The Petty Archives

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'Best-of' format is best bet for the good but not great
By Jerry Spangler
The Deseret News - Thursday, March 3, 1994

Tom Petty may have begun his musical sojourn as a clone of Roger McGuinn and the Byrds, but as his "Greatest Hits" package attests, he has since emerged as one of the brightest singer-songwriters of the past decade, although still largely derivative of other artists.

"Greatest Hits" chronicles most -- but not all -- of the high points in Petty's career, beginning with "Breakdown" in 1977. The package includes 16 Petty hits and two new songs -- the Dylanesque "Mary Jane's Last Dance" and a cover of Thunderclap Newman's "Something in the Air."

Both new songs illustrate the good and bad of Petty's up-and-down career. "Mary Jane" is a seductively simple blues rocker spiced with harmonica and lost-in-America lyrics that is as good as anything he's ever done. "Something in the Air," meanwhile, is a carbon-copy of the original, and while enjoyable in a guilty-pleasure sort of way it is nonetheless uninspired.

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Where this package succeeds -- and perhaps fails -- is as a chronicle of Petty's songwriting evolution. Early hits like "Listen to Her Heart," "Refugee" and "Don't Do Me Like That" are formula rockers with nice melodic hooks to ensure radio airplay. But most of the early tunes lacked the lyrical depth and social melancholy characterized by later songs like "Learning to Fly" and "Free Falling."

If "Greatest Hits" has a weakness it would be its focus on the "hits" rather than the best of Tom Petty. For example, there is nothing from the sensational "Let Me Up (I've Had Enough)" album, probably because the moody tone of that album made it unpalatable for radio audiences and no hit singles tickled the cash register.

More puzzling is the absence of Petty's work with Stevie Nicks ("Stop Draggin' My Heart Around" and "Needles and Pins") and the Traveling Wilburys. And some of his lesser hits are missing altogether.

In short, "Greatest Hits" is a better-than-average collection of classic rock tunes with a great new song, but it could have been a whole lot better. Given Petty's growing stature as a rock icon, this would have been the perfect opportunity for a two-disc compilation of 25 to 30 songs that demonstrated the breadth and depth of Petty's musical evolution.