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.
Petty was ably supported by the Heartbreakers, a world class 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. Epstein was a terrific backing vocalist.
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’.
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 the studio, it doesn’t sound like it 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 changed 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 arduous 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 a 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’.
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 photo shoot.
#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. Conversely, lesser album tracks like ‘Zombie Zoo’ and ‘The Apartment Song’ are among Petty’s 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 are now 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’.
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.
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Well, in his defense, it was very difficult to emerge as a great true star in 1976. One year before the punk / new wave explosion and several years late in comparison to all the previous legends. Technically he didn´t invent anything new. But he started effectively mixing (as you mentioned) The Byrds and The Rolling Stones. Not a bad combination. All his idols and friends were part of the 60´s generation (Bob Dylan, Roger McGuinn, George Harrison, Neil Young …) and all his peers from the 70´s were doing something else, something new. I totally agree that his best record should be a greatest hits compilation. Apologies to the fans. It is not my intention to offend.
I think he was a really good rock star for the punk era – played pretence-free and stripped down music. Lots of people like the Live Anthology from 2009 as well.
Great list! I’m always amazed how (unlucky) #13-Let Me Up… has pretty much fallen off the radar. I remember hearing “Jamming Me” on steady rotation on rock radio in 1987, but even that song barely gets played now. It’s telling that his first Greatest Hits album features no songs off that album, not even that song!
Let Me Up does feel low at #13 – I was thinking that as I was making the list, but lots of good albums ahead of it. All Mixed Up is one of my favourite Petty songs I’ve discovered from listening through to all his stuff.
The middle 80’s didn’t seem that kind to Petty. He had a steady stream of good/great albums until ’82, then it was three years until the curveball of Southern Accents. (He did a good job with videos, though.) Wilburys/FMF definitely led to renaissance of appreciation for Petty.
I think he spent that time trying to reinvent himself – studio heavy record on Southern Accents then a live in studio album for Let Me Up. But he didn’t really find something that worked until Wilburys and Full Moon Fever. He mellowed out and didn’t scream as much.
Good assesment! The 80’s seemed to be an era of “reinvention” by older rockers, with dubious payoffs. He did “nail it” in the MTV department–videos that grabbed your attention.
Speaking of 80’s reinvention by older rockers, I recently watched the video for “Tight Connection to My Heart (Has Anybody Seen My Love)” by Dylan. It’s, uh, interesting.
You’re right, his video game helped to keep him relevant. Brian Wilson’s Smart Girls is a contender for worst effort at staying relevant musically.
To add to what Enrique stated, in the late 1970s, anything music that sounded anything different was immediately branded as ‘punk.’ I know with his second album, “You’re Gonna Get It,” even some rock magazines at the time called the album punk. Yes, I know, very inaccurate. Your number two is my number one.
I think I Need To Know could pass as a punk song – it’s very fast. Like The Jam in the UK around the same time he stripped rock of its pretensions and went back to the mid 1960s for inspiration.
This doesn’t happen very often at all but this is exactly the same order I’d put them in too. Great summary
Seriously? There is a cluster of Hypnotic Eye, Southern Accents, and You’re Gonna Get It where i wasn’t entirely sure and could have easily ranked differently on another day.
Top 10 songs
Runnin’ Down a Dream
Stop Dragging My Heart Around
You Got Lucky
Learning to Fly
Don’t come around here no more
So you want to be a rock and roll star
The Waiting is my number one too, but only a few of the others made my top ten. We both chose all singles from the 20th century though – he has so many good singles that it’s hard to include deep cuts.
Good list that shows how much beautiful music he gave to the world.
He kept doing it for a long time too – I think right through the 20th century he was full of great tunes.
Tom Petty is one of my all-time favorite artists and I really miss him. That being said, ranking all of his albums would be a challenge. I find rankings hard in general! 🙂
My number one would be Damn the Torpedoes. I just love that album!
As for his remaining albums, I would really have to think about and listen to a good deal of them again.
BTW, I also really like his final studio album Hypnotic Eye. In fact, I got the CD as part of buying a ticket for the supporting tour, the last time I saw him in September 2014.
Hypnotic Eye is really good – easily my favourite of his 21st century records.
I like ranking stuff, just the way my brain works.
I always have favored Into The Great Wide Open more than others…and I didn’t like Long After Dark as much as others…though I love the song Change of Heart.
My number 1 would be Hard Promises…2…Damn The Torpedos 3…Into The Great Wide Open…4…Full Moon Fever…5 Wildflowers
Good list though. I have 10 of these albums so I’m not sure as much about some of them.
The 2002 album The Last DJ was right after he came off of heroin I believe.
All of your top 5 is in my top 7, so we’re pretty much in agreement. I think Echo was the heroin one – he said that for years he thought it was terrible, then his wife made him listen to it and he realised how good it was.
Echo is one I don’t have…I’ll have to get it. We are very close.
I’m looking forward to the Wildflower box set…I believe this month.
I only heard Echo for the first time writing this page – I knew all the albums leading up to it. I was surprised how good it was – I previously thought She’s The One was maybe the end of the golden run.
I want to hear The Last DJ…I thought for sure that Let Me Up I’ve Had Enough would be last. That is because I haven’t heard the three between them.
I do like the songs you mentioned…Jammin’ Me and Runaway Trains are really good. I have the album somewhere.
I felt bad putting Let Me Up at #13 actually – I like a lot of the songs on it, just the production is problematic.
Compared to his other albums…at the time it was a little more lackluster. Southern Accents really got overplayed and when this one came out…only Jammin’ Me was played and that was for about 2 weeks.
Like you I did like some of the album.
All Mixed Up was one of my favourite, and the title track was good. Most of the good songs were either the mellow ones or ones with killer Campbell riffs. Otherwise, they got smothered in that production.
I need to listen that one again…I did find it.
Southern Accents we do agree about. Yes he is from Florida but…no one here ever thought of him as a southern act…I didn’t “get” that album as much…though I did buy it. I do like Rebels and yes…I have a guilty pleasure for Spike….just like The Apartment song from Full Moon Fever.
I’m just glad you had an album list that I actually knew some.
Even if I expanded my list to 15 or 20 it would probably still be singles. lol. I wanted to put some Traveling Wilburys but I didn’t know if that would be fair or not.
Your list, your rules.
Nice write up. My cent and a half: Mojo and Hypnotic Eye are top ten in my book.
I think those two are a good rebound from some rough albums earlier in the 21st century.
There will always be a place for Anything That’s Rock ‘n’ Roll in my Petty list.
Almost the only song on Greatest Hits but not on Anthology Through The Years.
Great job. Must have taken some time! Can’t disagree with much though my fondess for Into the Great Wide Open would probably bump it up a spot or two.
Thank you! Petty’s pretty easy to digest – usually tuneful and straightforward.
Last DJ is better than most people think it is. Its very good in fact. I’m not a huge Petty aficionado but Money, Dreamvile and Blue Sunday are all great and the whole thing is consistent from beginning to end.
I thought it and Highway Companion were both lacking the great tunes that Petty had kept reeling off previously.
What a wealth of music.
Almost every record has at least 4 or 5 great songs.
Not a bad list but I’d move Full Moon Fever up a couple notches and I think Let Me Up- is his worst- a 2 star album.
Have you heard Last DJ and Highway Companion? I feel like his melodic sense just deserted him for those two. Let Me Up has some dated production, but some good tunes.
I have all of Petty’s albums- The Last DJ and Highway Companion- rank near the bottom I think but Let Me Up- was a mess- although you may be right in their being some good songs on it- he just seemed messed up at the time.
I don’t think he really lost it so much as he was trying to figure out a new style that worked for him. Just needed a better producer, I think – Petty and Campbell produced it themselves.
so You Want to Be a Rock and Roll Star is a cover of a Byrds song.