Tom Petty was a heartland rocker, American icon, and master of the kind of hit song that seems designed for road trips. Depending on the decade you came across his music, he was either the best thing you’d ever heard or something that was more the domain of your parents. As the years went on, though, his songwriting became recognized for what it always was: pure and honest. It was classic, real, and probably what you thought about when you thought about the monolithic concept of “rock music.” In short, he made perfect songs, and then he made other songs that were not perfect, but right. What follows is a list of some of our favorite Tom Petty songs — some are legitimate classics, others are just favorites. It’s not definitive, but it is personal.
Nate Jones, “American Girl”
I am a dance floor maniac; what I lack in any sort of skill and elegance I make up for in enthusiasm. For people like me, there are few better songs to come up in a rotation than “American Girl,” with that galloping Bo Diddley beat. There’s only one way to dance to it — you just bounce up and down as hard as possible. To make it even more fun to dance to, it speeds up, the way songs used to do before drum machines took over everything. “American Girl” is the sound of joy, it’s the sound of freedom, it’s the sound of the only happy part of Silence of the Lambs. And while you might fault the Strokes for ripping off the song’s famous intro for “Last Nite,” Petty himself didn’t seem to care.
Sam Hockley-Smith, “Don’t Come Around Here No More”
To this day, I’m not sure that “Don’t Come Around Here No More” is a good song, and I know that it’s not Tom Petty’s best song — but it is the one that I always think of when I think of Tom Petty. In a very “sure why not” mid-’80s moment, the music video is Alice in Wonderland–themed, and it ends with Petty, playing the Mad Hatter, cutting Alice — who is made out of cake, apparently — into pieces for everyone. The song also prominently features the electric sitar, which … by 1985, Tom Petty had earned the right to at least one appearance of electric sitar. Here’s the thing though: Buried underneath the operatic-choir backing vocals and the unnecessarily conceptual video, and the electric sitar (can you tell I am not a fan of the electric sitar’s appearance in this song?), Petty completely sells his vocal performance: His voice is cracked and worn, but no less catchy for it, repeating “don’t come around here no more” like a mantra. He’s wearing sunglasses for the entire video, and is mostly expressionless, but you can hear something tangible there. It cuts through everything else.
Devon Ivie, “End of the Line”
The Traveling Wilburys were the greatest supergroup to ever form in human history. Period. And while Roy Orbison’s dark falsetto and George Harrison’s chipper vocal stylings on train metaphors are as wonderful as ever in “End of the Line,” it’s Petty’s words about getting off your ass and living the life you want to live (no, I will not “sit around and wonder what tomorrow will bring”) that rev me up every single day. That, and can you think of a lovelier song about the passage of time? Kudos to Parks and Recreation for getting it back into the public consciousness once again.
E. Alex Jung, “Free Fallin’”
Did anyone make better highway-driving music than Tom Petty? The moment I hear Tom Petty first extend the notes on “And I’m free,” I’m back in high school, driving with my friends on the freeway and listening to “Free Fallin.’” No other song seems to best capture that peculiarly American love of hitting the open road with the windows open — your hair flying and your lungs bursting — and feeling like you could go absolutely anywhere.
Kyle Buchanan, “Here Comes My Girl”
The other night, at a bar, someone put Tom Petty on the jukebox. This could be said fairly generally — there’s always some bar, someplace, that is playing Tom Petty — but in this particular instance, I was at the bar near my house, feeling sort of alone, when “Here Comes My Girl” came on. Petty spit disaffected, lower-register prose about how weary the world had made him, like a barman leaning forward to commiserate with me. And then suddenly, his voice floated. “But when she puts her arms around me / I can somehow rise above it,” he sang. “And then she looks me in the eye, says, ‘We gonna last forever’ / And man, you know I can’t begin to doubt it.” For those moments of sweetness that make everything worth it, he needed a girl to pull him through. All I needed was a Tom Petty song.
Dee Lockett, “I Won’t Back Down”
Because of its unyielding message of resilience in the face of who or whatever’s kicking you down, “I Won’t Back Down” often becomes the go-to patriotic anthem whenever the nation’s in peril. (So, always.) It took on a life of its own after 9/11 and has been used by plenty of high-level politicians on the campaign trail post-9/11 (often to Petty’s annoyance). But, for all its larger context, “I Won’t Back Down” remains a personal salve for this stubborn-to-a-fault Petty fan who doesn’t like to budge either. Shout out to Sam Smith’s copyright snafu for unintentionally forcing a new generation to hear it.
Jordan Crucchiola, “Time to Move On”
The week I graduated college, one of my best friends made a mix CD for everyone in our group. It was 2007, so people still made mixes and handed them to you on physical media, and I wore that disc out top to bottom. But I’d always end up stretching it out by about 15 extra minutes when I played “Time to Move On” over and over and over again while I cried. My favorite was listening in the car. It was late June when I got the CD, which meant summertime with the windows all the way down and the volume all the way up — a perfect wind in your hair experience. Even though I’d grown up hearing Tom Petty in my house all the time, getting it from a lifelong friend at the moment we were about to be flung into the world for the first time — leaving behind each other and the enclosed world we’d shared for four years — was like experiencing “Time to Move On” anew. It felt like looking forward and hugging the past at once, and makes me feel like I’m living in a movie montage every time I hear it.