Wednesday 23 January 2019

'Ray of Light': 20 years and still brilliant

Madonna's Ray of Light is 20 years old
Madonna's Ray of Light is 20 years old
Ian O'Doherty

Ian O'Doherty

Bear with me on the nostalgia trip, but bad weather tends to bring that out in the best of us. And even the rest of us.

At a time when it seems like we are only ever reminded of an artist's former greatness because they have died, there is something both reassuring and depressing when it's merely the anniversary of an album release that makes you feel old.

But Ray of Light, which is 20 years old this week, is no ordinary album.

It is, quite frankly, one of the greatest and most important collections of music of the last few decades.

It's easy to mock Madonna (above), of course. God knows, she makes it easy enough. Whether it was her adopting a ludicrous upper-class English accent when she was married to Guy Ritchie (the fact that she had to tell us that it was an upper-class English accent shows how bad it was), or trying to get down with the kids by shouting 'Molly' at gigs, or wearing those stupid but very expensive gum shields, dear old Madge has spent much of the last decade being pop music's embarrassing Ma you wish would stop coming on to your mates.

But there was a time when she was quite simply the most vital, inventive and important female voice in music.

Ray of Light cemented her place in the history books and while it has been largely forgotten in recent years, it's one I still turn to on a regular basis.

Decades later, it has the power to reduce any music fan to stunned silence.

But as brilliant as that album is, it retains a particular historical relevance because it was one of the last snapshots of brilliance from a music industry that was about to change forever.

After Ray of Light came out, blew everyone away, inspired the likes of All Saints and even white-boy rockers like Blur, it was quickly supplanted by the likes of Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera.

Napster was replacing traditional record companies. Social media was replacing actual media and all of a sudden, the most important woman in music was desperately trying to play catch up.

For a woman who had been the best musical magpie in the business, this was a difficult transition to make and, while her next two albums were pretty good, this was the last, perhaps the only time, she could be genuinely called great. But what greatness.

Apart from anything else, Madonna was a woman in charge. Nobody's victim, she was the boss in everything she did and, actually, you could argue that there has been no female performer like her since - with the exception of Taylor Swift, who combines her predecessor's sense of control with an ear for a hook.

The snow is falling, Ray of Light is playing on my stereo. All is good in the world. Thank you, Madonna.

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