Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers released their self-titled debut album in 1976. Four decades on and Petty is a rock icon, the longevity of his career owing to his effortless talent for producing solid, memorable tracks, and a sincere song-writing style that speaks to and of the ordinary man. His body of work is vast, but Petty is a musician who can provide quality and quantity; aside from his success with the Heartbreakers, he has released three albums of solo material – his most acclaimed album, Full Moon Fever, released in 1989, went 5x platinum and reached no.3 on the U.S Billboard 200. There was also, of course, the British-American supergroup, Traveling Wilburys – made up of Petty, Roy Orbison, Bob Dylan, Jeff Lynne and George Harrison – whose debut album remained in the charts for almost a whole year and went triple platinum. Pretty successful. Considering the magnitude of Petty’s career, then, it’s fair to say that compiling a Top 10 Tom Petty Songs list of his songs is a daunting task, but to make no attempt at all would be a waste of a good opportunity to explore his brilliance.
# 10 – Insider
Initially written by Petty on behalf of Fleetwood Mac’s Stevie Nicks, this underrated track proved popular with its writer who reneged on his deal to give it away, instead offering Nicks a duet on it alongside him. Released on Hard Promises in 1981, ‘Insider’ is musically one of the Heartbreakers’ best efforts. Benmont Tench’s organ guides the verse without overpowering the acoustic guitar and perfectly complements Petty’s and Nicks’ vocals.
# 9 – Don’t Come Around Here No More
Many Petty fans may roll their eyes at the predictable inclusion of this track; there are plenty more, lesser known songs of his that could easily take this spot, but ‘Don’t Come Around Here No More’ and its MTV-gilded success marks the point in Petty’s career that he became a mainstay of rock music. The rock ‘n’ roll story behind this great song also justifies its place on this list. Dave Stewarts of the Eurhythmics teamed up with Petty to write this track from the 1985 album Southern Accents – he explained that the inspiration from the song had come from Stevie Nicks. After a romantic encounter and a drug-fuelled party, Stewarts awoke to find Nicks in his room playing dress up with Victorian clothing; later that day she told him “Don’t come around here no more.”
# 8 – Even The Losers
A nostalgic, youthful song about love that doesn’t last, ‘Even The Losers’ – released on Damn The Torpedoes in 1979 – speaks to the newest generation of Petty fans and takes his older listeners on a trip down memory lane. Petty’s long-lasting success is attributable, in part, to the unity of the band. At the time of this song, the band consisted of Petty, Mike Campbell on lead guitar, Stan Lynch on drums, Ron Blair on bass and Benmont Tench on keyboards, and they had developed a solid chemistry that was detectable in their work. Musically, this track isn’t exactly earth-shattering, but it’s a perfect demonstration of the ease and comfort with which the band can play together.
# 7 – Wildflowers
Wildflowers, Petty’s second solo album, was released in 1994 and saw him adopt a much starker, cleaner sounding production style. The sheer, stripped-back simplicity of this track captures a wiser, more introspective Petty who was clearly enjoying the return to his musical roots.
# 6 – Breakdown
This track from Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers’ eponymous debut album, released in 1976, is effortlessly cool from start to finish. Stan Lynch’s steady drumbeat and Mike Campbell’s guitar lead carry through to produce a bluesy, seductive song in which Petty’s nonchalant vocals are pleasantly reminiscent of Thin Lizzy’s Phil Lynott.
# 5 – I Won’t Back Down
A self-assured Petty can be heard on this anthemic track from Full Moon Fever. He had already proven his defiant attitude during a bitter battle with his record label earlier in his career. When ABC Records was sold to MCA records, Petty refused to switch labels without having given consent; he instead resorted to filing for bankruptcy and signed with new label, Backstreet Records. ‘I Won’t Back Down’ is clearly a message of defiance, but it’s the way in which he gets it across that makes the song as good as it is. Perhaps a younger Petty would have delivered this song with snarling vocals and blistering guitars, but with George Harrison and Howie Epstein’s backing vocals and Campbell’s slide guitar, this song is another fine example of Petty creating magic with simplicity.
# 4 – Runnin’ down a dream
This song from Full Moon Fever makes the list for the sheer brilliance of Mike Campbell, who displays his worth as one of rock’s greatest guitarists. Opening with a typically memorable riff from Campbell, the track develops with Phil Jones on the drums setting the pace for Petty. Then comes the guitarist’s firecracker solo which was allegedly blistered through in one take, whilst Petty and fellow songwriter, Jeff Lynne, sat slack-jawed in amazement. It really is that good.
# 3 – Rebels
‘I was born a rebel’ – this track from Southern Accents encapsulates Petty’s essence as a musician. Always concerned with telling the story of the average man, Petty set his heart on paying tribute to his Southern roots with this album. ‘Rebels’ is a heartfelt song that explores the aftermath of the Civil War, and Petty was so intent on getting it right that he broke his hand by punching a wall in frustration. His anger seems to have paved the way for improvement though; this track is one of his best.
# 2 – Free Fallin’
There is surely no classic rock fan who hasn’t sung along to this chorus at the top of their lungs – it’s just one of those songs, the catchy, feel good kind that Tom Petty is so accomplished at producing. Free Fallin’ the opening track of Full Moon Fever was written and recorded by Petty and his writing partner, Jeff Lynne, in just two days. Simple guitar consisting of only three chords, combined with earnest vocals, make for a classic track that gets regular airtime on rock radio channels nearly 30 years on from its release. No matter how many times you hear this song, you can never truly tire of it.
# 1 – Refugee
The number one spot, after much deliberation, has to go to this song from Damn The Torpedoes. The chemistry of the band, once again, is the reason that this song is such a great one. Campbell’s tenacious chord pattern, accompanied by Tench’s subtle organ work and a solid performance on drums by Lynch are the perfect foundation for Petty’s vocals to really resonate. It’s difficult, at times, to write about music; there seems no apt way to translate the beauty of something audible into something readable – this is especially the case for Refugee. Just listen and indulge in the mastery of it.
The Top 10 Tom Petty Songs
Written by Molly Snead