19 – Madonna – Ray of Light
At the end of “Drowned World/Substitute for Love,” the meditative opening track of Ray of Light, Madonna utters some of the most powerful words a woman can declare: “I’ve changed my mind.” She had spent the early ’90s pushing the envelope on sexual taboos before cooling off with the tasteful R&B album Bedtime Stories, returning four years later as a new mother on the brink of 40, spiritual and self-actualized. It was one of the most shocking things Madonna could have done.
Though Ray of Light took pop soul-searching to new heights, the album’s palette of understated techno and electronica furthered Madonna’s longtime M.O.: From the start of her career, she had been attuned to the undercurrents of club music, finding ways to incorporate trending subgenres into mainstream pop (for better or worse). With the help of under-the-radar electronic producer William Orbit, Madonna steered clear of new age clichés (with the exception of the Sanskrit yoga chants on “Shanti/Ashtangi”) and made a record that still sounds stylish and forward-thinking. The title track wasn’t just one of Madonna’s best singles to date, but also a hedonistic cheat-sheet for clean-living, self-helping ravers to come. As for the darker end of introspection, Madonna offered up a handful of striking songs about the complicated nature of motherhood in “Frozen” and “Nothing Really Matters.” She never lets listeners forget that she’s seen it all, but it doesn’t mean she still can’t be stunned and humbled by life itself. –Jillian Mapes
Listen: Madonna, “Nothing Really Matters”