Tom Petty: 10 of His Best Under-the-Radar Songs

(Image credit: Andy Lyons/Getty (this page) | Ethan Miller/Getty (homepage))

Tom Petty's death is a shocking reminder that people and things that we consider "constants" can disappear in an instant—and there's nothing we can do about it.

Petty has been a part of our lives since the late Seventies, just like Saturday Night Live, Jimmy Carter and Burton snowboards. His music has filled our personal soundtracks through the highs and lows—and it magically never seemed old, dated or browned around the edges.

Unlike one of the Heartbreakers' lesser-known song titles, "A Wasted Life," Petty truly got the most out of his time on earth, performing, recording, writing and simply hanging out with this musical heroes, including Johnny Cash, George Harrison, Carl Perkins, the Byrds' Roger McGuinn and Chris Hillman, Bob Dylan, Ringo Starr, Prince, Eric Clapton and many more.

Notwithstanding his many early triumphs, we can't help but feel he truly hit his stride during his massively successful "early middle period"—Full Moon Fever through Into the Great Wide Open—and then built on those solo successes in his later years, releasing masterful long-players like 1994's Wildflowers and 2006's Highway Companion.

Today, in the wake of Petty's death, we revisit 10 songs from his career that can't be grouped with such well-known tunes as "Refugee," "Free Fallin'," "American Girl" and "Mary Jane's Last Dance." Despite the fact that some of the songs below were released as singles back in the day, they're still under the radar, at least for now.

By the way, for information on one of Petty's final projects, check out our feature on Chris Hillman's just-released Bidin' My Time album, which was produced by Petty, features Petty (and the Heartbreakers) on several tracks and includes a cover of "Wildflowers."

Tom Petty | Highway Companion | 2006

This Jeff Lynne-produced gem proves that Petty could write a catchy pop song at any stage of his career. Highway Companion is so packed with quality tunes that we could've picked just about anything. And, as proven during a 2008 cross-country trip, this album truly is a worthy "highway companion."

Tom Petty | Into the Great Wide Open | 1991

Since his earliest days, Petty was a master of channeling his sometimes long-in-the-tooth musical influences into modern, majestic tunes (as the Byrds-inspired "American Girl" and "Listen to Her Heart" will attest). He did it again in 1991, with Jeff Lynne at the helm. Let's hope this song title holds true.

Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers | She's the One | 1996

The Heartbreakers' ode to Petty's adopted state is one of the lesser-known gems from his She's the One soundtrack album. If you missed the movie, um, don't worry about it.

Tom Petty | Wildflowers (outtake) | 1994 (released 2015)

"Somewhere Under Heaven," an unreleased Petty/Mike Campbell composition from the Wildflowers sessions, was released as a standalone single—and included in the Entourage moviesoundtrack—in 2015. So yes, this powerful 12-string tour de force was a castaway for 21 years, proving that Petty simply threw away songs that were this good.

Traveling Wilburys | Traveling Wilburys Vol. 3 | 1990

Of the two Traveling Wilburys albums, 1988's Vol. 1—the one with "Handle with Care," "Last Night" and "End of the Line"—was a bona-fide hit and even caught the attention of bubblegum-chewing teenyboppers. Its 1990 followup, however, although just as good, turned out to be more "for fans only," which is nice—because we get to enjoy "secret" masterpieces like this. I've always suspected Petty's fellow Wilbury George Harrison was the brains behind this tune (the chord changes, the use of the very Beatle-y phrase "middle bit"). Or maybe it was Jeff Lynne, who sings the bridge. Either way, Petty owns it.

Tom Petty | Wildflowers | 1994

To quote the Chicago Tribune (from a story they posted 54 minutes ago), "Petty has never sounded more vulnerable than he does on this acoustic track." The Rick Rubin-produced Wildflowers will go down as Petty's "Nineties masterpiece."

Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers | Echo | 1999

This Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers album was largely written during a period when Petty was going through a painful divorce (influencing the lyrics of songs such as "Lonesome Sundown" and the title track), and Petty has cited that as the reason for his preference not to play any songs from the album in concert. However, "Room at the Top" has made many concert appearances and can be found on Petty's The Live Anthology.

Mudcrutch | Mudcrutch | 2008

"Oh Maria," which features Clarence White-style B-bender guitar by Mike Campbell, is one of many standouts from the long-awaited debut album from Petty's pre-Heartbreakers band. We also love "Shady Grove," but of course we do.

Tom Petty | Into the Great Wide Open | 1991

This knockout track from Into the Great Wide Open might be one of Petty's best "album tracks" ever, and it's actually hard to believe it wasn't released as a single. Of course, when you consider that the album also featured the title track and "Learning to Fly," it starts to make sense. "Oh, I await the day good fortune comes our way, and we ride down the Kings Highway."

Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers | Mojo | 2010

If this Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers tune were released in 1972, it'd be a classic-rock staple. Mike Campbell's masterful slide guitar sucks you in instantly and Petty's vocals—as always—finish the job. Side note: Mojo represents the first full Heartbreakers album since 1981's Hard Promises to feature bassist Ron Blair.

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Damian Fanelli
Editor-in-Chief, Guitar World

Damian is Editor-in-Chief of Guitar World magazine. In past lives, he was GW’s managing editor and online managing editor. He's written liner notes for major-label releases, including Stevie Ray Vaughan's 'The Complete Epic Recordings Collection' (Sony Legacy) and has interviewed everyone from Yngwie Malmsteen to Kevin Bacon (with a few memorable Eric Clapton chats thrown into the mix). Damian, a former member of Brooklyn's The Gas House Gorillas, was the sole guitarist in Mister Neutron, a trio that toured the U.S. and released three albums. He now plays in two NYC-area bands.