Here She Is, Miss Vanessa Williams

Vanessa Williams Albums Ranked Worst to Best

by Peter Piatkowski

This spring Vanessa Williams will release her newest single, “Legs (Keep Dancing),” followed by her first album in 15 years. Though she never gave up music—touring and performing on television—the years since her last album, 2009’s The Real Thing, were focused on her Broadway, television, and film work instead. After a triumphant four years as the campy, vampy villain Wilhelmina Slater on the comedy Ugly Betty, Williams joined the long-running Desperate Housewives for the show’s last two seasons, livening up the aging show with her inimitable, kitschy hauteur. She also leaned into her queer following, joining RuPaul on several of the Drag Race shows, including judging the drag singing competition Queen of the Universe. Williams' great love for Broadway also came calling, and she tread the boards in several shows like The Trip to BountifulCity of Angels (her West End debut), and the satirical comedy POTUS: Or, Behind Every Great Dumbass Are Seven Women to Keep Him Alive. In anticipation of her new album, she’s also headlining the musical version of The Devil Wears Prada, returning to the comedic ice queen she perfected on Ugly Betty and Desperate Housewives.

On her forthcoming record, Williams said, “What a joy it is to be making new music, behind the mic, again with old friends.” “Legs (Keeping Dancing)” is an exciting neo-disco that returns her to her late ’80s/early ’90s dance hits like “The Right Stuff” and “Runnin’ Back to You.” Williams’ musical career started in 1988 with her debut album, The Right Stuff. The album was a welcome comeback for the singer, who struggled with a career-ending controversy during her time as Miss America when nude photos were published in Penthouse magazine, forcing her to give up the crown.

Williams was tenacious and worked hard, rebuilding her career and turning to pop music. She enjoyed a hit-filled career from 1988 to 1996, enjoying six top-20 singles. After her 1997 album Next (her last major-label release), she branched out into her acting career, recording sporadically putting out soulful cocktail-lounge pop.

The following is a ranking of Vanessa Williams’ studio albums from worst to best.

vanessawilliams_therealthing_1508. The Real Thing (2009)

Williams’ last record is emblematic of the issue with her later music career. She always had a penchant for ballads, but The Real Thing is a bit of a snooze, as she squanders her immaculate vocals on pristine—if somewhat dull—material. There are some jazzy flourishes, light bossa nova, reverent renditions of pop standards and classics. Her take on the Sergio Mendes & Brazil tune “The Real Thing” does liven things up a bit, but overall, the album is far too restrained and somewhat colourless.

7. Everlasting Love (2005)vanessawilliams_everlasting_150

Vanessa Williams’ pitch-perfect voice is warm, smooth, and silky. Her vocals seem designed for love songs. She looks to the kind of music she listened to on this romantic covers album, putting together an impressive track list of soul classics by stalwarts like the Jackson 5, Roberta Flack, the Stylistics, the Isley Brothers, and the Ohio Players. Like The Real ThingEverlasting Love suffers from production and arrangements that leave Williams stranded in sedate, elevator music. The record does have a fine highpoint, “With You I’m Born Again” a stirring duet with George Benson.

vanessawilliams_silver_1506. Silver & Gold (2004)

Mariah Carey was crowned the Queen of Christmas, but Vanessa Williams deserves some sort of seasonal sobriquet. Her gorgeous voice is so soothing that it matches perfectly for holiday tunes. On her second album of Christmas carols, Williams brings a jazzy soul to favourites and a couple originals. Like her other releases from the 2000s, Silver & Gold is a more adult-oriented affair, with the songs sounding sexy and mature. She kicks off things with a sprightly version of “Joy To The World” with an ebullient Brian McKnight. Her epic pop take on “Little Drummer Boy” is lovely, as is the “Mary’s Little Boy Child,” which turns into an elegant version of “Oh Holy Night,” which Williams performs exquisitely.

5. The Right Stuff (1988)vanessawilliams_therightstuff_150

Vanessa Williams’ debut album introduced audiences to a bright, talented star. It’s a lively, charming record that bears the hallmarks of mid-’80s urban dance-pop. Listening to The Right Stuff, it’s clear how influential Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis were in the ’80s, as the album sounds like an affectionate tribute to Janet Jackson’s 1986 Control. The clattering drum machines, fat electric bass, and loud synths, yet Williams’ charisma and star quality shine.

vanessawilliams_next_1504. Next (1997)

 would be Williams’ final album on Mercury Records, ending a near-decade of hit singles and gold and platinum discs. The album somehow got lost and is sorely underrated. It’s an eccentric pop record with stylish swishes of soul, hip-hop, dance, and pop. Though not a huge hit, the album’s lead single, “Happiness” (produced by Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, sampling the Nu Shooz’s “I Can’t Wait”), is one of her best, most ingratiating singles and shows that even if ballads were her forte, dance is really her jam. On the other end of the pop spectrum is the gospel-lite of “Oh How the Years Go By,” which Williams imbues with an inspirational optimism.

3. The Comfort Zone (1991)vanessawilliams_comfortzone_150

The Right Stuff
 made Williams a star, but The Comfort Zonemade her a superstar and a pop icon on the strength of the hit single “Save The Best for Last,” a grand orchestral ballad that would define her career. The Comfort Zone is an excellent showcase for all her talents: moving ballads, slinky jazz-pop numbers, and bright dance-pop. There’s a confidence on The Comfort Zone that comes from overcoming adversity: Williams struts with a hard-earned self-assurance on the album.

vanessawilliams_starbright_1502. Star Bright (1996)

It was inevitable that Vanessa Williams would record a Christmas record. This album—released at the height of her fame—is a lovely collection of holiday tunes. It’s a dreamy record, perfect to play during a romantic evening during the holiday season. Lush and inviting, Star Bright is not just a Christmas record but a near-definitive Vanessa Williams album. The highlights include a swinging, moody “What Child Is This?” and an angelic “Go Tell It on the Mountain.” The latter shows Williams’ grasp of slick, contemporary gospel. 

1. The Sweetest Days (1994)vanessawilliams_sweetest_150

The Sweetest Days
 is the follow-up to The Comfort Zone and is the kind of slightly niche record she could only make after the boffo sales of The Right Stuff and The Comfort Zone. It’s a smart, classy album that marries Williams’ diverse musical influences, including jazz, soul, Latin pop, and R&B. The title track is a spiritual sequel to “Save the Best for Last” and features some of her most affecting singing. Her scorching take on Sting’s “Sister Moon” is a revelation. Her tribute to Ella Fitzgerald, “Ellamental” is excellent, showing off Williams’ impressive crooning chops. Best of all is the lilting closer, “Long Way Home.”

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