Florida rock and roller Tom Petty distinguished himself with a lovable stream of self-deprecating hits. He emerged with a 1976 debut album that was inspired by mid-1960s acts like The Byrds, Bob Dylan, and The Rolling Stones.
He was backed by the Heartbreakers, who became an excellent backing band. Mike Campbell’s economical guitar leads, Benmont Tench’s classy piano and Hammond organ, and Stan Lynch’s crisp drumming all added value to Petty’s music. Original bassist Ron Blair left the Heartbreakers in 1982 but returned in 2002 to replace Howie Epstein.
Petty’s a great singles artist, and he’s most effective on a compilation like 1993’s Greatest Hits or 2000’s Anthology: Through the Years. But it’s worth digging through his studio albums for further gems.
Here are Petty’s sixteen studio albums – thirteen with the Heartbreakers and three solo – ranked from worst to best. It’s worth noting that, as a testament to Petty’s artistic longevity, the top three selections are all from different decades.
Tom Petty Albums Ranked from Worst to Best
#16 – The Last DJ
Petty’s first album of the 21st century is often themed around his distrust of music corporations. That’s not the issue with The Last DJ – it’s ranked last because Petty’s knack for writing catchy tunes has abandoned him. Instead of tuneful rockers, there are diatribes like ‘Joe’ and ‘Money Becomes King’.
#15 – Highway Companion
Highway Companion was recorded by the trio of Petty, Mike Campbell, and ELO’s Jeff Lynne. It was Petty’s third and final solo album and is themed around driving. Like The Last DJ, it’s lacking in memorable tunes, but the low-key music puts the focus on Petty’s accomplished lyrics. Petty’s more nostalgic and Dylanesque than ever before on tunes like ‘Down South’.
#14 – Mojo
After a pair of lacklustre records, Petty attempted to revitalise his career with a set of bluesy songs recorded live in the studio with the Heartbreakers. At an hour, there aren’t enough great tunes on Mojo to justify the length, but there are moments of genuine inspiration. Lengthy and complex tunes like ‘First Flash of Freedom’ and ‘The Trip to Pirate’s Cove’ are unlike anything else in Petty’s catalogue.
#13 – Let Me Up (I’ve Had Enough)
After the overworked Southern Accents, Petty returned to basics with Let Me Up. Recorded live in studio, it doesn’t sound live as the gated reverb on Lynch’s snare dominates the mix. Nonetheless, there’s a core of strong tunes here – the forgotten single ‘Jammin’ Me’, the pretty ‘Runaway Trains’, and the crunchy ‘All Mixed Up’ are all excellent.
#12 – Songs and Music from “She’s the One”
Petty contributed music for an Ed Burns romcom, donating leftovers from Wildflowers and writing new tracks. She’s The One doesn’t quite coalesce like a studio album, featuring incidental soundtrack music and covers. It helps, however, that one of the covers is a rollicking take on Lucinda Williams’ ‘Change The Locks’. Fleetwood Mac’s Lindsey Buckingham adds some terrific harmony vocals to ‘Wall (Circus)’, while ‘Climb That Hill’ is a nasty rocker.
#11 – Hypnotic Eye
Petty’s final studio album is easily his best of the 21st century, as he refines the enjoyable rawness of Mojo into more accessible songs. ‘Red River’ and ‘All You Can Carry’ are the tuneful pop-rockers that seemed beyond Petty on The Last DJ. He stretches out on the closing ‘Shadow People’, and the final acoustic coda is a fitting end to his career.
#10 – Southern Accents
After releasing his first five albums in quick succession, Petty tried to change up his sound for Southern Accents. It was originally planned as a 2 LP concept album about the American South, but the Eurythmics’ Dave Stewart was bought in as a producer and co-writer later in the recording process. Petty injured his hand, punching the wall in frustration, during the recording sessions. Southern Accents is a mixed bag – classics like the neo-psychedelia of ‘Don’t Come Around Here No More’ and the pretty title track are nestled alongside missteps like the funk-rocker ‘Make It Better (Forget About Me)’ and ‘Spike’.
#9 – You’re Gonna Get It
Petty’s second album didn’t spawn as many hits as his first, but it’s another slice of enjoyable retro-rock. The folk-rock of ‘Magnolia’ and the acoustic ‘No Second Thoughts’ expand the band’s vocabulary. ‘Listen To Your Heart’ brings The Byrds’ jangly Rickenbacker into the 1970s and ‘I Need To Know’ is delivered at breakneck pace.
#8 – Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers
Petty’s debut wasn’t an enormous hit – the production isn’t as stadium-ready as his later work. But it’s full of charming songs of which ‘American Girl’ and the slinky ‘Breakdown’ are the best known. It’s Petty’s most retro album – ‘Hometown Blues’ is rockabilly, while ‘Mystery Man’ betrays an Elvis Presley influence.
#7 – Into the Great Wide Open
Petty again collaborated with Jeff Lynne for the follow-up to Full Moon Fever. The Heartbreakers are back as his backing band, and it’s the last Petty album with drummer Stan Lynch. The highlights aren’t as strong as on Full Moon Fever, but it’s very consistent. ‘Learning To Fly’ is the best-known song, but there’s a surfeit of tuneful songs with memorable choruses like ‘Two Gunslingers’, ‘Kings Highway’, and ‘All The Wrong Reasons’.
#6 – Echo
Petty’s twenty-year marriage ended in 1996, and Echo mournfully dissects the relationship. Despite the subject matter and Petty emerging from the fog of heroin addiction, Echo is full of memorable songs. Opener ‘Room at the Top’ develops into a pulsating rocker, ‘Lonesome Sundown’ is gorgeous, while the lengthy title track is the emotional heart of the record. Echo is the last Petty album to feature bassist Howie Epstein – struggling with addiction, he missed the cover photoshoot.
#5 – Full Moon Fever
Recorded in Mike Campbell’s garage studio with Jeff Lynne producing, Full Moon Fever is Petty’s most relaxed record. Highlights like ‘Free Fallin”, ‘I Won’t Back Down’, ‘Love Is A Long Road’, and ‘Running Down A Dream’ are among Petty’s most irresistible, but some of the lesser album tracks are among his most trivial. The glossy and acoustic hits, along with a stint in the Traveling Wilburys, pushed Petty back into the spotlight after a few years in the wilderness.
#4 – Long After Dark
Long After Dark is the first Petty record to feature the bass and backing vocals of Howie Epstein. It’s sometimes vilified – the synth-heavy and smug lead single ‘You Got Lucky’ is uncharacteristic – but overall it continues in the rich vein of Petty’s previous efforts. ‘Change of Heart’ and ‘Straight Into Darkness’ are great singles that have been half-forgotten, while album tracks like ‘A One Story Town’ and ‘Deliver Me’ are also excellent.
#3 – Hard Promises
Petty followed the commercial breakthrough of Damn the Torpedoes with another strong record. Hard Promises is more intimate and relaxed than its predecessor – outside the outstanding opener ‘The Waiting’, none of these songs are well-known. But it’s filled with treasures – the mellow Stevie Nicks duet on ‘Insider’, and rockers like ‘Nightwatchman’ and ‘A Thing About You’.
#2 – Damn the Torpedoes
Petty was paired with producer Jimmy Iovine for his third album. Iovine’s stadium-rock production, the Heartbreakers’ excellent playing, and Petty’s more nuanced writing all combined to launch him to star status. The breakthrough hits ‘Refugee’ and ‘Don’t Do Me Like That’ are supported by ‘Even The Losers’, ‘Here Comes My Girl’, and ‘Louisiana Rain’.
#1 – Wildflowers
Petty’s failing marriage informed his second solo album, Wildflowers. Recorded with producer Rick Rubin, it’s full of lovely songs. ‘You Don’t Know How It Feels’ was Petty’s final top twenty hit in the US, but there’s also the pretty title track, the aggressive nostalgia of ‘You Wreck Me’, and a treasury of deep cuts like ‘Hard On Me’ and ‘Crawling Back To You’. Petty was writing prolifically during the period – outtakes from the sessions later surfaced on She’s The One, while a further collection of outtakes is due to be released shortly.