Tom Petty – a Dylan disciple, a Byrds with harder-wearing tunes, a Bruce Springsteen for the rest of us. Few artists have defined approachable Middle-American rock and roll radio quite like Petty and his loyal band, and no one has made such a consistently good job of it for as long as he did. Anthology: Through the Years may not be their best known compilation, but it’s the one to go for if you can find it.
Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers’ music is rooted firmly in the rock and roll heartland of America. Over the years their music evolved and developed, but it always stayed true to its original spirit and has always been readily identifiable as Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. Originally drawing on rootsy and early rock and roll influences, over time they assimilated more influences such as Bruce Springsteen, R.E.M. and Neil Young, while always maintaining their own unique stamp on their output.
Of course, it wasn’t all smooth-sailing. For all Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers’ in-it-together gang mentality, the rhythm section was shaken up a couple of times, they put out a few albums which can only be described as clunkers as they explored modern production techniques, and not nearly enough kudos has been thrown the way of the band’s secret weapons, Mike Campbell and Benmont Tench, who were Petty’s loyal lieutenants and the musical backbone, consistently ensuring that The Heartbreakers always remained a cut above their peers, while also carving out a handy second career as in demand session musicians down the decades for acts as diverse as The Cult, Reef and Johnny Cash.
That said, Anthology: Through the Years serves as a reminder that even when they suffered a relatively sticky patch (albums produced by Dave Stewart, Jeff Lynne, etc), Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers still had the songs. Previous to owning Anthology: Through the Years I personally hadn’t heard anything from Let Me Up (I’ve Had Enough), which I had long believed to be a late 80s horror of an album. On the evidence provided here that assumption is shaky at best and it is an album I will give a fair chance to in the future. Having said that, from the three tracks selected from it, it also gives the impression that Southern Accents is a classic, which it may be to some, but I have always struggled to get past the syrupy synthetic production dolloped all over it. Having said that, although the pair of albums produced by Jeff Lynne were stodgy, the singles from Full Moon Fever and Into the Great Wide Open remain among Petty’s strongest songs, as evidenced on Anthology: Through the Years.
While it could be argued that the long-available single disc Greatest Hits is a more streamlined and dynamic selection of songs, it does tend to miss the group’s slightly darker and more thoughtful material, such as this collection’s quite brilliant “It’ll All Work Out”. As two-disc best-ofs go, Anthology: Through the Years is relatively filler-free, though as it only covers the band’s years signed to MCA, it misses out on material from the great duo of mid-90s albums, Wildflowers and She’s the One, but it also handily means that it also omits the less than brilliant material since.
As carefully selected career retrospectives go, somebody deserves a biscuit for this one.