Unfortunately, we won’t get new music from Tom Petty unless it comes from a vault of unreleased material he sat on prior to his death.
When Petty died in 2017 he left a pretty big hole in rock music and though his future was not wide open after his 40th anniversary tour three years ago – plans included dialing back on the big tours – he was in no way fully retiring from writing and recording new music. His music now simply lives on, as they say.
For me, Tom Petty lays claim to the closest I ever got to a rock star in concert as second row seats left me in awe as I looked up at this larger than life lumber jack who played all those radio hits and songs I grew up with. It remains to this day one of the more memorable concerts attended. Prior to that, Into the Great Wide Open was given to me to borrow by a guy in my dorm hall in a tumultuous first year in college (I eventually dropped out) which for whatever reason burned a memory. The title track fully brought me onboard as a fan.
As you can imagine narrowing down the Top 10 Best Tom Petty Songs presents no easy feat. He has a wide catalogue of studio albums whether solo, with the Heartbreakers, Traveling Wilburys or Mudcrutch. In all, 20 studio albums with 13 of those as Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers.
Admittedly, I am not the expert when it comes to diving into the breadth of his music so I enlisted the help of Concert Dave who has accompanied me on most of my concerts in the last 10 years and the purveyor of those second row seats. He brought some songs to the table worth checking out and a few he urged me to consider but ultimately the decision rested with me.
If you have read my past Top 10 lists I always include an asterisk because lists can change as new albums come out but I’m thinking maybe this Top 10 Best Tom Petty Songs list probably doesn’t get one though a two-disc Wildflowers release was expected by now and could bring to our ears unheard Tom Petty songs.
Best Tom Petty Songs
1. Into the Great Wide Open – Into the Great Wide Open (1991)
I already mentioned it so clearly this one ranks and I put it at #1 because for me this brought me on board fully with Tom Petty. The title track to Into the Great Wide Open released in 1991 offers much creativity musically but the storytelling also stands out. Great song and opening track to an overall fine album. Check out the cool video featuring a young Johnny Depp.
2. Wildflowers – Wildflowers (1994)
Tom Petty’s inner 1960s comes out in this sweet and delicate song. These rockers know how to pull the heartstrings when necessary and Petty does a fine job making you slow down, relax and contemplate a bit on the title track to 1994’s Wildflowers.
3. Runnin’ Down a Dream – Full Moon Fever (1989)
“Runnin Down a Dream” has quite possibly the most simplistic and memorable melody and composition of any rock song. Listen. Until the ripping guitar solo that closes out the last minute or so you have basically a one-two punch on the snare drum, Petty’s vocals and that intermittent guitar riff that bleeds Tom Petty.
4. You Wreck Me – Wildflowers (1994)
Upbeat, melodic and a near toe-tapping anthem. Classic Tom Petty with guitar that speaks his language. Isn’t it amazing how musicians have a “tone” to their songs telling the avid listener exactly who plays without so much as knowing the song, album or artist?
5. I Won’t Back Down – Full Moon Fever (1989)
I’d be remiss if I did not include this classic, fan favorite and radio staple that fueled Full Moon Fever, Petty’s first solo album released in 1989, to five times platinum. But it’s also one of my personal joys from the Tom Petty catalogue and beats out the album opener “Free Fallin’” to make this list.
6. Red River – Hypnotic Eye (2014)
Tom Petty’s final album featured classic Petty tunes and the music industry announcing a return to form. I thought it fell in line with a characteristic Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers release, which I suppose means a return to form, though I never felt Petty fell to far from his beaten path. At any rate, “Red River” stands out on this album and after listening to that chorus melody I’m sure you’ll agree it belongs on a Tom Petty Best Songs list.
7. Southern Accents – Southern Accents (1985)
It’s quite possible you’ve never heard this song before. So unlike Tom Petty you just might double check it really is him during the first spin. Indeed, this is Petty and quite possibly at his finest. I have no proof, but I wonder if they played this song at his funeral.
8. Accused of Love – Echo (1999)
A delicate mix of current pop and 60’s harmonies with a touch of bluegrass. You’d never know this song was released in 1999.
9. Saving Grace – Highway Companion (2006)
Tom Petty’s final solo album featured this opening track gem. I love songs that slowly build over the first minute with stripped down instrumentation before allowing the rest of the band to fully join. “Saving Grace” does this well and for whatever reason the reoccurring tapping (on a cymbal stand) REALLY works.
10. Walls (No. 3) – Songs and Music from the Motion Picture “She’s the One” (1996)
Tom Petty does everything! Solo albums, super groups, the Heartbreakers and this song off a 15 track studio album soundtrack for the movie “She’s the One” released in 1996. A relaxing beat and easy melody drives this deep album cut. Nope, no Oscar win for this one.
Honorable Mention- Love is a Long Road – Full Moon Fever (1989)
As was graciously pointed out, I had two #3 picks thus a total of 11. Therefore, instead of dropping “Love is a Long Road” which almost did get dropped for “Learning to Fly,” I will include it as an honorable mention. Hey, it’s Tom Petty. A Best Tom Petty Songs list limited to 10 will have flaws. The song introduction commences below…
An easy and obvious pick belonged to one of Petty’s most popular songs in “Free Fallin'” which opens his smash album Full Moon Fever. Perhaps overlooked by the masses though comes “Love is a Long Road.” Sure, it sounds like Petty was listening to the Who and Quiet Riot but he blends a whole lot into this song and Petty devotees no doubt point to this song along with all the others on this album as reasons why it stormed the charts 30 years ago and marks the peak in terms of commercial success.
Casual fans may notice one or two obvious songs not on this list. “Learning to Fly” almost entered at the last minute and leaving off “Breakdown” will probably make the super fans scratch their heads. “Mary Jane’s Last Dance” was also considered. But look at this list! Shows you the full scope of the Tom Petty catalogue and proves he’s far more than the handful you get on terrestrial radio.
As I poured through the Tom Petty catalogue which included watching videos, I realized I was having a bit of a hard time similar to, but not on the scale of, how difficult it has become to listen to Rush since Neil Peart died. Just goes to show the impact of music in our lives and how individual musicians and artists become much more than an album cover and liner notes.