Top 10 Jethro Tull Songs
Say what you will about Jethro Tull – and the British band has been the target of both acclaim and ridicule over the decades – but the bottom line is no other band sounds anything like them. By picking up a concert flute (after deciding he’d never learn to play guitar as well as Clapton or Beck), Tull mastermind Ian Anderson gave his band a unique identity that would gain even greater distinction as his songwriting powers evolved to meld progressive rock with classical, folk, and medieval sounds and themes. And while they may never live down that late-career Grammy for “Best Heavy Metal Performance,” Jethro Tull’s expansive catalog is filled to the brim with timeless songs out of which we will now attempt to select just 10 career standouts. Wish us luck with our list of the Top 10 Jethro Tull Songs.
‘A Song for Jeffrey’
Why not begin this list of the Top 10 Jethro Tull Songs with a key song from their very first album, 1968’s ‘This Was?' The band’s lone outing with original guitarist Mick Abrahams barely hinted at the daring musical adventures lurking in Anderson’s near future, but rather placed Tull squarely in the Brit-Blues tradition that dominated the era. Not that this in any way diminishes ‘A Song for Jeffrey’s’ lingering popularity as an infectious, slide-guitar-driven building block for what lay ahead.
‘Life’s a Long Song’
The title track of Tull's first EP finds Ian Anderson at the peak of his poetic powers, contemplating life's everyday joys and travails before concluding, bitter-sweetly, that "the tune ends too soon for us all." Pretty heavy for a then 24-year-old, but then Anderson always acted wise beyond his years (he often looked and dressed it, too). Beyond that, ‘Life’s a Long Song’ is also a top-shelf showcase for his agile and inventive acoustic guitar playing.
The sinister words and melodies that introduce this early Tull single not only contradicted its seemingly upbeat title but taught fans they would be wise to always expect the unexpected from Anderson and his henchmen. And that they should expect boundless musical imagination, too, since 'Sweet Dream' requires barely four minutes to augment its catchy chorus with a fantastic, recurring classical score and galloping hard rock midsection that strikes out of the blue.
One of Anderson's most memorable characters, bar none, this intriguing damsel made the song that bears her name an absolutely necessary inclusion in this list of the Top 10 Jethro Tull Songs. After all, the unmistakable 'Cross-Eyed Mary' wasn't just any other schoolgirl, innocently capturing 'Aqualung's' lecherous gaze in the park, but a precocious prostitute – the "Robin Hood of Highgate" – who much preferred turning tricks instead of cartwheels. Yes, it's creepy, but still a great song.
‘Living in the Past’
Jethro Tull's highest charting U.K. single ever (and a Top 20 in the U.S. years later), 'Living in the Past' helped establish the pastoral dimension of the band's sound as well as the nostalgic imagery common to so many Anderson lyrics. Yes, it's a relatively simple, straightforward song, by Tull's lofty standards (if one can consider 5/4 time “simple”), but an incredibly seductive one, at that. Even forty-plus years after its original release, it never fails to whisk listeners away from their adult concerns to experience childhood’s innocent wonders, even if briefly. Musical escapism defined.
‘A New Day Yesterday’
For all people knew, Mick Abrahams' departure could have spelled the end for Jethro Tull after just one LP. But Ian Anderson knew differently and the opening cut from his band's sophomore album delivered the message loud and clear, simultaneously proclaiming a 'New Day Yesterday' and introducing new guitar player Martin Barre with an explosive riffing display. To top it all off, the song’s parent album, 'Stand Up,' raced up the U.K. Charts to No. 1 – a first and last in Jethro Tull’s storied career – and more than good enough for spot No. 5 in our list of the Top 10 Jethro Tull Songs.
‘Songs from the Wood’
Anyone foolish enough to presume that Jethro Tull’s peculiar musical template had effectively run out of steam towards the end of the ‘70s was proven sorely mistaken by the unprecedented finesse, balletic majesty and sheer, genre-straddling mastery of 1977’s ‘Songs from the Wood.’ The title track of Tull’s tenth album threw everything but the burning campfire depicted on its cover at unsuspecting listeners, categorically dazzling them with its serpentine blend of rock, folk and classical music, not to mention those delightfully fey lyrics, delivered barbershop quartet-style by the band.
By 1971, Ian Anderson had earned quite the reputation for constructing Jethro Tull songs around deeply allegorical, sometimes downright baffling lyrics, but he really outdid himself on the second-to-last song from that year’s seminal ‘Aqualung’ LP, ‘Locomotive Breath,’ which allegedly describes its protagonist’s life, as it falls apart all around him. Musically too, this tune covers the length and breadth of Anderson’s songwriting talents, beginning with a bluesy John Evan piano intro so discreet one can barely hear it at times, before crashing into some of the most bombastic hard rock display of the band’s career.
‘Thick as a Brick (Side 1)’
After years of hearing his group conveniently lumped in with the prog rock bands of the early 1970s, Ian Anderson finally decided to pick up the gauntlet and fire back with an album-length song-suite on Jethro Tull’s fifth full-length. But, natural-born contrarian that he was, Anderson proceeded to fill the epic musical adventure that comprised 1972’s ‘Thick as a Brick’ with heaps of parody and satire, aimed squarely at those self-conscious purveyors of high-minded art rock. The results included both a now legendary, newspaper-aping album package design that perpetuated the LP’s conceptual hoax and a bona fide progressive rock masterpiece, worth every second of its 22 engaging minutes.
The tune helming our list of the Top 10 Jethro Tull Songs is built around an ominous heavy rock riff as universally renowned as the one behind ‘Smoke on the Water,’ ‘Iron Man’ or ‘Whole Lotta Love.’ But, ironically, it does without Ian Anderson’s trademarked flute-playing. Everything else about ‘Aqualung’ positively screams “Jethro Tull,” though, from the way it meanders unpredictably between hard and soft passages with shockingly effortless ease to its focus on the sort of protagonist that always seemed to interest Anderson most: marginal characters swept along in society’s slipstream. Any way you slice it, the bottom line is ‘Aqualung’ is one-of-a-kind.