There have been a number of anthologies and great hits collections released, during his career and after his death. Each one is hit and miss. With several versions on the market, I am not sure they can repackage another one, but I suspect the Tom Petty estate has plans for many releases from his vault of live performances, alternative versions and demos.
The first thing to be decided, it is a Tom Petty solo mixtape, a Heartbreakers set, or a combination of his solo group efforts? Even his greatest hits collections blend his various efforts, so I will too. This is not a greatest hits selection, but it has many of his best songs. Every studio album is represented, but I looked for some deeper cuts than just the singles and classic album tracks.
Two things that made Tom Petty a popular and successful musician. I did not use the term rock star, because he was about the music, not the fame. First, he was a prolific writer, he knew his way around music to constantly write accessible, riff focused rock and roll. Once he and the band, of his solo musicians, got a hold of his songs, they added textures, fills and beats that brought out the hidden colors. Mike Campbell and Benmont Tench for the life they gave Petty’s songs. Second, Petty had an ear for phrases and the attitude of ordinary people. His songs like “I Won’t Back Back” spoke to something in us all. The meat and potatoes of rock and roll is the love song, Petty’s love songs were about the trials we all went through, love was usually painful and it tested us.
For some, Springsteen was the voice, for others, John Mellencamp, then there was Bob Seger, and for me, Tom Petty. Forty years of music, spread out over his main group, The Heartbreakers, then solo work, Mudcrutch and even the Traveling Wilburys. He was a busy man.
I will group these by when they were released.
“Breakdown” From the Heartbreakers first album from 1976. Looking back, this does not sound much like Tom Petty. It was impressive, none the less, and people noticed.
“American Girl” Now, this does sound like Tom Petty. The vibe, the guitars and Petty’s vocals set the stage for what you would hear with their third album. This song has a lot of get-up-and-go to it.
“I Need to Know” From the second album, released in 1978. Energetic, it displays the manic energy Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers could unleash.
“Refugee” 1979. Similar to “I Need to Know” but a bit more subtle, and much better production. The guitar sound is more evident on Damn the Torpedoes, and on this, the first track on the album.
“Don’t Do Me Like That” This song demonstrated the creative use of Petty and Mike Campbell’s guitars. Petty’s attitude soars on both the lyrics and the slashing of the guitars. Also from Damn the Torpedoes.
“Here Comes My Girl” A mid-tempo song like “American Girl” you get the Byrds’ vibe with the full, ringing tones of the guitars. Also from Damn the Torpedoes.
“A Woman in Love” From the Hard Promises (1981) album. Great song, but didn’t sound much like the Petty formula. Kind of a forgotten song.
“You Got Lucky” Long After Dark, 1982. I always thought this sounded more like Springsteen than Petty. More synthesizer than in past Heartbreaker songs, this plays the main rhythm cords. This album signaled a shift in the Heartbreakers sound.
“Change of Heart” From Long After Dark. Great guitar work, a riff song with underappreciated song chord structure. A song you do not hear played. There are some buried treasures on albums from this period.
“Rebels” From Southern Accents, 1985, one of my least favorite Petty albums. I go back and forth on this song. It has something to it, but I sometimes pass on it.
“So You Want to Be a Rock and Roll Star” Hey, you might as well do a Byrds song since you’ve been compared to them. From the live album Pack Up the Plantation, 1985. A really nice version.
“Jammin’ Me” The single from Let Me Up (I’ve Had Enough), 1987. What sounds like a simple riff song, but it has more to it than that. J. Geils Band made a career out of riffy, bluesy songs. Hardly a classic, but a fun song.
“Let Me Up” From the album of the same name. Rolling Stones type riff powers the song.
“Love is a Long Road” A powerful, rocking song from Full Moon Fever, 1989. You want to sing along as you rock down the highway. I do. Full Moon Fever was liberating for Petty, his songs were pure, uncluttered and energetic for the soul.
“Free Fallin'” A softer song with ringing acoustic guitars that still had a lot of bite. Petty was veering into John Mellencamp and Bob Seger territory here. More from Full Moon Fever.
“Runnin’ Down a Dream” A harder-edge, driving song, but still quite radio-friendly. Guitars unleashed on this song. Yes, another song from Full Moon Fever.
“I Won’t Back Down” If Petty ever had a theme song, this was it. It has punch and drive, searing guitars on the chorus. Another one from Full Moon Fever.
“Into the Great Wide Open” Slow building song, with rich, ringing guitars, gentle rolling song, something that might have been a great Traveling Wilburys tune. From Into the Great Wide Open.
“Learning to Fly” From Into the Great Wide Open. Those great descending guitar chords, Beatlesque in song construction (thank you George Harrison).
“Mary Jane’s Last Dance” 1993. A new song that was included on his first greatest hits collection, this would have fit nicely on the Southern Accents album. Bluesy song with gritty rhythm guitars.
“You Wreck Me” From Petty’s second solo album, Wildflowers. Not a classic, you have heard parts of this song in other Petty songs, but it is a tasty, rockin’ song.
“You Don’t Know How it Feels” From Petty’s second solo album, Wildflowers. A slow, mid-tempo, but powerful song with quiet production. The effects on the guitars are nicely done. Petty had done many similar songs, keeping them unique sounding and interesting is a challenge, but he nails it here.
“Waiting for Tonight” A song from the set Playback, 1995. If you listen closely you might hear “All Along the Watchtower” in the vibe. The Bangles on backing vocals.
“The Last DJ” From the album of the same name. This was a bit of a fallow period for the Heartbreakers in terms of album sales and hits. Mid-tempo, full of ringing guitars, a Tom Petty trademark. Reflections on the death of the radio industry as we knew it.
“Walls (Circus)” From the She’s the One soundtrack, 1996. The chords are structured to keep building upward. A driving, feel good song. Go ahead, I dare you, feel the vibe.
“Room At the Top” From the underappreciated album, Echo, 1999. A low-key, melancholy song, perhaps a bit downbeat, but shimmering none the less. The song gains strength and power, but never loses what makes it special.
“Counting on You” Echo. A song about being let down. You know the story by heart. A criminally underrated album.
“Free Girl Now” Echo. Great guitar work over the thumping beat. Hey, baby.
“Dreamville” A change of direction. A song with a strings? From The Last DJ, 2002. Listen a couple of times and you’ll like it too.
“You and Me” The Last DJ. A pretty, thumping song. Great piano work by Tench.
“Saving Grace” A single from the Highway Companion, a 2006 solo album. Driving, rhythmically interesting song. Great production.
“Square One” A quiet song, but excellent arrangement. Also from Highway Companion.
“Flirting With Time” From Highway Companion, a bouncy guitar song with many melodic hooks.
“Scare Easy” From the Mudcrutch, 2008, sounds like early Heartbreakers. Great descending chord structure, the song is easy and sailing along.
“Let Yourself Go” From MOJO, 2010 Heartbreakers album that radio ignored because it was not Damn the Torpedoes II. It has a jazzy, flowing beat, rather hypnotic.
“The Trip to Pirate’s Cove” A spacey, wondering song, a bit like “Riders on the Storm” in attitude. MOJO.
“Full Grown Boy” A very different vibe, jazzy. From Hypnotic Eye, 2014, a Heartbreakers album you might not recognize, a shift in musical style, he was getting far away from the Heartbreakers formula.
“Hungry No More” From Mudcrutch 2, 2016. A brooding, trippy song. Similar to Southern Accents period.
“Trailer” From Mudcrutch 2, sounds more like Tom Petty from his solo period. Nice shimmering guitar work, on a song that gentle rocks along. Familiar, yes. Still very pleasing.