And You Call Yourself a Petty Fan: How Well Do You Know Tom Petty’s 4 Most Underrated Albums?

Damn the torpedos, indeed. For four decades, Tom Petty kept himself in forward motion, dodging the obstacles that lay ahead and building a legacy of 20 albums. 

Videos by American Songwriter

He was a genuine bandleader, from his decade-spanning gig as frontman of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers to his work with groups like Mudcrutch and the Traveling Wilburys. He was a solo artist, too, releasing three albums—including the best-selling studio record of his career, Full Moon Fever—under his own name. After his passing in October 2017, more material continued to come out, from an expanded version of Wildflowers (a project he’d originally envisioned as a double album) to rarity-filled collections like An American Treasure

When an artist’s catalog is this expansive, some gems are bound to fall between the cracks. Here are four albums worthy of a second look…and repeated listens after that. 

4. Mojo (2010)

Mojo sounds different than any Heartbreakers album before it, and it’s not just because the musicians recorded the album at their rehearsal space in Van Nuys, just outside of Hollywood. It’s the closest Petty ever came to making a genuine blues record, with songs modeled after the juke-joint jams and primordial rock ‘n’ roll anthems Chess Records released during the 1960s. That raw, retro style is well-suited to an aging rock band whose speed can’t quite keep up with its snarl, and the Heartbreakers really sink their teeth into songs like “I Should’ve Known It” and “Good Enough,” prioritizing groove and grit over the energy displayed on earlier releases.

Steve Ferrone keeps things shuffling along, his drums striking the right balance between precision and raw punch, and Mike Campbell steals the spotlight with his electric guitar. At its core, Mojo is still rooted in Petty’s sharp songwriting, with big-hearted melodies that are sturdy enough to bear the weight of Campbell’s fretwork. Even so, the album is for guitar nerds who’re ready to hear the band shred, too. Best moment: the glorious stretch of “First Flash of Freedom” where Mike Campbell and Scott Hurston both play wah-wah pedals simultaneously, stacking their guitar riffs into blocks of guitarmony. 

3. Highway Companion (2006)

Commercially speaking, Highway Companion pales in comparison to Full Moon Fever and Wildflowers, two solo albums that maintained Petty’s string of pop single hits. Petty had already faded from the mainstream when his last solo record appeared in 2006, and Highway Companion didn’t tailor his sound to an era whose biggest rock artists included Daughtry, The Killers, and Red Hot Chili Peppers.

Instead, Petty dug in his heels and delivered a cross-section of American rock ‘n’ roll, from boogie-woogie (“Saving Grace”) to heartland rock (“Down South”) to folk (“Square One”). Jeff Lynne produced the album, replacing the layered arrangements and crisp, clean sound of his earlier Petty projects—Full Moon Fever, Into the Great Wide Open, and the Wilburys’ two records—with an uncluttered and earthy approach that evoked the Rick Rubin-helmed Wildflowers.

[RELATED: Top 5 Deep Cuts from Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers]

Also updating his approach was Petty himself, the same man who sounded so pissed off on his previous album, The Last DJ. Highway Companion doesn’t concern itself with capitalism, consumerism, or the downfall of the music industry like its predecessor. Instead, it marks the point where Petty seemingly embraced his role as an elder statesman of rock, making music that was wholly unconcerned with the trends of the day. 

2. Mudcrutch 2 (2016)  

Petty reformed Mudcrutch in 2007, more than 30 years after the band broke up. One year later, Mudcrutch released its long-overdue debut, a self-titled record that found Petty playing bass (the same instrument he played during Mudcrutch’s initial run during the early 1970s) and sharing frontman duties with the group’s other singers.

For fans accustomed to seeing Petty in the driver’s seat, this was something new, and the Mudcrutch album attracted attention not only for its country-rock music, but also for the sheer novelty of it all. Six years later, Mudcrutch 2 was released to significantly less fanfare, although the album features two of Petty’s best songs of the 21st century. The first is “Dreams of Flying,” a blast of power-pop melody and rock ‘n’ roll energy could’ve easily slotted itself onto an album like Long After Dark. The second is “Beautiful Blue,” where Petty’s voice floats high above a cloud of Pink Floyd-worthy ambiance, boosted by all the entwined guitars and atmospheric reverb below.  

1. The Live Anthology (2009)

This four-disc collection of concert performances is more than Petty’s finest live album. It’s one of the best live albums of all time. To choose the project’s 48 tracks, co-producers Petty, Campbell, and Ryan Ulyate sifted through an archive of 170 different concerts. The result is an expansive project whose performances span three different decades, with definitive recordings of hits like “It’s Good to Be King” (which the Heartbreakers stretch into a 12-minute odyssey) and “Learning to Fly” (which Petty turns into a duet with his audience, encouraging 60,000 Bonnaroo attendees to sing the chorus as he ad libs around them). The Live Anthology is a document of a band that was built for the stage, and it’s proof that the Heartbreakers never lost their road-warrior credentials. 

Photo by Jerod Harris/Getty Images

Leave a Reply

4 of the All-Time Best Female Singers on ‘The Voice’

Where Are Blake Shelton’s Nine Winners of ‘The Voice’ Now?