There are some who'll tell you a greatest hits album is the first indication that it's time for the best years of your career to come to a close. Nothing could've been further from the truth when Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers released one at the end of 1993.
The band's first compilation capped nearly two decades of rock radio royalty, joining together 16 classics like "American Girl," "Don't Do Me Like That," "Refugee," "Don't Come Around Here No More" and "Into the Great Wide Open." It also collected a handful of Petty's biggest chart hits ever, from his 1989 solo album Full Moon Fever, including "Free Fallin'," "I Won't Back Down" and "Runnin' Down a Dream."
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But the obligatory new tracks added to the package were nothing to skip, either. "Mary Jane's Last Dance" was a laid-back, confident number that spun a story that is, depending on who you ask, about saying goodbye to a lover or a thinly-veiled drug reference. "My take on it is it can be whatever you want it to be," Mike Campbell, guitarist for The Heartbreakers and the song's co-writer, later said. (He also added that the initial lyrics were entirely different, entitled "Indiana Girl" until Petty changed his mind a week later.) With a striking video starring Kim Basinger as an exquisite corpse, "Mary Jane's Last Dance" was another bona fide hit for Petty, reaching the Top 20 of the Billboard 200.
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The other track from Petty's Greatest Hits was a throwback to Petty's rock roots: a cover of "Something in the Air," a U.K. No. 1 hit for the group Thunderclap Newman in 1969. Written by singer/drummer Speedy Keen and featuring bass and production by an pseudonymous Pete Townshend of The Who, the cover made the album after being a favorite of Petty's on a recent tour. "We’ve always been so hard on covers – they just never seem to get priority over the original material," Petty said at the time. "I thought this would be a good opportunity to put this on an album...When we recorded it, we purposefully didn’t listen to the original version – we didn’t want to be too exposed to it."
The result is a link in the chain that connects Petty to the great traditions of rock and roll while establishing a spin on a sound that was entirely his and The Heartbreakers' to claim. Greatest Hits reached No. 5 of the U.S. album charts in 1994, setting the stage for a new phase in Petty's career with the solo Wildflowers a year later. (When The Heartbreakers reconvened, they did so without drummer Stan Lynch, who left after recording the two new songs.) The record still serves as a fine introduction to Petty's body of work, and would reach an even higher chart peak of No. 2 in 2017, shortly after Petty's passing.
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