Photo by David Lachapelle

There were two jaw-dropping, stunning-for-all-the-wrong-reasons R&B moments during the recently televised Arista tribute special. The first was when Aretha Franklin — black cornrows swept up into a scarifying blond weave, a fleck of what looked like gristle sitting high on her cheek — inexplicably peppered her most awful hit (“Freeway of Love”) with shouts of “Jesus! Jesus! Jesus!” while Boyz II Men shuffled aimlessly behind her. The second showstopping bit occurred when Whitney Houston and Bobby Brown — Sonny & Cher by way of HBO’s The Corner — enlivened Houston’s dreary diva medley with an out-of-left-field segue into the hook from Trick Daddy’s hood-rat anthem “Who Dat” (“Eye-yi-yi-yi-yi . . . Who dat? Who dat? Who dat?”), and spectacular television was enjoyed by all.

Thank god for non sequiturs. Sadly, they’ve been all but airbrushed from Houston’s new greatest-hits collection — which is why it’s damn near unlistenable. The first of the two discs is the “Cool Down” side, i.e., the ballads. One track slides too smoothly into the next, with Whitney’s voice — so strong, so assured, so boring — anchoring saccharine production and even sappier songwriting. All the big hits are here: “You Give Good Love,” “Saving All My Love for You,” “Greatest Love of All,” “I Will Always Love You,” “My Love Is Your Love.” With the exception of the Wyclef Jean–produced, reggae-tinged “My Love Is Your Love,” they’re practically indistinguishable; it’s painful to listen to more than one “hit” at a time. Two new songs are added to this mellow batch of familiarity: “Same Script, Different Cast” (a duet with fledgling diva Deborah Cox) and “Could I Have This Kiss Forever” (a duet with offensive ethnic stereotype Enrique Iglesias). Cox and Houston sound eerily alike, which ironically sparks a bit of chemistry between the women — narcissism as aphrodisiac. Too bad it’s wasted on yet another trifling song about the doglike nature of men. Iglesias pants and sighs his way through his lines, trying to smolder but whimpering instead.

The “Throw Down” disc is filled with astonishingly bad dance remixes of old hits like “I Wanna Dance With Somebody (Who Loves Me),” “How Will I Know” and “So Emotional.” Hex Hector and Junior Vasquez (and an uncharacteristically uninspired David Morales) take recordings that at least once had some minor charm or appeal (or, in the case of the Annie Lennox–penned “Step by Step,” were actually good) and turn them all into the soundtrack for an endless awful night at Rage. New material on this disc includes another duet (“If I Told You That,” with George Michael) and Whitney in solo mode on “Fine.”

On paper, the Houston-Michael coupling is inspired: Together they symbolize two-thirds of the sex-drugs-and-rock-&-roll triptych. But Michael simply adds his pinched, nasal vocals to the track that was originally found on Houston’s album My Love Is Your Love, the result of which is two people singing at one another and daring the listener to care. Only on the stellar R&B track “Fine” does Whitney stand out. Co-written by Raphael Saadiq (Tony! Toni! Tone!, Lucy Pearl) and produced by Saadiq and Q-Tip (and mixed by DJ Quik), “Fine” is soulful, funky and tight as hell. And the vocal performance ranks among Whitney’s best.

A lot of moaning fans have used this career retrospective to make the case that Whitney Houston’s voice ain’t quite the spectacular instrument it once was. It’s not, and so what? Sacrificing flawless and soulless technique is a small price to pay if the end result is a singer who actually feels the lyrics, who climbs inside the words and transforms them into something living.

That’s not to suggest we should swing to the other end of the spectrum and splash unearned props on the heads of folks like Mary J. Blige, who’s all raw emotion but just can’t sing. It’s also not to shrug away the horrendous live performances Houston has turned in for the past year or so on various awards shows. But it is celebrating the middle ground that should actually be the aesthetic apex for truly great singers: talent, technique and soul. Too much of modern R&B is either pointless and excessive screaming, or chilly stylistic perfection stripped of any human connection. Whitney has been a hugely influential presence in modern pop music — with almost no significant music to show for it. She’s the clear model for the likes of (early) Mariah Carey, Deborah Cox and even Christina Aguilera, all of whom have lifted her diva moves, aesthetics and vocal tics. But that’s not the stuff legacies are built upon.

Now that Whitney seems to be lifting her own private-life cues from the Esther Phillips story, she’s finally gotten interesting. Her voice has a grainy, simmering texture that snags coolly on funkdafied riffs, making her comfortably at home with Missy Elliott, Q-Tip and DJ Quik in ways she could never be with, say, Diane Warren. Here’s hoping she pulls a David Bowie move, uses this greatest-hits enema to retire her catalogue, and keeps on the career path and possibilities so clearly marked out on the very fine “Fine.”

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