Ranking The 70 Best Songs Tom Petty Made Over The Course Of His Absolutely Legendary Career
Well, friends, here in Tom Petty Country, October is something of a big month for us. October 2nd marked three years since the death of the legendary rocker, who would have turned 70 on October 20th. One of his best albums, Damn The Torpedoes, came out on October 19th, and a few days before that, Wildflowers & All The Rest (a deluxe version of Wildflowers) will be released later this month.
So yeah, it’s a big month for the Petty Hive.
To celebrate the occasion, I felt it was only fitting to also damn the torpedoes (so to speak) and go ahead and rank Tom Petty’s 70 best songs. Yes. 70. I was going to do 50, but seeing as how Tom Petty would have turned 70 this month, it was was just calling out to me as the number to target. So 70 it is!
Before we get into it, I need to issue the obligatory song/album ranking disclaimer and mention that there is a fine line between “favorite” songs and “best” songs. When embarking on such an adventure, that line is inevitably crossed on multiple occasions. Also, music is subjective (especially with an artist like Petty) and everyone has their own unique lists of favorite/best songs. That’s great. I’m happy for you.
This list of best Tom Petty songs is mine and it starts now.
70. “Straight Into Darkness” (1982)
We have to start somewhere and we’re going to start with a song that Petty said “was one of the few things I was excited about” on his 1982 album “Straight Into Darkness.” This tune is only one of two from the album that makes this list, although “You Got Lucky” would have made it if we expanded this list to 75 songs. Check back in five years, “You Got Lucky.”
“Straight Into Darkness” is oddly relevant all these years later thanks to its message of optimism and staying positive during especially dark times. You know, like 2020.
69. “U Get Me High” (2014)
Late-stage Petty albums, basically anything from this century, tend to get lost in the shuffle when talking about great Petty tunes and albums as if some kind of reverse recency bias is afoot. Petty’s stuff from those first three decades is so amazing that it’s almost as if we don’t have room in our lives for anything else. But that’s some shit because Petty was releasing great rock records right up until the end, 2014’s Hypnotic Eye included.
68. “The Trip to Pirate’s Cove (2010)
There are so many Petty tunes out there that are made for bright lights and good times where you just can’t resist the urge to crank up the volume but he was also a master at creating atmospheric, low-lit tunes like “The Trip to Pirate’s Cove.”
You can almost feel the unmistakable ambiance of a smoke-filled dive bar in each one of the song’s notes (and then it ends and you realize its probably for the best that you can’t really smoke in bars anymore because that was the absolute worst).
67. “The Wild One, Forever” (1976)
This is the first song from the 1970s to make an appearance and it’s from the self-titled album Petty and the Heartbreakers released in 1976. “The Wild One, Forever” is basically the definition of delicious AM Radio Rock that’s almost specifically made to be played out of a junk pair of car speakers while you’re driving down south down I-95.
It’s also one of Petty’s first ballads— telling the story of a one-night stand that could have been something more if only they’d had the chance—but it certainly wasn’t his last.
66. “You and Me” (2002)
“The Trip to Pirate’s Cove” has an atmospherically dark vibe and “The Wild One, Forever” is an incredibly soul-baring tune, meaning they both land on the opposite end of the spectrum of the breezy, poppy “You and Me.”
This is a track about devotion and companionship, as Petty sings about the journey one takes with their partner and how they’ll continue to stay together as they travel “the road ahead.” It never fails to make me smile and bop my head from side to side, which is sometimes the only thing I’m looking for in a rock song.
65. “Square One” (2006)
“Square One” initially appeared on the soundtrack for Cameron Crowe’s 2005 film Elizabethtown before being re-released a year later as part of the solo album Highway Companion. It’s largely a duet between Petty and an acoustic guitar, as there’s some light percussion throughout and a slide guitar that comes in around the halfway point but they largely serve as a supporting cast.
The song’s message is one of blissful reassurance and resilience, with Petty singing “It took a world of trouble, took a world of tears/It took a long time, to get back here.” It’s a beautiful tune that works perfectly as it is but I can’t help but think what it might’ve sounded like if he’d had the Heartbreakers join him on it.
64. “You Tell Me” (1979)
Hey, it’s our first song from 1979’s Damn The Torpedoes!, which would be my first choice if I ever started a Petty cover band and was looking for a name. I’m not even sure if anything else comes close; “The WIldflowers” or “Even the Losers” would probably be my second or third choice but neither of them can hold a candle to the top contender.
Petty may have mastered the art of making songs tailormade for singing along to while driving and “You Tell Me” is just one of many examples I’d point you to if you need any proof.
63. “Won’t Last Long” (1999)
If “You Tell Me”didn’t sell you, maybe “Won’t Last Long” will. This. Is. Such. A. Good. Driving. Song. It may be at the bottom of the pack here but it would probably crack the Top 10 if I ever did a list limited to that particular subgenre of Petty’s discography.
62. “No Reason to Cry” (2010)
Man, this is just one of those songs that is so damn easy to listen to. It’s relaxing and sets your mind adrift in the endless sea that is your memories. It’s the musical equivalent of staring into a fire o gazing out at the ocean.
I love the slide guitar that comes in and out throughout the song; how it’s there but never intrusive, content to play second fiddle to Petty’s vocals, where he kicks back and just lets the words just flow.
61. “Cabin Down Below” (1994)
I could try use words to explain up how I feel about this song but there’s no point in trying to when this GIF sums things up better than I ever could.
That’s all I have to say (or not say) about that.
60. “Power Drunk” (2014)
“Power Drunk” is such a sleazy song; if it was a person, you wouldn’t let it within ten feet of your kids. It’s got lurking eyes, smells like booze and Marlboro Reds, and wears a trenchcoat despite not being an old school police detective or extra on Mad Men extra. It skips out on alimony payments, asks to borrow your car and returns it with the gas tank empty, hits on the bride at weddings, and takes bites out of people’s food when they’re not looking.
It’s also a great fucking rock song.
59. “Makin’ Some Noise” (1991)
Petty has so many songs that kick off with a downright gnarly guitar and “Makin’ Some Noise” (off 1991’s Into The Great Wide Open) is one of them. The tune has a rad boogie vibe to it that helps give it a vintage garage rock slant. If it actually was recorded in a garage, I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised.
58. “Out In The Cold” (1991)
Back-to-back entries from Into The Great Wide Open, huh? As was the case with the previous entry, it opens up with a killer guitar part (although this one is accompanied by a machine-gun-like drum fill). From there, it simply cooks and never really lets up. I’ll never know for sure but I imagine it was probably a pretty sweet song to see in concert back in the day, as it seems like something you just have to pump your fist to.
57. “Mary Jane’s Last Dance” (1993)
In 1993, Petty and company released their first greatest hits album (creatively titled Greatest Hits). Given how many hits they had racked up at that point, there was no shortage of candidates to pick from so it’s no wonder the record would go platinum 12 times on its way to becoming Petty’s best-selling album, going platinum 12 times.
However, the compilation did feature two new tracks, one of which was “Mary Jane’s Last Dance” (the other was a cover of Thunderclap Newman’s “Something in the Air,” which was replaced by”Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around,” a duet with Stevie Nicks that was released when Greatest Hits was reissued in 2008.
This song would go on to become a hit of its own, and while some people may object to it being ranked so low, I don’t really care. What I do care about is the guilt I’ve dealt with since stealing this CD from my buddy Bryan a couple of decades ago. I don’t know why I did it I but I’ve felt terrible about ever since and am glad to finally get that off of my chest.
56. “Last Night” (1998)
We have to have a Petty song from his stint with the Traveling Wilburys on here, right? Of course, we do! The lucky one to make the cut is the reggae-tinged “Last Night” from the first Wilbury album. I wouldn’t call it a successful reggae song by any means but it’s definitely a successful, joyful rock song influenced by successful reggae songs, which is good enough for me.
55. “Red River” (2014)
Hypnotic Eye is a killer rock album and the fact that it came along so far into Petty and the Heartbreakers’ career makes it that much more impressive. Whereas other acts might be content to hang back some and chill out a bit, the groups went the other way. If you tweaked it ever so slightly, “Red River” wouldn’t feel out of place on the last few Pearl Jam albums but it fits perfectly on this one.
54. “Scare Easy” (2008)
Our first Mudcrutch song!
For the uninitiated, Mudcrutch was the band Petty performed in before assembling the Heartbreakers. After kicking around Gainesville for a few years, the band packed up and headed west in search of a record deal. They eventually scored one but called it quits after releasing a single before Petty recruited bandmates Mike Campbell and Benmont Tench to form the group he’s most famously associated with.
In 2007, Mudcrutch got back together and finally released a full, self-titled album. The packed with classic (and comparatively unpolished) southern country rock songs—including “Scare Easy,” which is one of the best of the bunch.
53. “Love Is A Long Road” (1989)
Petty rarely strayed from his Florida rock roots in the 1980s but still wasn’t immune to the sounds that defined the decade—specifically the synthesizer, which opens this track 1989 Full Moon Fever (his first solo venture).
“Love Is A Long Road” was co-produced by Jeff Lynne and his influence can be heard in the keyboards he brought to the table, which played a significant role in getting Petty to explore the new sound that it showcases.
52. “A Higher Place” (1994)
Tom Petty could do pop-rock better than most when he really wanted to and the vocals on “A Higher Place” are a great example. It’s just pure, unadulterated pop deliciousness! It’s also the most upbeat song on Wildflowers, and while Petty’s harmonies are the highlight here, they’re helped to the finish line thanks to Campbell’s catchy guitar.
51. “Into The Great Wide Open” (1991)
I have a couple of things I want to say about “Into The Great Wide Open.”
The first is that when I initially sat down to put this list together, it failed to make the cut. That changed during my second pass—where it landed in the low 60s—but when I went over things for the third time, it found itself sitting at 51 (which could’ve been higher or lower if I’d had the energy to reexamine the rankings a fourth time).
The second thing is that “Into The Great Wide Open” is a top-of-the-line example of Petty’s ability to spin a tale, as it’s arguably his best tune when it comes to capturing his storytelling prowess (although I admit my opinion of it may have been swayed by the iconic music video starring Johnny Deep).
50. “You Don’t Know How It Feels” (1994)
There are very many Petty tunes out there with a stomp to them but “You Don’t Know How It Feels” is one of them. The backbeat is doing some legit blue-collared work; hammering along through the entire song and rarely straying from the beat. Petty wrote and arranged the song himself, initially putting down that workingman’s beat on a drum machine before bringing it to Wildflowers‘ producer Rick Rubin.
“You Don’t Know How It Feels” is also at the center of a cautionary tale for parents who want to introduce their kids to Petty. I have a buddy who did exactly that while on a bike ride with his daughter, and at some point, this came on. The song features the fairly iconic lyrics “So let’s get to the point/Let’s roll another joint,” which he didn’t really think too much of until he dropped off his daughter at preschool and was informed she kept singing that particular line over the course of the day when he picked her up.
The moral of the story is that kids are sponges, which is something you should always keep in mind if you want to avoid being the parent of a young child who can’t stop singing about drugs.
49. “Echo” (1999)
Are you in the mood for a nearly seven-minute-long meditation on a man’s divorce from his wife? Well, then let me offer up the title track from Petty’s 1999 album Echo. The ballad features Petty wrestling with his divorce from his first wife Jane and offers up some truly heart-breaking lyrics, like:
“Oh well, you just got tired, you just gave in/You took it hard, then you just quit/You let me down, you dropped the ball/You fell on your face most of all/And I don’t want to mean anything to you/And I don’t want to tempt you to be true”
The honesty of “Echo” is something that carries over to the entire album itself, a record Petty says he put together without over-thinking things, saying “I just let it come out the way it was.”
48. “It’s Good To Be King” (1994)
I promise this list will not include every song from Wildflowers when everything is said and done. It might seem like it’s trending that way but I assure you it won’t happen.
“It’s Good To Be King” is a pretty unique rock song. It has some mustard behind it but the swinging rhythm has the ability to lull you in and put you in an almost trance-like state. I also love how steady the drums are, which serves as a lesson to young drummers: you don’t need to be flashy to make a mark.
47. “Saving Grace” (2006)
This is another great driving song and would probably crack the Top Five on the previously mentioned list that doesn’t exist (at least not yet).
The first minute is sneaky; creeping up on you with a guitar riff that calls to mind something George Thorogood would have done. Once it passes that mark, it opens all the way up; the riff is still there but now it has some help. There’s a steady-as-she-goes backbeat, some wicked slide guitar, whirling organ, scattered acoustic, and some classic rock ‘n roll piano parts brought to us courtesy of Lynne that kick in when the song enters the back nine.
Petty only released three solo albums (although it feels like he put out more than for some reason). “Saving Grace” serves as the opener on Highway Companion, which ended up being his final one. I’ve never actually done donuts in an empty parking lot while listening to it but you can be damn sure that’s on my bucket list.
46. “Depending On You” (1989)
There is perhaps no better way to sum up Petty’s career than when he says, “I ain’t never gonna let you down/All you gotta do is trust me.” He’s damn right about that.
45. “Fooled Again (I Don’t Like It)” (1976)
Petty and the Heartbreakers had a tendency to dabble in roadhouse rock in their early days; songs that embody the spirit of the kind of bar that’s dimly lit and doesn’t offer much beyond shitty beer and a few bottles of booze.
“Fooled Again (I Don’t Like It)” falls in this category. It’s the kind of song that’s playing in the background as you’re getting hustled in pool, and damn it, you did not see that coming because you had wiped the floor with that dude in two straight games. Now he’s pocketing shots with ease and you’re out $20. I hate it when that happens.
44. “Damaged by Love” (2006)
Petty never really sounded his age when he started getting up there in years, as the dude knew how to rock and wasn’t afraid to show it. With that said, there are a few occasions where he shifted gears and wrote the king of songs you’d expect from someone who had become rock’s elder statesman. “Damaged by Love” is one of those songs.
When he was playing with the Traveling Wilburys back in the day, Petty was the young buck of the crew and you can’t help but wonder how the supergroup would’ve sounded if they’d reunited a few decades after they first go together. Petty would obviously have filled George Harrison spot and Bob Dylan could’ve taken over were Roy Orbison left off but you have to wonder who they would’ve tapped to round things out. Dave Grohl? Eddie Vedder? Maybe Jason Isbell?
We’ll never know for sure but it’s still fun to think about.
43. “First Flash of Freedom” (2010)
There are some hints of the old Mudcrutch days on Mojo, including the sprawling and wandering “First Flash of Freedom.” It’s nearly seven minutes long and doesn’t go anywhere fast; it’s spaced out, zoned out, and far out, just rambling its way slowly from start to finish.
After so many years of cashing checks with uptempo jams that barely crack the four-minute mark, “First Flash of Freedom” was like a pitcher late in his career debuting a new pitch just to prove that he can.
42. “Only A Broken Heart” (1994)
I know, I know. Another song from Wildflowers. Again, I promise I’m not including every one (just around half of them). I’m not going to apologize for it because Wildflowers is an incredible album, and in my opinion, incorporating all 15 tracks wouldn’t be that egregious.
It’s worth noting that while Wildflowers is labeled as a solo venture, it’s basically a Heartbreakers album when you consider every member aside from drummer Stan Lynch makes an appearance. The primary reason it’s not deemed one is that Rubin wanted to give Petty the chance to experiment with his sound and not piss off listeners who were expecting something different. It’s safe to say everything worked out in the end.
41. “California” (1996)
I’ll admit I’ve never seen She’s The One, the Ed Burns movie that miraculously had an entire Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers album as the soundtrack (or maybe I did and just totally forgot about it). The soundtrack is probably the only reason people still remember it exists and even though “Walls (Circus)” is the most well-known tune (for good reason), “California” is still some pretty sweet, blissed-out, summer-loving, pop-rock.
40. “Crystal River” (2008)
And the winner for the longest song to appear on this ranking goes to… “Crystal River!”
I have a feeling this Mudcrutch tune probably played a role in Petty feeling the urge to get the gang back together. His overall canon is known for its tightness and focus but “Crystal River” is pure 1970s stoner jam rock. It’s freedom—and it’s also ten minutes long, a bold strategy that thankfully paid off.
39. “Don’t Come Around Here No More” (1985)
This was another song that didn’t make the list at first, as I somehow sort of forgot about it. By the time it came to my attention, I was basically done putting this together and didn’t really feel the need to throw it on.
However, it kept tugging at my shirt and nipping at my heels and I eventually came to the realization that it was not only ludicrous to omit it but that it deserved to be ranked where it is. I don’t totally dig it, but at the same time, you have to appreciate the risks Petty and the Heartbreakers took by making it the first place.
It’s a weird tune, man. There’s a sitar on it. Yes. A sitar. On a Tom Petty song. Off of an album called Southern Accents. It doesn’t make much sense, but in the end, it somehow manages to work. Dave Stewart of the Eurythmics had a hand in its creation, and at first, the band was wary of working with an outsider (especially one who wanted to tinker with their sound as much as he did). The sitar was Stewart’s idea and it wasn’t initially well-received, as he recalled them reacting by saying,”‘What the fuck is this?’ The record was called Southern Accents, and it sounded like we’re in India.”
It’s hard to blame a bunch of cats from Florida for not being super receptive to an Englishman who wanted to throw a sitar on a song, but in the end, it all came together, so credit where credit is due.
38. “The Last DJ” (2002)
“The Last DJ” ruffled some feathers when it was released in 2002 thanks to its lyrics, as it’s a pretty pointed indictment concerning the corporatization of radio. However, the way people listen to music has changed dramatically in the past 18 years, and at the end of the day, this is just a fun song that demands to be played at an elevated volume.
37. “Dreamville” (2002)
“Dreamville” is also from The Last DJ and is simply dripping with nostalgia. Compared to the album’s title track, it’s a bit prettier and nowhere as controversial, as Petty is reflecting on his childhood as opposed to trying to stick it to the man (he once said, “it’s one of the best songs I ever wrote that was about innocence before the corruptions hit me”).
Now, iif Petty says it’s one of the best songs he’s ever written, it should theoretically be ranked higher. However, this is my list so it’s officially his 37th most impressive achievement.
36. “Turn This Car Around” (2006)
“Turn This Car Around” has some pretty serious Neil Young Harvest-era vibes thank to that dum-dum-dah groove. The chorus feels kind of grungy but everything comes together to create one of the many solid offerings on Highway Companion.
Random Thought Break: Do you think Petty and Young ever jammed together? I have no idea, but I would’ve loved to be a fly on the wall if they had.
35. “Gainesville” (1998)
We’re on a little bit of a nostalgia run right now, aren’t we?
“Gainesville” was originally recorded when Petty was putting together Echo and was eventually released in 2018 as part of the An American Treasure box set. It features him once again taking a trip down memory lane, longingly harkening back to the band’s early days playing bars in Gainesville.
This seems like a good time to give an unsolicited plug to Warren Zanes’ excellent Tom Petty biography, as he does a deep dive into his entire journey from start to finish and is a must-read for any fan of the rocker.
34. “You Wreck Me” (1994)
Again, Wildflowers is considered a solo album but “You Wreck Me” was actually written by Campbell, who played the song for Rubin and led to the producer encouraging Petty to include it on the album.
As far as sub-rankings go, “You Wreck Me” would rank pretty highly on the Best Driving Songs list, but it’s really a quadruple threat, as it’d also make an appearance on his “Best Barnburners,” “Best Songs To Play Loudly,” and Best Chorus To Sing Along To.”
33. “Casa Dega” (1979)
“Casa Dega” was recorded during the Damn The Torpedoes sessions and was inspired by a strange town Petty read about located in his beloved home state of Florida (a label that can probably be applied to the majority of towns in Florida).
After writing the lyrics, he realized they were a perfect fit for a song he’d already been working on with Campbell and the rest is history.
32. “Free Fallin'” (1989)
Figuring out where “Free Fallin'” should land on this list was one of the biggest challenges I faced while putting it together (as the father of a newborn baby, “staying awake” was a close second).
In the end, the 32nd slot just felt right. “Free Fallin'” isn’t even close to being my favorite Petty song but it’s also not even close to being my least favorite. It’s not something I turn to when I’m in the mood for some of his music but it’ll still make any playlist comprised exclusively of his tracks.
Full disclosure: I might be biased here, as this was one of the songs Petty and the Heartbreakers played when they performed at the halftime show at Super Bowl XLII. As a Patriots fan who still hasn’t gotten over David Tyree ruining their quest for a perfect season thanks to his absurd helmet catch, it tends to bring up memories I’d prefer to forget. <
31. “Shadow Of A Doubt (A Complex Kid)” (1979)
I really like this song because of the intro, which is sort of like Petty and the boys kicking in the doors of some sketchy bar in Florida and challenging anyone who’s interested to a good, old-fashioned brawl.
That probably wouldn’t be the best idea because they’re not exactly the toughest-looking crew out there and I highly doubt they’d be able to hold their own in a bar fight. However, they do manage to hold their own with this song.
30. “Time To Move On” (1994)
“Time To Move On” is about moving on and one of those rare tunes that sound exactly like the topic it addresses. The drums provide a light, breezy, train-on-the-tracks beat that serves as its engine—one that’s slowly heading out of the station). There’s nothing particularly heavy or rushed about it, which gives it a particular wistful feel.
Guess what? It’s also from Wildflowers, and no, we haven’t seen the last of it.
29. “Yer So Bad” (1989)
I don’t play guitar and I’m an absolutely terrible singer, but if I possessed some modicum of either of those talents, “Yer So Bad” would be one of the first songs I’d want to learn. Once I did, I’d proceed to play it everywhere I go; around campfires, at open mics, chilling on the beach, posting up on a street corner with an open case filled with loose change in front of me. You name it and I’ll play it there.
This is a song I don’t think I’ll ever get sick of. It’s just so much damn fun, and even though I can’t hold a tune, that doesn’t stop me from singing along whenever it comes on.
28. “Fault Lines” (2014)
Stan Lynch was a solid drummer but I can’t imagine him doing what Steve Ferrone does on “Fault Lines.” It’s appropriate that this is off of Hypnotic Eye because that first word perfectly sums up Ferrone’s cymbal work here. It’s incredibly busy and manic, but at the same time, it never feels out of control.
The rest of the song features the kind of pulsating energy you’d expect from a younger band, so it’s incredibly impressive this came so late in their career. Hypnotic Eye may have been the group’s 13th studio album but it feels as fresh as the ones they recorded in their infancy, and for that, they deserve a tip of the cap.
27. “I Should Have Known It” (2010)
This song fucking rocks, man. It has a real Led Zeppelin vibe to it and flashes and swings with the help of Campbell’s guitar, which feels like it could destroy a small village and anything else that stands in its way.
The songs on Mojo were reportedly all recorded in one or two takes and that looseness is so beautifully apparent on “I Should Have Known It,” a song Petty later admitted wasn’t designed with radio stations or concerts in mind but rather something “for the band to play.” With that said, it’s a hell of a jam regardless of who it was meant for.
26. “I Forgive It All” (2016)
Mudcrutch proves they can do more than just play some rippin’, dirty, swamp rock with this tender tune from Mudcrutch 2. Somber and reflective, there’s a sense of exhausted acceptance throughout the song, especially when Petty sings “People are what people make ’em, and that ain’t gonna change/There ain’t nothing you can do, nothing you could rearrange.”
The band brought out the big guns for this music video, which stars Anthony Hopkins and was directed by Sean Penn, who opted to shoot it in black and white. The end result serves as a perfect accompaniment, as it’s almost as beautiful as the song itself.
25. “Don’t Do Me Like That” (1979)
This was the breakout tune for Petty and the Heartbreakers and was originally written by Campbell and the frontman during their Mudcrutch days. When the idea to dust it off for Damn The Torpedoes was originally floated, both Petty and producer Jimmy Iovine were skeptical because they felt it was lacking something but it not only eventually made the album but ended up being the lead single.
I’m not sure what changed their mind but part of me feels like they were overthinking things, as the fact that “Don’t Do Me Like That” is so simple and straightforward is what makes it so enjoyable in the first place.
24. “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around” (1981)
There aren’t many songs in existence that will make your shoulders automatically start swaying once it comes on quite like this. There’s really nothing you can do to stop it. There’s no use trying to fight it. Just let it happen.
Petty did Nicks a solid by handing this tune over to her as she was working on her solo debut. She was initially hesitant to accept the offer because she only had so much space to work with and didn’t really want to give some of that up for a song that wasn’t hers. However, it’s a great track and the perfect single that Bella Donna was missing until it came along.
23. “Crawling Back To You” (1994)
The penultimate song on Wildflowers is the album’s hidden gem. In fact, there’s a hidden gem within the hidden gem, as “Crawling Back To You” has this mysterious opening that features the light strumming of a guitar and a few notes of a flute followed by this slow-motion build that walks you down a hall and into a library where it’s officially storytime with Papa Petty.
By now, you’re well aware that I’m a very big fan of Wildflowers but I also lacked the attention span to listen to it all the way through when I was first exposed to it. I know this is dumb, but it used to be pretty hard for an album to hold my interest for more than ten songs so it took me longer than I care to admit to actually get around to checking out what is the 14th track on the record.
That changed one day when a friend of mine told me she was “so tired of being tired,” a phrase she informed me she’d learned from”Crawling Back To You.” This led me to give it a listen after failing to give it a chance for far too long and it’s been a staple in my rotation ever since then.
22. “American Dream Plan B” (2014)
In this song, Petty sings, “I’m half lit/I can’t dance for shit/But I see what I want/I go after it,” which is basically the credo of every person who’s ever struggled with their self-worth and confidence.
When he first introduced this song to the Heartbreakers as they were putting together Hypnotic Eye, the rest of the crew somehow wasn’t feeling it. Maybe it was too cool? Somehow too rock ‘n roll? You’d think everyone would’ve learned their lesson after “Don’t Do Me Like That” blew up despite the initial doubts but that apparently wasn’t the case.
Thankfully, the group came to their senses and we got one of Petty’s better tracks as a result.
21. “Learning To Fly” (1991)
If I had to guess, I’d say there are at least a hundred acoustic guitars strumming away on this song. They sound like an army; there’s just so many of them and they all come together to create something that’s simply fantastic.
The guitars might be the highlight but the lyrics of “Learning To Fly” take it to the next level, as it’s one of Petty’s most inspirational songs. Interestingly enough, they weren’t the result of intense soul-searching or long, contemplative walks on the beach, as Petty says he was watching TV one day and came across an interview with an airplane pilot who shed some light on the learning curve that comes with taking to the skies, saying, “There’s not much to learning to fly; the difficult thing is coming down.”
Now, I can’t help but think the whole “taking off” thing is also a pretty significant barrier to entry, but then again, I’m not a pilot so I guess I’ll just have to take his word for it.
20. “Listen to Her Heart” (1978)
The opening of this song sounds like something The Beatles would’ve whipped up but it eventually transforms into a vintage Petty tune complete with a chorus that makes itself at home in your brain and refuses to leave or pay rent.
“Listen to Her Heart” was supposed to be a big hit for the band and help propel sales of their second album but that didn’t turn out to be the case. Petty says executives placed the blame on him mentioning cocaine in the song, and while they asked him to substitute “champagne,” he politely declined, saying, “What women would leave some guy for money and champagne? I mean, champagne is only $4 a bottle.”
Hard to argue with that.
19. “King’s Highway” (1991)
“King’s Highway” feels like it belongs on one of Petty’s earlier albums as opposed to Into the Great Wide Open, as it has the youthful energy he radiated when began to make a name for himself. It may have been released in 1991 but it feels right at home alongside the stuff he put out in the 70s.
18. “Here Comes My Girl” (1979)
“Here Comes My Girl” was one of two songs Petty played for Iovine when they first met (“Refugee” was the other) and the producer would later reveal, “I always wait for someone to come into my office and play me songs as good as those.” Can you imagine being another artist who found themselves having to compete with Petty? Well, let’s take a moment to do exactly that.
INT. JIMMY IOVINE’S OFFICE—DAY
Jimmy sits behind his large wooden desk. Gold records and pictures with famous musicians adorn the walls. Across from him sits a young musician who is there to play some of their music.
Jimmy listens to the first song and seems unimpressed. He then listens to the second song and stops it halfway through. The musician looks crestfallen.
Neither of these songs is as good as “Here Comes My Girl” and “Refugee.”
You heard me. Neither of these songs are as good as those two songs.
Well, yeah. Obviously. Tom Petty wrote those songs.
But I’m not Tom Petty.
That’s also correct.
That’s what you’re looking for? For someone to play you a song as good as those two songs?
That seems like an impossibly high standard.
You got a problem with that?
Okay. I think we’re done here. Susan at the desk can validate your parking. Come back when you have something as good as “Here Comes My Girl” and “Refugee.”
FADE TO BLACK.
The musician never returns, decides to get his real estate license, and never plays music again.
17. “The Best of Everything” (1985)
Petty and Bruce Springsteen usually only get mentioned in the same sentence if you’re talking about the best musical acts of the past forty years or so. However, there’s a notable exception in “The Best of Everything,” which is one of the most Springsteenesque songs Petty ever wrote.
The track was first put together in 1981—Petty called it “one of the best songs I ever wrote”—and was supposed to appear on Hard Promises but failed to make the cut. Robbie Robertson of The Band eventually got a hold of it and added the horns before recruiting fellow members Garth Hudson and Richard Manuel to jump on it with him, with the former laying down some piano and the latter contributing to the backing vocals.
Petty and the Heartbreakers rarely played the song live but did pull it out at a concert in 2012 the same day The Band’s Levon Helm passed away, who Petty described as “one of the greatest human beings that there ever was.” That’s one hell of a tribute.
16. “Angel Dream (No. 2)” (1996)
This is another track from the She’s the One soundtrack and it’s a short, easy-going acoustic number. It’s one of two “Angel Dream” tunes on the album (the other being “Angel Dream (No. 4.)” Don’t ask me what happened to 1 and 3. I have no idea).
The story concerning how this album came to be is pretty fascinating, as the initial plan was to have Petty contribute a couple of songs and recruit some other musicians to add some of their own, but in Zanes’ biography, “I made a couple of calls and I felt terrible. I went, ‘Oh my God, I’m one of those guys.'”
He attempted to bail on the project entirely but Iovine stepped in to convince him to continue to pursue it, suggesting it could be his version of the album Paul Simon put together for The Graduate. He eventually followed through but hit a bit of a snag after the movie’s release was delayed, which resulted in the record coming out six months before it actually hit theaters and underperforming commercially.
In the end, Petty was happy with it but said he never looked at it as “one of our normal albums.” It’s cool, Tom. I still really like it.
15. “Accused of Love” (1999)
“Accused of Love” is kind of like “King’s Highway” in that it feels like something the band would have written and recorded much earlier in their career. There’s just something about the way the chorus hits and how you can almost imagine the electric guitar that would’ve likely been more front and center if it had been made during their Damn the Torpedos days.
“Accused of Love” appeared on Echo, which is somewhat of an afterthought in the band’s discography. However, if you’re in the mood for some fun (and largely useless) facts, you might be interested to learn it was the last Petty album Rubin produced, the last to feature bassist Howie Epstein (who died of a heroin overdose in 2003), and the only Heartbreakers album where someone other than Petty served as a lead vocalist (Campbell took the reins on “I Don’t Wanna Fight”).
Hopefully those come in handy if the world ever reaches a point where bar trivia becomes a thing again.
14. “Change of Heart” (1982)
“Change of Heart” gets my motor running; it really revs that sucker right the hell up. I don’t know if it’s the big-time guitar riffs or the big-time drums or the big-time chorus or possibly all three big-time components working together, but this is definitely one of the best “crank that shit up” Petty songs.
It was also one of the last songs the band would record with Iovine, as Long After Dark was the last album of theirs he produced. “Change of Heart” fits well within the band’s Iovine period, one typified by those very components I love so much about it—or, as Campbell once succinctly summed up, “the production with the big drums and stuff.”
13. “Trailer” (2016)
The opening track on Mudcrutch 2 was dug out of storage, as it dated all the way back to the recording of Southern Accents. It did serve as the B-side of “Don’t Come Around Here No More” but didn’t make the album, and when you consider no one really cares about B-sides, it didn’t really see the light of day until decades later.
By the time 2016 rolled around, Petty and the Heartbreakers’ sound had gotten to the point where they couldn’t really bring back a song like “Trailer” without jazzing it up some. However, Mudcrutch was sort of a relic itself, so this was the perfect pairing.
12. “American Girl” (1976)
There are so many musicians out there who would kill to write a song like “American Girl,” which is simple on the surface but incredibly layered when you realize the multitude of ways it pays homage to all of the things that inspired it. You’ve got Stan Lynch’s drums that call to mind Bo Diddley, guitars that channel the optimism of the 1960s as well as the “guitar hero” culture of the 1970s, and nods to the New Wave movement that had begun to catch on when “American Girl” was released.
“American Girl” has something for everyone, which is probably why it has lived on so long after it’s release (thanks in no small part to cover bands from the Jersey Shore to the beaches of California and everywhere in between who pull it out whenever they need something that never fails to get the crowd going).
11. “I Need To Know” (1978)
Petty said he was trying to make a song like Wilson Pickett’s “Land of a Thousand Dances” while crafting “I Need To Know,” and while they’re definitely spiritually similar (especially when it comes to Tench’s piano during the bridge), it manages to stand on its own.
This is a song written and performed by a band that was hungry; ready to break out and bring their music to the masses. Petty sings with a real edge but each member of the band is eager to make their mark, whether it’s Campbell’s raging guitar, Tench’s aforementioned piano, or Lynch and Blair’s driving rhythm and beat. One of the things I’ve always loved about Petty and the Heartbreakers is how pure their music sounds. It’s just so clean and unfiltered; a pure distillation of American rock ‘n roll. It’s rarely fancy, rarely polished, and rarely cleaned up and made to look presentable. It’s just right there in front of you and it’s beautiful.
“I Need To Know” is almost the poster child for my Petty and the Heartbreakers’ love and adoration. It doesn’t get much more American garage rock than this.
10. “Rebels” (1985)
Have you ever punched a wall out of frustration? I mean, like really punched a wall. I’m not talking about a mild jab or off-hand slap. I’m talking about cocking back and going straight through the drywall. I have. Sometimes you can get so frustrated that the only reasonable course of action is to punch a wall. It’s more therapeutic than you’d think.
Our friend Tom apparently got so fired up while mixing “Rebels” that he threw a haymaker at a wall in the studio, which resulted in a trip to the hospital where he underwent surgery to get the pins and screws required to piece everything back together.
Petty almost saw his career come to an end as a result but I’d argue it was worth it based on how “Rebels” turned out. It’s one of the few songs on Southern Accents that manages to stick to the theme the album was supposed to have and the chorus knocks it out of the park to a point where it lands in the upper upper deck.
9. “I Won’t Back Down” (1989)
When Petty passed away, “I Won’t Back Down” was the song of choice for radio stations who wanted to pay tribute, which resulted in its enduring message of determination and persistence to come rushing back into our lives like a gust of wind coming off the ocean on a warm summer day.
I’ll always remember when Jason Aldean covered the song on Saturday Night Live in October 2017 as a way to pay his respects to not just Petty but the victims of the shooting that had recently occurred at a music festival in Las Vegas. In a world where very little seemed to make sense anymore, it served as a brief but much-needed moment of serenity.
Petty wasn’t a huge fan of “I Won’t Back Down” when he first began to develop it, as he said, “there’s not a hint of metaphor in this thing. It’s just blatantly straightforward.” His reluctance to embrace the song continued throughout the recording process—where George Harrison hopped in to add some background vocals—and Petty finally learned to love it because “everyone around me liked the song, and it turns out everyone was right.”
We should all be relieved he listened to everyone around him because I’m not sure I’d want to live in a world that doesn’t have “I Won’t Back Down” to rally around when times get tough.
8. “Runnin’ Down A Dream” (1989)
As far as guitar riffs go, it’s hard to beat the one Campbell came up with for “Runnin’ Down A Dream.” In fact, his entire performance throughout the song is impressive, whether it’s that signature riff or the master class in shredding he conducts during the solo.
It makes sense that the song was essentially built around Campbell’s riff, which was actually in a different time signature than what had been planned but that the rest of the band was more than happy to cater to. In doing so, they not only created a Top 10 Petty song but the one that is far and away the best one to drive to.
7. “Refugee” (1979)
If this were a ranking of Petty songs that are the best to hear live, “Refugee” would be higher. If we were ranking best intros of a Petty song, “Refugee” would be higher. I decided to rank it seventh, but by this point, the competition is getting very fierce so there’s a good chance it could’ve cracked the top three if I’d been in a different mood when constructing this list.
The song is another Campbell creation that he passed on to Petty to finish up. Sounds easy, right? Hardly. Campbell later said it took them 100 takes to record the song (Petty claims it was actually closer to 200) and the guitarist had to leave the studio for a few days to reboot before coming back, at which point everything finally came together.
I’d say it was more than worth it.
6. “Letting You Go” (1981)
“Letting You Go” is like one of those Saturday afternoons in the middle of summer where it’s the perfect temperature and you don’t have anywhere to be or anything to do. It’s one of those days where doing nothing is all you want to do; the sun feels nice, the beer is cold, and every so often, there’s a light breeze to cool you down accompanied by the smell of someone grilling nearby.
It’s easy living at its easiest and you don’t have a care or a complaint in the world. That’s “Letting You Go.”
5. “Walls (Circus)”
When you’re talking with Johnny Cash and he tells you, “Some days are diamonds and some days are rocks,” you’re basically obligated to turn that into a song, which is exactly how “Walls (Circus)” came to be. There are actually two versions of it on the She’s the One soundtrack, but in this house, this one is the only one we acknowledge.
“Walls (Circus)” might hold the distinction of being home to the prettiest harmonies on any track Petty is responsible for. They were created with the help of Fleetwood Mac’s Lindsey Buckingham and they never really stop (and you never really want them to). They sound like waves crashing on the beach (see what I did there?) that lull you to sleep at night. It’s such a peaceful song, which is fitting because it stresses the importance of patience and how all the waiting will be worth it in the end.
You have to think that if “Walls (Circus)” appeared on any other Petty album beside She’s the One, it’d be one of his biggest songs. I mean, it’s still up there, but if it had better company, you could imagine it being even bigger. It definitely deserves it. It’s a beautiful song that never gets old.
4. “Even The Losers” (1979)
There was always something relatable about Petty. He could play the role of just another dude because he always felt like he was just another dude. It’s another thing he had in common with Springsteen. They could both sing songs that felt at home in the dingiest of dive bars because it’s the kind of bars they came from. Petty could sing a song like “Even The Losers” and make it sound genuine because he was never pretending to be something he wasn’t. He was just Tom Petty, a “loser who got lucky.”
Damn The Torpedoes, is stacked with amazing songs and “Even The Losers” is probably the highlight. Petty described it as the “weirdest” song he ever made, as he was stuck on the chorus and decided to wing it during a take, saying, “I had no idea what I was going to sing when I got to that point. And, boom, divine intervention. It just came out”
I’m not calling Petty a loser by any means, but for a man that was no stranger to the occasional loss, it’s true: even those dudes get lucky some times.
3. “Breakdown” (1976)
“Breakdown” was recorded in the early hours of the morning after Petty called up all of the Heartbreakers around 1 A.M. and told them to get their asses to the studio, where they laid it down a couple of hours later. That makes almost too much sense, as “Breakdown” is the epitome of a late-night hang song.
If you’re listening to it in the morning with the sun booming in through your windows, you’re not doing it right. This song requires low lights, a slightly altered state of mind, and while I can’t endorse smoking, the lingering smell of cigarettes in a slightly hazy room really helps tie everything together.
“Breakdown” initially ran for more than seven minutes but it was cut down to make it better-suited for radio, meaning you have to listen to a live version if you want to hear what the song was “supposed” to sound like.
As the years passed, the live version has become almost as popular (and frequently played) as the studio version. In a way, it’s almost like they’re two different songs but either of them is worthy of getting the bronze medal here.
2. “Wildflowers” (1994)
I will always be down to listen to “Wildflowers”; to sing along with it and hum it and play air guitar to it and then continue to sing it for the rest of the day. I’ll dance with my wife to it, I’ll sing it to both of our daughters. I can safely say that I’ll be listening to “Wildflowers” for the rest of my life.
And that’s all I have to say about that.
1. “The Waiting” (1981)
When I sat down and started throwing this together, there was never a question as to whether or not “The Waiting” would be number one. “Wildflowers” wasn’t considered and not even a song as iconic as “American Girl” (which claimed the top spot on Rolling Stone’s list) was. It was “The Waiting” at one and then everything else would follow.
I’m not even sure why. I just know that I’m of the opinion that “The Waiting” is Petty and the Heartbreakers’ best song. It bridges divides of musical eras, combining the lightness of 1960s pop and the drive of late 1970s rock, and the chorus is the best kind of anthem. When it starts, I just get excited, and there aren’t many songs that do that to me (especially these days). I also love the back story behind the chorus’ lyrics, as Petty says he was influenced by something Janis Joplin had one said, “I love being onstage, and everything else is waiting.”
Everything else is just waiting. We’re all just waiting for the next time we can do what we love and then we’re truly alive.
Feeling alive is one of the things I always love about Petty and the Heartbreakers’ music. It encourages you to live, to feel, to love, to throw your arms wide open and take in whatever comes your way. The songs are calls to action and meditations on life. They get loud, they get fast, they get soft, they get slow, and but they always deliver and will always deliver. The future of rock ‘n roll (which Petty and company was once called) might be murky, but it will always live on thanks to songs by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers.