This is the 19th post in a weekly, yearlong series. Read about it here and see the list of previous songs here. A new post about a different song will be posted each Monday throughout 2016. You can listen to the songs in a Spotify playlist.

Before he was in Yes and Asia, English singer and songwriter Steve Howe was in a band called Bodast. The group recorded material in 1969, but by 1970, Bodast broke up. Two of the remaining members, Dave Curtiss and Clive Maldoon, formed a duo called Curtiss Maldoon.

Curtiss Maldoon signed to Deep Purple’s label, Purple, releasing a self-titled LP in 1971 featuring Howe and other musicians. The album featured a folky track called “Sepheryn”:

Zephyr in the sky at night I wonder
Do your tears of mourning sink beneath the sun
Goddess of the universe gone quickly
For the call of thunder threatens everyone
And I feel like I just got home
And I feel
Like this stranger’s found a home…

Gathering her spirit
She beckons to the god of nature
Spare them of their fears
Quicker than a ray of light
Then gone for
Someone else shall be there

Critics and audiences never took Curtiss Maldoon’s sound. The duo released one more album, “Maldoon,” in 1973, before breaking up. Curtiss, unhappy with that record’s sound, asked his name to be taken off it. Maldoon died in 1976.

In the late ’80s, Maldoon’s niece, Christine Leach, formed a band called Baby Fox, combining elements of dub music with blues. The band’s first album, “A Normal Family,” came out in 1996.

Around that same time, Leach worked with producer and remixer William Orbit, who had been a big name in England’s acid house scene. Leach and Orbit worked on a re-recording of “Sepheryn.” He ended up sending the backing back to Leach’s version to Madonna, who had contacted him to discuss material for a new album. Madonna was pleased with what she heard, and released her own version, called “Ray Of Light,” on an album of the same name.

Madonna had experimented with different genres throughout the decade, but this was by far her most ambitious and dramatic shift. “Ray Of Light” was an electronica album that took inspiration from trip hop, drum and bass, and trance, and thus sounded radically unlike anything she had ever recorded. Additionally, the introspective lyrics touched on a host of topics, ranging from Madonna’s baby daughter to spirituality. Released in 1998, the album peaked at Number 2 on the Billboard 200.

There’s no denying that “Sepheryn” was the ancestor to “Ray Of Light.” The question is how to define that relationship. “Ray of Light” is not a 100% original work of art, as most of the lyrics had appeared in “Sepheryn,” including the actual words “ray of light.” But it’s not a traditional cover of “Sepheryn,” either: Madonna changed some of the words, left some lyrics out and added some new ones. The arrangement was completely different, as the thumping backing track in no way resembled the folky guitars that had appeared on “Sepheryn.”

But, come on, my fellow Madonna fans. Re-read those “Sepheryn” lyrics:

Zephyr in the sky at night I wonder
Do your tears of mourning sink beneath the sun
Goddess of the universe gone quickly
For the call of thunder threatens everyone
And I feel like I just got home
And I feel
Like this stranger’s found a home…

Gathering her spirit
She beckons to the god of nature
Spare them of their fears
Quicker than a ray of light
Then gone for
Someone else shall be there
Through the testing year

If “Ray Of Light” is not a cover, then what is it? It’s more than just a “sample.”

What’s the line between “sample” and “cover”? How much does a song have to change from the original work to be downgraded from cover to sample?

When we discussed “Tighten Up,” some versions sounded pretty faithful to Archie Bell’s version and some sounded only vaguely familiar. The only things present in all the versions we reviewed were the T.S.U. Toronadoes’s riff and the actual phrase “tighten up.” But all of those versions were unmistakably influenced by the version by Archie Bell and The Drells, even if the artists changed parts of the songs.

And so what if a song sounds drastically different from an original? We’ve discussed many covers that sound pretty different from the source in terms of instrumental arrangement, and yet we’ve still considered them covers. If “Ray Of Light” is not a cover of “Sepheryn,” then Clare Quilty’s “Rebel Rebel” is not a cover, nor is Singtank’s “Suspicious Minds.”

That Madonna’s song is called “Ray Of Light” instead of “Sepheryn” is irrelevant. Mickey Newbury’s “Just Dropped In” was covered multiple times, with almost as many names, including “Just Dropped in (To See What Condition My Condition Was In)” and “What Condition My Condition Was In.” A change of name doesn’t make it not a cover.

When talking about “Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In),” we posed the question as to whether versions that were inspired by Kenny Rogers and The First Edition could be considered First Edition covers instead of Mickey Newbury covers, particularly because songwriter Newbury’s version was not the first recording. Taking it further, the question shifts to whether the covers of “Ray Of Light” should be considered covers of Madonna’s song, or if those are covers of Curtiss Maldoon’s “Sepheryn”?

New wave band Sigue Sigue Sputnik recorded a cover of “Ray Of Light” that sounded as different from Madonna’s version as hers did from Curtiss Maldoon’s. Combining some elements of drum and bass, industrial, and electronica, Sigue Sigue Sputnik’s overstimulating version was a fascinating four and a half minutes of beeps, boops, drum machine loops, distorted guitar loops, and sunny synths. As such, the familiar riff from Madonna’s version was subtly noticeable at best, as it was buried in several layers of sampled sounds. On the first listen, Sigue Sigue Sputnik’s take sounds equally overwhelming and oversimplified, but on repeated listens, the nuances and Easter Eggs become more apparent. It’s a standout among the other quirky tracks to have appeared on the “Virgin Voices” tribute albums.

For BBC Radio 1’s 40th anniversary, the station recorded 40 cover songs with 40 artists, with each song representing a different year. Natasha Bedingfield represented 1998, performing a live version “Ray Of Light.” Orbit brought an electronic wall of sound to Madonna’s version, and Bedingfield dismantled it. For the first 30 seconds, Bedingfield sang softly over a bare piano. Then, as Bedingfield began the “And I feel” part, emotional keyboard kicked in with a simple Nintendo-esque guitar part that looped throughout most the song. A drum beat soon joined, but that was it for the instrumentation in this version. Bedingfield’s vocals sounded serious, as if she was emulating not Madonna, but a soul singer. While not somber, this version sounded bittersweet compared to Madonna’s, as if it should be on the soundtrack to a rom com or inspirational movie.

Two years later, Bedingfield performed the song on The Today Show. It had the same arrangement as her BBC Radio 1 version, but it sounded fuller and more improvisational. A good part of that could be Bedingfield and her backing band feeding off the crowd, as there were lots of “Woo” and “Yeah” adlibs. She played around with how she sang the parts, trying different phrasing and adding pauses in new spots. The end featured an instrumental break where the guitarist let loose and jammed and the drummer followed suit.

When Madonna was inducted to The Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame in 2008, Iggy Pop performed covered two of her songs at the induction ceremony: “Burning Up” and “Ray Of Light.” The former seemed like an obvious choice, as conventional wisdom would dictate that a Madonna tribute is not complete without something from early in her career, particularly her eponymous first album. Furthermore, The Supersuckers and Mike Watt had each proven that the swagger in “Burning Up” translated quite nicely as a punk song. But a live, punk version of “Ray Of Light” seemed less obvious, especially considering that an electronica song inspired by motherhood was being sung by a shirtless man in leather pants jumping and hooting around the stage. But it paid off, and not just because of the awkward moments when the camera panned to Madonna. The saxophone, when paired with the noisy guitar, was reminiscent of The Psychedelic Furs’ “We Love You” or The Replacements’ “Can’t Hardly Wait.” Video below shows both covers; “Ray Of Light” starts at 3:14.

Darren Hayes, former singer of Savage Garden, performed “Ray Of Light” on the show “Soundtrack Of My Life.” With just a keyboardist and a guitarist, Hayes’ version might be the barest and most personal cover of “Ray Of Light.” Hayes’ vocal capabilities were the centerpiece of the performance, as the backing keyboard and guitar was loud enough just to let you know Hayes wasn’t singing a capella. Though he could have: he’s surely capable, and it’s obvious from the video that he was enjoying himself. The adlibbed “whoa” part showed that he was having just as much fun as anyone listening to him, if not more.

Similarly bare was a live version that the band Snow Patrol performed at the BBC. It sounded a lot like the first 30 seconds of Madonna’s version, before the electronica kicked in. But in Snow Patrol’s version, nothing ever kicked in. It looped through that same soft introductory part, but never got much faster or heavier.

A bossa nova version by Os Digitallistas and Deise Costa has appeared on a handful of lounge-themed compilations the last few years. Everything about the slowed-down version is mellow: the soft percussion, the quiet guitars, and the restrained but breathy vocals. It’s hard not to think of the beach, particularly a Caribbean one, when listening to this version. And yet that vibe, when combined with dialed-back vocals, plays into how I interpet this version, which sounds like a journal entry the narrator wrote after a beach retreat. When Madonna sings, “And I feel like I just got home,” she sounds she she’s proclaiming something she wants to share. But in this version, that lyric comes off as a realization that the narrator didn’t know until it came out of her mouth.

Adam Lambert performed “Ray Of Light” on VH1 Divas 2012, the network’s annual special dedicated to, well, divas. The background arrangement only vaguely resembled Orbit’s arrangements, as Lambert sang over crunchy guitars and airy synths. Lambert could not hide that he was a massive Madonna fan boy: he was so taken with the moment that he sometimes glossed over certain lyrics because he was overjoyed and dancing around the stage in some Illuminati-like robe. Don’t worry, Adam, we would have done the same thing.

For all the “Ray Of Light” covers, there’s also a “Sepheryn” cover. David Atkins’ version was lighter than Curtiss Maldoon’s version, as he substituted the duo’s rollicking guitar with acoustic guitar, light piano, some lounge-y percussion, and some jazz-tinged horns. He altered a words the slightly, and emphasized different phrases than Curtiss Maldoon had. In the Curtiss Maldoon version, “And I feel/Like this stranger’s found a home” was sung slowly, with force, as if it was an important realization, though not necessarily one that was welcome. But Atkins sang those words with a contentment and matter-of-factness that you believe him, and want to join him, wherever that home is.

The question on whether the “Ray Of Light” covers should be considered covers of “Ray Of Light” or “Sepheryn” depends on whether you think Madonna’s “Ray Of Light” was a cover. And whether you think that song is a cover or not depends on whether you think the changes and additions Madonna made are enough to put “Ray Of Light” in that squishy space between sample and cover. But here’s the real test: Play Curtiss Maldoon’s “Sepheryn” for people who hadn’t heard it before and watch their faces. It’s a fun game I have been doing with friends ever since I heard it myself. That look of recognition and surprise on their faces confirms that “Ray Of Light” is unmistakably a “Sepheryn” descendant, regardless of whether you want to use the word “cover song.”

But would it be so bad to call it a cover song? Is that a slight to any of the song’s brilliance? I don’t think so at all. Soft Cell’s “Tainted Love” is without a doubt a cover, but the song’s cover status adds to its genius: Soft Cell took an existing song and redefined how that song was supposed to sound and feel. Aretha Franklin took Otis Redding’s “Respect” and made it her song, and not just because she added some words or changed the arrangement. Franklin sang “Respect” with such a command and presence that wasn’t in the original that one can’t help think the song was meant to be hers.

Such is the case with “Sepheryn” and “Ray Of Light.” To acknowledge the latter song’s debt to the former does not, in any way, erase what Madonna achieved with it. That “Ray Of Light” and the album of the same name sounded radically different than any of Madonna’s previous work cannot be overstated. She had written personal songs before, of course, and she had fluidly crossed into new genres before. But “Ray Of Light” was personal in a way that many people could understand. The birth of her child had transformed her worldview and made her vulnerable in a new way. Her daughter and spiritual interests were on display, with neither apology nor bravado. Madonna’s baring of her soul over an electronic arrangement showed that dance and electronica could be warm, emotional, and soulful.

You can listen to these songs and previously discussed cover songs in a Spotify playlist.