One of the most singular, spectacular voices in the history of pop music was silenced on Feb. 11, 2012, when Whitney Houston died at the age of 48. But the icon — who would have celebrated her 54th birthday on Wednesday — left behind decades of high notes for her fans. Read on for Houston’s best songs and a playlist.
25. ”When You Believe” (1998)
While not exactly cross-generational (only seven years separate them), this duet between Houston and Mariah Carey from the animated film The Prince of Egypt felt like the passing of a torch. The movie (and the song) weren’t particularly memorable, but ”Believe” is noteworthy merely for bringing together two of the most head-spinning vocal talents pop music has ever known.
24. ”Same Script, Different Cast” (2000)
If the ”boy” from the Brandy and Monica duet ”The Boy Is Mine” grew up into a cad, burned Whitney, and took up with Deborah Cox. And girlfriend is pissed: ”Enjoy it now ’cause it won’t last/Same script, different cast,” Whitney purrs. Fun fact No. 1: ”Same Script” samples the third song that everybody who’s ever taken piano lessons learned to play — Beethoven’s ”Für Elise.” Fun fact No. 2: It spawned a host of dance remixes; the ”Victor Romeo Slang Vocal Mix” is required treadmill listening.
23. ”All the Man That I Need” (1990)
Houston took what had been a minor R&B hit for Sister Sledge and turned it into yet another No. 1. Her celebration of finding a love that ”didn’t have to hurt to turn out right” gave hope to forlorn singletons everywhere.
22. ”All at Once” (1986)
Over a quiet keyboard line, Whitney mourns a relationship that is finally, irrevocably over.
21. ”Saving All My Love for You” (1985)
Whitney’s guy has other priorities — and a wife. She knows she shouldn’t be last on his list, but she swears she’ll wait for him to leave his lady, ’cause he’s worth it. The stuff that’s been piped into thousands of dentist offices, it was also her first No. 1 hit.
20. ”Love Will Save the Day” (1988)
Though the single broke her streak of consecutive No. 1’s, the Miami bass and spicy horns on this high-BPM dance-pop workout pointed to Houston’s willingness to experiment and evolve.
19. ”One of Those Days” (2002)
An underrated single off an underrated album. Whitney gave women of the world an instruction manual for pampering themselves in the Sex and the City era: ”Light the candles, aromatherapy/Hot tub bubbles surrounding me/Mr. Big is in the background/The Isley Brothers gonna hold it down.” Not so coincidentally, the Isley Brothers’ iconic 1983 jam ”Between the Sheets” provided the song’s backbone.
18. ”I’m Your Baby Tonight” (1990)
Houston greeted the new decade by changing her sound. Producers Babyface and L.A. Reid prodded her in a grittier, more street-oriented direction, but even in that altered (and frankly, less vocally demanding) setting, her voice remained a technical marvel.
17. ”Million Dollar Bill” (2009)
It failed to catch fire on the mainstream charts, but the Alicia Keys-co-penned single from Houston’s final studio album was a sweetly saucy celebration of feeling like hot currency in the right relationship, with a thrumming bass line and a climbing ”oh whoa whoa” chorus.
16. ”Didn’t We Almost Have It All” (1987)
So transformative was Houston’s voice that she was able to make lite-FM ballads like this one sound effortlessly rich and melancholic, and send them directly to the top of the Hot 100.
15. ”It’s Not Right But It’s Okay” (1999)
The anthem of a million women done wrong by a two-timing man. Is he forgiven? He is not. But will she move on, and eventually triumph? You bet your cheating, no-good heart. Just make sure you leave your keys by the door on your way out.
14. ”One Moment in Time” (1988)
The Seoul Olympics needed an anthem, and Houston rose to meet the challenge with this majestic carpe diem chest-thumper. The song, a staple of sports montages, yielded one of Houston’s all-time best performances at the 1989 Grammys ceremony.
13. ”Step by Step” (1997)
The Preacher’s Wife wasn’t a masterpiece, but for gospel lovers, its soundtrack was: It became the best-selling gospel album of all time, moving some 6 million copies. And its Annie Lennox-penned second single — an ode to not biting off more than you can chew, set to a churchy dance beat — peaked at a respectable No. 15 on the pop charts.
12. ”Greatest Love of All” (1986)
Sure, the production is dated — oh, those tinkly Casio chords! — but her inspirational ballad was an adult-contemporary touchstone for a reason, and even inspired an especially memorable monologue from Christian Bale’s yuppie sociopath in the 2000 film American Psycho.
11. ”Where Do Broken Hearts Go” (1988)
”Broken Hearts” actually went to a lot of places — including the top of Billboard‘s Hot 100. This searching ballad made Houston the first artist to land seven straight No. 1 songs — an astonishing record that still stands.
10. ”You Give Good Love” (1985)
This pretty bedroom ballad, the first big single from her debut, proved that soulful R&B and Top 40 pop can be hard to tell apart when the lights are off.
9. ”Exhale (Shoop Shoop)” (1995)
Perhaps knowing that it would be unjustly compared with the mammoth Bodyguard soundtrack, Houston was determined not to record new songs for Waiting to Exhale. But producer Kenneth ”Babyface” Edmonds persuaded her to lend her voice to this warm, simple groove. And wisely: ”Exhale” became only the third single in history to debut atop the Billboard Hot 100.
8. ”I’m Every Woman” (1993)
Houston took the Chaka Khan original out of the disco era and transported it into early-’90s R&B funkland. It wasn’t the biggest hit off the album — there was that Dolly Parton cover you may have heard of — but it’s the most irresistible. By the time the last chorus kicks in, even the most Y-chromosome-laden among us were name-checking Chaka and singing along.
7. ”I Have Nothing” (1993)
This steadily escalating stunner put the ”power” in power ballad, allowing all of Houston’s lyrical self-doubt and pathos to erupt into sonic tidal waves of goosebump-worthy bombast.
6. ”So Emotional” (1987)
”I don’t know why I like it/ I just do,” Houston giggles at the top of this giddy confession of a first-blush crush, which illuminated a naughtier, more rollicking side of the sweet-faced starlet. Ain’t it shocking what love can do?
5. ”I Wanna Dance With Somebody” (1987)
A spirited descendant of ”How Will I Know,” this triumphant summer single met the gold standard of ’80s pop, inspiring TIME magazine to crown her ”The Prom Queen of Soul.” And the music video, showcasing a shimmying, bow-bedecked Whitney who just wanted to have some fun and ”feel the heat with somebody,” became an indelible clip of the era.
4. ”My Love Is Your Love” (1999)
Many had already written off Whitney as past her career prime when she released My Love Is Your Love, her first studio album in eight years. But this gorgeously syncopated soul-pop lullaby — featuring a sweet cameo (”Sing, Mommy”) from her toddler daughter, Bobbi Kristina — rightfully went on to become her third-most-successful single ever, and redefined her for a younger generation.
3. ”How Will I Know” (1985)
While it was first offered to Janet Jackson, the fifth single off Houston’s debut album ended up being exactly the sort of buoyantly dancey hit — hey there, sax solo! — that the girl until then known primarily for stately ballads needed to be a true pop crossover star. And if you haven’t heard the remarkable vocals-only version currently making the rounds online, go listen right now. No really, go. We’ll wait for you.
2. ”The Star-Spangled Banner” (1991)
Perhaps the most iconic, chills-inducing version of the national anthem ever rendered, it was also the only one to chart as a top 20 hit — twice. Her powerhouse performance at Super Bowl XXV stirred the patriotism of a country in the midst of the Gulf War, and did so again in the wake of 9/11; in both cases, Houston donated her share of profits from the song to servicemen and women.
1. ”I Will Always Love You” (1992)
The song that went on to become a defining highlight of Houston’s career almost never happened at all. Originally, the then 28-year-old was slated to cover Jimmy Ruffin’s early Motown hit ”What Becomes of the Brokenhearted” for the soundtrack of The Bodyguard, in which she also had her first major film role. It was her costar, Kevin Costner, who suggested she take on Dolly Parton’s plaintive 1974 country ballad instead. (Against the record company’s wishes, Houston and Costner fought to keep the extended a cappella intro, and won.) Her gospel-tinged reworking of the song — a towering showcase for the singer’s phenomenal three-octave range — was an immediate global smash, topping the charts in 16 countries, and spending a record-shattering 14 weeks at No. 1 in the U.S.
A Whitney Houston Discography
Whitney Houston (1985)
I’m Your Baby Tonight (1990)
The Bodyguard Soundtrack (1992)
The Preacher’s Wife Soundtrack (1996)
My Love Is Your Love (1998)
Whitney: The Greatest Hits (2000)
Just Whitney (2002)
One Wish: The Holiday Album (2003)
I Look to You (2009)