Here's the drill: 24 songs to summarize an artist's career, in chronological order (of course).
Petty already has a definitive best of. In fact, the classic 1993 Greatest Hits album has been re-released in an improved 2008 edition. The cover art is better and the band wisely replaced the boringish Something in the Air with the initially criminally omitted Stop Draggin' My Heart Around. One might also argue about the still unrectified omissions of Rebels and Southern Accents, but those are minor complaints, since they weren't really hits.
My purpose here is to focus on Petty's post '93 career. Some may complain that he has lost his fire, but take a listen to these 12 and I think you'll agree that quality and consistency have yet to lag.
1. You Wreck Me (found on Wildflowers, 1994)
An open-road-foot-on-the-pedal anthem if there ever was one. Check that solo by Mike Campbell and tell me what really differentiates Petty's "solo" albums from his ones with the Heartbreakers.
2. You Don't Know How It Feels (found on Wildflowers, 1994)
Considering the success of this song and Blues Traveler at the same time, the harmonica really had a renaissance in the mid-'90s, didn't it? Plus, we got the shocking admission that Petty smokes pot. What?!
3. Wildflowers (found on Wildflowers, 1994)
One might read it as romantic, but I see it as parental, letting someone grow up. At any rate, it's as pretty as its title.
4. Walls (Circus) (found on She's the One, 1996)
I wrote extensively about this song awhile ago. It's still one of my favorites, and still plays in my mental jukebox frighteningly often.
5. California (found on She's the One, 1996)
A short, sweet, and playful ode to Petty's adopted home state: "California's been good to me / I hope it don't fall into the sea".
6. Swingin' (found on Echo, 1998)
One of Petty's patented tales of rebellious women, Swingin' plays of the multiple meanings of its title by namechecking Benny Goodman and Sonny Liston, among others.
7. Room at the Top (found on Echo, 1998)
Echo alternates between songs of rebellions and songs of sadness. This one is a heartbreaker. Just check out these lines:
"I wish I could feel you tonight,
Little one, you're so far away
I wanna reach out and touch your heart
Yeah like they do in those things on TV, I love you
Please love me, I'm not so bad
And I love you so"
Bonus for incorporating the quiet loud dynamics of '90s alternative bands into the Petty structure.
8. The Last DJ (found on The Last DJ, 2002)
Petty's concept album about the sorry state of the record industry gives in a little too much to righteous anger, and could be read as sour grapes (considering the downturn of Petty's popularity post-'95). Even so, it's hard to deny the point of this title track, namely, that the business of radio has subverted the rebellious, free spirit of rock 'n' roll.
9. Have Love Will Travel (found on The Last DJ, 2002)
The Last DJ had some sweet, positive songs too.
10. Square One (found on Highway Companion, 2006)
The world will forever need starting over songs, and this is a great one.
11. The Wrong Thing To Do (found on Mudcrutch, 2008)
Petty reunited his original band and made an album not much different from any of his solo or Heartbreaker efforts. This rocker is fairly standard musically, but is notable for the rare autobiographical detail.
12. Orphan of the Storm (found on Mudcrutch, 2008)
Loping country tune wherein Petty takes his gift for story songs and applies it to current events, namely the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.