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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.

7

“The Waiting”

“The Waiting” might be the single greatest example of the Heartbreakers piecing something together from their rich classic rock knowledge. The song’s call-and-response hook echoes the Animals’ “It’s My Life,” and the chorus is so evocative of the Byrds that their leader thought he’d had a hand in it. “[Roger] McGuinn swears that he said it to me,” Petty said, referring to the line “the waiting is the hardest part,” adding, “Maybe he did.” Petty actually recalled cribbing it from Janis Joplin’s famous declaration “I love being onstage, and everything else is waiting.” Either way, the lead single from Hard Promises was a high point in what Rolling Stone senior writer David Fricke called the Heartbreakers’ “golden twang” era, topping the Billboard rock chart for six weeks. “It was about waiting for your dreams and not knowing if they will come true,” Petty said. “I always felt it was an optimistic song.” 

6

“Runnin’ Down a Dream”

Full Moon Fever was released as a Petty solo album, but every Heartbreaker (with the exception of drummer Stan Lynch) played on it. “Runnin’ Down a Dream,” the album’s most propulsive rocker, was built around a heavy riff from Mike Campbell, originally written in a different time signature. Petty straightened it out and took it to producer Jeff Lynne. Campbell also played the song’s guitar solo (a combination of searing held notes and frenetic shredding), nailing it in one take. Petty gave the hard-charging track vivid lyrics about the freedom of flying down the highway, which spoke to his deepest feelings about the meaning of rock & roll. “To me, American music was all about listening in the car,” he said. The line “me and Del were singing ‘Little Runaway'” was a friendly salute to his new pal Del Shannon, who had a Number One hit in 1961 with “Runaway,” a song Petty had grown up loving as a kid in Florida. 

5

“Listen to Her Heart”

Petty was inspired to write “Listen to Her Heart” by a story his wife Jane told him. Not long after the couple moved to L.A., she found herself at a party thrown by mercurial R&B legend Ike Turner. As the festivities went on late into the night, Turner locked the doors to his house from the inside so no one could leave. Petty turned the odd incident into a driving, tightly wound anthem addressed to a guy who has no regard for a woman’s real feelings. The song was the second single from You’re Gonna Get It! (“Everything’s banking on that one song right now,” he told Rolling Stone in 1978, “and I’m prepared for the worst.”) In fact, “Listen to Her Heart” only made it to Number 59 on the singles charts, perhaps due to Petty’s direct mention of cocaine, which he was asked to change to “Champagne.” “What women would leave some guy for money and Champagne?” Petty said at the time. “I mean, Champagne is only $4 a bottle.”