From so-so to legendary, because there are no “bad” Tom Petty albums!!
My number #2 band always fluctuates between The Replacements, Tom Waits, and Ryan Adams, but my overall #1 ever since I was a little kid has always been and will always be Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. TP has a knack for crafting a great 3 minute rock song that is both radio friendly (well, back when radio mattered) and also tells a story. That’s what I love about the band the most: their storytelling, little fictions that speak to realities. With guitars, of course. Really loud guitars. Sometimes soft ones, too. All good stuff. Enough chit-chat. Here’s my ranking, from passable to legendary times infinity.
#16: Mojo (2010)
It breaks my heart a little that this album was such a flash in the pan as far as my own listening rotation goes. It had such potential, and it marked a period where Petty wanted to honor his blues fandom and roots, and it was also a nice step back into a more rocking mood for Tom and the band. “I Should Have Known It” is his best and loudest single since 1993’s “Mary Jane’s Last Dance.” The problem is most of the rest of Mojo is very forgettable, despite plenty of bluesy jams that sound like they’re having fun. Fun they may be having, but the end product doesn’t feel as authentic as you’d hope for in a new album, as if the band is spending too much time looking back instead of rocking in the now. I don’t remember the last time I listened to it all the way through without skipping songs part way through. In fact, I think I skipped some during my first pass. Woof.
Favorite tracks: I Should Have Known It, Running Man’s Bible, Trip to Pirate’s Cove, Something Good Coming
#15: The Last DJ (2002)
This album meant a lot to me because it came out at the point in my life when I started giving up on the radio for my musical fix, and Tom was talking about that same thing in this theme album, extolling the horrors of the modern music industry, but it doesn’t really work. Not in an overall sense. It does have powerful moments that show what he was getting at though. “Dreamville” shows us the beauty of what music can be when it isn’t tainted by commercialism, and this song is the soul of the album. The title track and “Have Love Will Travel” touch on the topic in a strong way too, but other tracks feel either heavy handed or like random asides that don’t do much for the album’s spirit. A nice haymaker by Petty, but it didn’t quite connect.
Favorite tracks: Dreamville, Have Love Will Travel, Like a Diamond, The Last DJ
#14: Let Me Up (I’ve Had Enough) (1987)
If you like Petty’s mid-tempo synth-rock era, this is your album, because it’s chock full of it. But the glossy studio nuggets feel underwhelming when you look at his career as a whole. This album always felt very “meh” when I’d throw it on, and I'd slowly stop listening after “It’ll All Work Out.” Yes, “Jammin’ Me” was massive and is still a barn burner, despite being extremely dated, and the title track is fun too, but you can sort of tell that Tom means it—he’s had enough of the 80s-era Heartbreakers and he’s ready for a break. Thank goodness he had the Traveling Wilburys to help get himself back in order.
Favorite tracks: Runaway Trains, Jammin’ Me, It’ll All Work Out, Let Me Up (I’ve Had Enough)
#13: Southern Accents (1985)
It feels weird placing this one so low because there are dynamite tracks here and this was a big album for him, but there are some really bad tracks too, and the whole album feels like Tom doesn’t really know what he’s shooting for. I have a lot of nostalgic feelings for one, and the song “Southern Accents” gives it a nice down-home vibe, but the rest is a mash-up of Dave Stewart’s synth-rock and strange R&B infusions that gives the album a spaghetti-against-the-wall feeling. ("Make It Better" might be his worst album track ever.) And for that reason, it rarely gets played as a whole when I’m the shotgun DJ. It had stellar hits and some good deep cuts, but too many lows to rank higher on my list.
Favorite tracks: Rebels, Southern Accents, Dogs on the Run, The Best of Everything.
#12: Hypnotic Eye (2014)
Despite really hating the opening track, I think this is one of Tom’s more consistent album since the mid-1990s, and there’s some great rock and roll on this one, mixed with a handful of lesser tracks—but the spirit of this one lifts it up. When it came out, guitarist Mike Campbell said he hadn’t heart Tom sing like this since the 70s, and while I don’t quite agree, the band definitely sounds like their having a lot of fun, they’re playing more up-tempo songs than usual, and they’re not getting bogged down in honoring their roots like in Mojo, they’re just playing head-on rock and telling new stories that perfectly fit the TP&H mold. It fell out of my rotation a little faster than Highway Companion did, but it's a very fun and solid outing for the boys.
Favorite tracks: Red River, U Get Me High, Fault Lines, Shadow People
#11: Highway Companion (2006)
Every time Tom releases a new album, there’s this pang of “I hope it rocks like his old stuff!” and it doesn’t always, and there’s a slight let down, but over time I came back to this one and have learned to love it, much like Echo. While “Saving Grace” is designed to be a rollicking ZZ Top-ish rock single, there’s no real hit track here, just a string of good songs that have one foot in the folk-rock tradition and one foot in the “road album” vibe (hence the title of the album) and it works in a way that shows Tom aging with grace and tact. He knows what he is and he isn’t going to try to throw on the leather pants and jam with the kids. He doesn’t have to. He’s got his guitar and the road and plenty of stories to tell—his way. A very good album, this one. Also, check out the bonus track on the deluxe version, "Home." It would have been the best song on the album, no idea why they cut it!
Favorite tracks: Big Weekend, Down South, Flirting With Time, Saving Grace, Home
#10: Hard Promises (1981)
I had a "change of heart" about this one after originally posting it far far lower and bumped it up a couple spots. There's no real bad tracks on the album, but after the first couple of killer tracks, the album slides into middle-of the-road material with some okay stuff like “Something Big” and “A Thing About You,” with a real nice duet with Stevie Nicks toward the end. His stuff with Nicks was always tops, and it’s a shame they didn’t do a full album together. Still, it's like a good novel that gets a little up and down toward the middle, and I feel like this album was one more great song away from being legendary. For my taste, it’s a solid entry.
Favorite Tracks: Insider, The Waiting, A Woman in Love (It’s Not Me), A Thing About You
#9: Echo (1999)
Tom’s last album with Howie Epstein on bass, and what a shame because they created some amazing albums together, and this one has aged much better than I thought it would at its release. At first I felt it was a downer of an album, but over time it has become maybe his most genuine and personal, and surprisingly consistent, with outstanding songwriting. It’s one of those albums that makes picking the best track quite a challenge, because there’s no real hit here, but most are pretty good after 15 years. Even though Tom made this one during one of the harder periods of his life, it’s one I turn to a lot for long road trips or evenings in when I don’t want to have to skip a lot of tracks. An overlooked beauty.
Favorite tracks: Billy the Kid, Swingin’, Echo, Free Girl Now, I Don’t Wanna Fight, No More, Room at the Top
#8: Songs and Music from “She’s the One” (1996)
I really liked this album when it came out and it got a lot of play during my high school days. “Walls (Circus)” is still one of my favorite songs, just a happy, bouncing, rock tune with all kinds of zen wisdom hidden within. There are a few rocking tunes, a few sweet somber ones, experimental tracks, even a Beck cover, all in all a decent “soundtrack” for a movie I only watched once and didn’t like. Stick to the tunes. This is a mature yet fun album that likes to toy with new directions, but without going too far outside their own sound.
Favorite Tracks: Walls (Circus), California, Asshole, Climb That Hill, Supernatural Radio, Hope You Never
#7: You’re Gonna Get It (1978)
This is Tom’s second album, and definitely the one where they said, “Let’s turn it up louder and see what happens.” Lots of great up-tempo tracks here, the stuff that saved rock and roll from disco in the 70s, and “I Need to Know” and “Listen to Her Heart” are the best 1-2 punch in rock since Led Zeppelin’s “Heartbreaker” and “Livin’ Lovin’ Maid” earlier in the decade. This album doesn’t explore new territory, but it shows the band having fun, playing loud, and enjoying the hell out of making a name for themselves, even if they’re far from peak Petty. An excellent lead-up to Torpedoes.
Favorite tracks: I Need to Know, Listen to Her Heart, Too Much Ain’t Enough, When the Time Comes
#6: Into The Great Wide Open (1991)
Now we’re getting into Tom’s great classic albums, legendary stuff, where the misses are rare and my choices become so much harder. This one was big for me personally as it was my first TP&H album that I owned once it came out (I got into him after Full Moon Fever was already released) and I still remember the thrill of putting the cassette into my boom box and listening to track after track. And remember the mini-movie they made for the music video for the title track, the one that had Johnny Depp and Faye Dunaway? How badass was that? The A side of the album is admittedly much stronger, although there are a couple real rockers on the B side. Also, it feels like every 10 years or so someone releases a song called “Learning to Fly” and it becomes a huge hit (see: Floyd, Pink; Fighters, Foo) and we’re due another one.
Favorite tracks: King’s Highway, Learning to Fly, Out in the Cold, The Dark of the Sun
#5: Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers (1976)
The one that started it all. Although it was slow to catch fire in the US, it broke out in the UK and Tom made waves from overseas before coming home to an eager audience. Odd for a southern boy who moved to California just to get his foot in the door. The album is consistent but moody, sometimes rocking and sometimes getting atmospheric and mysterious, such as with “Luna” and “Strangered In the Night.” But the key tracks on this album still get steady play on the radio, and there’s a reason. This album is the blueprint for countless American rock & roll bands that came after.
Favorite tracks: American Girl, Breakdown, Anything That’s Rock & Roll, Fooled Again (I Don’t Like It)
#4: Long After Dark (1982)
Every other list I’ve found throws this one at the bottom of the heap (or close) and I don’t get it. I love this album. It doesn’t have a ton to say maybe, just a lot of rock songs about love and breakups that don’t cover a lot of new ground, but to me it’s a super solid rock and roll album with a real drive to it, a hunger. And yes, Tom was right and his producer was wrong—the track “Keepin’ Me Alive” should have been on this album, because it starts getting a little weaker toward the end and this song has a great, down-home earnestness to it that the album needed. Thankfully we can add it with digital playlists, but even without it, there’s a lot to love here.
Favorite tracks: You Got Lucky, Deliver Me, Change of Heart, Finding Out, Straight Into Darkness
#3: Full Moon Fever (1989)
Christ, how is this album not #1? It was a beast of an album and it still is, although (as most of his albums are) the A side is significantly stronger than the B side, and pretty much the first seven or so songs on the album got (and get) radio play. We’re well beyond rock bands doing that these days. This is technically a solo album, but c’mon, it still has Heartbreakers across the board, so just enjoy the excellence, from the rocking “Running Down a Dream” to the sweet serenade of “Alright for Now,” this is peak Petty. I do love how the original release had a special message from Tom halfway through asking CD listeners to pause while record owners got up to flip the record. Fun stuff. And now that I think of it, it really does deserve the #1 spot on paper, but the next two hold special places in my heart, and I just can’t bypass them.
Favorite Tracks: All
#2: Damn the Torpedoes (1979)
“Refugee.” That’s all I need to say. Are you kidding me with this track? I’d be willing to fistfight God if he said this wasn’t the best rock song to come out of the 1970s. I remember listening to this album over and over and over, and it is drenched with the feeling of a band desperate to break out of the mold, rise above the pack, and kick some ass. And it’s not all rockers like “Refugee” and “Even the Losers,” as sly, eerie tracks like “You Tell Me,” the countrified “Louisiana Rain,” and the bouncing “Don’t Do Me Like That” do an amazing job of showing range and rounding out this album. I think this was the soundtrack of my summer at age 13 or so, and listening to any track still bring me back to being a kid. It deserves a #1 spot, but this next one is a knockout.
Favorite tracks: All
#1: Wildflowers (1994)
Tom was arguably at the peak of his commercial fame when he released this one. Full Moon Fever and Into the Great Wide Open were monster albums, he just released the hugely popular single “Mary Jane’s Last Dance,” and he had a greatest hits album selling millions. And then he goes and puts out an album where half the tracks are acoustic, somber, or low-key “making you feel the feels” stories of love, loss, and growing up. It was NOT what people were expecting. It’s like he stopped going for studio perfection and started living in the scars and grooves that make life interesting. This is where Tom changed from hit maker to album maker, and that’s just fine by me. It’s folksy, but it rocks. It’s sweet, but never saccharine. It’s the first album that didn’t just feel like a collection of good songs but a collection of lessons. It’s the first one that spoke to me, that felt like it was telling me how to live, what to look out for, to dive into, to seek, to cherish, to crave. It’s the first album that made me realize Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers weren’t just my favorite band, but that they’d be my favorite for life, no matter what. That’s why this one gets the top spot. (Oh, and Dave Grohl played drums for TP&H on SNL that year, so, holy shit, there’s that.)
Favorite tracks: Oh, just shut up already and turn it up…