Growing up in the 1980s, it was difficult to avoid Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers. Even as a fan of college radio and the alternative/punk scene, one had to appreciate the talent of this band, which combined a classic southern rock sound with themes of American individualism and the role of the outcast in society to create some of the most memorable music of the past four decades.
I do have my issues with Petty – he lifted a lyric from Paul Westerberg after booting The Replacements off his tour, and then flat-out refused to give him credit. Years later, he asked for a writing credit on a Sam Smith’s “Stay With Me” because it sounded like “I Won’t Back Down.” To Petty’s credit, he just asked for a songwriting credit rather than money (unlike the greedy Rolling Stones), but it seems hypocritical to me.
That being said, I do enjoy Petty’s music and consider him a far better representation of American rock and roll than Bruce Springsteen. I did not include his work with the Traveling Wilburys, even though that produced some great songs, like “End of the Line,” “Handle With Care”, and “Last Night”.
This year, Petty and his bandmates will celebrate their 40 years together with a summer tour. To celebrate those 40 years, this piece will rank the band’s best 40 songs (note: Petty solo songs are part of this, seeing many of the Heartbreakers played on those solo albums and the band plays them on tour regularly.
40. “So You Want to Be a Rock N Roll Star” – A cover of The Byrds’ classic, TP’s version includes a ton of energy.
39. “Louisiana Rain” – A powerful ballad that closed the classic album, Damn the Torpedoes.
38. “Flirting With Time” — A beautiful song that seems to touch on the idea that time is fleeting and that life passes quickly.
37. “Runaway Trains” – A song with a powerful melody, Petty’s lyrics explore the connections we narrowly miss in life. Like many of his songs, the subjects are lonely and outcasts, and they miss a connection by moments.
36. “A Woman in Love” – One of the more memorable guitar riffs in TP’s catalog (an impressive feat), this song examines the loss of love and the inability to see why it occurred or accept that it has happened.
35. “Something in the Air” – A cool cover of Thunderclap Newman’s song about revolution and rebellion. Very Beatles-esque.
34. “A Face in the Crowd” – A beautiful song that appears to be about finding love in strange places – “A face in the crowd / Out of a dream, out of the sky / Into my heart, into my life.”
33. “It Ain’t Nothin’ to Me” – Just a good, old-fashioned rock song.
32. “Love is a Long Road” – Like many TP songs, it tells a truth about life: we all change over time and lasting love involves changing and accepting change in others.
31. “Kings Highway” – Cool song that I’ve always just loved, especially when on the open road. The influence of George Harrison is everywhere, but especially on the guitars.
30. “Good to be King” – Another great tune about an outsider who triumphs (clearly a Petty archetype), even if it was just for a moment.
29. “Feel a Whole Lot Better” – I know it’s about a break-up, but I just love the melody. It reminds me of The Beatles.
28. “American Dream Plan B” – This tune just reminded me of early 1980s Petty, even though it came out in 2014.
27. “You Got Lucky” – Memorable arrangement and cool lyrics.
26. “Change of Heart” – I just love the vocals on this song – but many love it because it is one of the best “go screw yourself” breakup songs ever written.
25. “Square One” – Beautiful acoustic guitar that discusses another Petty archetype – starting over. Nominated for a Best Original Song Grammy for Cameron Crowe’s Elizabethown.
24. “Jammin’ Me” – A hard, anthem-like rocker with hard-driving guitars, bass, and drums. I’d have it higher if it had less pop culture references (a pet peeve of mine).
23. “Don’t Do Me Like That” – Another in a long line of “relationship troubles” songs, “Don’t Do Me” has a great guitar riff and superb lyrics. Petty’s first Top 10 on the Hot 100 (reached No. 10).
22. “Even the Losers” – Like “Good to Be King”, this song celebrates the average guy who reaches the top – even it’s a brief visit. Pretty much every person can relate to this in some way, shape, or form.
21. “Yer So Bad” – An interesting, catchy song. Not the greatest lyrics, but I find myself singing along every time I hear it.
20. “Listen to her Heart” – Petty must have had some bad relationships, but at least in this one, he’s fighting to win the girl back. Catchy lyrics and the Campbell/Petty guitars make this a winner.
19. “Refugee” – One of many anthems created by the band, “Refugee” has the chorus that gets the crowd singing every time.
18. “Mary Jane’s Last Dance” – A drug reference? Possibly. Regardless, Petty’s vocals are haunting and the opening guitar is one of the most memorable in the catalog.
17. “Saving Grace” – Like most of Highway Companion, a song that works on the road. The guitar riff is again memorable (though it does sound like ZZ Top or George Thorogood) and I love the chorus (“You keep running for another place / To find that saving grace / Don’t you baby?”)
16.“Don’t Come Around Here No More” – The song itself is great, but the video is one of the best of all-time. The best is it won the award for special effects and, upon receiving the award, Petty said, “This video had no special effects, thank you very much” and walked off stage.
15. “Into the Great Wide Open” – Even though this is the song that lifted the Westerberg lyric (“a rebel without a clue’), it is still a magical and brilliantly told story. The video was also memorable, with Johnny Depp starring.
14. “Rebels” – As I often considered myself a rebel, I was attracted to this song – even if it is about the south. I love the chorus and the line, “With one foot in the grave/ and one foot on the pedal / I was born a rebel.”
13. “I Need to Know” – Just a straightforward rocker, but also another about the trials and tribulations of love.
12. “Breakdown” – The live versions are incredible, and the guitar riff and lyric, “It’s all right”, are brilliant.
11. “You Don’t Know How it Feels” – Another brilliant piece of storytelling mixed with a great musical arrangement.
The Top 10
10. “You Wreck Me” – I simply love this because of its up-tempo, straight-ahead rock and roll.
9. “Here Comes My Girl” – The spoken lyrics, the building tempo, and the guitar riff are all great, but the theme of “I love this person and nothing else matters” makes it a great song.
8. “Learning to Fly” – A great example of how simple chords can sound intricate and beautiful. Petty (and Jeff Lynne) only used the chords F, C, A minor, and G (ones even I can play), but the cadence and structure created a classic sound.
7. “Running Down a Dream” – This is another brilliant piece of musical writing. Unlike “Learning to Fly”, this song uses complex chords and changes, but creates the same hypnotic effect. Plus, the video was great and the long instrumental ending demonstrates the skills of the musicians.
6. “American Girl” – Surprisingly, this song never was a hit single, not even cracking the Billboard Hot 100. It is classic Petty, with jangling guitars, intricate weaving of instruments, and relatable lyrics.
5. “Wildflowers” – This song is amazing simply for the acoustic guitar, but the lyrics and vocals are also tremendous. It’s a paradox, as it simple lyrically and in terms of the chords used, but also complex because of the arrangement and its metaphorical value. I’m thinking this might even be too low for this song…
4. “Walls” – An example of how music can be simple yet still elegant. The lyrics and straightforward, the chords humble, but the combination creates beauty. A friend of ours played this on his acoustic guitar as part of our wedding processional, and it sounded amazing.
3. “Free Fallin’” –The main track off of 1989’s Full Moon Fever, “Free Fallin’” is arguably Petty’s most well-known track. It peaked at No. 7 on the Billboard Hot 100 (one of just three Top 10 hits for Petty) and spent 21 weeks on the chart. More impressively, it stayed on the Album Rock charts for 33 weeks, peaking at No. 1. Petty told Billboard that he wrote the first verse of the song simply to amuse co-writer Lynne, but it quickly turned into a complete song.
2. “The Waiting” – An upbeat song about the struggle to reach dreams, it was Petty’s first song to hit the top of any chart (hitting No. 1 on the Album Rocks chart for six weeks). I always loved the guitar and the lyrics, and a group of my students used it for a year-end project that remains the best project I have ever received as a teacher.
1. “I Won’t Back Down” – I went back-and-forth with No. 2 and 1, but Dayna said “I Won’t Back Down” is “definitely your favorite” and that told me it was true. The “hey baby”, the guitar, the meaning, and everything else about the song is tremendous. I love the theme of grit and determination. While researching this song, I found out that the first session featured George Harrison on vocals, as Petty was sick (I would love to hear this version as well). Petty used ginger root to feel well enough to record the track, and it ended up being s bit hit, spending 5 weeks on top of the Album Rocks track and hitting No. 12 on the Hot 100. It’s been covered by nearly two dozen artists, including Johnny Cash, Pearl Jam, Kris Kristofferson, and Bon Jovi.