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If so-called rockists ever decide to secede and form their own nation, Tom Petty is a shoo-in for the country’s first presidential nominee. Petty’s music advances the notion of rock and roll as utopian ideal, and the tremendous success of his band Tom Petty And The Heartbreakers proves that populism is not necessarily the byproduct of compromise. Tom Petty is the rare classic rocker on whom almost everyone — boomers, punks, alt-rock brats, classic rock radio junkies, and normals alike — can agree. From his early days as leather-jacketed pseudo-punk thumbing his nose at a greedy and gormless Establishment to the baked, flannel-clad cornball of his later years, Petty has managed to maintain a loyal following while constantly attracting new fans. Few people seem to “outgrow” Tom Petty.

Much of this success is attributable to the fact that time has always been on Petty’s side. Emerging during that brief period between ’70s rock bloat and the nascent punk and new wave scenes, Petty was one of very few heftily subsidized young artists embraced by both sides of this divide. Upon its release in 1976, Tom Petty And The Heartbreakers’ debut album had every indication of being a flop until the British press embraced the album, suddenly anointing Petty and his band as the torchbearers of a new hybrid of rock and punk called new wave. Petty — no dummy — played the role to the hilt: In a 1977 television interview, he explained that he and the Heartbreakers “had to be in the ’new wave’” because they “weren’t in the ’old wave.’” It was a bon mot on par with Beatle George’s claim to be neither rocker nor mod, but a “mocker.” This disassociation with the so-called “old wave,” combined with the band’s estimable blend of power pop, pub rock and nervy punk, was enough to ingratiate Petty to a new breed of record buyers who associated acts like Pink Floyd and Fleetwood Mac with the worst kind of rock star extravagance. Later on, high profile conflicts with major record labels would continue to paint the grandstanding Petty as a sort of nobly heroic enfant terrible, even when his music owed a bigger debt to the Byrds or the Beatles than to any act that might have packed out CBGBs. Like his contemporaries Graham Parker and Elvis Costello, Petty presented himself as an angry young underdog, his songs the soundtrack to an alternate universe in which losers get lucky, rebels are worshipped, and everybody’s got to fight to be free. In a revealing quote about his music to biographer / documentarian Peter Bogdanovich, Petty claims he merely “turned anger into ambition.”

Another reason for Petty’s longevity is the Heartbreakers, the group Warren Zanes called “America’s truest rock and roll band.” Every member that ever performed in the Heartbreakers was crucial, but none more so than the team of guitarist Mike Campbell — perhaps the most unsung rock and roll guitar player this side of Richard Lloyd — and pianist / multi-instrumentalist Benmont Tench. The rare chemistry between the members of the Heartbreakers allowed Petty to write for a specific group of individuals, one he knew was capable of adding that ineffable extra something that separates “Learning To Fly” from, say, “Jack And Diane.”

This chemistry was no fluke: Petty, Campbell, and Tench, childhood friends from the relatively liberal college town of Gainesville, Florida, played together as teenagers in a band called Mudcrutch, which soon became something of a local sensation. Petty, merely another in a long line of rock and roll missionaries whose life was irrevocably changed by Elvis, rock and roll radio, and the Beatles’ performance on Ed Sullivan, was the natural leader: headstrong, determined, and shrewd. Following the breakup of Mudcrutch, Petty recruited drummer Stan Lynch and bassist Ron Blair — fellow Floridians, both — to form the Heartbreakers.

Yet another X factor in the Tom Petty success story, of course, is MTV. It’s difficult to think of an artist who benefitted as handsomely from the advent of the new cable network, and impossible to overstate the effect of MTV on Petty’s career. Once again, Petty rose to the challenge. While many of his stodgy, camera-shy peers either made obligatory, unwatchable videos or just flat-out refused to participate, Petty embraced the new medium with the fervor of a child scaling the monkey bars at the playground for the first time. In his book How Music Works, David Byrne, whose band Talking Heads found itself another unlikely beneficiary of the new network’s reach, explains: “MTV had just launched and they were starving for content; they’d play pretty much any decent material they were handed. Not too many people had cable television back then, so MTV had no hesitation about playing the same videos over and over.” By taking the medium seriously as both a creative outlet and promotional tool, Petty was ensured a ubiquity that regular rotation on rock radio couldn’t possibly match. As with the Talking Heads, ZZ Top, or the Cars, it is difficult to mentally separate many of Petty’s greatest songs from their accompanying music videos.

Tom Petty has sold more than 80 million records worldwide, making him one of the best-selling artists of all time. And yet, despite the fact that he emerged during the era of AOR, Petty remains very much a singles artist; the top-ranked album on your personal Tom Petty list likely has a great deal to do with your favorite Tom Petty singles, and very little to do with ’deep cuts.’ Petty has never released a Born To Run, a Harvest, or a Highway 61 Revisited; the top-ranked album on this list contains more filler than any #1 in Stereogum’s history. It is no great coincidence that the 1993 collection of Tom Petty And The Heartbreakers’ greatest hits remains one of the top-selling ’best of’ compilation albums of all time.

To celebrate Hypnotic Eye, Petty’s 12th album with the Heartbreakers (and 15th overall, excluding live albums and soundtrack work), we decided it was long overdue we rank Petty’s albums from worst to best. The list begins here.

Comments (67)
  1. skow  |   Posted on Aug 5th +2

    Nice call on Wildflowers, really great, oft-overlooked album

  2. I’m pretty sure it was Ringo who came up with the “mocker” line, but I could be wrong.

  3. cobra  |   Posted on Aug 5th +2

    Happy to see the first album placed so high.

  4. With very few exceptions, I’ve never thought of Petty as an album artist. He’s basically the type of guy that greatest hits collections were created for. If you’ve got the Greatest Hits plus Damn the Torpedoes, Full Moon Fever, and Wildflowers, you’ve pretty much got everything you could ever need.

    • Probably should have read the main text of the article instead of just the listicle, because I see you’ve already acknowledged this.

    • I voice mild disagreement. Most of the better TP albums have a kind of internal logic, even a consistent mood that make them a great continuous listen even if all of the songs aren’t A-1. His stretch of ’90s albums might be the best for this.

  5. Erm…you missed She’s The One. I know it’s billed as a soundtrack, but it would fit neatly somewhere between Echo and Hypnotic Eye on the list.

    Other than that, good job.

    • Yeah, you can probably make a good case for including it, but I understand why JJT did not want to.
      I thought this bit from the She’s The One OST Wiki was telling, though…

      This album was not mentioned on the four-hour Petty documentary Runnin’ Down a Dream, though Tom could be seen doing a studio session of the song “Angel Dream (No. 4)”.

      • They still perform “Angel Dream” and “Walls” a lot more than “Jammin’ Me.” (If you think Petty ever outright disowned an album, Let Me Up would be it.)

    • i think it could be top five.

    • I agree with this. It’s probably my favorite album of his. You know it’s good because xgau gave it a sad face http://www.robertchristgau.com/get_artist.php?name=tom+petty+and+the+heartbreakers

      • I always wondered about Christgau’s weird hard-on for Petty. Most of the reviews read like complete hatchet jobs, yet he still ends up grading the albums in the B range.

    • This is definitely a Petty/Heartbreakers album. 15 completely new recordings, one bona fide hit single, and tons of interviews and press (at the time) about how the movie had inspired Petty to do an entire album instead of the one song he was asked to contribute.

      I’d actually put it just below Full Moon Fever.

      • Yeah if memory serves me right, She’s the One is pretty damn good. But unfortunately for that album, the already far too forgiving world of ’90s nostalgia has to draw a line somewhere, and that somewhere is Ed Burns.

        • The 90s had a weird sensitive Bostonian fetish that I’m very happy not to revive.

        • I considered She’s the One, but I had to draw the line somewhere (the Live Anthology box is also killer, btw). FWIW, I left Dead Man off my Neil countdown, and I think it’s probably a top ten Neil record. But soundtracks, by necessity, serve a very different function than proper albums (or at least they’re supposed to!), and though you could argue that She’s the One relies less on the context of the associated film than, say, The Hired Hand or Dead Man, it’s still a soundtrack. And “Walls” is the only thing even approaching a great song imo.

          • Tracks 4-8, plus “California” and either version of “Angel Dream” transcend Edward Burns and hold up on their own as solid TP songs.

  6. Agree with cheap_suit (as usual)……….TP is a ton like The Cars. You really need Damn the Torpedoes and the Greatest Hits and you’ve got it dicked. The Cars self titled album is so slept on. Time has passed and The Cars kinda get short shrift……..and that album is amazing.

  7. The War on Drugs’ new album of dreamy dad rock was a hard sell for me at first, but it’s really grown on me. Inspired me to go out and pick up Full Moon Fever, actually, so this list is perfectly timed. Tonight’s a night to slip into some sensible pants, crack open some cans of Blatz, and sway awkwardly to the music. :-)

  8. I’ve only met one person ever who didn’t like Tom Petty, and he’s a real weird dude.

  9. I know it’s not a proper album, but the Live Anthology is essential!

    Also want to say big ups to Tom Petty for always being my karaoke spirit animal!

  10. There should also be a Counting Down of the best Petty/Heartbreakers songs. Maybe Running Down A Dream would get a mention then? I just love how that song is put together.

    • Yeah, that’s a great song. I attempted to do a Top 10 but found it impossible. I’d need at least a top 25 to do Petty any kind of justice. My dad and I did much bonding via Petty-filled car trips in the late 80s and all through the 90s. Definitely still holds up.

      And Wildflowers is indeed a great album.

  11. It’s nice to know I’m not the only one who can’t stand Jeff Lynne’s production. Those 2 new “Beatles” songs built out of Lennon demos for Anthology (Free As A Bird & Real Love) could have been truly great, but he single-handedly ruined them by drowning them in layers of over-cooked studio puffery (there should be a law banning him from using 12-string guitars, IMO). I’d rather listen to Lennon’s ultra low-fi originals.

    Anyway, I’ve only really heard Petty’s singles so this list looks like a great way to dig into his back catalogue (I added Fault Lines to my ongoing playlist last week – it’s pretty amazing that guys in their 60′s are still putting out music that sounds this vital).

    By the way, when are we getting that Dokken list?

    • I really like Jeff Lynne’s production for the most part (especially Tom Petty’s stuff), but I agree with you about the Beatles songs. I don’t think he was the right guy for that project.

      • I like his ELO stuff because his style works in a bombastic 70′s way, but I have to agree with JJT that Full Moon Fever’s strengths didn’t come from Lynne. I don’t thnink he ruined those songs the way he did with The Beatles, but I don’t think he helped them much either. I like the shambolic Crazyhorse sound of Wildflowers much better.

        • Despite all appearances to the contrary, I am not actually anti-Lynne; I’m just anti-Lynne production. I actually quite like latter-day Move and a fair bit of ELO!

  12. Granted I am another Tom Petty singles guy, so I don’t know the deep cuts too well. But I do know Wildflowers, and I think it might have come in second because a lot of us here in the Stereogum comments section peanut gallery came of age in the early nineties when that record was all over MTV. I liked Wildflowers so much I even asked for the much blander Echo for Christmas the year it came out.

  13. I think I’d go …

    1. Wildflowers
    2. Full Moon Fever
    3. Damn the Torpedoes
    4. Hard Promises
    5. Echo
    6. Long After Dark
    7. Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers
    8. She’s the One (this should totally be part of the list)
    9. Southern Accents
    10. Into the Great Wide Open
    11. You’re Gonna Get It
    12. The Last DJ
    13. Let Me Up (I’ve Had Enough)
    14. Hypnotic Eye
    15. Highway Companion
    16. Mojo

    Note # 1: She’s the One is really good!

    Note # 2: I haven’t given a ton of time to Hypnotic Eye, so it might move up the list a bit in the next few weeks. I kind of doubt it, though; it’s pretty forgettable.

  14. #1 INTO THE GREAT WIDE OPEN

  15. I’ll bet a lot of you’ve seen this already but for those who haven’t, Prince joined Petty, Jeff Lynne, Steve Winwood and George Harrison’s son Dhani on a version of While My Guitar Gently Weeps for Harrison and Prince’s Rock ‘N’ Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony. His guitar solo is just a hilarious bit of upstaging (almost obnoxious in a way) and the look on Dhani’s face is priceless -

    http://youtu.be/6SFNW5F8K9Y

  16. I frequently go back and forth or get stuck in the middle between the extremely different Wildflowers and Damn the Torpedos, so either pick is cool with me.

    I’d have The Last DJ over Let Me Up… & Mojo. There’s a pretty solid amount of really nice material on it.

    “Don’t Come Around Here No More” is great (as is “Rebels” – on that we agree)!

    Glad you mentioned “Swingin”, that song is a hoot. I agree that “Free Girl Now” is excellent, but I don’t really know what the Hell you’re talking about when you discuss it (and yes, I know he played Lucky).

    I like the nods to non-album cuts, too, found out some new stuff that way.

    • Maybe I got carried away imagining Big Mountain Fudge Cake covering “Free Girl Now.” Anyway, John Redcorn is the lead vocalist in ‘Fudge Cake, not Lucky. Still, I enjoy the thought of Lucky, not Tom, singing that song; it’s so…stupid. :)

  17. I actually really like Highway Companion. The album title’s pretty fitting and while it didn’t produce any memorable singles it’s a great album just to chill out to.

    • In a lot of ways the name fits his entire career.

      Driving down South playing his greatest hits (or basically anything)? Perfection.

      I was in the Philippines a few years ago and the public transport I was using broke down between towns and my ex put her headphones on me while “You Don’t Know How it Feels” was on and I realized that Petty truly is THE highway companion.

    • It’s a great driving album, like the title suggests.

  18. The article states that Petty has never written a “Harvest,” while the list reveals that “Wildflowers” is Petty’s “Harvest Moon.” There is more “filler” in this piece than all of Petty’s albums put together.

    • I think you misunderstand me. You know Harvest and Harvest Moon are different records, recorded more than two decades apart, right? My comparison was based on the fact that both Wildflowers and Harvest Moon are critically acclaimed albums by prestige artists released in the early / mid-nineties (and fairly late into Neil and Petty’s respective careers). Both are also comparatively laid back, “mature,” and wildly popular. What do those two albums NOT have in common, exactly?

  19. ga  |   Posted on Aug 6th 0

    I’m definitely a Greatest Hits guy. I just don’t hear enough people refer back to the albums and he doesn’t exactly present himself as a deep cuts guy that much on tour, so I just go with the singles. And man, these guys are master craftsmen. They are incapable of putting out anything that sucks. They’ll come out with something subpar but that happens with anyone.

    It’s funny how time changes things, I’m old enough to remember indie/punk types rip on their lack of personality and charisma, how plodding or bland their sound was. And then they stick around and everyone comes around and forgets the criticism. I think younger bands should take note of that.

  20. That cover of “Asshole” (originally by Beck) on ‘She’s the One’ really surprised me on my first few listens of the album. The whole album is pretty great, though.

  21. Great feature again amongst the last few, I beefed up a couple of my discographies because of them.
    Still looking forward to a pass at Can or King Crimson!!

  22. “Damn the torpedoes.” – Sub and Battleship Captains

  23. I don’t agree at all with the rankings of Hard Promises (too high) and Let Me Up… (too low). Can we please remember that in the press for Hard Promises Jimmy Iovine made the case that Petty wanted to include Stop Dragging My Heart Around on the album but that he convinced him to let Stevie Nicks have that one and instead keep The Insider: a song so bad it makes me wince. Also, the second and fourth Petty records are nothing special and I think you can make the case that every record since Wildflowers have followed a similar PR pattern with Petty always talking up the new tracks as though he’s made his version of a new Some Girls. This is certainly true with Highway Companion, Mojo, and the new record. I do agree that The Last DJ belongs at the bottom of this list. And I also agree that Mike Campbell deserves way more love than he gets, I think this is a symptom of substance over strut. Maybe if he’d do car commercials with his shirt off…

    The one song I really like on Hypnotic Eye is Burnt Out Town, which would have been a throw away on TP’s best work.

  24. I like “Jammin Me” but damn is that riff “Problem Child” by AC/DC.

  25. I thought I commented on this bad boy. I SAID that I like “Jammin Me” but good gravy is that riff “Problem Child” by AC/DC.

  26. Just putting in my occasional plug for a Smog/Bill Callahn Best to Worst. Toth, you’re the man for the job. Do it!

    • I think I’d opt out of that one. I have a tough time assessing the discographies of my contemporaries. I will say that hearing A River Ain’t Too Much To Love resulted in me having a “Brian-Wilson-hearing-Sgt-Peppers’ type breakdown where I scrapped most of the album I was working on and was left muttering “he’s done it…he’s solved songwriting!” for weeks.

      So that would definitely be my #1.

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