Invented around the start of the 18th century by Italian Bartolomeo Cristofori, the piano has become pretty damn important in the course of musical history. The instrument is incredibly versatile, with a range of notes, tones and ways of being played that can allow it to fit into a multitude of styles.
House is one of the foremost electronic music genres to favour the piano. Classic after classic has arrived over the years featuring piano sounds, often imbuing the track with a strong emotional feelings. From the early days of pioneering producer Derrick May to the waves of dance music hitting the charts today, piano house has crystalised into an established subgenre and brought a ton of joy along the way.
To help spread that, we’ve compiled the 20 best piano house tracks ever for your listening pleasure in the list below.
Bizarre Inc 'Playing With Knives' (Quadrant mix)
Pangaea landed a ubiquitous club hit with ‘Cuba Vox’ this year, sampling Cuba Gooding’s ‘Happiness Is Just Around The Bend’. Bizarre Inc did the same in 1991, using his vocal amid a flurry of ecstatic sounds. ‘Playing With Knives’ epitomises the mood-changing power of a major key chord sequence. The three chord scale ascent and descent opening the tracks grabs you immediately and injects feelings of euphoria. The beat and vocals dropping in sharply after then sends emotions spiralling into the stratosphere. An absolute piano house classic that will never fail to hit you in the feels.
Chez Damier 'I Never Knew Love' (Made In Detroit mix)
Chez Damier is responsible for some of the smoothest rollers in house music, and his Val Whitehead collaboration ‘I Never Knew Love (Made In Detroit mix)’ is right up there with the best of them. It opens eerily with tones that don’t sound far off being a pacey house remix of Pokémon’s Lavender Town theme (although this 1992 record pre-dates Pokémon Red and Blue’s US release by six years). Sure enough, though, blissful piano chords and heavenly vocals soon enter the mix and shift the tone to celebratory.
Congress '40 miles'
While American politics is currently defined by despair and crisis, there’s one Congress that never fails to lift our spirits. This 1991 release and debut outing of Inner Rhythm, sub-label to the short-lived but industrious London imprint Outer Rhythm, merges choral tones, jaunty piano playing and thudding breaks to form an elegant banger with added kick. The vocals aren’t exactly flawless but this works so well in the context of the rave-rousing song. Getting loose on a dancefloor can be a bit messy and rough, but that doesn’t stop it being perfect.
David Morales 'Needin’ U'
The stuttering opening of this David Morales anthem must be one of the most ear-catching sequences in dance-pop history, teasing the drop into what is definitely one of the most recognisable piano lines out there. It’s the biggest hit of David Morales’ mighty career, and amazingly, it nearly never saw the light of day. Morales made it while toying around with a bunch of samples for several hours and never intended to release the fruits of his labour. A few DJs got their hands on it and convinced Morales to put it out to the world after the track’s incredible club impact became apparent. The rest - in this case meaning: topping the dance chart in the UK and US - is history.
DJ Dove 'Illusions'
You can almost picture a player hunched over a grand piano keying out the intricate melody of this DJ Dove classic when listening to the record. The music is so beautiful and affecting, it conjures strong imagery and a vivid sense of humanity, while the beat underneath is irresistibly danceable. This potent combination makes for one the finest piano house records ever made, that could tease even the most reluctant dancers into unbridled movement. Dove(s) really set out the blueprint for ecstasy in the 90s.
Eric Prydz 'Pjanoo'
Eric Prydz sure knows his way around a big, bold, surging banger doesn’t he? This 2008 single topped the UK dance chart, and only just missed out on the full chart top spot to Katy Perry’s ubiquitous ‘I Kissed A Girl’, placing above Rihanna’s ‘Disturbia’ in the process. ‘Pjanoo’ is tailor-made to push gigantic clubs into overdrive, carrying the palpable sensation of hands flying to the ceiling and beer flung into the air in its momentous build. It’s the forerunner to so many dance-pop crossover giants that have followed and taken over the world with similarly styled infectious hooks.
Electric Choc 'Shock The Beat' (Piano Mix)
This is Italo house of the highest order with a piano line that feels as good as kicking back on a Trieste balcony and watching the ships go by while sipping an Aperol Spritz. Well, almost. But for those of us not living in on the edge of the Adriatic, Electric Choc’s piano house classic is a handy alternative for blissful Italian vibes when desired. It never fails.
Gat Decor 'Passion'
A seminal piece of piano house and one of those classic Ibiza tracks that oozes the hedonism of the 1990s. When that piano line eventually arrives, you can genuinely picture swarms of revellers with their hands in the air, the night close to its end. Simon Slater, member of the Gat Decor trio, mentioned in an interview that the piano break was unusually played a semitone up from the bassline, and this only adds to the genius of the track. ‘Passion’ was also ranked among our ‘50 Most Influential Records of All Time’ back in 1996. We don’t buy into the “they just don't make ‘em like they used to” gatekeeping views of some dance music heads, but in this case they might be onto something. James Dewar
Ken Doh 'Nagasaki'
“Kendo Nagasaki” is the stage name given to a pro wrestling character whose mysterious backstory hints at supernatural powers. It’s safe to say that Michael Devlin and Steve Burgess took inspiration for the character when titling their collaborative Ken Doh project and 1995 track ‘Nagasaki’, which is every bit as magical as the mythology surrounding its masked namesake. It was omnipresent in clubs upon its UK release in 1996, elevating dancefloors to heavenly realms.
Mad Rey 'Quartier Sex'
One of the newer records on this list, Mad Rey’s 2016 outing on D.KO Records ‘Quartier Sex’ has all the makings of a future classic. Starting out with a robust rolling house beat and chanted vocal snippets, dampened piano chords floating into the mix around the 90 second mark signal a transition to deeper, more sensual territory. The piano gradually grows in intensity, alongside vocals that begin faint and soaked in reverb before bursting forward with show-stealing power.
Marshall Jefferson 'Move Your Body'
Marshall Jefferson’s 1986 single ‘Move Your Body’ was in fact the first ever house song to incorporate a piano. For this alone, it deserves a spot on our list. Fans of Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas or the 1990 film Paris Is Burning will be more than familiar with the merits of the track’s jazzy piano intro and groove-driven hook. An influential house track that still bangs, there’s no questioning its status as one of the greatest piano house anthems out there. James Dewar
Announcing yourself into the world with a track called ‘Anthem’ is bold, but the debut single from English production duo N-Joi is a rousing banger that undeniably earned its title. Vocalist Saffron later joined the group for live performances, but the vocals in the track are samples from three different songs (Gwen Guthrie’s ‘Peanut Butter’, Darlene Davis’ ‘I Found Love’ and Soul II Soul’s ‘Back to Life (However Do You Want Me)’). The way they fit together perfectly and sound as though they were always intended be joined in sequence is a testament to N-Joi’s song crafting abilities - as is the infectious piano line that bounces through the track. You can’t help but enjoy this anthem.
Omar S 'The Shit Baby'
Anyone who’s seen Omar S DJ since 2013 will know how much of a treat this one goes down in the dance. The percussion and bassline hint at a simple and catchy track, before that sprawling piano line rolls in and pushes it to classic status. It unfolds with the visceral energy of free jazz, dancing across octaves with twinkle-fingered wonder. Hearing it in the club verges on a spiritual experience and it's evident that Omar S ain’t lying when he tells you he’s The Shit, baby.
Paul Johnson 'Get Get Down'
Paul Johnson’s ‘Get Get Down’ was made number one in the US 19 years ago almost to the today (December 18, 1999). Simplicity has been key to it success, Johnson having only used about 3 chords for the track’s main hook. Over the past few years ‘Get Get Down’ has had a new lease of life, appearing in UK Garage sets from the likes of DJ Q or EZ. This longevity is testament to its versatility. James Dewar
Rhythim Is Rhythim 'Strings Of Life'
One of the best loved records of all time and still a fixture in club and festival sets across the world to this day, ‘Strings Of Life’ is already certified as timeless and we’re sure it will continue to be regarded as a Greatest Of All Time record long into the future. The piano used by Derrick May on the track was a slow sequence played by his friend Michael James, which May then chopped and sped up to reimagine it into the basis of an iconic dance tune. The prizes heaped on this track are countless, regularly placing high in greatest dance releases ever polls and well deserving of its spot each time.
Sterling Void 'Don't Want To Go' (Mike Dunn's Vocal Mix)
A holy trifecta of house talents worked on this track (Mike Dunn, Sterling Void and vocalist Paris Brightledge, who’s uncredited on the release) and it shows in the magical results. Drum rolls are often used to segue into something celebratory, and the percussive workout that opens this track launches into one of the most triumphant piano lines ever. It’s been sampled in a number of other classics such as Manix’s old-skool rave anthem ‘Feel Real Good’ and Outrage’s ‘Tall ‘n’ Handsome’ and always injects feelings of elation. Mike Dunn’s mix of the original is the smoothest track you’ll hear it in.
Strike 'U Sure Do'
Bringing together a vocal from Donna Allen’s 80s funk and soul single ‘Serious’ and keys from Cubic 22’s 90s hardcore heater ‘Night In Motion’, Strike’s ‘U Sure Do’ transformed the sounds into an upbeat house track that underlined the power of sampling in electronic music. The track opens with vibes at maximum and unfolds as an irresistibile, hands-in-the-air anthem. Borai & Denham Audio landing 16th spot in our top tracks of 2018 list with a tune using the same vocal sample (‘Make Me’) is the legacy of ‘U Sure Do’ is still rolling strong.
The Joubert Singers ‘Stand On The Word’ (Untitled remix)
Perhaps the defining track of Larry Levan’s Paradise Garage residency, and therefore one of the defining tracks of modern dance music. Even today this song is still a mainstay in huge sets from DJs like Palms Trax, Move D and Motor City Drum Ensemble. Despite popular belief, Larry Levan did not remix the track. Instead, under the moniker ‘Joubert Singers’, he played a subsidiary role in the mixing of the original which was by The Celestial Choir. Myth-busting aside this is one of the greatest house records of all time, and that scintillating piano intro alone makes it more than worthy of a spot on our list. James Dewar
Tim Deluxe 'Transformation'
Tim Deluxe’s 11-minute epic traverses through the range of the house spectrum with piano at the core of its transformation along the way. It starts deep with the opening twinkles hinting at ambient territory, before a jauntier melody bounces in alongside a kick drum, signalling more classic house territory. The intensity ramps up throughout with forays into tech and progressive sounds coming through crashing hi-hats and soaring synths. A piano full house, if you will.
Ultraworld 'Northern Piano' (Hardcore Piano mix)
We opened this list with a track from ‘91 and we head back there now to close it on Ultraworld’s ‘Northern Piano’. Released on Strictly Rhythm with three different mixes - naturally the “Hardcore piano mix” is the most banging. Sweeping strings and unearthly vocals lend the track a grand, transcendent feeling, while the piano and percussion anchors the track in danceability. It’s a perfect set closer, giving you those feelings of spectacular uplift as well as keeping you dancing until the last second.
Patrick Hinton is Mixmag's Digital Staff Writer, follow him on Twitter
James Dewar is a freelance journalist, follow him on Twitter