Tom Petty Albums From Worst To Best

Tom Petty Albums From Worst To Best

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.

15

The Last DJ (2002)

From the beginning, Tom Petty cultivated the persona of radical individualist. Like Brando's Johnny Strabler in The Wild One, Petty was "born a rebel," his adversarial target often just the nearest entity that dares suggest he follow the rules. Petty can also come off as a stubborn, reactionary zealot whose public battles with record labels and the industry at large would occasionally seem less rooted in a quest for satisfaction and justice than in an undiagnosed oppositional defiant disorder.

Like your opinionated friend who claims to enjoy "all music except new country and rap" (Petty has your friend's back on both counts, by the way), Petty often appears ruthlessly dogmatic even when his grievances are justified. Behold: The Last DJ, a quasi-concept album about media consolidation, corporate greed, and the illusion of choice, using the music business as the villainous avatar for all of the above. Buried amidst some of the worst songwriting of his career (try to sit through the sanctimonious "Joe" more than once) are a few truly excellent tunes, like the "London Calling"-quoting title track, the solemn and ambiguous "Blue Sunday," and the widescreen classicism that is "Have Love Will Travel." But The Last DJ is neither the galvanizing call to arms it wants to be, nor an album that works especially well out of its own context; it isn't an album you want to agree with. Worst of all, The Last DJ dispels the myth of its creator as some laidback, joint-rolling hayseed; instead, it's a rock-record-sized shoulder-chip, and about as rock and roll as any manifesto.

14

Mojo (2010)

Inspired by the Allmans, the Dead, and "the blues," 2010's Mojo was recorded live in the studio. At 15 tracks and 65 minutes, it is the longest album in the Tom Petty And The Heartbreakers catalog. Though the promise of an unpolished, warts-and-all document of one of the last great American guitar rock bands might seem an exciting prospect, The Heartbreakers are no jam band, and Petty is no Muddy Waters. As exhilarating a group of musicians as they are, the success of the Heartbreakers still hinges largely on Petty's ability to craft great songs. Mojo is largely made up of the sort of clunking, hard luck rhythm and blues you might associate with a life or death game of billiards. Some of the slower tunes, like the nocturnal, yearning "The Trip To Pirate's Cove," the stoned and spooky "Something Good Coming," and the epic and adventurous "First Flash Of Freedom," really work, but these moments are fleeting. Nothing on Mojo is offensive (well, except for maybe the reggae-tinged "Don't Pull Me Over"), and a handful of songs do manage to nail the sort of tension you might associate with authentic electric blues, but listening to a guitarist as inventive and singular as Mike Campbell resort to clichéd blues licks and pinch harmonics is more than mildly disappointing. Ironically, it is Mojo's attempt at "authenticity" that results in the least convincing album in the Tom Petty And The Heartbreakers discography.

13

Let Me Up (I've Had Enough) (1987)

If 1994's Wildflowers is Petty's Harvest Moon, 1987's miserably unpopular Let Me Up (I've Had Enough) is his Re*ac*tor: the album on which the preoccupied and burnt-out star of the show audibly checks out. The album's worthiness, however, is a matter of perspective. View it not as a lousy Tom Petty And The Heartbreakers album but as the Tom Petty And The Heartbreakers album on which Mike Campbell takes charge, and Let Me Up (I've Had Enough) begins to look pretty compelling. Get beyond the abominable cover art and the mostly-forgettable tunes and the album becomes a showcase for Campbell, who wrote the lion's share of many of its songs, including the should-have-been-a-hit "Runaway Trains," the Dire Straits-y "My Life / Your World," and the Dylanesque "All Mixed Up." Though Campbell is not quite the tunesmith Petty is, despite having written or co-written some pretty big hits himself, his comparatively austere, workmanlike intensity contrasts nicely with Petty's ubiquitous id, and provides a direct line to torch-carrying bands like the War On Drugs, who probably love this record. The lyrics are all over the place, including haymakers thrown at Iranian torture, acid rain, El Salvador, country clubs, and, err, front wheel drive. They are best ignored. Let Me Up (I've Had Enough) holds the distinction of being the only Tom Petty And The Heartbreakers album not represented on the 1993 Greatest Hits collection; even the album's lone single, "Jammin' Me," co-written with Bob Dylan and featuring dated references to Vanessa Redgrave, Eddie Murphy, and Joe Piscipo, is conspicuously absent. Though it frequently simmers when it should be sizzling, Let Me Up (I've Had Enough) is not without its charms.

12

Highway Companion (2006)

2006's Highway Companion is the last of the three "solo" Tom Petty albums, and the final Tom Petty album co-produced by Jeff Lynne. While the occasional stock-rock trifle occasionally breaks the spell, Highway Companion's best songs avoid high-octane panache in favor of nuance and atmosphere. For the most part, Lynne's production is mercifully restrained, but he still manages to ruin the otherwise great "Big Weekend" by entombing its powerful chorus beneath gratuitous background vocals, attention-stealing drum fills, and disruptive, jejune guitar licks. Elsewhere, the nearly-flawless "Flirtin' With Time" should please anyone who really, really misses Teenage Fanclub, while "Down South" uses Dylan's "Love Minus Zero / No Limit" to create the kind of pristine heartland alt-rock Petty has been perfecting for years. Other tunes leave less of an impression, but not for lack of trying: "This Old Town" resorts to self-plagiarism in an attempt to replicate old glories, but lacks the strong melody of "Mary Jane's Last Dance," its obvious blueprint, while "Saving Grace" attempts the sort of bellicose boogie of John Lee Hooker but only exposes the band's weakness: they don't swing. While enjoyable enough in song-sized morsels, too many sluggish, tedious numbers make Highway Companion a bit of a chore.

11

Hypnotic Eye (2014)

The moment any suspicion arises that a prestigious catalog artist like Tom Petty has become irrelevant, a familiar hyperbolic scramble takes place: every subsequent new album is described by dutiful critics as a "return to form" as a means of keeping asses in the proverbial seats. This is PR legerdemain at its most hopelessly transparent. It is not enough for an artist like Tom Petty to make a very good album; it must be his best since the album before all the previous ones we didn't like. Hypnotic Eye, released last week to mostly positive reviews, is a very good Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers album. It blends the live, bluesy sound of Mojo and the songwriting heights of Echo, and it is unmistakably the finest album this group of sexagenarians could have possibly been expected to make in 2014. Highlights abound: The rousing and heartfelt "Fault Lines"; the mellotron-abetted mood piece "Sins Of My Youth"; the smoky blues nocturne "Full Grown Boy"; the dark and quixotic "Red River." Even the weaker numbers here, like the artless "U Get Me High" or the drooling, drawling "Burnt Out Town," are more harmless fun than momentum-killers. Obviously, it is almost impossible to rank the just-released Hypnotic Eye within a larger continuum of Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers albums; it's here at #11 simply because today it sounds better than #12 but not as good as #10. But time has a way of shuffling these numbers around, and if Hypnotic Eye proves to be Petty and The Heartbreakers' final album, we reserve the right to advance it a few notches simply for ending on such a high note.

10

Into The Great Wide Open (1991)

Hoping to repeat the success of Full Moon Fever, Petty corralled the same team of Campbell, Jeff Lynne, and himself to produce its follow-up, Into The Great Wide Open. Unlike Full Moon Fever, however, Into The Great Wide Open is not a Tom Petty solo album, but an album by Tom Petty And The Heartbreakers. This distinction is crucial. Loosing the overdub-happy Lynne on a band that relies so much on feel, intuition, and spontaneity results in an album of compromises, concessions, and miniature mutinies. No one described this conflict better than Petty himself, who told Bogdanovich, "Jeff likes to make a rhythm track and then -- sort of like a sketch becoming a painting -- add colors to it; [the Heartbreakers] are Polaroid. They want everything right there." With this in mind, Into The Great Wide Open is far better than might be expected given the nature of its experimental, borderline sadistic premise. Mismatch or no, the album's first four tracks are terrific: the exquisite "Learning To Fly" is a better single than anything on Full Moon Fever and features some of Petty's most assured vocals; "King's Highway" is almost as good, recalling the reckless, sun-stroked youthfulness of "American Girl"; the title track, though best enjoyed apart from its dated-upon-arrival video starring Johnny Depp, is "Free Fallin'" with a Magical Mystery Tour makeover; and "Two Gunslingers" jingles with an irresistible, autumnal grace. Unfortunately, things quickly become middling and monochromatic, with Lynne and the Heartbreakers each vying for control, seeming to settle on listlessness.

09

Southern Accents (1985)

Before the Drive-By Truckers wrote a concept album about "the duality of the Southern thing," there was Southern Accents, a boldly personal work that Petty attributes to a delayed reaction to his beloved mother's death; he told Bogdanovich "[Southern Accents] was the period when [my mother] found her way into the songs, and she brought her world with her." The album might have been Petty's greatest artistic achievement had he seen the idea through to its logical conclusion. Instead, Southern Accents sounds half-cocked and half-finished, padded with incompatible, inferior material. For every song like the Zevon-worthy title track or the gutsy "Dogs On The Run," there's a banal counterpart, like the silly "Spike," or the electric sitar and drum machine non-starter "Don't Come Around Here No More," one of several of the album's musical collaborations with the Eurythmics' Dave Stewart. The album also features at least one masterpiece in the form of "Rebels," a mountainous rocker that challenges "Refugee" for the title of "best Tom Petty song ever," but the song's exceptional potency only serves to illuminate the fatigued, mediocre sound elsewhere on the album. In a promotional video for the album, Petty is already wondering if Southern Accents is too ambitious: "[Southern Accents] is the longest album I ever worked on. I don't look forward to working on one this long again." Why the poignant, melancholic "Trailer" was relegated to the B-side of the "Don't Come Around Here No More" single remains a most frustrating Tom Petty mystery; had it been included over any of the stinkers on Southern Accents, it'd have gone a long way to redeeming this maddeningly uneven album.

08

Echo (1999)

Echo is an album of "lasts": The last Tom Petty album produced by Rick Rubin, the last Heartbreakers album to feature bassist Howie Epstein (so debauched he didn't even make it to the photo shoot for the album cover), and thick with songs documenting the dissolution of Petty's marriage. Despite this, Echo is not exactly what you'd call a "bummer record." The darkness hanging over the album manifests itself not as bitterness and wound-licking, but as emancipation; it seems to use the shadows as cover for escape. Petty and the band sound great throughout: "Room At The Top" starts things off on a melancholy note, but concludes with an unexpected, exorcising climax, while "Counting On You" is the Heartbreakers in slow-burn mode, with Campbell's casually brilliant guitar chopping its way into view like lightning across a black evening sky. The songwriting is worthy of such sterling sounds: "Free Girl Now" is part bitterness, part ball-busting, and it's fun to imagine Lucky, the hapless character on Mike Judge's King Of The Hill who earned his nickname after being granted a settlement after "slipping on pee-pee at the Costco," delivering the lyrics (Petty voices the character on the show); the aching and intimate "Lonesome Sundown" is Petty's most heartfelt and convincing love song in years; and "Swingin,'" a hair-brained tune that sounds like it couldn't have been conceived anywhere but the garage, is good, coquettish fun. There are some "firsts" here, too: Campbell takes a rare lead vocal on "I Don't Wanna Fight" (spoiler: he sounds a lot like Petty), while drummer Steve Ferrone, whose polished, no-frills percussion style would rankle some longtime fans, makes his debut as a full-time Heartbreaker here, following the dismissal of original drummer Stan Lynch. One of the better latter-day Tom Petty albums, Echo sounds worth whatever pain was required to make it.

07

Hard Promises (1981)

Mike Campbell has said that one of the Heartbreakers' favorite slogans is "Don't bore us, get to the chorus." Listening to albums like 1981's Hard Promises, one is tempted to ask "which chorus?" Indeed, these pop songs are so securely constructed, they are airtight. By now, Petty could write lean, strident power pop confections like "King's Road' and "A Thing About You" in his sleep, but it's only when the band lets its collective hair down a bit, as on the loose and smoky noir rock of "Nightwatchman," that Hard Promises truly distinguishes itself. The album orbits around "The Waiting," its explosive hit single, which provides a showcase for drummer Stan Lynch; there are few better examples of dynamic, sophisticated-but-unflashy rock drumming anywhere. If only the rest of the album fared as well: "Insider," written for Stevie Nicks until Petty took a liking to it and snatched it back (he gave her "Stop Draggin' My Heart Around" instead) is dreamy but dull, while not even the return of the legendary bassist Donald "Duck" Dunn of the MGs and a great whinnying guitar performance by Campbell can redeem the vaguely cock-rocky "Woman In Love," one of the band's poorest-performing singles for good reason: it sounds a little like Dokken.

06

Long After Dark (1982)

Long After Dark, produced by Jimmy Iovine, follows bassist Ron Blair's mostly amicable departure from the band and introduces his replacement, Milwaukee native Howie Epstein. This chemical change signals a new era, and yields the most underrated Tom Petty And The Heartbreakers album. The seemingly autobiographical "One Story Town" opens the album with a jolt; "Change Of Heart" and "Straight Into Darkness" are as rousing and powerful as anything on Damn The Torpedoes; and the delightfully strange "Wasted Life," featuring bongos and drippy portamento keyboards, sounds like an Elvis lullaby crooned to a spaceship. Epstein's backing vocals, which would become a vital part of the Heartbreakers sound, are also a revelation (see: "Finding Out"). As a matter of fact, the album's only weak song is its misleading single, the frigid "You Got Lucky"; Campbell in particular sounds lost, adding little licks where he can like a jabbing boxer biding his time. Almost any other song on Long After Dark would have made a more appropriate (or at least more representative) single. Long After Dark also finds the Heartbreakers replacing much of their jangly strumming with brawny, chunky power chords, adding a new heft to the band's sound while keeping many of these midtempo rockers from getting too rootsy. Anyway, "rootsy" would come later, as Iovine might have grimly prophesized when he insisted a song called "Keeping Me Alive" be cut from the album. It's a great song in the Springsteen mold that provides more than a glimpse at the charmingly homespun version of Tom Petty we would soon meet on Full Moon Fever. Petty loved the song, but acquiesced. Is the omission of "Keeping Me Alive" from Long After Dark the only known occasion of Petty backing down?

05

You're Gonna Get It (1978)

Riding the surprise success of their debut album, Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers were eager to justify all that love with a strong follow-up. Steered again by producer Denny Cordell, You're Gonna Get It finds Petty and Campbell, now seasoned studio vets, confidently experimenting with drum loops, tape delays, hand drums, and layers of atmosphere. Petty's knack for writing hooks is window-displayed throughout You're Gonna Get It; there are pre-choruses and bridges here that could have built entire careers. "I Need To Know," based on Wilson Pickett's "Land Of 1000 Dances," is fierce and pushy; "When The Time Comes" imagines Roger McGuinn ghostwriting for Cheap Trick; and the title track comes on like some spaced-out, hayseed Hall & Oates. Elsewhere, there are stormy rockers "Magnolia" and "Too Much Ain't Enough" as well as the homewrecker-rebuffing "Listen To Her Heart," a song that probably sold a thousand Rickenbacker guitars. Because it bridges the gap between an extraordinary debut and a career-defining third record, it's easy for You're Gonna Get It to get lost in the shuffle, but if this is what a sophomore slump sounds like, rock and roll could use a few more of 'em right about now.

04

Full Moon Fever (1989)

Tom Petty's first official solo album, which produced five hit singles, is one of the most enduring and successful rock records of the modern era -- 54x platinum in the US alone -- and Petty's uncontested commercial peak. Not bad for an album the label initially refused to release. After hearing George Harrison's 1987 album Cloud 9, Petty immediately sought out its producer, Jeff Lynne, to co-produce the album along with Campbell and himself. It would be the beginning of a partnership that would yield three albums and one supergroup. Lynne's notoriously fussy, antiseptic production would seem to have been tested by Petty's approach to the writing and recording of the album, which owed more to Ginsberg's favored maxim of "first thought, best thought" than to the immaculate studio sheen for which he is known. For Full Moon Fever, Petty and Lynne feverishly recorded songs the same day they were written, careful not to over-think arrangements or lyrics. Despite this, the sound of Full Moon Fever still manages to sound conspicuously overworked: Lynne epitomizes the producer-as-auteur theory by constantly drawing attention to his unmistakable, reverb-averse signature sound, from copious background vocals to layers upon layers of compressed guitars to gloppy, rococo arrangements. The songs that succeed on Full Moon Fever do so in spite of, not because of, co-writer and co-producer Lynne: the George Harrison-assisted "I Won't Back Down" sounds like a trial run for the Wilburys while doubling as something of a Tom Petty anthem; the suspended chords and big, karaoke-ready chorus of "Free Fallin'" is anathema to only the hardest of hearts (and has been credited with reviving at least one coma victim); and "Face In The Crowd" -- more Gene Clark than Dwight Twilley -- signals, in one fell swoop, the beginning of Petty's role as mature classic rock survivor and the end of his role as pugilistic upstart. Despite a handful of real turkeys ("Zombie Zoo," anyone?), Full Moon Fever is as enjoyable today as it was in 1989.

03

Tom Petty And The Heartbreakers (1976)

In his popular 2008 book Outliers: The Story Of Success, Malcolm Gladwell argues that the key to mastery of any task -- and presumably, success -- is the devotion of 10,000 hours to it. He uses as an example the constant and tireless gigging of an unknown Beatles in Hamburg, who were practically seasoned onstage veterans before the world knew them by name, making their gargantuan success less a matter of cultural coincidence than of logical trajectory. One might also add the Band's hermetic tutelage under Ronnie Hawkins as further evidence of Gladwell's theory: because few ever witnessed the band's growing pains, it is easy to attribute their achievements to divine precocity rather than the years of anonymous wood-shedding that made those achievements possible. Petty, Campbell, and Tench worked the Gainesville bar-band-and-strip-club circuit for years, often performing five sets a night, six nights a week, before finding any acclaim outside of their hometown. Well-versed in rhythm and blues before they recorded their first single, the Heartbreakers had already laid the groundwork for their distinct pop-rock sound years prior to signing a record deal, at which point the band appeared to emerge fully-formed. Taking this into account, it is still surprising how good a debut Tom Petty And The Heartbreakers really is. "Rockin' Around (With You)" (the first song ever co-written by Campbell and Petty!) starts things off with a rhythm section straight out of Sun Studios, with a rockabilly bassline and an insistent, primal rhythm providing a bed for wide spectrum harmonies and tough-sounding background vocals; the seething, seductive "Breakdown" is a masterpiece of atmosphere and mood; and "American Girl" brilliantly blends the 12-string jangle of the Byrds, the roistering, febrile energy of pub rock, and the hopped-up hiccupping of Charlie Feathers. The entire album is a clinic in instrumental interplay and band dynamics, despite everything sounding like some miraculous first take. Of the debut album's ten songs, two do not feature all of the Heartbreakers: "Hometown Blues" is essentially the Mudcrutch lineup with Duck Dunn from the MGs added on bass, while Dylan-rip "Strangered In The Night" is from Petty's aborted pre-Heartbreakers solo album featuring the doomed Jim Gordon on drums and latter-day Elvis bassist Emory Gordy on bass. It's telling that these two songs are the album's weakest, but even these might have been hit singles for lesser bands, as would the Springsteen-sounding "Mystery Man" and the mission statement "Anything That's Rock and Roll," a song that provides the album with a sort of rockist motto.

02

Wildflowers (1994)

Nominally a Tom Petty solo album, 1994's Wildflowers, like Full Moon Fever before it, features performances by most of the Heartbreakers, with only drummer Stan Lynch absent. Producer Rick Rubin provides a nice contrast to the previous two albums' frequently suffocating Jeff Lynne production, allowing these largely acoustic songs the breathing room they require. It is easy to view Wildflowers as Petty's "middle-aged" album, but the wistful, unadorned sound of the album belies its surprisingly dark and dolorous lyrical content. Again, timing was propitious for Petty: released at the height of grunge and accompanied by the fawning endorsements of alt-rock demigods like Eddie Vedder and Dave Grohl, Wildflowers found an unlikely audience of Generation Xers who would no sooner give the time of day to Bob Seger or John Mellencamp than they would Perry Como. Recorded over a two-year period at the famed Sound City Studios (the same facility that produced Damn The Torpedoes), Wildflowers finds Petty at something of a late-blooming songwriting peak. The casually sublime title track, reputedly done in one take, is plainly one of Petty's greatest triumphs as a solo artist; "A Higher Place" out-Marshall Crenshaws Marshall Crenshaw; and the English folk ballad-influenced "Don't Fade On Me" finds Petty refreshingly out of his comfort zone. Elsewhere, there's the drawling power pop of "You Wreck Me" and "House In The Woods," the locomotive survivor's tale of "Time To Move On," and lead single "You Don't Know How It Feels," whose Brobdingnagian drums, underachiever guitar solo, and airy minimalism perfectly encapsulates the album's mellow, bucolic tableau.

01

Damn The Torpedoes (1979)

The sound of Damn The Torpedoes not only set a standard for Tom Petty, but for studio-recorded rock and roll albums ever after. The album was the first with co-producer Jimmy Iovine, by then gaining a reputation as something of a wunderkind following hugely successful albums with Bruce Springsteen and Patti Smith. The litigious circumstances accompanying the album's release are well known; Petty emerged the unlikely hero in a David and Goliath-style lawsuit against his record label and was even given his own subsidiary label, Backstreet Records, as part of the settlement. This narrative would naturally work its way into the defiant, dauntless songs on Damn The Torpedoes, Petty's greatest album. Petty told Bogdanovich that the band "chased the perfect take with a level of obsession that [he has] never repeated," and indeed, few rock and roll albums preceding Damn The Torpedoes sounded as big, punchy, or perfect. The album announces itself with the juggernaut that is "Refugee," segues into the yowling "Here Comes My Girl," and ups the ante with the anthemic "Even The Losers." Damn The Torpedoes is chock full of mammoth riffs, telepathic band interplay, and unforgettable choruses, but its reputation deservedly rests on its thrilling first act. The album peaked at #2 on the Billboard chart, cock-blocked by The Wall, which only emphasizes its underdog status, as if to say "even the losers get lucky sometimes…but not that lucky."

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