Saturday, June 19, 2010

Rock Solid: Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers

"If you only own one album by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers it's gotta be [insert masterpiece here]."

Welcome to Rock Solid, where we fill in the blank. Our goal is to pseudo-scientifically determine the best, the beloved, the most classic album in an artist's catalog.

Here's how it works: I've consulted two main sources. The All Music Guide provides the professional critical point-of-view and offers the fan perspective (because most people who choose to review albums on Amazon are adoring fans of the artist in question). The album with the highest combined rating from both sources is the one I'll consider the best.

The declared winner will be subjected to the Th
riller Test (do I need to explain the name?), a set of 4 criteria an album should meet to be considered a masterpiece. Those are 1) at least 3 hits, 2) great album tracks that sh/could have been hits, 3) no filler, and 4) memorable cover art.

An artist's entire body of work is eligible, with
one exception: No compilations (i.e. greatest hits). In each case, I'll also share my personal favorite album by the artist in question, as if you care.

* * *
First, let's all agree that Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers are a crack singles band. From American Girl in 1977 to Mary Jane's Last Dance in 1993, they gave us an amazing string of pop classics, songs that you still hear regularly on the radio, and will for as long as radio exists. Unfortunately, the label "singles band" often means that your albums weren't all that remarkable outside of your hits. Interestingly, Petty and the boys morphed into album artists with 1994's Wildflowers, and haven't looked back, for better (Echo) or worse (The Last DJ), producing strong records without standout singles.

These are the two extremes of modern music-making, though the very best albums manage to marry the two. It's rare for an artist to not hit on the balance at least once in his career, even accidentally, and yet it seems that's the case with Petty. Thus, his Rock Solid is a chance to see which one the critics and fans value more: Hit singles or consistent albums.

Probably not surprisingly, it's hit singles. The All Music Guide gives a 5 star rating to only one Petty album, and that's 1979's hit-laden Damn the Torpedoes. reviewers backed that up with a 5 star average. It's his only album to score so high, but the two closest challengers - '81's Hard Promises and '89's Full Moon Fever - are also products of Petty's radio days.

Fully aware that he can't just praise the singles and remain a member of the Rock Critic Union, good old Stephen Thomas Erlewine of the All Music Guide calls the music on Damn the Torpedoes "modern yet timeless" and concludes that it's "one of the great records of the album rock era."

The fans on are less assuming, if also less coherent. Aussie Petty Fan states, "As the album reads almost like a Greatest Hits collection, it is by far the album to get if you enjoyed the Greatest Hits because you don't get better TPATHB as this, some albums come close, none are poor, yet none better this here one." Nestor Alfredo Balbuena writes (translated from Spanish with the help of BabelFish): "The truth is that all the album I pleasure to me. Each sound was so well put, the battery sounded like the Gods, the adjustments, the guitar, in aim. I hit to me."

And The Footpath Cowboy adds, "The fact that Petty, like most rockers of his generation, advocates sanctions against Indonesia in retaliation for that country's trumped-up drug-smuggling conviction of a young Australian tourist makes this an essential purchase for both your ears AND your conscience." Though why that makes Damn the Torpedoes an "essential" purchase over any other Petty album or any album by any other "rocker of his generation" I'm not quite sure.

Non sequitur reviews aside, Aussie Petty Fan's insistence that Damn the Torpedoes is the first place to start after the 1993 Greatest Hits (or 2000's Anthology) compilation is a common theme throughout the write-ups. Though it's a praiseful assertion it's also an admission that, when it comes to Petty and the Heartbreakers, the hits are the main thing.

Overall, Damn the Torpedoes is not a bad choice for Rock Solid considering the circumstances, but it's important to remember that it's all relative to the career of the artist in question. The album may be one of Petty's best, but it's no masterpiece. In fact, a quick run through the Thriller Test finds it passing on only 2 of the 4 counts. It's got the singles, for sure. Four songs from the album made it on to the Greatest Hits, and serve as bonafide Petty classics. Those are Refugee, Don't Do Me Like That, Even the Losers, and Here Comes My Girl. Nothing to complain about there. The album also has some strong could-have-been hits, namely Shadow of a Doubt (A Complex Kid) and You Tell Me. I'll even add country closer Louisana Rain, despite the noodling, minute-plus intro. That still leaves 2 not-bad-but-just-kinda-there songs (Century City and What Are You Doin' In My Life). And the cover photo may be an iconic Petty image, but it certainly doesn't belong in the pantheon of great album covers.
Since we're stuck in relativity here, failing the Thriller Test is no big deal as long as no other album in Petty's catalog does any better. So consider Full Moon Fever. The hits (Free Fallin', I Won't Back Down, Runnin' Down a Dream) are bigger, and the non-hits (A Face in the Crowd, Love Is a Long Road, Yer So Bad, I'll Feel a Whole Lot Better, Zombie Zoo) are stronger. I think it's a better choice for Rock Solid.

Personally, I'll always have a weak spot for 1994's Wildflowers, the second Petty album I bought. That's right, the Greatest Hits were first, just as they should be.


Alex said...
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jefito said...

That's one of the only Greatest Hits records that really deserves to exist. Hell, even the 'bonus tracks' are solid.