It’s the album which ensured the reigning Queen of Pop would stay on her throne for at least another decade.
It introduced us to the signature whooshes and bleeps of a production genius and won four Grammy Awards, spawned five UK Top 10 singles and sold 16 million copies worldwide. 20 years ago to the day (March 2) since it first hit the shelves on this side of the Atlantic, here are eight reasons why Ray of Light remains Madonna’s greatest ever album.
The element of surprise
Although Madonna was far from a spent force in early 1998, it was largely assumed that her all-conquering heyday was well behind her. It had been four years since the underrated Bedtime Stories had underwhelmed in the charts, and the release of ballads compilation Something to Remember and her starring role in the big-screen adaptation of Andrew Lloyd Webber musical Evita suggested that she was now settling into the inoffensive housewife-friendly phase of her career. It’s why the double whammy of Frozen’s song and video – the former a cinematic electro-ballad with a cutting-edge production, the latter a moody, gothic affair directed by Aphex Twin favourite Chris Cunningham – came as such a welcome surprise. Just like she’d done before, and like she’d do again, Madonna proved that you write her off at your peril.
The inspired choice of producer
While modern day Madonna has found herself chasing trends, old-school Madonna was renowned for setting them. Before Ray Of Light came along, William Orbit was a relatively unknown musician who had released several albums of ambient electronica to critical acclaim but few sales. After the album, Orbit became an in-demand super producer whose studio talents would be utilised by everyone from Blur and U2 to Pink and All Saints. It’s not hard to see why he became so popular, with his swirling mix of techno, trip-hop and electronica proving to be the perfect foil for Madonna’s exquisite pop melodies and mature musings on loss, love and motherhood. Ray Of Light sounded like nothing Madonna had recorded before and cemented her status as the master of reinvention.
The title track
Frozen undoubtedly helped Ray Of Light shift the kind of first-week numbers Madonna hadn’t seen in a decade. And its title track kept the momentum going, pushing the album to a worldwide sales total of over 16m. A pulsating dance anthem based on a forgotten 1971 song from English folk duo Curtiss Maldoon, Ray Of Light thrills from start to finish, whether it’s the pounding techno beat, the euphoric chorus (famous for its mistaken ‘Anna Friel’ lyrics) or the frenzied finale where Madonna’s celestial vocals spiral wildly out of control. And it also resulted in one of Madonna’s most joyous live outings to date, a feel-good and vocally on-point performance on The Oprah Winfrey Show which inspires the entire audience to sing and move along.
The opening track
Like a Virgin, Into The Groove, Express Yourself, Like A Prayer, Vogue, Hung Up… Madonna has such a wealth of bona fide hits that it’s almost impossible to single one out as the best. But you can make a strong case for one of her most subtle and slow-burning, and indeed smallest (it only peaked at No.10 in the UK), chart entries to be given such an accolade. One of those rare meditations on the pressures of fame which doesn’t resort to self-pity, Substitute For Love/Drowned World is an achingly honest affair in which Madonna admits she ‘traded fame for love’ and ‘got exactly what I asked for’, but one which also admits that she now wants to change her ways. Brilliantly setting the scene for what lies ahead, the opening track is also exquisite too, from the slightly disorienting ambient intro (complete with ghostly spoken words) to the breathtaking middle-eight (‘no one night stand, no far off land’) which showcases Orbit’s box of studio tricks at its best.
Drowned World wasn’t the only time where Madonna got deeply personal on Ray Of Light. Closing track Mer Girl sees her reflect, in rather vivid style, on the death of her mother (‘And I smelled her burning flesh/Her rotting bones, her decay’), while the beautifully shimmering Little Star is one of those rare tributes to an offspring (in this case, Lourdes) which doesn’t drown in schmaltz. Whereas Madonna had previously cultivated a cold and aloof persona, Ray Of Light saw her embracing a warmer and more confessional direction which proved that pop superstars also have feelings too.
Madonna has arguably never looked better than she did during the campaign for Ray Of Light. Shot by famed photographer Mario Testino, the cover – featuring Madonna and her windswept strawberry blonde hair posing in front of a calming turquoise backdrop – brilliantly complements the Earth Mother vibe that encapsulates the record. The album’s accompanying promo videos all pulled off a similarly sophisticated style too, from the geisha girl imagery of Nothing Really Matters to the time-lapse footage of Ray Of Light to the blue-tinged dramatics of The Power Of Goodbye.
Its spiritual vibes
Alarm bells usually ring when an artist declares they’re going all spiritual, but Madonna managed to interweave her new-found interest in Kabbalah into Ray Of Light without sounding all preachy. Indeed, from the daring adaptation of a Hindu Sanskrit prayer (Shanti/Ashtangi) to the spiritual leanings of Sky Fits Heaven and Swim, the album’s otherworldly vibes felt authentic and natural rather than someone simply jumping on the latest fashionable religion bandwagon.
It extended Madonna’s pop legacy
Like her fellow ‘80s pop superstars Michael Jackson and Prince, Madonna had initially failed to reach the same commercial heights in the 1990s, and her stint as the undisputed Queen of Pop looked to be coming to an end. But Ray Of Light gave her a new lease of life and undoubtedly helped to prolong her reign until the double whammy of the disappointing Hard Candy and Lady Gaga’s arrival in the late ‘00s. Without Ray Of Light, we might not have had another ten years of glorious pop, from the playful electro of Music, to the unfairly-maligned Bond theme Die Another Day, to the inspired ABBA-sampling disco of Hung Up.
- Bron: Metro