Hear A Crowd-Sourced Playlist Of The Best Tom Petty Songs : All Songs Considered Tom Petty's recorded legacy spans nearly 50 years — from classic-rock standards to deep cuts that hit hard. Hear a crowd-sourced playlist and read reminiscences from the NPR Music staff.
NPR logo Your Favorite Tom Petty Songs

Your Favorite Tom Petty Songs

Tom Petty. Tim Mosenfelder/Getty Images hide caption

toggle caption
Tim Mosenfelder/Getty Images

Tom Petty.

Tim Mosenfelder/Getty Images

Tom Petty's recorded legacy spans nearly 50 years — from classic-rock standards to deep cuts that hit hard. His songs are wired into the American cultural psyche, whether they soundtracked a misspent youth, accompanied a few decades' worth of love and loss, or merely popped up in an unforgettable moment from Jerry Maguire. Petty's music has been everywhere, which means it's meant something to just about everyone.

To celebrate Petty's influence — not just on other musicians, but on moments in everyday lives — NPR Music has assembled a crowdsourced Spotify playlist containing some of the singer's career highlights. And we've added some of our own thoughts on the songs that have meant the most to us.

Our Favorite Tom Petty Songs

  • 'Breakdown'

    Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers hide caption

    toggle caption

    When I was 14, I spent a lot of time at my best friend Nora's house. Her older brother Joe often left the first Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers album lying around the living room, and I'd gaze at the cover photo while listening to its first single, "Breakdown." Petty looked like all the seedy, deeply seductive guys who hung out with us at the amusement park: guys who'd help us sneak a smoke, who tried to kiss us, who promised us nothing and knew more about everything we wanted — freedom, trouble, sadness, possibility — than we thought we'd ever learn. Those losers.

    That song, "Breakdown," expressed it all. It was macho, yet so needy. It had a guitar riff like a hand up your shirt. Singing it, Petty seemed unhinged, but he recovered. "It's all right," he whispered. I believed him, for better and for worse. His was the first truly dangerous rock 'n' roll voice I heard. —Ann Powers

  • 'American Girl'

    Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers hide caption

    toggle caption

    The first time I heard Tom Petty, it was the tail end of 1976. I was working in a record warehouse and saw this album arrive by an unknown band on Leon Russell's Shelter Records. I popped it open and cranked it loud. Ten songs in 30 minutes — it felt remarkably refreshing. And I say "remarkably refreshing" because it really was a throwback album. In fact, the song that hooked me was the album's closing cut, "American Girl," with its '50s Bo Diddley beat and the way Tom Petty and Mike Campbell mimicked The Byrds' 1960s 12-string guitar sound with their unison playing.

    "American Girl" talks about the American Dream — about being "raised on promises" and hoping to find somewhere in this "great big world" where there was "a little more life." But the song takes a dark lyrical turn on a balcony on a "cold cold night" — and a moment from a painful past with the memory of a man so close, but "still so far out of reach."

    There have always been hints that she committed suicide from that balcony, though Petty himself denied it; still, that darkness is the song's brilliance. Though remembered as a classic, "American Girl" (the second single from his first album) was a flop. It never charted until a reissue in 1994, but it's always stood the test of time. —Bob Boilen

  • 'Refugee'

    Damn The Torpedoes

    I worked in a record store when Tom Petty's breakthrough album Damn the Torpedoes was released in 1979. The simple album cover a cocky-looking Petty in a red shirt against a red background struck my opinionated colleagues and me as trite. But when we set the needle on the album's lead-off track, "Refugee," we knew something significant had happened. With a nasal voice that pinched his vowels, Petty sang about the practicalities of surmounting your problems. The line "Somewhere, somehow, somebody must have kicked you around some" might have referred to his own abusive father. But the refrain, "You don't have to live like a refugee," punched up with backing vocals, screamed like an anthem of defiance.

    Petty didn't push rock music beyond any new boundaries, but his unadorned hooks and levelheaded lyrics did something perhaps more important: They communicated. They sliced cleanly through the noise of punk and the pretensions of new wave to middle-class kids who just craved some honest, well-built rock 'n' roll. —Tom Huizenga

  • 'Stop Draggin' My Heart Around'

    Stevie Nicks, "Stop Draggin' My Heart Around

    The received wisdom about harmony is that it's best when it's like butter: two voices integrating smoothly to form a chord that seems to merge into one luscious flavor. This 1981 duet with Stevie Nicks, released on her Bella Donna solo debut after producer Jimmy Iovine persuaded Petty and co-writer Mike Campbell to wrest it from the Heartbreakers, proves that wisdom utterly wrong. Nicks and Petty have two of the edgiest singing styles in pop, all glint and pinpricks; when they blend, the tension never resolves and the fists never uncurl. It's perfect for a song about being hopelessly devoted to someone you know is a terrible match — that one you call, and call again, just for the sick thrill of the inevitable hang-up. Because he gave it to a woman who matched his own gift for blending romanticism and ruefulness, this is also one of the most sideways-feminist of Petty's rockers — his familiar ne'er-do-well persona gets a serious side-eye from his blonde spiritual twin. Icy hot. —Ann Powers

  • 'You Got Lucky'

    Long After Dark hide caption

    toggle caption

    If you came of age in the late '70s and '80s, Tom Petty's music was wonderfully inescapable. For many, it provided the soundtrack for coming of age, learning how to navigate love and relationships and how to be cool. Much of the appeal was wrapped up in his gift for melodies that were economical and unforgettable; like Petty himself, they sounded calm and composed with an immovable swagger. You can hear a great example of this in his 1982 song "You Got Lucky," from Long After Dark. The recurring hook, first heard on synth and later on guitar (with lots of tremolo), recalls Ennio Morricone's theme for The Good, The Bad And The Ugly, with a moody Western motif that Petty and The Heartbreakers ultimately acted out in a groundbreaking video. Set in a Mad Max dystopia, it depicts a group of futuristic cowboys who discover a dusty cassette player (which plays the song) and, eventually, an abandoned recording studio where they sort through relics of the past: a reel-to-reel tape, old televisions and vinyl records. In the end, as they ride off into the sunset in their hovercar, they dismissively leave the cassette player — and the song — behind. It's a subtle kiss-off, in a song about self-liberation, from the coolest guy around. —Robin Hilton

  • 'Free Fallin"

    Full Moon Fever hide caption

    toggle caption

    "Free Fallin'" is the perfect rock ballad, because it describes rock and roll's original sin — men crossing women's boundaries, then walking away from them — while expressing the redemptive bliss it offers everyone, despite that sin's persistence. It starts with an acoustic strum from Mike Campbell's guitar to God's ear, and Petty confessing: "She's a good girl... I'm a bad boy for breakin' her heart." The rest follows on a breeze. The boy betrays the girl and drifts through a Los Angeles that seduces and anesthetizes him: Reseda, Ventura, Mulholland. But she persists and becomes unforgettable, so central that he finds himself inking her name on the sky. When Petty screams the song's title in its skywriting chorus, he's with Elvis, the Everly Brothers, the Beatles, the Stones — every rocker who made the mistake of underestimating his muse. She's the one who survives; she's the heart of rock's America: the land of the free, of the corrupted. Of the fall. —Ann Powers

  • 'Alright For Now'

    Tom Petty, Full Moon Fever

    When Tom Petty released Full Moon Fever in 1989, the singer's top-hatted visage had already seared itself into my subconscious, thanks to his creepy, Alice in Wonderland-themed video for 1985's "Don't Come Around Here No More." At that point, as a pockmarked teenager, I'd come to view Petty as a chilly and distant figure — the voice of so many classic-rock jams, but a man who'd never really spoken to my sad teenage soul. That was a job for Robert Smith, or Tracy Chapman, or a thousand lovelorn soft-rock balladeers. But as Full Moon Fever's hits got their hooks in me, one deep cut clung hard: a slight, acoustic, two-minute lullaby called "Alright for Now."

    Tucked away late on the record, introduced with a slurred count-off as if to obscure its emotional weight, "Alright for Now" slayed me with its mix of warmth and realism. Petty's sparse words of devotion amid everyday struggles — "I've spent my life traveling / Spent my life free / I could not repay all you've done for me" — hit with humility and depth, while his words of reassurance ("Sleep tight, baby, unfurl your brow / And know I love you, we're alright for now") hint at something so much more tenuous. It views love as a truce, as respite. Nearly 30 years later, even the thought of it gets me. —Stephen Thompson

  • 'Learning To Fly'

    Into the Great Wide Open hide caption

    toggle caption

    In no way was I a cool teenager. But one May morning, during my last week of classes in high school, I had at least myself fooled. It was the morning after an all-nighter, during which I'd written my final biology lab report — a struggle, for I was no biologist — and I was listening to "Learning To Fly" on repeat as I drove my mom's station wagon to school. I remember stopping at a red light for too long, looking out my open window and feeling the weight of everything I'd hoped for from my own life after graduation. "Learning to Fly" is made for such moments of longing, when you want something badly enough that it makes you ache with anxious wonder at whatever lies past your own horizon.

    I never tire of this song: its gracious self-acceptance ("I'm learning to fly / but I ain't got wings"), its fierce economy (four chords suffice for verse, chorus and bridge), and the glistening, infinite sense of possibility that was Petty's own. It perfectly conveys the unshakeable notion that there's something beyond whatever may try to beat you down, break your heart or steal your crown. —Ben Naddaff-Hafrey

  • 'You Wreck Me'

    Wildflowers hide caption

    toggle caption

    "Run with me wherever I go / And just play dumb, whatever you know." The last verse of Tom Petty's "You Wreck Me" is a succinct encapsulation of rock and roll's enduring allure, and no one has sounded smarter singing it. Perhaps it was the pedigree that was so persuasive: It was 1994, almost 18 years to the day since Petty's self-titled album with the Heartbreakers, and the Hall of Famer had just released arguably his finest record. (Just for comparison's sake, The Rolling Stones' equivalent album was Under Cover and Paul McCartney's Tug Of War. Woof.) But it was more than the excellence — it was the ease with which he appeared to achieve it. There was a humility to Petty's songs that appreciated how hard life can be, and how essential it is to play dumb once in a while, no matter who you are or what you know. —Otis Hart

  • 'Greatest Hits'

    Greatest Hits hide caption

    toggle caption

    It was a bright-red, '80s-era, Japanese-made SUV of some kind. The roof of its ass had been sawed off by a friend I don't really speak to anymore, transforming it into a mangled pickup truck. Whatever its country of origin, it looked like the most American vehicle ever to be very forcibly willed into existence. (That same friend later turned an ambulance into a touring van for his band, complete with fridge and television. Don't underestimate Dylan.)

    The radio didn't work, but it had a cassette player and those tinny speakers that seem, in memory, uniquely appropriate for listening to the high and clear voice of Tom Petty — which was good, because his Greatest Hits was lodged, forever, in that tape deck. It takes about 20 or 21 hours, with bathroom and fast-food and cigarette breaks, to drive from Minneapolis, Minnesota to Austin, Texas. That's a lot of Tom. When you think of his work, I think it's common for a pastiche of chorus lines to float like motes around your mind's ear — "Don't / want / to live like a... She was / an American... And I'm free / Free... Here comes my... Into the..." They're indelible, but so interchangeable; such was Petty's genius, manufacturing widgets for the American soul, suitable for any purpose, usable in all climates, whether nighttime in Kansas, sunrise in Oklahoma or high noon in Austin, Texas. The day after, after 20 hours of Tom, we still didn't mind. —Andrew Flanagan