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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.

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