This blog comes with a few strings attached. Obviously narrowing down the top songs that are based around a 17th-century musical instrument is unrealistic and impossible without first establishing parameters. The songs that compose my list:
– All came after 1970. Sorry Ray Charles and Jerry Lee Lewis….and Beethoven.
– Exclude what I call PianoCrap. You see, when I was doing the research for this blog I noticed an eerie but consistent trend: during the musical debauchery that was the 1980’s, nearly every elite rock act put out a hit that featured a piano intro. I’m not sure who pioneered this trend, but I feel bad for them. Because although it was a great idea, it’s like watching a Will Ferrell movie. The first time it’s great, but they all sound the same and so many flood the market it’s embarrassing and ridiculous. Don’t believe me? How about “Beth” by Kiss? “Come Sail Away?” Try Motley Crue’s “Home Sweet Home”, or Van Halen’s “Right Now”. Even Bob Seger succombed with “Old Time Rock ‘N Roll”. Maybe the most famous of all is “Don’t Stop Believin'”. These songs, while they must be individually judged for their merit, can all be labeled PianoCrap.
– All are by different artists. If I was honest, this list would quickly turn into a Billy Joel / Ben Folds battle, and while those pianists kick ass, it’s no fun to write about seven different Billy Joel songs.
On to the list!
10. Somewhere Only We Know by Keane – The members of Keane are masters at modern piano-rock. Here’s a band that until their third album never used a guitar at all–and they’re one of the UK’s most-popular bands. “Somewhere” showcases their ability to center an emotive lyric around a steady, catchy piano riff. While some of their other stuff has more of a rock crunch, this song worked because of the softer melody. It’s a very introspective and awesome song.
9. Butterflies and Hurricanes by Muse – Another UK trio, Muse’s jam is definitely a far cry from Keane. Part of the reason the piano is so great is its versatility. It can be easily meshed in with rock instruments, or stand alone, to powerful effects. The former is on display in this gem. The title of the song comes from the idea behind the butterfly effect: That the flap of a butterflies’ wings can cause a hurricane across the world. The soft piano represents the butterfly, while the smash of the guitar… you get the idea. Muse often compliments their powerful sound with a piano, but this is the best example.
8. Werewolves of London by Warren Zevon – This classic 1978 has been more recently bastardized by Kid Rock in his “song” “All Summer Long”. The piano riff Warren created is extremely simple, but catchy, and the whole idea behind the song is really cool. Every time I hear this song I think of Tom Cruise in The Color of Money. “His hair…was perfect…” I kinda resent giving the link to the video because I know it won’t be taken as seriously, but I couldn’t resist. Just a great piano song.
7. Maybe I’m Amazed by Wings/Paul McCartney – Paul McCartney has always been a beast when it comes to writing love songs, but this one stands head and shoulders above the rest. The passion in his voice is reflected in the piano which anchors the song. While the guitars fade in and out, the piano is always there with Paul’s voice. The video for the song is also something special–a sort of scrapbook of Paul’s family. It really emphasizes just how honest he’s being in the song. It’s surprising when you consider that Paul’s most poignant love song didn’t surface when he was with The Beatles.
6. Imagine by John Lennon – As good as Paul’s song was, his Beatles-better-half tops him without question. Here’s a song that may have been unfairly elevated in pop culture due to John Lennon’s untimely death, but not by much. A top-notch song by all standards: “You may say I’m a dreamer / But I’m not the only one”; that, ladies and gentlemen, is classic. And besides a few drum beats, it’s just a genius and a piano. Rolling Stone gave it 3rd Best Song of All-Time. It was the UK’s 1 song for ALL of 1981. And Bob Dylan performed this song in Times Square on the eve of John Lennon’s assassination. It’s a magical song.
5. The Scientist by Coldplay – I’ll forever be sorry I once hated these guys. While they use the piano on a lot of songs, including all of their hits pre-Viva like “Clocks” and “Speed of Sound” and Yellow”, “The Scientist has the deepest lyrics, and a brilliant music video. Seriously, if you were planning on skipping all of the videos in this blog, please just watch this one. Chris Martin at his angstiest propels this song into the top five.
4. Brick by Ben Folds Five – Wow. Where to start on this song? It’s so powerful, I get goosebumps. Ben Folds is a brilliant pianist and songwriter–two or three of his songs could’ve maybe cracked the list, and everything comes together so well on this track it’s spooky. Unlike his usual humor-laced piano rock badassery, Ben softens the ivory-pounding on this one and lets the true story of his high school girlfriend’s abortion slowly sink in. Listening to the song intently, it’s impossible not to be moved and the build up before the final chorus is the emotional high-point (or, rather, low-point) of the whole four and a half minute masterpiece.
3. Thunder Road by Bruce Springsteen – Dad, this is for you. The Boss topped my top songwriters list and any argument there can be quelled with a listen to this song. The opening piano sets the mood of youth’s desperate escape to a place beyond and the piano invokes a certain continuity throughout. The powerful ending couples piano with sax and fades out into a dusty night on Thunder Road. Never has a non-pianist rocker ever so effectively used a piano.
2. Your Song by Elton John – When you think of legendary piano rockers two names usually come to mind. One has yet to be featured on this list. The other is Elton John. “Your Song” is one of the greatest love songs of all-time. It’s just him and his piano out there, singing a heartfelt tribute. This song exemplifies the piano’s beauty–because of that, this song edges out “Rocket Man” which I really wanted to put on here, but just couldn’t justify. Other Elton hits that just missed the cut were “Daniel”, “Tiny Dancer”, and “Levon”. The dude is a such a beast on the piano. In fact, only one is more beastly. Sorry people, no surprising ending here….
1. Piano Man by Billy Joel – At first glance, Piano Man is just a good-feeling, piano-centric rock anthem. But really, it’s a window into the lonely life of a traveling musician. The lyrics are pretty literal but also hint at the wistful nature of the whole scene. There’s an underlying feeling of underachievement, of not living up to potential, that’s inherent in being at this bar. The bartender wants to be a movie star. The patrons “slowly get stoned”, while “sharing a drink they call loneliness / But it’s better than drinking alone.” All of this under the umbrella of a fantastic, driving piano pop melody by a man who’s made his niche in piano pop melodies. While “Miami 2012” and “Angry Young Man” maybe better showcase Joel’s talent on the keys, it’s the message behind the song that matters. It’s a tribute to the instrument that made Billy Joel something, and it echos far beyond the final classic note.
November Rain by Guns ‘N Roses would’ve made the list…if it weren’t PianoCrap.
On The Radio by Regina Spektor
How To Save A Life by The Fray