Tickling the ivories – 30 of the best ever piano songs
It’s Piano Day, apparently.
Pianists are often unsung heroes of the music world. Because of their stationary instruments they have to stand on the spot – or worse, sit – and even though they need as much skill as guitarists and drummers, they often aren’t viewed in the same light because of their relatively restrained movements. So let’s take a look specifically at piano songs, just to give those overlooked pianists a bit of well-deserved attention. Here’s 30 of the best.
1. The Beatles – ‘Let It Be’ (1970)
There have been many, many covers of this Beatles classic, but as the title makes quite clear, it’s perfect the way it is.
2. Dr Dre – ‘Still D.R.E’ (2001)
“Still taking my time to perfect the beat” runs one of Dre’s bars in this one – and his masterful use of just two chords proves he’s not lying.
3. Adele – ‘Someone Like You’ (2011)
This was all over the radio like a rash when it came out in 2011. It’s not just the weepy lyrics that make it so memorable – it’s also the timeless piano line.
4. Joni Mitchell – ‘The Last Time I Saw Richard’ (1971)
The final track on Mitchell’s iconic ‘Blue’ draws its restless romanticism to a close with a complex piano part, and lyrics that explore what happens when the lines dividing romantics and cynics become blurred.
5. Queen – ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ (1975)
Simply an iconic tune – and it’s played on the same piano Paul McCartney used for ‘Hey Jude’. Didn’t know that, did ya?
6. Coldplay – ‘Clocks’ (2002)
Chris Martin has said he was inspired by fellow Devonshire lads Muse when writing this simple but brutally effective piano riff.
7. Nick Drake – ‘One Of These Things First’ (1971)
This lilting number leaves Nick Drake adrift in a sea of dreams he never pursued: “I could have been one of these things first“.
8. John Lennon – ‘Imagine’ (1971)
The 19th most-sold UK single of all time is an instantly recognisable classic.
9. Oasis – ‘Don’t Look Back In Anger’ (1996)
The opening piano line of Oasis’ most karaoke-able song were directly taken from John Lennon’s ‘Imagine’, Noel says. “No matter what people might think, there will be some 13-year-old kid out there who’ll read an interview and think: ‘Imagine? I’ve never heard that song’, and he might go and buy the album.”
10. Joanna Newsom – ‘Anecdotes’ (2015)
Over its bedrock of stolid piano, ‘Anecdotes’ bursts into bloom about three minutes in, as Newsom muses on themes of life, ageing and death.
11. Kate Bush – ‘Wuthering Heights’ (1978)
The spidery opening notes of this debut single – inspired by the Emily Brontë novel of the same name – announced the arrival of a singular talent. Kate Bush was aged just 18 when she wrote it.
12. Kanye West – ‘Runaway’ (2010)
A nine-minute opus, ‘Runaway’ finds West ruing his past transgressions over a melody based around falling octaves.
13. Elton John – ‘Your Song’ (1970)
In 1975 John Lennon recalled thinking of this song as: “a step forward. There was something about his vocal that was an improvement on all of the English vocals until then.” Surprisingly, it never hit the Number One spot in the charts – though it did go platinum in the USA.
14. Radiohead – ‘Pyramid Song’ (2001)
A series of menacing triads on the piano pulls you into this song’s deathly grip: “And we all went to heaven in a little row boat / There was nothing to fear and nothing to doubt“.
15. The The – ‘Uncertain Smile’ (1983)
Three-and-a-half minutes into ‘Uncertain Smile’, two of Jools Holland’s stonking piano solos begin. That’s right, two: he originally recorded them separately, but frontman Matt Johnson cut them together to act as the closer to the 7-minute sprawler.
16. Rhye – ‘The Fall’ (2012)
In which the mysterious outfit Rhye – aka Mike Milosh and Robin Hannibal – attempt to define ‘swoon’ in song.
17. Bat For Lashes – ‘Laura’ (2012)
This near-perfect ballad attempts to redress the unhappiness of Natasha Khan’s real-life friend (who isn’t named Laura, obviously). “We’ve all known Lauras, or we’ve all been Laura for a time,” Khan said in 2012. “That need to be a kind of glamorous life-and-soul of the party… but underneath it’s a lonely place to be.”
18. Gary Jules ft. Michael Andrews – ‘Mad World’ (2001)
Depending on which way you look at it, this mournful cover either undermines the paradoxical cheer of Tears for Fears’ version, or it brings out the tragedy of the lyrics. It took the Christmas Number One spot in 2003, when everyone was apparently on a massive downer.
19. The Boomtown Rats – I Don’t Like Mondays (1979)
This disturbing track is based on a real shooting by Brenda Spencer, who justified injuring eight children and a police officer and killing two adults with the following: “I just started shooting, that’s it. I just did it for the fun of it. I just don’t like Mondays. I just did it because it’s a way to cheer the day up. Nobody likes Mondays.”
20. Muse – ‘Apocalypse Please’ (2003)
Beethoven-level piano rage here. “This is the end of the world,” Matt Bellamy yells, almost as if it’s a really fun party.
21. Nina Simone – ‘Sinnerman’ (1965)
“Power” is the key lyric in Simone’s awesome version of this traditional spiritual song – it’s more than 10 minutes long, and she used to close her sets with it.
22. John Grant – ‘Marz’ (2010)
Recorded with the help of Midlake, this nostalgic track from John Grant’s debut solo album ‘Queen of Denmark’ is heavy with regret – the lyrics are mostly formed of a list of sweets from his hometown’s sweet shop ‘Marz’.
23. Tobias Jesso Jr. – ‘Without You’ (2015)
The impact of Lennon’s ‘Imagine’ is crystal clear in the melody of this heartbreak ballad: “There is no future I want to see without you,” he mourns.
24. Velvet Underground – ‘I’m Waiting For The Man’ (1967)
An upbeat jam about waiting to buy heroin: this is one of those rare tracks where the piano does more of a rhythm-keeping job than the drums.
25. Dave Brubeck – ‘Take Five’ (1959)
Jazz-ehhh. This song features a vamping piano part that you just instinctively know. Jazz for people who think they don’t like jazz.
26. Rufus Wainwright – ‘Dinner at Eight’ (2003)
This thorny track was born out of a disagreement at a restaurant between Rufus and his absent dad Loudon: “We had just done a shoot for Rolling Stone together,” Wainwright told The Guardian in 2005, “and I told him he must be really happy that I had got him back in that magazine after all these years… Later in the evening he threatened to kill me. So I went home and wrote ‘Dinner at Eight’ as a vindictive retort to his threat.”
27. Ryan Adams – ‘Sylvia Plath’ (2001)
Self-destructive hedonism and mournful resignation make strange bedfellows on this slow-moving ballad from Adams’ classic album ‘Gold’.
28. Tom Waits – ‘Tom Traubert’s Blues (Four Sheets To The Wind In Copenhagen)’ (1976)
Waits hung out on skid row in LA to gather material for this song. “Every guy down there,” he recalled, “everyone I spoke to – a woman put him there.”
29. Billy Joel – ‘Piano Man’ (1973)