This Was One Hard Promise: Ranking Tom Petty Albums

4.5 Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers today

Back in the late-70s and early-80s, there was a group of singer/songwriters that musically were connecting the dots directly to the great classic sounds of the 60s rock and garage bands, all the while taking lyric-writing lessons from Bob Dylan and Van Morrison by writing about the common man and his (or her) struggles of getting through life. It was a very heady time for rock fans to have come of age to the sounds of these artists. First, there was Bruce Springsteen with his legendary concerts lasting four euphoric hours. Then, Bob Seger finally stepped out of Detroit to bring a Midwestern flavor to his music while his lyrics covered the plight of the union worker on the automobile line. Then, they were followed by Tom Petty, John Mellencamp and Canadian Bryan Adams. Those three also spun unique tales of the average man to their own unique sounds.

On Monday, I gushed over my 20 favorite songs by fellow Hoosier John Mellencamp. Today, I would like to shift my focus to my favorite artist of the ones listed earlier: Tom Petty. To be perfectly honest, his first two albums went by me without me hearing a single song from either. However, I would read small articles about this band from Gainesville, Florida, who moved to Los Angeles in the early-70s to make a stab at the golden ring. I also knew that critics had picked the song “Breakdown” as the big hit off the band’s debut album, Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers. It wasn’t until the summer of 1978, while listening to the soundtrack to the movie FM (anyone remember that movie?), which was just full of songs that are today lumped together as classic rock hits. Anyway, this “new” song, at least to me, came on. It had a bluesy feel to it, yet also reminded me of the Ray Charles hit, “Hit the Road Jack”, in its cadence. I was mesmerized by this song called “Breakdown” by Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers.

Still, it wasn’t until the end of 1979, when I heard “Don’t Do Me Like That” on the radio, and then saw the band perform on Saturday Night Live, that I wanted to hear more of his music. So, for Christmas, my friends down the street bought me his then new album Damn the Torpedoes. I became a huge Tom Petty fan with that album. I mean, the opening punch of Side 1 of that album remains classic to this very day. It’s not often when an artist can string together songs of the level of “Refugee”, “Here Comes My Girl”, “Even the Losers”, “Shadow of a Doubt” and “Century City” on ONE SIDE of an album. That’s unheard of! I was hooked…for good.

Now, I am going to rank all 18 albums in Tom Petty’s catalog, be they with or without the Heartbreakers. The crazy thing is that even when the album says it is a solo Tom Petty album, those Heartbreakers are all over them. They are family. That’s why they stick together. Now, there are two albums that Tom has recently recorded with his original band Mudcrutch. Those albums are included in this countdown, but I am not including the two Traveling Wilburys albums, since those do not rely mainly on Tom’s songwriting skills.

18. Songs and Music from the Motion Picture ‘She’s the One’ (1996). So, in typical Petty fashion, he follows up his super-successful solo album, Wildflowers, with his only foray into soundtrack writing. Now, Petty has NEVER released a clunker of an album, contrary to what critics say. But, since this is a true attempt at writing a soundtrack album with new music that actually complements the film, it is a successful experiment. But, as a Tom Petty album, uh, no. It does have a great lost Heartbreakers song called “Walls (Circus)”.

17. The Last DJ (2002). This is the sound of Tom Petty ripping into the music industry at a time when the whole thing was imploding over Napster. Tom attempted to write a diatribe in which a DJ who was still attempting to hang on to his Sixties altruism on radio all the while battling the bean-counters who simply look at music as product to get more listeners, not inspire them. If this album had been released in the 80s, it would be a classic. Instead, many people think this album is an example of grandpa going crazy, pining for the good old days. The album does have a classic on it called “Dreamville”.

16. Mojo (2010). I understood the reason why this album was made. The band had just killed it during the Super Bowl’s halftime show, and then proved they were still one of the world’s greatest bands on the tour that followed. So, in an attempt to display the muscularity of the band and to show off guitarist Mike Campbell’s skills, the band created this. It got away from their mantra: “Don’t bore us, get to the chorus.”

15. Hypnotic Eye (2014). Well, Tom and the boys decided to get back on track and record the type of music they are best at. The result was this strong album. The only problem, like much of their output this century, it lacks that one big Tom Petty song that cuts through the crap and gets to the point. Of course, the problem with comparing Petty’s albums to each other is that his lesser album would be high-water marks for 99% of the other artists out there throughout rock’s history.

14. Let Me Up (I’ve Had Enough) (1987). The whole band had just spent the better part of 1985 and 1986 touring as the backing band for Bob Dylan during his World Tour. From recent releases from that tour, it sounds like it was a match made in heaven. Petty and the Heartbreakers’ swampy rock sound was a perfect foil for Dylan. So, my expectations were high for this album. Unfortunately, they all sounded rushed and tired on the album. Still, this album gave us “Runaway Trains” and “Jammin’ Me”.

13. Mudcrutch (2008). Petty sounds relaxed throughout this album as he records with his original band with what Petty said is the worst name in rock history. What we got was some smooth country rock that fell between Gram Parsons’ stay-loyal-to-the-country-soul-of-the-song sound and the Eagles’ early, polished-off-the-edges country rock sound. By the way, Petty plays bass in this band AND shares the songwriting with the other band members. That’s why it sounds so laid back.

12. Into the Great Wide Open (1991). Petty was coming off his ultra-successful first “solo” album, Full Moon Fever, so he decided that he wanted to reconvene the band AND use Fever producer Jeff Lynne of Electric Light Orchestra and Traveling Wilburys fame. Although their are a couple of great songs on the album, especially “Learning to Fly”, I felt as though Lynne’s obsessive control handcuffed the chemistry of the band, causing them to lose their identity more times than not.

11. Mudcrutch 2 (2016). Everything that made the first Mudcrutch album so delightful remained. What made this album better is that the band sounds tighter. These guys are having the time of their lives while making this country rock classic. I sure hope Mudcrutch continues to record together in the future.

10. You’re Gonna Get It (1978). This is the second album by the Heartbreakers, and it above-average for a sophomore album. The piss and vinegar of the debut is still there, as well as the Byrdsian jangle that they inspired so many other bands to play. The album has “I Need to Know” and “Listen to Her Heart”, both classics in the Petty cannon, but little else. Still, you know this band is destined for greatness.

9. Highway Companion (2006). I still love listening to this “solo” album. The mood is laid back, as though he was preparing himself for his work with Mudcrutch. It’s a shame that radio did not pick up on “Saving Grace”, arguably is greatest song of the 21st century. I keep expecting the next Heartbreakers album to sound at least this good.

8. Long After Dark (1982). After two Classic albums with a capital “C”, Petty unwittingly strikes his first chord with the MTV generation with concise songs set to excellent videos. “You Got Lucky” is Petty at his most arrogant. “One Story Town” is Petty at his most vicious. And, “Change of Heart” is Petty at his most distant. He was everywhere on this album, and I rated to it so much at the time. But, it is an album for the young, angry types. It does not age that well.

7. Echo (1999). Petty’s life was a mess at the time. He was going through a divorce. Long-time bassist Howie Epstein was losing his battle with an addiction to heroin. So, Petty, instead of pouring out his heart, soul and venom, tries to show some class on this album. If he had done the former, he might have burnt every bridge and his career would have burned with them. Instead, he pulled back lyrically, and gave us this guarded divorce album. With a little venom, he might have written his Blood on the Tracks. Instead, he spared his ex-wife, children and friends the grief and made a really good album instead. Plus, we got the classic song “Swingin'” off this album.

6. Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers (1976). What a classic debut album! I mean, these guys began the album hot and ran hot throughout the whole thing. Plus, when you have “Breakdown” and “American Girl” on one album, you know it’s an important mission statement.

5. Full Moon Fever (1989). This is Petty’s first “solo” album. He had written a great set of songs that are still very memorable nearly 30 years after the fact. It is a great album that I think suffered a little bit from producer Jeff Lynne’s slickness. But, how can I complain when this album gave us “Runnin’ Down a Dream” and “Free Fallin'”?

4. Southern Accents (1985). This album was originally supposed to be Petty’s statement on growing up in the South. I wish that album had been made, because it would have been a nice trilogy to go with Springsteen’s Born in the USA and Mellencamp’s Scarecrow. Instead, we got a magnificent mess where Petty and the band were stretching out to incorporate psychedelia (“Don’t Come Around Here No More”), neo-Stax soul (“Make It Better (Forget About Me)”) and just plain weirdness (“Spike”). But the rest of the album shows what the album could have been too. Still, any album that has “Southern Accents” and “Rebels” to go with the aforementioned songs and you have a near-classic.

3. Wildflowers (1994). On Tom’s second “solo” album, he became the true voice of the late-Boomers and Generation X. Sure, Cobain led Nirvana to record a couple of classic albums that captured the angst of these people were facing during the Reagan/Bush years, but it was Petty who brought it all home with “You Don’t Know How It Feels”, and the rest of this Rick Rubin-produced classic album. Petty has often said that he knew that no one was writing songs for that section of society, so he made it his mission. And, on this album he continued the winning streak.

2. Damn the Torpedoes (1979). I would venture a guess that most of you would choose this as Petty’s best album. To me, this was just the opening salvo for a pair of great albums. Like I said earlier, not many albums have a Side 1 on vinyl that runs through FIVE classic songs BEFORE ever getting to that first single (“Don’t Do Me Like That”). Plus, the whole thing ends with the classic swampy country song “Louisiana Rain”, which might be Petty’s most beautiful song of all time.

1. Hard Promises (1981). This album arrived just weeks before I graduated from high school, and it’s lyrical themes simply touched deeply at that time in my life. I can still feel the pain in “The Waiting” and “The Woman’s in Love (It’s Not Me)”. “A Thing About You” is a terrific song about falling in love at first sight. And, “Letting Go” shows how break ups can be painful. But, to me, the song has always been “Insider”. If this album had included the duet with Stevie Nicks “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around”, this album would be a consensus classic and would have been the band’s first number one album. Oh, what could have been…

This has been a privilege to write about one of my all-time favorite artists. It forced me to go back and listen to many of these albums again in order to rank them fairly. But, music is always going to be a subjective subject. Music hits us all different. At least Petty and the Heartbreakers are getting their due.

I AM a John Mellencamp Fan!

Apple Store Soho Presents Meet The Creators: Stephen King, John Mellencamp And T Bone Burnett

Here in Indiana, there’s a saying that if you don’t like the weather just wait 15 minutes and it will change. Now, is that an exaggeration, most Hoosier’s will say no, but, in reality, it is. But, when you look at a week’s forecast, it can be in the 70s one day and a day or two later, we will be getting snow. The weather is especially volatile like that in the spring. I remember when I was teaching and coaching track, when my wife and kids would be on spring break in Florida, while I was back home attempting to have track practice during ice storms or even having school canceled due to snow accumulations. Then, the following week, when I would be off by myself, I’d just hang out at home while experiencing beautiful weather for a couple of days and one last cold snap before April would roll around.

It was during one of those solo spring breaks I had that I researched musicians who came from Indiana. I know, I must have been in one of my weird moods for me to check this out. Growing up, I had been told by my maternal grandmother that Indianapolis had an important and vibrant jazz scene. She told me of famous jazz artists like guitarist Wes Montgomery growing up in Indianapolis. She also noted that two of the greatest songwriters of her time were from Indiana: Hoagy Carmichael and Cole Porter. Both of those men added important songs to what we now call “The Great American Song Book”.

Other Hoosiers would have made a name for themselves in many genres. First and foremost, the Jackson family, you know Michael, Janet and the rest, were originally from Gary, Indiana, which is near Chicago. Then, there was blues guitarist Lonnie Mack, who is from a tiny town in southern Indiana. Southern gospel is actually centered in Alexandria, Indiana, where you will find Bill Gaither and his family creating and producing music. ’90s soul crooner Babyface is from Indianapolis, as is Americana singer-songwriter John Hiatt. Metal and Hard Rock are represented by Van Halen frontman David Lee Roth, Guns N’ Roses members and former members Izzy Stradlin, Axl Rose and DJ Ashba, and Motley Crue guitarist Mick Mars. Country singer Crystal Gayle is from Wabash, Indiana. The dude who wrote “Jingle Bells Rock”, Bobby Helms, lived in Indiana from birth to death. A Hoosier even contributed to the grunge/alternative scene of the ’90s with the group Blind Melon, Shannon Hoon.

There are many others, but those are some of the more famous Hoosier musicians. But, the man most associated with rural Indiana is John Mellencamp. Of all the artists listed earlier, none carries more Hoosier traits than Mellencamp. He is famously self-described as someone who has gone through life pissed off, like most Hoosiers. That characteristic is the reason for his nickname, “The Little Bastard”. But, he is full of contradictions as well. While Indiana is a “red state” and known for its staunch conservatism, Mellencamp routinely speaks out against those views and espouses liberal opinions. It’s that heart that I relate to, especially when he was one of the first to call out the George W. Bush administration for war crimes in his infamous song “To Washington”. Additionally, Mellencamp made a statement about race relations during the “Jenna Five” incident in Louisiana a few years back when he released a song called “Jenna”.

It is his willingness to stand up against the so-called traditional values that have left many of his loved ones and friends behind over the past 30+ years during which he had been a rock star. Now, I do collect his music because I respect him a great deal, but he is not one of my favorites. But, I will be first in line to purchase his next CD when it’s released in a couple of weeks.

Here’s to the man that truly put Indiana on the rock music map over thirty years ago. First, I saw him lip-synching “This Time” and, in a Temptations-styled dance routine, “Ain’t Even Done with the Night”  Then, I remember when he played on Saturday Night Live for the first time, then hearing “Hurts So Good” and “Jack and Diane” being played all over campus in the spring of 1982. I heard stories of former guitarist Larry Crane teaching a college friend how to play guitar. And, I remember the first time I met his current drummer, Dane Clark, because his daughter and my younger son were friends while growing up together.

Today, I present to you, my loyal reader, My Top 20 Favorite John Mellencamp Songs.

20. “This Time” (1980). I know that he can’t stand this song, but it was a pretty good pop song.

19. “I Need a Lover” (1979). People from Indiana must be the only ones to know this is really Mellencamp’s song and Pat Benatar did the cover version.

18. “Lonely Ol’ Night” (1985). The man was great at taking the sounds of the Stones, Motown and a little Indiana to make this great rock song,

17. “Rumbleseat” (1985). Indiana is famous for its love of cars, and Mellencamp shows that love here.

16. “Key West Intermezzo (I Saw You First)” (1996). John lost his way a bit in the ’90s yet was still able to write a Dylan-esque hit like this.

15. “Human Wheels” (1993). John had just rediscovered his rock muse when he started to be influenced by artists like Tom Waits, as this song sounds.

14. “Get a Leg Up” (1991). John had just completed his Band-influenced era by returning to his rocking sound. This song comes from the album Whenever We Wanted, which he described as being American Fool with better lyrics.

13. “Ain’t Even Done with the Night” (1980). This song was one of my favorite songs during the winter of 1980, along with another new artist’s hit at the time, “I Wanna Be Your Lover” by Prince.

12. “R.O.C.K. in the U.S.A.” (1985). Back in 1985, I thought this song was a little to pandering for me. Now that I am older, and don’t hear it all the time on the radio, this song has all the great musical things that made ’60s pop music so great. How he did it, I will never know!

11. “Wild Night [with Me’shell Ndegeocello]” (1994). Mellencamp’s brilliance is recognizing the talent of up-and-coming artists and collaborating with them, like he did here with bassist extraordinaire and soulful vocalist Me’shell Ndegeocello as his musical foil in this remake of the Van Morrison classic.

10. “Jack and Diane” (1982). This may have been Mellencamp’s first attempt at bringing the Hoosier experience of growing up to the general public. Certainly, it was his first successful attempt at that very thing.

9. “Crumblin’ Down” (1983). John makes his best Rolling Stones-sounding hit with this song.

8. “Peaceful World” (2001). This song was released right around the time of 9/11. I just remember how poignant the lyrics were at the time. Of course, it lacked the apparent jingoism that made his later hit, “This Country”, so popular with those Chevy commercials a decade ago.

7. “Hurts So Good” (1982). This is the sound of Mellencamp finally putting together a band worthy of this jump in his songwriting. John found is groove here.

6. “Pink Houses” (1983). This is John’s first classic, where he makes a beautiful statement about Reagan’s American underbelly.

5. “Small Town” (1985). In Indiana, if you are not from Indianapolis or what we call “The Region” (those cities on the Indiana side near Chicago), you pretty much live in a small town. John is simply describing our lives, which is why it resonates with Hoosiers so well.

4. “Play Guitar” (1983). This was never a hit, except with people at college parties back in the day. All I can say is, “Shut up with all your macho shit and learn how to play guitar!” That sums rock up in one sentence.

3. “Paper in Fire” (1987). The first single from The Lonesome Jubilee album served notice that Mellencamp was incorporating Appalachian sounds to his brand of rock and roll, and nothing will be the same again.

2. “Authority Song” (1984). Forget that the video won MTV’s “Friday Night Video Fights for several weeks on end. This song is simply about sticking it to the system and the man, only to get it thrown back in our faces. But, at least someone was trying.

1. “Cherry Bomb” (1987). John got a little nostalgic here, but it’s so tender and comes off with its innocence in tact, that it has stuck with me forever as my first warning about the perils of growing older. “Ah, and holding hands meant so much.” Yep, they sure did.

I have to admit that John Mellencamp is one of my favorite artists. Yet, for some reason, I never list him in my Top 20 Favorite Artists. I think I need to re-evaluate my mental list again.