It seems hard to imagine now, what with all the provocative TikToks, trap remixes and tour announcements in which she asks Amy Schumer how she licks a certain part of her husband’s anatomy. But there was a time back in the mid-1990s when Madonna appeared to be settling into adult contemporary respectability.
There was Something To Remember, the 1995 compilation that rounded up her ballads. A year later came Evita, the big-screen adaptation of a Broadway musical that saw her belt out Andrew Lloyd Webber-composed classics like Don’t Cry For Me Argentina (and nabbed her a Golden Globe). Not to mention her mid-‘90s smash Take A Bow — a demure, lush love song co-written by Babyface that topped the Adult Contemporary chart and became her longest-running Billboard Hot 100 No. 1 ever.
Of course, they don’t call Madge the Master of Reinvention for nothing. Exquisitely co-produced by then-relatively unknown ambient maestro William Orbit, her seventh studio album, Ray Of Light, proved to be her most forward-thinking, a vibrant amalgamation of trip-hop, trance, techno and countless other electronic genres that don’t necessarily begin with the letter ‘T.’
Heavily informed by the birth of her daughter Lourdes and her newfound interest in all things spiritual, Ray Of Light undeniably restored Madonna’s reputation as the Queen of Pop. Not only did it notch the highest first-week sales by a female artist in the Nielsen SoundScan Era up until that point, but it spawned four Hot 100 hits, won four Grammy Awards and has sold 3.9 million copies in the U.S., per Luminate. It’s also generated 123.1 million on-demand official U.S. streams to date, according to Luminate. Plus, it’s the only Madonna album to land a Grammy nomination for album of the year.
In celebration of its 25th anniversary (Feb. 22), here’s a ranking of the career-defining record that proved that she could still very much dance.
One of the most impressive things about Ray Of Light is that there isn’t anything that comes close to a dud among its 13 tracks. But something has to prop up the rear. And Shanti/Ashtangi is perhaps the only time the album’s propensity for lengthy running times – more than half its songs go beyond five minutes – leads to self-indulgence. Adapted from a Hindu text and performed by Madonna in Sanskrit (although apparently it didn’t convince everyone), this mystical number still has its hypnotic charms. Had it been released now, however, it may well have faced accusations of cultural appropriation. Listen here.
12. "Candy Perfume Girl"
Borrowed from sessions Orbit had recorded for his Strange Cargo project with Prince acolyte and one-time fiancée Susannah Melvoin, Candy Perfume Girl feels more like a vibe in search of a song than a finished product. There’s a slightly demo-ish quality thanks to its stream-of-consciousness lyrics (see “Rush me ghost you see/Every center my home/Fever steam girl/Throb the oceans”) and, unusually for Madonna, a lack of discernible melodies. Still, Orbit’s studio wizardry ensures that its very mid-’90s blend of trip-hop beats and grungy guitars sustain listener interest until something more fully formed comes along. Listen here.
It gets much harder to separate Ray Of Light from here on in, such is the remarkable consistency of Madonna and Orbit’s collaborations. Swim was reportedly recorded on the very same day the former’s friend Gianni Versace was gunned down outside his Miami Beach mansion, which perhaps explains why its lyrics veer toward the macabre (“Children killing children while the students rape their teachers”). In contrast, the production is a calming mix of hazy guitars, New Age beats and intriguing aquatic effects. In fact, the whole thing aptly sounds like it was recorded underwater — and in a good way, too. Listen here.
10. "Mer Girl"
“When she recorded that in the booth, we sat in silence, our hair standing on end,” Orbit once remarked about Ray Of Light’s remarkably uncompromising closer. It’s little wonder why Madonna elicited such a reaction. Delivering one of the most emotive vocal performances of her career, the superstar pretty much brings proceedings to a hush as she reflects upon her mother’s death in strikingly evocative style (“And I smelled her burning flesh/Her rotting bones/Her decay”). Orbit understands such powerful imagery doesn’t need many bells and whistles, guiding Madonna’s eulogy to its solemn conclusion with just the occasional washes of synths. Listen here.
9. "Little Star"
As well as inhabiting a new Earth Mother persona, Madonna had also become an actual mother in the gap between 1994’s Bedtime Stories and Ray Of Light. And just like every pop star who enters parenthood, she was always going to sing about it. Luckily, her tribute to daughter Lourdes isn’t your typical schmaltzfest. Instead, Little Star is an understated affair that combines skittering drum and bass beats with dreamy fretless basslines and strings that soar like a songbird. The only track Orbit doesn’t have a hand in – Marius De Vries serves as co-producer, while regular Madonna cohort Rick Nowels co-writes – this enchanting alt-lullaby still fits in seamlessly. Listen here.
8. "Sky Fits Heaven"
Sky Fits Heaven is a track of contrasts, upping the BPM with a driving drum pattern that recalls a muted Chemical Brothers or The Prodigy but fusing it with layers of warm synths and self-help musings that could have been lifted from a Paulo Coelho bestseller (“Isn’t everyone just traveling down their own road, watching the signs as they go?”). Co-written with another previous collaborator, Patrick Leonard, this propulsive banger was, in fact, largely inspired by a Max Blagg poem that had featured on a recent ad for Gap, a company that would later jump in bed with Madonna. Listen here.
7. "To Have And Not To Hold"
Essentially bridging the gap between the ’80s romance of La Isla Bonita and the fado leanings of Madame X, To Have And Not To Hold is a wonderfully subtle example of Madonna’s affinity with all things Latin. The second of three songs rescued from early abandoned sessions with Nowels, its understated bossa nova beats and hazy woodwind should feel out of place amid the surrounding electronica. But once again, Orbit (alongside co-producer Leonard) works his studio magic to make all of Madonna’s sensual talk sound naturally cohesive. Listen here.
6. "Nothing Really Matters"
It’s a testament to Ray Of Light’s strength in depth that something as irresistible as Nothing Really Matters would only be chosen as its fifth single. A throwback to the diva house-pop days of Vogue and Deeper And Deeper, this underrated gem (it peaked at a lowly No. 93 in 1999) may be considered more tried-and-tested when compared with all the sonic adventurism elsewhere. But who cares when it produces such joys as Madonna’s closing call and response with Niki Haris and Donna De Lory, sadly also something of a studio swan song for the regular backing vocalists. Listen here.
Full-throttle techno beats, swirling psychedelic guitars, hypnotic snake-charming sound effects, even a field recording of De Vries’ son at a Marrakesh marketplace. Orbit and Madonna appear to throw in everything but the kitchen sink for Ray Of Light’s most maximalist offering. Somehow, everything coalesces to form one almighty banger, and like all the best, one that sounds tailor-made to be played in a sweaty, dark nightclub in the ungodly hours. Although Madge would later commit fully to the dancefloor on her 2005 comeback, she’s never hit it harder than on Skin. Listen here.
We’re in the pure 10-out-of-10 moments now. Frozen felt like a curveball when it premiered in early 1998; as with much of Ray Of Light, its choice of lead single was certainly audacious. It takes nearly a full minute for its programmed beats – the kind that often feel as if they’re collapsing in on one another – to kick in. The chorus is half-composed of wordless chanting. And its lush, cinematic strings recall Björk’s Homogenic, a critical favorite but hardly a commercial blockbuster. This element of surprise was deservedly well-received from audiences glad to have the boundary-pushing Madonna back once more: It reached No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100. Listen here.
3. "Ray Of Light"
If Frozen reeled all the wayward Madonna fans back in, then Ray Of Light — another huge hit, peaking at No. 5 on the Hot 100 — ensured they stayed. A kaleidoscopic blend of arpeggiated guitars, pulsing trance beats and Orbit’s signature bleeps and bloops, the album’s title track consistently teeters on the edge of euphoria before giddily jumping off with that incredible shrieking outro. Bizarrely based on a 1960s folk song (Curtiss Maldoon’s Sepheryn) previously lost to time, Ray Of Light put the Queen of Pop in a strong position to take on the 21st century. She’s never been required to show more range, either — no doubt utilizing the vocal training she’d received for Evita across five minutes of dizzying, dazzling dance-pop. Listen here.
2. "The Power Of Good-Bye"
A beautifully melancholic ode to the art of letting go, The Power Of Good-Bye is the closest that Ray Of Light comes to the Madonna ballads of old. The subaquatic production is still unmistakably Orbit, but here, all the squelches and swooshes are accompanied by a relatively simple, if utterly heartbreaking, melody. It’s delivered with just the right amount of despair and desolation – and the kind of sweeping strings, courtesy of BAFTA-winning composer Craig Armstrong, that could bring a tear to your eye (at the very least, they helped bring it to No. 11 on the Hot 100). On albums of similar ilk, this would be the runaway pièce de résistance. Listen here.
1. "Drowned World/Substitute For Love"
The moment its opening words (“You see,” sampled from Why I Follow the Tigers by San Sebastian Strings) are uttered in a discombobulated fashion, it’s clear Ray Of Light is a different beast than its predecessors. Partly titled after J.G. Ballard’s dystopian sci-fi novel The Drowned World, the meditation on fame continues to subvert all expectations. The Madonna here is no longer the showgirl, her vocal largely subdued and her words contemplative. Orbit, meanwhile, opts for the slow build rather than the instant gratification. Even when Substitute For Love switches gears, as on the stunning middle-eight, the tone is cathartic, not celebratory. It’s a brave but perfect scene-setter that remains both the crowning glory of its parent album and arguably Madonna’s ’90s career. Listen here.