For a stick-thin, towheaded, Elvis fan from Florida, Thomas Earl Petty is, perhaps, an unexpected rock legend. To the uninitiated, he’s too often confused with Southern rock a la Lynyrd Skynyrd; by mid-level fans, he’s too written off as pop radio. But those who know, know. Tom Petty walks the line between rock poet and complex guitar hero, in the same league as Bob Dylan and Neil Young. As a unit, Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers are a full-on rock machine, cranking out both radio hits and solid full albums, and have long since established themselves as one of the best live bands on the planet.
Since the band has been touring this year in celebration of their 40th anniversary (and just resumed their massive tour last week), we decided to take a look at some of The Heartbreakers’s best songs. We’re sticking to The Heartbreakers canon here, exempting Petty’s work with The Traveling Wilburys and the early Heartbreakers prototype Mudcrutch. Here then are the 15 best songs by Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers.
Not every song on 2002’s The Last DJ preached the dangers of corporate greed. This one happens to be a love song dropped inside a statement album, and among The Heartbreakers’ most heartbreaking tracks. Luckily, it translates live, as every fan can cheer with the band, singing, “How bout a cheer for all those bad girls? / And all those boys that play that rock and roll / They love it like you love Jesus / It does the same thing to their souls.”
Although 1994’s Wildflowers was billed as a Petty solo album, it’s really a Heartbreakers’ album, and one of their best, at that. The album features all regular band members except for Stan Lynch; in fact, drummer Steve Ferrone would eventually join the band. “Honeybee” is one of the band’s sexiest songs, and Petty’s come-hither purr could send shivers down any little honeybee’s spine.
Originally released on the Elizabethtown soundtrack in 2005, the song was eventually released on 2006’s Highway Companion. Although The Heartbreakers may not perform it often in concert, it’s an iPod-cranker, built for a self-examining drive alone. Petty sings, “Tried so hard to stand alone / Struggled to see past my nose / Always had more dogs than bones/ I could never wear those clothes.”
Even 10 albums into his career, Petty still managed to shine lyrically throughout this 1999 LP. The sad beauty in the chorus of “Echo” makes this one of the band’s best songs, and the verses especially show why Petty’s longevity lasts longer than the whims of pop radio.
Oddly enough, the band’s ninth studio album also served as the soundtrack to the 1996 popcorn flick She’s The One. The trick to this song is the simplicity of the lyrics: “Some days are diamonds / Some days are rocks / Some doors are open / Some roads are blocked.” Even with the lines that border on cliché, the song still sound profound thanks to backing vocals by Fleetwood Mac’s Lindsey Buckingham and pumped up by pianist Benmont Tench’s percussive beating.
While the band pulls off this song an electric rocker on 1979’s watershed Damn The Torpedoes, there’s actually much stronger unplugged version during the Bridge School Concert Vol. 1. Petty performed the song solo at Neil and Pegi Young’s benefit concert in 1997, and that intimacy emphasizes his Hemingway-esque lyrics of the complex kid.
There are two kinds of people in this world—those who think of Johnny Depp as The Mad Hatter and those who think of Tom Petty. That determination, of course, came from the bizarrely ahead-of-its-time video for “Don’t Come Around Here No More.” The song itself, off 1985’s Southern Accents, showcases Petty’s innate ability to address such universal topics so specifically, and has since become one of the best songs to come out of the mid-‘80s (and still sound fresh and relevant).
A near lullaby off 1999’s Echo, “Room at the Top” manages to work both as a defiant Walden-esque anthem of solitude— “I got a room at the top of the world tonight / And I ain’t comin’ down”— and a melancholic love song—“Yeah like they do in those things on TV, I love you / Please love me, I’m not so bad.” Like many of the Heartbreakers’ tunes, it’s up for interpretation — and like many of the Heartbreakers’ tunes, it works no matter how you chose to interpret it.
The leading track off 1981’s Hard Promises speaks to anyone who’s ever punched a clock while waiting on something bigger in life. Petty sings in that Southern drawl, “Every day you see one more card / You take it on faith, you take it to the heart / The waiting is the hardest part.” File this hit under the category of what Petty does best: A Cheer Song For The Everyman.
But while “The Waiting” could be categorized as A Cheer Song For The Everyman, “I Won’t Back Down” ranks among the Heartbreakers’ Songs of Defiance. The three-minute hit off 1989’s Full Moon Fever is a rallying fight song for the underdog. “No I’ll stand my ground / Won’t be turned around / And I’ll keep this world from draggin’ me down / Gonna stand my ground.” But while other defiant Heartbreakers songs crank the garage rock distortion and energy, “I Won’t Back Down” serves as methodical song of iron will, almost a quiet threat. Like Petty maintains, “You can stand me up at the gates of hell / But I won’t back down.”
The opening riff to “American Girl” is like opening a can of audible Red Bull. But what makes this hit from the band’s 1976 self-titled debut among their best is its continued resonance with American kids across the country and throughout multiple generations. It speaks to all of the suburban kids “raised on promises” who can’t help “thinkin’ that there was a little more to life somewhere else.”
A mark of a good song is when everyone feels like it was written for them. Aside from the brilliantly simple chorus, this single off 1994’s Wildflowers boasts Petty’s harmonica (a siren song in itself that’s hard to resist) and the addictive pull of a stadium-filling drumbeat.
Written in 1991 by Petty and fellow Traveling Wilbury Jeff Lynne, the song was a smash hit off Into the Great Wide Open. It has all the makings of a classic rock staple—groove, hook and catch phrase. And like any song that’s meant to be played live, there’s something like a minor miracle that transpires every time The Heartbreakers play this to a crowd that answers Petty’s call of “Learning to fly” with a collective, “But I ain’t got wings.”
Petty has said that while some of his songs have a Southern landscape to them, this one—the title track to his 1994 album—is pure California. And just listening to this song can elicit visuals of rocky bluffs and fields of wildflowers breaking down into cliff and rock, rolling down to the ocean. From the fluttering opening chords to the the opening stanza, Petty takes you right to that California beach, singing, “You belong among the wildflowers / You belong in a boat out at sea / Sail away, kill off the hours / You belong somewhere you feel free.”
This jukebox hit is No. 1 here for good reason. It has badass licks, undeniable groove and coy, yet obvious lyrics that shift depending on your mood or locale or crew. After all these years since its 1993 release, “Mary Jane’s Last Dance” is not just a phenomenal track in the Heartbreakers catalog, but also a classic track in the canon of American rock music.