Going back and listening to Whitney Houston's '80s hits reveals a number of insights that may not have been obvious during the singer's peak period. Everyone realized that Houston was a great technical singer, capable of great vocal control and range. The question, rather, always revolved around how much substance or passion came out of those performances. Peruse my selections for Houston's top five singles of the decade, and you'll see slick but also deftly composed melodies that hold up quite well. As such, this chronological songs list represents Houston's finest moments of her long-term if erratic career.
One of Whitney Houston's signature gifts in the '80s was undoubtedly her ability to blend small amounts of soul into her slick adult contemporary pop ballads, just enough to make sure the music would appeal to urban audiences as well as mainstream pop fans. This song is a great example of this, as Houston delivers a sufficiently soulful, passionate performance that rides in on a modest R&B groove perfect for after-dark encounters with the one you love, or at least somebody you kinda like. Though not a songwriter herself, Houston immediately displayed here an uncanny gift for selecting permanent pop melodies to which to apply her vocal precision. Not an easy task to pull off in modern pop music, to be sure.
Houston struck next in 1985 with another ballad from her self-titled debut album, this one a bit more syrupy and less soulful than the last. Nonetheless, the song glides in on a highly effective melody that leads up to a chorus that is the perfect showcase for Houston's undeniably powerful pipes. More importantly, the tune takes on a somewhat compelling romantic dilemma, that of idealizing the lover you can't have and risking headlong obsession for your trouble. This was nothing less than pure comfort music of the era, which ultimately serves as both a compliment and a negative criticism. Houston has always tended toward the melodically safe and safely melodic in her performances and arrangements, but audiences don't generally complain.
Houston's boppy, peppy numbers tend to suffer from a particularly dated sound compared to her ballads, but this song still works remarkably well because of its lush melody throughout the verse, bridge and chorus. And Houston's spirited performance makes the song a rather transcendent one for the listener, even if too much Whitney at once can sometimes promote an aural brain freeze. Confection or not, this track helps Houston prove that she knows how to interpret, with great skill, tunes that display solid craftsmanship. This music was inescapable throughout 1985 and, really, all the way through the rest of the decade. And though I may grumble a bit even as I say it, it's not all that hard to see why.
The songs of Whitney Houston could never be charged with being anything less than accessible and intensely hummable. In fact, I once caught a Beatles and Bruce Springsteen fanatic friend of mine in high school singing along to this ditty in his room when he thought no one was watching. And no, that isn't a veiled way of admitting it was actually me - at least on that particular occasion. Anyway, this is a basic good-time song that belies its rather synthetic sound with the help of solid compositional structure. I really can't blame a typical male '80s teen for not broadcasting his admiration for this tune, but I'm sure there were more than a few music listeners outside of Houston's target demographic who fell victim to this tune's wiles.
I had a snobby English professor in graduate school who loudly complained once that he didn't like to hear Houston sing because she was too mechanical and passionless for his taste. Looking back on that claim, I think Houston is far less guilty of that charge - at least on her biggest '80s singles - than the legions of female singers who have followed her, interested only in gaudy note combinations and otherwise showing off. Accordingly, Houston's performance here is typically matched to a slick but dynamic melody that lingers even as it floats on by. Ultimately, the song's hooks play the primary role of making this song a genuine pop classic, not savvy marketing of just another pretty face.