The song was nominated for three Grammy Awards; for Record of the Year, Best Dance Recording, and Best Short Form Music Video, winning the last two.
"Ray of Light" was Madonna's highest debuting single at number five on the Billboard Hot 100, for the issue dated July 11, 1998. It was her highest-debuting single, surpassing previous best debuts with "You'll See" (1995) and "Frozen" (1998), both of which opened at number eight.
The track became the singer's then 37th top-40 hit, moving her past Connie Francis on the list of women with most top-40 chartings on Hot 100.
"Ray of Light" was present for a total of 20 weeks on the Hot 100, and placed at number 75 on the year-end chart.
The song was included on the compilation albums GHV2 (2001) and Celebration (2009).
"Ray of Light" is based on Curtiss Maldoon's "Sepheryn" and is an electronic dance song with techno, trance, Eurodance, and disco influences.
"Ray of Light" consists of a main synth sound oscillating on the primary musical note, and an electric guitar riff. Lyrically, the song has a theme of freedom.
"Ray of Light" debuted and peaked at number five on the Billboard Hot 100, becoming Madonna's highest debut on the chart.
The song reached the top five in Canada, Finland and the United Kingdom, and peaked at number one in Scotland and Spain.
Stefano Salvati accused Madonna of plagiarizing the concept of a music video he directed for Biagio Antonacci in 1994.
The song has been performed in three of Madonna's concert tours, the last being the Sticky & Sweet Tour (2008-09).
It has been covered by a number of artists, and has been featured in several elements of popular culture, such as on the FOX show Glee, as well as different advertising campaigns.
Curtiss was not aware of the fact that Madonna had recorded "Sepheryn" as "Ray of Light" and heard it for the first time being played on the radio. He "couldn't believe it" and was initially a bit annoyed, but became pleased with what Madonna had done with his original composition. He was also satisfied with the 15% royalties he received as songwriter credit.
"Ray of Light" was recorded along with the rest of the album at Larrabee North Studio in North Hollywood, California.
The song is set in common time, with a moderately fast groove tempo of 126 beats per minute.
According to Madonna the verses are a mystical look at the universe and how small we are compared to it.
Madonna further clarified that the lyrics convey the feeling of being small in comparison to the vast universe. It also talks about how regular life goes on faster "than the speeding light", but one can get out of that journey and look at themselves from an outsider's perspective.
Liana Jonas called the track a "wickedly good club song", as well as claiming that it was "sonically progressive yet listener-friendly"; she also praised Madonna's vocals, comparing them to those of a "club diva to celestial goddess".
Larry Flick from Billboard described it as Madonna at her best, calling it a "spiritually charged, often poetic song". He especially mentioned the singer's flexible vocals and her progression as a recording artist.
Rob Sheffield from Rolling Stone in his review for the album as a whole, wrote that, alongside other tracks such as "Swim" and "Drowned World/Substitute For Love", Madonna is "positively ferocious" sounding on "Ray of Light".
Sal Cinquemani from Slant Magazine wrote that the song was a "celebratory tech-frenzy", and noted Madonna's elated singing, giving it an "A" rating.
The A.V. Club's Stephen Thompson commented that the "pumped-up title track is bound to be a deserving smash".
J.D. Considine of The Baltimore Sun noted that Madonna's "newfound strength is particularly apparent in pulsing, rhythm driven tracks like 'Ray of Light', which finds her soaring confidently at the top of her register on the busily percolating chorus, then whispering breathily on the brief, dream-like bridge".
David Browne, while reviewing Ray of Light for Entertainment Weekly, deemed the song a "sirenlike techno-glitter-ball".
Idolator's Stephen Sears explained that Madonna's vocals throughout the album were a "game-changer", including on the song, as she strengthened her voice while working on her film Evita.
The song also reached the top of the Hot Dance Music/Club Play chart of Billboard, remaining at the top position for a total of four weeks.
"Ray of Light" was certified gold by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) in September 1998, for shipment of 500,000 copies of the single across United States.
In Canada, it debuted at number 85 on the RPM Singles Chart and reached number three in its eighth week. It was present on the chart for a total of 30 weeks.
In Australia, "Ray of Light" debuted on the ARIA Singles Chart at its peak of number six on May 24, 1998, staying there for one week. It was present for a total of 17 weeks on the chart.
The track was certified gold by the Australian Recording Industry Association (ARIA) for shipment of 35,000 copies of the single.
At the year-end charts of ARIA, "Ray of Light" was the 57th best-selling Australian single of 1998.
In New Zealand, "Ray of Light" debuted at its peak position of number nine on the RIANZ Singles Chart. It was present for a total of 14 weeks on the chart and fell out on September 13, 1998, at number 31.
In the United Kingdom, "Ray of Light" debuted and peaked at number two on May 9, 1998.
The British Phonographic Industry (BPI) certified it silver, for shipment of 200,000 copies of the song.
The track debuted at its peak of number nine on the Eurochart Hot 100 Singles chart, for the issue dated May 16, 1998.
In Belgium, "Ray of Light" was moderately successful in both territories, peaking at number 25 in Flanders and 33 in Wallonia.
In the Netherlands, the song debuted at number 45 on the Dutch Top 40, and reached a peak of 22 on May 16, 1998, remaining there for three weeks.
The song reached a peak of number two in Finland, where it remained for two weeks, before spending a total of five weeks on the chart.
On the Swiss Singles Chart, "Ray of Light" debuted at its peak of number 32 on the issue dated May 24, 1998.
The song reached number one in Spain on its debuting week. It stayed on the top spot for three weeks before descending the chart.
Inspiration for music video came from the 1982 American experimental film, Koyaanisqatsi, which showed time-lapse footage of cities.
Madonna's scenes were shot in early April 1998 at MTV's Times Square studios in New York and Los Angeles. Background scenes were shot in various cities such as Los Angeles, New York, London, Las Vegas, and Stockholm.
Åkerlund remembered that one day after the filming he got a call from Mick Jagger for directing the new music video for The Rolling Stones, however he had to decline since "Ray of Light" consumed all his time.
Madonna insisted that the video should be edited in Los Angeles, since during the "Frozen" video she had a number of back and forth with director Chris Cunningham (who was in London editing), a process she did not want to repeat. This meant that Åkerlund and his team had to live in the United States for the whole duration. They lived in a hotel, ate take-away Chinese food and finished the clip.
All the footage ended up in the actual video, since every scene was sped up and the song was long.
On June 23, 1998, the clip was released on VHS as a limited edition of 40,000 copies by Warner Music Vision.
It had sold 7,281 copies of the following month after its release, becoming the best-selling video singles of the Nielsen SoundScan era.
It was nominated for Record of the Year, but lost to Celine Dion's "My Heart Will Go On".
The Village Voice ranked it as the fourth best in 1998 in their Pazz & Jop critics' poll.
The 1999 Ivor Novello Awards nominated the record in the category of International Hit of the Year.
In 2005, the song was placed at number 401 on Blender's "The 500 Greatest Songs Since You Were Born".
On Slant Magazine's list of the best singles of the 1990s, in which "Ray of Light" was placed 16th, a reviewer wrote that the song's "beat is restless", and that "Ray of Light" is "a standout single" due to its "emotional warmth".
Billboard placed it at number five on their ranking of Madonna's best songs, saying that it "marked a new chapter in her illustrious career".
In ranking for the singer's 50 Greatest Songs by Rolling Stone, "Ray of Light" attained a rank of number eight, with a writer from the magazine noting Madonna's "most powerfully sung vocals".
The music video received a total of eight MTV Video Music Awards nominations in 1998, eventually winning five; for Video of the Year, Best Female Video, Best Direction, Best Editing and Best Choreography, becoming her most-winning song at the show.
It was the first time that the singer won the Video of the Year award; Madonna said she was grateful for MTV's recognition of the clip.
At the 1998 Music Video Production Association ceremony, the clip won the category of Best Pop Video of the Year.
The video came atop a ranking of "The Top 10 Videos That Broke The Rules", issued by MTV on the channel's 25th anniversary in August 2006.
In 2016, Rolling Stone listed it at position two on their ranking of "Madonna's 20 Greatest Videos" with Bilge Ebiri from the publication calling it a "bold embrace of electronica that got Madonna her due at the VMAs".
In February 1998 Madonna premiered "Ray of Light" during her surprise concert at the Roxy NYC nightclub for promoting the parent album.
"Ray of Light" was included as the fifth song on the Neo-Punk segment of Madonna's 2001 Drowned World Tour, where she performed it wearing punk inspired clothing, while the backdrop screens showed an extended version of the song's music video.
"Weird Al" Yankovic's medley "Polka Power!" from the 1999 album Running With Scissors includes a polka version of the chorus of "Ray of Light".
English singer Natasha Bedingfield recorded a cover version of "Ray of Light" for BBC Radio 1's 40th anniversary.
In 2008, Iggy Pop and The Stooges performed "Ray of Light" (along with "Burning Up") during Madonna's induction in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.