Tuesday, February 12, 2008

No. 363: Ray of Light

Band: Madonna
Album: Ray of Light
Why Rolling Stone gets it right: Madonna's most mature album was also her first that doesn't play to her own sexual and dating preferences. It was less than controversial and won many awards for her effort.
Why Rolling Stone gets it wrong: Despite her critics loving her voice, I still find it to be a little flat and ineffectual. Also, William Orbit's production gets repetitive towards the end of the record.
Best song: The title track is the most unlike the rest of the album and easily the most memorable. "Little Star" is the best of that type of songs.
Worst song: "Skin" stinks
Is it awesome?: I'd say no.

"Ray of Light" is an odd record. Madonna's constant shape-shifting is something of a signature, but usually came with a relatively poppy sound.

"Ray of Light," no doubt, has pop tendencies. Look no further than the title track for such tendencies. A dance hit of thumping bass and swirling effects, the song is upbeat and fun. Also, great video, based on Koyaanisqatsi.

But, most of the record isn't like that. The first single, "Frozen," directed by famed video director Chris Cunningham, was as confusing as the song itself. A slower, more electronic sound accompanied the single and Madonna sang more in a way that was to emphasize her newfound range.

The rest of the record reflects this. In "Swim," Madonna appears to fancy herself Portishead (she's not). In "Shanti/Ashtangi," she finds herself mixing her non-traditional religions up (I thought she was a Kabbalah person, personally).

Certainly, William Orbit's production is nice and interesting, but it isn't backed up by Madonna's voice. in fact, my biggest concern with the record is the overall confidence in Ms. Ciccione's vocal abilities. She has never had a strong voice and highlighting said voice leaves the listener hoping for it to fall into the background. She can't carry the song.


Dance music, like rock and roll, is a young person's game. Madonna was 40 years old when "Ray of Light" came out. No amount of yoga is going to keep someone young forever and Madonna's persona -- sexy, certainly, fun and passionate -- was about youth.

As 1999 approached, Britney Spears released her first album and a new generation of pop stars was coming up through the ranks. Hip hop was the new music of the youth and, quite simply, Madonna couldn't keep up well.

She decided to, once again, reinvent herself. It works well on this record, but Madonna's old musical style (amped-up dance music) worked for her voice because her voice didn't have to carry the song. On this record, it was supposed to do that and it didn't. That's a shame. Under a better singer's care, this could be a classic. Instead, it's a pretty good William Orbit record with a mediocre singer.

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