Tom Petty has rightfully earned his place among the great American songwriters. He and his band the Heartbreakers released their self-titled debut album in 1976 and have become known for classics like “Refugee,” “American Girl,” and “Into the Great Wide Open.” Then, of course, there are his later solo hits like “Free Fallin'” and “I Won’t Back Down.” But that’s not all: he was also famously a member of that great supergroup the Traveling Wilburys alongside George Harrison, Bob Dylan, Roy Orbison, and Jeff Lynne. You’d be wrong to just focus on the hits, though. In my opinion, some of Petty’s best work has been the album tracks that you’re unlikely to hear on most classic rock radio stations. This list covers some of my favorites, with and without the Heartbreakers, and is by no means exhaustive.
1) “The Wild One, Forever,” Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers (1976)
This is one of the more tender moments on the Heartbreakers’ debut album, appearing halfway through, and is a favorite for many fans. Driven by guitarist Mike Campbell’s acoustic arpeggios, Petty sings about a love that was all too brief: “Those few hours will grow in my head forever.” Apparently it’s his wife’s favorite, which is as good an endorsement for a love song as any.
2) “Even the Losers,” Damn the Torpedoes (1979)
Album number three was a real high point for the band, as it was their first to break into the top 10. It stayed at #2 on the Billboard chart for seven weeks and is notable for classics like “Refugee” and “Here Comes My Girl.” One of the highlights was this fast-paced rocker which sent out the message that even the losers get lucky sometimes.
3) “Insider,” Hard Promises (1981)
Everyone is familiar with “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around,” the duet between Petty and Stevie Nicks which appeared on the latter’s Bella Donna album the same year. But this track is another vocal collaboration between the two and comes towards the end of the Heartbreakers’ Hard Promises album. It’s a lovely acoustic performance, and their voices complement each other perfectly.
4) “Southern Accents,” Southern Accents (1985)
Southern Accents was an album fraught with tension and marked the occasion in which Petty famously punched a wall in frustration and shattered his left hand (which still shakes to this day as a result of nerve damage). It’s a vibe disguised by the beauty of the title track, which is led by piano and strings and lyrically refers to the band’s Florida roots. Even better is the live version from the band’s hometown show in 2006, which is featured on The Live Anthology and gets a fantastic reaction from the crowd. It always gives me shivers.
5) “Love Is A Long Road,” Full Moon Fever (1989)
Petty’s first solo album, produced by his Traveling Wilburys collaborator Jeff Lynne, actually features performances from some of his fellow Heartbreakers (a theme that has continued on subsequent solo releases) and has been hailed as his “commercial peak.” In among the big hits, this track — a co-write with Mike Campbell — stands out as one of the best, with a catchy chorus and a riff that makes you want to start playing air guitar.
6) “All Or Nothin’,” Into the Great Wide Open (1991)
Although this was a Heartbreakers album, it too was produced by Jeff Lynne and was very much an organic follow-up to Full Moon Fever, though some would argue that the songs are stronger. “All Or Nothin'” is quite a dark track, opening with the lyrics: “Your daddy was a Sgt. Major, you didn’t wanna but he made you, wipe his brass from time to time, it left a picture in your mind.”
7) “You Took My Breath Away,” Traveling Wilburys Vol. 3 (1990)
This list wouldn’t be complete without a track from the Traveling Wilburys. This one, with lead vocals by Petty, was from their second album (humorously titled Vol. 3, which was George Harrison’s idea). The only thing missing was Roy Orbison, who had sadly passed away.
8) “Don’t Fade on Me,” Wildflowers (1994)
Petty’s second solo album, which once again featured contributions from the other members of the Heartbreakers, was produced by Rick Rubin, and is arguably one of the best in his discography. “Don’t Fade on Me” is a bluesy track with haunting, down-tuned acoustic fingerpicking and a stellar vocal from Petty. Understated, but brilliant.
9) “Lonesome Sundown,” Echo (1999)
Echo is probably one of the lesser mentioned Heartbreakers albums, owing to the fact that they never perform any of its tracks live due to the painful nature of some the lyrics (Petty was dealing with a difficult divorce at the time). It’s a shame, as “Lonesome Sundown” is possibly one of my personal all-time favorites.
10) “Something Good Coming,” Mojo (2010)
The first Heartbreakers release in eight years, the band opted for a very blues-influenced sound, and this song is one of the highlights, recorded live in the studio without any overdubs and featuring some beautiful slide guitar.