Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers' 20 Best Songs

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Get excited. Next Saturday morning at 10 a.m., tickets go on sale for Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers' first Houston-area show in four years, September 25 at Toyota Center with old friend Steve Winwood opening. A copy of the band's new album, Hypnotic Eye, is included with each concert ticket sold.

But to be honest, all that has very little to do with this article. It's certainly good timing, not to mention a convenient way for Rocks Off to show you we're capable of looking beyond Summer Fest. But the truth is we have several Petty fans on staff here (as it should be), and this list has been in the making for several weeks. Never mind the Beatles and the Stones, our subjects are just two years removed from the 40th anniversary of their first album; although they may have slowed the pace a little in the past decade or so, the Heartbreakers are still one of the most killer live bands on the field, hands down, while Petty remains only a step down from his buddy Bob Dylan as one of America's finest songwriters.

At the end is a small selection of the songs that could just as easily been on this list, but for one reason or another these are the 20 we chose. Tom, guys, well played. See you in September.

"A Face in the Crowd" This easy breezy mantra-like single from Petty's first "solo" album, Full Moon Fever, plays like a road lullaby with its hypnotic guitar line and bittersweet confessional lyrics: "Out of a dream, out of the sky/ Into my heart, into my life," evoking both melancholy and true blue desire. Instantly identifiable, as we are all faces in the crowd until that fateful chance meeting. I recall the song as the clear standout listening to the cassette on near-constant repeat while my mom drove my siblings and I on a cross-country move from L.A. to central Florida, (Coincidentally, Tom's native region.) Since then it's followed me around everywhere like a friendly ghostlike companion. MATT BLACK

"American Girl" Well, I am an American girl, and like many other American girls, I was raised on promises. Plus I love rock and roll. Do I therefore love this song by default? I suppose there's a chance to that. But in reality, this beautiful snapshot of "rock in the time of disco" has got to be one of the top feel-good songs of the last century. There is not a time that this song comes on that I don't unintentionally scream, "I LOVE THIS SONG!" You know, like American girls do. And I mean it from my heart every damn time. SELENA DIERINGER

The final track on Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers' 1976 debut album surely restored faith to diehard FM rock radio listeners in a year dominated by soft M.O.R. ballads and disco drivel with its effective and upbeat economic delivery. This is honest and genuine rock and roll soaked in sweat and swagger. Where this number really heats up and catches fire is in the live arena, when Mike Campbell melts faces with the extended electrifying guitar solo. Do yourselves a favor and do not miss their next tour. MATT BLACK

"Breakdown" I'm a Tom Petty fan who's never owned a Tom Petty album. That doesn't mean much in this digital age, but when Petty broke you bought the LP if you wanted to hear the music. This is the first of several Petty songs I enjoy with the word "down" in the title. Here, his influences are obvious. He's Bob Dylan until he gets to the chorus, then becomes Van Morrison. My stoner friends were about it and the girls liked it, too. Perfect recipe for a long rock career. JESSE SENDEJAS JR.

"Don't Do Me Like That" Something about "Don't Do Me Like That" is like finding a time capsule. When Tom and his Heartbreakers released this song in 1979, they probably didn't think that hearing it 35 years later would make the listener feel the exact same way as it did then, but it does. And that's a beautiful thing. SELENA DIERINGER

"Here Comes My Girl" So maybe I fashion myself somewhat of a hardass, but I have to face the facts: like many other women on the planet, it seems I am somewhat a fool for love. No surprise, I adore "Here Comes My Girl." What lady doesn't want to feel like their existence is enough to make a man feel like his crap day is suddenly amazing? I know I do. SELENA DIERINGER

"Into the Great Wide Open" We've all had fantasies of leaving for Tinseltown to make it as an actor or rock star. This song tells the tale of the rise and fall of Eddie, a wayward young man with promise and stars in his eyes only to become another dejected, disenfranchised shell of a soul, an Icarus clone. It's timeless and especially applicable with contemporary pop artists vainly flexing and vying for glitz and glamour. T.P. and the Heartbreakers soundtrack the story with a cool and restrained slow-rocking groove, and the accompanying video mini-movie featuring Johnny Depp and Faye Dunaway perfectly marries Petty's words to picture. MATT BLACK

"I Should Have Known It" The Heartbreakers' last album, Mojo, showed how much of the vintage R&B, soul and '60s psych-rock Petty plays on his Sirus/XM show Buried Treasure had sunk into his songwriting. The whole thing could use a trim or two, but overall it goes down pretty smooth and mellow except for this scornful lament that sees Mike Campbell call down his best Clapton/Jimmy Page hoodoo. Petty hasn't rocked this hard since "Runnin' Down a Dream" and "You Wreck Me," at least. CHRIS GRAY

"I Won't Back Down" "You can stand me up at the gates of Hell, but I won't back down." I consider myself brave, sometimes foolishly so; but we all have moments where we cower to the fear. We need songs like this to remind us of our inner superhero. That makes this my favorite Tom Petty song of them all. JESSE SENDEJAS JR.

"Listen to Her Heart" Petty and the Heartbreakers began their concerts with this song for many years, and it's easy to see why. Campbell's opening riff is confident but low-key, just like Petty's first line: "So you think you're gonna take her away/ With your money and your cocaine." It's only the band's second album, You're Gonna Get It!, but obviously Petty had already had his fill of slick-talking music-business hustlers. But instead of getting angry, he responds to his anonymous rival with the quiet self-confidence that has always been one of his finest qualities. CHRIS GRAY

"Rebels" The purest essence of Southern rock and roll. Fabulous, unforgettable lyric and all that Deep South soul Petty's always had. "Even before my father's fathers they called us all rebels/ Burned our cornfields, left our cities leveled" says it all. Yeah, I can still see the eyes of those blue-bellied devils. WILLIAM MICHAEL SMITH

"Running Down a Dream" The song's guitar riff sounds urgent. It's the sort of hard-charging loop you need stuck in your head when you're climbing that mountain, running that mile, trying to clean house before your in-laws arrive. There's hope in the lyrics, and we all need hope. Wherever you're headed, Petty writes, "There's something good waitin' down this road." JESSE SENDEJAS JR.

"Stop Draggin' My Heart Around" Let's be honest — Petty's skeletal, sunken-eyed grill is the stuff of horror flicks. That video for "Don't Come Around Here No More" still gives me night terrors. Thanks goodness for this duet. Stevie Nicks gave us teenaged boys an angel face to drool over. This can't be understated, as we were subjected to 'round the clock showings of the video, one of MTV's first. But, that's okay because this song is awesome. It would only be improved by renaming it "Stop Dragging My Heart Down." JESSE SENDEJAS JR.

"Southern Accents" I got Petty's sixth album while living in Asia. Between the title track and "Rebels," I had my own personal National Anthem. Isolated in Asia, for me "Southern Accents" was like a homesickness cure. I love the weariness in Petty's voice as he declares who and what he is. WILLIAM MICHAEL SMITH

"Spike" "Another badass, another troublemaker, I'm scared, ain't you boys scared? Wonder if he's gonna show us what bad is?" The story Petty tells in his live shows about following this wannabe badass into a seedy Florida dive could almost be ripped right from the mean old bars of my childhood home in Odessa. "Boys, we got a man with a dog collar on, think we ought to throw old Spike a bone?" I can see my Dad saying that if you caught him in a bad mood or didn't show proper respect. WILLIAM MICHAEL SMITH

"The Waiting" Leave it to Petty to write a love song that is as much about being in the moment as it is about longing. Punctuated by one of Mike Campbell's many signature guitar hooks — how often do you hear one of those today? — the verses are structured melodically to feel like it is hanging on the precipice of something to come and not just the chorus. As it turns out, the waiting really is the hardest part. JEFF BALKE

"Walls (Circus)" The forgettable film She's the One at least gave us one memory, this gem of a tune. Part Beatles, part Byrds, part Phil Spector, this is Petty's version of California wall of sound and it's goddamn glorious. It's difficult to tell if he is singing about himself or someone else, but his introspection has rarely been more poignant and direct. And who can resist a good "Strawberry Fields" fade out and and coda return? I sure as hell can't. JEFF BALKE

"Wildflowers" The title track off what is (in my opinion) an insanely underrated Petty album, "Wildflowers" ha a carefree vibe that lends itself perfectly to road trippin'. The next time you are about to venture out on the highway, make this Track 1 of your driving mix. You'll be ready for anything. SELENA DIERINGER

"You Don't Know How it Feels" Petty's hit off of 1994's "Wildflowers" is like the most effortless "fuck off" ever uttered. It's like, I don't care enough to raise my voice, so read between the lines and figure it out yourself. In the meantime, I'm going to sit here, relax, and feel pretty amazing. Plus the harmonica is simply bitchin'. SELENA DIERINGER

"You Got Lucky" And then there is Tom Petty at his most brilliantly arrogant. Note that he doesn't say "You got lucky when you found me," but rather "when I found you." This is the ultimate song of defiance when it feels like a partner is about to stray. The music is dark and creepy, like something out of a David Lynch film, and angry. Every guy (and girl) wishes for the balls to stand up to a former boyfriend or girlfriend just when that person began to believe they were too good for us. "If you can do better then me, go." Ouch. JEFF BALKE

"You Wreck Me" This is the other side of the "You Got Lucky" coin. There might never have been and may never be a more perfectly evocative lyric than "I'll be the boy in the corduroy pants/ You be the girl at the high school dance." Filled with innocence and energy and the world laid out in front of them, it's poetic and insanely romantic. And the smooth, almost delicate delivery of the lyrics is laid out over a bed of pure guitar-driven angst, like when loud rock and roll started echoing through gymnasiums at high school dances in the '60s. JEFF BALKE

Honorable Mention: "Refugee," "A Woman In Love (It's Not Me)," "Saving Grace," "It's Good to Be King," "Insider," "Learning to Fly," "Louisiana Rain," "Honeybee," "Letting You Go," "Even the Losers," "I Need to Know," "Mary Jane's Last Dance," "Change of Heart," "Don't Come Around Here No More," "Kings Highway," "Hometown Blues"

BONUS The editor's ten favorite Tom Petty/Heartbreakers albums:

  • Damn the Torpedos
  • Full Moon Fever
  • Hard Promises
  • Wildflowers
  • Into the Great Wide Open
  • Mojo
  • Let Me Up (I've Had Enough)
  • Southern Accents
  • Highway Companion
  • Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers

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