvis Costello song. Appropriately enough, “A Woman In Love” was cuckolded on the charts by “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around,” the song Tom gave to his friend Stevie Nicks. Radio played her/their song, and sent “A Woman In Love” plummeting down the charts. For as canny as Petty was for more than 20 years — from the mid-’70s to the mid-’90s, there wasn’t a better producer pop-rock singles — putting “It’s Not Me” in the title of your single is probably bad luck.
27. “No Second Thoughts” (1978)
Petty called this strummy, soul-searching ballad from his second album “a UFO song.” It came to him in an unexpected fashion and couldn’t be quite explained afterward. It was based on a tape loop put together by his first producer, Denny Cordell, featuring lots of stray percussion and a jangling guitar. To that he wrote a lyric about another American Girl who goes questing for meaning and winds up staring at the stars (and, perhaps, traveling beyond them).
26. “Lost Without You” (2009)
Like many iconic rockers, Petty sought the sanctuary of the recording studio but made his legend on the road. The Heartbreakers’ 40th anniversary tour in 2017 — the most financially successful tour of his life, completed just one week before his death — leaves a bitter aftertaste. I saw it, and I am grateful that I saw it. But I also wish that a 66-year-old man with a fractured hip and a dependence on pain killers would have stayed home and gotten well. And yet that’s how the story ended, because ultimately Tom Petty only knew how to be Tom Petty, and Tom Petty is the person who fronts The Heartbreakers and plays incredible concerts in the summertime. Perhaps that’s why Petty considered The Live Anthology the truest of all Heartbreakers records. As good as the studio work is, there’s a magic here that could only be conjured when these working musicians were on the road and plying their craft in Middle American basketball arenas and outdoor sheds. Just consider what happens in “Lost Without You,” a song that Petty just made up on the spot one night while on tour in 1993. For all the songs about lovable outcasts that Petty produced, “Lost Without You” stands alone as one of his most vivid and unsettling character portraits, voicing the inner monologue of a disturbed person pining after someone who does not love him back: “One of these days I’m gonna get my shit together / Stop screwing up / One of these days I’m gonna put my whole lift in order baby / Stop screwing up / One of these days everything is gonna get better / I’m gonna stop screwing up.” Petty’s vocal is so chilling and real; he’s like a great actor peeling back his skin for you on stage, only he’s doing it front of about 20,000 people. If you had the ability to do that, to conjure that, would you have been to keep yourself away from the stage?
25. “Even The Losers” (1979)
You know what else Tom Petty supposedly made up extemporaneously? The chorus to “Even The Losers.” Let me repeat that: The chorus to “Even The Losers”! He had the verses written but didn’t have the chorus set in the studio, so he just winged and sang, directly out of ass: “Even the losers get lucky sometimes.” Tom Petty had the image of an everyman, but that is not everyman stuff.
24. “You Wreck Me” (1994)
I worry that I’m underrating this song. The problem is that pretty much ever song from here on out could have easily gone in my Top 10. If you think it’s so easy not to knock beloved classics into the mid-20s on a Tom Petty songs list, I dare you to make one yourself. The higher you get, the more brutal the choices. Every song from here on out is just perfect rock music.
23. “You Get Me High” (1995)
I am definitely overrating this song, yet another entry on my beloved “Nobody’s Children” disc from Playback. (Not to be confused with “U Get Me High” from Hypnotic Eye. Only Tom Petty is allowed to have two songs called “You/U Get Me High.”) But if we judge Tom Petty songs on the basis of how they make us feel, I can’t think of more than 23 Tom Petty songs that make feel better than “You Get Me High.” It’s another tune he made up on the spot, and you can sort of tell, but not in a bad way. It doesn’t really unfold like a song; it’s more like a memory, or an in-the-moment report of a great night that you know will make an all-time memory you’ll cherish for the rest of your life. Or maybe it’s just a Japandroids song: Have another joint on me, let’s have a sixpack of beer, smoke a pack of cigarettes, and get real real gone.
22. “Melinda” (2009)
We’ve talked a lot about Mike Campbell, but not nearly enough about Benmont Tench. Even though Campbell is a “song first” guitarist who’s normally averse to showboating, he’s still often afforded a showcase in Tom Petty songs, i.e. “the epic outro guitar solo.” Tench, however, is a keyboard player in a guitar band, inherently woven into the sonic fabric of the Heartbreakers sound. A notable exception is “Melinda,” which debuted on tour in 2003 and was released on The Live Anthology. “Melinda” is an early precursor to Petty’s “jam” era in the final decade of his life, only instead of focusing on long guitar solos “Melinda” affords Tench the opportunity to stretch out like Chuck Leavell bouncing off Dickey Betts and Gregg Allman, wandering into realms of jazz, blues, and even classical music that The Heartbreakers rarely traversed. Turns out that Benmont Tench is one of the greatest rock keyboardists ever! Of course, this was already obvious. But it’s nice that “Melinda” makes it even more obvious.
21. “I Won’t Back Down” (1989)
Tom Petty isn’t as good as Bob Dylan, and he’s probably slightly below Neil Young and Bruce Springsteen. (Though on some days I would take Petty over either them.) But none of those guys ever wrote a song that this many people could all sing, word for goddamn word, decades after it was a hit.
20. “Don’t Come Around Here No More” (1985)
For as many hits as he wrote, Petty claimed that he typically didn’t set out to write singles. An exception is the weirdest hit of his whole career, the “Good Vibrations” of the Miami Vice generation, “Don’t Come Around Here No More.” Lyrically, you can sort of see how it fit on Southern Accents — his vocal is almost akin to that deranged voice his uses on “Spike.” But everything else about “Don’t Come Around Here No More” is utterly disconnected from anything Petty had ever done … until that epic Mike Campbell outro guitar solo kicks in, right on time, like gangbusters.
19. “Runnin’ Down A Dream” (1989)
Did someone say “epic Mike Campbell outro guitar solo”? If this is your favorite, I won’t argue. The “Runnin’ Down A Dream” cassingle (b/w “Alright For Now”) was my first ever Tom Petty purchase. For at least six months in ’89, I thought this was the most incredible rock song I had ever heard. (I think it was eventually replaced by Tesla’s acoustic cover of “Signs.”)
18. “Time To Move On”
The quintessential Tom Petty song that sounds “okay” after the first time you hear it, “pretty good” after the 50th time, “amazing” after the 100th time, and “oh my god, this song is my life” after the 200th time. For the first 10 years of my life with Wildflowers, I would often skip “Time To Move On” after “You Don’t Know How It Feels” in order to get to “You Wreck Me.” Now I like “Time To Move On” more than either of those (fantastic) songs. It’s not that those songs got worse. I had just lived enough life to understand the zen of knowin’ it’s time to move on when the grass under your feet is growin’.
17. “Breakdown” (1976)
I have attempted to make a case in this list that Stan Lynch — in spite of the slander from Jimmy Iovine and others — was in fact an excellent Heartbreakers drummer. “Breakdown” is my closing argument. The feel of the drums is what makes “Breakdown” — one of the greatest Tom Petty songs, and therefore one of the greatest rock ‘n’ roll songs — so damn cool. The rhythm of “Breakdown” is paced at the same speed as your heart rate the first time you sneak into a bar with a fake I.D. or steal your parents car to go joyriding with a person you are hoping to eventually have sex with. It’s an attempt to restrain unbridled excitement with the outward expression of (faked) effortless cool. That’s Mr. Stan Lynch in a nutshell.
16. “The Wild One, Forever” (1978)
One more bit of Stan Lynch boosterism: His backing vocal on the chorus to “The Wild One, Forever” is the most moving musical expression of friendship in the entire Heartbreakers’ catalogue. Tom and Stan’s voices are so incredibly close; their commitment to each other in that moment is akin to marriage, in that they sound spiritually like they’re the same person. It never fails to hit me in the chest, hard. As much as Petty would grow to resent Lynch’s undermining behavior in The Heartbreakers — please read Warren Zanes’ for more information — Lynch seemed to understand Petty about as well as anybody in the band. “He was ambitious and scared, making damn sure you think he’s not either one,” Lynch says of Petty in Warren Zanes’ book. “Tom’s cool. That’s what he loved. That’s what he became. He made that face for so long, it became permanent. But early in life, he had to invent himself.”
15. “Rebels” (1985)
Petty came to regret his brief dalliance with displaying the Confederate flag at concerts during the Southern Accents era. “It was a downright stupid thing to do,” he said in 2015. The inspiration came from “Rebels,” the album’s opening track and one of his most rousing and complicated songs. Petty sings from the point of view of a loser who blames his problems on the South losing the Civil War to the North; displaying the flag was meant to be an ironic commentary on the delusions of that character. But the audience didn’t see it that way. “When we toured two years later, I noticed people in the audience wearing Confederate flag bandanas and things like that,” he recalled. “One night, someone threw one onstage. I stopped everything and gave a speech about it. I said, ‘Look, this was to illustrate a character. This is not who we are. Having gone through this, I would prefer it if no one would ever bring a Confederate flag to our shows again because this isn’t who we are.’” So, in summation: “Rebels” is an incredible rock song with an incisive lyric worthy of Randy Newman, and the Confederate flag still sucks.
14. “Walls (Circus)” (1996)
As an abused kid whose father wished his son was a jock instead of one of the greatest rock stars ever, Tom Petty built an emotional wall in order to protect himself that he didn’t begin to deconstruct until near the end of his life. This song is a relatively early attempt to reckon with that. Also: Take a bow, Lindsey Buckingham, who overdubs himself into a one-man Beach Boys, lifting “Walls” into a state of liberated euphoria that I hope Petty was able to feel in his real life. (Is there a better example of Petty being a unifying presence in our lives than him being friends with Stevie and Lindsey?)
13. “Learning To Fly” (1991)
In my experience, if you are going to hear a Tom Petty song at the gas station or inside of a CVS, it’s “Learning To Fly.” And it’s always a welcome soundtrack in those environments! Let’s be frank: You are never at your best at the gas station or inside of a CVS. You’re either prowling for an unhealthy road-trip snack or nervously seeking out a cure for a sore throat or constipation. And yet … there’s your old friend Tom Petty, telling you that while the good old days may not return — after all, the seas are burning and the rocks are melting (!) — you can still figure out a way to escape of all this. Of course, in this instance the Tom Petty song is the escape, and how grateful are we for that?
12. “Refugee” (1979)
The most “FM rock” Tom Petty song of all time. I’m sure this is the first song of his I heard on the local classic rock station when I was a tiny kid, years before I knew what Damn The Torpedoes was. You still can’t get away from “Refugee” — it was designed to be played on the radio 10 million times, and it has actually overachieved at (I’m guessing conservatively here) 1 billion plays and counting. Mike Campbell wrote the music, but to me “Refugee” is all about Benmont Tench. The man is aptly named — he supplies tension to Heartbreakers tracks, laying that swampy keyboard down like a veiled threat. Finally, his Hammond explodes during the solo before ceding space to Campbell. In this band, everybody had to fight to be free.
11. “Here Comes My Girl” (1979)
Tom Petty songs are typically praised for how they simple they are, and the amount of meaning they’re able to pack into that stripped-down framework. But what’s often overlooked is how radical they are. Petty had a way of pulling unusual tricks in his songs and making them seem straight-forward because he was the one doing them. For instance, I never realized that nearly every song on Damn The Torpedoes only has two verses, until Petty himself pointed it out in a Classic Albums documentary. And then there’s “Here Comes My Girl,” perhaps the only classic-rock radio standard that is entirely a spoken-word piece outside of the chorus.
10. “Yer So Bad” (1989)
I imagine this will be my most controversial Top 10 choice. “Yer So Bad” wasn’t a hit, and it’s not one of his “weighty” tracks. It’s just simply the funniest song Tom Petty ever wrote, and a perfect snapshot of boomer culture at the end of the ’80s, when our solipsistic overlords were caught between embracing wanton materialism and chasing the remnants of their lost youth. Musically, “Yer So Bad” piles on the charming moments: Petty’s cracked-smile vocal, the jangly acoustic strum, the way he says “dog-faced and hurt,” the airy guitar solo, that delightful drum break that starts at 2:34. The man wrote a lot of perfect songs, but this one is more perfect than most. Believe me, if you don’t have “Yer So Bad” in the Top 10, I’ll be the one judging you.
9. “Southern Accents” (1985)
Here is one of his weightiest tracks, and one of his very best. Tom Petty had his own way of talking, a stoner drawl that caused his detractors (or merely those who took him for granted) to not always give him his due. His reflex was to strike against that condescension in anger, but “Southern Accents” derives its power from his unguarded hurt. That’s especially true of the remarkable bridge, one of the greatest moments in his entire catalogue, when he sings about the dream in which his dead mother appears. He doesn’t put this yearning into one of his usual metaphors about the open road; he lays out plain, like a howl in the night that wakes you up from your own unsettled slumber.
8. “Into The Great Wide Open” (1991)
Recently, I got into a friendly conversation with a person on Twitter about the “tattoo” line in this song. The other guy argued that the lyric about how Eddie “went to Hollywood, got a tattoo / he met a girl out there with a tattoo, too” was dumb, because 1) What’s so unique about getting a tattoo? and 2) Why would it be noteworthy for him to meet a woman with the same tattoo? The implication was that this was lazy songwriting, and a poor attempt to justify rhyming “tattoo” with “too.” My counter-argument was that (obviously) “Into The Great Wide Open” is Tom Petty’s greatest story song, and that this lyric specifically is brilliant because 1) Eddie is precisely the sort of dumb guy who would believe that one should get a tattoo upon immediately arriving in Hollywood and 2) It really would be a sign of fate and true love for a guy like that to meet a woman with exactly the same tattoo. (Petty, again, had an acute understanding of basic bros.) The larger point is that Tom Petty is sometimes penalized by the keepers of the canon for not being a self-consciously “clever” songwriter like Randy Newman or Elvis Costello. But he worked in generalities in order to hit upon universal truths that somehow landed on feeling specific.
7. “Listen To Her Heart” (1978
“You think you’re gonna take her away / with your money and your cocaine” is another one for the all-time Tom Petty opening lines list. Is there a better rock song in which the singer tells off a conceited jerk and warns him to stay away from his woman? If you have any doubts, what if I told you that Petty supposedly wrote “Listen To Her Heart” about Ike Turner hitting on his wife?
6. “It’s Good To Be King” (1994)
The irony of this song is that Tom Petty was the king, especially in 1994. But the point of “It’s Good To Be King” is that he never felt like the king in his own head. While Wildflowers undoubtedly as a career pinnacle for him, the sorrow of that record now is that life was never the same for Tom Petty after that. He was a little less sturdy, a little less sure of himself, a little less present, in subsequent years. On Wildflowers, he wrote about the darkness that lie ahead without fully grasping what he was intuiting. It didn’t necessarily sound like it at the time, but now “It’s Good To Be King” seems to me like a song about depression, and how it can settle down on you at any moment like a majestically terrifying Michael Kamen-orchestrated string section. “Excuse me if I / have some place in my mind / where I go time to time” is a lyric that always stays with me for a while after I hear this song.
5. “Free Fallin'” (1989)
This same drifting introspection can even be found in Tom Petty’s sunniest, most sing-along anthems. Again, a killer opening line immediately pulls you in: (everybody join in!) “She’s a good girl, loves her mama, loves Jesus, and America, too.” Like that, “Free Fallin'” establishes itself as the musical equivalent of apple pie. But this is a red herring. If “Free Fallin'” is a guileless celebration of the all-American girl, then “Born In The U.S.A.” is rah-rah patriotism. The guy in this song is years, if not decades, removed from breaking that girl’s heart. Now, he’s a middle-aged guy drifting like a ghost through Los Angeles, likening the goth kids of a different generation lurching down Ventura Boulevard to vampires. (Axl Rose loved that particular lyric so much that he asked to sing “Free Fallin'” with The Heartbreakers at the 1989 MTV Video Music Awards.) My half-baked theory on “Free Fallin'” is that guy in the song is actually dead and narrating his life from beyond the grave, a la William Holden in Sunset Boulevard. Once the song ends, it’s time for him to finally “leave this world for a while.”
4. “The Waiting” (1981)
The greatest guitar riff in a lifetime of great guitar riffs. I play this a lot in February because for three minutes and 58 seconds it feels like summer (as well as “heaven” and “something from a dream”) again.
3. “Mary Jane’s Last Dance” (1993)
The greatest called shot in rock history. The story is already well-known: A greatest hits album was released as part of a contractual obligation that freed Tom Petty up to leave for a new label. But he had to include a new song, which he didn’t want to do, as he was in the midst of working on Wildflowers. Petty relented, assembling The Heartbreakers (including Stan Lynch, who had been banished from Wildflowers) to record a tune that had been floating around since Full Moon Fever. And then they proceeded to give the best studio performance of their lives. Everyone is at the top of their game: Lynch’s drumming is extra snappy, Howie Epstein’s backing vocal is especially majestic, Benmont Tench holds it together with some subtle swampiness, and Mike Campbell delivers yet another epic outro guitar solo. And Petty’s vocal is impeccably cool and drawling. And then it became an actual hit. Tacked-on bonus cuts never do that! This version of The Heartbreakers was finished not long after “Mary Jane’s Last Dance” was recorded, but they went out on top.
2. “Wildflowers” (1994)
Tom Petty didn’t write this song, he ad-libbed it. “I turned on my tape deck, picked up my acoustic guitar, took a breath, and played that start to finish,” he told Paul Zollo. “And I listened to it. I didn’t change a word. Everything was just right there, off the top of my head.” How does that happen? It’s as if the song had already lived inside of him for years, until he allowed it to come out, right when he needed it. “Wildflowers” is a song we all wish that someone would write for us. We all want permission to be our best selves, to fulfill our potential, to be loved. Even Tom Petty wished for that as he struggled to accept his impending divorce. (According to Warren Zanes’ biography Petty, his therapist upon hearing the song told Tom that “Wildflowers” was “about you. That’s you singing to yourself what you needed to hear.”) More than any of us, Tom Petty deserved “Wildflowers,” and to hear his innermost wishes scored by the most gorgeous piano lick that Benmont Tench ever committed to tape. I hope he’s finally somewhere where he can feel free.
1. “American Girl” (1976)
The last song he ever played live. How appropriate, given that it’s his greatest legacy. Of all the songs, films, and books with “American” in the title, this is the best work of art. It also makes the most profound statement about America: “God it’s so painful / something that’s so close / and still so far out of reach” is our nation’s history in a nutshell. But “American Girl” is also about less grand ideas. It’s about driving in the car and singing along with a song you’ve heard so many times that it lives inside of you. You’re not even really singing it, you’re breathing it. Like the girl blasting down the road in Memphis in The Silence Of The Lambs right before she’s kidnapped by Buffalo Bill. The genius of this scene is that we don’t know this character, but Jonathan Demme’s decision to have her sing-along with “American Girl” makes her immediately relatable. She is you, she is me, she is everyone who has ever sung along to “American Girl.” (Weirdly, for all the times I’ve sung “American Girl,” I didn’t notice until recently that none of the lyrics rhyme.) Tom Petty utilized this same technique when he shouted out Highway 441 — he’s singing about Florida, but doesn’t every town have a 441 nearby? I lived about a mile from another 441 when I was growing up, and while there were no waves crashing on the beach in Wisconsin, it nonetheless resonated. And it still does, even in a country where nobody agrees on anything anymore. Except that we all love Tom Petty.