In the midst of punk, new wave and whatever else was happening in 1977, the first Tom Petty album crept out and took a year to reach the US charts. In the UK the reaction was a bit quicker helped by a tour and two Top 40 singles. ‘American Girl’ with its McGuinn style rhythm guitar line became one of their signature songs and inspired a legion of imitators. With the ‘difficult second album’ out of the way Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers hit the jackpot with ‘Damn the Torpedoes’. From there a career amongst rock royalty beckoned.
Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers were a dynamic live band, and one of the slightly disappointing aspects of their discography is the relative lack of official live material. The sprawling ‘Live Anthology’ mixes up songs from throughout their career, when a chronological approach might well have been a better bet. A deluxe edition added a vinyl only version of the 1977 ‘Official Live ‘Leg’ a single sided 5 track disc issued to radio stations that deserves a proper official release. ‘Luna’ from this bootleg set was the B side of ‘American Girl’ in the UK at least and was the definitive version of one of the hidden gems in Petty’s catalogue.
While the raucous, hard rocking, Heartbreakers continued to show up in live work through the years, the studio albums after ‘Damn The Torpedoes’ became increasingly sanitised and glossy. Jeff Lynne’s one-size-fits-all approach to production must take some of the blame here, although Rick Rubin didn’t fare much better for some reason. Petty and Mike Campbell took production control back for ‘Mojo‘, which while flawed was a step in the right direction and suggested that they knew there was better to be done. The irony of course is that the final Heartbreakers’ album ‘Hypnotic Eye’ was hailed as a return to the form the early work.
Collaborations were always a part of Petty’s musical journey. The Traveling Wilburys were in many ways the anti-Heartbreakers, and the relaxed groove of much of their output is reflected in the way the album came together, just pals messing about. Stevie Nicks’ ‘Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around’, written by Petty and Campbell, whose name appears on many of the best Heartbreakers songs, was considered significant enough to appear on Petty’s own ‘Greatest Hits’ album.
Number 10: ‘Full Moon Fever’ (1989)
Bizarrely, Petty’s debut solo album was originally considered not worthy of release by MCA, because they weren’t hearing any hits. With new management in place at the label it went on to be Petty’s most commercially successful album. As a taste of what he would produce with the Travelling Wilburys, this outshines that album because of the quality of the songs.
Number 9: ‘Hard Promises‘ (1981)
At the time I was mildly disappointed by this album, but over the years it has grown on me, with songs like ‘The Waiting’ and ‘A Woman in Love (It’s Not Me)’ being as good as anything on ‘Damn The Torpedoes’. MCA’s view of Petty’s new star status lead to ‘Hard Promises‘ being the second album after Steely Dan’s ‘Gaucho’ to be accorded ‘superstar pricing’. As the album after the classic breakthrough, it was always going to be overshadowed, but deserves a fresh listen.
Number 8: ‘Pack Up The Plantation’ (1985)
As the earliest live Heartbreakers live album this is an essential document. Hopefully something earlier is sat in the vaults as their live peak was at the turn of the 80s for me. The brass makes for a different sound and adds punch to one of Petty’s best songs.
Number 7: ‘The Live Anthology’ (2009)
A 4-disc marathon trawl through the Heartbreakers’ live journey. It shows what a consistent live band they were. With a preference for the early stuff, the Hammersmith Odeon show from 1980 would be a tempting release on its own. Songs have crept out on albums and singles over the years. The super-deluxe edition includes a show from a 1978 New Year’s Eve concert in Santa Monica, California. Please release that as well.
Number 6: ‘Hypnotic Eye‘ (2014)
The last Heartbreakers studio album, hailed as a return to form as noted above, this really is exactly that. Deservedly Petty’s first Number 1 album. ‘American Dream Plan B’ is the classic Petty sound modernised and twisted. The harder more guitar oriented sound of the early albums returned and there isn’t a bad song on here.
Number 5: ‘Mudcrutch’ (2008)
The reunion of Petty’s first band after 35 years had ‘cash-in’ written all over it. The fact that an album that stood apart from his Heartbreakers and solo work resulted, and that it was triumph, is testament to Petty, Mike Campbell and Benmont Tench’s way with a song. Tom Leadon and Randall Marsh must have had some ‘what might have been’ moments recording this,
Number 4: ‘Tom Petty And The Heartbreakers‘ (1976)
The debut album was a sleeper hit in the US while the UK took to it quicker. The two or three classic songs obscure a couple that may not have made the cut later in his career. But any album with ‘American Girl’, ‘Breakdown’, and ‘Fooled Again’ on it will always be a classic.
Number 3: ‘Live At The Fillmore 1997‘ (2022)
This had been rattling around as a bootleg for years before its release late in 2022. Another 4 disc set, but this time from a 20 date residency. They were having fun with the cover versions and playing with a range of guests including Roger McGuinn and John Lee Hooker. To see why Petty and the Heartbreakers deserve a place on the top shelf of best live bands, look here.
Number 2: ‘You’re Gonna Get It‘ (1978)
Maybe a surprising choice this high up the list but I’ve always had a soft spot for this album. Certainly it was the difficult second album, but the consistency of songwriting was better than the debut for me. ‘Listen To Her Heart’, ‘Magnolia’ and ‘Hurt’ are overlooked gems in his catalogue.
Number 1: ‘Damn The Torpedoes’ (1979)
No surprise at the number one choice. This is an album I still play regularly and features the best side one, track one, of all time in ‘Refugee’. No filler, and a production from Jimmy Iovine that leaps out of your speakers. He never bettered this, perhaps he didn’t need to. Also the album that suggested to me that there might be something in this country music after all with ‘Louisiana Rain‘. The only downside to the whole album is that the studio chat on the front of that song has kept it off mix tapes and playlists for me…
Tim we must agree to disagree there are some glaring omissions here
Wildflowers for example and perhaps even Mojo or Echo
Got to agree with Keith above. The omission of Wildflowers is just soooo wrong. You can drop Hypnotic Eye anytime.
It was Southern Accents, not necessarily a Top 10 album in itself, that showed me there was more to Tom Petty than only being the latest FM star. A Top 10 of his best albums will struggle to get a consensus simply because of the size and consistency of his catalogue. Just revisit those Petty albums and enjoy.
Never released a duff record.