Discog Fever - Rating and Reviewing Every Tom Petty Album (Part 2)

by Jeff Fiedler

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

Wildflowers (1994, Warner Bros.)

A +

Helmed by Rick Rubin, this second solo outing from Petty, like Full Moon Fever before it, actually incorporates most of the Heartbreakers. It also boasts a pair of high-profile guest appearances: Ringo Starr even pops up on drums on “To Find a Friend” and Carl Wilson pops up on “Honey Bee.” It’s a noticeably more acoustic-oriented affair than any prior Petty album, though, which gives it its own distinctive feel, and “Don’t Fade on Me” actually consists of nothing more than Petty and longtime guitarist Mike Campbell on acoustic guitars. The songwriting is stronger here than on any Petty disc since Full Moon Fever, and there’s a wealth of great tunes here, from the simple folk of the title cut, the slow-burning grooves of “It’s Good to Be King” and “You Don’t Know How It Feels,” and the piano-driven “Crawling Back to You” to the snarling “Honey Bee,” the stomping “Cabin Down Below,” and the frenetic rocker “You Wreck Me.” Easily one of the three or four best albums Petty’s ever made. 

Songs and Music from “She’s the One” (1996, Warner Bros.)

B –

Arguably his most underrated album, this oft-forgotten soundtrack to an equally oft-forgotten Edward Burns movie, this isn’t Petty’s most cohesive album (a few cuts serve as either incidental music or variations on previous tracks), but, like Wildflowers, it has a very warm and relaxed feel to it, and it’s got a handful of very overlooked gems, namely “Walls (Circus),” which boasts background vocals from Fleetwood Mac’s Lindsey Buckingham, “Angel Dream (No. 2),” “Zero from Outer Space,” and “Grew Up Fast,” and an appealing cover of Lucinda William’s “Change the Locks.” It’s not essential, but it’s one of his most charming outings.  

Echo (1999, Warner Bros.)

A –

Petty’s days on Top 40 radio were pretty much over by this point, sadly, so there’s nothing here that will be as familiar to casual fans as “You Don’t Know How It Feels” or “Learning to Fly” or “Mary Jane’s Last Dance.” This is also one of the band’s darker and more downbeat affairs and seems to be heavily inspired by the then-recent breakup of Petty’s marriage, so it’s slightly less appealing for that reason than the sunnier pop of Into the Great Wide Open, the last non-soundtrack release to come out under the Heartbreakers name. At fifteen cuts and over sixty minutes of music, the disc could arguably have used some trimming, but tracks can always be skipped and better for a disc to be too long than too short, and when the music is this good, it’s understandable why the band might have been hesitant to cut anything (even if the Mike Campbell-sung “I Don’t Wanna Fight” very much feels out of place.) Highlights include “Room at the Top,” which begins on a wistful note before unexpectedly shifting into full rock mode roughly ninety seconds in, “Swingin’,” the marching rock of “Free Girl Now,” the clever “This One’s for Me,” the near-power-pop of “Won’t Last Long,” the vaguely Big Star-like ballad “Lonesome Sundown,” and the gorgeous “No More.”

The Last DJ (2002, Warner Bros.)

D +  

Easily the worst album Petty’s ever made, The Last DJ does have its redeeming cuts, namely the pretty ballad “Dreamville,” but also the wah-wah-drenched slow rave of “Can’t Stop the Sun,” the country-rock-tinged ballad “Have Love Will Travel,” and the breezy “You and Me.” But it also contains the worst song he’s ever written in “Joe,” and the album is both too crotchety and too insular to make it seem as if it was really written with his fans in mind, Petty spending a sizable portion of the album griping about the music industry, from record label executives to Top 40 radio, and even if he does have a very valid point, it doesn’t exactly make for particularly relatable subject matter. Petty also seems distracted to a fault, spending so much time complaining about the industry that he’s forgotten to give most of these songs particularly strong hooks, so you’re not likely to remember most of these melodies after the disc is over, and therein lies the great irony of the disc: it’s the sound of a veteran complaining about how hard it is to get his newer material on the radio while simultaneously offering up his least commercial batch of material in some time. 

Highway Companion (2006, American)

B –

Jeff Lynne is back in the co-producer’s chair on this, Petty’s third solo outing, but this disc really has little in common with Full Moon Fever. Mike Campbell is the only other musician here besides Petty and Lynne, and the disc plays out like a confused hybrid of Full Moon Fever and Wildflowers, so it lacks the focus of either of those two albums. But the songs are thankfully much better here than those on The Last DJ (with the exception of “Jack” and “Big Weekend,” neither of which is nearly as bad as “Joe” but are still rather weak by Petty’s standards), and there are a handful of gems here in the Big Star-like balladry of “Night Driver,” the swinging “Saving Grace,” the gentle acoustic pop of “Square One,” the sinewy groove of “Turn This Car Around,” and the pure rock of “Flirting with Time.” It might be the weakest of his three solo albums, but it’s by no means a bad album, either, and it’s a much-welcome move back in the right direction.

Mudcrutch (2008, Reprise)

B –

In what is perhaps his most surprising career move yet, Petty has re-assembled Mudcrutch, the band he played with prior to the Heartbreakers. Mudcrutch only ever put out one single before disbanding, and two of the other four members – Mike Campbell and Benmont Tench – would end up joining the Heartbreakers, while Tom Leadon (the brother of the Eagles’ Bernie Leadon) briefly went on to play with one-hit-wonders Silver (“Wham Bam”). That Petty would even think to reunite the quintet (rounded out by drummer Randall Marsh), never mind actually do it, makes for a very unusual and intriguing story, and this disc is wildly fascinating for that reason. It’s a more democratic band than the Heartbreakers, and Tench and Leadon each get to take a lead vocal on “This Is a Good Street” and “Queen of the Go-Go Girls,” respectively. (Leadon also shares lead vocal with Petty on “Shady Grove.”) It’s also a more distinctly country-influenced band as well, and one unafraid to stretch out, either. (“Crystal River” lasts nearly ten minutes, unheard of on prior Petty discs.) Highlights include the swampy rock of “The Wrong Thing to Do,” “Scare Easy,” the piano rock of “Topanga Cowgirl,” and “Bootleg Flyer,” the last of which is a propulsive number that sounds like a more rustic version of “American Girl.” The album’s only major flaw is that it contains too many standards or covers (including the Dave Dudley country classic “Six Days on the Road,” the Byrds’ “Lover of the Bayou,” the folk standard “Shady Grove” and the instrumental “June Apple”) to really rank all that high up there with Petty’s typically all-original affairs.

Mojo (2010, Reprise)

C +

One of the oddest albums ever cut under the Heartbreakers name, this is a very blues-heavy disc that never exactly feels like a Tom Petty album. (“Lover’s Touch,” for instance, sounds far more suited for Eric Clapton.) The band even ventures into reggae territory on “Don’t Pull Me Over.” Naturally, given the talent of the musicians involved, it’s all well-played, but the whole project can’t help but smack of self-indulgence, and you’ve really got to wonder if the band ever stopped to consider that this is probably not what their fans had in mind for the band’s first disc together in eight years (and the follow-up to the equally insular and polarizing The Last DJ, at that.) How many Heartbreakers fans, after all, were really itching for the band to make a blues album? But, its conceptual nature aside, the album does have its memorable moments, most notably the hypnotic, seven-minute “First Flash of Freedom” and, even better, the nasty, snarling blues-rock of “I Should Have Known It.”

Hypnotic Eye (2014, Reprise)

A –

Arguably the finest disc released under the Heartbreakers name since at least Echo and perhaps even Southern Accents, Petty and the boys have wisely returned to more distinctly Heartbreakers-sounding rock, albeit with a more pronounced ‘60s-garage-rock flavor, and they’ve also got a largely first-rate batch of songs to work with, too, highlighted by the grungy rock of “American Dream Plan B,” the fuzz-bass-laden “Red River,” the swinging yet swampy “Fault Lines,” the Bo Diddley-recalling “Forgotten Man,” and the ominous grooves of “U Get Me High.” A very welcome comeback.

Mudcrutch 2 (2016, Reprise)

A

Quite possibly Petty’s best album – solo or otherwise – since Wildflowers, the second Mudcrutch disc is a huge leap forward from their self-titled debut. They’ve dispensed with covers entirely, for starters, and they also bring an even superior set of originals to the table, one that boasts at least one song from every single band member. That might make some fans nervous at first – when you’re as good a songwriter as Petty is (and he’s still in superb form here), there’s technically no need to seek out other material – but Marsh, Leadon, Tench, and Campbell all manage to each bring a real winner to the table, and the democratic move pays off in a very big way. The disc gets off to a knockout start with “Trailer,” a newly-recorded version of a song that got left off of Southern Accents, and the hooks keep coming up with great fare like the Heartbreakers-like “Dreams of Flying,” the driving-yet-lovely Randall Marsh-penned-and-sung rocker “Beautiful World,” the epic ballad “Beautiful Blue,” the Farfisa-laden garage-rock of “Hope,” the fun, swinging, Tench-penned-and-sung “Welcome to Hell,” and the catchy, jangling country-rock of “Save Your Water.” The disc is so good, it’s enough to make you think that maybe Petty should put the Heartbreakers on hold and cut another Mudcrutch disc while everyone in the group is still in such fine form creatively.  

Compilations:

If a single-disc package is what you’re looking for, you can’t do much better than the best-selling 1993 package Greatest Hits, which rounds up most – though not all – of the hits (“Change of Heart” and “Jammin’ Me” are the most glaring omissions) and adds two new cuts, a cover of Thunderclap Newman’s “Something in the Air” and the delightful Top 40 hit “Mary Jane’s Last Dance.” The 2000 double-disc Anthology: Through the Years is much more complete, containing all of Petty’s Top 40 hits for MCA with the exception of his live cover of the Searchers’ “Needles and Pins” and even going out of its way to include the Stevie Nicks duet “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around,” previously unavailable on a Petty LP. 


Live Albums:

Vinyl collectors up for a challenge may want to seek out the one-sided 1977 promotional EP Official Live 'Leg, which includes some serious rarities, most notably an unavailable-elsewhere cover of Chuck Berry’s “Jaguar and Thunderbird.” The four-CD box The Live Anthology boasts a lot of great performances, but it’s a bit pricey and contains too much music to be digested in one sitting. The 1985 double-disc Pack up the Plantation: Live! is a bit more representative of your typical Petty concert, and it also contains one of Petty’s hardest-to-obtain Top 40 hits, a fine cover of the great ‘60s classic “Needles and Pins” (co-written by Sonny Bono and made famous by the British Invasion group The Searchers) done as a duet with Stevie Nicks.