Our Year in Review list of the best albums of 2014 comes out Friday, and three weeks from now, the Lifetime movie Whitney airs, so we thought we’d whet your appetite for both with some music reviews, beginning, of course, with Chris Azzopardi’s dissection of Whitney Houston Live: Her Greatest Performances.
If anyone epitomized a “moment in time,” it was Whitney Houston. At her peak, she unleashed her unmistakable, hit-making voice to seize each one, each song, like it was her last. And then sadly, in 2012 with an impromptu “Jesus Loves Me,” one last song did come, as her storied decline led to her shocking death.
Preserving just the surface of her iconic pop culture heritage is Legacy Recordings’ Whitney Houston Live: Her Greatest Performances, a bittersweet remembrance of a voice that inspired generations, and a showcase for the unbelievable power it possessed on stage. These are the five greatest “moments” of Whitney’s Greatest Performances, her first-ever live album:
5. “I Will Always Love You.” There are better versions of Whitney’s chart behemoth from The Bodyguard — she’s less pristine and strays from the song’s biggest challenges — but you can still feel every note of this take from 1994’s “The Concert for a New South Africa.” Here, her booming belt and unprecedented passion work the sea of people into a frenzy. Despite some vocal compromises, her authenticity is unmatched. Yes, the legendary key-change climax, though still overwhelming, is powered down from the soundtrack cut (she was more on point earlier that same year at a performance in Chile). But her ability to deliver a performance that left a piece of her heart in your hands was a rare quality that would prove as valuable to her career as the voice that delivered it.
4. “The Greatest Love of All.” Whitney never walked in anyone’s shadows but her own. And when she performed this, the fourth single from her 1985 self-titled debut, unleashing a towering display of vocal pyrotechnics during that last set of runs, everyone else would have to follow in hers. Live from 1990’s That’s What Friends Are For: Arista Records 15th Anniversary Concert, Whitney’s self-love manifesto remains true to the studio recording even though Houston embellished on the showstopper’s original framework. When the chorus comes in, though, she takes you to a familiar place. A life-affirming place. A place only she could.
3. “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Sweat-drenched and feverish, Houston would turn “The Star-Spangled Banner” into a historical and much-celebrated bench marker. No performer has yet to rival what she did with the anthem during Super Bowl XXV, when she lifted her voice to unmatchable, chill-inducing heights, erupting into a volcano of supreme vocality. That day in January 1991, it didn’t matter which team scored the first, or even the last, touchdown — the event had already taken place.
2. “A Song For You.” In 1991, Whitney took on Leon Russell’s classic and turned it into a spectacle. With the clarity, control and soul of a singer in her prime, Houston launched with a crawl, let her voice run to the rafters, and then gently eased her way back to the ground. “A Song For You” wasn’t technically a song of hers, but it might as well have been. She owned every note of it, and not just because of that impressive range — Whitney the Interpreter, for all her vocal prowess, also had a way with words.
1. “One Moment in Time.” Foreshadowing the “rise and fall” of Whitney’s personal and professional life, “One Moment in Time” captured the singer’s early-career essence. Though, along with her increasingly inconsistent voice, her passion for performing eventually diminished — the puzzling presence of “I Didn’t Know My Own Strength” in 2009 on Oprah demonstrates this sad fact — this was Whitney at her most triumphant. “I will be free,” she belted at the 31st Grammy Awards in 1989, giving angel wings to the carpe diem message she so earnestly felt. And then, too soon, free she was.
— Chris Azzopardi