Tom Petty's 50 Greatest Songs

His hits have defined rock radio since the Seventies, and he never stopped writing great music. Here's the definitive guide to his best songs

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1. "American Girl"

"The American Girl is just one example of this character that I write about a lot," Tom Petty said. "The small-town kid who knows there's something more out there, but gets fucked up trying to find it. I always felt sympathetic with her." On his greatest song, Petty channeled his sympathy into an American classic – recorded, fittingly, on July 4th, 1976. The song fuses decades of rock & roll into one supercharged anthem: Stan Lynch's jumpy Bo Diddley beat echoes back to the Fifties; the bright guitar jangle evokes the Byrds (so much so that Byrds leader Roger McGuinn covered it); Mike Campbell's high-flying runs at the outro are Seventies guitar-hero lightning; and the taut New Wave energy pushes into the Eighties and beyond (the Strokes nicked it for their 2001 hit "Last Nite"). Ironically, when it arrived as the second single on Petty and the Heartbreakers' self-titled debut in 1977, it didn't make the U.S. charts, though it did reach the Top 40 in the U.K., and remains a radio staple ("It felt like, 'Wow, this might work,'" Campbell said, recalling the song's initial success). The lyrics' allusion to Route 441, which runs through Gainesville, Florida, inspired rumors that "American Girl" was about a University of Florida student who committed suicide by jumping off her dorm-room balcony. In fact, it was written in Petty's Encino, California, apartment while he listened to the freeway outside. "The words just came tumbling out of me," he said. "The girl was looking for the strength to move on – and she found it."

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