Day 3 finds us back in 1973 once again with Aladdin Sane, David Bowie’s followup to his breakthrough album The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars. I admit that I had a difficult time choosing which Bowie record to feature first, so I went with the iconic lightning bolt cover. Aladdin Sane was the first album of his to really capture my attention, featuring The Jean Genie, Panic In Detroit, Watch That Man, and the title song, with the insane Mike Garson atonal piano solo. Mick Ronson played some killer hard rock ’70’s guitar all over the record, and Bowie’s voice was in magnificent form from beginning to end. I’m quite sure there will be several more David Bowie releases featured before the year is complete!

Written By Braddon S. Williams

“Influences and Recollections of a Musical Mind!”

Day 2 in my year-long odyssey of influential albums takes us to the year 1973 and the album Over-nite Sensation by Frank Zappa & The Mothers Of Invention. It actually took me a few years to discover this one, but an upperclassman with a car (and an 8 track player!) demanded that my friends and I ride around out in the country and discover the joy of Zappa while partying on the weekend. Of course, my mind was blown away by this brilliant, irreverent and astonishing display of musical madness concocted by the genius of Frank Zappa. As a budding guitarist at the time, I was on board for Frank’s incredible playing and tone as a master of the electric guitar, but his entire band were just a well oiled machine capable of the most intricate time signatures and complex song structures, yet simultaneously funky and fun throughout the seven often hilarious tunes on this album. I became a fan on the strength of this particular record and will continue to worship at the altar of Zappa until my dying day!

Written By: Braddon S. Williams

“Influences and Recollections of a Musical Mind!”

I am beginning a year-long process of musical recollections, one album per day, no chronological order or rhyme or reason…just records that I have listened to throughout the years and been influenced by. Some will be cutting edge current, others classic well known and obvious choices. Physical Graffiti by Led Zeppelin seems as good a place to start as any…I was 13 years old at the time this was released in 1975. Back then, music fans discovered new releases by reading magazines such as Creem, Circus, Rolling Stone and Hit Parader to gather info about upcoming projects. Zeppelin had taken a year off to prepare this masterpiece and the resulting double album was full of incredible new material, including Ten Years Gone, Kashmir, In The Light, The Rover, and Trampled Underfoot. I still consider Physical Graffiti one of their best and it remains a testament to the mysterious and magical entity known as Led Zeppelin.

By: Braddon S. Williams

“Influences and Recollections of a Musical Mind!”

By: A.A. Dowd, Sean O’ Neil, Katie Rife, & Lily Moayeri

A Perfect Circle’s belated Eat The Elephant is more whimper than bang, while the Melvins’ acid-drenched Pinkus Abortion Technician doubles the bass, and Exitmusic dissolves with the exhausting but honest The Recognitions. These, plus Sting & Shaggy and Alexis Taylor in this week’s notable new releases.

Exitmusic, The Recognitions

[Felte]
Grade: B

Aleksa Palladino’s voice has a husky, slurring quality that suggests Beach House’s Victoria Legrand coming off an all-night crying jag. Palladino’s a good actor—you may have caught her on Halt And Catch Fire or Boardwalk Empire—but the drama on The Recognitions is real, capturing her conscious uncoupling from husband and musical partner Devon Church. As Exitmusic, the duo have channeled their romance into three intensely emotive albums and an EP now, and Recognitions documents their dissolution—quite literally on “Iowa,” in which Palladino sings of the mystical vision she had that inspired their separation while she was filming in the titular state. The songs here seethe with tension and regret, as Church rings Palladino’s operatic tremors with curlicues of reverb, churchly strings, and ominous electronic atmospheres—giving them a noisy, aggressive heft on “Criminal,” and delving into glitchy, witch-house textures on “To The Depths.” Like listening to a couple endlessly rehash how their mutual breakup gave them a new spiritual peace, it all gets a bit exhausting, but it never feels anything less than authentic.

RIYL: Beach House. Austra. EMA. Journaling. Couples therapy.

Start here: “I’ll Never Know” is the album’s most cathartic moment, a slow progression of hazy, breathy synth pop that builds to an anthemic chorus of “I’ll never know you” that’s somehow both mournful and liberating. [Sean O’Neal]

A Perfect Circle, Eat The Elephant

[BMG]
Grade: C+

“Fuck the new, you’re on your own,” Maynard James Keenan snarls on “The Doomed.” He’s right to be mad: The world is in worse shape than it was 14 years ago, when the peeved Tool frontman last joined forces with A Perfect Circle mastermind and multi-instrumentalist Billy Howerdel. Brief outburst aside, however, most of the belated Eat The Elephant sounds more resigned than incensed. While the lyrics read like a laundry list of modern ills, from checking out through technology to thoughts-and-prayers platitudes, the music itself settles for a defeated lull, subbing out slashing alt rock for ambling, sedated piano balladry, plus at least one peculiar blast of ironic pop in “So Long, And Thanks For All The Fish.” That nothing here much resembles the band’s heyday hits is theoretically admirable; this is not the work of a lazy nostalgia act. But as end-of-the-world music goes, it’s more whimper than bang. Where’s that seething anger when we really need it, Maynard? We are on our own, aren’t we?

RIYL: Antidepressant comas. Not-crunchy radio rock—again, most of these songs are a far cry from “The Hollow” or “The Outsider.”

Start here: Although it’s a far cry from the band’s signature racket, the opening, title track happens to be the album’s highlight: a pretty, crooning lullaby that stretches Maynard’s famous pipes in a surprisingly lovely new direction. [A.A. Dowd]

Melvins, Pinkus Abortion Technician

[Ipecac Recordings]
Grade: B-

Melvins cut loose on Pinkus Abortion Technician, the band’s new album with Butthole Surfers bassist Jeff Pinkus. As implied by its title, Pinkus Abortion Technician nods to Pinkus’ other acid-drenched outfit throughout, opening with a glam-grunge medley of the Surfers’ “Moving To Florida” and James Gang’s “Stop,” and closing with a cover of “Grave Yard,” which takes advantage of the floorboard-rattling possibilities of adding a second bass player to the mix. A wanton, off-the-cuff feel dominates as Melvins take a musical trip through various decades and influences, from ’70s power chords (“Break Bread”) to old-school ’80s punk blast (“Embrace The Rub”) to a predictably irreverent but still catchy cover of the Beatles’ “I Want To Hold Your Hand.” Melvins frontman Buzz Osborne says in the album announcement that Pinkus Abortion Technician was “a stone groove to record,” a statement that accurately describes both its heavy-psych sound and “jamming in the garage” vibe.

RIYL: Complaining that the acid was better in the ’90s. Keeping Austin weird. Afternoons in the large-mammal room at the natural history museum.

Start here: The bottom-heavy promise of a dual bass attack is most fully fulfilled on “Don’t Forget To Breathe,” a nod-along mid-tempo number that clocks in at almost eight minutes and incorporates steel drums and raspy harmonies along with intergalactic guitars and that waddling, 3,000-pound bass line. [Katie Rife]

Sting & Shaggy, 44/876

[A&M/Interscope]
Grade: D

“The most important thing to me in any kind of music is surprise,” Sting told Rolling Stone about collaborating with dancehall crossover Shaggy. It’s true: It’s surprising anyone would make or listen to this, when there’s literally 50 years of reggae music to choose from, yet here we are. 44/876 refers to the worlds-colliding country codes of Sting’s England and Shaggy’s Jamaica, though it’s not that unlikely a pairing. Sting’s offered a politely weak-tea version of reggae for decades, and here he cranks up his faux-Jamaican patois to pledge that “the ghost of Bob Marley / Haunts me to this day”—Marley’s spirit doomed to walk the earth, moaning for Sting to knock it off—all while Mr. Boombastic lends his baritone big-ups to the duo’s slick, beachfront-condo vibes. Perhaps the only shocker is that this Tommy Bahama shirt of an album isn’t even fun to laugh at. Sure, Sting drops awkward reference to “my good friend, Shaggy.” “Just One Lifetime” reggae-fies Lewis Carroll’s “The Walrus And The Carpenter.” One track is called, with no apparent self-awareness, “Sad Trombone.” (It’s about a sad trombonist.) But mostly, 44/876 is just unremarkable, limply competent reggae lite, designed for Sandals resort lobbies and Sting’s office.

RIYL: Bob Marley posters. Malibu Rum. Gently skanking. Rasta-fying things by 10 percent or so. Being employed by Sting.

Start here: The perfectly fine “Don’t Make Me Wait” puts out the kind of smooth, sexy-brunch vibe that Sting is pretty sure you’re gonna wanna fuck to, and maybe that’ll distract you from finishing the album. [Sean O’Neal]

Alexis Taylor, Beautiful Thing

[Domino Recording Co.]
Grade: C

Hot Chip frontman Alexis Taylor may be physically small, but his musical reach is great. Downtime from his day job is filled with an array of other music-driven pursuits, the latest being Beautiful Thing, his fourth solo album. The polar opposite of 2016’s exceedingly quiet Piano, Beautiful Thing is an eclectic combination of ups and downs. From shuddering rhythms to ambient bubbles, tinkling keys to clubby beats, Beautiful Thing’s zigzagging moods could partly be attributed to its producer, DFA Records’ Tim Goldsworthy. This is the first time Taylor has worked with an outside producer on his solo work, a smart move considering he tends to get bogged down and repetitive in his own arty ideas. But yo-yoing of tempos and moods aside, whether it is on the stripped-down “A Hit Song” or the jerky, David Byrne-esque “Oh Baby,” Taylor sounds pretty emotional, a sadness underscoring his signature vocals throughout.

RIYL: Early-morning chill sessions after a hard night of warehouse partying. Joe Goddard’s Electric Lines. Jamie xx’s In Colour.

Start here: The rave-up title track is a good example of the album’s dancier moments, building to an especially catchy retro-futurist house-piano progression. [Lily Moayeri]

A Perfect Circle, Sting, Shaggy & More Albums You Should Know About This Week

It’s different in other ways: though Tom Allom – who oversaw their breakthrough albums – returns as co-producer, he’s joined by Andy Sneap, and the result is an album whose sound is far thicker and richer than British Steel or Stained Class. Sometimes the updates are intrusive – the double kick-drums slathered across the first three tracks might be meant to be reminiscent of Exciter, but they’re so overbearing they start to irritate. But by and large it’s all done tastefully enough (if tasteful is the right word for a track like Necromancer, with its none-more-14-year-old boy lyrics: “Raising the dead! Cadavers consumed!”).

Firepower’s success depends on the songwriting, though, and that’s pretty strong. At 14 songs, there is inevitably some sag – neither Rising from Ruins nor Sea of Red achieve the windswept epicry they are striving for – but the riffs are strong, choppy, hooky and powerful: Traitor’s Gate has one that James Hetfield would have killed for, even 30 years ago. Of course, Firepower could never sound as revolutionary as Priest did when they were codifying metal 40 years ago, but it’s often excellent. If only they’d release the Stock, Aitken and Waterman sessions now, eh?

Judas Priest: Firepower review – toned-down riffs never lower the tone

Re-posted From Pitchfork

Each Sunday, Pitchfork takes an in-depth look at a significant album from the past, and any record not in our archives is eligible. Today, we explore Scarface’s deathly personal 1994 solo album.

There is the fact of rivers—how when water falls, they can only hold so much of their kin close to their bodies before they open their arms and let the waters run free into somewhere, anywhere. The San Jacinto River in Houston is no different. On October 15th, 1994, a series of unique meteorological events joined hands before heading towards Houston, causing the largest rain event in the city’s history. On the west and east banks of the San Jacinto, the waters rose and spilled over. The city of Houston got almost a foot of water, which was mild compared to surrounding areas. Upper Cypress Creek, Spring Creek, and Lake Creek were all subject to endless rainfall, with the flood claiming 17 lives and shutting down Houston and surrounding cities for days. More rivers and creeks swelled, forcing people from their homes, or to the tops of buildings. Children went missing and others drowned.

For anyone who has been through a vicious cycle of weather, it is known that there is a calm directly after the storm, too. To talk about the calm which comes after a turbulent moment makes for a less romantic cliche. The calm after the storm is the one that is eerie. There is ruin, and a cloud of silence—more about a confirmation of what has happened than a signaling of what is coming. It’s the difference between someone might not survive this and there are people to be buried now.

On October 18th, as the rains persisted but weakened, Scarface released his third album, The Diary, into a world where no one in his home city could safely get to the store and hold it in their hands.

If you are going to be a writer who writes about death, I only ask that you honor the fullness of loss and the space left by loss. Rather, that you cut through the mess and define death not only by the person but by the people who perhaps loved that person and by the people who sit in that person’s old room, dressed in their old clothes. Scarface is a writer who writes about death, and by 1994, the rapper born Brad Jordan was figuring out the type of solo artist he could be for years to come. His first two solo albums outside of his success with the underground Houston rap group Geto Boys—1991’s Mr. Scarface Is Back and 1993’s The World Is Yours—were both critical and commercial hits, casting him slightly outside of his group and making him a viable solo star.

By 1994, Scarface was in a position to capitalize off of his momentum while also asking his existing audience to grow with him. His work with the Geto Boys was often steeped in a dark vulnerability. Scarface battled with depression his whole life, even attempting suicide in his youth. While his first two solo efforts had glimpses of this, both albums felt more like a collection of the best songs he could make at the time, without any thought of single narrative structure. The Diary set out to be different.

First, the sonic landscape changed. Though The Diary was only made a year out from his last album, the sound of rap was shifting rapidly in the early ’90s. Sample laws had come into play, cracking down on the uses of other people’s music in rap songs, and forcing producers to figure out new tactics after skating on lax rules through the late ’80s and the first two years of the ’90s. Additionally, Dr. Dre and Death Row Records had cemented their sound with the releases of The Chronic and Doggystyle, introducing a more laid back instrumentation, crafted with live, in-studio musicians re-creating sounds that might have otherwise been lifted from soul and funk samples, like James Brown or Motown records. The first two Scarface albums were frantic, sample-heavy, and brilliant, but a shift in tone was needed. At only 24, Scarface was building towards the rapper he wanted to be for an entire career. His anger, paranoia, and obsession with unraveling a life lost is a common thread throughout his work, but on The Diary, he made the themes palpable and heavy.

I imagine it’s difficult to write about death as something you endure and something you are willing to deliver to others in equal measure. What makes The Diary fascinating is that Scarface raps comfortably about killing with what appears to be little or no remorse, but the difficulty appears in the nuances. On the album’s proper opening track, “The White Sheet,” Scarface outlines visions of gunning down his enemies, in great detail. Still, it must be said that in all music, there is the difference between glorifying murder and using the tools and imagery of murder as a way to present your fearlessness. It’s all a means of survival of wherever it is you come from.

Scarface dragged a razor blade across his wrists when he was 14 years old because he wanted to die, or at least wanted to escape a darkness which felt endless. The thing about surviving an attempt to take your own life is that it is often framed as a failure, on the other side of which is your responsibility to continue to endure living. I am mostly saying that Scarface has his own relationship with death. Yes, he grew up poor and black and among violence. Yes, he knew what it was to kill as a survival tactic, but he also nearly couldn’t find his way to surviving himself. When Scarface raps about killing, it is with a fine lens, with nuance and haunting detail. On “The White Sheet,” he raps about visualizing the mother of someone he’s killed, crying in a hospital waiting room. It is a small detail—one he drops in before quickly jumping to the next image—but it is lasting and haunting. Even in violence, his scope is on the impact it leaves.

The Diary has its tropes, of course: The song about a sexual encounter (“One”), the song about misconceptions of rap in the mainstream media, which ticked up as rap began to seem like less and less of a passing fad (“Hand of the Dead Body”). But its two most interesting tracks are “Mind Playin’ Tricks ’94” and “I Seen A Man Die.”

The former is a retread of the Geto Boys song of the same name from just three years earlier. But with Scarface alone on it, he stretches out the idea of his failures, flaws, and the survival of both. What ties all of this together is Scarface’s voice. It, like him, walks a multi-layered line. His voice is a fashioned brass instrument, a horn played by a rusty but enthusiastic student. He bellows like a hustler turned preacher, or a preacher turned hustler, or anyone familiar with the corner and the pulpit in equal measure. He has a voice that commands attention, which allows him to unfurl his narratives patiently, with the full ears of any listener. His voice particularly hums at a good rhythm on this album, blending in under the bass lines and the waves of drums. It becomes a function of the album’s movements and darkness, in concert with the music itself:

Sometimes I want to end it but I don’t though

They tell me see my pastor but I don’t go

Sometimes being alive is not, alone, worth celebrating. That sounds harsh, but depression is real and worth the weight it rests on the body. I have always appreciated Scarface most in these moments: how he comes to terms with still being alive, despite not wanting to. It’s raw and unfiltered. I’m here, but you can’t make me be excited about it some days, although I’m trying.

“I Seen a Man Die,” the album’s centerpiece, consists of a narrative arc which involves Scarface detailing a person’s failed rehab stint. First, Scarface takes on the role as a storyteller, guiding the listener through a man’s final days. And then, he almost hovers above the song, a ghost himself, shepherding the dead to whatever waits beyond. He goes from the interior of the man’s life, to narrating the end by honing in on all of the small parts of life exiting the body.

I hear you breathin’ but your heart no longer sounds strong

But you kinda scared of dying so you hold on

And you keep on blacking out and your pulse is low

Stop trying to fight the reaper, just relax and let it go

The subtlety in this is the shift of view: in the first verse, Scarface is using the “he” to address the man’s life, as an entry point. By the time the last verse pops up, Scarface has become more intimate, shortening the emotional distance by addressing the man directly with “you,” understanding that the “you” could be anyone we know, or love, or could us. It is a small move, something that only a writer would pull off. Taking a listener from a specific experience to a universal pain that they, themselves, could be a part of.

There is much to be made of how Scarface rendered himself more emotionally vulnerable than people gave him credit for being, despite his open-book approach to writing rhymes. The song is the one on the album where the stakes are raised. There is a defined character, and one must grapple with his leaving.

Scarface has said about The Diary that he wanted to make an album for the people he grew up with in Houston, and I think that this is one of the ultimate goals of a creator who is from a place where a lot of people don’t make it out with an ability to create. You want to make something legible, or touchable for your people, and their people, and the people who didn’t survive. So much of Scarface’s work, particularly after The Diary, feels like it exists so that he, himself, can stay alive a little bit longer, or at least so that he can archive a life that wasn’t always promised. J Prince, the head of Rap-A-Lot Records, told Scarface that there was a ghetto in every city, and therefore, he had to make an album that would resonate in the ghettos of every city. At that point, Houston wasn’t an unknown commodity in rap, but it wasn’t New York or Los Angeles. People had to listen to the lyrics and envision the sprawl, skyscrapers and hot open roads inside of it, and see themselves in it.

This is why The Diary trades so richly on pain and despair with no light at the end of it. I appreciate an honesty which doesn’t offer light at the end of the tunnel, and so it is refreshing to hear a meditation on ideas about darkness and the promise of more, particularly if it is all you have ever known. Every ghetto isn’t the same, but Scarface seemed to know that the missing link in all of these ghettos was conversations about the frightening nature of how to survive them. What was being offered on The Diary was a mental escape route. Someone reaching out two hands and telling you they are ready to catch you if you jump, even if they can’t save you from the large cloud of despair, they can pull you closer to them so that you’re not alone in your ruin.

There was water again in Houston in 2017. Hurricane Harvey tore through the city in mid-late August and early September. The damage was focused on Houston this time. There were 88 deaths directly associated with the hurricane, and 125 billion dollars in damage. When the hurricane hit, Scarface was in his home, just outside of the city. He’d decided to ride out the storm, despite warnings for residents to leave if they could. His home lost power, but was largely unharmed.

The calm after the storm exists, but it’s mostly to shine a light on what has been lost. To call attention to those who didn’t survive, and to push those who did survive to rebuild, even if they don’t feel like they want to go on. Some people sent money from afar and watched the city try to build itself back up before the news cycle zoomed away from it. Some people went to put feet on the ground. Houston is a resilient city, one that has survived more than one drowning. Though it shouldn’t have to wear that resilience as a badge of honor, of course, it does.

Scarface has built a life and career off of resilience. He has not wanted to be alive and then has lived. He has made and remade a career off of an honesty which isn’t necessarily optimistic but remains inviting nonetheless. And so, it makes sense that he is one of Houston’s most notable rappers, the one who is still proud to be there, who still makes music for his people as if he is building a place for them to survive and survive again. The Diary reflects the promise of an imperfect place, and the perils of living inside of it and wanting to stay, despite. A place not necessarily better, but needed, nonetheless.

Scarface The Diary

Inspired by motherhood and yoga, the icon reinvented herself on her most passionate album to date

By: Rob Scheffield via Rolling Stone

Happy birthday to Ray of Light, the masterwork that introduced the world to Cosmic Psychedelic Madonna, 20 years ago this week. Ray of Light was the queen’s first proper album in four years, dropping on March 3rd, 1998, a week after she unveiled her new sound with the single “Frozen.” It was Madonna’s motherhood album, after giving birth to daughter Lourdes. It was her avant-techno move, with U.K. producer William Orbit. It was her spiritual-awakening statement. But Ray of Light holds up as her most soulful and passionate music ever – a libido-crazed disco-hippie mom pushing 40 and proud of it, flaunting her artiest emotional extremes. As “Ray of Light” boomed out of radios all year, with Madonna chanting her mantra – “And I feeeel! And I feeeel!” – she seemed to be feeling twice as hard as everyone else.

By all rights, Ray of Light should have been a pretentious disaster. Yet it turned out to be a new peak, setting Ms. Ciccone off on a glorious four-year run: the 1999 single “Beautiful Stranger,” the 2000 album Music, the 2001 Drowned World Tour. If you’re the kind of fan who reveres her as a musician first, not a celebrity, this was the hot streak of her life. You could compare it to Elvis Presley’s mature phase with the ’68 Comeback Special and From Elvis in Memphis. Except at 42, Elvis was dead, while Madonna was just gearing up for her next phase, where she discovered Kabbalah, converted to Judaism and started asking people to call her “Esther.” Never say she isn’t ecumenical.

Ray of Light is easily the most intense pop album ever made by a 39-year-old – Madonna spends these songs celebrating her newborn daughter, mourning her long-lost mother and reckoning with her messed-up adult self. She also contemplates her newfound Lilith Fair–era consciousness, going off about karma and yoga. As she explained in Billboard, “I feel like I’ve been enlightened, and that it’s my responsibility to share what I’ve learned so far with the world.” Ominous words from any pop star, let alone this one. But she made it feel mighty real. (Like another album we all loved in 1998: Hello Nasty, a spiritual manifesto from the opening act on her first tour, the Beastie Boys.) Even those of us who’d devoted our lives to worshipping Madonna weren’t prepared for an album this great.

Strange as it seems now, people back then were mildly obsessive about the idea of Madonna being “over.” Predicting the end of her career was a weirdly popular Nineties fad, like swing dancing or psychic hotlines. The semi-monthly “is she finally done?” debate kicked up every time she did something ridiculous, which she did all the damn time, from her poetic musings in the Sex book (“My pussy is the temple of learning”) to her erotic thriller Body of Evidence, where she played a serial killer who specialized in humping men to death. The U.K. music mag Melody Maker, for its 1992 year-in-review issue, polled experts on the year’s big question: Has Madonna turned into a pathetic exhibitionist? The wisest answer came from (of all people) Right Said Fred’s lead singer: “Being an exhibitionist is only pathetic when nobody’s watching you.”

The queen kept expanding her sound – the Babyface collabo “Take a Bow” spent seven weeks at Number One in 1995. She also did vocal training for the Evita soundtrack. (Count me among the fans who thinks Babyface taught her a hell of a lot more about singing than Andrew Lloyd Webber did.) But it was still considered exotic to take Madonna seriously for her music, rather than her image. It took Ray of Light to change that.

Her producer William Orbit had just worked wonders with U.K. ingenue Beth Orton, on her classic folkie-techno debut Trailer Park. Madonna playfully renamed herself “Veronica Electronica,” throwing in lots of what she and Orbit called “teenage-angst guitars.” They set the tone in the opening ballad, an emotional powerhouse called “Drowned World/Substitute for Love.” There’s too many gimmicks in the mix: moody electro bleeps, wind chimes, sitar, drum ‘n’ bass snare rattles, Sixties string samples, a very 1998-sounding vibraphone. Yet it never feels crowded or contrived – Madonna gives herself room to breathe deep, as she sings about letting go of the past and moving on. She keeps looping back to a mantra from John Lennon: “Now I find I’ve changed my mind.” (The Beatles’ “Help,” where John confessed his adult despair, was the perfect song to echo here.) When the rock guitar kicks in, at the three-minute point, it hits like a moment of pure serenity.

The goth power ballad “Frozen” was the first hit, but “Ray of Light” was the one that really summed up the new Madonna in one big kundalini disco rush. It came from the same place as the Talking Heads’ similarly titled Remain in Light, about how the world moves on a woman’s hips. The album’s premise was trip-hop, as we called it then – the moody electro-funk sound perfected by Massive Attack, whose mind-freak opus Mezzanine dropped around the same time. (She’d worked with them in 1995 – a bluer-than-blue cover of Marvin Gaye’s “I Want You.”) I interviewed Massive Attack in March 1998, right after Ray came out, and naively asked if they’d noticed how much it sounded like them. Yes, in fact, they noticed. As Daddy G cheerfully told me, “I put on that first track and said, ‘Here we go again.'”

The music is full of odd hooks – the Moroccan ghaita of “Swim,” the bossa nova of “To Have and Not to Hold,” the Britpop guitar in “Ray of Light.” She makes the Sanskrit chant “Shanti/Ashtangi” sound like Devo’s version of “Working in a Coal Mine.” In “Sky Fits Heaven,” she takes her sacred text from a Gap ad – the iconic TV spot starring bartender/poet Max Blagg and Twin Peaks siren Madchen Amick: “The sky fits heaven, so ride it!” (She even cut Blagg in on the credits.) And her spiritual pretensions were ripe for mockery – hence the brilliant parody in the Drew Barrymore flick Music and Lyrics, where the pop star shares her “Buddhism-in-a-thong philosophy.”

Ray of Light sounds like an anthology of “only in the Nineties” ideas, from its coffeehouse-techno vibe to the whole notion of seeking mystic wisdom from a Gap ad. Yet the most Nineties thing about it is the way Madonna assumes you’ll put in the time the music demands. It’s pop designed to unfold over time, from an artist serenely confident her listeners will pay attention. If Ray of Light came out now, it would get dismissive Friday-morning quickie reviews listing the flaws of her latest rollout strategy. But because people still paid for their music in 1998, people really did put in the time to absorb it. Buying an album was an emotional commitment – walking into the store, plucking the CD off the rack, taking it into your home. You gave it a few chances before you gave up. So people stuck with Ray of Light, even if they initially laughed at it.

She picked the right moment to swerve hard into adulthood, just as a new crop of teen stars was rising. By the end of 1998, MTV’s newest star was a young Madonna fan named Britney Spears. Madonna kept tarting up the psychedelia with her bizarre 1999 paisley-disco hit “Beautiful Stranger,” from the soundtrack of Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me. It’s Madonna at her most breezily seductive, not to mention her funniest. (It’s also a righteous salute to then-incarcerated black hippie pioneer Arthur Lee and his band Love, goosing their 1966 flower-child classic “She Comes in Colors.”) Music was equally masterful, except now she was into line-dancing and cowgirl hats. Yet Ray of Light still stands apart in Madonna’s career. After 20 years of heavy listening, it remains the album of a lifetime.

Madonna’s ‘Ray of Light’ at 20: Celebrating Her Psychedelic Masterwork