The 20 Best Tom Petty Songs, Ranked

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Tom Petty was one of the greatest songwriters America has ever had the good fortune to produce. His death will be felt as a massive loss for years to come. Across 40 years and more, this toothy, blonde son of Gainesville, Florida put together a staggering array of incredibly melodic expressions of joy, pain, hope, defiance, and most of all love. His music intertwined with the fibers of your being. His songs overflowed with empathy. You innately recognized yourself and your own experiences in them as soon as you heard them in the car, on the radio, in the grocery store, through a pair of headphones or at a concert.

Petty was an artist who relished in the catharsis. In all of his best songs, no matter how distraught, how achingly sad, you knew there’d come that moment where he’d give the microphone over to you to belt out your feelings at full throat. He encouraged it. “You can stand me up at the gates of hell / But I won’t back down!” And on the joyous songs, the ballads, the odes to eternal devotion, you could practically drown in them. “Yeah, she looks so right / She is all I need tonight!”

To call Petty prolific is a massive understatement. With so many decades, so many albums, so many singles, and so many deep cuts to cultivate, pick apart, and enjoy, it’s almost impossible to know where to start and where to end. Nevertheless, I’ve boiled his iconic canon down to 20 essential selection that I think capture the full mettle of this singular artist.

20. “Don’t Come Around Here No More”

Sometimes, it’s the last song on the list that’s the hardest to pin down. This is especially true of Tom Petty. You can’t help but consider the scores of other tracks that might otherwise claim the final position, and grimace. Nevertheless, “Don’t Come Around Here No More” merits inclusion. Written with Dave Stewart of the Eurythmics for the 1985 album Southern Accents, the song was allegedly inspired by a phrase uttered by another of Petty’s close collaborators, Stevie Nicks after a nasty break-up with Eagles guitarist Joe Walsh. Petty co-opted the line for this buzzy, off-kilter gem, and melded it with swirling, psychedelic sitar-like melodies of the ’60s and big, reverb-drenched drums and synths of the ’80s.

19. “The Last DJ”

A lot of casual fans take “The Last DJ” at face value, as a song about an actual DJ who’s been prohibited by his masters from “playing what he wants to play” and “saying what he wants to say.” You should give Petty a little bit more credit than that. “It’s a work of fiction,” Petty told journalist Jim DeRogatis in 2002. “Some people misunderstood that record because they too quickly latched onto the music-business thing, and the music business was only a metaphor…If you listen to the whole album, it’s more about sort of a moral crisis in the world.” The issues he gets at on this exhilarating rocker all relate to change in the cultural landscape. Corporatization. Less individual thought. Less individual control. Are we, as a society, becoming better, or worse?

18. “U Get Me High”

While the quality of the records by so many of his contemporaries continued to dip as they crossed the two, three and four decade threshold, Petty remained a rock of incredible songwriting. The lead single from 2014’s Hypnotic Eye, his final album with the Heartbreakers, a blustery, blues-based track titled “U Get Me High,” is one of his best. In it, Petty explores many of the same themes that catapulted him to worldwide acclaim in the first place: intoxicating, world-stopping passion and love. “I knew I wanted to do a rock & roll record,” Petty told Rolling Stone in 2014. “We hadn’t made a straight hard-rockin’ record, from beginning to end, in a long time.”

17. “Here Comes My Girl”

“Here Comes My Girl” was a song written by Petty’s right-hand-man, Heartbreakers guitarist Mike Campbell, for inclusion on the singer’s 1979 multi-platinum smash Damn The Torpedoes. Just like the DJs down in the Bronx, Campbell spliced out a drum-loop from Aerosmith’s “Walk This Way” to help create the song’s percussive backbone. When Petty heard it, he thought it had promise, but had difficulty figuring out how to sing it. “Tom wasn’t sure how to do the verse,” Campbell said. “He kept trying to sing it different ways and he finally came across sort of half-talking it, and that’s when the song seemed to come to life.”

16. “I Need To Know”

Petty’s second album You’re Gonna Get It! didn’t garner nearly the same kind of critical love or commercial reward as either his first or his third. It did however come equipped with one of his best singles, a track called “I Need To Know.” In it, Petty is a man desperate to either prove or disprove a rumor. “Well the talk on the street says you might go solo,” is maybe the most evocative way anyone has asked someone if they are leaving them. In the end, the it’s not the content of the answer that Petty craves, just the existence of one, “Because I don’t know how long, I can hold on / If you’re making me wait, if you’re leadin’ me on.”

15. “Even The Losers”

Don’t let the slashing guitars, and words like “luck” and “pride” fool you, this song is pure pain. In it, Petty looks back on a fateful spring evening spent on the roof of a girls home, smoking cigarettes while pointing out stars she’d never seen before. Then it happens. “You kissed like fire and you made me feel.” For a shining moment, all is right with the world. Then it comes crashing down. “I shoulda’ known right then it was too good to last / God, it’s such a drag to have to live in the past.” Losers get unlucky too.

14. “Into The Great Wide Open”

“Into The Great Wide Open” is one of Petty’s great “story” songs. In it, he relates a tale as old as time; a young artist leaves the comforts of his home, seeking riches and fame, only to be eaten up by the machinery and spit out on the other side. The protagonist Eddie, gets a tattoo, moves to Hollywood, becomes a bouncer and learns some guitar chords thanks to a girl who decides to teach him. He makes a record, finds some success, starts wearing leather, parties like a rock star, but ultimately, the record label, can’t hear a single. Eddie is just another “rebel without a clue.”

13. “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around”

Being the star of one of the biggest bands in the world, Fleetwood Mac, was never enough for Stevie Nicks, she wanted to be a Heartbreaker too. “It was her mission in life that I should write her a song,” Petty told author Paul Zollo in the book Conversations With Tom Petty. Nicks was persistent and with a little finagling from producer Jimmy Iovine, she eventually got her wish. The song Petty eventually wrote for her 1981 album Bella Donna was called “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around,” which he also enhanced with a guest vocal. In it, both artists sing right into each other’s faces, spitting accusations and calling each other names in the face of an imminent break-up. The song clicked naturally, hitting No. 3 in the Billboard Hot 100.

12. “Don’t Do Me Like That”

“Don’t Do Me Like That” an electrifying, funky plea not to be embarrassed by “Givin’ someone else a try,” in the “public eye.” Incredibly, the song was a Jimmy Iovine intervention away from becoming a monster hit for the J. Geils Band. Petty had first written it all the way back in 1974 during his Mudcrutch days, and didn’t see the potential in it going forward. It was only after the super-producer got a listen and presumably heard dollar signs that he convinced Petty to add it to Damn The Torpedoes. Of course, Iovine was proved right. “Don’t Do Me Like That” became the first Top-10 hit of his career.

11. “You Got Lucky”

The 1982 hit “You Got Lucky” is one of the first, prominent songs in Petty’s arsenal were he decided to eschew his faithful guitars in favor of the synth sounds that dominated the sonic landscape at that point. Okay, there’s actually a pretty delightful, bass-heavy solo thrown into the song’s break that was apparently inspired by the theme from The Good, The Bad And The Ugly, but the melody is all whizzing keyboards. “You Got Lucky” is one of the few times in Petty’s career where he plays the classic heel, advising the person he’s with that they “Better watch what you say” and “Better watch what you do to me,” not because they want to treat them right, no, merely because, “Good love is hard to find.” Cold as ice!

10. “Learning To Fly”

Into The Great Wide Open “gave us some of our most evergreen songs,” Petty told his biographer Warren Zanes. The most evergreen among them was that album’s opening track “Learning To Fly.” Written ELO wizard with Jeff Lynne, the song has a heady vibe that’s elevated thanks to a tasteful slide guitar solo tacked into the middle. The lyrics are far more esoteric and ethereal than a normal Petty number. It’s mostly a series of images: A dirty road, a setting sun and a town lit up. If there is a theme to be found, it’s all about optimism in the face of brutal adversity. “Well some say life will beat you down / Break your heart, steal your crown / So I’ve started out, for God knows where / I guess I’ll know when I get there.”

9. “Runnin’ Down A Dream”

“Runnin’ Down A Dream” is one of Mike Campbell’s finest hours. From the explosive descending riff that kicks the song off, to the incendiary solo that kicks in around the three-minute mark and rages and roars until slowly fading out into the distance. The dreadlocked-Robin to Petty’s platinum blonde Batman is egregiously overlooked when the conversation kicks up around who reigns King amongst the greatest living guitar players on the planet. “Runnin’ Down A Dream” is about as effective a case as anyone could make for his candidacy.

8. “Lost Without You”

It’s a true testament to Petty’s gifts as a songwriter that one of the best pieces of music he ever created was never formally committed to tape, or, if it was, has yet to be offered on a studio release. The only way you could’ve heard “Lost Without You” before the singer dropped his Live Anthology set back in 2009 was if you picked up a bootleg recording of one of his shows with the Heartbreakers back around ’93. It’s a damn shame too, because its one of the most pain-racked, explosive songs he ever wrote. The object of his affection is leaving, and no matter how much he begs, pleads, and promises — “One of these days, I’m gonna get my sh*t together / stop screwing up” — he can’t convince her to come back.

7. “It’s Good To Be King”

People who love Petty’s 1994 “solo” album Wildflowers really love Wildflowers. To those acolytes, the Rick Rubin-produced project is hands-down, without question, the best thing he’s ever done. With its pastoral sound, and backward-looking pose, it touched something in those who craved to return to the simpler, more carefree years of their youth. While Wildflowers is stuffed with some incredible music — “You Wreck Me,” “You Don’t Know How It Feels” and the title track for instance — for my money, the best song on the record is the sprawling, melancholic “It’s Good To Be King.” Mike Campbell’s guitar solo on this track ranks amongst the finest ever committed to tape and during Petty’s live shows, the song became a dazzling centerpiece of his act.

6. “Free Fallin’”

There is hardly a more joyous feeling in the world than belting out the chorus to “Free Fallin'” amongst a crowd of hundreds or thousands of people. The song itself is a rather mundane tale of two kids, a good girl and a bad boy, falling in love with one another in sunny Southern California. It started out, apparently, as a joke during a jam session with Jeff Lynne. The two were playing around one another when Lynne just happened to throw out the title phrase. Petty picked up on it and the rest, as they say, is history. “It was so light, so removed from struggle,” Petty told biographer Warren Zanes. “I hadn’t felt that in some time. It was like I hadn’t taken a deep breath in I don’t know how long. But I think you can hear me taking one in there.”

5. “Refugee”

“Refugee” might take the prize for the best opening to a Tom Petty song, which is a helluva feather in its cap. The springy guitars, the whirling organs, the snapping snares, and then that long, string of words that takes you a moment to really full get a grasp on. “We got somethin’, we both know it, we don’t talk too much about it / Ain’t no real big secret, all the same, somehow we get around it.” Wait, hold on, what? Oh, chemistry! They’ve got chemistry. Proceed Tom. Hit us with that monster chorus that begs to be screamed at the tops of our voices. “Don’t have to live like a refugee!”

4. “Mary Jane’s Last Dance”

“Mary Jane’s Last Dance” might be the only time in the history of popular music history when an artists added a new song to a collection of their greatest hits, and it actually qualified on the merits. Throughout the ’90s when many legacy acts began re-packaging their singles and musical success on compilation discs, the record labels typically asked the bigger names for new offerings to help goose the marketing campaign. These songs typically sucked. For his own 1993 collection, Petty gave them this Wildflowers castoff which totally ruled. There’s so much ear candy here it’s almost impossible to highlight it all. The harmonica, the gritty guitar lines, the vocal harmonies. “Mary Jane’s Last Dance” also has the added bit of intrigue about being about weed. Or it doesn’t. According to Mike Campbell, “A lot of people think it’s a drug reference, and if that’s what you want to think, it very well could be, but it could also just be a goodbye love song.”

3. “Breakdown”

The one that started it all. The first single from Tom Petty And The Heartbreakers’ first album and the first to enter the Top-40. “Breakdown” came together pretty quickly. Petty whipped it up in the studio on a piano and the rest of the band joined in behind. Mike Campbell added that distinctive guitar riff, playing in only at the end at first, but then threading it through the rest of the track, giving it that steady simmering vibe that makes it so compelling. The supreme confidence that Petty portrays in this song is stunning. In it, he’s practically daring his girlfriend to walk out on him, or to open up and “breakdown,” because after all, “It’s alright if you love me / It’s alright if you don’t / I’m not afraid of you runnin’ away honey / I get the feeling you won’t.”

2. “American Girl”

Mike Campbell has claimed that Petty and the rest of the Heartbreakers recorded “American Girl” on the 4th of July. It’s a story that sounds almost too good to be true, but I really would like to believe. As one of the biggest, most beloved and widely recognized songs of Petty’s career, the one he’d regularly use to close down his incredible live shows each and every night, “American Girl” signified a shift in how he approached songwriting. “It was the start of writing about people who are longing for something else in life, something better than they have,” he explained. “The words just came tumbling out very quickly.” The musical DNA is derived equally from the Byrds and Bo Diddley, practically American institutions. The verses relay a story as old as America itself, hope for a greater future somewhere out…there. “After all it was a great big world / With lots of places to run to.”

1. “I Won’t Back Down”

An epic anthem of defiance. A statement to the world and everyone in it that “you can stand me up at the gates of hell / But I, won’t back down!” No matter what obstacles you might be facing in your life, throw this song into the rotation, and you’ll feel like you can drive your head through a two-foot-thick concrete wall. “I Won’t Back Down” is the second track on Petty’s best album Full Moon Fever, and the one that carries the greatest impact. From the chugging rhythms, the warbly slide guitar solo, the effervescent backing harmonies, the way Petty sings “Heyyyyyyyyy baby / There ain’t no easy way out!” it all combines together to create this towering monolith of hope and joy.

As it turns out, “I Won’t Back Down” got a major assist from “the quiet one” in the Beatles, George Harrison, who added his own special musicianship, and the exact pharmacological concoction that Petty needed to complete the track. “I had a terrible cold that day,” Petty recalled. “George went to the store and bought a ginger root, boiled it and had me stick my head in the pot to get the ginger steam to open up my sinuses, and then I ran in and did the take.” Leave it to a Beatle to help pull together the magic.