Discog Fever - Rating and Reviewing Every Whitney Houston Album

by Jeff Fiedler

Discog Fever is a regular feature on thegreatalbums.com, rating and reviewing a band's entire catalogue of studio albums.

Whitney Houston (1985, Arista)

A +

Sure, she had show-biz connections (famed background singer and Sweet Inspirations member Cissy Houston was her mother; Dionne Warwick was her cousin), but there was little denying the talent Whitney demonstrated right from the very beginning, and she never would make a better, more sophisticated, and more tasteful album than this immaculately-crafted debut, half of which is comprised by songs co-written and/or produced by the late, great Michael Masser, who penned a sizable number of the most memorable melodies to be found on adult-contemporary radio in the ‘70s and ‘80s. [His other credits include Diana Ross’ “Touch Me in the Morning” and “Theme from Mahogany (Do You Know Where You’re Going To)” and Peabo Bryson’s “If Ever You’re in My Arms Again” and “Tonight, I Celebrate My Love,” to name just a few.] You could say that this disc lacked the edge of some of her later albums, and that would be true, but Whitney arguably thrived best in settings like these, and she is given an incredible set of songs here to work with. Sure, “The Greatest Love of All” (previously recorded in 1977 by George Benson for the Muhammad Ali bio-pic The Greatest) is a bit maudlin, but Whitney’s version is not only the best and the definitive version of the song but also one of the rare examples of an inspirational ballad that isn’t a complete piece of dreck, thanks in large part to Masser’s great melody. The sultry ballad “Saving All My Love for You” (also penned by Masser, alongside the legendary Gerry Goffin, and originally recorded by Marilyn McCoo, though hardly anyone realizes that) fares even better, as does the lovely Teddy Pendergrass duet “Hold Me,” the Jeffrey Osborne-co-written “All at Once,” the soulful “You Give Good Love,” and the exuberant “How Will I Know” (penned by the duo Boy Meets Girl of “Waiting for a Star to Fall” fame). This album is truly a must-own for any fans of adult-contemporary R&B.

Whitney (1987, Arista)

A –

It’s hard not to feel just a tad disappointed by this sophomore outing, which is still arguably Whitney’s second-best album but lacks a little of the magic of her debut. A large part of this can be attributed to the fact that there are only two Michael Masser compositions included this time out, though one of them is the excellent ballad “Didn’t We Almost Have It All,” a Number One hit. Whitney fares best here when she hews closer to the formula of her debut, such as on the joyful opener (and Number One hit) “I Wanna Dance with Somebody (Who Loves Me),” yet another truly first-rate danceable pop tune from the pens of ‘80s pop duo Boy Meets Girl, or the tasteful adult-contemporary ballad “Where Do Broken Hearts Go.” The more club-oriented “So Emotional” fares surprisingly well thanks in large part to its strong and relentlessly catchy chorus, but the equally dance-minded “Love Will Save the Day” just doesn’t fit Whitney all that well and sounds much more suitable for Gloria Estefan and Miami Sound Machine. The non-singles don’t make nearly as huge of an impression this time as those on the debut (such as the glorious “All at Once”), but they’re still pleasant, especially the easygoing groove of “Just the Lonely Talking Again.”

I’m Your Baby Tonight (1990, Arista)

C

This album is where Whitney’s non-soundtrack-output starts to go completely off the rails.  Stinging from accusations that her previous albums were too “pop,” Whitney brings in the then-hot R&B team of Babyface and L.A. Reid to give her an urban makeover or, as Reid himself put it with brutal honesty, “more of a black base.” Not to discount the talents of Babyface and Reid, whose work with acts like The Whispers, Pebbles, and After 7 had been quite exceptional, but the move was both unnecessary and ill-advised, particularly considering that, with the possible exception of “You Give Good Love,” all the hits from her first and second albums that had made Whitney a superstar to begin with were more heavily rooted in pop than R&B and were penned by either Boy Meets Girl or old-school adult-contemporary songwriters like Michael Masser, Gerry Goffin, Linda Creed, and Jeffrey Osborne. Just as importantly, Whitney sounded right at home singing those kinds of songs, whereas she sounds fairly awkward trying to do Babyface material. The title track (a Number One hit) is a great piece of songwriting, but it’d also sound just as good in the hands of – if not sound far more suitable for – someone like, say, Karyn White, whereas how many other women in either pop or R&B in the late ‘80s could have sung “I Wanna Dance with Somebody” nearly as well? It’s telling that the only other Top Five hit from the album, “All the Man That I Need,” is a remake of an adult-contemporary ballad from 1981 by the long-forgotten Linda Clifford (and penned by Michael Gore and Dean Pitchford, who were both responsible for penning the songs from Fame.)

The Bodyguard soundtrack (1992, Arista)

B –
 
It may be her biggest-selling album, but it’s hard to call this soundtrack the definitive Whitney Houston album. (That title arguably belongs to her self-titled debut). For starters, only half of the songs here are actually by her, the disc’s second side taken up by mostly forgettable songs from the likes of Kenny G, Aaron Neville, Lisa Stansfield, Curtis Stigers, and rap outfit The S.O.U.L. System. (In hindsight, it’s a shame that the producers didn’t have Spandau Ballet’s Gary Kemp, who played the manager of Whitney’s character in the film, write any songs for it, because the soundtrack could have been benefitted from his gift for writing strong pop hooks.) For another, Whitney’s image was forever changed by this album, if only because her earlier material was a lot more subdued than the vocal histrionics exhibited here. It’s a large jump from, say, “You Give Good Love” or “Saving All My Love for You” to the David Foster-produced over-the-top remake of Dolly Parton’s “I Will Always Love You.” As creative though its acapella opening is, and as great as Whitney sounds on it, it’s hard not to wish that Foster had done more to rein her in as the song progresses, if only because the record – coupled with Mariah Carey’s simultaneous rise to fame – ended up spawning countless female singers seemingly incapable of singing a melody perfectly straight. Still, while the warm arrangements and the more sedate and restrained singing of her first two albums are truly missed here and you can’t help but wonder what these same songs might have sounded like under the guidance of her earliest producers (Masser, Narada Michael Walden, Kashif), the disc at least has a better set of songs than her last studio effort, the passionate and fiery “I Have Nothing” in particular remaining one of Whitney’s all-time greatest ballads.

 Waiting to Exhale soundtrack (1995, Arista)

C

Like The Bodyguard before it, Whitney only actually appears on a few songs here, but she still gets more of the CD’s running time than any of the other contributors. The three Whitney tunes were all fairly big hits, but they’ve also been largely forgotten to time, and maybe for the best, since they suffer to a degree from some really sappy lyrics, particularly on the CeCe Winans duet “Count on Me”, and to a lesser extent, on the Babyface-written “Exhale (Shoop Shoop).” The best of the three – though strangely the lowest-charting – is “Why Does It Hurt So Bad,” which is one of Whitney’s most underrated singles of the ‘90s. Unfortunately, though Whitney’s material is superior to that of some of the other featured guests here (TLC’s “This Is How It Works” and SWV’s “All Night Long” are particularly cringe-inducing), it also pales next to the quality of cuts like Toni Braxton’s delightful “Let It Flow,” Mary J. Blige’s “Not Gon’ Cry,” Brandy’s “Sittin’ up in My Room,” and Chaka Khan’s rendition of the standard “My Funny Valentine.” 

The Preacher’s Wife soundtrack (1996, Arista)

B

Arguably her most underrated album, this disc didn’t attract nearly as many positive reviews as the soundtrack for The Bodyguard, but in a lot of ways, this is actually the more appealing album of the two and the fact that nothing from this disc has ever been overplayed on the radio (in fact, hardly any of the hits here show up with any regularity on adult-contemporary radio these days), has helped this disc age much, much better than The Bodyguard has. So why is this possibly a better soundtrack than either of her last two? For starters, this isn’t a various-artists affair and consists solely of Whitney recordings, which makes it sound a little more cohesive as an album piece (even if the Babyface-written “My Heart Is Calling” and the rap-laced “Somebody Bigger Than You and I,” featuring Bobby Brown, Ralph Tresvant, Johnny Gill, Monica, and Faith Evans, both feel somewhat out of place). Secondly, because much of the material is gospel-laced, Whitney’s tendency in recent years to get a little too carried away with herself vocally actually works here in ways that it didn’t on much of her other ‘90s material, and the gospel cuts here are great, particularly “Joy” and “Hold On, Help Is on the Way,” even if they’re never quite as intensely soulful as, say, Aretha Franklin’s gospel albums.  Lastly, Whitney’s also got a more pleasant set of songs to work with here as well, particularly the excellent Annie Lennox-penned Top Twenty hit “Step By Step,” which might very well be Whitney’s most underrated single of the ‘90s (if only she and Lennox had worked together more often!), the beautiful seasonal ballad “Who Would Imagine a King,” and the Top Ten remake of the little-known early-‘80s Four Tops ballad “I Believe in You and Me,” which might be the most underrated ballad Whitney’s wrapped her vocals around since “All at Once” from her debut album.

My Love Is Your Love (1998, Arista)

C +   

It sold well at the time and garnered a reasonable amount of positive press, but it’s hard not to listen to this one and wonder in retrospect what the fuss was all about. Sure, it’s her most purely R&B-and-hip-hop-oriented album. But Whitney’s forte was always adult-contemporary pop, not urban-flavored fare, and this album is a far, far cry from the ballad-loaded sound of her timeless debut album. The songs are generally mildly catchier this time than those on her last non-soundtrack release, 1990’s I’m Your Baby Tonight, and songs like “Heartbreak Hotel” (a collaboration with late-‘90s R&B stars Faith Evans and Kelly Price and easily the best and catchiest song here), and the title cut (co-written and co-produced by Wyclef Jean) are both quite appealing. Unfortunately, the rest of the material doesn’t work anywhere near as well, and Whitney’s efforts to sound like anyone other than her old self can be really be off-putting, especially on “If I Told You That” (a sound-alike of Jennifer Lopez’s “If You Had My Love”), the herky-jerky rhythms of “It’s Not Right But It’s Okay” (which sounds more suitable for Destiny’s Child than Whitney Houston), and the cringe-inducing Missy Elliott collaboration “In My Business.” (And why anyone thought it was a good idea to give a hip-hop makeover to the Stevie Wonder classic “I Was Made to Love Her,” I haven’t a clue.) Yeah, this music gives Whitney more of an edge than she had on her earliest albums, but “edgier” is not the same thing as “better,” and here’s a perfect example of that.

Just Whitney … (2002, Arista)

D

Easily Whitney’s worst studio outing, this album is, simply put, a mess. Whitney and her handlers seem more confused than ever about what a Whitney Houston album is supposed to sound like, so they just throw everything into the stew. Rather than coming off as a display of Whitney’s versatility, it simply sounds unbelievably schizophrenic, as more urban-flavored cuts like “Things You Say” (featuring hip-hop stars Tweet and Missy Elliot), “Whatchulooknat,” and the Toni Braxton-like “One of Those Days” are juxtaposed with cuts like a cover of – of all things – Debby Boone’s excruciatingly sappy “You Light Up My Life” and Carole Bayer Sager ballads like “Try It on My Own.” There’s even a duet with Bobby Brown included here. There are some reasonably decent moments , like the lite-hop-hop of “Dear John Letter” and the disco-tinged “Love That Man,” but the material here is, for the most part, really sub-par and forgettable (nothing here is actually all that catchy), and the album not surprisingly became Whitney’s first album to fail to yield a Top 40 hit.

I Look to You (2009, Arista)

C –

Though no one realized it at the time, I Look to You would turn out to be the last album Whitney ever made. That being said, this album is thankfully at least a better note for Whitney to have gone out on than the confused Just Whitney …., if just barely. Once again, Whitney and her handlers make the mistake of ignoring her pop roots in favor of working with an all-star cast of modern-day R&B/hip-hop talent. Sometimes, this actually works surprisingly well, as on the Alicia Keys-written disco of “Million Dollar Bill,” easily the greatest song here, or “Call You Tonight” (written and produced by StarGate, the team behind most of Ne-Yo’s hits) and at other times, it completely misfires, as on the terrible R. Kelly-written-and-produced “Salute” or the Akon duet “Like I Never Left.” While the concept of Whitney covering Leon Russell’s “A Song for You” is a really great idea on paper, it ends up being a trainwreck;  the singing is so over-the-top (and seemingly Auto-tuned in places) that Whitney just sounds like Maya Rudolph’s impersonation of her, and the track ill-advisedly completely shifts gears and becomes a full-blown dance track after a minute-and-a-half. It’s sad in hindsight that her career ended on such a confused note and that no one in her camp ever encouraged her to venture back into the sorts of songs that had made her a star in the first place, be it the sophisticated balladry of “Saving All My Love for You” or the vibrant pop of “How Will I Know” and “I Wanna Dance with Somebody,” but then again, so few songwriters today even try to write those types of songs that it’s unclear where you could even find songs in that vein, anyway.  

Compilations:

Do yourself a favor and skip over the 2-CD Whitney: The Greatest Hits, which omits far too many hits and contains a full CD of thoroughly unnecessary dance remixes. Instead, pick up the deluxe double-disc version of I Will Always Love You: The Very Best of Whitney Houston, which contains the overwhelming majority, though not all, of her Top 40 hits; be sure to get the double-disc version, since the single-disc version leaves out such major hits as “Heartbreak Hotel” and “One Moment in Time” and such great overlooked singles as “Step By Step” and “Million Dollar Bill.” (What My Love Is Your Love’s dreadful “If I Told You That” is doing on there is beyond me, though.)