Deep Album Cuts Vol. 2: Whitney Houston

When I was working on the first entry in this series, about Brandy, I was reminded of the fact that her latest album, Two Eleven, was named for the date of both her birthday and Whitney Houston's death in 2012, and that February 11th was right around the corner. So it seemed pretty natural what artist to feature here next. In fact, Whitney might be the perfect person for this kind of exercise: she was one of the biggest stars in the history of pop music, most of her albums sold in just staggering numbers, but hit singles were her true currency. You could easily tell the whole story of her career purely through chart hits, and videos, and movies, without every talking about her albums as albums, as collections of songs, many of which were not hits (relatively few, though -- only three songs from her self-titled debut were not charting A-sides). Plus, of course, she was a brilliant singer, but not a songwriter, so she didn't even get the kind of auteur status afforded to Michael or Madonna. But there's gotta be some joints, right? And there are.

Here is the mix as a Spotify playlist:

Deep Album Cuts Vol. 2: Whitney Houston

1. Who Do You Love
2. Just The Lonely Talking Again
3. Take Good Care of My Heart featuring Jermaine Jackson
4. If I Told You That
5. For The Lovers
6. Things You Say
7. In My Business featuring Missy Elliott
8. Love Is A Contact Sport
9. Someone For Me
10. Lover For Life
11. Worth It
12. My Love featuring Bobby Brown
13. Anymore
14. For The Love of You
15. I Bow Out
16. Tell Me No
17. Jesus Loves Me

Tracks 3 and 9 from Whitney Houston (1985)
Tracks 2, 8 and 14 from Whitney (1987)
Tracks 1, 10 and 13 from I'm Your Baby Tonight (1990)
Track 17 from The Bodyguard: Original Soundtrack Album (1992)
Tracks 4, 7 and 15 from My Love Is Your Love (1998)
Tracks 6, 12 and 16 from Just Whitney (2002)
Tracks 5 and 11 from I Look To You (2009)

Whitney only made six solo albums in her whole career, mainly because she spent the bulk of the '90s starring in movies and scoring hits off their soundtracks. There aren't really any Whitney cuts from Waiting To Exhale and The Preacher's Wife that weren't singles, and only one from The Bodyguard. So I only included that one soundtrack song, "Jesus Loves Me," which I chose to close this compilation before I read that Whitney sang the song with Kelly Price in her final live performance, two days before her death.

That '90s soundtrack era effectively bifurcates Whitney's discography into two distinct sections: those first 3 albums, when she was this unstoppable pop juggernaut with an incredible voice, and the 3 later albums, where her tabloid life began to overshadow the music and both her voice and her hitmaking acumen began to lose their luster. You could also call those two time periods the pre-Bobby Brown era and the post-Bobby Brown era. The sound of R&B and pop music really changed in between, too, so it was a little hard to reconcile those differences in the mix, since I'm averse to doing these in chronological order and would rather find some kind of intuitive way to sequence the songs. Still, I ended up kinda blocking chunks of the mix into rough pre- and post-Bobby chunks. And I should add, I was pleasantly surprised that they had a later duet that was much better than "Something In Common."

I always resent the assumption that albums driven by hits, or the desire to have hits, are saddled with "filler." Making a cohesive album experience might not be the #1 priority, but I think it's pretty rare that anyone sets out to pad out half of an album with deliberately 2nd-tier material. More often, I think, things just kind of shake out how they shake out -- some songs becomes singles and others don't, some singles do great and others don't. The opening track on this playlist, "Who Do You Love," was written by Luther Vandross at the peak of his powers, and would've been a sure bet for a hit when I'm Your Baby Tonight was first released. Instead, most of that album's singles were the songs written by then on-the-rise Babyface and L.A. Reid.

It's funny to go back through such a commercially unimpeachable career and pick out songs like "hey, maybe this shoulda been a single," as if Whitney could've used more #1s or needed to do anything differently at her peak. But there are great songs here that deserve a listen. "Just The Lonely Talking Again" is some truly sublime Burt Bacharach-style pop balladry. Both of the Jermaine Jackson duets on Whitney Houston are so good that they have me reconsidering Jermaine's whole career, but especially "Take Good Care of My Heart." On the later albums, when Whitney's voice lost its buoyant spirit and jaw-dropping range, it's a little harder to sift out highlights, but they're there -- "If I Told You That" is a solid song despite Rodney Jerkins pretty shamelessly recycling "The Boy Is Mine." There is some cheese here, though -- "Love Is A Contact Sport" is probably the one song I left in more as a campy failure of interest than as a song or performance I respect. Still, as we come up on the anniversary of Whitney's death on Monday, I think it's worthwhile to look at her catalog in its entirety, not just the hits.
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