The 20 Best Tom Petty Songs

Joshua M. Miller
Photo: Sam Jones (Warner Bros. Records)

With Tom Petty's passing, we're revisiting Petty's top 20 songs in remembrance of the rock legend.

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.

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