Editor’s Note: With Tom Petty’s passing, we’re revisiting Petty’s top 20 songs in remembrance of the rock legend. This article originally published 16 February 2016.
This year Tom Petty will celebrate 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 has a knack for writing catchy rock and roll songs like “American Girl.” During its 40 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.
With news that he’s planning to release a previously unreleased collection of songs recorded during the sessions for his 1994 solo album Wildflowers, it seemed as good time as any to look back. Throughout his prolific career, Petty has challenged himself to keep things interesting and reinvent himself, while also staying true to himself and not giving in to what a label wants 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 his 1995 boxset Playback), but here are some of the stand-outs from Petty’s four-decade-long career, limited to one song per album.
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 mindboggling that the self-titled first album was largely overlooked in the U.S. 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.