It’s strange to think that, 27 years after her debut, it took Whitney Houston’s death for her record label to finally put out a proper greatest-hits collection. The Greatest Hits, from 2000, was divided into ballads and dance songs, with the latter lamentably represented by garish house remixes by the likes of Thunderpuss and Hex Hector. It’s the original versions of Houston’s dance songs, in fact, that have aged the best. Her ballads from the ‘80s and early ‘90s were seemingly designed to flaunt her vocal supremacy—the kind of songs employed by singers to wow judges on Star Search and, later, American Idol, and which were almost singlehandedly responsible for two decades of melisma and caterwauling from Mariah Carey, Beyoncé, and Christina Aguilera.
Hits like “Greatest Love of All” and “Didn’t We Almost Have It All” found Houston belting in full voice during the very first chorus, with nowhere to go but into all-out histrionics by song’s end; it’s no coincidence that both titles end with an open vowel, allowing her to throw her head back, drop her jaw, and open up and say “ah.” It was only in retrospect, after Houston had so mercilessly damaged her voice by the turn of the century from overuse and drug abuse, that these songs turned from perennial nuisances into awe-inspiring reminders of just how impressive her voice used to be. In particular, “One Moment in Time,” the unabashedly cheesy and bombastic theme song for the 1988 Summer Olympics, is a marvel thanks to Houston’s glass-shattering vocal performance.
That song, along with career highlights “Step By Step” and the Alicia Keys-penned “Million Dollar Bill,” the best track from Houston’s swan song, I Look to You, are sadly relegated to the digital deluxe version of I Will Always Love You: The Best of Whitney Houston. The standard version of the album, requisitely focused on Houston’s biggest chart hits, is heavy on the first decade of her career, with only one track or less representing each of the singer’s post-Bodyguard releases (nothing from the “crack is whack”-era Just Whitney, which, despite spawning some decent singles, even the deluxe edition pretends never happened).
That Houston didn’t write her own material is starkly juxtaposed by the fact that her performances of those songs make it virtually impossible to imagine anyone else singing them; that some of the most quintessential “Whitney” songs were covers (“Greatest Love of All,” “I Will Always Love You,” “I’m Every Woman”) is further testament to, if not her gift for interpretation, her ability to—in her prime—out-sing just about anyone. But even a voice like Houston’s couldn’t save dreck like her schmaltzy debut single, “You Give Good Love,” and the even schmaltzier follow-up, “Saving All My Love for You,” about a young woman preparing for the arrival of her married lover. Her powerful pipes were put to better use on uptempo tracks that matched her over-the-top performances with equally over-the-top productions, like the electric guitar-infused “So Emotional,” the ecstatic “I’m Your Baby Tonight,” and, despite its aerobics-grade sound design, “How Will I Know,” which, ironically, was originally intended for Janet Jackson, whose vocal ability and range is the complete antithesis of Houston’s.
It’s easy to forget just how radical “I Will Always Love You” was at the time of its release: The entire first verse and chorus of the song is sung by Houston in hushed a cappella, a tough sell for even the most adventurous radio programmer in any era. But while that mega hit proudly displayed her range, and the smooth “Exhale (Shoop Shoop)” and the reggae-hued “My Love Is Your Love” went on to disprove the suspicion that she was incapable of practicing restraint or conveying emotion in any form other than shouting, Houston’s greatest performance is one of sheer vocal muscle: “I’m Every Woman.” Put simply, she sang the shit out Chaka Khan’s 1978 disco hit, and what she does at the end of the bridge is nothing short of supernatural.
You don’t need to hear that song alongside “I Look to You” or the album’s sole new offering, the uninspiring Jermaine Dupri production “Never Give Up,” to put the decline of Houston’s instrument into stark relief. But placing them together on the same disc—and with “I Look to You” in a newly revamped version featuring R. Kelly, no less—makes I Will Always Love You feel less like a celebration of an immense talent than a depressing cautionary tale of self-destruction.