Houston’s voice lives on in five iconic recordings
Published: February 14, 2012 04:16PM
Updated: February 14, 2012 04:16PM
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Matt Sayles | AP file photo Singer Whitney Houston receives the International Artist Award onstage at the 37th Annual American Music Awards in Los Angeles Nov. 22, 2009. Houston, who reigned as pop music's queen until her majestic voice and regal image were ravaged by drug use, has died.

San Francisco • Yes, the tabloid business eventually clouded the immense talent, but with Whitney Houston’s untimely passing, we are still left with recorded memories of that tremendous voice. We look back on the five songs that defined her career, served as the foundation for contemporary R&B and inspired a generation of “American Idol” wannabes.

1. “I Will Always Love You” (1992)

Already a global superstar, Houston made this Dolly Parton ballad her own in the final scene in her debut film, “The Bodyguard.” It’s the perfect representation of the way she could pair dazzling vocal acrobatics with ecstatic melancholy, soaring through the chorus with glass-shattering conviction. It’s the song people will forever associate with her name.

2. “The Greatest Love of All” (1985)

As the daughter of gospel singer Cissy Houston and cousin of pop vocalist Dionne Warwick, expectations were high around Whitney’s self-titled first album. Just 21, she delivered with elegance and eloquence, turning even the most formulaic ‘80s ballad into a sweeping statement of intent.

3. “The Star Spangled Banner” (1991)

Performed at the opening of the Super Bowl XXV--just 10 days into the first Gulf War--Houston’s version of the National Anthem moved so many grown men to tears it was later released as a benefit single for veterans their families. Even now, the hairs rise when hearing her sing about the rockets’ red glare.

4. “Memories” (1982, with Material and Archie Shepp)

Years before the knee-quivering ballads and feather-light pop hits made her face inescapable on MTV and VH1, an 18-year-old Houston made her lead vocal debut alongside Bill Laswell’s experimental New York outfit and the jazz saxophonist Archie Shepp. This beautifully askew ballad is unlike anything that came later.

5. “It’s Not Right But It’s Okay” (1999)

Having spent most of the decade embroiled in domestic drama and a drug haze, Houston came back at the tail end of the ‘90s sounding more confident than ever on this sleek infidelity anthem. This extraordinarily thrilling pop tune, produced by Rodney Jerkins, put her back on top of the game. For a moment, it was easy to believe her when she sang, “I’m going to make it anyway.”

Aidin Vaziri is The San Francisco Chronicle’s pop music critic. twitter.com/MusicSF, avazirisfchronicle.com