By Mike Snider
Ranking the albums compiled by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers is almost a hopeless task. There’s no right answer. Each of Petty’s releases over four-plus decades — full band or solo — have their charms and strengths.
Depending on when you were smart or got lucky enough to connect with Petty, particular albums probably hold a special place in your heart.
Perusing Petty’s studio catalog does remind you that we have lost a cherished bandleader, songwriter, artist and performer. But there are gifts to be gained by revisiting the work of Petty and his long-serving band. I intend to do so for years to come.
Here’s how I break down Petty’s body of studio work:
# 1: Hard Promises (1981)
I remember Petty fighting to keep the suggested retail price of the album $8.98 when his label, MCA, wanted to up the price to $9.98. That was a signal to me Petty’s authenticity went beyond the sound of the band’s music. The songs here are super. Just think if it included “Stop Dragging My Heart Around,” which was recorded during the sessions.
#2: Damn the Torpedoes (1979)
From start to finish, one of the best American rock albums ever made, period. Hits hard with “Refugee,” then keeps up the pace through side one. Flip the album over and “Don’t Do Me Like That,” brings a new vibe. “Louisiana Rain” is a fantastic finale.
#3: Full Moon Fever (1989)
I’m a fan of Jeff Lynne and ELO, but admit being worried about the pairing, despite the great Traveling Wilburys album the year before. In the end, Lynne provided a lustrous sheen to this great collection of rock and pop, while co-writing seven of the songs.
#4: Wildflowers (1994)
Some of my favorites among Petty’s most elegant work appears here – the title track, “Don’t Fade on Me”, “Crawling Back to You,” along with rockers like “You Wreck Me.”
#5: Into the Great Wide Open (1991)
How did this slide all the way down to No. 5? A great lineup of songs that changes gears throughout, but never stalls. A favorite that’s now even more poignant: “You And I Will Meet Again.”
#6: Southern Accents (1985)
Another super set that kicks off with the spirited Rebels and hits on pop psychedelia with Don’t Come Around Here No More. And how can you not love Spike?
#7: Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers (1976)
An album with “American Girl” and “Breakdown” on it suggests the quality of Petty’s career. Only the album cover feels dated.
#8: Long After Dark (1982)
This is another album that gets out of the gate with an infectious rocker and doesn’t let off the gas until the chugging “We Stand a Chance.” Perfect closer: “A Wasted Life.”
#9: Echo (1999)
This album is not as cohesive as the typical Heartbreakers’ efforts, likely because of the turmoil in Petty’s life at the time. (He was in midst of a painful divorce and in recovery from heroin addiction) Still, it contains a favorite song of mine, “Free Girl Now,” and plenty more rewards including “Room At The Top.”
#10: Highway Companion (2006)
Petty’s third solo album is another solid effort with songs that are easy to connect to. The opener, “Saving Grace,” may give a clue to Petty’s state of mind at the time with lyrics: “It’s hard to say/ Who you are these days/ But you run on anyway.”
#11: You’re Gonna Get It (1978)
The second Heartbreakers’ album yielded classics “I Need to Know” and “Listen To Her Heart,” plus unique jewels such as “No Second Thoughts.”
#12: Mojo (2010)
If you haven’t kept up with the Heartbreakers in the post-CD era, stream this one. I especially love the trio of fairly long cuts that starts with “First Flash of Freedom” and ends with “The Trip to Pirate’s Cove.”
#13: Hypnotic Eye (2014)
The most recent Heartbreakers album feels like a bar band on steroids. Several tunes are particularly relevant and prescient in these sociopolitical times – “American Dream Plan B,” “Power Drunk,” “Forgotten Man,” and “Shadow People.” My favorite vibe: “Sins of My Youth.”
#14: Let Me Up (I’ve Had Enough) (1987)
A looser, comfortable followup after the tightly woven Southern Accents. I love that Bob Dylan co-wrote “Jammin’ Me,” but “Runaway Trains” may be my favorite song here. Saddest to listen to now: “Think About Me.”
#15: She’s the One (1996)
This is a fun set of tracks to go with the Ed Burns-Jennifer Aniston movie. In addition to great poppy songs such as “Walls” and “California,” Petty also delivers forceful renditions of Lucinda Williams’ “Change the Locks” and Beck’s “Asshole.” Don’t sleep on the slow-burner “Supernatural Radio.”
#16: The Last DJ (2002)
Petty offered his views on the decline of the music industry here, a move that may hinder its acceptance. But in addition to the catchy title track there’s tender choice cuts such as “Dreamville” and “Have Love, Will Travel.”
By the way, I still listen to all of these, as well as collections such as The Live Anthology and Playback and the live Pack Up The Plantation (which I did not include in this ranking). So don’t let the ranking detract you from making up your own mind!
Mike Snider is a good friend of Rockin’ the Suburbs and has appeared on the show to discuss numerous musical topics, most recently when he hosted Jim and Patrick for Elvis Costello Week.