Listening to rock is an evocative experience that can take you away to many places and bring up many different emotions. Hearing the top ten best Tom Petty songs of all time can run you through a whole gamut of ‘feels,’ especially if you grew up with his songs. From elation to depression, this is one song master who knew his craft. For those born after 2017, you may have missed the chance to catch Tom live, but you can still recapture the spirit of his music through videos and a good sound system. With sixteen studio albums, nine video albums, and sixty-eight singles, it can be hard to know where to start. This curated list will give you a place to start or a superb trip through your nostalgic youth.
10. Into The Great Wide Open
In addition to being a truly timeless classic song about hope, Into the Great Wide Open is a song with a story behind it. According to Songfacts, this is the story of a Musician named Eddie. Like many before and since he meets a girl and travels west to LA. The couple has their challenges, but always there is hope and a sense that they have a life of adventure ahead. Naturally, Eddie eventually finds success, but it’s not what he thought it would be. Contracts have a way of limiting your scope and creativity while demanding specific performance goals. Ultimately the listener has to decide how the story ends.
9. You Don’t Know How It Feels
Although there are many ways to interpret the lyrics of Tom Petty’s 1994 hit You Don’t Know How It Feels, there’s one more likely answer. Certainly, any frustrated individual can connect to the idea that other people simply cannot walk in their shoes and feel how they feel. However, it seems like Tom was expressing his desire to have control over his own life. After years of contracts and tours, he doubtless felt worn out from other people’s expectations and demands, so he did what he always did and sang his heart out over it.
8. Mary Jane’s Last Dance
The year before he recorded Mary Jane’s Last Dance, Tom Petty divorced his wife. It’s probably not a coincidence that her name was Jane. Turning to drugs and drinking to ‘kill the pain” is a common coping strategy. The sorrow and loss in this song are apparent from the first line, and anyone who has ever lost someone they love can feel that on a visceral level.
On the surface, this song connects with the experiences of anyone who has ever lived in poverty or felt lost and displaced, including actual refugees. For Tom Petty, it was how the music business beat him down over time. All the money in the world and all the fame won’t make you feel any less removed from what matters if you have no control over your life circumstances. Putting his personal experiences into a form that millions could understand and vibe with was one of Tom’s true gifts.
6. I Won’t Back Down
Tom Petty was once the victim of an arsonist. He was at home with his family when someone tried to burn it down with him inside. That’s a pretty frightening event to live through, but he survived. As the lyrics say, he stood his ground. Fighting past the terror that comes from threats and attempted murder is hard, but Tom did not back down. He continued recording and touring despite the incident. Plus, he wrote this amazing fight song about his struggle.
On cursory inspection, Breakdown might sound like another song about love and loss. Tom Petty certainly did his share of those. Yet this is not one of them. Instead, this one is about that well-known pastime of bad-boy rockers everywhere. No, not drugs, the other thing that goes with rock and roll. Breakdown is a song about ‘chasing tail,’ as it was called at the time. Sometimes even the most famous and desirable men still have to work for it.
4. Don’t Come Around Here No More
As oddball rock songs go, Don’t Come Around Here No More is king. While the lyrics are clearly dismissing someone undesirable, whether it’s an ex-wife or a producer, the sound is what truly sets this song apart. If you listen to the literal music of this hit, there’s nothing like it, especially in 1985 when Tom created this song. Making something truly original and unique is rare even among great creative minds, and this song embodies that achievement.
3. Free Fallin
When Tom Petty eventually went solo and broke from Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, this was the first song on his first solo album. Free Fallin is about making it on your own. That is a theme almost everyone eventually understands or wants to, at the very least. You could call this a coming-of-age song or a coming into your own song, but it’s mostly a classic about how it feels to strike out and do something for yourself even when you don’t know if it will work.
2. American Girl
When Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, they performed two songs. One was Mary Jane’s Last Dance, and the other was American Girl. Arguably, this is one of Tom’s most well-known songs, but mostly it made the number two spot because it meant that much to him and the band. Plus, American Girl is an outstanding song that sticks with you through the years and never really fades.
1. Don’t Do Me Like That
Tom Petty’s first real hit almost never happened. Intriguingly, Don’t Do Me Like That, Tom’s first top ten single, went multi-platinum, but he almost didn’t record the song. According to an interview Peter Wolf did with Rolling Stone, Tom was unsure about this song and actually offered it to Peter, who turned it down. If you are from the southern part of the US, you’re familiar with the phrase ‘Don’t do me like that,’ which predates the song. Specifically, the song talks about being in love with a woman who doesn’t return your affection. However, since it came out in the late 1970s, well before Tom’s divorce from Jane, it’s not about that loss, but rather being spurned by a lover or someone he wanted.
Love, sorrow, and pure unadulterated joy are all part of Tom Petty’s work. When you combine that much talent with his pretty-boy looks, it’s not hard to see how this singer, songwriter, and producer made his mark on the music industry. Too few of the world’s truly excellent musicians have the opportunity to be so prolific. Once you’re done with these ten songs, you can fill six more playlists with his classics easily. Bad music fades into obscurity, but the greats live on as rock legends like Tom Petty.