Some artists make a huge impact before shrinking away, like the Sex Pistols for example. Others permeate the industry and seep into every corner of it, like Leonard Cohen. While some artists manage to do both without blinking an eye. Enter Tom Petty.
The late, great Tom Petty is one of the greatest songwriters of the 20th century and beyond. His skills both lyrically and his expert ear for a tune have made him one of the most revered acts in rock. But if you are new to both his solo work and his albums with the Heartbreakers and aren’t sure which record to start with, we’ve got just the thing for you.
Below, we are sharing our definitive ranking of Petty’s studio albums. Across sixteen LPs, Petty and his band the Heartbreakers delivered some of rock’s defining moments and the story of Americana. It ranks as some of the most comprehensive and yet understated work we’ve ever come across.
If you were looking for the album to start your Tom Petty journey with then we have you covered as we rank the singer’s albums in order of greatness.
Let’s dive in.
Tom Petty’s albums ranked worst to best:
16. The Last DJ (2002)
Tom Petty was never truly a corporate stooge, in fact, he spent most of his recording career rallying against them. But it took the turn of the century for the singer-songwriter to put his feelings down on record. That record is The Last DJ.
The only issue is, that with his focus so obviously pulled from the art of writing and now laser-trained on the men in suits, Petty forgot a little of the cadence and culture that made him such an appealing prospect for those parties in the first place. The title track certainly has value and ‘Dreamville’ is another worthy addition to your playlist but the rest of the LP is just rather listless.
15. Let Me Up (I’ve Had Enough) (1987)
By 1987, Tom Petty was one of, if not the biggest rock star in America. The singer’s success had seen the fruits of his careful planning and meticulous recording triumph across the board. It meant that when he came to recording Let Me Up he was bored of such mundane orchestrating. Instead, he arrived at the studio with no plan at all.
The songs were supposed to sound as if they were recorded live and tried to bring Petty back to his acoustic slapping roots. Still, bar a few wins (‘Jammin’ Me’ is a particular joy), the album is a little too shiny for an apparently stripped-back LP. More proof, that every artist is different in their own way and while it will work for others, Petty needed a plan.
14. Long After Dark (1982)
The album may well contain one of Petty & The Heartbreakers most beloved singles in ‘You Got Lucky’ but the rest of the album falls flat in comparison. Naturally, the LP is full of expert playing and impressive guile but it doesn’t really have any big hitters other than the aforementioned.
A difficult fifth record suggested that perhaps The Heartbreakers needed a break themselves as, apart from the glitz of ever-improving recording budgets, the album is a bit of a dud. Even Tom Petty himself wasn’t a fan, which probably says all you need to know.
13. Songs and Music from ‘She’s the One’ (1996)
This album is likely to divide avid Tom Petty fans. The acclaimed songwriter, as any good songwriter will agree too, wasn’t a fan of this LP as it was largely composed of bits and bobs form the band’s previous record Wildflowers. But that hasn’t stopped a cult following for the almost-soundtrack to Ed Burns’ feature film She’s The One.
There’s a certain freedom on this album that the band express with glee and, with the proper time to germinate, can mean it becomes a nostalgic memory of their time as a band. As well as a few pop gems, like ‘California’, there are some stranger moments too including ‘Zero From Outer Space’. But, all in all, the record remains on the lower end of Petty’s talent and so on the lower side of this list too.
12. Into the Great Wide Open (1991)
Tom Petty is exactly the kind of artist who has a huge solo hit only to bring his band back together again. Such was the case on 1991’s Into the Great Wide Open. The singer is at his bard-like best as he regales his audience with the staunch tales of Americana including the LP’s biggest hits ‘Two Gunslingers’ and ‘Learning To Fly’.
The album is the perfect afternoon bath album and probably falls down because of it. Petty may well be the king of soft rock but there’s an edge missing from this album that is hard to avoid. If you’re looking for a lounging rock LP then this is the album for you. If you’re searching for Petty’s razor-edge then keep moving on.
11. You’re Gonna Get It (1978)
Oh, that difficult second album. We all know the sophomore release syndrome which suggests that bands struggle to rekindle the intensity of their debut album. After all, they’ve usually waited 5+ years to make that one before having to churn out a second the very next year. While it would be tough to label You’re Gonna Get It as such a failure, it’s hard to compare it to the blistering power of the band’s debut.
There’s more than enough jangle joy on this record for any fan and the homage to the sixties tones is palpable in every note but, otherwise, the album is directly aimed at the charts meaning pop hits ‘I Need To Know’ and ‘Listen to Her Heart’ are the album’s standout moments.
10. Hypnotic Eye (2014)
If it hadn’t been done already, 2014’s Hypnotic Eye proved like Leonard Cohen, David Bowie and Johnny Cash, Tom Petty was a bonafide icon. The singer-songwriter, somewhat over the hill at this stage in his career, delivered a searing riposte to such claims with a vibrant and effervescent record.
It’s largely because, despite the change of society’s taste, Petty took the chance to return to his blues roots. As such, the album is full of modern classics like ‘All You Can Carry’ and ‘U Get Me High’ which both pay tribute to his ability to eviscerate on sight whenever required.
9. Mojo (2010)
While the previous album saw Petty return to his roots, it was Mojo which laid the foundations and it is this record which prompted a big turn into leftfield as Petty once again reinvigorated his creative flow. The band may hail from the sun shining coasts of America but their music is firmly caked in the mud of the Delta River and Mojo sees them dive in headfirst.
All of the mud pile frolickings is likely because the band seem to be free of the turmoil of being in a band in the spotlight. Not only is it incredibly fun to jam out a load of blues standards and call it an album but it allows the group, all noted musicians, to fully flex their creative muscles and let the music play through them. For that reason alone, the Lp deserves larger recognition than it receives.
8. Highway Companion (2006)
While Petty was certainly at home with a band behind his back, he also proved a more than capable solo artists too. On 2006’s Highway Companion Petty saddles us along with him as we take a trip through his greatest (and wide-ranging) musical influences. It means there’s a little bit of country, a double dose of rock ‘n’ roll and all of it underpinned by the fine art of storytelling.
With former Travelling Wilbury bandmate Jeff Lynne on the LP as co-producer, the album is naturally gifted in arrangements. It means that, more so than ever before, Petty’s work has room to breathe and allows his emotional context to be given ample space to evolve. It’s just an all-round good record. No fuss, no muss.
7. Southern Accents (1985)
A concept album about the South of America is, by all accounts, a fantastic idea. While the album does struggle to contain the three songs Petty wrote with the Eurythmics within the concept, the rest of the record has a welcomed gentle hum that is both warm and glowing.
Particularly brilliant visions of the South come from ‘Rebels’ and ‘Spike’ while Petty uses his often overlooked lyrical jousting to cleverly deliver a message we don’t get to hear so often: the South is a nice place to be. Though many will say this album is too conflicted to rank so highly we’d suggest that confliction is actually an integral part of the concept itself.
6. Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers (1976)
Go to any rock dive bar in America and chances are, on their jukebox, they will have at least one track from Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers’ debut LP. When you consider the musical landscape of the time, there was a good chance that this LP could have fallen through the cracks. As it was, it became a foundational moment for Petty’s career and rock in general.
Naturally, the album is full of youthful energy and a captivating pulse, something perfectly encapsulated on ‘American Girl’, arguably Petty’s most beloved release. If debut albums are meant to be the distillation of everything it took for a band to reach their record contract, then this one is proof of just how in love Petty was with rock ‘n’ roll. In fact, he wrote a song about that too.
5 Echo (1999)
Produced by Rick Rubin, 1999’s Echo went down in Tom Petty’s books as a bad album. But that’s largely because of the circumstances in which it was recorded. Petty was going through an ugly divorce at the time and the song son the LP are all deeply ingrained with pain and sadness. While that may have been difficult for Petty to look back on, as an audience it is utterly captivating to listen to.
It’s fair to say that, at the time, Petty was on a downward spiral and had no real hope of bouncing back. Using this album to express himself he offers another worthwhile volume of his life for his adoring readers. We get to experience Petty’s turmoil as he expertly guides us through his experience with the delicacy of a modern bard.
4. Hard Promises (1981)
The eighties provided a set of stadiums and arenas for Tom Petty to fill as he took on the role of (slightly) elder statesman of rock. While Bob Dylan et al tried to chase commercial success with a series of middle of the road releases, Petty was able to achieve it with some of his most searing work. Hard Promises was the album that certified Petty as a headline act across the entire globe.
The album is perfectly balanced too. While there are certainly some big hitters on this LP, ‘The Waiting’ is a particular piece of brilliance, the album is counterweighted by the exuberance of Petty’s growing musicianship. To make it even sweeter, rumours are that Petty refused to charge his fans an extra dollar on this album as requested by his label. A hero.
3. Full Moon Fever (1989)
As The Heartbreakers approached another decade, with their esteem only gaining more and more driving force, Tom Petty cut them from his upcoming project. Instead, he unleashed his first solo project to prove that he alone was worth his weight in gold. Full Moon Fever is arguably one of the defining rock albums of the decade. The album made Petty a pop star.
Of course, the band wasn’t completely out of the picture, Campbell continued to work as his right hand man with both Tench and Epstein contributing to the record also—but the real partnership here was between Petty and Jeff Lynne. The musician-turned-producer had an affinity with Petty’s sound that always managed to add gloss without cheapening it. Lyrically, it is one of Petty’s finest works and was another note of commendation for Petty’s growing iconography.
2. Damn the Torpedoes (1979)
We’re not sure if Petty saved his best albums for the end of the decade or it just so happens that two of his best arrived that way. What we are sure of is that Damn The Torpedoes announced Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers as one of the preeminent bands in rock music. In fact, it would be hard to have seen them as anything other than the new benchmark.
It was the album which confirmed the band as stars because of their meticulous musicianship. The record’s culture and cultivation was a long and arduous process, one which gathered up Petty a reputation for perfection. It would seem his pursuit of said perfection was worthwhile as across songs like ‘Here Comes My Girl’, ‘Even the Losers’, ‘Refugee’ and so many others, Petty provides his most crystal-clear vision of what rock should sound like.
1. Wildflowers (1994)
It may seem strange to pick a Tom Petty solo album as our favourite considering the ample work the Heartbreakers put into Petty’s legend—but this album is a Heartbreakers LP in everything but name. Co-produced by Petty, Campbell and Rick Rubin, the album provided Petty with a chance of creative freedom and artistic salvation. No longer tied to the Heartbreakers sound, this album saw Petty run wild as a stallion.
The album may well come complete with orchestral arrangements and an iconic producer in Rubin but, in truth, the real beauty fo the record is how connected Petty is with his sound. Rootsy and bluesy in equal measure, Petty is never overcome by what surrounds him, instead, using it to embellish his own brilliance. The album is full of soul and excitement as it offers both a guiding hand and a chance of a new future. It’s a piece of Petty’s life that feels charged with the electricity of something new and, for that reason, it deserves its place at the top.