15 of the Best Piano Songs In Modern Pop History
Our roundup of the 15 best piano songs in pop recognizes that while guitars and drums often get all the glory in pop music, it’s the power of a well-written piano riff that can truly make a song great.
Singles like Coldplay‘s ‘Clocks,’ Alicia Keys‘ ‘Fallin” and Vanessa Carlton’s ‘A Thousand Miles’ are known for their piano work —but they certainly aren’t the only ones. Artists like John Legend, Lady Gaga, Adele and Ben Folds have also given the baby grands of the world a place to call home.
Have a listen to what we think are some of the best piano songs in pop music, and we think you’ll agree that this classical instrument is sometimes best used on a modern concert stage instead.
'How to Save a Life'
'How to Save a Life' was the title track from the Fray's debut album and a huge hit, spending 58 consecutive weeks on the Billboard Hot 100. The Fray's frontman Isaac Slade, who wrote the dark piano-driven song, said it was inspired by his experiences working as a mentor at a camp for troubled teens.
The story behind this bouncy top piano song, Sara Bareilles' first single, 'Love Song,' is a pretty simple one: her record label asked her to write a "marketable love song." And marketable it was -- the 2009 track went to No. 1 on two U.S. charts and was nominated for Grammys for Song of the Year and Best Female Pop Vocal Performance.
Lady Gaga says her reasons for writing 'Speechless' were twofold -- first, to convince her father to undergo necessary open-heart surgery, and second, to remind her young fans to appreciate their parents. This ballad, which comes in at No. 7 on our Top 10 Piano Songs, didn't climb the charts as many of her others have, but it's become a staple in her live shows.
Ben Folds co-wrote 'Brick' about his high school girlfriend undergoing an abortion, but in interviews he's been quick to say he's not taking a political stance -- simply explaining what the experience felt like for him. Regardless of the sad subject matter, listeners around the world loved this melancholy yet beautiful piano song.
'A Thousand Miles'
Listening to the upbeat tempo of Vanessa Carlton's signature piano song, 'A Thousand Miles,' you'd probably never know it was penned about the loss of her grandfather. But that's okay -- it wasn't meant to be literal, she said, but just inspired by "a love that so consumes you that you'd do anything for it."
Critics praised 'Ordinary People' for its raw emotion and simplicity, and Grammy voters rewarded John Legend with their 2006 award for Best Male R&B Vocal Performance. The piano man said the song is about the compromise required in relationships -- and that even then, there's no guarantee things will always work out.
Unless you've been in a coma for the past couple years, you know the songs on Adele's smash album '21' were about the breakup of a relationship -- and 'Turning Tables' was no exception. It isn't the most popular track from '21,' but the ballad still went gold and cracked the Top 100 after Gwyneth Paltrow performed it on 'Glee.'
Even those of us who aren't Coldplay fans will begrudgingly admit that 'Clocks' is a great track. The lyrics are cryptic and don't make much sense, but never mind that -- it's the piano melody that shines. 'Clocks' won the 2004 Grammy for Record of the Year, and the intro riff is still so beloved that it's been sampled in scores of other songs.
'Fallin',' released in 2001, was Alicia Keys' first No. 1 single, and what a splash it made -- it picked up three Grammys and later nabbed spots on several lists ranking the best songs of the decade. The theme is pretty universal -- the ups and downs of a relationship -- with Keys saying, "Sometimes you're completely head-over-heels in love with someone, and sometimes you can't stand that person." It's for these reasons and so many more that 'Fallin'' tops our list of best piano songs.
'Waiting For Love'
While the term "piano songs" brings to mind a classical masterpiece or a vintage Billy Joel song, we live in the age of EDM — and some dance bangers are more than just jacked-up drum machines and wobbly bass.
Swedish producer Avicii is just one of several mega-popular electronic artists who favor collaboration and thoughtful arrangements in the studio. His 2015 "Waiting For Love" single was co-produced by Dutch DJ-producer Martin Garrix, and features Cherry Ghost singer Simon Aldred (who's virtually Chris Martin's vocal doppelganger). The soulful piano provides a through-line connects the rest of the track's high-energy elements.
The lead single from Demi's 2011 Unbroken album is a heart-rending ballad that sings the praises of building yourself back up again when you've been torn down (you know...like a skyscraper).
The Toby Gad-produced gem owes as much to its piano balladry as it does to Demi's robust, impassioned vocals.
Ian Axel and Chad King — the duo better known to pop fans as A Great Big World — were vaulted into the spotlight when Christina Aguilera fell in love with the original "Say Something." The 2013 re-recorded duet version reached No. 4 on the Billboard Hot 100, and Xtina's vocals shine especially bright against the ballad's understated piano — taking the song from moving to absolutely eviscerating.
'When I Was Your Man'
As any fan of Mark Ronson's "Uptown Funk" can verify, Bruno Mars knows how to get a party started. But this hit from 2012's Unorthodox Jukebox is Bruno distilled: Just a man and his piano, baring his soul and his golden voice in the style of Elton John and Stevie Wonder.
'Not About Love'
There's many contenders for "best piano-driven Fiona Apple song — "Shadowboxer," "Love Ridden" and "Valentine," just to name a few. But "Not About Love," from 2005's Extraordinary Machine, embodies everything great about Apple's finest songs: Oblique-yet-keenly-observed lyrics on the many complications that come with modern love, and a nimble piano arrangement that perfectly matches her quick wit.
This 2008 single from (in our opinion) underrated British singer-songwriter is a great example of a "good" song that's elevated to "great" with one simple, yet memorable, element — in this case, Nash's piano work. We're sharing this live version from Kate's 2014 Coachella appearance, as it really showcases her skills on the ivories.