Tom Petty Remembered: His 20 Most Essential Songs, Ranked

Tom Petty dead, Tom Petty best songs

Getty Tom Petty passed away Monday at the age of 66

I woke up this morning and the news that was news, then wasn’t news, but then a different kind of news was confirmed: Tom Petty had died. Easily one of rock music’s greatest songwriters, Petty passed away Monday night at the age of 66. He was rushed to the hospital Monday afternoon, which in itself was cause for concern. A short time later news started to spread that he had passed. Of course moments later, that news was refuted.

But Twitter jokes about Petty telling death he won’t back down aside, it was clear that our time with Petty was nearing the end. We were on the verge of losing another one of our heroes, another rock legend gone. According to reports, Petty had suffered a brief bout of laryngitis and bronchitis back in August and was forced to cancel a few shows. But beyond that, it’s not as if he had shown any signs of slowing down. Petty felt like he was on that Bruce Springsteen level. He and his band would tour forever, somehow outlasting all of us.

There is a bittersweet side that’s there when one of our favorite musicians pass and it’s that we’re able to console ourselves by deep-diving into their catalog. Petty’s catalog is massive, full of over three decades worth of material. He has so many songs that he’s one of only a handful of musicians with his own station on SiriusXM and really the only one (besides Elvis Presley) who is able to fill large blocks of time with only studio material. So when news first broke Monday that he had gone to the hospital, it was only natural to fire up your preferred streaming service and plunge head first into your favorite Petty songs.

The following list isn’t necessarily a best of list; it’s more of a list of Petty songs I feel are his most essential. Purposely omitted are “American Girl,” “Free Fallin'” and “You Don’t Know How It Feels.” Those three are a given and rightfully belong on any Petty list out there. They are on mine in spirit.

20. “You Wreck Me”

Tom Petty could always get you a song that really drove. Propelled by a hammering back beat, “You Wreck Me” isn’t rocket science, but it hits the sweet spot of what a rock fan should always be looking for in a rock song.

19. “Kings Highway”

Into the Great Wide Open is anchored by two Petty classics: “Learning to Fly” and “Into the Great Wide Open,” but a sleeper is “Kings Highway.” The song has a sunny feel to it; a groove that makes you tap your feet along to the beat. “Oh, I await the day/Good fortune comes our way/And we ride down the Kings Highway.” Sometimes the best rock songs are the most straightforward and it doesn’t get more straightforward than “Kings Highway.”

18. “The Last DJ”

Petty claims the song is a work of fiction, but when it was released in 2002, it had the National Association of Broadcasters fired up. The song tells the story of a radio DJ fed up with the system and the rules that prohibit him from doing his job correctly. The DJ ends up fleeing to Mexico in search of the freedom he longs for. At the time, radio was largely controlled by Clear Channel, although Petty maintains that the current state of music didn’t factor into his song-writing. In his mind, radio had started to lose it’s fast ball back in the ’70s.

17. “Saving Grace”

The song is built around a familiar-sounding guitar riff. It calls to mind something by George Thorogood – the guitar sounds like a roadhouse. It sounds like beer bottles behind the bar, pool being played and it smells like cigarette smoke. Then the slide guitar comes in and breaks the song wide open. Kudos to fellow Heavy writer Daniel Levine for reminding me of this song.

16. “Mary Jane’s Last Dance”

Good God I can’t even come close to remembering how many times I watched this video back in the day. I’ll ballpark it and just say “a boatload.” This song was added to a Petty greatest hits collection and in a way, especially upon it’s release, it almost dwarfed the classics that it was on the album with. The tune has a wonderful, dirty stomp to it that trudges along underneath Petty and Mike Campbell’s guitar line and the soaring harmonica melody.

15. “Yer So Bad”

Originally this song didn’t make the cut, but then I heard it again and couldn’t bring myself to not include it. Petty doesn’t have many campfire, sing-a-long tunes, but with “Yer So Bad” he has a classic. I don’t know where “Yer So Bad” would land in a ranking of great songs to sing along with, but it would have to be high up there thanks in large part to the chorus alone. “Oh, not me baby/I got you to save me/Yer so bad/The best thing I ever had/In a world gone mad/Yer so bad.”

14. “Time To Move On”

Wildflowers, technically a solo album by Petty, has some delightfully tender moments on it, and I love how this song quietly dances along. It’s hard for a rock guy to take it down a notch, especially over a sustained period of time. That desire to burst out for a big chorus or mammoth bridge is a strong one. Petty manages to go big without sounding big on “Time To Move On.” The tune shows off how nimble of a musician Petty was, how he was so much more than big, barroom rock songs.

13. “Fault Lines”

Petty and the Heartbreakers released Hypnotic Eye in 2014 and upon it’s release it was hailed as a return to form for the band. When a group starts to dig into their fifth decade, their albums can immediately feel like afterthought and get lost amidst their loaded top shelf of classics. But it’d be a shame to sleep on Hypnotic Eye, especially the desert rocker “Fault Lines.” I love how all the instruments work together in this song, as if they’re squaring off with each other, but doing so in harmony.

12. “Crawling Back To You”

Petty and company dusted off this traveler’s anthem off of Wildflowers in his last performance and prior to doing so, Petty said it was one of his favorite songs. It’s Petty at his story-telling best. Petty was never a great lyricist, but he knew how to tell a story that everyone could relate to and rally around. “I’m so tired of being tired/Sure as night will follow day/Most things I worry about/Never happen anyway.” Mark it down, this song will only grow in popularity the further we get from Petty’s death.

11. “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around”

Stevie Nicks was adamant – she wanted Petty to write a song for her. He obliged and gifted her with the viciously wicked “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around,” which appeared on Nicks’ 1981 solo album Bella Donna. Petty added guest vocals to the track, creating an entertaining back and forth between the two singers as they hash out their relationship.

10. “Here Comes My Girl”

The song has a different vibe to it due in large part to being written by Heartbreaker guitarist Mike Campbell. Campbell dropped in drums fro “Walk This Way” by Aerosmith and Petty finally made sense of the verse by almost talking his way through it. It’s a swaggering tune that becomes more familiar once you get to the chorus and stands out on the packed Damn The Torpedoes.

9. “Learning To Fly”

You know, it’s a classic for a reason. The song is also somewhat of an anomaly for Petty as it’s less of a story and more of a series of images described throughout the verses. “Learning To Fly” was written by Jeff Lynne of Electric Light Orchestra and has an ethereal feel not present in most Petty tunes. Either way, it’s easily one of Petty’s most endearing and timeless songs.

8. “Even The Losers”

Another cut from Damn The Torpedoes, the song screams from the belly of a rebel-yelling Floridian with something to prove. A kid’s gotta dream right? Even Tom Petty, who sings about spending a night on the roof of a gal’s home, eager to make his mark on the world. Petty could always sing from a place relatable to the everyman and this song exemplifies that ability. “Because even the losers get lucky sometime.”

7. “Refugee”

“Refugee” leaps into action after a quick Stan Lynch drum fill and the guitars storm the gates with precision. The song is a full on assault punctuated by the explosive chorus and Petty’s yell that leads into the organ solo around the song’s halfway point. “We’re always hearing that we’re the future of rock ‘n roll,” Petty said prior to the release of Damn The Torpedoes. “I don’t want to be the future – I want to be the present.” Mission accomplished.

6. “Runnin’ Down A Dream”

I play drums. I’ve played drums since fourth grade, without getting into it, was a while ago. Now I love drums and love playing drums, but you know, every once in a while a song comes along that features a guitar part that makes me scream to the high heavens that I wish I could play guitar as opposed to drums. This song is easily in my top five of songs that make me wish I played guitar. Campbell straight up shreds and it’s the kind of guitar riff that makes you want to kick over desks and flip tables. Campbell was always overshadowed by Petty, but on this song he took center stage and made the most of the opportunity.

5. “Walls – Circus”

“Walls” would have been an even bigger song if not for the fact that two versions of the song appear in Ed Burns’ 1996 film. The second version, “Walls (No. 3)” is good, but it pales in comparison to “Walls – Circus,” which was co-written by Lindsey Buckingham and is generously painted and draped in lush harmonies and melodies. According to Rolling Stone, Petty was inspired by Johnny Cash, who once told him that “some days are diamonds, and some days are rocks,” a line Petty lifted for the song.

4. “Breakdown”

The second track on Petty and the Heartbreakers’ debut album is a sultry, sleazy, smooth saunter of a song piloted by Petty’s slinging vocals and the band’s complementary backing vocals. It’s a confident song, especially for a gang of musicians as young as Petty and the Heartbreakers were when they recorded it. “It’s alright if you love me/It’s alright if you don’t/I’m not afraid of you runnin’ away honey/I get the feeling you won’t.”

3. “I Won’t Back Down”

There’s not a lot of mystery to the song; very little subtext. But that’s part of what makes it so damn good. Petty is laying it all out there and the defiance is the stuff rebellious dreams are made of. The song was used by George W. Bush during this first presidential run, but Petty quickly put an end to that. Petty performed the song at a private concert for the loser of the 2000 Presidential Election, Al Gore, on the night he gave his concession speech. Did Gore take the words to heart and on that night, pledge to fight for climate change? Hard to say. You wouldn’t blame him if he did, though. It’s a pretty good song for inciting acts of defiance and protest.

2. “Wildflowers”

“You belong among the wildflowers/You belong somewhere close to me/Far away from your trouble and worry/You belong somewhere you feel free.” This song aches and groans and promises hints of freedom and happiness. It’s tender and sweet; so low key and earnest in Petty’s tale of the desire to belong. It’s not high brow poetry, but even better, it’s beautifully, relatable poetry. When I learned that Petty had been rushed to the hospital, I leaned on this song first and it made more sense than I can ever imagine.

1. “The Waiting”

This top spot could be occupied by at least five Petty songs, if not eight or nine. Could even be ten. But this list is capped off by “The Waiting” off of Petty’s 1981 album Hard Promises, which had the unenviable task of following up Damn The Torpedoes. “The Waiting” is such a quintessential Tom Petty song, though. The guitars are bright and full of life, the melodies are equally grounded, yet soaring and just before it hits the four minute mark, it’s out and on to better things.

The waiting is the hardest part for sure, but in life, there are few things harder than losing something or someone you love. Millions and millions of people loved Tom Petty’s music and not having him anymore will never be easy or something that fans will be able to move on from. But thankfully that music is there and will be there forever, there to get you through and there to bring you up. He spoke in ways that made sense to a variety of people in a variety of situations. He was relatable and real, honest and true.

Tom Petty will be missed, but with his music still with us, he’ll never be forgotten.