Tom Petty peaked early. In 1974, Petty's northern Florida bar band, Mudcrutch, moved to L.A., signed a deal with Shelter Records, and transformed itself into Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers. By 1976, they had released their self-titled debut album, a seemingly impossible blend of the Byrds' jangly harmonies and Southern-California idealism with the Rolling Stones' bluesy punchiness and working-class grittiness. The rhythm section rocked; Mike Campbell was an effortlessly elegant guitarist, and Petty himself was a passionate singer. By the third album, 1979's Damn the Torpedoes
, the band was creating such timeless rock & roll singles as "Refugee" and "Even the Losers." By 1980 their best music was behind them. The rhythms slackened; the melodies no longer grabbed; the performances lacked the same urgency. They played with admirable craft and sold millions of records, but they never again made music as powerful as their first three albums. This creates a serious imbalance in this box set, "Playback" (MCA), which fits 21 songs from the first four albums onto one overwhelming CD and then fills up another five CDs with 71 more tracks, which suffer by comparison. For the hardcore Petty fan, though, Playback
is a treasure trove of obscurities. While most box sets adopt an 80/20 split between greatest hits and rarities, "Playback" is closer to 50/50, and includes B-sides never released in album form, rare Mudcrutch cuts, shelved studio tracks, and cover versions of songs by Jimmy Reed, Conway Twitty, and Elvis Presley. --Geoffrey Himes
One of the shining lights of '70s, '80s and '90s rock 'n' roll gets his own boxed set, and it's a doozy! The first three discs are devoted to the must-have tracks from all of Tom's albums up through 1993, and then come the real goodies: a disc of rare B-sides and then two discs of unreleased tracks (27 in all!), including Elvis covers, curiosities like a pre-Stevie Nicks version of Stop Draggin' My Heart Around , demos, live takes and more, plus an 84-page color booklet.