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.