Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers are going on a rare American theater tour this summer, which he says is a chance to break out deep cuts from his four-decade catalog. With that in mind, we asked our readers to vote for their favorite Tom Petty album. The response was huge, and the top album won by only seven votes. Click through to see the results.
Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers bassist Ron Blair quit the band after their tour in support of 1981's Hard Promises. It was the first defection from the original group. Petty quickly replaced him with Howie Epstein, a bassist in Del Shannon's backing band with an incredible singing voice. The move infuriated Del Shannon, but it provided a great boost for the Heartbreakers: Howie's background vocals are all over Petty's fifth album, Long After Dark. The disc didn't generate quite as many hits as previous releases, but "Between Two Worlds" landed on the charts and "You Got Lucky" became a huge smash. Long After Dark is the last Petty album exclusively produced by Jimmy Iovine, and it marked the end of the singer's early period. He took a three-year break after it came out, and when he returned in 1985, he had a pretty new sound.
By 2010, it had become abundantly clear to Tom Petty that radio just wasn't going to play his new material. He could write 10 songs as catchy as "Free Fallin'" and it wouldn't matter, so he simply stopped trying. Instead, he got together with the Heartbreakers at his Los Angeles studio and cut a simple blues-rock album. "We didn't use headphones," Petty told Rolling Stone. "Everybody was in the same room, and we did very few overdubs. We'd record it in one or two takes. We couldn't have made this album in the Eighties."
One song, "Running Man's Bible," addressed Howie Epstein's death (in 2003). "I'd always wanted to deal with Howie's death," he said. "It's one of those embarrassingly revealing songs. It just crept into my mind one day. I was playing the guitar, and it started falling out, and I wrote it down as quick as I could."
Tom Petty was in a very good place when he began cutting Into the Great Wide Open in late 1990. Full Moon Fever, his recent solo album, was an enormous hit and restored much of his commercial luster after the poorly received Let Me Up (I've Had Enough). Much to the relief of the Heartbreakers, he brought them back into the fold for the highly anticipated Full Moon Fever follow-up disc. The record wasn't quite the commercial monster of Full Moon Fever, but "Learning to Fly" and "Into the Great Wide Open" were huge hits and fans loved the disc.
"The night before we started the record, I turned 40,'' Petty told Rolling Stone in 1991. "And it's tough when you look in the mirror and go, 'Shit, I'm an old guy.' But the night I turned 40 there was a big party for me, so I was surrounded by friends, and I'm glad that I turned 40 at a good time in my life. I didn't go through it a few years ago, when I was feeling like a failure at everything. Like the song says, 'I was so much older then/ I'm younger than that now.' And I listen to the new album and I feel so good, because it's not a cheap shot. It's not a bunch of old assholes trying to take your money.'"
Tom Petty's 1976 debut album didn't get a lot of attention when it came out. The Number One song in the country that week was Rod Stewart's "Tonight's the Night (Gonna Be Alright)," directly followed by "Disco Duck" by radio DJ Rick Dees. The top album was Stevie Wonder's Songs in the Key of Life; there wasn't much interest in a bunch of Byrds-inspired songs from an unknown California rock band.
Petty supported the disc with a relentless tour, slowly gaining an audience. Still, it wasn't until Damn the Torpedoes hit big three years later that fans went back and picked up this first record. They discovered "Breakdown" and "American Girl," and DJs finally began playing the classic songs. They have yet to stop, and "American Girl" has become Petty's signature tune.
Echo came at a very difficult time for Tom Petty, both personally and professionally. His bassist Howie Epstein was in the grips of a severe heroin addiction and had become extremely unreliable, even missing the cover shoot for the album. (Notice his absence from the photo.) Petty had also recently undergone an extremely painful divorce from Jane Benyo, his wife of 22 years.
He poured all that pain into the songs on Echo, producing a stunningly personal LP. This is Petty's Blood on the Tracks or Tunnel of Love. The 1999 album kicks off with the agony of "Room at the Top" and doesn't let up for 15 tracks. It's no wonder Petty has barely touched any of these songs since the conclusion of the Echo tour. The album wasn't a big hit, but many Petty fans feel it's his last absolute classic disc.
The pressure was truly on when Tom Petty began recording Hard Promises in 1980. His previous disc, Damn the Torpedoes, made him a rock superstar, but now he had to craft a follow-up. He wisely didn't mess with a winning formula, re-teaming with producer Jimmy Iovine and cutting songs that sounded like they came straight from the Torpedoes sessions. Kick-off song "The Waiting" became a Top 20 hit, and "A Woman in Love (It's Not Me)" also got a lot of radio love. He also began his long professional relationship with Stevie Nicks on their duet "The Insider."
Petty went to war with his label before the album came out, since they wanted to hike up the price to $9.98. He prevailed after a long fight, but it wouldn't be the last time he'd go after the powers-that-be in the music industry.
At its core, Tom Petty's 1985 album Southern Accents is a compromise between two ideas. It was originally seen as a concept album about life in the South, hence the title, but producer Dave Stewart wanted to give it a modern feel, adding songs like "Don't Come Around Here No More" to the mix.
Tensions were high during the sessions, leading Petty to punch a wall and break his left hand, making it near-impossible to play guitar. The final product was a mixture of the two ideas, but fans didn't seem to mind one bit. "Don't Come Around Here No More" became a huge hit, thanks largely to the trippy Alice in Wonderland-themed video.
Tom Petty was a superstar in the 1980s, but for much of the time, he was creatively unfulfilled. Living up to the promise of Damn the Torpedoes was tough, and when 1987's Let Me Up (I've Had Enough) stiffed at the record stores, it was beginning to seem like he was on a downward trajectory. He decided to make some big changes, bringing in his Traveling Wilburys partner Jeff Lynne to produce his first solo album. Members of the Heartbreakers did play on the album, but Lynne and Petty wrote all the songs together. (Heartbreakers drummer Stan Lynch wasn't included, and he was quite furious with the situation.)
The result was a commercial juggernaut, landing classics "I Won't Back Down," "Free Fallin'" and "Runnin' Down a Dream" onto the charts and MTV. It cemented Petty as a rock giant, and when he played the Super Bowl in 2008, 75 percent of the songs came from the album. He never had another album this huge, but it didn't matter. After this one, he could sell out arenas all over the country until the end of time.
Much like Bruce Springsteen's Born to Run a few years earlier, 1979's Damn the Torpedoes was Tom Petty's make-it-or-break-it third record. He was an established live act by this time, but he didn't have an album that lived up to the hype. As the title suggests, he wanted to craft a disc that boldly charged ahead, regardless of the dangers. From the opening notes of "Refugee," it was clear that the album was a masterpiece. The track listing almost reads like a greatest-hits disc from there: "Here Comes My Girl," "Even the Losers" and "Don't Do Me Like That."
"This is the Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers album we've all been waiting for," wrote Ariel Swartley in the original Rolling Stone review. "That is, if we were all Tom Petty fans, which we would be if there were any justice in the world, live shows for all, free records everywhere and rockin' radio."
It was an extremely close contest, but Petty's 1994 solo disc Wildflowers won this poll by a hair. Petty cut the solo album over the course of two years with producer Rick Rubin. It's an extremely mellow effort, highlighted by the title track, "You Don't Know How It Feels to be Me," "It's Good to be King" and "Honey Bee."
Rubin insisted the group use no synthesizers and non-acoustic keyboards so they'd have a more organic sound. "The [album's] key virtues are grit and grace, and Rubin's taut, muscular production emphasizes both these gifts," Elysa Gardner noted in the original Rolling Stone review. "Buoyant tracks like 'A Higher Place' and 'You Wreck Me' remind us that Petty and his band were the first to marry the chiming lyricism of the Byrds to a more raw, harder style of rock & roll, prefiguring the approach R.E.M. and others would later use to revitalize contemporary music. . . Wildflowers is worthy of that longstanding impact and evidence that this American boy is moving through middle age with all the gusto and poise that his admirers have come to expect."