Despite boasting one of the most prolific and high-quality catalogues of '80s songs, rocker and singer-songwriter Tom Petty sometimes slips off the radar of music fans when they consider the most important artists of that decade. But that's only because his influence and accomplishments have been so consistent across the decades. During the '80s Petty evolved from an album rock, marginally new wave rocker with roots rock influences to a folk rock troubadour and poet in the vein of Bob Dylan.
Out of the select group of classic rock songs people say they never grow tired of hearing, Tom Petty simply must contribute a healthy percentage. This wonderful, jangly roots rocker is a perfect example of the kind of solid songcraft and tight performance required to turn a song into a timeless, consistently inspiring experience. Of course, much of this has to do with just how damn good the Heartbreakers were (and continue to be), from Mike Campbell's clean, passionate guitar lines to the familiar but haunting organ of Benmont Tench. But what it really comes down to is the song, a skillful blend of masterful melody and precise lyrics about the vitality of longing and desire.
Though Fleetwood Mac chanteuse Stevie Nicks enjoyed name supremacy on this track, the fact that the song is a Tom Petty-Mike Campbell composition is about as surprising as a twenty-something celebrity meltdown these days. Petty and the Heartbreakers always put a distinctive stamp on their performances, but this track screams Campbell and Benmont Tench before the first bar is complete. It's a shame that this tune is not widely seen as a classic from the band's repertoire, as Nicks' presence may enhance the production but certainly never exceeds what the Heartbreakers can do on their own. At around 1981, Petty was at the peak of his melodic sorcery, and this song continues to enchant as freshly as ever.
This moody track from Long After Dark, the 1982 follow-up to Hard Promises - the group's smash album from the year before - manages to retain a healthy roots rock feel even if accompanied by the kind of prominent synth work that typified pop music of the era. Simply put, anyone who says that Petty packs the same punch solo as with the Heartbreakers is deeply misguided, and this track is about as much evidence you'll ever need to bear that out. Again, the songwriting comes incredibly close to flawlessness here, advancing layers of unshakable melody but also building an elegant and street-tough atmosphere that is nothing short of intoxicating. The sentiment may not be particularly gorgeous, but the song certainly is.
Where "Don't Come Around Here No More" represented a somewhat experimental approach that not all of Petty's fans embraced, this song delivers the straight-ahead rock and roll that listeners had come to expect from him. Appropriately culled from the group's 1985 album, Southern Accents, this track also is one of Petty's first to explore his Gainesville, Fla. Southern roots. And although lyrically the song might stand out as a somewhat irritating Southern rock companion to "Sweet Home Alabama" at times, there's no denying the fiery, inspiring lift of a great rock song such as this. Once again, fine work from the Heartbreakers brings everything home with poise and vitality.
Although Petty and his band have been less than complimentary of their 1987 release, Let Me Up, I've Had Enough, I have always thought this evocative track represents one of the finest musical moments of the '80s. Tench's keyboard arrangements build a mesmerizing foundation, supported wonderfully by Campbell's varied guitar contributions. However, the primary attraction undoubtedly resides in Petty's grasp of melody across the verse, bridge and transcendent chorus. This one may sound more of the '80s than any of the Heartbreakers' largely organic guitar rock offerings from before, but that shouldn't take away from a clear recognition of its solid structure and emotional resonance.
Well, I've heard this one an awful lot over the years, in places as disparate as NHL hockey games and drugstore sound systems. And while usually that would be a strike against a song in terms of making one of my best-of lists, in this case I must make an exception. This is Tom Petty the singer-songwriter at his most simple and direct, displaying highly personal and yet almost wholly universal sentiments regarding the central difficulty of life and the challenges inherent. The fact that Johnny Cash covered this song a few years later is a telling sign regarding its impeccably solid structure and its sweeping appeal to all kinds of pop listeners.
I'm sure I'll take my fair share of abuse for leaving the familiar but overrated "Free Falling" off this list, but I honestly don't think that track stands among his 10 best of the '80s. This moody, intricate tune, on the other hand, does a good job of injecting Petty's individuality with an increased intimacy that allows him to thrive even while nominally separated from the Heartbreakers. As a result, there is a slightly different vibe to Full Moon Fever than any of Petty's previous '80s records, one that foreshadows the greater role of folk and singer-songwriter inclinations to come from here on out in his career.