Madonna released her seventh studio album Ray Of Light on 22 February 1998. Listening to it 20 years later – it sounds better than ever!
But before we get to the album itself, a little context is in order. Because while the album is an amazing piece of work on its own, when you better understand how it came about, you develop a whole new level of appreciation for it.
The 90s were a decade of massive ups and downs for Madonna. She started the decade at arguably the peak of her career. She had totally dominated the 80s, and with the smash hit Vogue and her sell-out international Blond Ambition tour, she looked set to dominate the 90s as well.
But then things took a turn for the worst. Madonna went “too far” in the eyes of many critics (hmmmm, let me guess – straight, white men?) with her provocative Erotica album and accompanying Sex book.
Whether you loved it or hated it – you can’t deny it was groundbreaking. No other major female (or male) artist since has come even remotely close to that level of shock and hardcore provocation. It makes every Gaga stunt look like kids playing dress up in comparison.
Because while people love to see someone rise to the top, it seems we revel in seeing them fall even more. Once the knives were out for her, the road to redemption proved to be a long one for Madonna.
Her next album, 1994’s Bedtime Stories underperformed (both critically and commercially) – but only in comparison to Madonna’s stratospheric standards. For anyone else, it would have been a success.
Having re-listened to it recently, I think it’s actually quite underrated. While her detour into mid-90s r&b does smell a little of relevance seeking, songs like Secret, Don’t Stop and Survival are awesome mid tempo jams. Human Nature is the ultimate “fuck you” to the naysayers and critics (even if the music video would attract cries of appropriation these days) and the ballad Take A Bow earned Madonna her first (and only) Billboard number one single from the album.
But it’s the Bjork written Bedtime Story that I always loved the most from the album. It sticks out like a sore thumb and feels misplaced amongst the tone and direction of every other track on the album, but its eeery, abstract minimalism (hey, I was 14 at the time) captivated me.
Rather than exploring electronica and dance more, Madonna veered into a period that saw a lot of her diehard fans confused. She released a great hits album – of ballads (which is kind of strange considering she was known as a dance/pop artist). And then she played the role of Eva Peron in the film adaption of Evita, another image detour.
A couple of other things happened at around this time too. Madonna had her first child Lourdes in 1997. She also got really interested in a form of Jewish mysticism known as Kabbalah.
All of these seemingly disparate elements – her rocky career path in the 90s, having her first child, vocal training for her role in Evita, mysticism and her dance roots culminate in everything you hear on Ray Of Light.
Originally, Madonna worked with Babyface and Patrick Leonard to possibly create a Bedtime Stories volume 2. For whatever reason, that collaboration didn’t materialise.
So instead, Madonna turned to British producer William Orbit. Orbit had previously remixed Madonna’s Justify My Love and Erotica. Madonna must have loved what she heard and the two met in person in the summer of ‘97. The spent four months working on Ray Of Light (which is the most time Madonna has spent on recording any of her albums).
Both the album Ray Of Light and lead single Frozen were released internationally on 22 February 1998. From the first listen of both the album and single, you could tell it was something special. Madonna had returned to form in the most spectacular way.
Ray Of Light is a record that seamlessly combines multiple musical genres – electronica, deep house, techno pop, ambient and trip hop. Lyrically, there’s an infusion of religious mysticism, poetry and simple, yet stunning pop play. It was unlike any Madonna record before – or since. (Her previous critical and commercial masterpiece, 1989’s Like A Prayer is exceptional, but I do think Ray Of Light wins out).
To listen to it today (which I strongly encourage you to do), it’s amazing to hear how little the record has aged. It really doesn’t sound like something that’s 20 years old. It’s got a timelessness to it and a sense that any of the tracks could easily be released by an artist today.
Madonna being Madonna released five amazing singles, with five amazing looks. Amongst them you’ve got the gothic Frozen look, the long-locked boho vibes of Ray Of Light (the single), the Japanese geisha inspired Nothing Really Matters. As the kids today would say, it was EVERYTHING – and everyone was GAGGING!
Check them out below:
But there are also some amazing non-single tracks that are definitely worth checking out.
There’s the gently building Swim:
Children killing children while the
Students rape their teachers
Comets fly across the sky
While the churches burn their preachers
We can’t carry these sins on our back
Don’t wanna carry any more
We’re gonna carry this train off the track
We’re gonna swim to the ocean floor
The yoga-inspired Shanti / Ashtangi,
I worship the gurus’ lotus feet
Awakening the happiness of the self revealed
Beyond comparison, working like the jungle physician
To pacify loss of consciousness from the poison of existence
In the form of a man up to the shoulders
Holding a conch, discus and sword
Thousand headed, white
I bow respectfully
The angsty Candy Perfume Girl:
Young velvet porcelain boy
Devour me when you’re with me
Blue wish window seas
Speak delicious fires
I’m your candy perfume girl
And the mystical Sky Fits Heaven:
Traveling down this road
Watching the signs as I go
I think I’ll follow the sun
Isn’t everyone just
Traveling down their own road
Watching the signs as they go
I think I’ll follow my heart
It’s a very good place to start
Ray Of Light cleaned up at the 1999 Grammys winning four out of the six awards it was nominated for.
Side note: the ‘99 Grammys are also notable for introducing Ricky Martin to the non-Latin world. A fortuitous backstage run in between Madonna and Ricky led to a really nice collaboration between the two called Be Careful With My Heart (Cuidado Con Mi Corazon) on Ricky’s self-titled debut English-speaking album.
Ray Of Light was a massive success, selling over 16 million copies worldwide. It shot to number 1 in a number of countries including the UK, Australia, Canada, The Netherlands, Germany, Italy, New Zealand and Norway.
One thing that really bugged me at the time was that it missed out on the number one spot in the US. Despite having the biggest sales week of any female artist at the time (371,000 albums), it debuted and peaked at number 2 Why is that? Well, because of a little soundtrack to a little move you might have heard of called…Titanic.
Ray Of Light is undoubtedly Madonna’s peak album. It’s progressive lyrics and sonic exploration set the standard for years to come. 20 years later, it (still!) sounds better than ever.