MADONNA’S RAY OF LIGHT 20 YEARS ON.
IT’S 20 YEARS SINCE MADONNA’S RAY OF LIGHT ILLUMINATED OUR LIVES WITH ITS SHEER BRILLIANCE. MARC ANDREWS TAKES A FRESH LISTEN…
TWENTY YEARS ago, on February 22, 1998, arguably the greatest pop album of all time was released. Ray Of Light was Madonna’s seventh studio album after 15 years of pop hits, controversy, crucifixes, the Sex book and the birth of her daughter, Lourdes.
Produced, mainly, by William Orbit it topped album charts around the world and remade Madonna’s career in its second decade as a yogaposing, Kabbalah-studying yummy mummy.
What made it so special? This was not a record you skipped through to get to the hits. You played it in its entirety because there was a story of empowerment being told by the world’s most famous woman. She admonished celebrity (Drowned World), celebrated the birth of her daughter (Little Star), explored Jewish mysticism (Shanti/Ashtangi), questioned world politics and the recent murder of her buddy, Gianni Versace (Swim), touched on gender fluidity (Candy Perfume Girl) and even tossed in a cathartic self-help ballad, The Power Of Good-bye.
The Madonna/Orbit collaboration was a pop masterpiece that not only stormed the charts but ruled the clubs with inspired remixes of Frozen, the title track, Sky Fits Heaven and Nothing Really Matters.
Orbit’s electronica and Madonna’s improved vocal prowess created a sound that almost every pop artist in the world then tried to replicate. But the momentary flash of genius that inspired Ray Of Light was never equaled or bettered, even by Madonna herself on the follow-up album Music two years later.
Ray Of Light finally won Madonna the critical respect and Grammies she’d longed for. It also shored up her long-term legacy, which was still struggling under the negative fallout of 1992’s Sex book, which had disarmed her for the first time in her ballistic career. Ray Of Light also abruptly steered her away from the Streisand-esque ballads of 1996’s blockbuster Evita.
The perceived wisdom among stuffier rock critics is that 1989’s Like A Prayer as Madonna’s best work thanks to a few hot guitar licks, a Prince collaboration and songs about her mother’s death, her father’s anger, and her abusive marriage to Sean Penn. To be fair, it’s a tremendous work that has also stood the test of time. But Ray Of Light was and is everything you need in a Madonna album.
That there is no deluxe anniversary edition of Ray Of Light is criminal. That the Madonna back catalogue of pre-2012’s MDNA gathers dust, never afforded a modicum of TLC from her old record company, Warner Music, suggests their split was not amicable.
Ray Of Light deserves a gentle repackaging; the original Japanese version included an extra track, Has To Be, one of Madonna’s finest minimalist pop excursions. The album was accompanied by a classic batch of videos; lest we forget that the amped-up Ray Of Light and the brittle Frozen were both award winners, while Drowned World (riffing on the death of Princess Diana), The Power Of Good-bye and Nothing Really Matters all arrived on MTV back when big name directors and massive budgets were lavished on the humble pop video.
As a super-fan, I adore Madonna’s early pop albums Madonna, Like A Virgin and True Blue, I have a down-low love affair with 1992’s Erotica, and reluctantly acknowledge that 2005’s Confessions On A Dance Floor is probably her last decent album. But Ray Of Light was a revelation back then, and remains a pure pop pleasure 20 years later. It manages to be both contemporary and timeless while eerily prescient on issues like gun control, celebrity culture and spirituality.
In my view, it is still the best album Madonna has ever made and, to quote one of its memorable lyrics, “This is my religion.”
You didn’t skip through to the
hits. You played it in its entirety because there was a story being told by the world’s most famous woman.