Today (October 20, 2021) would have been Tom Petty's 71st birthday. The 80s singer-songwriter tragically passed in 2017, and in honor of his life and legacy, we've compiled our favorite songs from him and his band for a top 10 list.
After meeting Elvis Presley in 1961 on a film set his uncle worked on, Petty was inspired to pursue music. He dropped out of high school at age 17 to play bass with a newly formed band. Eventually, he formed Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, and the group would release hit after hit throughout the late 70s, 80s, and early 90s.
Petty built a unique catalogue of songs. They always fit the classic American rock standard, but were flexible enough in sound to delve into new wave, slick experimentalism, country, blues, and MTV pop territories. No matter what Tom Petty song you're listening to, it's apparent the man put a whole lot of soul into his work.
Without further ado, here's our picks for the Top 10 Tom Petty Songs!
With its twangy lyrics and country rock sounds, it's as if "Rebels" was designed specifically for people who have grown up in the American South. That should come as no surprise, considering Petty spent his childhood in Florida.
This song tells the sad tale of a man whose alcoholism has controlled his life and strained a relationship with his girlfriend. It's possibly a nod to Petty's alcoholic father, and rock 'n' roll history claims Petty got so angry during the mixing of "Rebels," he punched a wall and broke his hand.
Despite the frustration behind it, this track sounds good enough to make our list. "Rebels" comes off Petty and his band's 1985 album Southern Accents, and fans love the tune for its bold opening ("Honey don't walk out / I'm too drunk to follow"), catchy chorus, and perfect blend of bass, drums, and sax.
9. "You Wreck Me"
Petty’s second solo album Wildflowers relied heavily on the Heartbreakers, who turned in a tight, grungy performance for this track. There's just something so classically Tom Petty on "You Wreck Me," and it's one of those songs perfect for driving down a highway on a hot summer afternoon.
Originally called "You Rock Me," Petty thought the title sounded too much like a cliche and made a slight adjustment to one vowel sound. He kept all the other lyrics and the decision changed the entire tone of the song - definitely for the better.
8. "The Waiting"
This Petty song is one that's played far and wide. It's been used for The Simpsons episode "The Cartridge Family," a promo spot for The Office, Wisconsin Badgers sporting events, and Philadelphia Flyers games. It's no wonder it peaked at #19 on the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart and #1 on the magazine’s new Rock Tracks chart when it was first released in 1981.
Released as part of Petty's album Hard Promises, "The Waiting" is about a man in true pain who finds hope in a new lover. Petty easily had the riff and chorus, but no words until the titular phrase came to him when thinking about his struggle for inspiration. It's actually taken from a Janis Joplin quote about touring, which went, "I love being onstage and everything else is just waiting."
You can hear the influence of the Byrds in this track, and many great artists have covered "The Waiting" - including Eddie Vedder, Linda Ronstadt, Natalie Imbruglia, and Jon Pardi.
Around the release of the Heartbreakers' third LP, Tom Petty declared: "We’re always hearing that we’re the future of rock & roll, I don’t want to be the future – I want to be the present." This track, the lead off Damn The Torpedoes, ensured that present success - as it was hailed as the band’s most “brass-knuckled rocker to date.”
"Refugee" peaked at #15 on the Billboard Hot 100 and was accompanied by a simple music video that became an early MTV staple. The song is actually about Petty's feuds with his record label, all cloaked in relationship metaphors. Benmont Tench’s soulful organ playing, the lockstep rhythm section of Stan Lynch and Ron Blair, and of course, Petty's vulnerable vocals make for a great listen.
6. "I Won't Back Down"
A classic rock radio must-have, "I Won't Back Down" matches Petty's defiant personality perfectly. It was part of his biggest-selling solo album Full Moon Fever, and peaked at #12 in the U.S., #16 in Australia, and #28 on U.K. charts. It was later covered by country legend Johnny Cash.
While the Heartbreakers didn't back Petty up on this song (they did play for other songs on the album), he had good company behind him. "I Won't Back Down" features guitar and background vocals from both ELO frontman Jeff Lynne and George Harrison. Yes, THAT George Harrison. Another Beatle who helped Petty out was Ringo Starr, who played drums in the song's music video. Don't be fooled, however: they were actually played by session drummer Phil Jones for the recording.
On the creation of the song, Petty revealed, "At the session George Harrison sang and played the guitar. I had a terrible cold that day, and George went to the store and bought a ginger root, boiled it and had me stick my head in the pot to get the ginger steam to open up my sinuses, and then I ran in and did the take."
5. "Runnin' Down a Dream"
A fan favorite in Petty's catalogue, "Runnin' Down a Dream" is known for its whirly guitar riff and rough-and-tough drum beat. The song is a nod to Petty’s musical roots, especially with the lyric “me and Del were singin' ‘Little Runaway.’” The line references Del Shannon - Petty's friend whose 1961 song "Runaway" influenced Petty's career.
If you're a music theory nerd, you'll know this song is unique for its interesting use of chords. "Runnin' Down a Dream" uses E major as a tonic, but makes ample use of chords outside that key, such as D, G, and C major. Some passages (including the extended outro) use a pedal point of E in the bass, while changing chords from E major to C and D major chords above it. Additionally, the repeating fuzz guitar riff, using the notes B, B flat, A, G, and E, lacks only a D to complete the hexatonic E blues scale.
4. "Don't Do Me Like That"
Another popular Petty tune you're bound to hear on 70s or classic rock radio, "Don't Do Me Like That" is Petty's first big hit - penned in the early 70s when his band was still called Mudcrutch. It was released as the first single off his 1979 album Damn the Torpedoes and peaked at #10 on the Billboard Hot 100. It also reached the #3 spot in Canada.
"Don’t Do Me Like That" spotlights the stellar ensemble playing of the early Heartbreakers, especially lead guitarist Mike Campbell and keyboardist Benmont Tench. They trade lead and rhythm parts with almost telepathic ease. Additionally, this song is famous for its use in the Meryl Streep and Alec Baldwin comedy It’s Complicated. Streep and Baldwin’s characters dance to "Don't Do Me Like That" in a bar.
3. "American Girl"
Ranked #76 on Rolling Stone's list of "The 100 Greatest Guitar Songs of All Time," this track is one you can feel in your bones. You've probably heard it playing in the background during that creepy Silence of the Lambs scene, Fast Times at Ridgemont High, or even in The Sopranos.
Despite its all-American sound, Petty’s second single from his and the Heartbreakers' self-titled debut record was never a hit in the U.S. However, it charted in the U.K., where the Heartbreakers’ back-to-basics approach to rock 'n' roll was thought to be a part of the budding New Wave movement.
This is another Petty hit that's an homage to the Byrds. It's a scrumptious coming-of-age song about a small-town girl who knows there's more for her out in the world. This is also the last Tom Petty song ever to be played live, as he ended his September 25, 2017 encore performance at the Hollywood Bowl with "American Girl."
2. "Mary Jane's Last Dance"
If we had to guess, we think "Mary Jane's Last Dance" has become such a success in Petty's catalogue due to how layered it is. With unexpected harmonica bits, Bob Dylan-esque vocals, great guitar sounds, and melancholic tones, there's a lot to pick apart. It's a pleasure for the ears, and while it was made in the early 90s, it feels like something that would have thrived in the 60s or 70s.
"Mary Jane's Last Dance" was recorded on July 22, 1993 while Petty was working on his Wildflowers album. It was produced by Rick Rubin, guitarist Mike Campbell, and Petty himself. The original title was "Indiana Girl," but Rubin argued it didn't sound right. The lyrics and title were changed to "Mary Jane," prompting many fans over the years to believe it's about marijuana.
"A lot of people think it’s a drug reference, and if that’s what you want to think, it very well could be, but it could also just be a goodbye love song," Mike Campbell has claimed.
1. "Free Fallin'"
Perhaps Petty's most iconic song, "Free Fallin'" is a feel-good tune (despite having a sad narrative) about the magic of Los Angeles, California. Even though it's mostly about a place, it feels very personal to Petty's life, and can almost be described as the "calling card" of his musical career.
The song, which peaked at #7 on the Billboard Hot 100, was inspired by what Petty frequently saw while driving along Ventura Boulevard in the San Fernando Valley. The lyrics are rich with imagery and references, including Petty's idol Elvis, the Reseda suburb, Mulholland Drive, and even hungover men that Petty refers to as "vampires."
Funnily enough, "Free Fallin'" was initially rejected by Petty's label. It would later have a simple success story: "I waited six months and brought the same record back, and they loved it," Petty revealed.
The records Jeff Lynne produced are often criticized for feeling too stiff, but there’s no denying "Free Fallin’" is a late 80s masterpiece. Layers of guitars and background vocals seamlessly float in and out of the mix, and Petty’s impressive vocal leap in the sing-along chorus perfectly encapsulates the pain of a guy who knows he broke up with the right girl. Relatable and unafraid to take risks, "Free Fallin'" easily glides down to the #1 spot on our list.
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