Back in the late-70s and early-80s, there was a group of singer/songwriters that musically were connecting the dots directly to the great classic sounds of the 60s rock and garage bands, all the while taking lyric-writing lessons from Bob Dylan and Van Morrison by writing about the common man and his (or her) struggles of getting through life. It was a very heady time for rock fans to have come of age to the sounds of these artists. First, there was Bruce Springsteen with his legendary concerts lasting four euphoric hours. Then, Bob Seger finally stepped out of Detroit to bring a Midwestern flavor to his music while his lyrics covered the plight of the union worker on the automobile line. Then, they were followed by Tom Petty, John Mellencamp and Canadian Bryan Adams. Those three also spun unique tales of the average man to their own unique sounds.
On Monday, I gushed over my 20 favorite songs by fellow Hoosier John Mellencamp. Today, I would like to shift my focus to my favorite artist of the ones listed earlier: Tom Petty. To be perfectly honest, his first two albums went by me without me hearing a single song from either. However, I would read small articles about this band from Gainesville, Florida, who moved to Los Angeles in the early-70s to make a stab at the golden ring. I also knew that critics had picked the song “Breakdown” as the big hit off the band’s debut album, Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers. It wasn’t until the summer of 1978, while listening to the soundtrack to the movie FM (anyone remember that movie?), which was just full of songs that are today lumped together as classic rock hits. Anyway, this “new” song, at least to me, came on. It had a bluesy feel to it, yet also reminded me of the Ray Charles hit, “Hit the Road Jack”, in its cadence. I was mesmerized by this song called “Breakdown” by Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers.
Still, it wasn’t until the end of 1979, when I heard “Don’t Do Me Like That” on the radio, and then saw the band perform on Saturday Night Live, that I wanted to hear more of his music. So, for Christmas, my friends down the street bought me his then new album Damn the Torpedoes. I became a huge Tom Petty fan with that album. I mean, the opening punch of Side 1 of that album remains classic to this very day. It’s not often when an artist can string together songs of the level of “Refugee”, “Here Comes My Girl”, “Even the Losers”, “Shadow of a Doubt” and “Century City” on ONE SIDE of an album. That’s unheard of! I was hooked…for good.
Now, I am going to rank all 18 albums in Tom Petty’s catalog, be they with or without the Heartbreakers. The crazy thing is that even when the album says it is a solo Tom Petty album, those Heartbreakers are all over them. They are family. That’s why they stick together. Now, there are two albums that Tom has recently recorded with his original band Mudcrutch. Those albums are included in this countdown, but I am not including the two Traveling Wilburys albums, since those do not rely mainly on Tom’s songwriting skills.
18. Songs and Music from the Motion Picture ‘She’s the One’ (1996). So, in typical Petty fashion, he follows up his super-successful solo album, Wildflowers, with his only foray into soundtrack writing. Now, Petty has NEVER released a clunker of an album, contrary to what critics say. But, since this is a true attempt at writing a soundtrack album with new music that actually complements the film, it is a successful experiment. But, as a Tom Petty album, uh, no. It does have a great lost Heartbreakers song called “Walls (Circus)”.
17. The Last DJ (2002). This is the sound of Tom Petty ripping into the music industry at a time when the whole thing was imploding over Napster. Tom attempted to write a diatribe in which a DJ who was still attempting to hang on to his Sixties altruism on radio all the while battling the bean-counters who simply look at music as product to get more listeners, not inspire them. If this album had been released in the 80s, it would be a classic. Instead, many people think this album is an example of grandpa going crazy, pining for the good old days. The album does have a classic on it called “Dreamville”.
16. Mojo (2010). I understood the reason why this album was made. The band had just killed it during the Super Bowl’s halftime show, and then proved they were still one of the world’s greatest bands on the tour that followed. So, in an attempt to display the muscularity of the band and to show off guitarist Mike Campbell’s skills, the band created this. It got away from their mantra: “Don’t bore us, get to the chorus.”
15. Hypnotic Eye (2014). Well, Tom and the boys decided to get back on track and record the type of music they are best at. The result was this strong album. The only problem, like much of their output this century, it lacks that one big Tom Petty song that cuts through the crap and gets to the point. Of course, the problem with comparing Petty’s albums to each other is that his lesser album would be high-water marks for 99% of the other artists out there throughout rock’s history.
14. Let Me Up (I’ve Had Enough) (1987). The whole band had just spent the better part of 1985 and 1986 touring as the backing band for Bob Dylan during his World Tour. From recent releases from that tour, it sounds like it was a match made in heaven. Petty and the Heartbreakers’ swampy rock sound was a perfect foil for Dylan. So, my expectations were high for this album. Unfortunately, they all sounded rushed and tired on the album. Still, this album gave us “Runaway Trains” and “Jammin’ Me”.
13. Mudcrutch (2008). Petty sounds relaxed throughout this album as he records with his original band with what Petty said is the worst name in rock history. What we got was some smooth country rock that fell between Gram Parsons’ stay-loyal-to-the-country-soul-of-the-song sound and the Eagles’ early, polished-off-the-edges country rock sound. By the way, Petty plays bass in this band AND shares the songwriting with the other band members. That’s why it sounds so laid back.
12. Into the Great Wide Open (1991). Petty was coming off his ultra-successful first “solo” album, Full Moon Fever, so he decided that he wanted to reconvene the band AND use Fever producer Jeff Lynne of Electric Light Orchestra and Traveling Wilburys fame. Although their are a couple of great songs on the album, especially “Learning to Fly”, I felt as though Lynne’s obsessive control handcuffed the chemistry of the band, causing them to lose their identity more times than not.
11. Mudcrutch 2 (2016). Everything that made the first Mudcrutch album so delightful remained. What made this album better is that the band sounds tighter. These guys are having the time of their lives while making this country rock classic. I sure hope Mudcrutch continues to record together in the future.
10. You’re Gonna Get It (1978). This is the second album by the Heartbreakers, and it above-average for a sophomore album. The piss and vinegar of the debut is still there, as well as the Byrdsian jangle that they inspired so many other bands to play. The album has “I Need to Know” and “Listen to Her Heart”, both classics in the Petty cannon, but little else. Still, you know this band is destined for greatness.
9. Highway Companion (2006). I still love listening to this “solo” album. The mood is laid back, as though he was preparing himself for his work with Mudcrutch. It’s a shame that radio did not pick up on “Saving Grace”, arguably is greatest song of the 21st century. I keep expecting the next Heartbreakers album to sound at least this good.
8. Long After Dark (1982). After two Classic albums with a capital “C”, Petty unwittingly strikes his first chord with the MTV generation with concise songs set to excellent videos. “You Got Lucky” is Petty at his most arrogant. “One Story Town” is Petty at his most vicious. And, “Change of Heart” is Petty at his most distant. He was everywhere on this album, and I rated to it so much at the time. But, it is an album for the young, angry types. It does not age that well.
7. Echo (1999). Petty’s life was a mess at the time. He was going through a divorce. Long-time bassist Howie Epstein was losing his battle with an addiction to heroin. So, Petty, instead of pouring out his heart, soul and venom, tries to show some class on this album. If he had done the former, he might have burnt every bridge and his career would have burned with them. Instead, he pulled back lyrically, and gave us this guarded divorce album. With a little venom, he might have written his Blood on the Tracks. Instead, he spared his ex-wife, children and friends the grief and made a really good album instead. Plus, we got the classic song “Swingin'” off this album.
6. Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers (1976). What a classic debut album! I mean, these guys began the album hot and ran hot throughout the whole thing. Plus, when you have “Breakdown” and “American Girl” on one album, you know it’s an important mission statement.
5. Full Moon Fever (1989). This is Petty’s first “solo” album. He had written a great set of songs that are still very memorable nearly 30 years after the fact. It is a great album that I think suffered a little bit from producer Jeff Lynne’s slickness. But, how can I complain when this album gave us “Runnin’ Down a Dream” and “Free Fallin'”?
4. Southern Accents (1985). This album was originally supposed to be Petty’s statement on growing up in the South. I wish that album had been made, because it would have been a nice trilogy to go with Springsteen’s Born in the USA and Mellencamp’s Scarecrow. Instead, we got a magnificent mess where Petty and the band were stretching out to incorporate psychedelia (“Don’t Come Around Here No More”), neo-Stax soul (“Make It Better (Forget About Me)”) and just plain weirdness (“Spike”). But the rest of the album shows what the album could have been too. Still, any album that has “Southern Accents” and “Rebels” to go with the aforementioned songs and you have a near-classic.
3. Wildflowers (1994). On Tom’s second “solo” album, he became the true voice of the late-Boomers and Generation X. Sure, Cobain led Nirvana to record a couple of classic albums that captured the angst of these people were facing during the Reagan/Bush years, but it was Petty who brought it all home with “You Don’t Know How It Feels”, and the rest of this Rick Rubin-produced classic album. Petty has often said that he knew that no one was writing songs for that section of society, so he made it his mission. And, on this album he continued the winning streak.
2. Damn the Torpedoes (1979). I would venture a guess that most of you would choose this as Petty’s best album. To me, this was just the opening salvo for a pair of great albums. Like I said earlier, not many albums have a Side 1 on vinyl that runs through FIVE classic songs BEFORE ever getting to that first single (“Don’t Do Me Like That”). Plus, the whole thing ends with the classic swampy country song “Louisiana Rain”, which might be Petty’s most beautiful song of all time.
1. Hard Promises (1981). This album arrived just weeks before I graduated from high school, and it’s lyrical themes simply touched deeply at that time in my life. I can still feel the pain in “The Waiting” and “The Woman’s in Love (It’s Not Me)”. “A Thing About You” is a terrific song about falling in love at first sight. And, “Letting Go” shows how break ups can be painful. But, to me, the song has always been “Insider”. If this album had included the duet with Stevie Nicks “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around”, this album would be a consensus classic and would have been the band’s first number one album. Oh, what could have been…
This has been a privilege to write about one of my all-time favorite artists. It forced me to go back and listen to many of these albums again in order to rank them fairly. But, music is always going to be a subjective subject. Music hits us all different. At least Petty and the Heartbreakers are getting their due.