1000 Albums Project

ALBUM 295

Ray of Light, by Madonna
Suggested by Owen Pauling

At the turn of the century, some people got their music from Napster.

Napster was an online peer-to-peer file sharing system which allowed the passing of file content – notably music MP3s – between its users. Someone in Arkansas might have Millennium by Robbie Williams. Someone in Mogadishu might desire it. Through Napster, Mogadishu Mike would be bopping to the Robster in seconds flat, thanks to Arkansas Annie.

Sure, it was copyrighted material. Downloading this way wasn’t ethical. Or legal. Or even fun. But it was easy, and it was strangely addicting.

At the time, I worked for a guy called Ben, who was the best kind of odd. For some reason, we decided one day to create a file that every Napster user on the planet would clamour to download. There was no reason, other than minor league trolling to waste everyone’s time. We created a fake file, and let it loose.

In order to hook people, the file needed a desirable name. We called it “BRITNEY_MADONNA_DUET_HIT_ME_BABY_ONE_MORE_TIME.mp3”, as Britney was in her pomp and Madonna was Madonna. We recorded ourselves in character – I was a weirdly deep-voiced Madonna – and butchered a few bars of the song before creasing with laugher.

We didn’t go viral. We got a few hundred downloads before the critical mass of downvotes tanked the project. Our sock puppet account shouldered much vitriol, to our merriment. My favourite review said simply “two bellends.” I may use that if I’m ever Randomised The Proclaimers.

We chose Madonna because she was, at the time, the Queen of Pop. Her name had cache, and arguably still holds weight today. Perhaps her greatest strength is constant reinvention, of which 1998’s Ray of Light is a fine example.

Produced with William Orbit, this Grammy-winning electronica / dance record is a heddy mix of styles. It’s ambient in places, thumping in others, incorporating techno, trip-hop, Eastern music and more. There’s a lot to unpack and enjoy. But there’s also a lot to smash with tiny hammers.

Let’s start with positives. Madonna’s vocal is a step up from her previous work, offering a full-bodied sound that’s richer than her previously reediness. This is apparent on the emotional tracks such as The Power of Goodbye and the classical-inspired cinematic Frozen.  The title track, my standout, is an excellently rhythmic dance track that’s both light and restrained, yet pulsing with a heartfelt energy. Another contender is the drum-and-bass throbbing Sky Fits Heaven.

The Negatives? To start, the first two tracks – Drowned World and Swim – sound as though they were recorded underwater. In fact, the whole album is muted in this sense, lacking an immediacy that I think would create a much-needed urgency in places. It’s a design choice for sure, but one that I’d question. The ambient plink is a little too prevalent, and the stapled-on Spirituality Lite that’s rife throughout is a little condescending. Shanti / Ashtangi is so earnestly tone-deaf it may as well be Aldous Snow’s African Child.

Ray of Light gets 5/10. Its peaks aren’t particularly peaky, and its troughs aren’t particularly troughy. While there are some interesting tracks, I found all a little dull. This Ray of Light did not shine as brightly as I’d hoped.

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