Before Beyoncé, Mariah, Adele and all the rest, she was, and always will be, the Voice. The daughter of gospel singer Cissy Houston, the cousin of Dionne Warwick and the goddaughter of Aretha Franklin, Whitney Houston seemed destined for musical greatness – and she delivered. From her self-titled 1985 debut to the soundtrack song to end all soundtrack songs (“I Will Always Love You”), the profoundly gifted Grammy-winning singer was the ultimate crossover package – effortlessly melding pop, soul and R&B and inspiring every vocalist that came after her. Here, Rob Sheffield picks his 12 favorite songs from the legendary superstar, who died in 2012.
“You Give Good Love” (1985)
Summer, 1985: “You Give Good Love” introduces the world to Whitney Houston, a great pop singer with the voice of a great soul singer. This quiet-storm ballad was all over R&B radio (not the Top 40 stations yet) and VH1 (not MTV yet). It was a lot steamier than the rest of her debut album, with that salacious title and a video to match. But even from this first taste, anyone could hear that she had a voice to remember.
“How Will I Know?” (1985)
This was her real breakthrough hit, the one that everybody liked. Although Whitney dominated the radio with ballads like “Saving All My Love For You” and “The Greatest Love Of All,” she oddly saved her most soulful vocals for this bubbly Eighties synth-pop confection, loosening up with teen-angst lyrics worthy of the Smiths (very similar to “This Charming Man,” actually) and state-of-the-art glitz-funk. The girl rolls out virtuosic whoops and growls and mmm-hmmms, while paying witty homage to her godmother Aretha Franklin.
“Saving All My Love For You” (1985)
Talk about crossover – Whitney performed this one on the quintessential 1980s kiddie sitcom Silver Spoons, singing it for blonde heart-throb Ricky Schroeder. Of course, she changed the line “We’ll be making love the whole night through” to the marginally more kid-friendly “We’ll be holding each other the whole night through.”
“So Emotional” (1987)
“I don’t know why I like it,” she moans at the beginning. “I just doooo!” This was a more smooved-out version of the teen-hormone dance-pop of “How Will I Know?” or “I Wanna Dance With Somebody (Who Loves Me),” with some great lines like “When you talk, I just watch your mouth.” If Whitney’s taste in material was still sketchy, that was somehow part of her gawky charm, kind of like her dancing. Whitney was already firmly established as one of the Eighties’ megastars – what we didn’t know was that her true greatness was ahead of her. Ain’t it shocking what love can do?
“I Will Always Love You” (1992)
Whitney’s greatest performance, covering the country classic by Dolly Parton, toasting every money note. The fire in her voice was something new – she couldn’t go back to teen pop, so she doubled down on adulthood with ballads like this one. In her blockbuster movie The Bodyguard, it’s the song on the jukebox when she first dances with Kevin Costner, although in a version sung by John Doe, of the L.A. punk band X. Everything Whitney’s voice ever promised, this single delivered – it was a shock to hear her finally belt a song worthy of her pipes.
“I Have Nothing” (1992)
After years of being the pop singer with the soul voice, Whitney suddenly turned into a great soul singer. The Nineties were Whitney’s prime because she evoked adult misery with so much warmth and strength – in “I Have Nothing,” she sounded fully committed to every line, which would have been unthinkable a few years before.
“I’m Every Woman” (1992)
One key factor in Whitney’s creative takeoff: Mariah. Whitney knew she had to sing for her life if she wanted to keep her throne, because she knew (as Gina Gershon would put it in Showgirls) someone younger and hungrier was coming up behind her on the stairs. So give Mariah credit for throwing a scare into Whitney, and give Whitney credit for rising to the occasion with a grown-and-sexy hit that she knew Mariah couldn’t touch. She turns the Chaka Khan disco classic into a surprisingly sisterly throwdown, even shouting out Chaka’s name at the end.
“Queen of the Night” (1993)
This isn’t one of her more famous songs, but it’s a special fan favorite – Whitney goes glam-metal. It’s the only time she sounded like a big Ziggy Stardust fan, but maybe once was enough.
“Exhale (Shoop Shoop)” (1995)
This ranks right up there with “I Will Always Love You” as her proudest moment, a warm, compassionate, plainspoken ballad written to order by Babyface. The Waiting to Exhale soundtrack was basically a Babyface concept album about adult romance, an album that holds up as this great songwriter’s finest work – but he was smart enough to save the best song for Whitney.
“Heartbreak Hotel” (1998)
The 1998 album My Love Is Your Love was Whitney’s first full album in 8 years, and it was heard at the time as the 35-year-old Whitney’s crowning achievement, calling in young hotshots like Rodney Jerkins and Missy Elliott to pay their respects to the queen. As Rolling Stone said, “The former ingenue has some grown-up scars now, singing the marital blues with a bite in her voice that she’s never come close to before.” On “Heartbreak Hotel,” she sounded bitter, mean, furious – and utterly confident that she’s going to get over.
“My Love Is Your Love” (1998)
Her lightest, sultriest hit, with a reggae touch from producer Wyclef Jean. The relaxed tone in her voice was a new style for Whitney, and it promised more great things to come. In “My Love Is Your Love,” our girl sounded like she’d come through the fire and figured herself out. We all assumed she would go on on making records this great every couple of years, forever.
“Million Dollar Bill” (2009)
Whitney’s last shot was a return to the original Eighties game plan, except at this point, her vocals were too ravaged for either pop or soul. The retro-disco pulse of this song (cowritten by Alicia Keys and Swizz Beatz) made the most out of what she had left. Even if the magnificent voice was gone, there was still a glimmer of the will, and most of us still hoped she had more music in her, on whatever terms she could manage. But as the old song said, that was just an old fantasy. “Million Dollar Bill” spent just one week on the Billboard Hot 100 – at #100 – and then dropped off. It was Whitney’s last hit. Where do broken hearts go?