Year of release - 1998
Ray of Light is the seventh studio album by American singer-songwriter Madonna, released on February 22, 1998 by Maverick Records. After giving birth to her daughter Lourdes, Madonna started working on her new album with producersBabyface, Patrick Leonard and English producer William Orbit. Following failed sessions with Babyface and Leonard, Madonna pursued a new musical direction with Orbit. The recording took place over four months, and experienced problems with the hardware Pro Tools arrangement by Orbit, which would break down, and recording would have to be delayed until they could be repaired, as well as the absence of live bands.
Musically, the album is a pop and dance record, yet, it incorporates strong elements of electronic music within its composition, making it a departure from her previous work. Additionally, it incorporates several genres and subgenres, including techno, trip hop, drum and bass, ambient, rock and classical music. Vocally, the album saw Madonna sing using greater breadth and a fuller tone. Oriental themes are also present on the album, as a result from her conversion to Kabbalah, her study of Hinduism and Buddhism, as well as her daily practice of Yoga; songs like "Sky Fits Heaven" and "Shanti/Ashtangi" are examples from these activities.
Upon release, the album received universal acclaim, with reviewers commending the singer's new musical direction. They called it her "most adventurous" record, as well as noting its mature, restrained nature; the singer's vocals were also praised. Ray of Light won four Grammy Awards from a total of six nominations. The album was also a worldwide commercial success, peaking at number one in at least 17 countries. On the US Billboard 200, the album debuted and peaked at number two. Ray of Light has accumulated global sales of over 16 million copies.
Five singles were released from the album, including the international chart-topper "Frozen" and the top-five hit "Ray of Light". The album's promotion was later supported by the Drowned World Tour in 2001. Critics and scholars have noted the album's influence on popular music, especially how it widely introduced electronic music into mainstream pop audience. They also noted the way in which Madonna was able to re-invent herself and remain fresh and contemporary amidst the more teen pop-based music of the period. The album has been included in many critic lists and polls, including Rolling Stone magazine's "The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time".
From a musical point of view, Ray of Light was a notable departure from Madonna's previous work, and has been described as her most "adventurous" record. Musically, Ray of Light contains elements of several different types of music, includingtechno, trance, house, disco, drum and bass, trip hop, ambient, rock, new wave, eastern and classical music. Vocally, the album was also a marked change from Madonna's previous work; as the singer underwent vocal training lessons for her 1996 film Evita, her vocals exhibited greater breadth and range, as well as a fuller timbre. In many songs, she also abandoned thevibrato which was present in her previous work, as can be seen in tracks such as "Frozen". Critically, it is said to have Madonna's best and fullest vocals.
The album's opening track and third single, "Drowned World/Substitute For Love" is a downtempo ballad drawing influences from jungle, drum and bass, trip hop as well as soft rock music. The title is inspired by the J.G. Ballard's post-apocalyptic science fiction novel The Drowned World (1962). "Swim", the second song, has a spiritual vibe. She sings, "Swim to the ocean floor/So that we can begin again/Wash away all our sins/Crash to the other shore". "Ray of Light", the third track and album's second single, is an up-tempo electronic dance-pop song which contains strong techno tendencies and influences of trance music. A "sonically progressive" track, it also incorporates elements of rock music, with a prominentelectric guitar riff, and it has drawn comparisons to the work of Oasis. The melody also has several sound effects, includingwhistles and bleeps. "Candy Perfume Girl" (which Madonna reportedly described as being about obsession) has a grungeintro and continues to pair post-modern beeps and beats with old-fashioned electric guitar flare ups. In the next song, "Skin", Madonna sings "Do I know you from somewhere?" in a seductive voice over the beats of an electronic orchestra. The sixth track "Nothing Really Matters" is an up-tempo dance track which contains influences of techno.
"Sky Fits Heaven" focuses on Madonna's life: Her spiritual studies and her daughter Lourdes, "Sky fits heaven so fly it, that's what the prophet said to me/Child fits mother so hold your baby tight, that's what my future can see". Elements of the lyric are taken from the poem "What Fits?" by poet Max Blagg, the poem used for a 1993 advertisement for Gap Inc.
"Shanti/Ashtangi" is a Hindu Sanskrit prayer and up-tempo techno song, sung by Madonna with an Indian accent over a driving dance rhythm. The techno dance track features Madonna singing the adapted version of Shankaracharya entirely in Sanskrit, with lines such as "Vunde gurunam caranaravinde/Sandarsita svatma sukhavabodhe".
"Frozen", the ninth track and album's first single, is a mid-tempo electronic ballad which has a layered sound enhanced by synthesizers and strings. The song additionally contains ambient qualities, a moderate dance rhythm during the chorus and techno-influenced beats towards the end. Madonna's vocals throughout the song lack vibrato, and have drawn comparisons to medieval music. Lyrically, the song is about a cold and emotionless man; nevertheless, subtexts have been noticed. According to Jarman-Ivens, lyrics such as "You're frozen, when your heart's not open" reflected an artistic palette, "encompassing diverse musical, textual and visual styles in its lyrics." "To Have and Not to Hold" is about a distant lover and "Little Star" is about her daughter, Lourdes. Both are superficially vibrant but with underlying subtlety and restrained arrangements prevailing. "Mer Girl" the album's final track, is a surreal meditation on mortality and the death of Madonna's mother, in which she sings, "And I smelled her burning flesh/Her rotting bones, her decay/I ran and I ran/I'm still running away."
Upon its release, Ray of Light received widespread acclaim from music critics. Stephen Thomas Erlewine fromAllmusic called Ray of Light Madonna's "most adventurous record" and her "most mature and restrained album." In his review he gave the album four out of five stars. Paul Verna from Billboard commented: "Easily her most mature and personal work to date, Ray of Light finds Madonna weaving lyrics with the painstaking intimacy of diary entries and wrapping them in hymn-like melodies and instrumentation swathed in lush, melancholy ambience—with forays into classic house, trance, and even guitar pop. Of course, she balances the set's serious tone with chewy pop nuggets that allow her to flex her immeasurably widened vocal range to fine effect." He finished the review by calling the album "a deliciously adventurous, ultimately victorious effort from one of pop music's most compelling performers." Sal Cinquemani of Slant Magazine described the album as "one of the great pop masterpieces of the '90s" and stated that: "Its lyrics are uncomplicated but its statement is grand" and "Madonna hasn't been this emotionally candid since Like a Prayer". Sheffield's review for Rolling Stone was mostly positive, but he did point out the weak aspects of the album. Sheffield called the album "brilliant", but was critical of Orbit's production, saying that he doesn't know enough tricks to produce a whole album, and so becomes repetitive.
David Browne of Entertainment Weekly gave the album an A- stating "For all her grapplings with self-enlightenment, Madonna seems more relaxed and less contrived than she's been in years, from her new Italian earth-mother makeover to, especially, her music. Ray of Light is truly like a prayer, and you know she'll take you there." Roni Sarig, in a review for City Pages, was most impressed by Madonna's vocal range, depth, and clarity which had become stronger since her voice lessons for Evita and called Ray of Light "her richest, most accomplished record yet." Music critic Robert Hilburn from Los Angeles Times wrote, "One reason why her new 'Ray of Light' is the most satisfying album of her career is that it reflects the soul-searching of a woman who is at a point in her life where she can look at herself with surprising candor and perspective." Writing for Melody Maker in February 1998, Mark Roland drew comparisons with the music of St Etienne and Björk's Homogenic album, highlighting Ray of Light's lack of cynicism as its most positive aspect; "It's not an album turned on the lathe of cynical pop manipulation, rather it's been squished out of a lump of clay on a foot-powered wheel. Lovingly teased into life, "Ray Of Light" is like the ugly mug that doesn't match but is all the more special because of it." Joan Anderman from The Boston Globe said that Ray of Light is a remarkable album. He described it as a deeply spiritual dance record, ecstatically textured, a serious cycle of songs that goes a long way toward liberating Madonna from a career built on scavenged images and cultivated identities.
At the 41st Annual Grammy Awards, Ray of Light received four awards out of six nominations. The album won Best Pop Album and Best Recording Package, and was nominated for Album of the Year, while the title track won Best Dance Recording and Best Short Form Music Video, and was nominated for Record of the Year. The album gave Madonna her first musical Grammy of her career as previously she only won in the video category. Madonna also became the biggest winner of the 1998 MTV Video Music Awards, winning six awards from nine nominations. "Frozen" won Best Special Effects; "Ray of Light" won Best Choreography, Best Direction, Best Editing, Best Female Video and Video of the Year, and was also nominated for Best Cinematography, Best Dance Video and Breakthrough Video. American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP) honored Madonna two awards of Most Performed Song for "Frozen" and "Ray of Light" at the 1999 ASCAP Pop Music Awards, as well as Top Dance Song for "Ray of Light" at the 1999 ASCAP Rhythm & Soul Music Awards.
Ray of Light also gave Madonna several trophies from various international award shows—including two Danish Grammy Awards for Best International Album and Best International Female Vocalist from IFPI Denmark, a Fryderyk award for Best Foreign Album from Związek Producentów Audio Video (ZPAV) in Poland, a Golden Giraffe Award for International Pop Album of the Year from Mahasz in Hungary, two Porin awards for Best International Album and Best International Video ("Frozen") in Croatia, and two Rockbjörnen awards for Best International Album and Best International Artist in Sweden. In Canada, Madonna won Best International Video for "Ray of Light" at the 1999 MuchMusic Video Awards and was nominated for Best Selling Album (Foreign or Domestic) at the 1999 Juno Awards. Madonna also received Best Female and Best Album trophies at the 1998 MTV Europe Music Awards.