Tom Petty: 12 essential albums
By Ed Masley
The Arizona Republic — September 23, 2010
There aren’t a lot of classic rockers out there who could pack a set full of radio staples and invest their most overplayed hits with the same sense of youthful abandon they brought to the table in their prime the way Tom Petty does every time he goes out with the Heartbreakers.
He’s in the Hall of Fame but still releasing vital new additions to the catalog, including the recent reunion of Mudcrutch, his pre-fame garage band, and the Heartbreakers’ rowdiest effort in ages, “Mojo.”
Here’s one critic’s take on the essential Petty.
1. “Damn the Torpedoes” (1979)
Not only Petty’s first big album but his undisputed masterpiece, “Damn the Torpedoes,” spun off two of his or anybody’s most infectious contributions to the pop charts since the Beatles went missing — “Don’t Do Me Like That” and “Refugee,” an organ-driven anthem spit out with an attitude that more than held its own against the most Dylanesque sneers in Petty’s stack of old garage-rock 45s. But any given track here could have done the same – even “Here Comes My Girl,” with its spoken-word verses served with Petty’s nasal Southern drawl, but especially “Even The Losers,” the catchiest song he’s ever written. A Southern-fried power pop classic that understandably got lumped in with the New Wave on occasion, it remains his most consistent effort.
2. “Southern Accents” (1985)
Some felt Dave Stewart of Eurythmics left too big a thumbprint on this truly unexpected changeup. But it doesn’t sound like Stewart’s other records, either. Sure, it’s weird. But so is Petty, who sounds right at home on the album’s strangest cut (and only hit), “Don’t Come Around Here No More,” a droning, psychedelic flashback with sitar and strings. In truth, that song is one of only three tracks Stewart even lays a finger on (the other two are horn-fueled Southern funk tracks). Petty signs off with a stately ballad co-produced by Robbie Robertson, a heartfelt tribute to a former girlfriend wishing her “The Best of Everything” and frequently returns to Southern themes, from “Rebels” to the defiantly Southern and proud of it title track. In “Spike,” a darkly comic portrait of intolerance, he plays the leader of redneck gang taunting a punk in a dog collar. “Here’s another misfit,” Petty sneers, “another Jimmy Dean. Bet he’s got a motorbike. What do y’all think?” But the album’s most memorable line is its first one: “Honey, don’t walk out. I’m too drunk to follow.”
3. “Hard Promises” (1981)
Any album that starts with “The Waiting” is well along the way to indispensability. And this one follows through on the jangle-rock splendor of that hit with several other instant classics – the surging “A Woman In Love (It’s Not Me),” the moody “Something Big” and “Insider,” one of two songs Petty cut that year with Stevie Nicks. The other went to No. 3 but didn’t make the album (“Stop Dragging My Heart Around”).
4. “Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers” (1976)
There’s an almost punkish energy to the opener, “Rockin’ Around With You,” especially those backing vocals shouting hey like the Ramones. But from the start, it’s clear that Petty’s heart is in an older sound. This debut didn’t do as well as you’d have thought here in the States, despite the presence of his first two FM staples, “Breakdown” and the album’s most infectious cut, the Byrds-loving power-pop classic “American Girl,” as later stolen by the Strokes and renamed “Last Nite.” As ripe-for-stealing as that hook may be, though, it’s the vocal track that really takes it to another level, especially the hint of desperation when he hits the song’s best lyric: “God, it’s so painful when something that is so close is still so far out of reach.”
5. “Pack Up The Plantation: Live!” (1987)
A document of Petty’s “Southern Accents” tour, complete with horns, it features several of that album’s strongest cuts (including “Rebels” and the title cut but, oddly, not the hit) and otherwise offsets a handful of earlier classics (“Breakdown,” “American Girl,” “You Got Lucky,” etc.) with well-chosen covers. It starts with a perfectly credible take on a song by his heroes, the Byrds (“So You Want To Be A Rock ‘n’ Roll Star”). But the cover to beat here is his attitude-fueled version of the Animals’ “Don’t Bring Me Down” (actually written by Goffin and King of ’60s girl group fame). The recent box set, “Live Anthology,” is even better, but it’s culled from 30 years of live recordings, so it’s more a greatest hits collection than a proper album.
6. “Echo” (1999)
A classic divorce album, “Echo” packs a more dramatic punch than most of Petty’s work, from “Room At The Top,” a haunting lead-off track set in a room where “everyone can have a drink and forgot those things that went wrong in their life,” to “One More Day, One More Night,” a devastating final cut that starts with Petty sighing “One more night, God I’ve had to fight to keep my line of sight on what’s real” like he’s about to cry. The highlight, though, is “Free Girl Now,” the most ferocious, most garage-punk cut in Petty’s catalog. “Hey baby, you a free girl now,” he snarls with an attitude that sounds exactly like the singer for the Syndicate of Sound (whose “Hey Little Girl” he should cover in Phoenix . . . .please?).
7. “Mojo” (2010)
I blame Mudcrutch. Petty’s first recording with the Heartbreakers in eight years effortlessly outrocks anything they’ve done since “Let Me Up (I’ve Had Enough),” if not “Damn the Torpedoes.” The leadoff track, “Jefferson Jericho Blues,” could be the Allman Brothers raised on “Nuggets,” with snarling blues harp and Petty’s best history teacher impersonation: “Poor Tom Jefferson, he loved a little maid out back, midnight creeping out to the servant’s shack.” They get the Led out on “I Should Have Known It,” where the Zeppelin tribute goes from obvious to something far more in-your-face around the time Mike Campbell starts channeling Jimmy Page on lead guitar. And they sign off in smoldering, organ-drenched blues mode on a track called “Good Enough” that starts off creeping like Bob Dylan’s “Ballad of a Thin Man” before taking on the urgency of James Brown’s “It’s A Man’s Man’s Man’s World” on its way to yet another epic Campbell solo.
8. “Highway Companion” (2006)
An older, wiser, more reflective trip through territory he’s been traveling over from the start, it’s a quieter ride than the first one he took with Jeff Lynne in the ’80s (“Full Moon Fever”). But he’s always had a soft spot for the understated ballad (see “Louisiana Rain” on his big breakthrough) and a few here rate with Petty’s best, especially the stark, acoustic “Square One.” And the moments that do rock are nothing to sneeze at, either, least of all “Flirting With Time,” where jangle-rocking verses give way to a stomping chorus hook that hits like Sonny Bono gone garage-rock.
9. “Wildflowers” (1994)
Bringing in Rick Rubin for his second solo album may have been among the smarter moves Tom Petty’s ever made. As hyped as Johnny Cash’s Rubin albums were, his less is more approach works even better here, from the understated folk-rock beauty of the title track, a disarmingly heartfelt tribute to a friend who belongs among the wildflowers, far from “your troubles and worries,” to the almost hip-hop flavor of the drum track on his last big hit, “You Don’t Know How It Feels.” And when it does kick in, it kicks in like a champ with the Heartbreakers crashing the party on “You Wreck Me,” one of Petty’s best garage-rock throwbacks, and Mike Campbell tearing it up on guitar on the blues-rocking swagger of “Honey Bee.”
10. “You’re Gonna Get It!” (1978)
Petty’s first Top 40 album occupies on awkward moment in the catalog, sandwiched as it is between the spirited debut that came before and the towering masterpiece that followed. But it’s hard to picture anybody calling this a sophomore slump. For one, it features two of Petty’s most memorable singles – jangle-rocking “Listen To Her Heart,” with its infamous opening line, “You think you’re gonna take her away with your money and your cocaine,” and the raucous, self-assured “I Need To Know.” But even it’s lesser known moments still sound great three decades later. The album cover’s pretty ugly, though.
11. “Full Moon Fever” (1989)
Sometimes people’s biggest albums are their biggest albums for a reason. And in Petty’s case, it’s more about the hooks than Lynne’s production, which is better – or, if nothing else, more sympathetic — on “Highway Companion.” While it’s hardly Petty’s most consistent album, side one features three Top 40 hits (including one of Petty’s best, “I Won’t Back Down”). And a few of the album cuts are just as good, from a spirited cover of the Byrds song “Feel A Whole Lot Better” that practically redefines faithful to the playful folk-rock charms of “Yer So Bad.”
12. “Long After Dark” (1982)
Petty met the New Wave era head-on with the keyboard-driven “You Got Lucky,” sneering his way through a playful kiss-off to a former flame whose chorus hook reminds her, “You got lucky, baby, when I found you.” The album’s other big hit single, “Change of Heart,” rocks like an outtake from “Damn the Torpedoes” with tougher guitars and more sneers, while “A One Story Town” establishes the tone for nearly everything that follows by letting the jangle of their early efforts color chugging, post-Ramones guitar crunch. Viewed as something of a disappointment at the time, it’s held up surprisingly well.