10 Best Tom Petty Songs
Tom Petty often gets described in superlatives that reference his longevity in coded terms: workhorse, independent, mythic. And rightly so — his history spans nearly four decades. But Petty, along with his band the Heartbreakers, transcends these superlatives by consistently producing Americana-style anthems that go beyond his standard radio staples. Here, we delve into both his solo and group catalogs to unearth the best Tom Petty songs.
‘It’s Good to Be King’
Despite his success, Petty is often painted as a musical underdog, and (rather paradoxically) this outlook is clear is ‘It’s Good to Be King,’ off of 1994’s Rick Rubin-produced ‘Wildflowers,’ which won Petty accolades from Rolling Stone as one of the top albums of the ’90s. Petty’s quiet ruling is never clearer than it is here, especially in the song’s eerie orchestral coda.
On its surface, the textured ‘Rebels’ is an homage to Petty’s Southern heritage. Dig a little deeper, though, and it’s also about deeply ingrained habits becoming entrenched attributes. (And while Petty is a Florida-grown Southerner, we’re not going to try to figure out his thought process in hanging the Confederate flag behind the band during the live performance video linked to below.)
‘Mary Jane’s Last Dance’
Starring actress Kim Basinger as Petty’s dead girlfriend, the music video for 1993’s ‘Mary Jane’s Last Dance’ features one of the best (and most literal) concepts ever. What’s more, the Rick Rubin-produced track represented a turning point for Petty’s fan base, introducing him to a new generation. The song was originally titled ‘Indiana Girl,’ but Rubin changed the chorus after it was written — a decision that seems to have paid off well.
Given its overarching sentiment, ‘The Waiting’ could easily double as the ’80s answer to the Stones’ ‘You Can’t Always Get What You Want.’ But rather than rely on the past, the song touches on themes of loyalty and patience and delivers satisfyingly on all fronts.
‘Room at the Top’
Tom’s quiet confessional moments are some of his best, and ‘Room at the Top,’ from 1999’s ‘Echo,’ is a fine example. Emotionally, it mirrors ‘It’s Good to Be King,’ and the song’s gentle opening gives way to crescendoing assertiveness (“And I ain’t coming down”). And make no mistake: Confidence looks good on Tom.
‘Learning to Fly’
Some would argue that Petty long ago cornered the market on get-up-by-the-bootstraps songs (see: ‘I Won’t Back Down,’ ‘Runnin’ Down a Dream,’ etc.), and ‘Learning to Fly’ certainly bears this out. Here, he acknowledges the past while pushing forward, creating a radio staple that’s popular for a reason.
‘Running Man’s Bible’
Our Tom’s all grown up, and he’s no longer running down a dream. Well — maybe just a little. ‘Running Man’s Bible,’ off of 2010’s ‘Mojo,’ plays like a guidebook for those looking to escape their circumstances, and the drive and energy here (“Here’s one to glory / And survival”) create a vision of only Petty and his crew can deliver.
‘Even the Losers’
A wry homage to underdogs and lost moments, ‘Even the Losers’ is all about those of us flying under the radar. More than that, though, it’s an upbeat tune whose wistful, plaintive lyrics keep nostalgia running through the core. “I shoulda known right then it was too good to last,” he sings. “God, it’s such a drag when you’re living in the past.”
‘Hope You Never’
An often-overlooked classic, ‘Hope You Never,’ off of Petty’s frequently overlooked soundtrack to the 1996 movie ‘She’s the One,’ explores one theme somewhat rare for Tom: bitterness. Petty being Petty, he balances the acidity with a dry wit, but the underlying caustic message is clear here: Some people aren’t welcome back.
‘Change of Heart’
It’s unlikely you’ll hear it on most classic rock stations, but ‘Change of Heart’ is the ultimate power-pop track, and it doubles as one the essential breakup anthems of all time. Lyrically, Petty is in fine form, delivering a kiss-off that far surpasses every YouTube job resignation in terms of sheer acrimony: “You were the moon and sun / You’re just a loaded gun now. Cheekiness works in your favor, Tom.