He's sold millions of albums, filled arenas, and hobnobbed with George Harrison, Bob Dylan and Roy Orbison, but Tom Petty's driving heartland rock has often been taken for granted by the same critics who hail John Mellencamp as a genius. Greatest Hits is an airtight argument for Petty's own greatness. Starting with "American Girl," the rollicking, Byrds-inspired single from Petty's first album in 1976, this compilation presents a chronological overview of the guitarist-vocalist's career with and without the Heartbreakers, also chronically underrated as one of today's best bands. Every one of the 16 older tracks is a well-crafted gem, full of solid guitar hooks ("Here Comes My Girl"), arresting images ("Don't Come Around Here No More") and simple but poetic lyrics ("The Waiting").
Petty isn't an innovator; he's a talented craftsman with impeccable taste and a strong sense of rock history, internalizing influences ranging from the Beatles' psychedelic masterpiece, Revolver, to the best of '70s punk. (It's interesting to remember that early efforts such as "Refugee" and "Don't Do Me Like That" first won Petty attention as a New Wave artist). With his Dylanesque vocals and chiming 12-string guitars, Petty is more often linked these days with the sounds of the '60s. But recent tunes such as "Learning to Fly" and "Into the Great Wide Open" are as smart, relevant and (dare I say) alternative as anything in MTV's Buzz Bin. --Jim DeRogatis