'Whitney Houston' at 35: Classic Track-by-Track Review

Whitney Houston
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Whitney Houston

Few debut albums launch artists from complete obscurity into the heights of cultural and commercial appreciation like Whitney Houston's 1985 eponymous set. Crafted under the careful eye of Arista Records' Clive Davis, the 10-song collection was the result of Davis' two-year voyage for tracks that served his ultimate vision: crossover between the R&B and pop markets.

In 1985, Houston must have been a marketer's dream. The 21-year-old former model exuded the sprightly charm of the girl-next-door, but her out-of-this-world voice stunned audiences worldwide. With a few choice notes, the New Jersey native could silence full arenas. For Arista, however, Houston's biggest asset wasn't only that she could sing, but how she sang. At a given moment, Houston could churn a soulful hymn in the style of Aretha Franklin, deliver a smooth R&B groove in the vein of Chaka Khan or burst out with an upbeat pop anthem to rival Diana Ross. In many ways, Houston was the heir to each of these musical legacies, the descendant who finally united the sister strands of R&B and pop. That versatility was the essential ticket to her stardom.

Despite Davis' meticulous guidance, Whitney Houston wasn't a guaranteed smash. Released on Valentine's Day in 1985, it would take more than a year to climb to No. 1 on the Billboard 200, but the final tally adds up to one of history's best-performing debuts. In addition to the 14 weeks it logged atop the album chart, the set spun off three Hot 100 chart-topping singles and captured five Grammy nominations.

On its 35th anniversary, Billboard revisits Whitney Houston, 10 tracks that heralded the arrival of a pop superstar and introduced the world to "The Voice."

"You Give Good Love": The song that started Houston's career is a sultry R&B-tinged track in which Houston croons about the delights of love. Producer Kashif crafts an airy, suave melody that allows Houston's vocals to frolic without fear of clashing with the production. Stylistically, "Love" devised a formula that echoes throughout the diva's playbook: open with a soft, playful introduction that progresses to a stunning, forceful display in the bridge. 

"Thinking About You": From the synth-heavy production, "Thinking About You" is a clear reminder we're smack in the middle of the 1980s. As Houston pines for a lover in the midtempo groove, she drifts between flirty jabs with a male background singer who hangs on the track enough to merit a duet credit. Houston channels Khan as she layers on the confident swagger: "All and all I feel no shame/ I'm just your fool the same." Midway through, prepare yourself for the ultimate '80s calling card: Houston's brief spoken monologue that aims to recall Ross' "Ain't No Mountain High Enough."

"Someone for Me": Dance influence continues here as Houston offers the first unquestionably fun track. The lyrics chronicle Houston's plea to find a lover "while I'm young and 17" while heavy synthesizers and robotic backing vocals rush the background. At five minutes in length, the track overstays its welcome but builds a foundation for songs such as "So Emotional" and "I Wanna Dance With Somebody (Who Loves Me)" to perfect.

"Saving All My Love for You": A jazz-infused smoky tune, "Saving" casts Houston as a mistress longing for her lover's arrival. The track drips with seduction as she coos with gentle runs before scorching the track with extended high notes. Tom Scott's wailing saxophone melts into the melody, offering a sexy touch to the bittersweet ballad. How effective is the vocal on the track? In addition to "Saving" scoring Houston her first Grammy Award, she performed the song during the ceremony. That performance later nabbed her an Emmy.

"Nobody Loves Me Like You Do": Despite never teaming with the 1980s' biggest pop star, Michael Jackson, Houston twice paired with his big brother Jermaine. Their first duet is a textbook 1980s romantic pairing that aims to re-create the allure of "Endless Love." Its main issue, however, lies in the uneven vocal combination: In every duet portion, Houston's voice outshines Jackson's. 

"How Will I Know": Where "Someone Like Me" faltered, "How Will I Know" succeeds. The spunky pop track slinks with charm as a shy Houston obsesses over how to discover if a lover shares her feelings. What makes "Know" work is, as with Houston's other classic uptempo records, producer Narada Michael Walden's skill in blending a bubbly personality and the dynamic voice. It's hardly a surprise that Walden and the songwriting team, George Merill and Shannon Rubicam, later teamed for another smash record in "I Wanna Dance With Somebody (Who Loves Me)." Houston may not sing the most original lyrics here, but with every burst and run up the octave ladder, she reminds listeners, "Oh yeah, I'm the real deal." And unlike, well, any other Houston song, "How Will I Know" is linked to its music video. That hair. That dress.

"All At Once": "All At Once" marks listeners' initial introduction to the "powerful ballad" associated with Houston. In the track, Houston reflects on a lost love, "The smile that used to greet me brightened someone else's day/ She took your smile away/ And left me with just memories, all at once." A sense of vulnerability in Houston's vocal floats above the tender melody, helping "Once" rank as perhaps the most underappreciated ballad in her catalog.

"Take Good Care of My Heart": For their second duet, Houston and Jackson opt for a more upbeat offering, which comes off as more genuine than "Nobody Loves Me Like You Do." The pairing recycles the general elements of midtempo R&B, but the vocals are vastly more balanced -- enough that Jackson feels comfortable growling his way through a few lines. 

"Greatest Love of All": Like many of Houston's best-known tracks, "Greatest Love of All" is actually a cover, but once the star sang it, she sealed its reputation as a Whitney Houston song. Forever. The inspirational track champions inner-strength as Houston professes, "Learning to love yourself is the greatest love of all." And for the first song not about falling in love on Whitney Houston, Houston turns in such a crystalline vocal that she can get away with having to sing the entire tune's lyrics twice. The vocal tour de force is a textbook example of the big ballads that Houston (and later Mariah Carey and Celine Dion) would use to dominate charts and hearts into the 1990s.

"Hold Me": A duet with R&B great Teddy Pendergrass closes Whitney Houston, as the song settles down from the euphoric pinnacle of "Greatest Love of All." The slow jam unites two fantastic voices, but the song's formulaic arrangement (again, the big, sweeping -- but empty -- melody) prevents it from fully realizing its potential. At six minutes in length, "Hold Me" is the album's longest track, but it never delivers the crescendo punch that merits its extensive runtime. Placement elsewhere would halt the album's flow, but as the final track, the safe duet ushers listeners to the warm, velvet riffs and hums that conclude Whitney Houston.