15 powerful, essential Whitney Houston songs (that aren't "I Will Always Love You")

15 powerful, essential Whitney Houston songs (that aren't "I Will Always Love You")

Wanna dance to Whitney before I Wanna Dance With Somebody hits theaters? These tracks are well worth a spin

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Clockwork from top left: Greatest Love of All, I’m Your Baby Tonight,  I Will Always Love You, I Wanna Dance with Somebody
Clockwork from top left: Greatest Love of All, I’m Your Baby Tonight, I Will Always Love You, I Wanna Dance with Somebody
Image: The A.V. Club, Screenshot: Whitney Houston/OWN/YouTube

No one before and no one since has quite captured Whitney Houston’s kind of stardom. Nicknamed “The Voice,” Houston ascended by swift leaps and bounds after entering the industry in the early ’80s. Within a decade, she went from singing in her church choir to becoming the only person to ever release seven consecutive number one singles, a record she still holds. To this day, Houston’s first albums—her 1985 self-titled debut and 1987’s Whitney—are two of the biggest-selling records of all time.

A new biopic on the singer’s life, I Wanna Dance With Somebody, tries to detail Houston’s impact on the industry (and tragically, the industry’s impact on her). Naomi Ackie plays the star, but the vocals are all Houston. After all, how could even the most talented actor be expected to recreate Houston’s rare vocal, unencumbered and soaring? Her biggest hit may be her iconic cover of Dolly Parton’s “I Will Always Love You,” but we decided to place the spotlight on 15 other Houston tracks that are worth spinning now, whether for the first or for the umpteenth time, before I Wanna Dance With Somebody hits theaters on December 23. This mix of covers and originals are as versatile and introspective as Houston herself, who died in 2012.

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1. “How Will I Know”

1. “How Will I Know”

Whitney Houston - How Will I Know (Official Video)

From the first snap of the cymbal, this track represents everything that shone so brightly about a young Houston on the rise. Originally intended for Janet Jackson, the opening track from Houston’s 1985 self-titled debut album finds her seamlessly capturing the blend of anxiety and excitement that defines the early stages of a romance. Despite the nail-biting content—truly, how will she know?—the deliciously ’80s beat (and a stylized music video to match) captures the pure, unadulterated fun of falling in love. “How Will I Know?” became Houston’s second number one hit, and won her her first MTV Music Video Award.

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2. “Saving All My Love For You”

2. “Saving All My Love For You”

Whitney Houston - Saving All My Love For You (Official HD Video)

R&B duo Marilyn McCoo and Billy Davis Jr. first recorded this track in 1978, but Houston’s 1985 rendition of the longing ballad (which became her first number one hit) is well worth exploring on its own merits. “Saving All My Love For You” was the first of seven consecutive number ones for Houston—decades later, she remains the only person to have achieved the feat. More importantly, this track established Houston as a unique vocal powerhouse, someone built for capturing the highest highs and lowest lows of emotion.

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3. “Greatest Love of All”

3. “Greatest Love of All”

Whitney Houston - Greatest Love Of All (Official 4K Video)

There’s at least one thing both Houston and 30 Rock’s Jenna Maroney understood: “Greatest Love Of All” is a showstopper. Originally recorded by George Benson in 1977 for the Muhammad Ali biopic The Greatest, Houston’s selection of the song for her 1985 debut album outlines the star’s goals in both her life and the industry: she wanted to take big swings and follow her heart, and “never walk in anyone’s shadow.” Hearing a 22-year-old Houston belt out the words “If I fail/If I succeed/At least I’ll live as I believe” quite literally feels like watching the birth of a superstar.

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4. “Didn’t We Almost Have It All?”

4. “Didn’t We Almost Have It All?”

Didn’t We Almost Have It All

An undefeated track for sobbing in a parked car, the drama in the instrumentation of “Didn’t We Almost Have It All” perfectly matches the longing Houston conjures in her voice. The ballad is a tinderbox of heart-wrenching emotions: nostalgia, the desire to rewrite history, lost love, and ultimately, loneliness. The climactic line “Once you know what love is/you never let it end” paints a picture of a double-edged sword. Houston has loved and lost, and on nights like the one captured in “Didn’t We Almost Have It All,” she’s wracked by the ghost of that romance. Although this track is dangerous territory for anyone desperate to keep a stiff upper lip in the face of sadness, it also exemplifies music as the sublime: capturing a sweeping, big feeling we can luxuriate in as a beautiful, imperfect part of human life.

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5. “I Wanna Dance With Somebody (Who Loves Me)”

5. “I Wanna Dance With Somebody (Who Loves Me)”

Whitney Houston - I Wanna Dance With Somebody (Official 4K Video)

Once in a generation, a song like “I Wanna Dance With Somebody (Who Loves Me)” comes along—and it’s no coincidence the upcoming biopic takes its name from this track off of Houston’s 1987 sophomore album Whitney. Houston’s vocal runs and her mastery of rhythm elevate a well-trod beat, but it’s the song’s simple message—to find someone who truly loves you—that resonates. Houston’s unfathomable skill wasn’t just her three-octave range and vocal control, but her ability to capture agony, ecstasy, and all the experiences in between. Even in 2022, “I Wanna Dance With Somebody (Who Loves Me)” still stands as one of the most joyful songs ever put to record. Play this at your aunt’s wedding, a sixth-grade birthday party, or a college bar: more likely than not, the elated reaction won’t differ in the slightest.

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6. “So Emotional”

6. “So Emotional”

Whitney Houston - So Emotional (Official Video)

Before Robyn ever danced on her own, before FKA Twigs shed a single tear in the club, there was this lovelorn track. “So Emotional,” another Houston cut rooted in themes of overpowering love and breathless excitement, came paired with a music video that followed Houston preparing for a tour, allowing fans at home to glimpse one of the greatest live performers of all time. The image of Houston belting while spinning in a leather jacket, blissfully swept up in the rollercoaster of it all, feels as timeless today as when Gene Kelly elucidated that “glorious feeling” of singin’ in the rain. Houston’s endlessly re-playable anthem reminds us that being so emotional can be fun, and even freeing.

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13. The Star-Spangled Banner

13. The Star-Spangled Banner

Whitney Houston - National Anthem (Star Spangled Banner) 4K Remaster

The most obvious cover in this bunch is also one of Houston’s most Earth-shattering moments as a performer—her rendition of the national anthem at 1991’s Super Bowl XXV. Wearing a white jumpsuit and holding her arms open to the sky, Houston takes America’s most famous song to exultant heights—even with an entire stadium watching and a live orchestra to contend with. Moments like this defined Houston’s career, and earned her her nickname of “The Voice” 10 times over.

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7. “I’m Every Woman”

7. “I’m Every Woman”

Whitney Houston - I’m Every Woman (Official Video)

Few of Houston’s songs belong as naturally in the club as this cover of Chaka Khan’s “I’m Every Woman,” recorded for the 1992 soundtrack of The Bodyguard. When the soaring, ululating intro falls into pure disco pleasure, Houston’s versatility is on full display—it really is all in her. Per usual, Houston skillfully makes Khan’s track her own, but she doesn’t do so without playfully referencing the original with shoutouts to “Chaka” towards the end. Even if Houston can be every woman, she’ll be damned if she doesn’t extend flowers to the women who came before her.

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8. “It’s Not Right, But It’s Okay”

8. “It’s Not Right, But It’s Okay”

Whitney Houston - It’s Not Right But It’s Okay (Official HD Video)

Despite how open- (and broken-) hearted Houston could be, her music wasn’t always about yearning for love. “It’s Not Right, But It’s Okay,” a spiritual niece of Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive,” offers but one consolation to its subject, Houston’s cheating lover: “I’m gonna make it anyway.” For a bonus kick of walk-out-the-door energy, take your pick from Houston’s 2006 remix album of the track. (The Thunderpuss Club Mix doesn’t not show up on this writer’s Spotify Wrapped every year.)

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9. “I’m Your Baby Tonight”

9. “I’m Your Baby Tonight”

Whitney Houston - I’m Your Baby Tonight (Official Video)

“I’m Your Baby Tonight” is dance-floor intrigue incarnate—Houston’s attraction to the person she meets on a glitzy night out makes her feel more beautiful and sexual. Drunk on the night and breathless flirting, Houston’s ready to submit herself to the connection between her and her intended. However, submission certainly doesn’t mean hum-drum homemaker life. From beginning to end, the opening (and title) track of Houston’s third album was built to move to, whether with a lover or surrounded by girlfriends.

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10. “My Name Is Not Susan”

10. “My Name Is Not Susan”

Whitney Houston - My Name Is Not Susan (Official Video)

Another self-empowered, men-aren’t-shit heater, “My Name Is Not Susan” finds Houston chastising a partner who can’t let go of an ex. Houston makes sure to give herself her due while spitting out her expectations: “Show some respect for the love you receive.” This track also found Houston blending genres and breaking new ground in the project. A remix to “My Name Is Not Susan” featuring British rapper Monie Love marked one of the earliest examples of a major pop or R&B artist adding a rapper onto a remix—a trend that has since become a beloved hit-(re)making formula for the genre’s biggest names, from Mariah Carey to Dua Lipa.

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11. “Run To You”

11. “Run To You”

Whitney Houston - Run To You (Official HD Video)

When it comes to The Bodyguard soundtrack, Houston’s timeless cover of Dolly Parton’s “I Will Always Love You” is the most culturally indelible song. But “Run To You” deserves its own moment in the sun, another yearning ballad from Houston at the apex of her career, navigating the leap to film while already one of the most famous artists of her time. Despite The Bodyguard’s dismal reviews, “Run To You” landed Houston an Academy Award nomination for Best Original Song, bringing her tragically close to an EGOT.

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12. “Exhale (Shoop Shoop)“

12. “Exhale (Shoop Shoop)“

Whitney Houston - Exhale (Shoop Shoop) (Official HD Video)

The Bodyguard wasn’t the only venture Houston would make into scoring for cinema—she also helmed the soundtrack for 1995’s Waiting To Exhale, which she starred in alongside Angela Bassett, Loretta Devine, and Lela Rochon. In contrast to the high drama and romance of The Bodyguard’s music, Houston’s vision for Waiting To Exhale was more subdued, and centered on inner peace instead of addictive chaos. On “Exhale (Shoop Shoop),“ which earned Houston a Grammy nomination in 1996 for Best R&B Song, the artist isn’t the protagonist of her lyrics. Instead, she softly and deftly reminds listeners who might be going through what she has to simply exhale, and keep on—things will get better.

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14. “My Love Is Your Love

14. “My Love Is Your Love

Whitney Houston - My Love Is Your Love (Official Video)

Houston may have been best known for her dramatic ballads and dance anthems, but she could make herself at home on more laidback fare as well. The title track from Houston’s 1998 album My Love Is Your Love, a smooth reggae-rap moment about love that lasts, features skillful production from Wyclef Jean of The Fugees. Rarely is the instrumentation in Houston’s music so light and subtle—the choice further highlights Houston’s voice, casting the spotlight on her softer register (while still allowing for a belt or two, of course.)

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15. “I Didn’t Know My Own Strength”

15. “I Didn’t Know My Own Strength”

Whitney Houston Performance | The Oprah Winfrey Show | Oprah Winfrey Network

The highlight of Houston’s last studio album, 2009’s I Look To You, is also her final truly great ballad. Although Houston would ultimately be unable to overcome all of her struggles, “I Didn’t Know My Own Strength” wraps her career on a poignant and powerful note. From early statements like “Greatest Love Of All” to this track, Houston’s assertion that she “was not built to break” stayed central to her music. It’s that strength—and the weight of her impact on R&B itself—that cements Houston as a great American talent, whose music and message will never go out of style.

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Spin our line-up here:

Spin our line-up here:

https://open.spotify.com/playlist/0wBsZZE4P18TZDKNBgVgVq?si=882b074fdcff483e

And as always, thanks for reading.

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