Whitney Houston's 25 Best Songs: Staff Picks

Whitney Houston's 25 Best Songs: Staff Picks
November 9th, 2020

One of the most lauded and beloved vocalists of all time, Whitney Houston was a once-in-a-generation vocal talent who left behind an imposing, enduring catalog despite passing away all too soon in 2012 at age 48 of an accidental drowning. With 11 No. 1 hits on the Billboard Hot 100 and 23 top 10s on that chart, Houston's songs and stylings impacted everything from pop to R&B to dance to gospel – not to mention the world of film, where her acting and music propelled The Bodyguard, Waiting to Exhale and The Preacher's Wife to enviable commercial heights few singer-actors have enjoyed.

In 2020, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame recognized the late icon's ongoing impact by inducting her into its ranks. In honor of Houston's Rock Hall induction, we're celebrating our staff picks for her 25 greatest songs.


25. "When You Believe" with Mariah Carey (The Prince of Egypt soundtrack, 1998)

There may be miracles when you combine two of the greatest female vocalists of our time on one song. "When You Believe" -- the powerhouse duet featured on the soundtrack of the underrated 1998 animated film The Prince of Egypt -- rightfully kicks off with Whitney Houston's slow-burn vocals. Mariah Carey and Houston beautifully trade runs and choruses, blending their talents into one gorgeous ballad. – DENISE WARNER

24. "One Moment In Time" (1988 Summer Olympics Album: One Moment In Time, 1988)

A massive international hit (No. 1 in the U.K. and a top 5 hit Stateside), this regal, stately ballad delivered for the 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul, South Korea went a long way toward establishing Houston as a breathtaking vocal dynamo on the global stage for those who slept on her first two albums. Is it subtle? Hell no. But when you're belting out an against-the-odds ode to victory for the whole damn planet, that's not the name of the game. -- JOE LYNCH

23. "Same Script, Different Cast" with Deborah Cox (Whitney: The Greatest Hits, 2000)

A less-hyped diva-down than "When You Believe," 2000's "Same Script, Different Cast" with Deborah Cox is actually the much richer of the two duets, the two R&B powerhouses trading runs over "Fur Elise" piano on a (somewhat literally) theatrical romantic triangle drama. The conceit is clever, the vocals are massive, and the key changes are as plentiful as you could ever hope for. – ANDREW UNTERBERGER

 

22. "One of Those Days" (Just Whitney, 2002)

The breezy opener to Whitney's first album of the 21st century is a rare slice of total R&B serenity, Whitney taking a break from the drama (with some relaxed-groove assistance from producer Kevin "She'kspere" Briggs) to get a mani-pedi and just live life for a moment. Might've been a little too muted for pop success -- the song topped out at No. 72 on the Hot 100 -- but it feels like a nice warmup for Mary J. Blige's similarly themed smash "Just Fine" a couple years down the road. – A.U.

 

21. "You Give Good Love" (Whitney Houston, 1985)

The opening track on Whitney Houston's self-titled 1985 debut, "You Give Good Love" is an exemplar of mid-'80s balladry, with light synths and a gentle, easy groove providing the bedrock for Houston to show off just an ounce of her firm, confident vocal prowess. The ad-libs toward the end gave a hint of what was to come, but it was enough to propel her to the top of the Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart and a No. 3 Hot 100 spot. -- J.L.

 

20. "Do You Hear What I Hear?" (Live From The Tonight Show, 1991)

The fact that this is a live vocal -- with its thrilling dynamic shifts and seamless transitions between high and low register -- is a testament to Houston's gospel choir upbringing. But most of all, the conviction behind her words on the song, which originally appeared on 1987's A Very Special Christmas compilation, delivers a truly inspirational message that stands out from the flood of Christmas covers before and since. – KATIE ATKINSON

19. "Heartbreak Hotel" feat. Faith Evans and Kelly Price (My Love Is Your Love, 1998)

Whitney finds comfort in her girlfriends amid an ill-fated relationship, inviting a new guard of R&B divas -- Faith Evans and Kelly Price -- to check into the Heartbreak Hotel alongside her and help dry her tears. The pain is fresh on this one, with Houston earnestly asking her partner "What'd you do to me?" While the Elvis song of the same name is a jaunty rocker, this one just leaves you feeling as down as Whitney is, thanks to the desperate lyrics and hopeless scenario. -- K.A.

18. "Run to You" (The Bodyguard soundtrack, 1992)

This fourth single from the Bodyguard soundtrack could have easily been a lead single from another Houston project, with its sweeping David Foster production, vulnerable lyrics ("Can't you see the hurt in me?") and pleading-yet-powerful chorus. It just proves the astonishing depth of the 1992 soundtrack that this sure-fire hit (which went top 40 on the Hot 100 and top 10 on Adult Contemporary radio) had to sit back and wait its turn. -- K.A.

17. "I Didn't Know My Own Strength" (I Look to You, 2009) 

Perhaps Whitney's last great mega-ballad, a towering testament to having to find out the hard way about one's own sense of perseverance. Its melodic might should have been no surprise, considering the names behind it -- not only with Whitney at the microphone, but power ballad specialist Diane Warren as writer and Bodyguard soundtrack producer David Foster behind the boards -- though the song was surprisingly never tabbed as an official single. – A.U.

16. "Just the Lonely Talking Again" (Whitney, 1987)

The A-side of Whitney Houston's sophomore album Whitney was nearly entirely comprised of smash hits, but one of its highlights was left as a deep cut: "Just the Lonely Talking Again," an incisive questioning of a returning ex about whether he's actually ready to commit this time, or if he's just acting out of desperation. The songwriting and performance are both impressively delicate even as they brace some pretty tough questions -- and yes, that is Kenny G on sax, just in case things needed any additional smoothing. – A.U.

15. "Count on Me" with CeCe Winans (Waiting to Exhale soundtrack, 1995)

A sweetly sentimental ode to friendship, this duet between Houston and gospel icon CeCe Winans (the godmother to her daughter, the late Bobbi Kristina) allowed both vocal masters to show off their chops. Some duets devolve into tiresome competitive pageantry, but these real-life pals pushed each other while allowing for plenty of give and take on the mic, making the message of this Waiting to Exhale soundtrack single resonate all the more. -- J.L.

14. "Saving All My Love For You" (Whitney Houston, 1985)

Houston topped the Hot 100 for the first time, and won her first Grammy, not with a trendy hit but with this timeless torch song. Marilyn McCoo introduced the song on a 1978 album, but it took Houston to make it a smash. Houston’s sultry performance of the song on the Grammy Awards telecast in February 1986 brought her an Emmy seven months later for outstanding individual performance in a variety or music program. Nobody had ever done that before—or since. – PAUL GREIN

13. "I'm Every Woman" (The Bodyguard soundtrack, 1992)

"I'm Every Woman" might not be the most famous song from The Bodyguard soundtrack, but this house-inflected Chaka Khan cover still stands out in the pantheon of Houston's dancefloor anthems (and it hit No. 4 on the Hot 100 to boot, higher than Khan's 1978 original). Whitney is certainly not an "every woman," yet her anthem strikes a chord in the hearts of all women. – D.W.

12. "I'm Your Baby Tonight" (I'm Your Baby Tonight, 1990)

Houston drifted a little too far toward the pop side of things in the late ‘80s… and was famously (and rudely) booed at the Soul Train Music Awards in April 1989. This funky-fresh single, released 18 months later, was her course correction. L.A. Reid and Babyface wrote and produced this stylish smash, which was an ideal balance of the pop and R&B sides of her musical personality. It became Houston’s eighth No. 1 hit on the Hot 100 and her fourth No. 1 on what was then called Hot R&B Singles. – P.G.

11. "I Believe in You and Me" (The Preacher's Wife soundtrack, 1996)

This warm ballad was the lead single from the soundtrack to Houston’s third movie, The Preacher’s Wife, in which she co-starred with Denzel Washington. Four Tops recorded this old-school R&B ballad in 1982 as the B-side of “Sad Hearts,” a minor Hot 100 hit that year. Houston’s version reached No. 4 on the Hot 100 in early 1997 and received a Grammy nod for best female R&B vocal performance. -- P.G.

10. "All the Man That I Need" (I'm Your Baby Tonight, 1990)

A devotional ballad originally released to little fanfare by disco singer Linda Clifford, "All the Man That I Need" soared after career mentor Clive Davis brought the song to Whitney, becoming her ninth No. 1 hit on the Hot 100 after its release as the second single from I'm Your Baby Tonight. With an impressive musical range, epic key change and expertly deployed sax solo -- again courtesy of Mr. Kenny G -- it feels like a warmup round for her signature hit cover to come a couple years later, but one that remains plenty stunning in its own right. – A.U.

9. "The Greatest Love of All" (Whitney Houston, 1985)

Youthful and soulful, "Greatest Love of All" features Whitney at her sweetest. Houston's cover of George Benson's 1977 hit became her third No. 1 on the Hot 100 in 1986 and lives on in her oeuvre as a bright, shining reminder to find love from within instead of depending on someone else to fulfill your happiness. – D.W.

8. "My Love Is Your Love" (My Love Is Your Love, 1998)

Thanks to three hit movie soundtracks, Whitney never really left the radio during the eight-year gap between her third and fourth albums. Even so, the latter's title track made it clear Houston's priorities had shifted back to music: the "My Love Is Your Love" video literally shows Houston walking out of movie theater after it shuts down and waltzing over to a raucous block party on the streets of New York City. The sound marks a shift too, with Houston bringing a laid-back reggae-rap groove to her sound for the first time thanks to co-writer/co-producer Wyclef Jean of Fugees. The result reminds us she was just as suited to cooing out a comforting ballad as she was belting a chorus to the rafters. -- J.L.

7. "The Star-Spangled Banner" (single, 1991)

At Super Bowl XXV in Tampa Bay, Houston debuted a chill-inducing, pitch-perfect performance of the national anthem, backed by The Florida Orchestra. Released as a single for charity, the rendition stands as the one of the greatest -- if not the greatest -- versions of Francis Scott Key's notoriously difficult song for vocalists. We'll let it slide that she lip-synched over a pre-recorded track during the actual event. The banner may wave, but her voice never wavered. – D.W.

6. "Exhale (Shoop Shoop)" (Waiting to Exhale, 1995)

An exceptionally gorgeous, delicate ballad courtesy Babyface (truly a GOAT in that realm), "Exhale (Shoop Shoop)" is the sound of a lover who's been through the romantic ringer, made it through that dark night of the soul and emerged to heave a huge sigh of relief (an exhale, if you will) as the first light of dawn emerges. The softly soulful lead single from the Waiting to Exhale soundtrack is one of her more restrained performances, and it's not hard to imagine how personal this particular No. 1 hit might've felt to her in the mid-'90s. -- J.L.

5. "How Will I Know" (Whitney Houston, 1985)

In assembling Houston’s first album, Arista Records chief Clive Davis wanted an up-tempo cut, something like Deniece Williams’ “Let’s Hear It For the Boy,” a fun and flirtatious smash from the 1984 film Footloose. He found it in this delightful song, which was co-written by George Merrill, Shannon Rubicam and producer Narada Michael Walden. The fact that this single came right on the heels of the torchy ballad “Saving All My Love For You” underscored Houston’s range. The Day-Glo video captures every bit of the song’s joy. Now, that looks like it was a fun shoot. – P.G.

4. "I Will Always Love You" (The Bodyguard soundtrack, 1992)

There's no overstating the commercial impact of this song, which spent a then-record 14 weeks at No. 1 on the Hot 100 and is still the best-selling single ever by a female artist, but its true legacy is its cultural and emotional resonance. As the musical lynchpin of the Whitney-starring Bodyguard movie and its blockbuster soundtrack, Houston's "I Will Always Love You" packs a poignant punch right out of the gate with its impeccably sung, unmistakable a cappella intro. And it just builds from there into a master class of vocal runs, with the perfect ratio of power notes to falsetto flourishes, while never losing touch of the song's heartbreaking message of eternal, unconditional love. While original songwriter Dolly Parton took the song to No. 1 herself, on Billboard's Hot Country Songs chart (twice), she says Houston's cover "took it and made it so much more than what it would ever have been." That the song became fans' adopted requiem to Houston when she died in 2012 is, ultimately, as "bittersweet" as Parton's tear-soaked lyrics ever were. -- K.A.

3. "It's Not Right But It's Okay" (My Love Is Your Love, 1998)

When it comes to infidelity in pop songs, the typical spurned lover does one of three things: never recovers, goes running back to the cheater or plots revenge. But in this sensible song, Whitney finds out her man is unfaithful and says six simple words: "It's not right, but it's okay." Of course, the betrayal stings, but now she knows who this man truly is and she's going to move forward with her life -- on her own. Two different versions of the track were successful for Houston: the Darkchild album mix with its syncopated marimba beat, which is featured in the music video, and the Thunderpuss dance mix that got the bulk of radio airplay. It was a huge look for the then-36-year-old superstar, landing in the top five on the Hot 100 and scoring the 2000 Grammy for best female R&B vocal performance, ultimately proving that Houston's pop prowess was still very much intact. -- K.A.

2. "I Have Nothing" (The Bodyguard soundtrack, 1992)

The power. The passion. The soaring notes. "I Have Nothing" fantastically showcases Whitney's dazzling talent. Ranging from breathy to an all-out golden belt, Whitney takes us on a thrilling vocal roller coaster with this song from The Bodyguard. "I Will Always Love You" was obviously her biggest hit from the film, but "I Have Nothing" outstrips the Dolly Parton cover with pure, raw emotion. The richness of her voice tears through the lyrics of a woman begging her lover not to let her hurt anymore. When you listen, you feel the pain and longing that Houston emotes. And, truly, we have nothing if we don't have Whitney. – D.W.

1. "I Wanna Dance With Somebody (Who Loves Me)" (Whitney 1987)

Clive Davis knew that this joy-bomb could be something special, but he didn’t want it to be just a jaunty toe-tapper like, say, Olivia Newton-John’s 1982 hit “Make a Move On Me.” So had one note for Houston: When you sing “dance,” you’re not really singing about dancing. With that succinct but to-the-point direction, Houston sings with urgency and heat. That added intensity made it an all-time classic. Houston’s opening yelp signals unbridled joy, a mid-song growl shows desire.  This is basically a sequel to “How Will I Know” -- same producer (Narada Michael Walden), two of the same writers (George Merrill and Shannon Rubicam) -- but it's even better. The smash brought Houston her second Grammy in three years for best pop vocal performance, female. Houston would go on to have a demonstrably bigger hit—you know the one—but she never again sounded so alive, so on-fire, so free. This is how many of her fans prefer to remember her. – P.G.