Discog Fever - Rating and Reviewing Every Tom Petty Album (Part 1)

by Jeff Fiedler

Discog Fever is a regular feature on thegreatalbums.com, rating and reviewing a band's entire catalogue of studio albums.

Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers (1976, Shelter)

A –

Sounding equal parts like the Byrds and the Rolling Stones, Petty and his boys arrive sounding exactly as they would for decades to come, and unlike a lot of other classic-rock bands from the ‘70s who took quite a while before they penned their first true classic (just look at how spotty the earliest albums from, say, Styx, Supertramp, ELO, or Genesis are), the Heartbreakers come blaring out of the gate with two classics in tow with the driving rock of “American Girl” and the slightly sinister-sounding grooves of the Top 40 hit “Breakdown.” Yes, like most discs from the band, there is a little bit of filler here, but not an overwhelming amount of it, and there are plenty of appealing album cuts in songs like “Strangered in the Night” (featuring a guest turn from their Shelter label-mate and early power-popper Dwight Twilley), “The Wild One, Forever,”
“Hometown Blues,”“Fooled Again (I Don’t Like It),” and “Anything That’s Rock’n’Roll.”

You’re Gonna Get It! (1978, Shelter)

B –

The band’s sophomore disc sounds as if it was slightly rushed, and for two reasons: for one thing, the material’s not nearly as strong overall as that on the debut, and for another, it also closes with a live track that seems completely out of place, as if it was tacked on due to lack of a tenth studio cut. But it’s not bad, either, and though the album could have used some stronger hooks in its first half (though “Hurt” and “Magnolia” are quite interesting, the latter boasting a cameo from Dwight Twilley Band drummer Phil Seymour), the second side is great and contains several gems in cuts like “Listen to Her Heart,” “Restless,” and the wildly catchy “I Need to Know.” 

Damn the Torpedoes (1979, Backstreet)

A +

One of the quintessential albums of classic-rock radio, Petty and his band re-emerge on a new label, complete with a new producer (Jimmy Iovine) and an extra bit of passion that manifests itself both in the performances and the songwriting. Simply, this is the sound of one of the best and most consistent bands in mainstream rock at the top of their game. There are two absolute classics here in the piano-pounding strut of “Don’t Do Me Like That,” the catchiest song Petty had penned yet, and the sinister rock of “Refugee,” but even the lesser-known songs here are still fabulous, especially “You Tell Me,” the ingenious “Even the Losers,” and the dramatic “Here Comes My Girl,” which is narrated more than it is actually sung and yet still works like an absolute charm. This is the place to start to build your Petty collection.

Hard Promises (1981, Backstreet)

A –

Not as hit-loaded as Damn the Torpedoes, but almost just as good, this disc also boasts fun cameos from Stevie Nicks (who pops up on both “Insider” and “You Can Still Change Your Mind”) and Donald “Duck” Dunn from Booker T. and the M.G.’s on bass on one cut. The only cut more casual fans might recognize here is the classic “The Waiting,” but this is a fine batch of tunes and includes such overlooked gems as “Nightwatchman,” “A Woman in Love (It’s Not Me),” “Insider,” and “Kings Road.” 

Long After Dark (1982, Backstreet)

B –

The band undergoes one of its few personnel changes in its history with Howie Epstein replacing Ron Blair on bass, but the band strangely sounds a bit exhausted here, and the songwriting is noticeably weaker than that on either of the last two discs. But the disc is also no weaker than You’re Gonna Get It!, although the critical difference between this disc and that one is that, whereas You’re Gonna Get It! was very much back-loaded, this one is heavily front-loaded, with “Straight into Darkness” being the only true highlight on the second side. The first side is better with appealing cuts like “Deliver Me” and “A One Story Town,” but the two biggest highlights are undeniably the album’s pair of Top 40 singles, the chugging “Change of Heart” and the unusually (for Petty, at least) synth-laden pop of “You Got Lucky.”

Southern Accents (1985, MCA)

A –

Perhaps Petty’s most interesting album to date, if not necessarily the best, you’ll find a wide-ranging assortment of opinions about this concept disc (one that vaguely recalls Randy Newman's Good Old Boys), and there are a lot of Petty fans who dislike this album quite a bit, if only for the reason that it deviates greatly from Petty’s usual formula. Recruiting Dave A. Stewart from Eurythmics to co-produce, the band tries all kinds of new things here, from adding a horn section on several cuts to experimenting with different genres, from the blues groove of the satirical “Spike” to the horn-heavy, Stax-like danceable R&B of “Make It Better (Forget About Me)” to even – believe it or not – deep funk on the fun throwaway “It Ain’t Nothin’ to Me.”
The group also unexpectedly recruits The Band’s Robbie Robertson as co-producer on the closer “The Best of Everything,” which also features The Band’s Richard Manuel and Garth Hudson as special guests. Even the strangest genre exercises here, though, still are pretty fun to listen to, if only because the band doesn’t sound quite as tired as they did on Long After Dark and seem rather re-energized by the chance to experiment and broaden their sound. But fans of the band’s trademark brand of rock shouldn’t despair – the band sticks to its older formula on such appealing rockers as “Rebels” and the underrated “Dogs on the Run.” Best of all, though, is perhaps the most left-field excursion of all, the psychedelic, sitar-laden haunting pop of “Don’t Come around Here No More.” (Fun trivia: one of that song’s backing vocalists is Marilyn Martin, who’d go on to score a Number One hit as Phil Collins’ duet partner on “Separate Lives” and a Top 40 solo hit with “Night Moves.”)    


Let Me Up (I’ve Had Enough) (1987, MCA)

B –  

This is the easiest Petty album to overlook, if only because its lone Top 40 single, the Bob Dylan co-write “Jammin’ Me” – one of Petty’s stranger outings from a lyrical standpoint, one that unexpectedly namechecks Vanessa Redgrave and SNL alums Eddie Murphy and Joe Piscopo – is seldom ever heard on the radio these days. The album seems unfinished at times – particularly since there are a few song fragments wedged between tracks and a small handful of songs unusually fade in – so this is a rather raw album by Petty’s typically well-crafted standards, but the disc is better than its legend suggests, even if the production occasionally works against it, especially on “Runaway Trains,” a great song saddled with a somewhat-dated-sounding production. It’s spotty, but no more so than Long After Dark, and because there is no instantly-recognizable hit like “You Got Lucky” here and the album is so easily forgotten, it’s a fun disc to dig through in search of lost gems, like the very underrated “All Mixed Up,” the traditional-folk sound of “It’ll All Work Out,” and the piano-pounding pop rush of “Ain’t Love Strange.”

Traveling Wilburys Vol. 1 (1988, Wilbury)

A +

This Petty side project doesn’t actually credit him (or any of its other four major participants, for that matter) by name – he’s instead referred to as “Charlie T. Wilbury” – but this band is pretty much the ultimate in supergroups: Petty, Bob Dylan, George Harrison, Roy Orbison, and Electric Light Orchestra mastermind Jeff Lynne. Naturally, this is a very fun album. Dylan is the dominant figure here, taking lead on four cuts, including “Dirty World,” “Congratulations,” and “Tweeter and the Monkey Man,” and Lynne takes center stage only on the rockabilly rave-up “Rattled.” The disc boasts two of George Harrison’s greatest latter-day sides in “Handle with Care” (boasting a bridge – sung by Roy Orbison – that is nothing short of perfect) and the vaguely-Beatlesque “Heading for the Light,” while Orbison and Petty each have a perfect solo showcase, respectively, in the dramatic “Not Alone Any More” and the acoustic head-bopper “Last Night.” The disc also ends in the most perfect fashion, with all five men sharing lead on the country-flavored “End of the Line,” memorably used decades later to close the final episode of Parks and Recreation.

Full Moon Fever (1989, MCA)

A +

Easily his best album since Damn the Torpedoes, Petty sounds newly refreshed here. Chalk it up to the presence of Traveling Wilburys bandmate (and ELO mastermind) Jeff Lynne as producer. Technically, this disc was credited to Petty only, but nearly all of the Heartbreakers make cameos here (as do George Harrison and Roy Orbison) and this disc really doesn’t sound all that different from your standard Heartbreakers record. There are three bona fide Petty classics here in the massive hit “Free Fallin’,” “I Won’t Back Down,” and the fast and frenetic rocker “Runnin’ Down a Dream,” but more so than any other Petty album in years, Petty’s got a fantastic crop of album cuts to go with the singles, especially the rockabilly rave-ups “Yer So Bad” and “A Mind with a Heart of Its Own,” “Love Is a Long Road,” “A Face in the Crowd,” and a dynamite cover of the Byrds’ “Feel a Whole Lot Better” that at least equals – and arguably might even surpass – the original. Even obvious throwaways like “Zombie Zoo” still have hooks that stick with you for days.

Traveling Wilburys Vol. 3 (1990, Wilbury)


The second and final outing from the Wilburys – jokingly titled Vol. 3 to confuse people – isn’t nearly as magical as their first, and for two primary reasons: Orbison had passed away shortly after the release of the first disc, his presence being quite missed, and the material isn’t quite as strong, either. Nevertheless, this is still an awfully fun album and the songs are still pretty good. Petty takes center stage on the ballad “You Take My Breath Away,” the pure country of “Poor House,” and “Cool Dry Place,” the former two among the disc’s highlights. Other standouts include the Dylan-led “Inside Out” and the doo-wop pastiche of “7 Deadly Sins.” The best cut of all, though, is “New Blue Moon,” featuring all four remaining Wilburys on vocals. 

Into the Great Wide Open (1991, MCA)

A –  

The first album released under the Heartbreakers name since 1987’s Let Me Up (I’ve Had Enough), this disc is actually more comparable to Full Moon Fever, mainly for the presence of Jeff Lynne as co-producer. There are fewer classics here than on that 1989 solo outing from Petty, but the “filler” here is actually catchier than that of your average Petty album, and the driving “Kings Highway,” “Too Good to Be True,” “Two Gunslingers,” “Built to Last” (which vaguely calls to mind the Ben E. King classic “Stand by Me”) and the “Free Fallin’”-recalling “All the Wrong Reasons” are all quite hooky. The most famous cuts here, though, are the title cut and the jangle-rock of “Learning to Fly,” one of Petty’s most underrated singles.