Ever since I heard about Tom Petty’s passing on Monday, I’ve been listening to his music, both with and without the Heartbreakers (though let’s be honest: even when it was billed as solo Tom Petty outing, Mike Campbell and Benmont Tench were along for the ride). But where would a Tom Petty novice start their listening journey? You could always pick up a single-disc greatest hits collection, and that would give you all the really well-known Tom Petty tunes. Or you could dig a little deeper, go for the two-disc Anthology that came out back around the turn of the 21st century (and it features the non-album tracks “Mary Jane’s Last Dance” and “Surrender,” both of which are fabulous).
But if you want to go back and listen to the actual albums? Well, that’s where we have to have our talk. There are plenty of Tom Petty albums that are great start-to-finish, and also quite a few that are spotty, and a couple that are…well, we’ll talk about them. Read on for a run-down of what Tom Petty albums to buy.
We’ll start off with the ones you should definitely buy and listen to in full. Top of the list, as far as I’m concerned, is Damn the Torpedoes! It was the band’s big breakthrough album, and it plays (as so many of these must-buys do) as a greatest hits all its own. “Refugee,” “Here Comes My Girl,” and “Even the Losers” make up part of one of the best side 1s ever. On the back half, “Don’t Do Me Like That” and “What Are You Doin’ In My Life?” rock hard, while closer “Louisiana Rain” rounds out the album and ends everything on a wistful note. But even the lesser-known songs from the record — “Century City,” “Shadow of a Doubt (Complex Kid),” and “You Tell Me” — are well-written and compelling.
The next choice is the obvious one: Full Moon Fever. Everyone knows the hits from this album — “Free Fallin’,” “Won’t Back Down,” and “Runnin’ Down a Dream” are understandably and deservedly monster hits. But there’s even more to love here, too: “Yer So Bad” is funny and classic Petty; “Zombie Zoo” is a brilliant homage to goth culture; “The Apartment Song” and “A Mind With a Heart of Its Own” are slight but fun rockers. Sure, “Feel a Whole Lot Better” is one of the most unnecessary covers of all time, but you can hear Petty enjoying himself, and it’s hard to fault him for that.
From there, the next album to grab would be Wildflowers. Not only is the title track one of the most beautiful songs Petty ever wrote, you’ve also got the stomping “You Don’t Know How It Feels,” the grungy “Honeybee,” and the contemplative “To Find A Friend” and “Crawling Back to You,” the racing “Higher Place,” and the elegiac “It’s Good To Be King” and “Only a Broken Heart.” It is, hands down, my favorite Tom Petty record, the one I go back to over and over again.
From there, you’ve got a whole lot of fair-to-middling albums to choose from. I personally love Into the Great Wide Open, which follows the style and feel of Full Moon Fever. The songwriting isn’t as strong, but it does feature the title track and “Learning to Fly,” and I kind of love everything on that record (also, I can play pretty much all of the songs on it on the guitar, which is always fun). Their self-titled debut is pretty solid, featuring “Breakdown” and “American Girl,” two of their best-known songs. There’s also “Hometown Blues,” a fun little stompy rocker. They haven’t quite found their sound, and the songwriting is uneven, but it’s worth listening to. Echo is the last of the classic albums. “Room at the Top,” “Accused of Love,” “Won’t Last Long,” the title track, “Lonesome Sundown,” “Counting On You,” “This One’s For Me,” “About to Give Out”…honestly, there’s not a bad song on the album. I only recently came to appreciate the album, but damn is it good. An underrated gem is the soundtrack to She’s the One. “Walls,” “Climb That Hill,” “Angel Dream,” “Supernatural Radio,” and “Zero From Outer Space” are all excellent, and the rest of the songs — including a cover of the Beck song “Asshole” — are equally strong. It feels like it’s of a piece with Wildflowers, which is not a bad thing at all.
From here, we move on to the albums that are a bit more mediocre. Hard Promises, the follow-up to Damn the Torpedoes!, is pretty solid. Songs like the phenomenal “The Waiting,” “A Woman In Love (It’s Not Me,” and the driving “Kings Road” all make this an excellent choice. You’re Gonna Get It features “I Need to Know” and “Listen to Her Heart,” two of Petty’s best tunes. Another standout is “Too Much Ain’t Enough.” Long After Dark has “You Got Lucky,” “Change of Heart,” and “Straight Into Darkness.” Southern Accents features the beautiful title track, “Rebels,” “Don’t Come Around Here No More,” and “The Best of Everything.” All that being said, “Spike” is really freakin’ weird. Let Me Up (I’ve Had Enough) features “Jammin’ Me” (co-written with Bob Dylan), “Runaway Trains,” and the gorgeous “It’ll All Work Out.” Highway Companion, Petty’s third solo album, was almost as good as his first two solo outings, including tracks like the bluesy “Saving Grace,” the graceful “Square One,” and the bouncy “Big Weekend.”
Finally, we’ve got the bottom of the barrel. These albums all have a good song or two, but they’re not really vital. Mojo is bluesy but forgettable. Hypnotic Eye, the band’s most recent album, is pretty solid, but again is fairly forgettable. But the worst of the bunch is The Last DJ, Petty’s effort to craft a loose song cycle about the death of independent radio and musical freedom. It’s…not good. The songs don’t feel particularly inspired, the lyrics are weak, and it all feels more than a little hackneyed. The title track is pretty good, and “Dreamville” is quite nice, but it’s not an album you’ll reach for very often, if at all.
Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers had a hell of a run. They cranked out more classic albums than most bands could dream of producing. If you’re looking to get into his work, I hope this helps you find your starting point.