Top 10 Tom Petty Songs
Creating a list of the Top 10 Tom Petty Songs is no easy feat. Even his 1993 Greatest Hits compilation had 18 killer cuts, and his six-CD Playback box set two years later stated a case for Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers as one of the best American rock bands of all time. Still, we take these jobs not because they’re easy, but because they’re hard. So, with apologies to all of the great tracks we missed, here is our list of the Top 10 Tom Petty Songs.
1999’s Echo wasn’t one of Petty’s best albums, but its title track and "Room at the Top," the opener, were standouts. As on so many of his best songs, Petty gives the lyrics room to breathe so that the music can carry their meanings. Quietly strummed guitars soon give way to angular power chords, conveying the combination of sadness and bitterness in the words. It’s also a vocal spotlight for bassist Howie Epstein, whose harmonies took many a Heartbreakers song to the next level before his death in 2003.
The ninth spot on our list of the Top 10 Tom Petty Songs belongs to a song from Petty’s biggest-selling album. Full Moon Fever was technically a solo album even though all the Heartbreakers played on it except for drummer Stan Lynch. But apart from the heavily layered Jeff Lynne production, you could barely tell the difference, especially on the first single, which finds Petty in a particularly defiant mood.
From: 'Bella Donna' (1981)
While producing Stevie Nicks’ solo debut, Jimmy Iovine asked Petty for a song. Petty gave Iovine this outtake from Hard Promises, and Nicks strategically added vocals to the Heartbreakers’ track, turning it into a duet. The result was a No. 3 hit. The original version without Nicks was released on Playback.
Like Full Moon Fever, Petty’s second solo album, Wildflowers,’relied heavily on the Heartbreakers, who turned in a tight-as-can-be performance on this track. Originally called "You Rock Me," Petty thought it sounded like too much of a cliche and made a slight adjustment to one vowel sound and kept all the other lyrics. The decision changed the entire tone of the song, and for the better.
1979’s Damn the Torpedoes turned Petty into a major star, and its first single, written in the early-70s when the band, with a few different members, was called Mudcrutch, is a major reason for its success. "Don’t Do Me Like That" spotlights the stellar ensemble playing of the Heartbreakers, especially lead guitarist Mike Campbell and keyboardist Benmont Tench, who trade lead and rhythm parts with telepathic ease.
1985’s Southern Accents was originally conceived as a double-album about his Gainesville, Fla., upbringing. Instead, only a handful of songs wound up making the cut, one of which was its opener. But it wasn’t without a price. Petty got so angry during the mixing of "Rebels" that he punched a wall and broke his hand. But it sounds perfectly fine to us, and good enough for No. 5 on our list of the Top 10 Tom Petty Songs.
The influence of the Byrds on Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers has been obvious from the beginning, but it’s rarely been as naked, or as good, as on "The Waiting." Rickenbacker 12-strings ring throughout over a lyric inspired by its creation. Petty had the riff for a week, but no words until the titular phrase came to him when thinking about the struggle for inspiration.
Despite its all-American sound (and title), Petty’s second single was never a hit in the U.S. But it charted in the U.K., where the Heartbreakers’ back-to-basics approach to rock n' roll was thought to part of the nascent New Wave movement. Ironically, its success overseas attracted the attention of American program directors, who added it to their playlists, and it’s been there ever since.
"Refugee" is the Heartbreakers at their finest, with Campbell’s economical phrases, Tench’s soulful organ playing, the lockstep rhythm section of Lynch and original (and future) bassist Ron Blair and Petty’s gritty, passionate vocals. As with many of the defiant lyrics on Damn the Torpedoes, "Refugee" was inspired in part by a feud Petty was having with his label, and cloaked his anger in relationship metaphors.
The records Jeff Lynne produced are often derided for being too stiff, but there’s no denying "Free Fallin’" is a masterpiece, and fully deserving of its spot on our list of the Top 10 Tom Petty Songs. Layers of guitars and background vocals float in and out of the mix, and Petty’s vocal leap in the chorus perfectly captures the pain of a guy who knows he did wrong by breaking up with the right girl.