It sounds crazy to say that an artist who has sold hundreds of millions of records worldwide and is beloved by scores of people – enough to fill stadiums – is underrated. And yet, time and time again, Céline Dion has been discounted by critics and casual observers. (Rolling Stone excluded her, again, from the 2023 edition of its 200 Greatest Singers of All Time list.) In some ways, it’s understandable. Dion became an icon when adult contemporary pop was commercially successful but critically derided as soulless and saccharine. Her massive popularity – she scored two back-to-back Diamond-certified albums in two years – and her larger-than-life stage presence made her an easy target for ridicule and resentment. For some, Dion represented the worst of pop.
The hypocrisy of that criticism is that Dion possessed something that critics also love complaining about with pop music: genuine vocal talent. It isn’t hyperbole to say that she is one of the greatest vocalists of her generation. (She is a card-carrying member of the “Vocal Trinity” alongside Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey.) Dion not only had explosive vocal power and expansive range, she knew how to calibrate both to fit her music. She mastered power ballads because she knew how to unlock the emotional potency of the lyrics. No matter what she sings, regardless of tempo or topic, she sings with a sincerity and conviction that few others could match. (Again, sincerity is easy to mock.)
Sincerity and talent deserve to be acknowledged and celebrated. In that spirit, the following songs represent Céline Dion at her absolute best, an undeniable titan of pop music.
“Beauty and the Beast” (1992)
While she already had a legitimate hit under her belt (1990’s “Where Does My Heart Beat Now”), “Beauty and the Beast” was the song that changed everything. Disney chose Dion and R&B singer Peabo Bryson to sing the pop version of Beauty and the Beast‘s theme, sung by Angela Lansbury in the film. Dion and Bryson’s version was a beautiful slice of elegant pop, their complementary voices adding sweeping romance to this tale as old as time. “Beauty and the Beast” was Disney’s first Top 10 on the pop charts and won the duo a Grammy. For Dion, it made her a household name in the United States and set the course for her sterling pop career.
“The Power of Love” (1993)
Céline Dion’s first #1 hit in America, “The Power of Love” is as good as a power ballad can get. While Dion’s overwhelming vocal strength and range are the headlines, the song also shows a seductive side to the singer. There’s a tension between the breathless yearning and uncorked passion that is genuinely compelling. The latter wins out because it’s Céline Dion, but her interpretation is more thoughtful than one might think. Dion would build off this foundation towards even better performances, but “The Power of Love” was a seminal moment. She was already amongst the best three years into her English pop career.
“Think Twice” (1993)
On an album with “The Power of Love” alongside it, “Think Twice” probably seemed redundant. (At least for audiences in the United States; the song was a #1 smash in the UK.) However, it deserves recognition in its own right, with Dion at her most emotionally unrestrained. She’s at 11 from the very beginning, fighting with all her might for her lover. Listening to Dion sing with growing intensity, you sense that she might collapse from the emotional turmoil. Then the climax hits, and you realize that Dion has this. While she’s lyrically spiraling, Dion is in excellent vocal command, deploying lengthy power notes like heat-seeking missiles. You can’t help but sing along to Dion’s impassioned pleas, knowing your voice will fail to reach half her height.
“Pour que tu m’aimes encore” (1995)
Céline Dion is one of the most successful music artists in the English language, but her Francophone career is just as substantial. In 1995, Dion released D’eux (known as The French Album in English-speaking countries), which is still the best-selling album in French history. The lead single, “Pour que tu m’aimes encore,” was similarly successful, topping the charts in France for three months and even peaking in the UK top 10. The song’s subtle but solid beat and breezy, hip tempo complemented Dion’s impassioned, heart-on-sleeve vocals. Dion’s often undersold versatility is on full display, demonstrating how she could connect audiences with songs regardless of language or speed. (Dion did record an English version, “If That’s What it Takes,” the following year.)
“Because You Loved Me” (1996)
You probably don’t remember the film Up Close and Personal, starring Robert Redford and Michelle Pfeiffer. However, you likely remember its love theme, sung by Céline Dion. The first in a long and fruitful relationship with songwriter Diane Warren, Dion takes a sweet, almost respectful approach to this song about returning a loved one’s devotion. In what would become her trademark, Dion builds on top of the foundation with more power and confidence until her full-throated declaration of love bursts forth in an extraordinary finale. She ensured that the ballad would become a mainstay at everything from school dances to wedding receptions. The accompanying movie might be lost to time, but “Because You Loved Me” solidified Dion’s domination over the movie love theme.
“The Power of the Dream” (1996)
An Olympic theme deserves an Olympian vocalist, and in 1996, Dion fit the bill better than any other artist available. The song, written by David Foster, Linda Thompson, and Babyface, is acceptable. Dion, through her voice’s sheer scale and power, elevates it to otherworldly heights. In her care, the song is a triumphant, joyous tribute to perseverance, supported by Dion’s most complex and challenging performance to that point. (She would release “All By Myself” four months later.) Dion was already on top of the world when she stepped on the Olympic stage in Atlanta. Her performance proved she could go even higher.
“It’s All Coming Back to Me Now” (1996)
There might not be a song that better represents Céline Dion as an artist than “It’s All Coming Back to Me Now.” The 7-minute rock opera by Jim Steinman is a tour-de-force of emotional excess, like something out of a Gothic novel. With its thunderclaps, tidal wave-like bridges, and explosive choruses, the song is easy to mock and has been since its release. Dion’s genius is in how straight she plays it. Her own thunderous instrument allows her to go head-to-head with Steinman’s histrionic arrangement while holding firm to the wistful desperation behind the lyrics. The song’s emotional intensity could level a building, but Dion never once seems overwhelmed. Her staggering confidence and tremendous talent made for a deadly silver bullet. “It’s All Coming Back to Me Now” was the perfect smoking gun.
“Tell Him” (with Barbra Streisand) 
It all started with a bathroom break. At the 1997 Academy Awards, Céline Dion stepped in at the last minute to sing “I Finally Found Someone,” Barbara Streisand’s nominated song from The Mirror Has Two Faces. Not knowing Dion was performing, Streisand went to the bathroom and missed it. The media took it as a snub, but Dion’s husband, René Angélil, saw an opportunity. He and David Foster put their heads together and got the adult contemporary divas in the studio to record “Tell Him.” The duet is an ornate, lushly orchestrated ballad that might’ve been unremarkable without Dion and Streisand’s incredible performances. A Streisand fan for years, you can hear Dion’s joy at the chance to sing with her idol. For her part, Streisand sounds spirited, having a partner who can go toe-to-toe with her.
“My Heart Will Go On” (1997)
Céline Dion famously didn’t like “My Heart Will Go On,” the song that James Horner intended to use as the love theme for Titanic. René Angélil had to convince her to record the demo version, which Horner shared with James Cameron to persuade him to include it in his film. Thanks to cooler heads prevailing, Dion and Cameron made history with the most commercially successful pairing of song and movie ever. The song, on its own, is a powerful tribute to neverending love. In the context of the romantic blockbuster and “Leomania,” it was a force of nature. It immediately became Dion’s signature song, becoming inescapable on television, radio, and whenever people went to see the highest-grossing film of all time. The soundtrack and Dion’s album Let’s Talk About Love each sold over 30 million copies worldwide. “My Heart Will Go On” solidified Dion as a legend.
“That’s The Way It Is” (1999)
Was Céline Dion cool or hip? Probably not, although she didn’t seem to care much, nor did her millions of fans worldwide. “That’s The Way It Is” is the first time the diva made a concerted effort to keep up with pop. She tapped Max Martin, the Swedish producer behind the late ’90s teen pop boom, for an uptempo lead single for her greatest hits collection All The Way…A Decade of Song. What could’ve been a desperate bid for relevancy was actually an elegant, bouncy track about faith and love. Dion had never sounded warmer and more inviting, leaving the bombast at home and keeping the power notes to the chest-thumping climax. The song was a smash hit that proved to Top 40 radio that Dion could play ball. Instead of doing that, though, Dion went into semi-retirement to focus on starting a family. What an extraordinary way to go.
“God Bless America” (2001)
Yes, Céline Dion is Canadian. But in the wake of the September 11th terrorist attacks, nationality didn’t matter. America was grieving, and few artists could communicate complex emotions through musical performance as she could. Perhaps sensing that, Dion stepped out of semi-retirement to sing “God Bless America” during America: A Tribute to Heroes, a televised concert held ten days after the attacks. Accompanied by David Foster and a backing choir, Dion delivered one of the most stately performances of her career. Sobering but hopeful, Dion’s soaring vocals charted a course beyond the pain and heartbreak of 9/11 toward a better future. For a moment, Dion was more than just Canadian; she was everyone.
“A New Day Has Come” (2002)
Celine Dion returned to music after two years with 2002’s A New Day Has Come, inspired by becoming a mother for the first time. The album’s title track perfectly showcases the spiritual, almost ethereal Céline. Against an Enya-inspired pop backdrop, she radiates calm and joy as she sings about finding renewed purpose through her son. It is Dion’s most vocally-restrained single, only briefly delivering the power notes that are her standard. Given the diva’s experiences trying to start a family and the overwhelming peace it brought her, it is also her most emotionally affecting single.
“I Drove All Night” (2003)
In my Performances That Pop piece about her cover of Elvis Presley’s “Can’t Help Falling in Love,” I explained why Céline Dion is a camp icon. Much of this list further reinforces those points. “I Drove All Night” possibly exceeds anything she’s ever done. Dion recorded the song, made famous by fellow camp goddess Cyndi Lauper, to support her three-year, $14 million marketing deal for Chrysler. The outrageously on-the-nose campaign didn’t work, but its accompanying song is brilliant in its absurdity. It’s a raucous fusion of rock and dance, with Dion’s powerhouse vocals dripping in sincerity and hunger that might baffle some but is thoroughly entertaining. “I Drove All Night” is made for singing out of the window of your car, so at least Dion understood the assignment. (It will also live in infamy thanks to Priyanka and Kiara’s extraordinary lip sync performance on Canada’s Drag Race.)
Nearly 30 years after her English-language debut, Céline Dion could’ve settled into a comfortable existence as a wildly-popular legacy artist who could fill arenas based on her extensive catalog. (A reminder: Dion single-handedly remade Las Vegas into a viable, profitable performance venue for artists of all generations.) Instead, she continues to push her musical limits. With her latest album, 2019’s Courage, Dion channeled the loss of her husband and manager, René Angélil, into a thoughtful, expansive, and surprisingly modern pop album about moving forward. Courage’s centerpiece is “Imperfections,” a glossy midtempo about loving one’s self before loving someone else. The song is surprisingly, authentically current and houses one of Dion’s most vulnerable vocal performances. You can practically hear her work out her insecurities in real time. It’s startling, considering Dion’s unwavering confidence, and intensely relatable.