Behind The Candelabra: 15 Great Piano-Driven Pop Songs

HBO’s Behind the Candelabra, Steven Soderbergh’s highly anticipated biopic on Liberace, debuted this past weekend to much critical fanfare, with many critics praising Soderbergh for approaching his subject with a modicum of humanity (as opposed to mean-spirited camp). Although Liberace never openly pined to be taken seriously, we think he’d appreciate the film’s attempt to go behind the caricature and laud him for his ivory-tickling talents. Not to mention his other talents, demonstrated mostly on lover Scott Thorson, played by Matt Damon.

In the spirit of reviving all things Lee, we’ve compiled this playlist of piano-packing pop stars, all of whom — whether they want to admit it in their cool little hearts or not — owe a debt of gratitude to the first man to make pianos hip since Tchaikovsky. Well, may “hip” isn’t the right word for the rhinestone encrusted, old-lady-arousing Lee…. perhaps we should say, Leee-gorgeous!

Adele, “Someone Like You” Adele may be collecting mucho royalties for her torchy #1 smash, but we think she should have to pay some of them back whenever some drunken mess tortures us with their rendition on karaoke night. Pay up, Adele!

Christina Aguilera, “Beautiful” Remember when Xtina’s “Dirrrty” flopped, the label suits panicked and “Beautiful” was born? Okay, so maybe it had cynical origins. Butbwe still say this Linda Perry-penned piano ballad is the best thing Legendtina ever laid her swoopy vocals upon…and that includes “Woo Hoo.”

Sarah Bareilles “Love Song” Sarah’s jaunty, ironically-titled anti-love song has always been an instant ear-grabber. With its big piano sound and Sarah’s wry delivery, it seems like it could be spiritual cousins with classic hits like 10cc’s “The Things You Do For Love” and Supertramp’s “Take the Long Way Home.”

David Bowie, “Life On Mars?” One of Bowie’s most memorable, immediate tracks to emerge from his Ziggy Stardust phase plays like a madcap movie from Hollywood’s golden era, with thundering chords and jubilant strings. The lyrics involve an affair, fighting sailors, Mickey Mouse and that one frightful question mankind has pondered for hundreds of years: Is there life on Mars?

Michael Buble, “Haven’t Met You Yet” Buble is exactly the kind of nice guy we dream about falling in love with randomly on a Tuesday in the grocery store. And maybe that’s the universal appeal of this 2009 mid-tempo piano jam, which became the Canadian crooner’s biggest hit to date. Michael’s wife Luisana appears in the video as his supermarket love interest, but she doesn’t have anything to worry about — he just hasn’t met us…yet.

Vanessa Carlton, “A Thousand Miles” Two words: White Chicks.

Bruce Hornsby And The Range, “The Way It Is” Listeners may associate this track with the thirtysomething ‘80s, but Hornsby’s song has had a pretty long shelf-life after it’s 1986 debut. It’s been sampled by the likes of 2Pac and Snoop Dogg, withstood a ‘90s techno revamp by Undercover and continues to be a go-to hook for contemporary artists like Emily King and the Hi-Jakkers. Some things will never change!

Billy Joel, “Piano Man” Billy’s 1973 hit got right to the heart of what makes the piano such an effective instrument: you can easily gather a lot of drunk people around it for a singalong! With its depressing, such-is-life lyrics and bittersweet melody, “Piano Man” is kind of like a sea shanty for those drowning in the bottom of a glass at last call.

Elton John, “Rocket Man” There really are dozens of hits from Sir Elton’s “classic” era that we could have picked. But something about Bernie Taupin‘s sci-fi tinged lyrics, which describe a forlorn, isolated astronaut heading to Mars (“It’s lonely out in space,” “I think it’s going to be a long, long time”), and John’s pensive tickling of the ivories make this this a perfect piece of moody ’70s pop.

John Lennon, “Imagine” John Lennon’s anthem of peace, delivered powerfully over a sparse piano arrangement, conjures the image of an ideal world, one where humanity isn’t divided by the superficialities of society and is instead bonded by humanity and love. (Full disclosure: Our favorite version is by Avril Lavigne.)

Alicia Keys, “Fallin'” Best remembered as Ms. Keys’s breakout hit, worst remembered as the audition song of EVERY female auditionee in the first sixty-three seasons of American Idol. If we suppress that particular memory long enough, however, we can happily recall how genre-busting this downbeat piano dirge sounded on the radio dial in 2001, in between the likes of O-Town, Britney and Enya.

Carole King “It’s Too Late” In the early ’70s, Ms. King’s signature piano chords were nothing short of revolutionary, and if you don’t believe me, have a listen to a dozen other hits of the decade (“Hello Its Me” by Todd Rundgren especially) and hear them blatantly echoed. From the blockbuster Tapestry album, “It’s Too Late” takes us to that happy-sad place that only the sound of a piano can.

PM Dawn, “I’d Die Without You” The string of hits from this duo in the early-’90s was unfairly short, but each one is still completely etched into our minds — something we can’t say the same about with regards to 1992 Eddie Murphy flick Boomerang. PM Dawn’s “I’d Die Without You” wasn’t the only smash off the soundtrack (see: Boyz II Men‘s “End Of The Road”), but that cascading, slightly haunting piano riff certainly makes it the more interesting one in our book.

Daniel Powter, “Bad Day” This “Bad Day” turned out to be quite a nice security blanket for Canadian singer Daniel Powter in 2006. If you’re going to become a one-hit wonder, let it happen by penning a song that hits #1 for several weeks, sells 3 million digital downloads and gets adopted as the American Idol farewell song, as contestants are ousted each week. Cha-ching!

Britney Spears, “Everytime” It’s true. We may never hear this song — or, for that fact, be able to look at a shirtless James Franco — quite the same way again, after Spring Breakers. But one thing remains the same: Britney’s tinkly piano ballad will never cease to bring a tear to the eye.