Critic's Picks: The 20 Greatest Tom Petty Songs

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Tom Petty

His was a career you could take home to Mom: Relatively void of dizzying highs or petrifying lows, but dependable and rock-solid, liked and respected by nearly all and vilified by precious few.

Ask your average wannabe rock star whose career they'd most want to trade with, and they'll say Tom Petty. If they're smart, anyway.

It might not be the most obvious pick, since at no point in his life was Petty ever the biggest rock star, nor the most iconic, the most acclaimed, the most influential or the most ostentatious. Rather, his was a career you could take home to Mom: Relatively void of dizzying highs or petrifying lows, but dependable and rock-solid, liked and respected by nearly all and vilified by precious few. Petty died on Monday at age 66 after suffering cardiac arrest at his Los Angeles home.

Petty released 10 albums between 1976 and 1999, and all of them were at least certified gold; his most recent, 2014's Hypnotic Eye, was the first Billboard 200-topper of his career. He came up on '70s FM radio but still thrived in the '80s and '90s on MTV; he sold out arena shows until the day he died. (OK, until 11 days before the day he died. Still pretty good.) His life may not have always been as frictionless as his catalog — he even kinda warned against assuming that it was in one of his biggest hits — but his music never soured, and neither did his fans; Petty's ultimate legacy may be as proof that adult affability could be as magnetic a rock-star quality as animal charisma.

And most importantly, he had the songs. They weren't songs that signified a ton about who you were or where you came from — while peers like Billy Joel and Bruce Springsteen wore their home states like license plates, many of Petty's fans probably would have trouble picking out his Gainesville, Florida, roots from a multiple-choice question — and liking them meant nothing about your taste in music other than that you weren't violently opposed to rock music as a concept. But they were songs that you lived for your entire life, songs whose casual, chiming perfection very unassumingly lodged in your heart forever. Tellingly, Petty's best-selling set by a mile remains 1993's Diamond-certified Greatest Hits; few of his singles had the largesse to be world-conquerors, but add 'em all up and just about every household in America needed to own at least one cassette copy.

Here are the 20 best Tom Petty songs. Crank them up, give them life, breathe them in like oxygen.

20. "You Got Lucky" (Long After Dark, 1982)

A delectable moment of synth-pop swagger from the rarely malevolent Petty. "Good love is hard to find/ You got lucky, babe, when I found you," he taunts on the chorus, with the keys chiming in like backing singers to provide further shoulder-dusting.

19. "Ain't Love Strange" (Let Me Up (I've Had Enough), 1987)

A buried gem on Petty's only pre-'94 LP not to notch at least one song on his Greatest Hits collection, rollicking and twangy and red-blooded enough to have featured on a late-'80s Steve Earle album. The harmonies and ringing guitars that lead the chorus back into the verse are also pure Fab Four; apparently Petty passed the audition because within a year he'd be in a band with one of 'em.

18. "I Won't Back Down" (Full Moon Fever, 1989)

A melody so fundamental one of the biggest pop hits of this decade could rip it off without even realizing it, and a similarly straight-laced message that Petty's fanbase could take to heart: "You can stand me up at the gates of hell/ But I won't back down." He sings it with a shrug rather than a sneer; Petty never needed to be bossy to be the boss.

17. "Fault Lines" (Hypnotic Eye, 2014)

Petty's rock relevance had inevitably waned by the 21st century, but the songs never really dried up — 2014's Hypnotic Eye, now to stand as his final LP, was one of the best of his later years, with the alternately smoky and swampy "Fault Lines" an obvious highlight. "I've got a few of my own fault lines running under my life" as a chorus is obviously peak Petty: hard-lived and tough-lucked, but still grinning through it.

16. "You Don't Know How It Feels" (Wildflowers, 1994)

Petty's final massive crossover hit had a groove that out-saunters "The Joker" and a sentiment that sways back and forth between supreme chill to existential angst with such wicked insouciance that of course the post-grunge era couldn't turn it down. "Let me get to the point/ Let's roll another joint": It was even funnier because he knew there was no way MTV was gonna let him get away with it.

15. "Breakdown" (Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, 1976)

The breakout hit that back-doored Tom Petty into the mainstream — so sneaky and surreptitious in its meandering strut that it merely peeked its head into the Hot 100's top 40 before slipping away. But wow, that chorus: Tom's a cool cat until the second he explodes into that first "BA-BY!," but by refrain's end, you can tell pretty well why he's not afraid of you running away anytime soon.

14. "Change of Heart" (Long After Dark, 1982)

Though his career may have been something like the photo-negative version of Petty's, Replacements leader Paul Westerberg's best songs struck a lot of the same chords (literally and figuratively) as the King Heartbreaker — exemplified by songs like "Change of Heart," which split the difference between power pop and bar band like the best late-period Replacements songs, only a half-decade earlier. Most of Petty's period singles that failed to make the Greatest Hits cut were justifiable exclusions; this one was a legit miss.

13. "Mary Jane's Last Dance" (Greatest Hits, 1993)

One of the ultimate exception-that-proves-the-rule Greatest Hits bonus cuts, which, thanks to Petty's finest "Subterranean Homesick Blues" impression and a Kim Basinger corpse-bride cameo, actually became iconic in its own right. Released today, Red Hot Chili Peppers would probably have to give Petty multiple writing credits for their bold-faced "Mary Jane's" rip on "Dani California," though Anthony Kiedis hasn't written a lyric as vivid as "It was too cold to cry when I woke up alone" since at least 1994.

12. "Asshole" (Songs and Music From 'She's the One,' 1996)

Petty's soundtrack of songs-and-incidentals for the mid-'90s Edward Burns rom-com She's the One is nearly as forgotten as the movie itself, but it contained its fair share of winners. The finest may have been this uncharacteristically minor-key Beck cover, whose fantastical lyrics ("She dangles carrots/ Makes you feel embarrassed") and squirming delivery over sighing, spacious production actually beat Beck's own Mutations to the punch by a couple years.

11. "Runnin' Down a Dream" (Full Moon Fever, 1989)

Not a ton of Petty classics would list jam-kicking-out as a top priority, but "Runnin' Down a Dream" blisters from the time its opening riff comes zig-zagging off the lot. Certainly on the short list for the greatest driving songs in classic rock history, largely for its zooming-beyond-the-horizon fretwork, but also because it understands how the most meaningful journeys behind the wheel are 30 percent geographic, 70 percent metaphoric.

10. "Refugee" (Damn the Torpedoes, 1979)

Underrated scene from this year's The Defiant Ones doc: Jimmy Iovine trying to impress Dr. Dre with his car's speaker setup by blasting The Heartbreakers' "Refugee" with Dre semi-trapped in the passenger seat, Jimmy visibly beaming over his own production handiwork. To be fair, Dre probably gets it: "Refugee" remains undeniable, a power-rock mission statement that you could see filling up another couple stadium rows with each chest-thumping measure — and those organs friggin' kill.

9. "The Waiting" (Hard Promises, 1981)

The "Turn! Turn! Turn!" of the '80s? Maybe not — less God-plagiarizing, and lower-charting — but it certainly got the guitars and the chorus right, with a beautiful lyric about the difficulty of staying patient through romantic frustration, whose message has unfortunately been reduced by TV and sports montages to a rough equivalent of the "Final Jeopardy" music. No taking the shine off those guitars, though.

8. "A Face in the Crowd" (Full Moon Fever, 1989)

Jeff Lynne, ELO frontman and studio nut, must've seemed an odd sonic soulmate for a performer as generally lean as Petty when they first started hooking up in the late '80s. But Lynne's walls of acoustics aerated Petty's songwriting to an unforeseeable degree, taking him out of the gutter and into the clouds, where it turned out he easily had the melodic and vocal gifts to stay afloat. "A Face in the Crowd" was a prime example: Lynne provides Petty with a gorgeous bed of gently devastating six strings, and over it the rock star lays one of his most brilliantly understated lyrics — a heartbreaking love story that only gives you the first act, Petty lamenting the unlikeliness of the relationship's beginning while leaving it to you to infer how, why or even if it actually ends. His phrasing on the chorus tells you all you really need to know.

7. "Wildflowers" (Wildflowers, 1994)

About as lovely as Petty ever got, all capo-ed strumming and beatific pianos and idyllic lyrics ("You belong among the wildflowers/ You belong in a boat out at sea"). It flirts with getting a little too Stars Hollow in spots, but then there's just the right undercurrent of melancholy centering the melody — appropriate for a lyric that seems to be anticipating his upcoming divorce — making it one of the most powerful Petty songs never to be released as a single.

6. "Don't Come Around Here No More" (Southern Accents, 1985)

Petty survived deep into the '80s almost entirely on his own terms, and while the experimentation with synths and drum machines on singles like "Don't Come Around Here No More" may have had some old-school fans clutching their A-shirts, the song is such a strange brew that even then, any trend-hopping accusations would've seemed wildly implausible. Intoxicating stuff, though: psychedelic pop as the Paisley Underground never bothered to consider, with a cavernous faux-drum beat, buzzing, stereo-panned sitars and no clear delineation between verse, chorus and bridge — and a video just as imaginative and perverse to match.

5. "Listen to Her Heart" (You're Gonna Get It!, 1978)

"Listen to Her Heart" may not have been the only song ever inspired by Ike Turner acting like a dick at a showbiz party — odds are, it isn't — but it's almost certainly the best. The verses are a master class in harmonies and rhyme structuring, and the chorus sets up its tell-off so cleanly that it lands almost like a punchline: "She might need a lot of loving/ But she don't need you!" By Petty's standards, "Listen to Her Heart" rates as relatively minor in his catalog — it only peaked at No. 59 on the Hot 100 — but the fact that it's still worth a whole chapter in any half-decent power-pop textbook is indicative of just how high those standards really are.

4. "Free Fallin'" (Full Moon Fever, 1989)

Say what you will about "Free Fallin'," but Petty's song catalog simply had to have a cut like it: one that ensures that his music will be kept alive by the John Mayers of the world for as long as there are acoustic guitars (and open-hearted teenagers who only know how to play three chords on 'em). Understandable if true Petty-heads feel about this one the way that most Zeppelin fans feel about "Stairway to Heaven," but understand there's only a handful of rock songwriters who could (or would) ever write a third verse as delicately powerful as "I wanna glide down over Mulholland/ I wanna write her name in the sky/ Gonna free fall out into nothing/ Gonna leave this world for a while," and most of them are in the Hall of Fame for a reason.

3. "Learning to Fly" (Into the Great Wide Open, 1991)

Petty's own "Solsbury Hill," with a knockout combination of dreamy-but-determined acoustics, soaring production and enigmatic lyrics that just give it that sense of it being about something more. Regardless of your specific "Learning to Fly" interpretation, the yearning melody and, uh, yearning-er lyrics have transcended Petty and Lynne's specific recording and now just exist in the pop ether; Google "Learning to Fly dance remix" sometime if you need an idea of the song's transmutability. Still, this particular week, you'd be forgiven for drawing meaning — and probably a lump in the throat — from Petty's final verse lyrics: "So I've started out for God knows where/ I guess I'll know when I get there."

2. "Don't Do Me Like That" (Damn the Torpedoes, 1979)

Try to find a flaw in this song if you want — the investigation might take you long enough for Netflix to make a docuseries about it. Nobody in the late '70s was writing rock songs this tight, this seamless or this good — not Elvis Costello, not Joe Jackson, not even the goddamn Ramones. From the opening full-band crash to Petty's closing "DON'T! DONT'!" yawps, there's not a centimeter of sonic space wasted: The economy of each drum fill, each mini-guitar lick, each couplet — who the hell else could write verse couplets as punchy as "If you were in the public eye/ Giving someone else a try"? — is something songwriters and producers could spend a lifetime studying and still not grasp in full. And Petty still nearly gave it to the J. Geils Band, because he's motherfucking Tom Petty.

1. "American Girl" (Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, 1976)

It didn't even hit the Hot 100. "American Girl" was a flop when it was originally released, coming closest to scraping the U.S. charts in 1994 when a rerelease peaked at No. 9 on Billboard's Bubbling Under chart. But multiple generations of FM radio play, inspired movie and TV syncs and covers on covers on covers have turned it into more than just a classic rock standard — it's practically part of the American literary canon at this point. The sweep of its opening chords (and Petty's whispered "Chhhhk!" echo), the majesty of its opening lyrics ("Well she was an American girl, raised on promises"), the heart-busting release of its call-and-response chorus ... rock music just does not get more rousing. Decades later, when The Strokes pilfer a riff here or The Japandroids swipe a shout there, it barely even registers, because it just feels like borrowing from rock's own DNA at this point.

And yet, what really makes "American Girl" special is that there are still mysteries about it to be solved. What's the one little promise the American Girl is sworn to keep? Is the guy who creeps back in her memory in the second verse and ruins the moment a lost love, or something far more despairing or sinister? Where does that strangely disquieting funk breakdown after the second chorus come from, and where does it disappear to after? And most importantly: Why does Petty hold back on a potential third chorus, depriving audiences of one of the potential great sing-along moments in rock history? Hundreds of listens later, maybe you have your own answers and maybe you don't, but the widescreen drama and open-road possibility of the song make them worth continually asking, and allow "American Girl" to outlive just about any rock song that actually bothered climbing the charts in 1976.

This story first appeared on Billboard.com.

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