Remember Tom Petty with his 10 best songs
Tom Petty's legendary music career dated back to the 1960s and included multiple bands along with solo work. USA TODAY
Choosing 10 tracks to define Tom Petty's legacy is, admittedly, a fool's errand. The 66-year-old singer, who passed away Monday, leaves a rock 'n' roll songbook that stayed dependably strong over decades of music-making. And, at his best, Petty could pack an emotional punch using fewer words and simpler riffs than nearly all of his rock peers.
It's a testament to Petty's enduring catalog of hits that many of his most beloved tracks aren't on this list — apologies, Mary Jane's Last Dance and Runnin' Down A Dream —let alone his forgotten classics or his work with the Traveling Wilburys, both of which deserve their own countdowns. Below, revisit some of our favorites from one of rock's most accomplished icons.
From his earliest hits, Tom Petty had a cause to rail against. Refugee, from his 1979 classic Damn the Torpedoes, was originally written as a missive against the music industry, but its fist-shaking anthemics far transcend whatever label squabbles Petty was involved in at the time.
Breakdown is shockingly fully-realized for a debut single, a Steely Dan soundalike that was wisely slashed in half before its release on the Heartbreakers' first album in 1976. A concise runtime would become a staple of Petty's hits, as would his play-it-cool vocals that kick down the door once they reach the chorus.
8. Don't Do Me Like That
Another underdog anthem, Don't Do Me Like That is Petty at his punchy '70s best, before he evolved into a titan of Americana, when he was still a punk puffing out his chest and sneering at the perils of fame.
7. I Won’t Back Down
The lyric “You can stand me up at the gates of hell/ But I won't back down” took on a new meaning Monday, as the media prematurely reported Tom Petty’s death, then retracted their statements as the rocker hung on for a day longer. For a fightin’ anthem, I Won’t Back Down is a remarkably humble-sounding song, with Petty sounding almost sheepish as he declares he’s not giving up.
One of Petty’s most heartbreaking classics, for its simplicity and its clear-eyed perspective on loss. It’s not surprising that fans are drawing on this song’s lyrics in the wake of Petty’s death, bidding him farewell in his own words: “You belong among the wildflowers / You belong in a boat out at sea / Sail away, kill off the hours / You belong somewhere you feel free.”
5. Don't Come Around Here No More
Petty could’ve been a titan of ‘80s schmaltz if he wanted to, if the drum machines and soft-focus keyboards of 1985's Don't Come Around Here No More are any indication. It’s probably best for rock 'n' he didn’t go down this path, but at least listeners have this gem from his synth-pop phase.
4. Free Fallin’
Tom Petty likely isn’t thrilled that Free Fallin’ is the defining song of his career. “There's not a day that goes by that someone doesn't hum Free Fallin' to me, or I don't hear it somewhere," he once said, describing how he wrote the song in a half-hour window. "But it was really only 30 minutes of my life." Let it be a testament to Petty’s rock ‘n’ roll genius, then, that he could record a song that dwarfs entire bands’ careers faster than it took to write this story.
3. The Waiting
There are the Tom Petty hits that punch you in the stomach, and then there are tracks like The Waiting, with instantly-recognizable choruses built for mindless radio singalongs. But when was the last time you really listened to The Waiting? The song, a Byrds homage from Petty’s 1981’s album Hard Promises, doesn’t have an ounce of fat on the whole production, between its lean guitar riffs, its “yeah-yeah” pre-chorus and, yes, even its consummately cheesy chorus.
And considering how many words rock stars have spilled complaining about their jobs, you have to appreciate the phrase as perfectly concise as “the waiting is the hardest part.”
2. Learning to Fly
Tom Petty’s rock ‘n’ roll legacy is one of plainspoken, achingly evocative songs that paint the struggles of survival with just enough optimism not to break your heart. Learning to Fly is one such song, the best of Petty’s collaborations with production mastermind Jeff Lynne, with a knife-twist of a chorus (“I’m learning to fly, but I ain’t got wings”) to keep it honest.
1. American Girl
At the end of this list is American Girl, a song that’s beloved by fans and Hollywood alike for the same reasons: its soured visions of the American dream, its evocative protagonist, and a narrative with enough holes to allow the listener’s own memories to flood right in. The song has been used by Silence of the Lambs to soundtrack Catherine Martin's final moments of freedom before her Buffalo Bill kidnapping, and more recently by The Handmaid’s Tale to send Offred off to her terrifying new beginning. Coincidentally, both scenes take place in a car, which is objectively the best venue to listen to American Girl, preferably on a highway somewhere.
In the wake of his death, Tom Petty has been hailed as rock ‘n’ roll’s best author of opening lines, and there’s no better example than American Girl’s first verse, which contains as many questions as it has answers, particularly about that "one little promise she was gonna keep.”
But the very best part of American Girl is the third verse that never appears, leaving the listener out on the balcony as its rambunctious guitars fade to silence, cheating us out of our heroine's happy ending. In American Girl, as in life, we don’t always know which verse is going to be someone’s last.