1. “She was an American girl / Raised on promises” (from “American Girl,” Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers, 1976)
It’d be hard for any lyric to live up to the instant excitement of the instrumental opening of “American Girl,” with its loud, chiming guitars and locomotive percussion. But on the first great song of Tom Petty’s great career, he showed off his gift for fixing a character, a moment, an image, and a feeling, all in just one sentence.
2. “It’s all right if you love me / It’s all right if you don’t” (from “Breakdown,” Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers, 1976)
The other timeless single from Petty’s debut album represents the flipside of his songwriting personality. He isn’t sketching a scene here, he’s speaking in the voice of a so-cool-he’s-almost-inert lothario, talking directly to the woman who’d probably be better off without him, if she could resist his apathetic bad-boy charm.
3. “You think you’re going to take her away / With your money and your cocaine” (from “Listen To Her Heart,” You’re Gonna Get It!, 1978)
The rock community wasn’t sure what to make of Petty in his early days, since the name of his band and his hooky, simple sound had a lot in common with the contemporaneous punk and new-wave movements. Songs like “Listen To Her Heart” clouded the issue. Its sturdy Roger McGuinn-styled riff evoked the garage rock and AM Top 40 of the decade before, but its opening line spoke to the clubby decadence of that very moment.
4. “Well, the talk on the street says you might go solo” (from “I Need To Know,” You’re Gonna Get It!, 1978)
Another nod to the modern, with a self-aware lyric that mimics insider music-biz talk, but turns it into an almost desperate romantic come-on. The fact that this song was among the most driving and punky of Petty’s career only confused the issue of who he was trying to be.
5. “We got something / We both know it / We don’t talk too much about it” (from “Refugee,” Damn The Torpedoes, 1979)
By the time Damn The Torpedoes came out in 1979, album-rock radio was starting to fill up with regional roots-rockers and power-poppers, which gave Petty’s straightforward sound more of a musical context. He seized the moment with his most completely realized album yet, and started it off with a tense midtempo rocker, clouded in danger, and introduced with a line that splits the difference between Petty the shiftless rogue and Petty the vivid image-maker.
6. “Well it was nearly summer / We sat on your roof / We smoked cigarettes / And we stared at the moon” (from “Even The Losers,” Damn The Torpedoes, 1979)
One of Petty’s most evocative openings fits cleanly with one of his most evocative songs, all about the painfully clear memories of a relationship recently dissolved. At the time, everything was so perfect that no one needed to say anything. Now, all he wants to do is talk.
7. “Oh baby, don’t it feel like heaven right now / Don’t it feel like something from a dream” (from “The Waiting,” Hard Promises, 1981)
Petty’s follow-up to Damn The Torpedoes took longer to come out than it was supposed to, because he fought with the record label over the record’s list price, even threatening to title it The $8.98 Album to prevent anyone from charging more. So “The Waiting” had a double meaning when it became Hard Promises’ first single, though now it’s mainly noteworthy as one of Petty’s most unreservedly happy songs.
8. “You’ve got a dangerous background / In everything you dreamed of” (from “Insider,” Hard Promises, 1981)
Petty had one of his biggest hits by proxy, when Stevie Nicks recorded her lead vocals over The Heartbreakers’ instrumental track for “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around.” But Petty originally wanted Nicks to record “Insider,” the heartbreak ballad that gives Hard Promises its title. Instead, she sings it with him as a duet, making the target of its elusive lyrics all the more shadowy.
9. “You better watch what you say / You better watch what you do to me” (from “You Got Lucky,” Long After Dark, 1982)
This is the song where Petty discovers synthesizers, but it also marks the return of The Bad-Ass Troublemaker, who gives some unfortunate gal the kiss-off via some of the most amusingly pissy lyrics this side of Bob Dylan’s “Positively 4th Street.” Or maybe he’s just repeating what was said to him first.
10. “Honey don’t walk out / I’m too drunk to follow” (from “Rebels,” Southern Accents, 1985)
Petty conceived Southern Accents as an ambitious double album that would explore his Southern upbringing and Southern music in general, but he got frustrated in piecing it together, and eventually only salvaged a handful of tracks from the original concept. This is one of them: a perverse redneck-pride anthem that recasts Petty’s standard couldn’t-give-a-shit character as a trailer-park-bound misfit.
11. “She’s a good girl / Loves her mama / Loves Jesus / And America too” (from “Free Fallin’,” Full Moon Fever, 1989)
Petty begins his best overall album with a kind of sequel to “American Girl,” where the heroine moves to Los Angeles and starts to lose sight of the promises she was raised on. It doesn’t help that she’s apparently run into one of Petty’s scoundrel types, who lets her go and “don’t even miss her.”
12. “She grew up in an Indiana town / Had a good-lookin’ mama who never was around” (from “Mary Jane’s Last Dance, Greatest Hits, 1993)
And here’s the mirror image of the American girl from “Free Fallin’,” less fresh-scrubbed and apple-cheeked than sullied. It’s possible to read the first 15 years of Petty’s songwriting career as one long description of the young men and women he knew (and sometimes was) growing up in Florida: all the couples dancing around each other laconically, then inevitably letting each other down.
13. “I remember / When you were his dog / I remember / You were under his thumb” (from “Free Girl Now,” Echo, 1999)
Prior to Echo’s release, Petty talked a lot about how the grunge revolution—and Nirvana in particular—made him feel simultaneously obsolete and invigorated. He responded with his most hard-rocking album since the ‘70s, and another super single, making direct reference to its own place in rock history, via The Stooges and The Rolling Stones.
14. “I’m passing sleeping cities / Fading by degrees / Not believing all I see to be so” (from “Saving Grace,” Highway Companion, 2006)
Petty’s latest album is one of the best of his career, because it explores a single theme—traveling as a metaphor for aging—in a way that the restless younger Petty could never realize. As always, it kicks off with a great single, and a line that describes the feeling of driving at night with a clarity and poetry that’s easy to plug into.