Among the Wildflowers: Remembering Tom Petty and 20 of his Greatest Songs

Like so many others, I was really saddened
to hear of the passing of Tom Petty a few days ago. It was only a day or two earlier that I came
across footage from the 40th Anniversary shows of Tom Petty and The
Heartbreakers at The Hollywood Bowl and remember thinking that I can’t wait
until he next tours Australia. I’d seen Dylan and Neil Young a few times
before, but alongside Tom Waits, Tom Petty was one of those still active
artists that I had atop my list to see live before they stopped playing.  When I was 10 or 11 years old I remember my
Dad introducing me to all the music he was into: Dylan, Young, The Band and Tom
Petty. I didn’t really get the others until a few years later, but there was an
immediacy to Tom Petty that grabbed me straight away. As I grew older and my
tastes evolved, certain music that grabbed me when I was younger I outgrew, yet
my admiration for Tom Petty’s songwriting only seemed to grow stronger. There’s
an economy to his songwriting that very few can do so effectively. His songs
were always direct but seemed to float above you effortlessly. I remember I
bought my Dad the ‘Runnin’ Down a Dream’ documentary for Christmas one year. For
the next few years when I would go to visit him I would always watch it. All
four hours of it. Every time forgetting how many classics he penned. He was a
masterful songwriter with too many classics to count and the world is a much
better place for having heard them. His influence is surely eternal but it
doesn’t discount the fact that he will be sorely missed. Here’s a 20 song
playlist of some of his best.

WILDFLOWERS (1994 from ‘Wildflowers’)

The opening track from his second solo record of the same name. So perfect in it’s simplicity and almost like a lullaby to ease you into one of Petty’s best records.

SOUTHERN ACCENTS (1985 from ‘Southern Accents’)

Petty’s love letter to the south.

MARY JANES LAST DANCE (1993 from ‘Greatest Hits’)

Starting out as a leftover from the Full Moon Fever sessions. Rick Rubin picked this one out to be reworked for his greatest hits release in ’93 during the Wildflower sessions. A new chorus later and the bonus track become an accidental hit that stands up with some of his best.

DON’T DO ME LIKE THAT (1979 from ‘Damn The Torpedoes’)

Lead single from Damn The Torpedoes was first recorded in a different version by Petty and guitarist Mike Campbell in 1974 with their earlier band Mudcrutch. During the album’s recording sessions, producer Jimmy Iovine was initially not overly behind the track and Tom himself thought it didn’t hold the weight of some of the others. They persisted anyway.

I NEED TO KNOW (1978 from ‘You’re Gonna Get It!’)

Lead single from ‘You’re Gonna Get It!’. This track might be Tom Petty at his most quintessential 70’s.

EVEN THE LOSERS (1979 from ‘Damn The Torpedoes’)

Always the underdog, Petty took MCA records to court in a much publicised David vs Goliath style of case throughout the making of Damn The Torpedoes. This is his anthem for the underdogs.

STOP DRAGGING MY HEART AROUND (1981 from Stevie Nicks – ‘Bella Donna’)

The first single from Stevie Nicks debut solo record. When Stevie didn’t have a single for her record, producer Jimmy Iovine arranged for Stevie to take one of Tom’s and The Heartbreakers acted as her backing band on the recording. Monster single from the ‘honorary Heartbreaker’.

YOU DON’T KNOW HOW IT FEELS (1994 from ‘Wildflowers’)

Petty always had a strong association with marijuana but the line of “let me get to the point, let’s roll another joint” might be his most iconic weed line.

LISTEN TO HER HEART (1978 from ‘You’re Gonna Get It!’)

The inspiration for this song lies in a story told by Petty’s wife about being at a party hosted by Ike Turner. As the party raged on into the night, Turner locked all the doors to the house so no one could leave. Where most singers tend to hide their drug references in metaphor, that was never Petty’s style. The directness of his lyrics would always allow you to immediately visualize the locale and characters in his songs. In this instance the cocaine reference allows us to know the exact kind of power hungry LA type that would use that power to prey on women.

HERE COMES MY GIRL (1979 from ‘Damn The Torpedoes’)

The third single from ‘Damn the Torpedoes’ and second track co-written with guitarist Mike Campbell. Inspired equally by Blondie, The Shangri-La’s and The Byrds for one of Petty’s early career classics.

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YOU WRECK ME (1994 from ‘Wildflowers’)

Another track co-written with Mike Campbell off a highly underrated album in the Petty cannon. ‘You Wreck Me’ seems to just play itself, it’s vintage Heartbreakers on a later career solo record and one of his best.

LEARNING TO FLY (1991 form ‘Into The Great Wide Open’)

For an artist that built his career on economical songwriting, ‘Learning To Fly’ might be his most simple in terms of initial song ideas. The trademark production of Jeff Lynne really sticks out on this track with the layers and layers of acoustic guitars and super dry vocals but it’s the perfect execution of the songwriting that allow it float above.

I WON’T BACK DOWN (1989 from ‘Full Moon Fever’)

Written in the studio while mixing ‘Free Falling’ and with slightly tweaked lyrics from the initial idea after receiving feedback from George Harrison because these things happen when you’re Tom Petty.

RUNNIN’ DOWN A DREAM (1989 from ‘Full Moon Fever’)

Riff.

REFUGEE (1979 from ‘Damn The Torpedoes’)

After stating that he didn’t want to be a part of the new wave and punk rock scene and that Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers were a rock n roll band, this song is ironically where Petty sounds his most like Tom Verlaine. Allegedly they went through about 200 takes in the recording of this track, with producer Jimmy Iovine pushing them until they got the perfect performance. Gruelling at the time but it probably paid off in the end with one of their biggest hits to date.

FREE FALLIN’ (1989 from ‘Full Moon Fever’)

It’s not often that you write your most well known song this far into your career but Tom Petty isn’t your average guy.

AMERICAN GIRL (1976 from ‘Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers’)

Recorded on July 4th 1976 – the bicentennial of the United States.

THE WAITING (1981 from ‘Hard Promises’)

In all its jangling Rickenbacker glory, this might be the Heartbreakers at their most ‘Byrds-y’. The song takes it’s inspiration from Janis Joplin’s famous quote of ‘I love being onstage and everything else is waiting’.

DON’T COME AROUND HERE NO MORE (1985 from ‘Southern Accents’)

There really isn’t any other Tom Petty song that sounds like this. Written with Dave Stewart from Eurythmics and built around a Linn Drum machine, sitar, synths and somehow still sounding like a Tom Petty song. One of his best.

BREAKDOWN (1976 from ‘Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers’)

Where it all began.

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