Top 10 Tom Petty Songs Of All Time
By Mike O’Cull
Tom Petty. Just saying his name is like a magical incantation used to summon great rock and roll music.
Petty was/is one of the all-time best rock singer-songwriters the universe has ever produced. He didn’t come out of the folk or country scenes playing quiet acoustic guitar tunes full of cryptic lyrics or mellow sentiments. Petty showed up in all of our speakers with a loud electric guitar and a cracking band that played the daylights out of his hook-laden songs. From his 70s beginnings, TP plugged his songwriting influences in an amp and turned them into music of substance and melody that touched everybody who heard it.
We’re about to discuss the top ten Tom Petty songs of all time. Your favorite song might not be on the list. Bear with us, though, as Petty has way more than ten great songs and any list like this can’t help but be incomplete. Still, these are the ones that hit us the hardest and have stayed with us the longest.
Have a list of your own? Please share it in the Comments Section below to keep the TP love flowing.
1 – “Breakdown”
From the moment Stan Lynch’s Ringo-inspired drum groove kicks in, you’re on the hook for this masterful minor-key clinic on understatement and presence. It’s a simple tune but it creates its own world. Petty drawls/mumbles the vocals with a snide vibe that sounds like he doesn’t really care if she stays or not. The chorus pops, of course, but the quiet verses are where the good stuff lives. Add in Mike Campbell’s minimalistic guitar hook and you’re on the road to glory. This one’s greatness is all in its attitude and Tom Petty works it for all it’s worth.
Listen to “Breakdown” here!
2 – “American Girl”
This was the one. This was the first Petty tune that felt like more than just another song on the radio and went on to become a bona fide part of American culture. Petty and Campbell’s interwoven rhythm guitar parts lock this up-tempo gem down tight and perfectly support this tale of a soul who knows that life holds more than what she’s seeing right now. Petty gives voice to her longing while making all of us dance at the same time. Pure rock and roll genius.
Listen to “American Girl” here!
3 – “Refugee”
“Refugee” showed the world the youthful Petty at the peak of his powers. He makes this conversation with one of the romantically wounded go from soft-spoken advice in the verse to a howling exhortation in the chorus. The Heartbreakers are united in the pocket behind him, urging him onward. This will always be one of Petty’s definitive tracks and got a lot of fans in his corner to stay.
Listen to “Refugee” here!
4 – “Don’t Do Me Like That”
This guitar, organ, and piano jam could easily be called one of the ideal FM radio songs of its day. Petty pleads with a lover in the lyrics, begging not to be done dirty, while the HBs make everything sound like a sunny day. Petty was always able to pull out tunes like this that would crumble in lesser hands but flew high in his.
Listen to “Don’t Do Me Like That” here!
5 – “The Waiting”
“The Waiting” is Petty and the boys at maximum jangle. The Rickenbackers are strong here and their chimey tone fills the arrangement out beautifully. It’s one of the most memorable choruses in Petty’s body of work and no fan wouldn’t want to contemplate life without it. Plus, the classic white-background music video will remind you how much things have changed since the days of early MTV. Why is there paint splattered all over the set? It’s like they were trying to point out that this was coming to you in full color, not Grandpa’s black-and-white.
Listen to “The Waiting” here!
6 – “Insider”
This deep cut duet with Stevie Nicks from Petty’s Hard Promises record may be a bit of an obscurity to casual fans but it’s one of his finest moments. Every song Tom wrote had his magic, not just the radio hits, and “Insider” lets us feel him at his most expressive and vulnerable. It’s a quiet, gentle song but it has a gorgeous melancholy that will stay with you forever.
Listen to “Insider” here!
7 – “Mary Jane’s Last Dance”
This brilliantly moody song is an example of how TP could slow down, chill out, and still keep you hanging on every word. Once again, Petty’s attitude carries the day. He leans so far into his lyrics that he’s practically sarcastic. Now add in the sweet chorus harmonies and you have a winner. Most of Petty’s well-deserved legend was built in the 70s and 80s but “Mary Jane’s Last Dance” proved he was still firing on all eight cylinders in the mid-90s.
Listen to “Mary Jane’s Last Dance” here!
8 – “Southern Accents”
“Southern Accents” shows us Petty at his most profound. This soft-spoken piano ballad has always felt like Petty’s simple, basic statement of identity, devoid of his stage persona and full of a desire to be understood. It’s always sobering when someone reveals their Truth to you but TP turned this into one of the most moving songs of his career and you don’t have to be Southern to feel it.
Listen to “Southern Accents” here!
9 – “Free Fallin’”
It’s been said that “Free Fallin’” began as a joke in the recording studio. What’s really funny is how that “joke” became one of the most popular songs Petty ever released. Its genius is in its simplicity, its sense of wistfulness, and the ease with which it becomes a singalong. Tom was wise enough to see its potential and it became a pinnacle of his career.
Listen to “Free Fallin’” here!
10 – “Don’t Come Around Here No More”
No discussion of the top Tom Petty songs would be convincing without acknowledging this psychedelic epic tune. Petty blew many minds when he dropped this bombshell in the mid-80s. It was unlike anything he had ever done, what with the sitar parts and lysergic, Alice In Wonderland-themed video, and people flipped over it. Petty displayed a range and an imagination far beyond the normal straight-on rock sounds he’d become known for and they fit perfectly right beside his other songs. We’d never look at him the same way again.
Listen to “Don’t Come Around Here No More” here!
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