Tom Petty: His 50 Best Songs, Ranked
Pairing Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers with Dave Stewart of the Eurythmics sounded like a weird idea at the time, but it worked out incredibly well. Stewart produced a number of tracks on ‘Southern Accents’ (as did Robbie Robertson of the Band, and Jimmy Iovine) and he co-wrote a few songs too, including this one. The song was originally written with Stevie Nicks in mind, but Petty was the right guy to sing it and it hit #13 on the pop charts (partially thanks to MTV putting the ‘Alice In Wonderland’-themed video in high rotation). Fun fact: the song featured Marilyn Martin on backing vocals -- who had a hit during that time with her Phil Collins duet, “Separate Lives.” Also on backing vocals: Sharon Celani from Nicks’ touring band.
After doing a tour as Bob Dylan’s backing band, Petty and Dylan co-wrote this jam, the highlight of ‘Let Me Up (I’ve Had Enough).’ The song was about media overload, but came off as something of a “diss track” against some celebrities of the era: Eddie Murphy, Joe Piscopo and Vanessa Redgrave. It was also constantly on MTV, and it hit #18 on the pop charts.
A sweet tribute to a fallen Wilbury… or at least, that’s how many fans interpreted it. The big difference between the Wilburys’ first album (1988’s ‘Vol. 1’) and the follow up was the absence of Lefty Wilbury, aka Roy Orbison, who died just weeks after the Wilburys’ debut. Some of the group’s magic left with him, but ‘Vol. 3’ still had some great moments, and this was the loveliest of them, inspired by Orbison’s absence.
Tom Petty has always owed an artistic debt to the Byrds, and in particular, their leader Roger McGuinn. But in 1991 he did McGuinn a major solid: for Roger’s first album in a decade, Petty co-wrote “King Of The Hill,” which they performed as a duet. Funny enough, Petty later starred on the animated TV show ‘King Of The Hill’; his character’s name, Lucky, was a reference to Bob Dylan’s nickname in the Traveling Wilburys.
The song was written for the Ed Burns film ‘She’s The One’ (starring Jennifer Aniston and Cameron Diaz), but was probably inspired by Petty getting through his divorce. “Some days are diamonds/Some days are rocks/Some doors are open/Some roads are blocked/Sundowns are golden/Then fade away” sound like the lyrics of someone who survived a difficult emotional time. There were two versions of the song in the film and on the album, but this one -- featuring Lindsey Buckingham on backing vocals -- is the better version.
Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers’ final album was also their only one to top the pop charts. Here, they reconnected with their slightly psychedelic Byrds-y garage rock sound.
For Petty and the Heartbreakers’ first album in eight years, they recorded in an old school style: mostly live, with few overdubs. The Heartbreakers’ final two albums are sadly underappreciated, but they both had some serious gems. “I Should Have Known It” was a great addition to their live sets.
The most Petty-centric song on the Wilburys’ debut, it told an amusing story of a wild night at a bar. Petty handled most of the lead vocals, but gave the best line to Roy Orbison: “I asked her to marry me; she smiled and pulled out a knife/’The party's just beginning,’ she said/’Your money or your life.’”
The pain of Petty’s passing is surely still raw to his bandmates and family, but hopefully a full live album from one of Mudcrutch’s two tours will see the light of day at one point. Mudcrutch, of course, was Petty’s pre-Heartbreakers band: he played bass and sang and future Heartbreakers Mike Campbell (guitar) and Benmont Tench (keyboards) were also members, along with guitarist Tom Leadon and drummer Randall Marsh. On their tours, Petty ditched his solo songs and stuck with the Mudcrutch catalog; he clearly enjoyed doing concerts without the expectations of his catalog. You can hear that for all 27 minutes and 50 seconds of this EP, and “The Wrong Thing To Do” is the highlight.
‘Highway Companion’ saw Petty reuniting his ‘Full Moon Fever’ team: Heartbreakers guitarist Mike Campbell and Jeff Lynne of the Traveling Wilburys. Unlike ‘Full Moon Fever,’ there were no guests: the three of them played all of the instruments (Petty was the drummer on the album!). It wasn’t a radio smash like Petty’s solo debut, but there were some great songs, including this blues stomper, a tribute to ZZ Top’s “La Grange” (which itself was a tribute to a couple of John Lee Hooker tunes, including “Boogie Chillen” and “Boom Boom”).
One of Petty’s most rocking songs, it features what is perhaps Mike Campbell’s best guitar work; the studio version from ‘Full Moon Fever’ is great, but it really comes to life as a live Heartbreakers jam. Petty references Del Shannon in the line, “Me and Del were singin’ a little ‘Runaway’.” That was a nice touch, as he stole Del Shannon’s bass player, Howie Epstein, a few years before recording the song.
The title track from Petty’s angriest album, he told the UK magazine MOJO that "Radio was just a metaphor” for American society in the song. “‘The Last DJ’ was really about losing our moral compass, our moral center."
In an interview with this writer, Heartbreakers keyboardist Benmont Tench bristled at the idea that ‘Wildflowers’ was a Petty solo album: “You’ll have to ask him why it’s a solo album,” he said. But this song, which closed the LP, isn’t really a Heartbreakers jam. Petty plays the piano -- producer Rick Rubin felt that Tench played it too proficiently and it needed to be a bit more rough and basic. Petty was accompanied by future Heartbreaker Steve Ferrone on drums, Mike Campbell played bass and Michael Kamen conducted an orchestra. As Petty told writer Paul Zollo, “You talk about your shortlist of things you’ve ever done. That song is just one of my best songs.”
The song didn’t get much love in ‘91 when ‘Into The Great Wide Open’ was released - the title track and “Learning To Fly” were the album’s dominant songs. But it was always a lovely composition. And the lyrics certainly hit differently today: “You and I will meet again, when we're least expecting it/One day in some far off place, I will recognize your face/I won't say goodbye my friend, for you and I will meet again.”
There’s a lot to love about the Traveling Wilburys, and one of the greatest things about them is how they brought Roy Orbison back to the top of the pop charts: both on their debut ‘Vol. 1’ and on Roy’s final album during his lifetime, ‘Mystery Girl.’ “You Got It,” co-written by Roy, Petty and Jeff Lynne, was the man’s final classic, cracking the top 10 on the pop charts. Petty sings backing vocals and plays rhythm guitar on the track as well.
A melancholy jam where Petty looks at his own rock stardom with a bit of cynicism: “It's good to be king, if just for a while/To be there in velvet, yeah, to give 'em a smile/It's good to get high and never come down/It's good to be king of your own little town.” The strings, conducted by Michael Kamen, who has worked with Pink Floyd and Metallica, add gravitas and cinematic feel to the song.
On ‘Into The Great Wide Open,’ Petty decided to combine his two worlds: he had his Traveling Wilburys bandmate Jeff Lynne (formerly of Electric Light Orchestra) produce the Heartbreakers. It was an uneven album, but “Learning To Fly,” one of Petty’s simplest songs, is an undisputed classic.
The last song from the last album Petty released during his lifetime. It felt like a great ending to the Mudcrutch story when it was released back in 2016; Petty never indicated that there was going to be a third album. But as with so many of his lines, “Nobody cry for me, ain't nothin' to it now,” feels different today, a few years after his tragic death.
Petty’s output in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s was nearly flawless, so it’s understandable that you may have missed this lovely ballad that closes ‘Long After Dark.’
It’s not Stevie Nicks’ most famous collaboration with Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers, but it’s a classic. She told this writer that Petty is her favorite songwriter ever, and she loves singing his songs. He wrote this one for her at her request.
When Petty was asked to write a song for Nicks’ solo debut, ‘Bella Donna,’ he came up with this song and then decided that he didn’t want to part with it. So Nicks sang it and Petty kept it for himself… and then gave her another song that he didn’t like as much: “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around.”
One of Petty’s catchiest songs of the era, it shoulda been a hit.
This song for the dumped has such a singalong-ish chorus, it’s surprising that Petty didn’t perform the song in concert (according to Setlist.fm, he only performed it once).
Possibly Tom Petty’s greatest music video, telling the story of “Eddie” (played by Johnny Depp) who comes to L.A. to make his rock and roll dreams come true… and they do. And yet, it’s not a happy ending (despite that Petty, as the narrator, deadpans “and they all lived happily ever after” at the end of the video). The song is great without the visuals, though, and is one of Petty’s best songwriting collaborations with Jeff Lynne.
Tom Petty fans can’t complain that radio hasn’t supported their guy, but when you go through his albums, it’s shocking how many great songs weren’t hits on the FM dial. But that’s what happens when you’re such a great songwriter: Petty’s catalog is an embarrassment of riches, as they say. This song, from Petty & The Heartbreakers’ debut, is about what must have been one hell of a one night stand (and it’s not even his most famous song about a one-night stand, but we’ll get to that one later). The song starts ominously: “Well, the moon sank as the wind blew /And the street lights slowly died /They call you the wild one/Said, ‘stay away from her’/Said, ‘she could love no one if she tried.’” Obviously the narrator doesn’t stay away! Years later, he recalls, “I'll never get over how good it felt when you finally held me /I will never regret, baby, those few hours/Will grow in my head forever.”
Petty voiced ambivalence about the entire ‘Echo’ album in the years after its release, and that’s understandable: it was his reaction to his divorce. It was also the end of bassist Howie Epstein’s era in the band: he didn’t even show up for the photo shoot for the album’s cover. We can empathize with why Petty didn’t like it, but that doesn’t make it a bad album: it’s probably his most overlooked. And the title track, where he says goodbye to his ex- is just heartbreaking. He still loves her, but too much has gone down. The relationship can’t be fixed: “Well, I woke up right here in a pool of sweat /With a box of pills and you /Yeah, and I'm gonna keep my head /I'm gonna keep my cool /Oh, I'm so in love with you /Yes and in another world nothing was like this /There may have been a girl ...There never was a kiss.”
This album came off a bit as a collection of outtakes from ‘Wildflowers,’ but it has some true gems on it, including the different versions of “Angel Dream.” Clocking in at less than two and a half minutes, “Angel Dream (No. 4)” is one of his sweetest ballads.
Tom Petty has had lots of incredible videos, and you’ve probably seen most of them. You may not have caught this one: it was directed by Sean Penn and stars Anthony Hopkins (the band does not appear in it). It’s a short film that seems to be about someone at the end of their life, looking back. “People are what people make 'em, and that ain't gonna change,” he laments. “There ain't nothing you can do, nothing you could rearrange.” But he concludes at the end of the song, “With her, I forgive it all.” The fact that it was on the last album Petty released during his lifetime makes the song even more haunting. And it may have brought some comfort to some people in his life.
Early in their career, no one seemed to know how to classify Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers. Were they southern rock? New wave? Punk rock? On the first single from their second album, the answer seemed to be “all and none of the above.”
Originally written and recorded with Mudcrutch, Petty toyed with the idea of giving it to the J. Geils Band a few years later. That is, until his producer Jimmy Iovine convinced him to record a new version with the Heartbreakers. That guy Iovine, he had good ears. Wonder whatever happened to him?
The highlight of Mudcrutch’s debut/reunion album (they only recorded a few singles before breaking up in the early ‘70s). Unfortunately, many wrote Mudcrutch off as a side-project. Had Petty kept “Scare Easy” for the Heartbreakers, it could have been a huge hit. He never played Heartbreakers songs with Mudcrutch, and vice-versa, which is a shame. […]
Apparently, Petty really enjoyed the video for this song, which was ubiquitous on MTV in ‘82. He was less fond of the song though, and the band rarely played it live in the ‘80s, ‘90s and ‘00s (although it started to enter the setlists in the 2010s). The song was dominated by Benmont Tench’s synths, although Mike Campbell’s spaghetti western guitar leads are unforgettable.
Mike Campbell has said that this song and “Refugee” were written in the same week. “Tom wasn't sure how to do the verse,” the guitarist noted. “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.” Petty perfectly described how being in love can make everything else seem better: “It just seems so useless to have to work so hard, and nothin' ever really seems to come from it/But then she looks me in the eye and says ‘We're gonna last forever’/And man, you know I can't begin to doubt it/No, 'cause it just feels so good, so free and so right/I know we ain't never goin' to change our minds about it.”
It’s one of Petty’s biggest and most distinctive hits, but clearly he was a bit ambivalent about it: he only performed the song twice between 1983 and 2002, when he brought it back into his sets. The song wasn’t a big pop hit though, and Petty felt that it may have been blocked by another big hit from that era: his collaboration with Stevie Nicks, “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around.” He told writer Paul Zollo, “They came out roughly the same time, and Stevie's record was huge. And so it was an awkward position for us because it was billed as 'Stevie Nicks With Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers,' and a lot of the radio programmers didn't want to have two Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers songs around the same period. Especially while one was getting this extreme amount of airplay. So it was a little awkward for us."
How good was Petty’s solo debut, ‘Full Moon Fever’? Good enough that he could ditch this obvious hit, which featured one of the hottest bands of the era - the Bangles - on backing vocals. The funky bass playing came courtesy of Heartbreakers guitarist Mike Campbell.
OK, so it sounds a bit like “Stand By Me.” But hey, sometimes originality is overrated! It’s a sweet and earnest love song to a long term partner: “So come to me my darlin', hold me while I sleep/I know you feel lost, but you're not in too deep.”
It sounds a bit like the Band, and there’s a good reason for that: Robbie Robertson produced the song and his former Band-mates Richard Manuel and Garth Hudson guested on the track, on backing vocals and keyboards, respectively.
One of Petty’s last huge pop hits, it was constantly on MTV during an era where Petty’s peers were being shoved aside by Pearl Jam, Nirvana and other alternative rock bands. But Petty has always been cool, it’s no surprise that he’s always transcended trends.
Usually extra songs for “best of” collections are a bit “throw-away” but that was definitely not the case with “Mary Jane’s Last Dance,” Petty’s first collaboration with longtime producer Rick Rubin. It was also the last Heartbreakers track to feature original drummer Stan Lynch. Years later, there was a rumor that Petty was going to sue the Red Hot Chili Peppers for their song “Dani California,” which sounded a bit like “Mary Jane” (Rubin produced both songs). Petty didn’t sue… and anyway, “Mary Jane” sounded a bit like the “Waiting For The Sun” by former Petty opening act the Jayhawks (and Heartbreaker Benmont Tench played keyboards on that song). As we said earlier: originality is overrated!
The first single from Nicks’ solo debut was a smash hit, reaching #3 on the pop charts. Petty said, “Stevie Nicks wanted a song really bad for a couple years. So I wrote her this song called ‘Insider.’ And I really liked that song. I played her the song. She says, ‘I love it. Can you put it down for me?’” But he liked it too much to give it away. “I said, ‘Would it really sound totally lame if I said I wanted to keep this one and write you another?’ She said, ‘No, not at all.’ I had a few songs that I didn’t think I was going to use and ‘Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around’ was one. I played it and she said, ‘I like that.’ It was credited to Stevie Nicks featuring Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, although bassist Ron Blair didn’t appear on the song; legendary Booker T. & the MGs bassist Donald “Duck” Dunn filled in for him on the track.
Petty’s first solo single was a massive hit, reaching #12 on the pop charts. The song featured Petty backed by Heartbreakers Mike Campbell on guitar and Howie Epstein on backing vocals, as well as his Wilburys mates Jeff Lynne (bass and backing vocals) and George Harrison (acoustic guitar and backing vocals). For the video, George’s old pal Ringo played drums (and kind of stole the show) but it was Phil Jones who played on the record.
The original version from Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers’ 1976 debut is, of course, a classic. But this live version is even better. He lets the audience sing the entire first verse, and then deadpans, "You're gonna put me out of a job," which is a fun “lighters up” arena rock moment. And we love those kinds of moments! But things take a darker turn a few minutes later, when he starts vamping on about a breakup: “You wanna leave, you just leave, babe/You wanna go, you just go, babe… You just start the car, you take all the money, you take everything I got, you take all the lawyers, you just go… I’ll see you later, you know? I’m gonna handle this pretty good, you know?” But you know that it isn’t going down that way. He melts down even more: “I’m gonna be all right by myself, you know? I’m gonna handle this pretty good, I think, you know? I’m gonna handle this like a man: this is an adult situation and I’m gonna handle this like an adult! You wanna leave? You go! You got your life, I’ve got my life, if you wanna go….AAAAAAAAARRRRRRRRGGGGGGHHHH!” By ‘85, “Breakdown” had been on the radio constantly for nearly a decade, and the live version was a reminder of what a painful song it was.
“It didn’t take long at all to write it,” Petty once noted. “But it was a difficult song to record… And [producer] Jimmy Iovine did a really great job of making a great record out of that song. It’s really just a beautiful sound. Jimmy really, really believed in the song. He wouldn’t accept less than greatness... And he got it.” Mike Campbell concurred: “It took us forever to actually cut the track. We must have recorded that 100 times. I remember being so frustrated with it one day that - I think this is the only time I ever did this - I just left the studio and went out of town for two days. I just couldn't take the pressure anymore, but then I came back and when we regrouped we were actually able to get it down on tape.” The band’s patience definitely paid off. As Petty noted, “It’s really one of our best records; certainly, one of the best singles we ever made.”
Petty allegedly wrote the lyrics based on a story that his wife Jane told him: she was at a party thrown by R&B legend Ike Turner. A few hours into the party, Turner locked the doors to his house from the inside so no one could leave. Petty turned the story into a song about a guy who doesn’t care about a woman’s feelings (and if you’ve seen the Tina Turner documentary ‘Tina,’ this story tracks.) The song was controversial because of Petty’s mention of cocaine, which he was asked to change to “champagne.” He didn’t comply. “What women would leave some guy for money and Champagne?” Petty said at the time, per Rolling Stone. “I mean, champagne is only $4 a bottle.”
Did Petty hold on to the song after recording it in 2000 because it sounded like a final bow? You decide. In it, he sings, “I didn't do it for no magazine/Didn't do it for no video/Never did it for no CEO/But I did it for real/Would've done it for free/I did it for me/'Cause it was all that rang true/I did it for real/And I did it for you.” It’s one of his greatest songs, and if you missed it upon its release, hey: check it out today.
The poet Allen Ginsberg coined the phrase “first thought, best thought” which is the idea that spontaneous writing leads to authentic work. (Easier said than done, my dude!) But that seems to have worked here: as Petty said in an interview,, “I just played it into a tape recorder and I played the whole song and I never played it again. I actually only spent three and a half minutes on that whole song.”
Petty’s biggest hit single, it reached #7 on the pop charts: it’s nice when the best music is also the most popular! As Petty told Billboard, “Jeff Lynne and I were sitting around with the idea of writing a song and I was playing the keyboard and I just happened to hit on that main riff, the intro of the song, and I think Jeff said something like, ‘That’s a really good riff but there’s one chord too many,’ so I think I cut it back a chord and then, really just to amuse Jeff, I just sang that first verse. Then he starts laughing.” But what started as a joke became an anthem: “I got to the chorus of the song and he leaned over to me and said the word, ‘freefalling.’ I sang ‘freeee,’ then ‘free falling.’ And we both knew at that moment that I’d hit on something pretty good.”
In the song, Petty seems to be referring to waiting for a relationship to happen: “Well yeah I might have chased a couple of women around/All it ever got me was down/Yeah, then there were those that made me feel good/But never as good as I feel right now!” But he said in Paul Zollo’s ‘Conversations With Tom Petty’ (an essential book for any Petty fan, by the way) that it was inspired by something Janis Joplin said. “I love being onstage and everything else is just waiting.”
A classic song about a memorable one-night stand, but this one has a much different vibe than “The Wild One, Forever.” In that song, he sounds heartbroken. Here, he’s a bit bummed, but getting over it: he sings, “It couldn’t have been that easy to forget about me!” But he’s glad the romp happened at all, because, hey, “even the losers get lucky, sometimes!”
“Well she was an American girl/Raised on promises/She couldn't help thinkin' that there/Was a little more to life/Somewhere else!” Hasn’t every kid felt that way at some point in their teens? Legend has it that when Roger McGuinn of the Byrds first heard this song, he said, “When did I write this?” (Years later, he’d pay Petty the ultimate compliment by covering it.) Petty denied that it was directly influenced by the Byrds, noting that there are no 12-string guitars on the song (the 12-string Rickenbacker electric guitar was an essential part of the Byrds’ early sound). He also pointed out that the drumbeat is practically a tribute to Bo Diddley. Whatever influenced it, the closing song from Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers’ 1976 debut album would go on to be an American classic, one of Petty’s finest moments, and the final song he ever played on stage.