Certain Songs #1072: Madonna – “Ray of Light”

Album: Ray of Light
Year: 1998

I’m obviously not to be trusted on this subject, but not only do I think that “Ray of Light” is Madonna’s greatest song — over 15 years into her career! — it’s one of the greatest songs of the 1990s, if not the whole 20th fucking century.

A mongrel mashup of pop, rock, and techno (and you might notice some sneaky trip-hop beats snuck in there as well), “Ray of Light” sounds like it was beamed in from the 25th century. The good parts of the 25th century.

But back in the early part of last decade of the 20th century, Madonna had somehow been able to accelerate her takeover of, well, everything. Dick Tracy. The Immaculate Collection. “Vogue.” Truth or Dare. Sex. A League of Their Own. Bedtime Stories. Evita.

It got to the point where I could walk into a public place like Ragin’ Records and there would be a book called Madonna Nudes — featuring a topless Madonna on the cover — for sale in the window. And nobody was really bothered.

I enjoyed some of it — The Immaculate Collection was a killer batch of singles, Truth or Dare was an entertaining documentary, and Sex was as funny as it was dirty — but wasn’t blown away by any of it.

So being blown away by “Ray of Light” was a complete and utter shock.

Like most Madonna songs, I was introduced to “Ray of Light” via its video, and even while being impressed by the hyperbolic Koyaanisqatsi-ish dislocation induced by that video, I was completely freaked out by how I instantly and deeply loved the song

And I feel like I just got home
And I feel
And I feel like I just got home
And I feel

And seriously, what’s not to love: William Orbit’s synth blasts are ever hallucinatory and catchy as all shit; the beat scissors through the song, and there’s something new going on at every single turn. Electric piano and organ over there, jangly guitar over here, and meteors of sound streaking through the sky at every turn.

Quicker than a ray of light
Quicker than a ray of light
Quicker than a ray of light

And Madonna sings the ever-living fuck out of this song. If a key part of Madonna’s brand has always been how deeply and firmly she’s in control of, well, everything, then “Ray of Light” is the sound of her going off-brand, and straining vainly to get back on.

And during the breakdown parts, she’s fine, but every time the beats kick in, you can hear her struggle, and it’s amazing to hear, especially when she just lets go with a wail.

It all adds up to a song that always makes my drive a little faster and crank the volume a little (ok, a lot) higher every time it comes up in the mix.

“Ray of Light”

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