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Tom Petty: 10 essential songs

Jennifer Van Evra

Legendary rocker Tom Petty has died. He was 66 years old.

Petty was reportedly found unconscious after experiencing cardiac arrest in his Malibu home and was rushed to hospital, but he did not survive, according to a statement from his longtime manager.

"On behalf of the Tom Petty family we are devastated to announce the untimely death of of our father, husband, brother, leader and friend Tom Petty," reads the statement, which was released Monday night. "He suffered cardiac arrest at his home in Malibu in the early hours of this morning and was taken to UCLA Medical Center but could not be revived. He died peacefully at 8:40 p.m. PT surrounded by family, his bandmates and friends."

"It’s shocking, crushing news," Petty's friend and former Traveling Wilburys bandmate Bob Dylan told Rolling Stone. "I thought the world of Tom. He was a great performer, full of the light, a friend, and I’ll never forget him."

Earlier in the day, there was confusion following a report from the Los Angeles Police Department that appeared to confirm the singer's death. It turned out to be false.

Petty recently wrapped up his 40th anniversary tour, which he had said might be his “last big one.”

Known for his powerhouse guitar sound, distinctive singing style and evocative songwriting, the three-time Grammy winner has hits spanning several decades, and has been cited as a major influence to generations of musicians.

In honour of Petty, here is a list of essential tracks.

'I Won't Back Down'

This was the first single from Petty's solo debut in 1989, and even though it sounds languid and laid back, it's pure fire. "Gonna keep this world from dragging me down" is a lot harder than it sounds, but it's way easier with Tom Petty's incredible chorus encouraging us in our resistance, in our convictions and in our hope. "Hey baby, there ain't no easy way out," he sings, his voice golden and warm with a hint of husk, like a wheat field left just a little too long in the sun. And the fact that Petty had his publisher send a cease-and-desist letter to George W. Bush's campaign in 2000 only adds to the richness of the song's — and the man's — legacy.

— Andrea Warner

'Mary Jane's Last Dance'

This music video is macabre, creepy and incredible on so many levels, not the least of which is its commentary, unintentional or not, on the ways in which women are objectified by men, attainable and compliant and perfect only in death. The song itself tells a different story: a young woman whose sexual agency and beauty are her only defining characteristics, but are enough to make her a disruptor of the small town/small mind status quo. It's a song rich with longing and it was a wildly different and memorable glimpse into Petty's willingness to get a little weird. — AW

‘Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around’

Technically this is a Stevie Nicks song, but it is inextricable from Tom Petty. Co-written by Petty and fellow Heartbreaker Mike Campbell, "Stop Draggin' My Heart Around" was the first single released off of Nicks' debut solo album, hitting No. 3 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart in 1981. Nicks and Petty are devastating on it, solidifying Nicks' solo career (as if there was any doubt) and giving us the above performance video of the two — which was the 25th video to play on MTV's first day on air: Aug. 1, 1981.

— Holly Gordon


Tom Petty's gift was brevity. Succinct thoughts; tight melodies; chords that lead the only place they could. The kicker was that Petty's little, memorable phrases always meant hundreds of things at the same time. “Wildflowers” is a lover releasing a restless partner. It's a friend saying goodbye. It's a father wishing his child the life he never had. Plus, there's a brilliant little bridge that quietly cries out for a brass band to make it fitting send-off. All of that, and if he'd said any more it would have meant less.

— Tom Allen

‘The Waiting’

Petty excelled at writing lyrics that everyone could relate to, and the hit song “The Waiting” from the 1981 album Hard Promises, probably tops the list. The chorus “Every day you see one more card/ you take it on faith, you take it to the heart/ the waiting is the hardest part” succinctly boils down a universal annoyance into a simple thought. “It’s one that has really survived over the years because it’s so adaptable to so many situations,” he told Performing Songwriter in 2014. “I even think of that line from time to time. Because I really don’t like waiting.”

— Andrea Gin

‘You Don’t Know How It Feels’

This song is mostly about the thumping, addictive beat, and the rare achievement of making harmonica solos sound cool. “You Don’t Know How It Feels” was the lead single from the 1994 album Wildflowers and one of Petty’s biggest hits, reaching No. 1 on the Billboard Hot Mainstream Rock Track and No. 13 on the Billboard Hot 100. It also serves as a reminder of a more innocent time in America: MTV only aired a censored version of the song, taking out the word “roll” out of “let’s roll another joint.” — AG

‘Free Fallin’

If you know one Tom Petty song, it's bound to be "Free Fallin'." The immediately recognizable chords and infinitely singable chorus were co-written by Petty and Electric Light Orchestra's Jeff Lynne, and would become the opening track on Petty’s 1989 solo debut album, Full Moon Fever. While hitting hard on his nostalgia for the San Fernando Valley in Los Angeles — specifically Mulholland Drive and Ventura Boulevard — Petty doesn't corner his audience with it. Instead, it's the quintessential highway driving song — no matter the highway. — HG


One of Tom Petty’s most potent and enduring hits, “Refugee” is not, in fact, about people fleeing war-torn nations. Rather, the biting song encourages a woman to flee an abusive relationship. The track came out in 1980, at the odd juncture between disco, punk and New Wave, and shot the guitar-heavy band onto the Billboard charts; suddenly, Petty and his band the Heartbreakers were a household name. The growl of those opening chords is unmistakable, and the song has since been covered countless times, including by Melissa Etheridge who returned it to the charts decades later.

— Jennifer Van Evra

‘Don’t Come Around Here No More’

Few who have seen it will forget the trippy video for this 1985 track, modeled after Alice in Wonderland — but the original inspiration was reportedly a romantic breakup between music legends Joe Walsh and Stevie Nicks. (Stevie Nicks, for the record, was the one who supposedly voiced the line.) Dave Stewart of the Eurythmics was there to see it and later co-wrote the song, whose mix of sitar and synths is unmistakably of its time. The vocal melodies are also unforgettable. — JVE

‘American Girl’

Tom Petty was just 26 years old when he released this track, taken from his self-titled debut album. The single, which was released in 1977 but didn’t chart until it was re-released in 1994, is an homage to the Byrds and includes unmistakable glints of David Bowie, especially in those “oh yeah” and “alright” moments — a bridge between rock ‘n’ roll and the incoming New Wave. The song, which is not about a suicide at a college — as urban legend has long insisted — has appeared in countless films and TV shows, from Fast Times at Ridgemont High to The Silence of the Lambs to The Handmaid’s Tale. — JVE