For nearly 40 years, Tom Petty has played rock ‘n’ roll’s everyman. He was never a poet like Dylan or a sex symbol like Springsteen. In fact, his ass would appear on exactly zero album covers.
But he has been one of the most approachable and relatable rock stars, building up a considerable catalog of heartland music defined by a deft command of genre conventions — compact garage-rock riffs, melodic songwriting and the kind of lyrics that seem simple at first but reveal deeper truths with each listen.
Petty ranks 22nd on CMT All-Time Top 40: Artists Choice, a list of the greatest-ever artists chosen by country stars themselves. One by one, the countdown is revealed each week on CMT Hot 20 Countdown.
While Petty is preparing to release his 16th studio album, Hypnotic Eye, on July 29, here are 10 essential tunes that built his hardy reputation.
1. “American Girl” (Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, 1976)
Who in the mid-‘70s could have foreseen the longevity of this song? It caps the second side of Petty’s debut album, which didn’t exactly burn up the charts. But somehow “American Girl” found its way onto the radio, where it has been in rotation for nearly four decades. The brightly insistent guitar jangle is immediately recognizable and Petty’s spirited vocals make it perfect for singing along in your car at the top of your lungs (ahem, as long as you’re not in The Silence of the Lambs).
2. “Refugee” (Damn the Torpedoes, 1979)
Still considered one of his most durable efforts, Damn the Torpedoes was Petty’s breakthrough album, spending seven weeks at No. 2 thanks primarily to this signature single. It’s one of his first collaborations with Heartbreakers guitarist Mike Campbell, who wrote the music while Petty supplied lyrics. The result is almost violent. As Campbell’s guitar dukes it out with Benmont Tench’s organ, Petty delivers a fist-pumping chorus that was reportedly based on his less-than-positive experiences in the music industry.
3. “The Waiting” (Hard Promises, 1981)
The opening track from Hard Promises is a thick slab of big-hearted Byrdsian jangle, one of Petty’s first flirtations with outright folk-rock. It’s also one of the brightest melodies he ever wrote and one of the most dexterous vocals he ever delivered — which disproves the old criticism that he has little range. (Trivia: Early vinyl pressings of the album were etched with a short eulogy to John Lennon, whom Petty was supposed to meet during these sessions: “We love you JL.”)
4. “You Got Lucky” (Long After Dark, 1982)
In the early ‘80s, the Heartbreakers started experimenting with their sound, most notably with the introduction of synthesizers on Long After Dark. Purists might have cried foul, but it led to the noir-ish single, “You Got Lucky.” Tench’s synths create odd textures and a minor-key atmosphere to soundtrack Petty’s slow burn kiss-off. Even today, “You got lucky when I found you” is one of his most barbed lines. Bonus points for the Mad Max-meets-Logan’s Run video.
5. “Don’t Come Around Here No More” (Southern Accents, 1985)
Quite possibly one of the strangest singles Petty ever recorded, “Don’t Come Around Here No More” opens with a heavily delayed drum-machine beat that sounds a full second behind the beat, followed by a spidery sitar theme. Petty sings the whole thing like he’s sobbing crocodile tears, and the band punctuates his vocals with shouts of “Hey!” Then the song speeds off into its streamlined jam on the coda. Very possibly, it shouldn’t work at all — or at least should sound a bit dated in 2014 — but the song distills so many of Petty’s eccentricities that it remains a classic.
6. “I Won’t Back Down” (Full Moon Fever, 1989)
Petty has admitted he was hesitant to include this on his ’89 album, mainly because he was afraid the theme of defiance and determination might be misappropriated. Sure enough, it has been used by countless political and commercial campaigns, including some with different ideologies than Petty’s own. On the other hand, it effortlessly sums up Petty’s musical mission and has proved a fan favorite, covered by Bon Jovi and Johnny Cash.
7. “Free Fallin’” (Full Moon Fever, 1989)
The same year Billy Joel released his baby boomer-baiting “We Didn’t Start the Fire,” Petty offered his own rumination on American nostalgia. This times-they-are-a-changin’ anthem connects rosy recollections of adolescence (“She’s a good girl, crazy about Elvis”) with matter-of-fact depictions of the world at the end of the Cold War (“There’s a freeway runnin’ through the yard”). Plus, it has the kind of chorus that’s so perfect, you feel like you’ve been singing along your whole life. And if you haven’t seen the performance with Axl Rose from the ’89 MTV Video Music Awards, treat yourself.
8. “Learning to Fly” (Into the Great Wide Open, 1991)
Anti-war songs rarely sound as measured or as insightful as “Learning to Fly,” which Petty has said was inspired by the first Gulf War. Rather than protest, he examines the roots of American innovation and wonders where it all leads. “I’ve started out for God knows where. I guess I’ll know when I get there,” he concludes, as the Heartbreakers achieve something like liftoff.
9. “Mary Jane’s Last Dance” (Greatest Hits, 1993)
Rarely do compilations actually create new hits, but when Petty released Greatest Hits in 1993 — his first retrospective — it included a new tune titled “Mary Jane’s Last Dance.” With its taut central riff and ‘60s pop chorus, it opens with a young woman in Indiana and closes with Petty feeling his age in California. He sings a throwaway line like “hey, my, my … oh, hell, yes” like those syllables contain the whole history of rock ‘n’ roll — and they probably do. Going by the title’s not-so-veiled references, many listeners figured it was about weed, yet Petty has insisted it’s really about a girl.
10. “You Don’t Know How It Feels” (Wildflowers, 1994)
The first single off Wildflowers (Petty’s first album without the Heartbreakers) caused a bit of controversy among video and radio programmers who censored the line, “Let me get to the point/Let’s roll another joint.” Such was Petty’s popularity at the time, however, that it didn’t stop the song from becoming one of his biggest hits of the decade. It’s also one of his funniest — a woe-is-me lament about loneliness on the road that thinks the blues is a really good cosmic joke.