The Petty Archives

Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers | Greatest Hits | MCA
Bryan Adams | So Far So Good | A&M
Review by Gina Arnold
SPIN - January 1994

Those who scoff at "best of" albums would do well to remember their own first musical purchases. How many hipsters initially grooved to Elton John's Greatest Hits or Changes-One Bowie before coming savvy to the inherent vacuity of greatest-hits packages?

No "best of" album will ever be as relevant as one seamlessly conceived, sequentially recorded long player -- but some can serve to help youngsters catch up on an important artist's entire body of wrk. Such is the case with this new LP from Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. Petty is the Byrds' biggest fan and the one who -- no matter what anyone says about R.E.M. -- first dragged that band's jangly, Rickenbacker-laden sensibility into the strong light of day. Petty has always had a real ear for the cultural charms of the new-Americana -- its freeway overpasses, tattoos, and taco shops -- which he brilliantly mythologized on such early songs as "Breakdown" and "American Girl." As the '80s progressed, however, Petty's oeuvre, untouched as it was by the whip-hand of punk rock, became increasingly irrelevant, and soon he was singing things like "I showed you stars you never could see / Baby, it couldn't have been that easy to forget about me," on "Even the Losers" (from his breakthrough LP Damn the Torpedoes).

Unfortunately, it was easy to forget about him -- especially after his once rather pure musical vision had been degraded by such artists as Bryan Adams, who's intransigently empty (but equally popular) version of the Petty sound helped make the real thing get real boring real fast. What, after all, is Adams's "Run To You," but a less picturesque rewrite of "Refugee"? What is "Kids Wanna Rock" if not an unconvincing version of "Runnin' Down a Dream"?

Luckily, time wounds all heels, making Adams's new greatest hits, So Far So Good, quite a damaging document -- especially when compared with Petty's Greatest Hits. In Petty's case, once 17 years are squeezed out of the picture, it is easy to recognize that the undeniable charms of "American Girl" ('76) and the similarly romantic everyman chorus of "Into the Great Wide Open" ('91) are one and the same. The record also includes two previously unreleased tracks: "Mary Jane's Last Dance," and a giddy cover of Thunderclap Newman's "Something in the Air," making Greatest Hits a portrait of an artist who has aged surprisingly well.

The same cannot be said of Bryan Adams. In his case, "timeless" also means "meaningless." Of course, in some ways the utter genericness of Adams's music makes So Far So Good a highly utilarian record: Since his "best of" is also his "worst of," it could easily replace any record in his repertoire. Adams goes excel at word-of-one-syllable anthems ("This Time," "Cuts Like a Knife," "Straight From the Heart," etc.), but minus Petty's sharp songwriting and deference to his heroes (Dylan and McGuinn), Adams's series of lite pop-metal hits doesn't have much rock 'n' roll resonance. But then, it never did.