This marked the anniversary of Whitney Houston’s death. At the time of her death, Houston was mounting yet another comeback – she had released an album of new material, and was planning a tour. Unfortunately, she was sick again, and her last few days were shrouded in a haze of awkward public appearances, where the pop star seemed ill and suffering from her addictions again.
After her death, magazine writers played armchair quarterbacks, trying to figure out why Houston died at such a young age. Her family on the other hand looked to be handling her death very badly – especially her troubled daughter, Bobbi Kristina, who stars in a reality show, that shows the young girl in a very bad light. Houston’s mother, Cissy, an accomplished singer in her own right, has penned a tell-all memoir, in which she shares her contempt for Houston’s best friend Robyn Crawford and her ex-husband, Bobby Brown (in an interview, Cissy Houston emphatically asserted that she wouldn’t have accepted her daughter being gay, to a bemuse and mildly surprised Oprah Winfrey).
All of this of course is a distraction to the best thing about Houston: her voice. So, in honor of Houston’s untimely death, I’ve put together my top 25 favorite songs by Whitney Houston.
25) “It Isn’t, It Wasn’t, It Ain’t Never Gonna Be” (1989) Whitney Houston and Aretha Franklin – this was a vocal match made in heaven: Houston was a young, fresh-eyed ingenue when her mom, Cissy, would sing backup for legend Franklin, who was godmother to the young pop star. This campy, synthesizer-heavy dance-pop song was recorded in 1989 at Houston’s peak as a performer, while Franklin was resting on her laurels as a soul legend. It was a surprising flop on the pop charts, but it’s a fun song that has Franklin and Houston play rivals over a man’s affection – it’s a bit disappointing that this once-in-a-lifetime duet would be somewhat wasted on a lightweight pop number, but it’s loads of fun, and Franklin and Houston put in very sassy, tongue-in-cheek performances.
24) “One of Those Days” (2002) – This song came from Houston’s underselling Just Whitney album. It’s a sunny, midtempo number with a relaxed performance by the singer. The song includes a sample of the Isley Brothers hit “Between the Sheets” (as well as a shoutout to Ronald Isley), and is a breezy tune about relaxing and escaping from the stresses of life. There aren’t any of Houston’s patented vocal swoops and shouts, but it proves that she’s just as engaging when she’s restraint and low key.
23) “I Learned from the Best” (2000) – Houston’s last top 40 hit (save for a top 10 cover of “The Star Spangled Banner” that was a hit because of 9/11), was a Bond-esque ballad with a dramatic horns and a biting performance by the singer as she sings about surviving a failed relationship. As an added bonus, you should check out the excellent HQ2 Uptempo Club remix.
22) “Queen of the Night” (1993) – This single was spun off The Bodyguard soundtrack, and was reminiscent of Janet Jackson’s “Black Cat” or En Vogue’s “Free Your Mind.” A dance-pop/rock hybrid, Houston sings imperiously over a guitar-laden club beat, boasting her club cred.
21) “Step by Step” (1997) – Another soundtrack hit, this one from The Preacher’s Wife. It’s a throbbing, chugging dance-pop song written Annie Lennox (who sings on the chorus). The lyrics are blandly inspirational about learning to overcome adversity. At this point in her career, Houston wasn’t plagued with the public problems that would befall her later, but she was a pro at singing these “I Will Survive” type numbers, popular with divas. As with most Lennox songs, there’s a certain icy quality to the tune, and Houston on vinyl was never terribly warm or gritty, so she fit in perfectly with the pristine production.
20) “Saving All My Love for You” (1985) – This was Houston’s first number one hit, and still one of her best ballads out there – it’s relatively restraint and subtle, and has a pleasant jazzy feel. Unfortunately, Houston’s work from the 80s has dated, and even songs that feature some of her strongest singing like this pretty number still suffer a bit from the cluttered, tinny production. Still it’s a great song that showcases just what a massive talent Houston was.
19) “When You Believe” (1998) Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey – When people heard that Houston was being paired with Carey, they expected fireworks and diva antics – those hoping for cat fights would be disappointed, as both oversized divas were professionals and even became friends. The song, the theme from The Prince of Egypt originally worked as an anthem for the Jewish people who were fleeing persecution from the Pharoh. As with most of Houston’s songs, in her hands, it becomes a song of uplift and inspiration.
18) “I’m Your Baby Tonight” (1990) – the title track of Houston’s 3rd album was a response to the critics who charged the singer with being not “soulful” enough, so she turned to early 90s super producers Babyface and L.A. Reid to get an urban makeover. The result is this loud, clattering single the stronger, funkier beats than most of her other pop singles. Houston sings over the drum machines with a roaring bite.
17) “I Will Always Love You” (1993) – this was Houston’s biggest hit, a bombastic cover of Dolly Parton’s lovely classic. She turns the song, originally lilting, plaintive and heartbroken, and transformed it into a power ballad with some of her most impressive vocal gymnastics ever. She starts off singing acapella, before being joined by the orchestra. While some may fairly argue that she steamrolls over the beautiful and vulnerable lyrics, few can deny the awesome force of Houston’s voice which is displayed at its full power in the song.
16) “I Believe in You and Me” (1996) As with Parton’s “I Will Always Love You,” Houston takes on another classic song, the Four Tops’ 1983 hit “I Believe in You and Me” and remakes it into a A/C pop hit. Like most of her show-stopping ballads, this song is merely an excuse to let Houston roar, shout and hit mile-high notes.
15) “Why Does It Hurt So Bad” (1996) – A sad, bruised ballad from the soundtrack to Waiting to Exhale. This is a song that fit the theme of the sountrack and film of “that man done me wrong.” And while at this point in Houston’s career, she wasn’t singing subtle, low-fi songs, this performance is relatively light and easy, as she glides effortlessly through the mournful tune.
14) “Count on Me” (1996) Whitney Houston and CeCe Winans – a beautiful ballad from Waiting to Exhale that celebrates sisterhood and friendship. Houston is perfectly matched with contemporary gospel great Winans – the two have a great chemistry, and their love for each other translates well into this song. And even though Houston dominates on this track, Winans gets a moment to shine with her slightly deeper, thicker voice. The lyrics, while sweet, do highlight the importance of friendship and it’s a nice break from the dewy love songs and triumph over adversity fare that the singer usually handles.
13) “All the Man That I Need” (1990) – This was a highlight on Houston’s I’m Your Baby Tonight album. It’s a beautiful ballad that is unabashedly classic Whitney Houston: oversized, loud and dramatic. She sings her heart out, giving a haunting performance, backed by a great backup chorus. The only debit: the flatulant solo by Kenny G, that thankfully is bullied out by Houston’s brawney vocal chords.
12) “Million Dollar Bill” (2009) – produced by Alicia Keys, this jangly, uptempo number has an insanely catchy chorus. While at this point in Houston’s career, she’s no longer the vocal dynamo she once was, she’s acquired a nice, dense, thick quality to her voice, that adds an urgent huskiness to the song. It’s reminscent of Houston’s mom Cissy’s disco records of the late 70s.
11) “I’m Every Woman” (1993) – Another great cover – this time of Chaka Khan’s disco classic, which Houston sang backup for as a teen. From The Bodyguard, this is a great club rework of the song. Produced by C&C Music Factory, it contains some of the dance outfits trademark sounds including a thumbing beat, and twinkling, pounding house pianos. Houston gets to do some wordless emoting over the vampy chorus towards the end, but remembers to name check Khan at the song’s conclusion.
10) “I Wanna Dance with Somebody (Who Loves Me)” – Listening to this song makes me a bid sad because it’s so joyful and innocent. Knowing how her life would end, it gives the fluffy dance-pop song an expected poignance. The song is state of the art 80s pop music, which features a young Houston with a pure, powerful voice – listen carefully to her belt in the song’s bridge. Even though it’s saddled with some 80s trademark trendy production, her wonderful singing lifts the song above its 80s trappings.
9) “It’s Not Right, but It’s Okay” (Thunderpuss Radio Mix) – the original of this 1998 hit (which won Houston her last Grammy) is a decent urban-pop song, with its strummed and plucked electric strings, but it’s the arena-sized Thunderpuss remix that’s excellent. Houston was always a great dance diva, and she gets to flex her vocal muscle, especially in the elongated high note she gets to scream out in the song’s climax. The song, about a man’s infidelity, allows the singer to ooze with burned attitude, and she does so with arch aplomb.
8) “How Will I Know” (1985) – This is Houston’s first dance hit, which is an 80s dance classic. It’s ridiculously lush and catchy. A bouncy dance number with layers of synthesizers and a thick, pounding drum machine, Houston’s gospel-hewn voice manages to cut through the pounds and pounds of sonic gloss to impart a cheery vocal performance.
7) “A Song for You” (2009) – A cover of Leon Russell, Houston sang this live at a lot of her concerts. She finally recorded a cover for her last studio release, I Look to You, but instead of sticking with the song’s slow-burning jazzy soul, she remakes the song into a driving neo-disco number. Like Diana Ross’ classic “Love Hangover,” the song starts of slow, before morphing into a club banger that has Houston show off her slightly aged voice beautifully.
6) “Ain’t No Way” (1999) Whitney Houston and Mary J. Blige – If there was any heir to Houston’s crown as R&B queen it would be Mary J. Blige, who joins the mammoth pop diva on this Aretha Franklin duet on VH1 Divas Live. Blige’s sandpaper rough vocals work well with Houston’s smoother voice. Houston rarely gets to show off the grittier, less polished side of her sound, and it’s heard nicely, when it’s brought out by Blige’s raw-edge vocals.
5) “Until You Come Back” (1998) – an album track from My Love Is Your Love, it’s a great swinging number written by pop songwriting dynamo Diane Warren. The song’s basically a long build up that has Houston belt at the top of her gargantuan lungs.
4) “Higher Love” (1990) – an unreleased track from I’m Your Baby Tonight, this cover of the Steve Winwood hit may be a seemingly note-by-note copy of the original, it’s still a great dance number. While Houston’s ballads seem to be her forte, it’s really her dance music that allows her to display some of her fun, mouthy attitude.
3) “Love That Man” (Peter Rauhofer Radio Edit) (2003) – the original – from Just Whitney – is a nice, little pop ditty about a woman’s devotion to a great man. Remixed, it turns into a crazy high-energy dance workout that expertly uses Houston’s throaty vocals to bring the church to the dance floor.
2) “Exhale (Shoop, Shoop)” (1995) – a beautiful, slow, pulsating ballad with a deceptively simple and mature performance by Houston. From Waiting to Exhale, the lyrics are rather mystifying – especially the hushed chorus with it’s repeated “shoop, shoop, shoop” – it’s memorable because of the wise singing of the singer. The song stays away from the usual grandstanding, whooping or shouting, and instead relies on an understated, wise vocalizing that’s relaxed, subtle, and appealing laid back.
1) “My Love Is Your Love” (1999) – My favorite Whitney Houston song is a monster hit from 1999, produced by Wyclef Jean. A pop-reggae number with a shuffling beat, it’s the one song that successfully casts the singer in a more urban sound. As with her other less-showy tunes, Houston’s timbre and vocal shadings are highlighted as she avoids those glass-shattering high notes. It’s a gorgeous, darker song that proves Houston can handle more complex and adult songs.