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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

“It’s a strange to say out loud, but I always felt destined to do this,” Tom Petty told Rolling Stone‘s David Fricke in 2009. “From a very young age I felt this was going to happen to me.” From his early days as a hard-jangling realist amidst the fluff-addled Seventies, Tom Petty was always one of rock’s most enduring Everyman heroes, as well as one of the preeminent songwriters of his generation. A Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers show could reach the two-hour mark and not make it through all of his hits and memorable album cuts, or explore every nook of his career. And he was writing classic songs right up to the end. Here’s our definitive rundown of his 50 greatest.

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“Don’t Come Around Here No More”

“I wanted to make a single that sounded like nothing anybody had ever done,” Petty said of “Don’t Come Around Here No More.” Psychedelic yet synth-y, classic yet modern, the song was a radical musical reinvention concocted with English producer Dave Stewart of Eurythmics. The Heartbreakers were skeptical of an outsider revamping their sound, especially when he suggested adding a sitar. “I think most of his band – and I don’t blame them – were going, ‘What the fuck is this?'” Stewart recalled. “The record was called Southern Accents, and it sounded like we’re in India.” Petty’s lyric was based on a line Stevie Nicks said to ex-boyfriend Joe Walsh at a Eurythmics afterparty, and Stewart also suggested the Alice in Wonderland concept of the song’s groundbreaking video. “Dave and I worked on that single for months,” Petty said. “It could’ve come out as 10 different records.”

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“Refugee”

“We’re always hearing that we’re the future of rock & roll,” Petty declared around the release of the Heartbreakers’ third LP. “I don’t want to be the future – I want to be the present.” The lead track on Damn the Torpedoes ensured that. Produced by Jimmy Iovine, “Refugee” was their most brass-knuckled rocker to date, a declaration that they weren’t following any New Wave or punk-rock trends, but were a new breed of rock & roll–schooled traditionalists. As is frequently the case with the band’s creative process, Mike Campbell wrote the music, recorded it on a four-track tape and passed it to his partner. “The words came really quick,” Petty said. The recording, not so much. Campbell recalled 100 takes; Petty says 200. “I remember being so frustrated,” said Campbell. “I just left the studio and went out of town for two days.” When he returned, they nailed it, and shot a no-frills video that became an early MTV staple. And suddenly, American rock seemed born again.

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“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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