Why Tom Petty Still Matters: Top 20 Songs
With Tom Petty's passing, we're revisiting Petty's top 20 songs in remembrance of the rock legend.
11 - 20
Pack Up the Plantation was Petty's first live album and showcases the raw energy that comes from a live Heartbreakers show and Petty's command as a frontman. The album features a six-minute version of "Rebels" that's a definite highlight. I'm fond of the chorus: "I was born a rebel / Down in Dixie on a Sunday morning / Yeah, with one foot in the grave / And one foot on the pedal."
"Some days are diamonds, some days are rocks." For "Walls (No 3)" and "Walls (Circus)", Petty talks about the walls in peoples' lives that act as roadblocks. The character in the song is determined to keep his lover as "even walls fall down". "Walls (Circus)" is the more upbeat and festive version but "Walls (No 3)" is equally as good. Sometimes it's easy to discount a soundtrack as a bunch of throwaway tracks, but Petty and his band didn't sleepwalk for this collection of songs.
For his third solo album Highway Companion, Petty asked Jeff Lynne to join him as producer once again. "Saving Grace" is one of the album's highlights. It might not be quite the level of an "I Won't Back Down", but the song finds Petty vocally and lyrically in fine form and showed that he could still write a catchy song. The song is about searching in high and low places for a little bit of saving grace in life. Live, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers rearranged the song to give it an even greater emotional punch.
In 2008, Petty got his pre-Heartbreakers band Mudcrutch together to record their first official album and go out on a small tour. Some might have seen it as a big gamble, but Petty and company quickly found success with this little experiment and churned out a stellar collection of songs. The band recorded the tracks live together in one room, and it shows in the energy of the songs. "Scare Easy" is one of the album's highlights and could be looked at as a close cousin of "I Won't Back Down". As a songwriter, Petty is like a prize fighter who refuses to go down, with "Scare Easy" being another song about staying tough in a rough world. I can't wait to see what Mudcrutch has in store for their second album that is in the works.
Tom Petty has shown many times in his career he's willing to shake things up to keep things interesting. On Mojo, Petty and his bandmates go from a more bluesy approach. They took a page from the Mudcrutch album and recorded the tracks live, giving the tracks even more power. "Something Good" is one of the album's highlights. In it, Petty sings of his hopefulness that something good is coming in the future. It's one of many Tom Petty songs where things might not be great, but there's always a glimmer of hope that things will turn around.
Echo was recorded during one of the most turbulent periods in Petty's life, which included his divorce from his wife of over 20 years and Howie Epstein's health issues, among other things. Altogether, it made life pretty gloomy. It's not surprising that the many of the songs tackle the breakup and gloomy theme head-on. Petty creates many story songs about love, but these groups of songs feel pretty autobiographical. "Lonesome Sundown" is one of the highlights. Petty talks about it hard having to move on with life by himself even though there are still strong feelings for someone. But he seems somewhat at peace with the notion by the end of the song wishing her well.
Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers' The Last DJ is often thought as the anti-music industry album (not to say that's bad as I like the title track) but there are some songs that don't deal with that issue. One of my favorite songs from that album is "Like a Diamond". It's a beautifully lush song that features some great imagery. Despite all the perils of life, he sings about his lover being a beacon of hope, which shines brightly like a diamond.
Petty promised a return to rock on Hypnotic Eye after the bluesy Mojo, and that's exactly what we got. He's in top form vocally and lyrically. One of the album's highlights is "Fault Lines", which uses geographical fault lines as a metaphor for the faults within each one of us that collide and leads to things like a "promise broken". Petty doesn't hide the fact that he has his faults, but this song is not one of them.
Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers' 1987 album is often overlooked as it doesn't contain a hit song like many of his previous album had. But at its essence, the album is just a fun little rock and roll album. "The Damage That You've Done" is one of the highlights. I like the line "Well I wish I had a dollar / For every piece of my broken heart / Yeah if they gave out a quarter / For every thread of my shattered life / Baby you'd make me a millionaire / But it wouldn't repair / The damage you've done." There's a country version of the song on Playback worth checking out too.
Getting noticed by your music heroes is something most musicians wish and hope for. For Petty, he got to play with some of his favorite songwriters in the Traveling Wilburys. In the late '80s, Petty was part of the star-studded band, which also included Bob Dylan, Roy Orbison, Jeff Lynne and George Harrison. They recorded two albums, the second without Roy Orbison who had sadly passed away. As with the other Wilburys, Petty went by a different Wilburys nickname on the two albums. As Muddy Wilbury, Petty sings lead vocals on "Cool Dry Place", a fun little song that doesn't take itself too seriously. In the song, he references Lynne's first band, the Idle Race. Every Wilburys song feels like a bunch of friends having fun together, and this one is no exception.
Joshua M. Miller is a Wisconsin-based freelance writer published in a variety of Wisconsin publications including Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Shepherd Express, and Capital Times, as well as national outlets like Paste, A.V. Club, Relix, Guitar World, Under the Radar, and American Songwriter. His writing can be found at joshuamichaelmiller.com.