Madonna has been creating music for now almost four decades now and shows no sign of stopping. Over the course of her career, she gave us some of pop music’s most important songs and moments and broke countless boundaries. However, like Michael Jackson or Prince, her importance in the history of music is likely to be recognized only once she is no longer with us, as humanity has a bad habit of showing true appreciation of its geniuses only when they die… Madonna went through many memorable career reinventions and has created plenty of songs that will forever be enjoyed, but her 1998 Ray Of Light album is arguably the most meaningful, rewarding, mature and important album she offered us yet. Here is why.
One must look back at the context in which the album was released to understand its importance. Back in 1998, Madonna had not released a studio album since 1994’s Bedtime Stories, a record that opted for a typically 90’s R&B sound and while extremely enjoyable, seems quite dated today. In 1996, she played the role of Eva Peron in Evita, which helped her win her only award for acting and for which she recorded the soundtrack. Madonna notably underwent singing lessons for the project and her vocals significantly improved. She also gave birth to daughter Lourdes on October 14, 1996. The whole experience had a profound impact on Madonna and she started studying Kabbalah as a result. In 1997, she decided it was time to record a new album and development started with producer Babyface, with whom she worked on Bedtime Stories and on the new songs on the 1995 compilation Something To Remember. Rick Nowels and Patrick Leonard also collaborated on the project. Unsurprisingly, Madonna decided to start over as she didn’t want her new record to sound the same as the previous one. It was a good choice. Enter William Orbit, creator of the Strange Cargo albums and an incredibly talented producer. Madonna and Orbit had never created songs together but the latter remixed a few of her tracks to great success, including 1990’s Justify My Love. Evita, Lourdes, Kabbalah and Orbit. All are major influences that helped Madonna create what would become Ray Of Light.
The album itself sounds extremely different than anything Madonna ever did before. In fact, the album sounded very much different than anything else available on the mainstream pop market. The William Orbit sound is now well known as he became quite successful following this album, producing songs for All Saints, U2 and Britney Spears among others. Back in 1998, Ray Of Light sounded shockingly fresh. It still does today, albeit in a less surprising manner. Madonna and Orbit managed to create an extremely rich sonic soundscape that is filled with electronic effects, tribal instruments, electric guitars and other alien sounds that somehow add up together and take you on a surreal trip. It was recorded in over 5 months using mostly computers with samples (Orbit’s favorite working method). Some albums have a few great songs but Ray Of Light is the kind of album you have to listen to in its entirety. All the songs fit together extremely well and it makes the album an incredibly immersive listening experience unlike anything she has released before or since.
Drowned World/Substitute For Love is the opener and one of my favorites off the album. Here, Madonna sounds surprisingly relaxed and you sense straight away that she significantly improved her vocals with the Evita sessions. She sings about choosing love over fame and what matters in her life. It is incredibly touching and is a perfect way to open this record and introduce us to the new Madonna, mature and spiritual. The song was also the opener of her Drowned World Tour in 2001. The single release contains an excellent remix (the BT & Sasha Remix) that is probably one of the best Madonna remix ever and is as good as the album version. It is worth checking out if you like the whole Ray Of Light era. The music video recalls the infamous Princess Diana accident from 1997 and sees Madonna escape paparazzis and mobbing fans.
Swim, Ray of Light and Candy Perfume Girl are surprising tracks as they contain electric guitar prominently (especially the title track), something that was yet to be heard on a Madonna album. The result is extremely satisfying and while Swim and Candy Perfume Girl remain slow numbers in the vein of Drowned World, Ray of Light is full of energy and one can’t help but want to dance while listening to it (it rightfully so won the Grammy for Best Dance Recording). The guitar was played by Orbit himself. I still have trouble understanding the meaning of the song Swim but I read it was recorded following the murder of her friend Gianni Versace in 1997, hence the disturbing and emotional lyrics. Candy Perfume Girl is quite sensual and was co-written by Prince’ ex Susannah Melvoin. It sounds surprisingly grungy at times. Ray of Light is about embracing life and its opportunities and that is exactly what the song makes you want to do. It remains one of Madonna’s most uplifting tracks. She reportedly said it was a hard song to sing live and that might explain why she often performs it in a different key than the album version. The music video by Jonas Akerlund is unique and was parodied in the TV show Family Guy.
Skin is another song I have trouble getting the meaning of but I still enjoy due to the mood it puts you in. Madonna’s vocals are buried under plenty of electronic effects and the chorus is quite infectious. While not a standout of the album for me, it remains an enjoyable listening experience and fits well with the best tracks surrounding it. Nothing Really Matters is another song about what matters in life and is an uptempo dance song. The vocals are extremely beautiful with a few effects into them and I was surprised the song didn’t reach more chart success (it only reached 93 on the US Hot 100). The Club 69 Remix is arguably better than the album version and makes the song even more danceable. The music video is probably Madonna’s most disturbing and it features her disguised as a geisha, another reinvention that was used extensively during the Drowned World Tour.
Sky Fits Heaven is a dance song that focuses on Madonna’s spiritual studies and the influence of her daughter on her beliefs. Electric guitar and piano make an appearance to beautiful effect among the electronic backdrop. This one remains one of my favorite off the album and it was a highlight of the accompanying tour, where Madonna performed the song during an aerial battle with her dancers. Impressive stuff. The song is followed by Shanti/Ashtangi, obviously the oddest song in her catalog up to that point as Madonna sings a Hindu Sanskrit prayer (!?) over a slow dance beat. It received a sequel in Cyber-raga, a B-Side track from the Music sessions in 2000. Both songs are equally strange and display how inventive Madonna was back then. Ray Of Light reaches its highest point in Frozen, a ballad about someone who can’t connect with his emotions. The track is a masterpiece and was chosen as the first single to promote the album (it deservedly reached number 2 on the US Hot 100). It contains some of Madonna’s best vocals and the instrumental by Orbit is in itself a joy to listen to. Try to listen to it without humming the chorus ! Frozen was performed often in concert and is now considered a Madonna classic. The video, while not one of my favorites, is very appealing visually and very dark, featuring Madonna as some kind of witch singing in the desert. The special effects are impressive and the video won the MTV Video Music Award for them in 1998.
The Power Of Goodbye is the last gem on the album. Rivaling Frozen by its beautiful lyrics and sumptuous vocals, it is another mid-tempo ballad about how freeing a break-up can be. It is one of the few songs Madonna worked on with Rick Nowels and Patrick Leonard that was kept for the album and later reworked by William Orbit. The song mixes acoustic guitar, an orchestra and an electronic beat to create an incredibly seductive mix. Definitely an highlight of the album and among the best ballads Madonna offered us so far. The video shows Madonna playing chess with her lover, eventually destroying the board as a symbol for their break-up. It is shot beautifully and Madonna looks gorgeous in it (see below). The rest of the album remains great but not that memorable compared to what came before. Still, To Have and Not to Hold, Little Star and Mer Girl, are a beautiful trio of down tempo songs that feature restrained arrangements by Orbit and demonstrate how seductive is Madonna’s voice. Little Star is a love song written for her daughter and Mer Girl is an almost entirely instrumental track about the death of her mother. I would have preferred is the album ended on a more uplifting note. If you managed to get the Japanese version of the album, this was the case.
The Japanese version of the album contained another track, Has to Be, which is as good as most tracks on the other versions of Ray Of Light. Why wasn’t it included ? The answer lies in Kabbalah, as 13 is considered a lucky number and the album contains 13 tracks without Has to Be. The song is worth a listen and I believe is superior to Mer Girl or Little Star. There were plenty of other tracks that were recorded for the album but never used. Worth checking out are Gone, Gone, Gone (This Love Affair is Over), Revenge (an early effort without Orbit’s involvement) and Like A Flower.
Ray Of Light is the record with which Madonna finally achieved significant critical success. One will have to look really hard to find a negative review for this album. Her records were always big sellers but were often dismissed as simple radio pop by serious music critics. Madonna was also strangely snobbed by the Grammys for most of her career. It all changed with this album. Ray Of Light was nominated for 6 Grammys, including Album of the Year 1999. It eventually won Best Pop Album and plenty of other international awards for the album itself and its accompanying music videos. Moreover, it is included in Rolling Stone’s list of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time and Madonna herself eventually said Ray Of Light represents the most fulfilling evolution of her career. Fans agreed too and the album went on to sell 16 million copies worldwide. The album was promoted along with her 2000 opus Music during the Drowned World Tour in 2001, a musical extravaganza that showcased a lot of the imagery developed during the Ray Of Light era, such as the geisha look or spiritualism. It is absolutely worth a watch.
Some consider Ray Of Light an important milestone in pop music, as it helped bring electronica into global pop culture. I believe that it more importantly sealed Madonna’s reputation as an important and serious artist, one that releases enjoyable AND meaningful music. It remains one of M’s most adventurous record and again she proved that she could successfully reinvent herself. She continued to do so for the first half of the 2000’s, with Music (2000), American Life (2003) and Confessions On A Dancefloor (2005) all bringing a strikingly different sound than what was then on the market at the time of their release. She then went on to release Hard Candy (2008), MDNA (2012) and Rebel Heart (2015), albums that remain enjoyable but are not up to par with her best records and are not incredibly original or memorable. Ray Of Light remains the most mature and is the kind of album I feel she should release now. I’m still trying to figure out how an artist who released Frozen could release Bitch I’m Madonna, which I think is a disgrace to the ears and her legacy. In my humble opinion, Madonna needs to stop trying to act like today’s pop stars she obviously inspired. Anyway, we will always have the amazing Ray Of Light to go back to ! If you’ve already listened to it and would like to hear more music in the same vein, try William Orbit’s Strange Cargo albums or even Madonna’s Music album (which I like to consider as Ray Of Light on steroids…). If you haven’t listened to it yet, make yourself a gift ; grab some good earphones, close your eyes and enjoy the trip.
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