As we start November, the music world is still reeling in the death of Tom Petty. Petty was a man who was vocal about artistic freedom that gave him respect among artists. Nevertheless, his work justified his beliefs. Whether it was punk, disco, new wave, or metal he was the big thing in the music industry. Petty maintained who he was and remains timeless. If you’re new to Tom Petty’s music, here are the five essential records featuring his band the Heartbreakers, his solo work, and as member of the Traveling Wilburys.
1 . Damn the Torpedoes (1979) – Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers
The third album with the Heartbreakers was the big breakthrough for Petty and the band following the limited success from two previous albums. “Damn the Torpedoes” made it to number 2 in the Billboard 200 and yielded two hit singles; “Refugee” and “Don’t Do Me Like That.” For its time, this album provided a contrast to new wave, disco and hard rock. This was a straight-up rock album and wasn’t afraid of it.
This is one of those albums that I want to grab my guitar and play along to. It’s not bombastic (Van Halen) or moody (Joy Division), it’s a record that provides the ultimate escape from daily life. “Shadow of a Doubt” gives me the need to play those simple chords and riffs. The tone of guitars is triumphant and makes you rock out at will.
Every time I hear the choruses to “Don’t Do Me Like That” or “Here Comes My Girl” I want to scream my lungs out when driving with the windows down and I wouldn’t care how insane people think I am.
Easily the first record to go to when getting into Tom Petty’s music, you cannot go wrong when it comes to this record.
Track Picks: “Refugee,” “Here Comes My Girl,” “Shadow of a Doubt,” “Don’t Do Me Like That” and “Louisiana Rain.”
2. Hard Promises (1981) – Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers
The follow-up to “Damn the Torpedoes,” “Hard Promises” had the pressure to maintain the success its predecessor had. While this was under the Backstreet label, Petty was at odds with Backstreet’s parent company, MCA Records. Petty and MCA were arguing about the pricing of the record. This lead Petty to keeping the master tapes of the albums and delayed the album’s release.
Being an album that was to follow “Damn the Torpedoes” is surely a daunting task. While “Hard Promises” isn’t like its predecessor, it still provides a worthwhile listen.
Take “The Waiting” for example, a song about the troubles of dealing with long-distance relationships. The difficulties of spending a long period of time without your lover, temptations of cheating or the thought of breaking up.
“Hard Promises” also provide an expansion musically compared to “Torpedoes.” “Nightwatchmen” provides elements of funk with the rhythm section. While “Something Big” shows blues-influenced vocals from Petty while an organ is being prominent in the track. “Insider” features a duet with Stevie Nicks and Petty about the crushing feelings of being cheated on. This feeling of being cheated on as if you were “burned by the fire.” Of course, there are the rockers such as “A Thing About You” to keep the album from being completely different.
It’s not “Damn the Torpedoes,” but it is a good album that shows Petty’s character and his dispute with the record label.
Track Picks: “The Waiting,” “Nightwatchmen,” “Something Big,” “Letting You Go,” “A Thing About You” and “Insider”.
3. The Traveling Wilburys Vol. 1 (1988) – Traveling Wilburys
The debut album of the famed super-group that consist of Petty, George Harrison, Bob Dylan, Jeff Lynne and Roy Orbison. The creation of this group and album is one that’s very relaxing. Harrison invited many of the members to come and work on a b-side for a single of his. This quickly grew to a set of songs for an album. This relaxation is reflected in the record.
The tone is set with opening track “Handle with Care” with its finger-picked guitars and vocal harmonies of Harrison and Orbison. Throughout the whole record, all five members take turns in lead vocals. It’s really heartwarming to hear five guys singing together on a track like “Congratulations” or “Dirty World.”
“Last Night” is a track featuring Petty and Orbison on lead vocals. I love the rolling bass guitar and percussion, along with some odd lyrics about meeting a woman and trying hook up with her only to get robbed by her in the end. I love hearing how happy it sounds being contrasted with some odd and slightly dark lyrics.
“Heading for the Light” is one of my personal favorites. The song is about going through the struggles in life and making it through to see a better tomorrow. I also love how Beatlesque it is; the twangy guitar leads, Harrison vocals, uplifting backing vocals and the blaring horns.
“Traveling Wilburys Vol. 1” follows much of blues, rock, country and folk. It doesn’t provide anything groundbreaking in a decade of hair metal, synthpop and college rock. Great records like this don’t necessary have to sound like the trends that was going on.
This is an essential album as you get to see Petty step back from being the leader of a band, to being more of a member of a band working collectively.
Track Picks: “Handle with Care,” “Dirty World,” “Last Night,” “Heading for the Light” and “End of the Line”
4. Full Moon Fever (1989) – Tom Petty
This was where Petty decide to do something outside of the Heartbreakers. While a few of them were featured on the album, none of them wrote any of the songs. In this album Petty collaborated with Lynne. These two would write most of the songs on this album and Lynne also produced it.
Much like “Damn the Torpedoes,” “Full Moon Fever” was another successful album that featured hits like “Free Fallin” and “I Won’t Back Down.” Unlike “Damn the Torpedoes” however, this one feels more relaxed. The production is relatively simple with these warm guitars and Petty’s voice feels so relaxed. Even when he shouts on the chorus for “Free Fallin,” it sounds like he’s not struggling at all.
It’s no secret that this album shows influences from The Beatles and The Byrds, with the vocal harmonies and the jangly guitars being major evidence in “Depending On You.” Hell, George Harrison provides backing vocals for “I Won’t Back Down” and the album features a cover of the Byrds song “I’ll Feel a Whole Lot Better.”
“Full Moon Fever” is important for giving Petty another moment of commercial success and new people to collaborate with. While not completely abandoning the Heartbreakers, Petty’s collaboration with Lynne and being a member of the Traveling Wilburys gave him new inspiration.
Track Picks: “Free Fallin,” “I Won’t Back Down,” “Love is a Long Road,” “Depending On You” and “The Apartment Song”.
5. Wildflowers (1994) – Tom Petty
The second solo album of Petty’s and arguably the saddest one in his discography. This was a record that was written in the midst of turmoil in Petty’s personal life. His marriage was falling apart and was on the verge of a horrific heroin addiction. At this point Petty was 44-years old and many people would assume that artistically he’s past his peak. Nope, he’s still got it.
The turmoil of his marriage seems to be addressed in the first five tracks. The title track shows that he was ready to let go of this marriage, with the bright guitars and uplifting melodies.
However, when you get to tracks like “You Don’t Know How It Feels” it gives the sense of Petty’s struggles with these feelings he was facing. Was he truly ready to let go? Is this something that would go away as time goes on? Or is this not okay?
This idea goes on in the album and you see Petty’s mindset in this ugly cycle and it is really sad to listen to.
Take “Only a Broken Heart” and “Honey Bee” for example. The two tracks are next to each in the track listing and they show a contrast of emotion musically and lyrically. The former is a ballad lamenting about the marriage with very little instrumentation. The latter provides crunching guitars with the band rocking as hard as they could and Petty sounding very bitter and angry which can leave you unsettled.
In many ways this could be a sequel to “Hard Promises” considering the themes of some of the songs there are similar to those of “Wildflowers.” It can be a tough one to listen to due to the themes surrounding here but you can’t take away a moment where an artist is producing an amazing album when he was at a low point.
Track Picks: “Wildflowers,” “You Don’t Know How It Feels,” “Time to Move On,” “It’s Good to Be King” and “To Find a Friend”