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We were lucky he decided to trade a Wham-O slingshot for a stack of rock ‘n’ roll singles at age 10. And that he ended up meeting Mike Campbell and Benmont Tench in an early band called Mudcrutch, leading directly to a remarkable run with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. And that Petty quickly emerged as a sharp observer and even sharper critic, a romantic rebel who wore his emotions on his sleeve. And that he kept making vibrant, well-received music right up until the end.
Credit for that longevity, as you’ll see on our list of Tom Petty’s Top 10 Most Underrated Songs, can be given in part to the deep well of great tracks found across his discography. Itching to escape a difficult relationship with his father, Petty’s big-bang musical moment was seeing the Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show: “There was the way out,” he told Paul Zollo in Conversations With Tom Petty. “There was the way to do it.” Clearly, he sought to emulate the Beatles’ ability to craft deep cuts that resonated every bit as much as their big hits.
In keeping, this list draws from every era in Petty’s lengthy career, from his 1976 debut through 2014’s career-closing Hypnotic Eye, which belatedly became his first-ever No. 1 album. Our collection of Tom Petty’s Top 10 Most Underrated Songs is rounded out by a favorite track from his well-received two-album reunion with Mudcrutch.
From: ‘Hypnotic Eye’ (2014)
Petty played off the fractured landmasses that spidered across his home state of California by crafting a personal tale of overcoming past hurts. Nothing new there, really. Instead, the thrill came from hearing Petty and Heartbreakers – from Ron Blair’s hard-charging groove to Mike Campbell’s devastatingly cathartic solo – boldly reclaim their straight-ahead rock mantle after a detour toward more blues-based sounds on 2010’s Mojo.
“Waiting for Tonight”
From: ‘Playback’ (1995)
Why this sun-filled Byrds-y track was never released remains an enduring mystery. “Waiting for Tonight” found Petty reuniting with the Heartbreakers during the sessions for 1989’s Full Moon Fever, his first solo album. (It also featured simply gorgeous backing vocals by the Bangles.) More than that, “Waiting for Tonight” fits into the sense of romantic yearning that defined so much of Petty’s work. Yet the song remained tucked away until finding a home a bonus track on a mid-’90s box set.
“You’re Gonna Get It”
From: ‘You’re Gonna Get It!’ (1978)
The title track from a sophomore album often knocked for sticking with their debut’s basically perfect formula, “You’re Gonna Get It” simply shatters that mold. Rather than laying things out in his more typical Everyman fashion, Petty stalks around with a sharply expressed, yet still undefined malice. The music tells the story here, as swirling gusts of guitar and strings encircle Petty’s repeated, ever-spookier threats.
From: ‘The Last DJ’ (2002)
Petty unleashed a toe-curling screed aimed at the fast-evolving music industry elsewhere, before taking a moment for a longing look back at his life as a music-loving youth. “That was about innocence,” Petty once said, “before the corruptions hit me.” Still, as he recalls nostalgic trips to a local music store, and listening to rock’s earliest stars on the radio, “Dreamville” ends up becoming a far more cutting indictment of modernity.
From: ‘Damn the Torpedoes: Deluxe Edition’ (2010)
A classic heartbroken rocker, “Nowhere” was long thought to be lost. Petty was in the midst of a pitched legal battle with his label back then and feared that his tapes might be claimed as part of his assets during a tandem bankruptcy proceeding. So, he started moving the boxes around daily, and “Nowhere” somehow vanished. Decades later, engineer Ryan Ulyate finally found it while researching for a reissue of Damn the Torpedoes.
From: Mudcrutch’s ‘2’ (2016)
After reuniting for an upbeat, but occasionally lightweight 2008 debut, Mudcrutch took on more consequential subjects – and deeper musical complexity – with the follow-up. Songs like “Beautiful Blue,” so full of wistful longing, propel a studio project focused on coming to terms with life’s passages. “Beautiful Blue” is the romantic centerpiece of a very grown-up record, one that offered keen insights into how the choices we make turn into the lives we ultimately lead.
From: ‘Hard Promises’ (1981)
Tom Petty’s gift for storytelling was rapidly evolving, as heard during this terrific narrative about a lost and lonely figure who meets a bad end in a motel after running into a stranger. Every detail – the Sunday in June, the nearby porno theater, his frustration over blue laws – is so finely drawn as to be simply unforgettable. By this point, Petty was undoubtedly already something big, but he was also still getting better.
“Crawling Back to You”
From: ‘Wildflowers’ (1994)
As Petty struggled (and ultimately failed) to save his first marriage, songs like “Crawling Back to You” might have emerged from his bruised psyche anyway. But the song’s key lyric was actually cribbed from elsewhere: a book of memorable phrases passed along from a cousin. Petty stumbled across one that said “Most things I worry about never happen anyway,” and “Crawling Back to You” had found its fulcrum.
“Best of Everything”
From: ‘Southern Accents’ (1985)
Petty takes a deep dive into his Americana roots on this moving, album-closing collaboration with the pioneering members of the Band. Robbie Robertson handles the soaring, horn-driven production, while fellow Band mates Richard Manuel and Garth Hudson are featured on backing vocals and keyboards, respectively. Originally part of the sessions for 1981’s Hard Promises, “Best of Everything” ends up as the perfect ending to one of Petty’s most personal projects.
“The Wild One, Forever”
From: ‘Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers’ (1976)
Every one of Tom Petty’s more measured, late-period triumphs traces its lineage back to this impossibly sad ballad from the Heartbreakers’ first album. Centered on a relationship that dies after a one-night stand, the writing on “The Wild One, Forever” is both sharp and majestic. Musically, Mike Campbell and Benmont Tench tend to hog the spotlight, but Ron Blair’s unusual turn on the cello – he had no idea how to play the instrument – is the wind behind this track’s sails.