Top 10 Tom Petty Songs of the '80s

Despite boasting one of the most prolific and high-quality catalogues of '80s songs, rocker and singer-songwriter Tom Petty sometimes slips off the radar of music fans when they consider the most important artists of that decade. But that's only because his influence and accomplishments have been so consistent across the decades. During the '80s Petty evolved from an album rock, marginally new wave rocker with roots rock influences to a folk rock troubadour and poet in the vein of Bob Dylan.

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"The Waiting"

Singer Tom Petty, playing the guitar, performs on stage during a 1981 Chicago, Illinois, concert.
George Rose/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Out of the select group of classic rock songs people say they never grow tired of hearing, Tom Petty simply must contribute a healthy percentage. This wonderful, jangly roots rocker is a perfect example of the kind of solid songcraft and tight performance required to turn a song into a timeless, consistently inspiring experience. Of course, much of this has to do with just how damn good the Heartbreakers were (and continue to be), from Mike Campbell's clean, passionate guitar lines to the familiar but haunting organ of Benmont Tench. But what it really comes down to is the song, a skillful blend of masterful melody and precise lyrics about the vitality of longing and desire.

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"Stop Draggin' My Heart Around"

Album Cover Image Courtesy of Geffen

Though Fleetwood Mac chanteuse Stevie Nicks enjoyed name supremacy on this track, the fact that the song is a Tom Petty-Mike Campbell composition is about as surprising as a twenty-something celebrity meltdown these days. Petty and the Heartbreakers always put a distinctive stamp on their performances, but this track screams Campbell and Benmont Tench before the first bar is complete. It's a shame that this tune is not widely seen as a classic from the band's repertoire, as Nicks' presence may enhance the production but certainly never exceeds what the Heartbreakers can do on their own. At around 1981, Petty was at the peak of his melodic sorcery, and this song continues to enchant as freshly as ever.

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"You Got Lucky"

Album Cover Image Courtesy of Geffen

This moody track from , the 1982 follow-up to - the group's smash album from the year before - manages to retain a healthy roots rock feel even if accompanied by the kind of prominent synth work that typified pop music of the era. Simply put, anyone who says that Petty packs the same punch solo as with the Heartbreakers is deeply misguided, and this track is about as much evidence you'll ever need to bear that out. Again, the songwriting comes incredibly close to flawlessness here, advancing layers of unshakable melody but also building an elegant and street-tough atmosphere that is nothing short of intoxicating. The sentiment may not be particularly gorgeous, but the song certainly is.

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"Straight Into Darkness"

This exceptional album track from

Long After Dark

exposes one of classic rock radio's greatest sins: ignoring many worthy album rock songs by its darling artists in pursuit of some kind of consultant/focus group bottom line. This song is easily as good as any of Petty's major rock radio staples, and that's saying something when the overplayed tunes in question are also of exemplary quality. Once again, the irresistible hook in the chorus commands most of the attention, but this also romps along effectively and convincingly as a scorching rocker. The group is as fluid as ever, and this core '80s lineup of the Heartbreakers announces itself as one of the greatest ensembles of the rock era.

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"Change of Heart"

This full-tilt rocker with a great muscular guitar riff continues to prove the thesis that it's extremely rare for Petty and his band to release a mediocre song. Album tracks of the '80s, in particular, tended to be markedly inferior to the hits found on popular rock albums, but Petty simply doesn't subscribe to the concept of filler. Here listeners will find a spirited performance of a direct and effective rock song, one that showcases Petty's passionate and Dylanesque vocal style as well as the Heartbreakers' punch and firepower. Lyrically, this tune may not be among Petty's best work, but even a step down for him makes for a must-have selection for your mainstream rock collection.

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Album Cover Image Courtesy of Geffen

Where "Don't Come Around Here No More" represented a somewhat experimental approach that not all of Petty's fans embraced, this song delivers the straight-ahead rock and roll that listeners had come to expect from him. Appropriately culled from the group's 1985 album, , this track also is one of Petty's first to explore his Gainesville, Fla. Southern roots. And although lyrically the song might stand out as a somewhat irritating Southern rock companion to "Sweet Home Alabama" at times, there's no denying the fiery, inspiring lift of a great rock song such as this. Once again, fine work from the Heartbreakers brings everything home with poise and vitality.

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"Runaway Trains"

Album Cover Image Courtesy of MCA

Although Petty and his band have been less than complimentary of their 1987 release, , I have always thought this evocative track represents one of the finest musical moments of the '80s. Tench's keyboard arrangements build a mesmerizing foundation, supported wonderfully by Campbell's varied guitar contributions. However, the primary attraction undoubtedly resides in Petty's grasp of melody across the verse, bridge and transcendent chorus. This one may sound more of the '80s than any of the Heartbreakers' largely organic guitar rock offerings from before, but that shouldn't take away from a clear recognition of its solid structure and emotional resonance.

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"Think About Me"

The critical and commercial dip experienced by the Heartbreakers' last official album of the '80s may have led Petty to record his first solo album, the monumentally successful

Full Moon Fever
Let Me Up

quietly harbors some great music that still holds up quite well 20 years later. This particular song represents a solid return to the driving rock of Petty's '70s heyday and generally sounds like a fun, sprited romp to me. Music appreciation is always a matter of taste, which is as far-reaching as the color spectrum, so maybe this track mainly demonstrates that Petty and the Heartbreakers have made very little weak music and thus leave plenty of room for positive interpretation.

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"I Won't Back Down"

Album Cover Image Courtesy of Geffen

Well, I've heard this one an awful lot over the years, in places as disparate as NHL hockey games and drugstore sound systems. And while usually that would be a strike against a song in terms of making one of my best-of lists, in this case I must make an exception. This is Tom Petty the singer-songwriter at his most simple and direct, displaying highly personal and yet almost wholly universal sentiments regarding the central difficulty of life and the challenges inherent. The fact that Johnny Cash covered this song a few years later is a telling sign regarding its impeccably solid structure and its sweeping appeal to all kinds of pop listeners.

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"A Face in the Crowd"

I'm sure I'll take my fair share of abuse for leaving the familiar but overrated "Free Falling" off this list, but I honestly don't think that track stands among his 10 best of the '80s. This moody, intricate tune, on the other hand, does a good job of injecting Petty's individuality with an increased intimacy that allows him to thrive even while nominally separated from the Heartbreakers. As a result, there is a slightly different vibe to Full Moon Fever than any of Petty's previous '80s records, one that foreshadows the greater role of folk and singer-songwriter inclinations to come from here on out in his career.