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 411mania » Music » Columns

The 8 Ball 8.02.14: Top 8 Tom Petty Songs
Posted by Jeremy Thomas on 08.02.2014

Top 8 Tom Petty Songs

Welcome once again to the 411 Music Zone 8 Ball! I'm your host Jeremy Thomas and as always, I will be tackling a topic and providing you the top eight selections of that particular category. Keep in mind that this list is meant to be my personal opinion and not a definitive list. You're free to disagree; you can even say my list is wrong, but stating that an opinion is "wrong" is just silly. With that in mind, let's get right in to it!

Tom Petty is one of the true greats of heartland rock. The Florida-born singer/songwriter has been at the forefront of the most American form of rock music ever since he founded the Heartbreakers and burst onto the scene with the group's 1976 self-titled album. It's been nearly forty years since and as evidenced by the group's latest album, Petty and his band remains as vital and essential to rock music as they were during their formative years. Whether with the Heartbreakers or on the few times he's struck out on his own, Petty has an ability to make music that speaks directly to the soul of the country and this week, we're going to take a look at the best examples of that.

Caveat: As is the norm with my single-act top songs list, I was looking specifically at original songs performed by the band/artist as opposed to covers. Petty doesn't have a lot of recorded cover songs so that wasn't too much of an issue with him. As an additional caveat, I was only looking at Petty's work with the Heartbreakers or as a solo artist; I did not include his work with the Travelling Wilburys as that's a different sort of beast. And lastly, I didn't include anything from their new album Hypnotic Eye as it's a bit early in the LP's life to figure out where the songs would rank.

Just Missing The Cut

"Don't Come Around Here No More" (1985)
"Yer So Bad" (1990)
"The Waiting" (1981)
"Listen to Her Heart" (1978)
"I Won't Back Down" (1989)

#8: "Mary Jane's Last Dance" (1993)

First on our list is the lone original song off of the Heartbreakers' Greatest Hits album. "Mary Jane's Last Dance" is particularly memorable for its creepy, necrophilia-insinuating music video starring Petty and Kim Basinger but even without it the song stands up as a great number. For obvious reasons the track has often been called an ode to marijuana, but that's never been confirmed. When asked about the song, Heartbreaker guitarist Mike Campbell said, "My take on it is it can be whatever you want it to be. 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." In truth even knowing the potential drug reference in the title, I've always considered it to be more of the latter and it is a damned fine farewell song. Petty's unmistakable weathered voice carries just a hint of sarcasm and bitterness at the right moments over Campbell's twangy guitar work. It's a song that speaks strongly toward the last hurrah that everyone wishes they could have had with that girl (or guy)...or, if you prefer, a last dance with herbal intoxication. It works either way.

#7: "Rebels" (1985)

While Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers are more strongly associated with heartland rock than the more country-oriented sounds of southern rock, that's because it's easy to forget that Petty grew up in Gainesville, Florida which is barely less than two hour away from southern rock legends Lynyrd Skynyrd. When they wanted to get in touch with their southern side the Heartbreakers could certainly do that and "Rebels" is the best example of such. The track is one of a few songs about Petty's upbringing in that town that made it onto Southern Accents, which was originally intended to be a double-album about his early life. Nowhere is Petty's soul more laid open than this number, where he extols his ties to the region with lines like "Even before my father's fathers they called us all rebels, burned our cornfields, left our cities leveled." While working on the song in the studio Petty says that he got so frustrated trying to get the arrangement right that he punched a wall, breaking his hand. He then called Jimmy Iovine in and they turned it into one of the Heartbreakers' best tracks.

#6: "Wildflowers" (1994)

In the mid-1990s, Tom Petty was quickly seen as an act that was becoming irrelevant. With pop and rap ruling the charts while grunge displaced hair metal in the rock scene, there was concern that the kinds of openly sincere music espoused by Americana-influenced artists was lost on Generation Y, whether the Heartbreakers had gone double-platinum in 1991 or not. Petty responded with his second solo album Wildflowers, an LP that flew entirely in the face of what was popular on the radio. The result was that Wildflowers--which is really a Heartbreakers album, just without the Heartbreakers name attached--topped Into the Great Wide Open's numbers and went triple-platinum. It's still sort of an underrated entry in the Heartbreakers' discography and the title track in particular doesn't get the love it deserves. It's a gentle, stripped-down track, a mellow number that is perhaps the most pleasant breakup song of all-time. It's a song that could only be written by a mature man, saying goodbye to the lover that is just too free to tie down. "Wildflowers" didn't see a commercial release but it's one of the best ballads on Petty's resume.

#5: "Learning to Fly" (1991)

If this were purely based on my personal connection and appreciation of a song than "Learning to Fly" would be #1. It's a gorgeous number that gives me chills every time I listen to it, speaking to that feeling of wanting to venture out onto new roads (or air currents, if you prefer) but being afraid that you don't know how to do so. It's about the journey of life and the highs and lows, with a simple-yet-distinctive structure and sound that really lets it stand out. Is it a little sappy and nostalgic? Of course, but that's part of the song's charm and Petty never lets it go too far over the line into pure schmaltz. This became Petty's biggest hit on the Rock Tracks at the time and as one of the first Petty song I ever truly heard and connected with (the other is coming up shortly), it holds a deep place in my heart. This is the kind of song that proves that earnestness doesn't have to be a dirty word when it comes to musical artists; it's unapologetically sincere in a way that makes it great.

#4: "Breakdown" (1977)

"Breakdown" was, for many people of his longtime fans, the first introduction to Tom Petty. The first single off the Heartbreakers' self-titled debut is a particularly 1970s-sounding song, with a lazy, moody sort of feel amidst the bluesy drumming and guitars while Petty channels a bit of Bob Dylan in his vocal work on the verses. And yet it carries a timeless feel that a lot of 1970s tracks fail to achieve. Interestingly enough it didn't do well upon its initial release; it wasn't until the band had established itself through touring and the singles for "Anything That's Rock 'n' Roll" and "American Girl" gave them some credibility in the UK that it managed to climb up to the charts. It's a rather seductive number, as Petty lays it all out in the opening verse: "It's all right if you love me, it's all right if you don't/I'm not afraid of you running away, honey , I get the feeling you won't." There are a lot of things that people associate with Tom Petty, but ladies' man isn't one of them. This song shows that when he wants to be, Petty can turn it on as well as any rock star out there.

#3: "Free Fallin'" (1989)

This is the first Tom Petty song I ever heard and it's no wonder that I became a lifelong fan as a result. "Free Fallin'" is a near-perfect bit of rock and roll nostalgia, the kind of track that instantly invokes memories of simpler and happier times. Hell, even when the song was released in 1989 it was already invoking those thoughts. Petty draws on California nostalgia and a simple, feather-light guitar riff to take us back to that time in our lives when everything was just simpler. This song got enormous radio play, not to mention rotation on MTV and VH-1, to the point that many people got a little bit sick of it--even Petty said that "I would have loved it if it hadn't become a huge anthem." But it's one of those songs that I never once tired of and particularly now, twenty-five years later, I can listen to it and instantly be taken back to that place. The song is just about a masterpiece, rock-tinged and poppy with a gentle but soaring melody. The way it slowly builds in intensity throughout the song toward Petty just cutting loose in the final chorus is truly great. I don't know how someone couldn't love this song.

#2: "Refugee" (1980)

Some of the best songs in the history of popular music have come out of internal strife. Case in point: "Refugee." The song came off of the band's third studio album Damn the Torpedoes and was recorded in the midst of a very acrimonious situation with the band's record label. MCA bought the label the band was on and took over the rights to Petty's music, making him livid. While Petty managed to face down the label by declaring bankruptcy to get out of his contract and subsequently got his publishing rights back, the situation pissed him off and "Refugee" was partially inspired by the whole thing. "I was in this defiant mood," he said, and you can certainly hear it in the clipped vocals and angry lyrics. The whole song is just musical genius, from Stan Lynch's drumming work and Benmont Tench's soulful organ work to Ron Blair's bass work, Campbell's stellar guitar solo and of course Petty's delivery. This song became one of their most beloved tracks and helped catapult Damn the Torpedoes into rock and roll legend.

#1: "American Girl" (1977)

With all due respect to heartland gods like Bruce Springsteen, Bob Seger and John Mellencamp, "American Girl" is the pinnacle of Americana rock in my book. It's red, white and blue-blooded all the way through its core and is one of those songs with truly universal appeal. I don't know a single person who dislikes it and I've never heard a single bad word said about it. This was the final track on the band's debut album and it did a lot in terms of bringing back pure rock and roll in the mid-1970s while pop music was dominating the charts. Ironically the song wasn't a hit during its run in the US; it succeeded in the U.K. however and established the band as someone to pay attention to and the overseas success led to it becoming an iconic number on album-oriented rock stations. What do you really need to say about this song other than "brilliant?" It's back to basics rock and roll at its finest, a song that influenced hundreds of heartland acts and one whose impact you can still hear in rock and roll today. Among Tom Petty's songs, it's absolutely his best and that's a pretty high bar in the first place, to say the least.


For this week's Music Video A-Go-Go, I'm giving us one of Petty's trippiest videos. I couldn't quite fit the song on the list, but I couldn't not use the Alice in Wonderland-inspired video here. Check out "Don't Come Around Here No More" from Southern Accents below:

And that will do it for us this week! Join me next week for another edition of the 8-Ball! Until then, have a good week and don't forget to read the many other great columns, news articles and more here at 411mania.com! JT out.


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