10 Piano Albums Ben Folds Thinks Every Music Fan Should Own

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Crate Digging is a recurring feature in which we take a deep dive into a genre and turn up several albums all music fans should know about. In this edition, singer, songwriter, and bandleader Ben Folds shares his favorite piano albums.

Ben Folds definitely knows his way around the piano. It’s been his instrument of choice for over 40 years, and his mastery of the keys is evident in every note he plays.

But where exactly did his wide-ranging knowledge begin? What inspired him to keep developing his skills as both a piano player and songwriter? For one, like thousands of musicians, it came from jazz. Over Zoom, Folds tells Consequence that he played Ramsey Lewis’ Goin’ Latin “until the grooves were literally white, until they were crusted up and ruined” and that he determined early on that Duke Ellington’s Masterpieces album was indeed a masterpiece.

Of course, Folds found inspiration in similarly iconic piano players like Randy Newman and Elton John, but grew more fond of their live albums over their studio recordings. “It’s just a moment in time, so you’re getting an event,” says Folds of Randy Newman’s 1971 live album, Randy Newman Live. “It’s just really honest… you’re getting a glimpse into not only the creativity, but an event. And I think that’s lost very often in recordings.”

The music of Ben Folds’ life has played a major part in his identity, and his new album, What Matters Most (out June 2nd), seems to acknowledge these classic artists in a heartfelt way. Despite it being his first solo album in eight years, Folds is confident about the purity of the project and the long road of touring ahead (get Ben Folds tickets here). “I have an album coming out that I actually don’t dislike,” he tells Consequence rather sarcastically, “Which is nice, because usually, by this time I’ve found plenty to have a problem with!”

When discussing each of the 10 records, Folds is passionate as ever, and seems to prioritize a true, unwavering sense of creative freedom. He may enjoy classical interpretations of composers like Mozart and Beethoven, but he also finds himself drawn to the rambunctious freak outs in albums like James Booker’s Junco Partner (“It’s rabid,” Folds says about the LP). For Folds, these albums are defining piano records, all with contrasting styles, but all valuable documents of songwriters extracting the most out of their instrument.

Read on for Ben Folds’ list of the 10 piano albums that everyone should own.

Joni Mitchell – Blue

Blue Joni Mitchell Album Artwork Crate Digging Ben Folds 10 Albums

First of all, this is the classic era of the piano as a serious pop music instrument. It’s never gone back to that. So it’s hard not to pick things from this era. What I like about Joni Mitchell’s Blue as a piano album is that it’s not completely piano. Fften she’s playing other instruments on other songs, but essentially it is one major accompanying instrument and her voice. And you never ever, ever want another sound. I would say something like the song “My Old Man” has absolutely perfect piano playing. It’s great because the piano is the orchestra and the band, and it’s not just chopping away like so many pop songs on the piano do. It’s actually very inventive. And there are a couple places that are dissonant that are mind blowing little moments in that song — little masterpiece moments.

Essential Track: “My Old Man”

Randy Newman – Randy Newman Live

Randy Newman Live Album Artwork Crate Digging Ben Folds 10 Albums

This is Randy Newman live at The Bitter End in New York. He maintains a “band,” again, as the piano solo during a show, which I’m certain he didn’t really think about being recorded. It’s just a moment in time, so you’re getting an event. I’ve always been a big Randy Newman fan. I didn’t discover that album first, which I think is notable that I would pick that out. I think that first impressions are big. When you hear a live album you normally feel like, “well, that’s the songs I like sped up.” But this one… if I were the boss of Randy, and he had to send one up to a space station, I would be picking this album. It’s not that it’s his best album. It’s just really honest… you’re getting a glimpse into not only the creativity, but an event. And I think that’s lost very often in recordings.

Essential Track: “I Think It’s Going to Rain Today”

Regina Spektor – Soviet Kitsch

Soviet Kitsch Regina Spektor Album Artwork Crate Digging Ben Folds 10 Albums

Honestly, I was looking for something in a later era of music because it’s more difficult to find. And while I could easily pick 10 Tori Amos records (I really love Tori Amos), I had to give this one to Regina. I wouldn’t be here without her. She’s a fucking genius. Regina’s Soviet Kitsch, it’s so raw. For an essential track, let’s go with “Poor Little Rich Boy,” because she’s playing piano and a drumstick on her stool at the same time. I’m gonna say that’s not normally done. She’s a fucking freak, and I mean that in the best possible way.

Essential Track: “Poor Little Rich Boy”

Elton John – 17-11-70

17-11-70 Elton John Album Artwork Crate Digging Ben Folds

While Randy Newman’s moment highlights the songs, this one highlights his piano playing. And holy shit. The thing is, I don’t think that Elton is represented on any of his other albums as a piano player. And the reason for that is because he’s trying to make the best album. So “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting,” right, that’s a hit song. You barely hear the piano in it at all. I mean, you hear a couple of “dink, dink, dinks” here and there. But I think in general, if you’ll really listen closely to his albums, he’s passing his moments off to the band, to the production, to his voice, all kinds of other things. And he’s very humble about his piano playing. I spoke with him once about this record. And he said that it was pretty much beyond his ability, that he listens to it and recognizes that the piano playing is pretty goddamn fierce on this record.

Essential Track: “Take Me to the Pilot”

Margo Guryan – The Chopsticks Variations

The Chopsticks Variations Margo Guryan Album Artwork Crate Digging Ben Folds

Now you’ll hear my mind is heading down slightly more classical, instrumental path for a moment. It’s a collection of 14 variations on the standard “Chopsticks.” I’m not going to pick a favorite on that one. Let’s say “Chopsticks,” it’s only one piece. It’s absolutely incredible. It is just such a fucking thing. And she wasn’t necessarily known for this sort of stuff. She was almost like an indie rock/pop singer in the ’60s and early ’70s And this is what she does, something called “reharmonization” of “Chopsticks” multiple times, and it’s pretty freakish. Yeah, it’s a beautiful record. No one has it, everyone should have it.

Essential Track: “Chopsticks” (they’re all “Chopsticks”)

Alfred Brendel – Complete Mozart Edition: Piano Concertos (Box Set)

Alfred Brendel Mozart Piano Concertos Box Set Album Artwork Crate Digging Ben Folds

This one’s gonna cost you an arm and a leg. This is the box set — two box sets — of Alfred Brendel’s Mozart’s piano concertos, done with the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields Orchestra. Let’s go with the Piano Concerto Number 21. It’s just a hit, it’s a pop hit. What I like about Brendel’s playing is what we call “Cantado playing,” it’s like singing. The phrases are connected so poetically that it never lets you go. Plus, there’s a little technical bit in this — it’s really difficult to balance a piano in an orchestra when recording this kind of stuff. Not that I’ve done it, but I can hear it from having listened to a thousand of these albums. And what this manages to do is sort of hang on to the piano while not artificially boosting it above the band. So I think it is a masterpiece. It’s going to cost a lot, gonna set you back hundreds of dollars, but maybe it’s on Spotify!

Essential Track: “Piano Concerto Number 21”

Wilhelm Kempff – Beethoven: Complete Piano Sonatas Nos. 1-32

Beethoven Sonatas Wilhem Kempff Album Artwork Crate Digging Ben Folds

While we’re still down that rabbit hole, let’s go with Wilhelm Kempff’s collection of Beethoven Sonatas. And I go with that because Kempff is not an overly sensational player, at least in these sonatas, like, he doesn’t milk it. And by not milking it, it pays off later — a lot of people milk some of these sonatas and that’s fine. They’re getting the emotional goodie out of it, but he’s so restrained and understated that when the moments come, they just waterfall out of the speakers. So he allows that to happen. And you know, there may be multiple recordings of these, but I have the Complete Beethoven Piano Sonatas album by Kempff.

Essential Track: “Pastoral Sonata Number 15”

James Booker – Junco Partner

Junco Partner James Booker Album Artwork Crate Digging Ben Folds

Okay, now we’re heading towards jazz. This album was a big influence and inspiration on the way that I play solo piano. His rambunctiousness and sort of slightly unhinged approach to it kind of opened the door for me, it allowed me to do things in a way that command the whole evening. I don’t think without that album, or at least without his perfect live piano performances, solo piano and voice, I don’t think it would have occurred to me because it’s so extreme. It’s like… it’s rabid. And I think some of that might have been because… and I’m not a historian about his life, but I know that he had a lot of problems with drug addiction and he went to jail. So I think he was probably just let out and just happy to be there, and people would just set up mics and go “hey, fucking Jimmy’s playing the oyster bar. Let’s set this up.” I don’t think he was a big studio recording, touring entity in the normal way, you know? So anyway, that’s a lot to say about him. But this album is overlooked because people go for Professor Longhair. I’m not gonna say one’s better than the other. But both were very helpful for me.

Essential Track: “Junco Partner”

Duke Ellington – Masterpieces By Ellington

Masterpieces By Ellington Duke Ellington Album Artwork Crate Digging Ben Folds

The next one is the first actual LP made for long playing record. Specifically, it was commissioned by Columbia Records in the early ’40s. It’s a lot of instruments, but the piano was center stage. And it’s notable for telling a story for an entire album because up until then, people were doing maybe three or four songs on a little 10 inch, 33 rpm record. You’re talking about probably getting about two and a half minutes of program time on either side, if you’re lucky. So having a full-length album was like, “What the hell am I going to do?” And Duke Ellington’s accurately-named masterpiece has answered the question to that. It is a masterpiece.

Essential Track: “Mood Indigo”

Ramsey Lewis – Goin’ Latin

Goin' Latin Ramsey lewis Album Artwork Crate Digging Ben Folds

This was an album that I played when I was a kid until the grooves were literally white, until they were crusted up and ruined. It is my playing. If I were ever influenced by anybody, singularly, it would be not only just Ramsey Lewis, but this album. It did something to me, that, and 17-11-70 probably have equal weight in my playing, but everything that Lewis is doing on that record, I think ended up being one of my “isms.” I think I just fucking took that from Ramsey. I was listening to this very record by chance the night that he died. I’ll listen to that album often still. It’s one of my favorites ever.

Essential Track: “Hey Mrs. Jones”

10 Piano Albums Ben Folds Thinks Every Music Fan Should Own
Paolo Ragusa

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