To listen to the two disc Whitney — The Greatest Hits is to hear the sound of a gift being squandered. Across the 15 years covered here, Whitney Houston inhales mightily and looses her dexterous instrument upon melodramatic songs.
The first CD collects her hit ballads. Whether it’s an early effort from 1985 (”You Give Good Love”) or a watery new duet with Enrique Iglesias (”Could I Have This Kiss Forever”), whether the producer is Arista’s Clive Davis or — well, gee, that new cut’s overseen by Clive, too — Houston hews to contemporary formula with her usual ”from a whisper to a roar” rigor.
So much has been made of Houston’s R&B lineage (mother Cissy and cousin Dionne Warwick) it bears observing that her singing, for all its power and agility, suffers from a crucial lack of soulfulness. She’s not stentorian or stiff, like her primary female competition, Celine Dion. But it’s a measure of the narrow and conservative focus of Houston’s artistry that Dion, and not less polished but more adventurous rivals like Mary J. Blige and Lauryn Hill, is the standard against which we must compare her.
Things pick up on disc 2’s dance remixes of up-tempo material, including her first (and still best) hit, ”How Will I Know.” And the Wyclef Jean coauthored, coproduced ”My Love Is Your Love” is cannily remixed by Jonathan Peters: Its jittery beat deepens this love song’s desperation.
The new versions mostly work, adding emphases and unexpected melodic turns that Houston’s own phrasing misses. But for a package called ”The Greatest Hits,” it’s a gyp that Junior Vasquez’ mix buries the great pop hook in ”How Will I Know.” And who needs two takes on ”I Will Always Love You” and a courtesy-of-the-NFL live national anthem? Continually pursuing mega record sales at the expense of invention, Houston needs to exhale — to loosen up and put more shoop-shoop R&B into her creative life. C+