The history of indie/alt-rock is essentially one of serial reassessments and revivals—whether it’s of unsung trailblazers or previously dismissed pop stars. Through the late ’80s and early ’90s, the influence of the Velvet Underground was all pervasive; by decade’s end, everyone was into Can and Neu. At the turn of the new millennium, the ghost of Ian Curtis haunted the landscape. A few years later, Bruce Springsteen and Paul Simon underwent the transition from dad-rock deities to indie godheads. Now, it seems everything’s coming up McDonald.
Tom Petty never really had such a moment—but then, he didn’t really have to. More than a specific sound, Petty represented an elusive ideal: He was the model that generations of raucous rockers —be it Dave Grohl or Death From Above 1979—have turned to whenever they wanted to chill out without losing their cool. And maybe the reason why his widespread influence never fortified into a dominant trend is that his acolytes have had so many Pettys from so many eras to choose from.
There’s the power-poptimist of “American Girl,” which yielded the hopscotch backbeat and needlepoint jangle of The Strokes’ “Last Nite” and the anthemic, open-sunroof ardor of Japandroids’ “Evil’s Sway.” There’s the streetwise soul-man of “The Waiting,” whose warm glow is exquisitely recreated by Chicago garage combo Twin Peaks on “Cold Lips.” There’s the asphalt-rippin’ rocker of “Runnin’ Down the Dream,” which New York outfit The Men roughed up into the caustic roots-punk barn-burner “Without a Face.” There’s the synth-smoothed surrealist of “Don’t Come Around Here No More,” which provides the pulsating, slow-dissolve backdrop for Phosphorescent’s “Song For Zula.” There’s the luminous acoustic balladeer of Full Moon Fever, which opened up a rural route for urbane indie rockers like Pavement and Liz Phair to travel down. There was his busman’s holiday with Traveling Wilburys, whose easy-going honky-pop echoes through the shimmering strums of Dan Auerbach’s “Shine on Me.” And there’s the weed-dazed folkie of “You Don’t Know How It Feels,” which finds a spiritual sequel of sorts in Wilco’s “Passenger Side” (a song that Petty could’ve very well have written after rolling that other joint).
Tom Petty was like oxygen—always there, all around us, if imperceptibly so. And it’s nigh impossible to comprehend a world without him. But while his songs will be heard on classic-rock radio and covered by new-country acts for eternity, the artists on this playlist have, over the past two decades, burrowed the seeds of his influence at a more subterranean level, where they continue to flourish. There may be more popular tunes that have overtly—or subconsciously—copped Petty’s melodies, but these songs more eagerly carry his spirit into the great wide open.