Tom Petty was one of the greatest songwriters America has ever had the good fortune to produce. His death will be felt as a massive loss for years to come. Across 40 years and more, this toothy, blonde son of Gainesville, Florida put together a staggering array of incredibly melodic expressions of joy, pain, hope, defiance, and most of all love. His music intertwined with the fibers of your being. His songs overflowed with empathy. You innately recognized yourself and your own experiences in them as soon as you heard them in the car, on the radio, in the grocery store, through a pair of headphones or at a concert.
Petty was an artist who relished in the catharsis. In all of his best songs, no matter how distraught, how achingly sad, you knew there’d come that moment where he’d give the microphone over to you to belt out your feelings at full throat. He encouraged it. “You can stand me up at the gates of hell / But I won’t back down!” And on the joyous songs, the ballads, the odes to eternal devotion, you could practically drown in them. “Yeah, she looks so right / She is all I need tonight!”
To call Petty prolific is a massive understatement. With so many decades, so many albums, so many singles, and so many deep cuts to cultivate, pick apart, and enjoy, it’s almost impossible to know where to start and where to end.
10. “Learning To Fly”
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Into The Great Wide Open “gave us some of our most evergreen songs,” Petty told his biographer Warren Zanes. The most evergreen among them was that album’s opening track “Learning To Fly.” Written ELO wizard with Jeff Lynne, the song has a heady vibe that’s elevated thanks to a tasteful slide guitar solo tacked into the middle. The lyrics are far more esoteric and ethereal than a normal Petty number. It’s mostly a series of images: A dirty road, a setting sun and a town lit up. If there is a theme to be found, it’s all about optimism in the face of brutal adversity. “Well some say life will beat you down / Break your heart, steal your crown / So I’ve started out, for God knows where / I guess I’ll know when I get there.”
9. “Runnin’ Down A Dream”
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“Runnin’ Down A Dream” is one of Mike Campbell’s finest hours. From the explosive descending riff that kicks the song off, to the incendiary solo that kicks in around the three-minute mark and rages and roars until slowly fading out into the distance. The dreadlocked-Robin to Petty’s platinum blonde Batman is egregiously overlooked when the conversation kicks up around who reigns King amongst the greatest living guitar players on the planet. “Runnin’ Down A Dream” is about as effective a case as anyone could make for his candidacy.
8. “Lost Without You”
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It’s a true testament to Petty’s gifts as a songwriter that one of the best pieces of music he ever created was never formally committed to tape, or, if it was, has yet to be offered on a studio release. The only way you could’ve heard “Lost Without You” before the singer dropped his Live Anthology set back in 2009 was if you picked up a bootleg recording of one of his shows with the Heartbreakers back around ’93. It’s a damn shame too, because its one of the most pain-racked, explosive songs he ever wrote. The object of his affection is leaving, and no matter how much he begs, pleads, and promises — “One of these days, I’m gonna get my sh*t together / stop screwing up” — he can’t convince her to come back.
7. “It’s Good To Be King”
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People who love Petty’s 1994 “solo” album Wildflowers really love Wildflowers. To those acolytes, the Rick Rubin-produced project is hands-down, without question, the best thing he’s ever done. With its pastoral sound, and backward-looking pose, it touched something in those who craved to return to the simpler, more carefree years of their youth. While Wildflowers is stuffed with some incredible music — “You Wreck Me,” “You Don’t Know How It Feels” and the title track for instance — for my money, the best song on the record is the sprawling, melancholic “It’s Good To Be King.” Mike Campbell’s guitar solo on this track ranks amongst the finest ever committed to tape and during Petty’s live shows, the song became a dazzling centerpiece of his act.
6. “Free Fallin’”
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There is hardly a more joyous feeling in the world than belting out the chorus to “Free Fallin’” amongst a crowd of hundreds or thousands of people. The song itself is a rather mundane tale of two kids, a good girl and a bad boy, falling in love with one another in sunny Southern California. It started out, apparently, as a joke during a jam session with Jeff Lynne. The two were playing around one another when Lynne just happened to throw out the title phrase. Petty picked up on it and the rest, as they say, is history. “It was so light, so removed from struggle,” Petty told biographer Warren Zanes. “I hadn’t felt that in some time. It was like I hadn’t taken a deep breath in I don’t know how long. But I think you can hear me taking one in there.”
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“Refugee” might take the prize for the best opening to a Tom Petty song, which is a helluva feather in its cap. The springy guitars, the whirling organs, the snapping snares, and then that long, string of words that takes you a moment to really full get a grasp on. “We got somethin’, we both know it, we don’t talk too much about it / Ain’t no real big secret, all the same, somehow we get around it.” Wait, hold on, what? Oh, chemistry! They’ve got chemistry. Proceed Tom. Hit us with that monster chorus that begs to be screamed at the tops of our voices. “Don’t have to live like a refugee!”
4. “Mary Jane’s Last Dance”
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“Mary Jane’s Last Dance” might be the only time in the history of popular music history when an artists added a new song to a collection of their greatest hits, and it actually qualified on the merits. Throughout the ’90s when many legacy acts began re-packaging their singles and musical success on compilation discs, the record labels typically asked the bigger names for new offerings to help goose the marketing campaign. These songs typically sucked. For his own 1993 collection, Petty gave them this Wildflowers castoff which totally ruled. There’s so much ear candy here it’s almost impossible to highlight it all. The harmonica, the gritty guitar lines, the vocal harmonies. “Mary Jane’s Last Dance” also has the added bit of intrigue about being about weed. Or it doesn’t. According to Mike Campbell, “A lot of people think it’s a drug reference, and if that’s what you want to think, it very well could be, but it could also just be a goodbye love song.”
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The one that started it all. The first single from Tom Petty And The Heartbreakers’ first album and the first to enter the Top-40. “Breakdown” came together pretty quickly. Petty whipped it up in the studio on a piano and the rest of the band joined in behind. Mike Campbell added that distinctive guitar riff, playing in only at the end at first, but then threading it through the rest of the track, giving it that steady simmering vibe that makes it so compelling. The supreme confidence that Petty portrays in this song is stunning. In it, he’s practically daring his girlfriend to walk out on him, or to open up and “breakdown,” because after all, “It’s alright if you love me / It’s alright if you don’t / I’m not afraid of you runnin’ away honey / I get the feeling you won’t.”
2. “American Girl”
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Mike Campbell has claimed that Petty and the rest of the Heartbreakers recorded “American Girl” on the 4th of July. It’s a story that sounds almost too good to be true, but I really would like to believe. As one of the biggest, most beloved and widely recognized songs of Petty’s career, the one he’d regularly use to close down his incredible live shows each and every night, “American Girl” signified a shift in how he approached songwriting. “It was the start of writing about people who are longing for something else in life, something better than they have,” he explained. “The words just came tumbling out very quickly.” The musical DNA is derived equally from the Byrds and Bo Diddley, practically American institutions. The verses relay a story as old as America itself, hope for a greater future somewhere out…there. “After all it was a great big world / With lots of places to run to.”
1. “I Won’t Back Down”
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An epic anthem of defiance. A statement to the world and everyone in it that “you can stand me up at the gates of hell / But I, won’t back down!” No matter what obstacles you might be facing in your life, throw this song into the rotation, and you’ll feel like you can drive your head through a two-foot-thick concrete wall. “I Won’t Back Down” is the second track on Petty’s best album Full Moon Fever, and the one that carries the greatest impact. From the chugging rhythms, the warbly slide guitar solo, the effervescent backing harmonies, the way Petty sings “Heyyyyyyyyy baby / There ain’t no easy way out!” it all combines together to create this towering monolith of hope and joy.
As it turns out, “I Won’t Back Down” got a major assist from “the quiet one” in the Beatles, George Harrison, who added his own special musicianship, and the exact pharmacological concoction that Petty needed to complete the track. “I had a terrible cold that day,” Petty recalled. “George went to the store and bought a ginger root, boiled it and had me stick my head in the pot to get the ginger steam to open up my sinuses, and then I ran in and did the take.”