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1986 Record Sales: Houston An Easy Winner In A Bland Field hide



It's no wonder Whitney Houston is smiling in the Christmas cards that Arista Records mailed to retailers and the music press.

Despite the year-end sales splash registered by Bruce Springsteen's live album, this was Houston's year in pop music.

Her debut LP "Whitney Houston," which was No. 1 on the national sales charts for nearly four months, has sold more than 7 million copies and yielded four Top-10 singles, including "How Will I Know" and "Greatest Love of All."

All this made the 23-year-old daughter of gospel singer Cissy Houston the easy winner in Billboard magazine's annual review of its weekly album and singles sales charts.

Last year's Billboard winner, Madonna, finished second this time, according to the trade publication. The rest of the Top 10, in order: John Cougar Mellencamp, Sade, ZZ Top, Phil Collins, Heart, Janet Jackson, Miami Sound Machine and Mr. Mister.

Christmas cards or no, there are too many bland record-makers on that list to make many pop critics smile. There was lots of cream in 1986, but most of it obviously didn't rise to the top.

Houston is a prime example of talent without vision.

She's got a sensational voice, with enough control and range to be dazzling when she stretches words into all sorts of tuneful shapes or holds certain syllables for dramatic effect. Yet she has little of that all-important quality: vocal character.

The photogenic singer's backers could argue that most of the material on her debut album is so pedestrian that it would be hard even for Aretha Franklin to breathe life into the tunes. And they could also maintain that Houston is only beginning her career -- there's still plenty of time to develop the revelation and character that are reflected in the most gripping pop artists.

But character doesn't come automatically, and Houston has not shown on stage in the two years since the album was released that she's making progress in overcoming the weakness -- or that she even recognizes she has a problem in this area.

The danger with her enormous early success is that the applause and multi-platinum sales can become too comforting. There's too little personality on the record to give you much of a clue to her instincts or direction. In concert, however, she leans toward a glittery, mainstream style that suggests she's more interested in stardom than in distinguishing herself as an artist. Another Diana Ross in the making?

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