2019 is the year of the piano
How indie artists are making an analog instrument cool again in the age of digital tools
If everything old is new again… can the humble 350-year-old piano emerge from the shadows of stuffy symphonies and classical music to be cool again? It would appear that, just maybe, it can.
The piano has never been uncool, per se; but today’s world is one in which digital tools have eclipsed analog methods of creating music. Luckily a handful of artists are reclaiming this classic instrument in refreshing ways this year. These are artists who are already creating the best work of their careers — but turning to the piano to challenge themselves in new ways. It’s refreshing to witness.
Check out a few of my favorite piano-centric selections below, and get ready to discover fresh perspectives from an eternal classic.
Lissie | When I’m Alone: The Piano Retrospective
One has to appreciate the freedom that comes with being an independent artist; someone like Lissie, with no corporate restrictions, no conventions and no pressure, is free to revisit her previous work and shine a new light on her already impressive catalog of work. She seems acutely aware of her own power as an artist, and in discussing this album, Lissie has mentioned a desire to showcase the impressive instrument that is her voice. It’s not necessarily new to revisit one’s own work, but that doesn’t make it any less great here as these stripped-down piano arrangements allow Lissie to really sink her teeth into the songs and give that raspy, powerful voice the space it deserves. She’s drawn comparisons to Stevie Nicks for as long she’s been releasing music, and “The Piano Retrospective” includes another great Fleetwood Mac cover in the form of “Dreams,” which just feels like great marketing for the mainstream market on her part (it’s one of their most popular songs, after all). Not so expected, though, is her cover of the Dixie Chicks’ “Cowboy Take Me Away,” which feels like it must be inspired by her recent move back to the midwest.Whereas some artists pump out greatest hits albums like they’re going out of style, Lissie is here to say she’s never going out of style.
Perfect for: Breakups, makeups, and everything in between.
Thrupence | Piano Works
Thrupence is a relative newcomer to the music scene, but he’s not to be underestimated. The talented visual artist has been experimenting with ambient instrumental music since 2010’s “Unfinished Business,” and he’s quickly proving himself as a multitalented powerhouse. The artist also known as Jack Vanzet crafts delicate and moving pieces that marry well with his art, and “Piano Works” sees him stripping away the usual electronic flourishes for an album that feels more grounded than the rest.
Perfect for: Quiet introspection
Lady Gaga | A Star is Born
Lady Gaga has never shied away from the piano, and the recent soundtrack for “A Star is Born” is no exception. Released in 2018 but really achieving critical mass in 2019 thanks to awards season, the album highlights the vocal and songwriting prowess of Gaga sandwiched in between Jackson Maine’s whiskey-soaked rock tracks and the manufactured pop of “Ally” the pop star. Tracks like “Is That Alright?” and, obviously, “Shallow,” feature Gaga in her purest form: Sitting at a piano singing her heart out. It’s certainly the most mainstream of the selections here, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention it. Even Shawn Mendes, a rising megastar on the pop scene and an idol to the younger Millennial audiences, often sits down at a piano during concerts and award show performances, which feels like a near-rebellious act in today’s pop landscape. Let’s hope this is a sign of a burgeoning trend.
Eluvium | Pianoworks
Eluvium is no stranger to the piano and, like Lissie, his piano-centric new album has him revisiting some of his previous work on the ivory keys. The deluxe edition of “Pianoworks” includes updated arrangements of tracks such as “Prelude for Time Feelers” and “Radio Ballet,” both of which have been standouts in his catalog since 2007’s “Copia.” I’ve always had a soft spot for classical music, but “Prelude for Time Feelers” was the first time an instrumental song provoked enough emotion in me to make me cry. The overall result from “Pianoworks,” whether you’re listening to the deluxe edition or not, is yet another masterful release from Eluvium, who keeps reinventing himself in exciting ways (seriously — go check out his previous album, “Shuffle Drones.” It’s truly unique).
Perfect for: The feels. All the feels.
Who did I miss on my list?
Let me know if there are other artists killing it on the piano this year in the comments!