2016 marked the 40th anniversary of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, and to commemorate, all of their studio albums have been collected into two deluxe vinyl box sets. The first covers 1976 to 1991, with represses of many familiar albums that are already readily available in the used bins, but the second, The Compete Studio Albums Volume 2 (1994-2014), gathers several albums that scarcely saw much of a vinyl release the first time around, including 1994’s White Album-esque Wildflowers, which more and more is looking like Petty’s finest hour. But the rest of the box, absorbed all at once, makes it clear that Petty and the Heartbreakers, with perhaps one or two dips along the way, have been remarkably consistent and effective craftsmen in the studio. There are albums they’ve recorded in the past 20 years that I’ve given a few cursory listens and then forgotten about. Rediscovering them on this box, and finding all of those neglected treasures, has been a real treat.

Wildflowers, of course, was billed as a Tom Petty solo album—as was 1989’s Full Moon Fever and 2006’s Highway Companion. Before I dig into the music, a side note here: The distinction between Petty’s solo work and band albums with the Heartbreakers has always been a little hard to parse, seeing as how members of the group appear on each of Petty’s solo albums; Full Moon Fever and Highway Companion could perhaps be thought of as Tom Petty and guitarist Mike Campbell’s collaboration with producer Jeff Lynne, while Wildflowers would have been a Heartbreakers album were the band not in flux at the time with the departure of original drummer Stan Lynch. The Heartbreakers had reconstituted themselves for 1996’s She’s the One.

Semantics aside, the Volume 2 (1994-2014) box is a real thing of beauty, a great big box of seven Tom Petty/Heartbreakers albums, some of which sprawl across two slabs of vinyl. The covers are reproduced with full attention to detail, although the spacing of songs on the vinyl sides is a little puzzling: some sides of Highway Companion are barely 10 minutes, while Side 1 of She’s the One gives you more 25 minutes before you need to get up to flip the record. Wildflowers remains the brightest jewel of the box—prior to now it was incredibly difficult and expensive to find on vinyl. The transfer here is remarkable, as is the case with the rest of the box. Sourced from analog wherever possible (She’s the One is from a digital transfer of the analog master, while 2010’s Mojo and 2014’s Hypnotic Eye were recorded digitally to begin with), these albums simply sound better than they ever have.

Wildflowers is also a lot more down-and-out than you maybe remember. Many songs move forward at a slow, thick trudge (think of the “Out on the Weekend” boom-boom-thwack of “You Don’t Know How It Feels” or the patiently swirling orchestronics of “It’s Good to Be King”) with a battered, possibly stoned Petty sounding years away from the yelping young man of “American Girl.” But it also contains some of his most devastating and uplifting work, side by side. The minimal “Don’t Fade on Me” is a wrenching death ballad that seems to be shaking its head and murmuring “too late,” while “A Higher Place” and “Crawling Back to You” are remarkably beautiful hymns, two of the finest deep cuts in Petty’s career.

With a masterpiece kicking off the box, one might think the remaining six albums are lesser shadows of Wildflowers, repeating the trick with ever decreasing dividends. Listening to them with fresh ears, I’m happy to report this is not the case. She’s the One is still an oddity in Petty’s catalog—why he agreed to soundtrack Edward Burns’ pretty terrible romantic dramedy from 1996 may always remain a mystery—but there are some great songs next to the goofy instrumental soundtrack snippets. “Walls” and “Angel Dream” are the more conventional, familiar tunes (they’re each given a reprise on Side 2) but the tympani-laden “Grew Up Fast” is a scorcher, a song sung to a brother with equal bits bile and affection. And the cover of Lucinda Williams’ “Change the Locks” sounds better than ever, a total incendiary device with Petty and Campbell locked in a battle of riffs.

Sam Jones

It’s 1999’s Echo, however, that’s the most cruelly overlooked gem in Petty’s catalog, and having it tucked inside this box might be the finest way to rediscover it. Standing alongside the rest of his latter-day work, its strengths shine; an overstuffed grab bag of styles similar to Wildflowers, the circumstances of its recording give it a rawer edge. Petty was undergoing a divorce at the time, and according to Warren Zanes’ recent biography was succumbing to a secret heroin addiction, and perhaps because of the turmoil, the music is focused, like a candle refusing to be snuffed out. From a songwriting perspective, Petty wouldn’t miss a step with Echo (the fallout came later, more on that in a bit), and it’s got fantastic song followed by fantastic song. “Room at the Top” and “Billy the Kid” were always favorites, but on this revisit, I was floored by the gentle “No More” and the drifting, cyclical “Echo.” Mike Campbell’s contribution, “I Don’t Wanna Fight,” is good dumb fun, too. Due to the bad vibes that surrounded its creation, Petty doesn’t seem too fond of Echo and rarely plays any of its songs live. Perhaps because of this, it also seems to be relatively forgotten by the public. This is a shame, because it is a great record, and it sounds splendid in this new vinyl incarnation.

The bottom fell out with 2002’s The Last DJ. This is probably the weakest album of Petty’s career; the songs are either bad (“Money Becomes King,” “Joe”) or scarcely fleshed out (“Lost Children”), and Petty’s anger at the music biz is mostly impotent flailing instead of the biting commentary he perhaps intended it to be. Perhaps it was the sidetrack into heroin that depleted his creative juices here, or perhaps that folly was the symptom of an already existing problem; the “hit” here, the title track, just doesn’t have any of those natural hooks that Petty could always reliably toss off so effortlessly up ’til now. With all of this said, the level of craftsmanship on the album remains impressively high; the playing is exemplary throughout, and everything really does sound good on record, better than the CD ever did. It also has a handful of very good songs—“Have Love Will Travel,” “Dreamville,” “When a Kid Goes Bad”—so all is not lost.

Perhaps because of how disappointed with The Last DJ I was, I didn’t really pay very much attention at the time to the follow-up, 2006’s Highway Companion, which reunited Petty and Campbell with Jeff Lynne. Listening to it here, it felt like getting a brand new Tom Petty album, and a really good one. Surprisingly, Petty plays all the drums (did you know he played drums? I sure didn’t), and the songs, while still in many cases remaining little more than sketches, cut a little closer to the truth than they did with The Last DJ. In other words, the underwritten quality works in favor of the presentation. There’s only one outright bad tune on Highway Companion (s’up, “Jack”) and it’s outweighed by lots of really nice ones: “Square One,” “Flirting with Time,” “Turn This Car Around.” Even if Petty and Lynne rip themselves off with a goof like “Big Weekend” (echoes of “Yer So Bad” and the Traveling Wilburys’ “End of the Line” are impossible to avoid) and even if “Down South” sounds a heck of a lot like Bob Dylan’s “Love Minus Zero/No Limit,” the casualness and bonhomie of the album makes it a really charming listen.

2010’s Mojo is a strange record, then, reuniting the Heartbreakers for an album that was reportedly recorded mostly live-in-the-studio. Relying on their instrumental tightness and some very basic blues-rock patterns, Petty and crew occasionally veer into jam-band territory. Despite its lack of Petty’s typically economical songwriting and Beatles-influenced sense of pop craft, Mojo is never uninteresting or unpleasant, with a few darkly fascinating moments; the best bits are some of the more eclectic songs on the back half of the record. Perhaps a few more listens will allow it to fully reveal itself to me—right now it’s more of a question mark than The Last DJ, which I think is lacking in parts.

Which brings us to 2014’s Hypnotic Eye, a much more straightforward album that finds Petty and the Heartbreakers in a holding pattern of churning out effective, comfy rock. I wrote a bit about that album when the group came through Portland in 2014, and when I called it “mid-tempo dad rock played, with more taste than passion, on very expensive vintage guitars,” I meant it in a good way. It works even better on vinyl than it did as a Spotify stream, too, it should be mentioned.


All of this is a long way of saying that I’m pleased to have this enormous box set on my shelf; these aren’t records I’ll play every day, but I’ll be digging them out periodically for the rest of my life. If you’re a vinyl hound who's got holiday cash or a gift certificate to burn and you think you’d want to own them too, I’d say go for it—the presentation of the box could not be bettered in any significant detail. You’ve got two bona fide masterpieces in Wildflowers and Echo, two very good records in She’s the One and Highway Companion, and a lot more worthwhile Pettyiana to sift through, including the pretty weird curio that is Mojo. The real value of The Compete Studio Albums Volume 2 (1994-2014), though, is how it exhaustively maps Petty’s trademark consistency over a long arc, traversing the half of his catalog that isn’t as well known. If male-driven guitar rock is becoming more and more an artifact of the 20th century, this particular artifact shows why it became so popular in the first place, and why Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers remain some of its most beloved practitioners.