The Tom Petty Discography – A Primer

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.

Favorites: Electric Light Orchestra

I am a sucker for Beatles-based pop music. It’s cliche, but they’re my favorite band. Always have been. I may not listen to them as much as I did when I was younger, but I still know all the words to all the songs. I can sing along to the guitar solos. I can name the albums in order without looking.

You know who else could probably do that? Jeff Lynne of the band Electric Light Orchestra (or ELO, as I’ll be referring to them for the rest of this post). Lynne married the smart pop sensibilities of the Beatles to classical strings and weird keyboards, and created some of the best damn pop music ever.

ELO face the musicIt’s a tremendously clever idea, and Jeff Lynne is a damn solid songwriter. By turns serious and silly, bombastic and subtle, he wove together disparate elements into cohesive songs. Outside of diehard fans, though, I don’t think many people know who he is (he was the guy in the Traveling Wilburys who wasn’t George Harrison, Tom Petty, Bob Dylan, or Roy Orbison). Yet he deserves accolades and admiration. The man is meticulous and precise, a perfectionist who tweaks and fiddles until everything is just so.

Lynne’s style, both as a solo artist and with ELO, is glossy and shiny. He takes the Phil Spector Wall of Sound approach and cranks it up to eleven, adding layers of shimmery guitars and soaring strings over odd keyboard riffs and a solid rhythm section. And his vocals . . . Lynne can do the warbling croon of Roy Orbison, then suddenly switch to Del Shannon’s falsetto, and it all sounds amazing.ELO_A_New_World_Record

If you’re interested in getting into ELO, where should you begin? Skip their first couple of records. The sound and the songwriting just aren’t quite there yet. And skip their last couple of albums from the mid-’80s, where the band is almost unrecognizable from its mid-’70s heyday. Start with either Face the Music, A New World Record, or Out of the Blue. They’re all excellent. Out of the Blue is a double album and gets sorta bogged down here and there, but it does feature some of the band’s best-known tunes, like “Turn to Stone,” “Sweet Talkin’ Woman,” and “Mr. Blue Sky.” Face the Music starts with the amazing instrumental “Fire on High,” and then goes on to classics like “Evil Woman” and “Strange Magic.” It’s probably the least of the three classic-era albums, but it’s still damn solid. A New World Record is just awesome from beginning to end, featuring “Telephone Line,” the opera and classical music name-dropping “Rockaria!,” “Livin’ Thing,” and “Do Ya.” Honestly, I’d just start with that one.

ELO-Out_of_the_Blue_LpIf those three albums whet your appetite and leave you wanting more, the next trio of albums to dig into are Eldorado, Discovery, and Time. Eldorado and Time play as loose concept albums, with Time feeling very much of its, um, time, with the early-’80s production and emphasis on keyboards and weird vocal and guitar effects, but it has some great songs including “Twilight,” “The Way Life’s Meant to Be,” “Rain is Falling,” and “Hold on Tight.” Eldorado is lighter on great songs, but the whole thing holds together and flows very well, taking the concept of the Rock Opera and going whole hog with an overture, reprise, and everything. Discovery is the least of these three, honestly, though it does feature the smash hit “Don’t Bring Me Down.” It’s honestly not that great, lacking the strong songwriting and clever hooks of peak-ELO.

From there, I’d suggest the two most recent ELO albums, Zoom and Alone in the Universe. Both feel like classic ELO, though they’re mostly just Jeff Lynne doing everything himself (except for the strings and a couple of slide guitar parts on Zoom provided by George Harrison). There’s nothing particularly memorable about Alone in the Universe; it’s good, and sounds great, but it’s pretty forgettable.

ELO live.jpgAfter that, I guess you can pick up their first three albums, No Answer, Electric Light Orchestra II, and On the Third Day, and their mid-’80s work, Secret Messages and Balance of Power, but none of them are particularly essential. No Answer doesn’t even sound like the same band; there’s a lot more emphasis on the strings, and it’s definitely less poppy. I chalk that up to the fact that Lynne wasn’t in charge of the band quite yet (Roy Wood was the driving force initially, but he left after the first album and Lynne took over). Electric Light Orchestra II features ELO’s version of “Roll Over Beethoven,” which is pretty much perfect. On the Third Day starts to sound more like the ELO we know and love; songs like “Showdown,” “Daybreaker,” and “Ma-Ma-Ma Belle” are classics, and their cover of the classical tune “In the Halls of the Mountain King” to close out the album is brilliant.

When the band went on hiatus in the mid-’80s, Lynne focused on producing, and helped produce some of the best albums of the era. He did Tom Petty’s Full Moon Fever and Petty & the Heartbreakers’ Into the Great Wide Open. He also produced George Harrison’s ’80s comeback Cloud 9, and Roy Orbison’s final studio album, Mystery Girl. He was also one of the Traveling Wilburys, the supergroup to end all supergroups. Suffice to say, the dude stayed pretty damn busy in the late ’80s.

All in all, you really can’t go wrong with ELO. If you’re intimidated by all the albums, the two-disc Strange Magic compilation is a pretty solid introduction to the band’s work, giving you the decent songs from the crappy albums and the greatest hits from the really good albums. There are other compilations out there, too, but that’s the one I recommend the most.