After gaining local popularity in Gainesville, Florida with his band Mudcrutch, Tom Petty hooked up with The Heartbreakers (Mike Campbell, guitar; Benmont Tench, keyboards; Stan Lynch, drums; Ron Blair, bass), went to L.A., signed to Leon Russell’s Shelter Records, and cut Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers. Although Petty, as the primary singer and songwriter (and a solid rhythm guitarist), deserved top billing, The Heartbreakers (not Johnny Thunders’ band, just to be clear) were a great band in their own right, Campbell and Tench (also fine songwriters) in particular being much sought after session players. Anyway, Petty and co. were unique in 1976 in that they didn’t really have an image beyond being a really good ‘60s influenced (The Beatles and The Byrds most obviously) rock ‘n’ roll band; while trends such as punk and new wave came and went, Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers have always just done their own thing, but they’ve had so many good songs over the years (they especially shine on their singles) that they’ve still had a significant amount of commercial success. Anyway, Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers was a solid debut album that, like much of his consistently very good but rarely great album output, is primarily remembered for its singles: “Breakdown” and “American Girl.” “Breakdown” is the lesser of the two but is still a classic, with Campbell’s great descending riffs, Tench’s tasty piano playing, and Lynch’s toe tappin’ drumbeat anchoring a song that’s both moody and rocking (as is the later impressive album track "Fooled Again (I Don't Like It)"). “American Girl” is simply one of my favorite songs ever. Recorded on America's bicentennial, July 4, 1976 (coincidence or proof of God?), of course the most memorable aspect of the song is its Byrdsian Rickenbacher riffs (Roger McGuinn’s tongue-in-check quip upon hearing it was “when did I write this?”; he soon recorded his own version), but I also love its Bo Diddley beat, great backing vocals, and Campbell’s superb arpeggiated guitar solo on the fadeout. Memorably featured in the movie The Silence Of The Lambs (which I always think of when hearing it), “American Girl” is just a flat-out fantastic song. Needless to say, the rest of the album can’t compete with those two classic singles, but the album does offer consistent quality and another real gem in “The Wild One, Forever,” a mellower entry with a particularly powerful Petty vocal (now’s as good a time as any to mention that his nasally voice, which I like a lot, is a bit of an acquired taste). Elsewhere, the psychedelic rockabilly of “Rockin Around (With You)” gets the album off to a good start due to its uniquely spacey yet earthy sound, “Hometown Blues” is really short (so is “Rockin Around (With You),” come to think of it) but has a nice singable melody and soul legend Donald “Duck” Dunn on bass (the Heartbreakers had yet to be integrated 100% as Petty’s backing band), “Anything That’s Rock ‘N’ Roll” is a fun tribute to ‘50s rock ‘n’ roll that became the band’s first hit (in the U.K.), and the guitar-heavy “Strangered In The Night” nods to the new wave sound and features the great session ace/Domino Jim Gordon grooving on drums. The more laid-back latter part of this short (30:35) album is a bit weaker (until “American Girl,” that is), and there’s a tendency towards genericism (I mean, just look at some of the song titles) that would dog the band throughout their long career, but by and large this self-titled debut was a rock solid first offering, though as per usual its best songs can also be found on their Greatest Hits album.
You're Gonna Get It (Gone Gator, MCA ‘78) Rating: B
The band's second album is of a similar quality to their first, though I suppose the debut is a bit better overall. As per usual, the two hits ("I Need To Know," "Listen To Her Heart") are great, there are a couple of overlooked gems ("Magnolia," "No Second Thoughts"), some solid album tracks ("When The Time Comes," "You're Gonna Get It," "Hurt," "Too Much Ain't Enough"), and some generic padding ("Restless," "Baby's A Rock N' Roller"). Of course, the hits are a little less great this time and the filler is more obvious; Petty has said that they rushed this album out unnecessarily (the debut was still picking up steam), and the fact that "Restless" and "Baby's A Rock N' Roller" appear at the end of the album makes me think that they just bashed them out and tacked them on without much forethought. This album, which sound-wise doesn't depart much from the debut, is still only a skimpy 28 minutes long, as perhaps a more carefully considered game plan would've resulted in a better overall product. It's still a good album, though, highlighted as previously mentioned by "I Need To Know," an intense, hard-charging rocker with a great echoed chorus, and "Listen To Her Heart," with its beautiful Byrds/Searchers guitar jangle and memorable kiss-off lyrics (its opening lines “You think you’re gonna take her away, with your money and your cocaine” certainly make you take notice). The Byrds influence is also apparent on "When The Time Comes," while "Magnolia," a haunting, atmospheric mid-tempo ballad, was actually written for and turned down by Roger McGuinn (bad move). Elsewhere, the title track has that Heartbreakers knack for being both moody and rocking, mellow then intense, while "Hurt" is a grower track with a good chorus and stellar guitar work from Campbell. Campbell adds some impressive guitar heat to "Too Much Ain't Enough" as well, though Lynch's fast, lock stepped groove powers the song; the exotic if low-key percussion (congas I think) is also what stands out on the pretty "No Second Thoughts," which also features acoustic guitar and Tench's gorgeous keyboards. Alas, as previously mentioned, the album then peters out all too quickly, as the band's generic faults are all too apparent on "Restless" and "Baby's A Rock N' Roller," despite some decent guitar from Campbell on the latter (which is cancelled out by one of Petty's more annoying vocals). Still, I wouldn't call this album a sophomore slump, merely a solid second step sideways before Petty and the band took a major leap forward.
Damn The Torpedoes (MCA ’79) Rating: A
With new producer and future big shot record executive Jimmy Iovine on board and Mike Campbell stepping up as a first class songwriting collaborator, Damn The Torpedoes took Tom Petty and company to the next level, both artistically and commercially. As per usual, Damn The Torpedoes is best known for its outstanding singles, all four of which are also on his Greatest Hits album: “Refugee,” ”Here Comes My Girl,” “Even The Losers,” and “Don’t Do Me Like That.” These still rank as some of his very best songs, but the other five album tracks are at least solid as well (sometimes more than that). The up-tempo “Shadow Of A Doubt (A Complex Kid),” “Century City,” and “What Are You Doin’ In My Life” are just good, straightforward, nothing fancy rock ‘n’ roll songs, perhaps a bit generic but catchy fun just the same, while the slower, atmospheric cuts, “You Tell Me” and “Louisiana Rain,” are effective narratives, the evocative latter song in particular standing out as another should’ve been hit. The autobiographical “Century City” was inspired by Petty attempting to get out of a bad recording contract; he did and this was his first album for MCA, while “Louisiana Rain” and “Don’t Do Me Like That” were old songs resurrected from his Mudcrutch days. “Don’t Do Me Like That” is probably the least impressive of the singles, though I believe it was the biggest one, being his first top 10 U.S. hit, and a deserved hit as it’s still a stellar, r&b-tinged pop song led by Tench’s bright keyboards and an extremely catchy chorus built around a cool catchphrase. “Refugee” is an absolute classic, with moody keyboards from Tench, who really shines throughout the album, riffs that stick, haunting harmonies, and one of Petty’s best vocals/lyrics, while the wistful “Even The Losers” is fantastic as well, with a heavy Byrds influence (i.e. jangly guitars) and a soaring chorus that builds to an exciting climax. The last classic I'll describe is perhaps the most unique and best; “Here Comes My Girl” begins with pretty keyboards/guitars and a steady beat before Petty begins narrating, but when Petty sings arguably his most dramatic vocal is when the song really takes off, and the tender, gentle chorus hits all the right pleasure points as well. So, long story short is that Damn The Torpedoes was easily the band's best album so far, and it's still on most people's short list whenever the topic of "best Tom Petty albums" is brought up.
Hard Promises (MCA ‘81) Rating: B+
This was a busy period for Petty, who went to court against his record company to keep the price of this record down; he won and proved that he was a man of principles who cared about his fans. He also wrote "Stop Dragging My Heart Around," a smash hit duet with Stevie Nicks that appeared on her Bella Donna album. Then there's this album, which was another rock solid outing again produced by Iovine that featured two more signature songs. "The Waiting" is one of those fantastic singles that's even better on the verses than its knockout "yeah yeah" chorus, while the dramatic "Woman In Love" features moody soft-to-loud dynamics (the Pixies ripped off Tom Petty! kidding...) and another catchy chorus. When listening to Campbell's descending riffs on this song it hit me that, though they may be heavily influenced by and compared to others, The Heartbreakers most definitely had their own sound (as an aside, the song was only a minor hit, likely hurt by the success of the Nicks/Petty song, God forbid radio programmers play two new songs by the same band at around the same time). Petty and Campbell's dual guitar alchemy is also showcased on the hard charging "A Thing About You" and the bluesy "The Criminal Kind," which aside from their stellar guitar work are fairly generic (the guitars on "A Thing About You" are really good, though), while "Nightwatchman" and "Kings Road" never rise above ordinary status. Much better than those two are the mellower, moody "Something Big," a strong album track, and "Letting You Go," which features a nice melody, particularly Tench's keyboard part, and is singable if not especially substantial. Returning the favor, Stevie Nicks duets with Petty on "Insider" and sings backup on "You Can Still Change Your Mind," two pretty ballads; in fact, "Insider" was actually written for Nicks but it turned out so good that Petty decided to keep it for himself. By and large, the overall sound is a bit more laid back than on Damn The Torpedoes, and the album actually surpassed the 40 minute mark, Petty perhaps feeling that he better give consumers some bang for their buck after going to such lengths to keep the price of the album down. As per usual, Petty and co. do give their fans their moneys worth, as Mr. Consistency, The King Of The B+ album, again delivered a very good if far from great album that was merely the next installment within a highly prolific and productive career.
Long After Dark (MCA ‘82) Rating: B+
Along with You're Gonna Get It this is the most often overlooked among the early Tom Petty albums, probably because it only had one "greatest hit" whereas previous albums had at least two. And while it's true that there are few if any truly great songs aside from "You Got Lucky," this album has a lot of really good songs, even if it offered no real advancements on what they'd already done before. They do make rare use of synthesizers on the cocky if truthful ("good love is hard to find") "You Got Lucky," whose groundbreaking video made them MTV favorites despite not being particularly photogenic. As per usual, the song is moody as well as catchy, and Campbell fits in a nice little guitar solo within its concise running time. Other favorites include "Deliver Me," which is just another good straight-up mid-tempo riff rocker with a singable chorus, and the lightly funky, catchy finale "A Wasted Life," which laments lost opportunities. All in all, this is consistently hard rocking effort that's perhaps best exemplified by the big riffs of "Change Of Heart" (inspired by ELO's "Do Ya") and the hard-edged new wave of "We Stand A Chance," another song notable for its memorable riffs. Perhaps due to the album's focus on rocking out, drummer Stan Lynch, who propels the album's rock solid grooves, puts in a standout performance, and the album also introduces new bass player Howie Epstein (who Petty basically stole from Del Shannon's band), who replaced Ron Blair, who left because the band became bigger than he had ever imagined or wanted; Blair would rejoin the band many years later. In addition to being a good bass player, Epstein was also a fine singer who enhanced the band's harmonies on strong songs such as "Straight Into Darkness" and "Finding Out." Really, aside from the loudly generic "The Same Old You" I quite like all of these songs, many of which have interesting little bits that attest to the band's clever craftsmanship, such as the riffs mixed in the background on album opener "A One Story Town" and the bluesy, intense piano/guitar intro to "Between Two Worlds," which also has a powerful guitar solo from Campbell later on. Again, maybe this album saw the band in a bit of a holding pattern, and I suppose there's only one "must have" song here for the casual listener, but this was another thoroughly enjoyable long player that's a sleeper favorite among many longtime Tom Petty fans.
Southern Accents (MCA ’85) Rating: B+
This ambitious album was several years in the difficult making, with the end result being typically solid but more inconsistent than usual. This was originally intended to be a double album with a loose concept about Southern America, but the band and Petty were indulging a bit too much at the time to see the concept and the double album through. During this time Petty began hanging out with the Eurythmics’ Dave Stewart, who produced the album and collaborated with Petty on many of these songs, though Iovine had to come in to get Petty to finally finish the damn thing. Stewart’s more streamlined, slick touch is apparent, and he also convinced Petty to branch out, for example adding horns and female backup singers to several songs. The problem is that musically Petty’s reach sometimes exceeds his grasp, and lyrically the overall concept doesn’t really hold together, though Southern Accents still has several outstanding songs. But first, a word about the lesser songs: “It Ain’t Nothin’ To Me” delivers catchy yet too often irritating funk and “Make It Better (Forget About Me)” is fairly forgettable, while “Mary’s New Car” is another lightweight throwaway, albeit a pleasantly singable one with some enticing saxophone. Also pedestrian is “Spike,” which has a low-register, Elvis-like vocal delivery, a slinky laid-back groove, and humorously satirical lyrics about a stupid Southern redneck (again the chorus is annoying at times though), but much better is “Dogs On The Run,” which has a real nice melody, with Tench’s bright keyboards and Campbell’s churning jangle riffs standing out alongside Petty’s passionate vocal. As for the outstanding songs, the lush, cinematic title track is a beautiful ballad that thematically is the album’s pivotal song, while “The Best Of Everything,” produced by The Band’s Robbie Robertson and featuring former Band-mate Richard Manual on predictably impressive guest vocals, is another pretty ballad that ends the album on a classy note. Unsurprisingly, however, it’s the two hits that leave the most lasting impressions, as “Rebels” (only a minor hit but a familiar radio track) is a rough beauty of a rocker whose moody story-based mythmaking brings Bruce Springsteen to mind, while “Don’t Come Around Here No More” was quite the production, though it was a big hit so presumably well worth it cost-wise. This song is utterly unique in the Tom Petty catalogue, with a booming, oft-imitated looped drum sound, memorable kiss-off lyrics, trippy coral sitar riffs, girl group backing vocals, and even a jam ending with wailing soul diva vocals. Somehow it all works, and of course the song is indelibly linked to its famous “Mad Hatter” video; you can’t hear the song and not think of the video, which means it’s a damn good video! Anyway, albeit marred by inconsistency and a sound that sometimes dates it to the ‘80s, this is another good album from Petty, one of his more interesting ones really due to its wide range of styles and atypical song embellishments, though I suspect it could’ve been even better had Petty seen his original vision of the album through.
Pack Up The Plantation – Live! (MCA ’87) Rating: B
Next came the obligatory live set, Pack Up The Plantation – Live!. Captured during the Southern Accents tour, the album provided an enjoyable souvenir due to some choice cover songs (“So You Want To Be A Rock N’ Roll Star,” “Needles And Pins”), extra horns and singers, a healthy dosage of crowd interaction (most memorably on “Breakdown”), two Stevie Nicks cameo appearances, and predictably solid playing from a seasoned road band with a reputation for powerful live performances. Some of the songs are expanded to include cool jams (“Refugee”), and though I prefer the studio versions of nearly every Petty tune included here and there are a couple of questionable cover selections, as live albums go Pack Up The Plantation – Live! was a solid if ultimately inessential entry.
Let Me Up (I’ve Had Enough) (MCA ’87) Rating: B-
After a successful tour backing Bob Dylan, Petty came back with the self-produced Let Me Up (I've Had Enough), one of his least recognized efforts. Indeed, not a single song here was deemed worthy of his Greatest Hits, though certainly “Jammin’ Me,” co-written with Campbell and Dylan, was both a big hit and an excellent song, though this radio ready rocker’s topical lyrics haven’t aged especially well (when was the last time you heard the name Joe Piscopo?). “Runaway Trains,” a moody mid-tempo ballad, and in fact the only ballad here aside from the exceedingly pretty “It’ll All Work Out” (that’s a Japanese koto giving the song its exotic flavor), also got some airplay, but the rest of these songs will likely be unfamiliar to most fans. Given the freedom of self-producing, supposedly “The Damage You’ve Done,” “Think About Me,” and “How Many More Days” were ad-libbed on the spot, and though they work surprisingly well, many of these songs, most of which rock in a fairly straightforward, unfussy manner, lack distinctiveness, though “All Mixed Up” and “Ain’t Love Strange” share a lighter vibe and catchier choruses. Really, this is another consistently reliable listen, with one solid groove-based riff rocker after another, but unlike most of his albums multiple obvious highlights are hard to come by, and given the abundance of better Tom Petty albums available I rarely listen to this merely workmanlike effort. Perhaps sensing that he was settling into mere competence, Petty then veered onto an altogether different path that resulted in some of the most satisfying music of his career.
Full Moon Fever (MCA ’89) Rating: A
Tom Petty was a big fan of both the Electric Light Orchestra (ELO) and George Harrison’s solo album Cloud Nine, which was produced by ELO main man Jeff Lynne. He became good friends with both, sowing the seeds for the Traveling Wilburys, but first Lynne and Petty collaborated on Petty’s first solo album. Most of the songs here are co-writes with Lynne, who also produced the album along with Petty and Mike Campbell, who also co-wrote two tracks and was the only Heartbreaker who was a major contributor to the album (though Epstein sings backup on a couple of tracks and Tench plays piano on one). And apparently this setup was just what the doctor ordered, for Full Moon Fever is a relaxed and confident affair that concentrates primarily on short, sparse, extremely catchy, often acoustic-based songs. Six of these 12 songs clock in at under three minutes, none reach four and a half, and Lynne’s light, whimsical touch has obviously affected Petty, as the album has a positive, upbeat energy that’s both charming and completely unlike anything Tom Petty had done to date. Simply put, Full Moon Fever is Petty’s most consistently enjoyable album, with hit singles galore, though incredibly enough at first his record company didn’t like the album and didn’t want to release it, and as a result the album was recorded before but released after the Traveling Wilburys album; apparently a change in the record company's hierarchy resulted in full support of the album, which then became a smash hit. Among the inescapable hits were “Free Fallin’,” a classic acoustic ballad with an eminently singable chorus, “Won’t Back Down,” a catchy yet defiant anthem boosted by a big drum beat (a much-criticized Lynne trademark) and harmonies from Harrison and Epstein, “Yer So Bad,” which has amusing lyrics and another catchy chorus even though it’s not a personal favorite, and “Runnin' Down A Dream,” a scorching rocker led by Campbell’s descending riffs, a steady percolating groove, a catchy chugga chugga chorus, and finally a great extended guitar solo from Campbell (wow, where did that come from?). Did I mention that Full Moon Fever had a lot of hit singles? Well, according to Billboard's Mainstream Rock Tracks chart, other top 10 hits included “Love Is A Long Road,” the song here that’s most reminiscent of his best Heartbreakers work, though like on “Yer So Bad” I find Petty’s vocals to be too nasally, and “A Face In The Crowd,” which has a moody, evocative quality that stays with you. Other first rate albeit short songs include the desperate “Depending On You,” the bouncy “The Apartment Song” (a simple but fabulous little throwaway), and the lovely, lullaby-like “Alright For Now.” Though hardly highlights, “A Mind With A Heart Of Its Own” also has a certain ramshackle charm, while the silly finale “Zombie Zoo” is also quite catchy. Heck, even the “intermission” on this excellent album is cute, and it precedes a spot-on cover of The Byrds “Feel A Whole Lot Better,” a very good version of a great song that doesn’t add much to the original but it did manage to pay tribute to the band’s biggest influence and put some much needed money in songwriter Gene Clark’s pocket.
Into The Great Wide Open (MCA ’91) Rating: B+
After his solo detour and stint with The Traveling Wilburys, Petty returned to The Heartbreakers, but things were different this time because he brought Jeff Lynne along with him. Basically, eager to continue his collaborative songwriting partnership with Lynne, Petty dragged the Heartbreakers into his new world instead of simply returning to the old world that they were familiar with. Again, eight of these 12 songs are co-writes with Lynne (two with Campbell joining in as well), who also produces, and as such the album continues the brighter, more acoustic-based sound of Full Moon Fever, albeit with less memorable songs overall. That said, this is another very strong album, one of his best ones, really, though I feel it’s somewhat overlooked in the Tom Petty catalogue despite having two significant hits, “Learning To Fly” and “Into The Great Wide Open,” and a slew of top-notch album tracks. “Learning To Fly” is a laid-back, breezy anthem while “Into The Great Wide Open” sports some bluesy slide guitar from Campbell - whose playing throughout is exemplary - and a fittingly expansive chorus. Elsewhere, “Kings Highway,” “Two Gunslingers,” “Too Good To Be True,” and “You And I Will Meet Again” feature catchy choruses and strong, memorable melodies, while intense guitar-heavy tracks like “All Or Nothin’” and “Out In The Cold” (another popular FM radio track) show that these middle aged guys aren't ready to be put out to pasture just yet. Really, my complaints about the album are minor; I could live without the loud rockabilly “Makin’ Some Noise,” and "Built To Last" has a notable lack of energy, but both songs still have their moments - good riffs on the former and a reasonably catchy chorus on the latter - and I guess my main complaint with the album is that some songs here echo previous tracks a tad too closely (for example “Out In The Cold” is reminiscent of “I Need To Know”). Also, Petty underutilizes the Heartbreakers (excepting Campbell), who are largely reduced to a backing band whereas previously Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers was the name of an actual band fronted by Tom Petty. Clearly, as Petty himself states “I’m taking control of my life now, right now,” and it's hard to argue too strenuously against the overall results, as Into The Great Wide Open is probably my favorite B+ album by Tom Petty and it was a very worthy successor to Full Moon Fever.
Greatest Hits (MCA ’93) Rating: A+
Although Tom Petty is a consistent album crafter - just look at the ratings on this page - I consider him merely a very good album artist but a great singles specialist. Indeed, although all of his albums are worth owning since they’re generally packed with solid album tracks, the singles have invariably served as the highlights of his albums, and this excellent compilation gathers almost all of his biggest singles on one tidy cd. Simply enough, it grabs the most popular songs from each of his albums excepting Let Me Up (I’ve Had Enough), and these classic songs sound great back-to-back-to-back: "American Girl," "Breakdown," "Listen To Her Heart," "I Need To Know," "Refugee," "Don't Do Me Like That," "Even The Losers," "Here Comes My Girl," "The Waiting," "You Got Lucky," "Don't Come Around Here No More," "I Won't Back Down," "Runnin' Down A Dream," "Free Fallin'," "Learning To Fly," "Into The Great Wide Open." Wow, just looking at that song listing is pretty awe-inspiring, and since Petty's albums have always been song-based, his songs work equally well outside of their original context, if not more so. Simply put, Petty has always had the singles knack, and this collection is a nearly flawless portrait of that side of his artistry. Also, though Petty’s cover of Thunderclap Newman’s “In The Air” is merely serviceable - the original is superior and "A Woman In Love," "Rebels," and "Jammin' Me" would've been better choices - the other new song, the Dylanesque “Mary Jane’s Last Dance,” is a superlative, rocking effort that, despite some obvious riff thievery from The Jayhawks' “Waiting For The Sun,” showed Petty to still be a vital artist, a fact that he would further confirm with his stellar next album, Wildflowers. Note: In 2000, Petty released the also-excellent 2-cd Anthology: Through The Years, which chronologically inserted 16 additional songs within the 17 original Greatest Hits, minus "Something In The Air" plus two very good previously unavailable tracks, "Waiting For Tonight," featuring The Bangles on backing harmonies, and "Surrender," another number resurrected from his Mudcrutch days. Although it's nice to see "Stop Draggin' My Heart Around" and the other aforementioned tracks ("A Woman In Love," "Rebels," and "Jammin' Me"), Anthology and Greatest Hits is an either/or scenario, and though it's a close call I'd recommend sticking with the original "hits" album and seeking out choice album tracks on his original albums, none of which have received less than a "good" rating thus far.
Wildflowers (Warner Bros. ’94) Rating: A-
Few rockers have aged as gracefully as Tom Petty, and Wildflowers has the loose, relaxed feel of a confident pro, as more and more Petty is turning to the acoustic guitar, giving many of these mature, adult-themed songs a quiet, sedate quality. Even when Petty adds instrumental embellishments such as orchestration (beautifully arranged by Michael Kamen) they are fittingly low-key, and though this is credited as Petty's second solo album as per usual Mike Campbell and Benmont Tench (primarily on piano) play key roles in coloring the albums richly textured overall sound. Longtime Petty fan Rick Rubin produces with Petty and Campbell, and the sound is immaculate, plus Petty’s voice sounds notably less nasal than usual. Petty himself declared Wildflowers his own personal favorite among his albums, and it's easy to see why as, in addition to its accomplished music the album offers quotable lines like "I'm so tired of being tired, as sure as night will follow day, most things that I worry about never happen anyway." Perhaps more than any other Tom Petty album, Wildflowers comes together as an actual album rather than being merely a collection of songs, though it certainly has its fair share of standout songs. You know that you're on a roll when you can have a song that has the line "let's roll another joint," and whose key instrument is harmonica, still get on the radio, but “You Don’t Know How It Feels” was indeed a hit single accompanied by another in a long line of imaginative videos. “It’s Good To Be King,” a moody, bluesy ballad, and “You Wreck Me,” a real corker of a rocker with a great drum beat from soon to be Heartbreaker Steve Ferrone (the volatile Lynch was strongly against the Lynne and Rubin alliances so a parting of the ways was inevitable), also saw some air time. Elsewhere, “Wildflowers,” “Only A Broken Heart,” “Crawling Back To You,” and “Wake Up Time” are absolutely gorgeous entries that are among his most unerringly ear pleasing songs, and only the loud, stomping “Honey Bee” seems out of place. Of course, 70+ minutes of Tom Petty is probably too much of a good thing, and some of the songs in the middle of the album are merely good, while perhaps "Time To Move On" too closely recalls synth-driven Bruce Springsteen and "To Find A Friend" echoes "Blowin' In The Wind" too closely for my comfort. Still, these are good songs (the former in particular has really grown on me), and though perhaps the sheer volume of material slightly dilutes the overall impact of the album, some of Petty's very best work can be found here, and as such I'd put Wildflowers on the short list of great Tom Petty albums (as opposed to his many very good albums) along with Damn The Torpedoes, Full Moon Fever, and, of course, Greatest Hits.
She's The One (Warner Bros. ’96) Rating: B
After Wildflowers came Playback, a 6-cd box set that contained 3 cds of demos, rarities, b-sides, and unreleased material. Obviously aimed at the hardcore fan who already owns most if not all of the songs on the first 3 discs, hopefully a more practical cd will one day appear where fans such as myself who would like to get the previously unavailable stuff - but not at that price tag - will be catered to. Until then I’ll have nothing to say about those songs, so I’ll move on by noting that Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers then backed Johnny Cash on his American II: Unchained album before being commissioned by Edward Burns to score the soundtrack for his film She’s The One. It seemed pretty strange that a rocker of Petty’s stature would pigeonhole himself into what would seem an artistically limiting project, but the end result wasn’t far from your standard Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers album aside from including multiple versions of two songs (“Walls” and Dream”), a pair of covers (Lucinda Williams’ “Change The Locks” and Beck’s “Asshole”), and a couple of short instrumentals (“Hope On Board,” “Airport”). Actually, most of the material here was comprised of leftovers from Wildflowers, only unsurprisingly said material isn’t nearly as strong on the whole, and like Wildflowers this album suffers a bit from cd-era length and could use a bit of editing; several of the songs themselves are longer than usual as well. Fortunately, this is a Tom Petty album, which means that it has its fair share of fine songs, starting with yet another stellar single, the upbeat, catchy, quotable (“some days are diamonds, some days are rocks”) “Walls (Circus),” featuring an excellent use of horns and some great Lindsey Buckingham backing vocals. Although much of the material is rather ordinary by Petty’s high standards, other songs are interesting due to their intensely autobiographical nature; “Grew Up Fast” addresses his tough childhood with his alcoholic father, and “Hope You Never” is quite obviously about his former wife (great line: “I hope you never fall in love with somebody like you”), even as “Angel Dream (No.4)” pays tribute to his soon to be second wife. These songs are among the musical highlights as well, and the bluesily intense “Supernatural Radio” (featuring a typically tasty guitar solo from Campbell), the lightly sentimental “California,” the pretty acoustic interlude “Hope On Board,” and the airily optimistic “Hung Up And Overdue” are well worth hearing as well. Unfortunately, the redundant reprises, solid but unnecessary covers, and other lesser entries brings the album down several notches, making She’s The One an album for the truly dedicated rather than the casual Tom Petty fan.
Echo (Warner Bros. ’99) Rating: B+
The first Tom Petty album without any major hits that I'm aware of was a typically consistent effort, though this "sad" album plods a bit in places and runs on way too long at 15 songs and over an hour. Alas, overly long albums seem to be the main negative aspect of his association with Rubin (producing his third Tom Petty album in a row), which is ironic given that his early albums tended to be on the skimpy side. Anyway, loneliness seems to be the primary theme of "Room At The Top," "Free Girl Now," and "Lonesome Sundown," but hope is present as well on "Won't Last Long" and "Billy The Kid," which are about getting up and persevering after you've been knocked down. It's not too hard to read into these lyrics as again being a metaphor for the painful dissolution of his first marriage and subsequent personal renewal with his second wife, and by and large the moody music lends itself to such introspection, as Petty grapples with the conflicting emotions that come with broken relationships and the difficulties of adulthood responsibilities. Fortunately, there are lighter moments, "Accused Of Love" and "This One's For Me," for example, as well as several frills-free rockers, though a few too many of those are on the generic "I think we've heard this one before" side. What stands out to me about this album is that it houses several long songs that build impressively and boast an epic quality. I'm referring to "Room At The Top," "Swingin'," "Echo," and "One More Day, One More Night," all of which feature typically enjoyable guitar solos from Campbell, who stretches out more than usual and whose classy playing may be the best thing about this album. As previously mentioned, the album spawned no major hits, but that was largely due to increasingly rigid radio formats and Petty's own decision to court the album market; only three of these songs ("Room At The Top," "Free Girl Now," and "Swingin'") were released as radio-only (no retail) singles. Still, the bluesy and moody yet melodic "Counting On You" and the catchy rocker "Won't Last Long" sound like they could've been hits, and as per usual the band delivers another consistently worthwhile album that has its own unique qualities while fitting easily within the rest of his catalogue, which in many ways has been swallowed up by his Greatest Hits album, whose sales continue to escalate while much of his back catalogue stagnates sales-wise.
The Last DJ (Warner Bros. ’02) Rating: B
Howie Epstein’s drug problem incapacitated him so Petty himself played bass on most of these tracks; Ron Blair played on two tracks and then returned to the fold full time, but unfortunately Epstein overdosed and died on February 23, 2003. The multi-talented Scott Thurston (guitar, ukulele, lap steel guitar) had also joined the band by the time of The Last DJ, which received the worst reviews of Tom Petty’s career, earning a feeble 58 rating on Metacritic Web site. Produced by George Drakoulias (The Black Crowes, The Jayhawks), who had overseen the Playback box set, I feel that this album has been misunderstood to a degree, as tracks such as “The Last DJ,” “Money Becomes King,” and “Joe” saw Petty trash the recording industry in none too subtle fashion. It was perceived as bitter griping by a has-been rocker who no longer gets steady airplay on modern rock radio, when in reality I think it was more a sad lament from a true fan for the purer earlier days when musical talent actually meant more than some corporate executive’s marketing plan. It was a gutsy stand, Petty surely recognizing that radio and MTV had treated him very well over the years, but given that fact Petty probably wasn’t the best person to deliver the message, and the fact that the badly overblown “Money Becomes King” and the obnoxious “Joe” were musically weak as well as lyrically heavy-handed made it easy for lazy critics not to consider the merits of the rest of the album. Fact is, aside from the aforementioned misfires this is another strong set of songs, as exemplified by pretty ballads such as “Dreamville,” “Like A Diamond,” and “Blue Sunday.” Intense mid-tempo rockers such as “When A Kid Goes Bad” and “Lost Children” are typically solid if slightly run of the mill, while the briskly paced but quite beautiful “You And Me” and the Traveling Wilburys-ish “The Man Who Loves Woman” are charming lighter efforts that are enhanced by piano and ukulele, respectively. “Have Love, Will Travel” is another low-key album track that a few years from now stands a good chance of being considered an "overlooked gem"; by contrast, “Can’t Stop The Sun” demands to be noticed, as Petty goes all Echo-styled epic again on this big, brightly upbeat, somewhat psychedelic anthem, which ends the album on an uplifting high. It’s a pity that most people focused on the pair of pessimistic earlier low points and the controversy surrounding the solid if unexceptional title track, which was actually banned in some areas; though not their best, The Last DJ was another solid effort from as solid a band as America has produced over the past 30 years.
Highway Companion (Warner Bros. ’06) Rating: B+
Petty’s third “solo” album of course featured Campbell prominently, plus Jeff Lynne came back to produce after a 15 year absence. However, whereas the songs on Full Moon Fever and Into The Great Wide Open were largely collaborations between Lynne and Petty, this time Petty had already written most of the album by the time Lynne came on board, and the album’s stripped down sound is definitely atypical for a Jeff Lynne production. Part of the album’s sparse sound was a matter of circumstance, as only the three isolated musicians were around while making the record; Petty even handled the drum chores himself while Lynne played bass and keyboards and Campbell contributes stellar guitar as per usual, especially excelling on several exquisite slide guitar solos. Thematically, like Southern Accents and The Last DJ this is something of a loose concept album, primarily dealing with traveling, driving, and the passage of time, the latter certainly a fitting topic for an aging rocker. But though Petty has mellowed with age, and maybe his voice doesn’t hold together quite like it used to, he remains a remarkably consistent songwriter; perhaps a bit too consistent for some people. Anyway, this album doesn’t have obvious highlights like his best records, but it's more of a “vibe” record, and as such it gets points for coming together as a cohesive whole. Besides, it’s not like there aren’t potential standouts, it’s just that the album’s easy loping groves and overall air of melancholia is what makes it stand out to me. Perhaps there are times when additional Heartbreakers should’ve been called in, and again I hear few if any truly classic Tom Petty songs here, but the aptly titled Highway Companion was nevertheless another impressive notch on the belt of this old pro. As for potential highlights, “Square One,” “Down South,” “Damaged By Love,” "Night Driver," and “The Golden Rose” are the requisite pretty ballads, “Saving Grace” sparsely chugs along in a style reminiscent of ZZ Top, "Jack" is bluesy and poppy but difficult to describe, "Turn This Car Around" excites on its big "I'm going back" chorus and entices with Campbell's wonderfully moody slide guitar solo, and “Flirting With Time” and “Big Weekend” are fun up-tempo tunes with good grooves and catchy harmonized choruses. Or, you can forget about those simplified descriptions and individual songs in general, as this is an album that should be listened to as such. True, Petty isn’t really offering anything new here and hasn’t done so in some time, but he (and whomever among his collaborators he brings along to back him up) remains ‘ol reliable, and as such I’ll probably be buying his albums and supporting his artistry until the time comes when he stops making records.
The Live Anthology (Warner Bros. ’09) Rating: A-
Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers have pretty much done it all: consistently very good and occasionally even great albums, a slew of classic songs many of which were major hits, a Peter Bogdanovich directed documentary (2007’s Runnin’ Down A Dream) that I consider to be among the best of its kind, and a reputation for being a great live band. Really, the only thing that they haven't done is deliver a great live album - until now that is. Featuring 48 songs spread out over 4 budget priced cds, and containing performances from across the globe and spanning many years, this live compilation makes Pack Up The Plantation - Live! seem puny and completely inadequate by comparison. The band's sound is more expansive and energetic than on the studio albums, with more guitars and solos in general. Unsurprisingly, Campbell and Tench in particular shine instrumentally, and though maybe Petty's vocals aren't as consistently good as in the studio, they're plenty good enough (besides the pumped up crowds help him out from time to time). The album contains a nice mix of ballads, rockers, mid-tempo numbers, and everything else in between, and more than anything else this album makes you realize just how many stellar songs Tom Petty and company have written over the years. If I have a complaint, it's that maybe Petty was overly generous here; there's simply so much to digest, plus the band can on occasion sound generic, though more often than not their moody, at times bluesy sound is rich and soulful. In addition to great renditions of many classic songs - though there are some glaring omissions like "Listen To Her Heart," "I Need To Know," "Don't Do Me Like That," "You Got Lucky," "Rebels," "Don't Come Around Here No More," and "Into the Great Wide Open" - Petty raids his back catalogue to include many overlooked album tracks. Being such a strong live band, many of these versions are improvements on the studio originals, and if they're not they're often at least different; witness the 12-minute rendition of "It's Good To Be King," for example. In addition, Petty shows his impeccable taste by including many well done cover songs, including Bo Diddley's "I'm A Man," Willie Dixon's "I Just Want To Make Love To You," the Grateful Dead's "Friend Of The Devil," Them's "Mystic Eyes," Booker T. & The MG's "Green Onions," John Barry's "Goldfinger," the Dave Clark Five's "Any Way You Want It," Fleetwood Mac's "Oh Well," and James Brown's "Good, Good Lovin'." Really, these live albums have it all for the hardcore Petty fan, the only caveat being that it'll be too much of a good thing for everybody else.
Mojo (Warner Bros. ’10) Rating: B+
After briefly getting back together with his old band Mudcrutch (also including Campbell and Tench) and releasing their self-titled Mudcrutch album in 2008, Petty looked back in spectacular fashion with The Live Anthology. Reconvening with the Heartbreakers in the studio, Petty continues his recent rootsier, more jam-based approach on Mojo, the band's bluesiest album ever. Featuring lean arrangements and a live in the studio recording approach, the band sounds loose and confident, especially Campbell, who is given extensive room to shine throughout, which he (predictably) does, even if his guitar no longer jangles like in the old days. The other Heartbreakers (Tench, Blair, Thurston, Ferrone) are in fine form as well, and Petty (with infrequent help from Campbell) has written a solid and varied if unspectacular batch of songs. At 15 tracks running 65 minutes, some of the material is unexciting and/or unmemorable, but it's never unlistenable, and after an 8 year gap between Heartbreakers records I can understand Petty wanting to give fans their money's worth. Besides, as per usual the overall quality of the album is high, whether delivering swampy blues rockers like "Jefferson Jericho Blues," loud and heavy rockers with smokin' guitar solos like "I Should Have Known It" and "Good Enough," sad, lovely ballads like "The Trip To Pirate's Cove," "No Reason To Cry," and "Something Good Coming," and even an atypical faux reggae oddity, "Don't Pull Me Over," on which Campbell's sinewy guitar would make Al Anderson proud. There are other potential highlights as well, such as "Lover's Touch," an atmospheric, bluesy ballad, and "High In The Morning," a loose, melodic rocker with another strong guitar solo, but the clear highlight of the album to me is "First Flash Of Freedom," a 7-minute epic whose swirling, bluesy psychedelia brings to mind the grand guitar jams of The Allman Brothers Band. Still, on the whole these are generally good rather than great songs, and Mojo is another very good album from a band from whom I've come to expect nothing less.
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