There is never, ever going to be a new Sly Stone album; 24 years after his last one, it's time to stop waiting. Still, there

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One More Taste

Rarities from the vaults of Sly Stone, Elliott Smith, and Neutral Milk Hotel.

There is never, ever going to be a new Sly Stone album; 24 years after his last one, it's time to stop waiting. Still, there are a few worthy moments from his glory years that only the most dedicated crate diggers had heard until recently. Around 1970, Stone launched the Stone Flower label, which released all of four singles. Two of them, "You're the One" (a Top 10 R&B hit) and "Somebody's Watching You," were by Little Sister, the group fronted by his actual little sister, Vet Stone, with songs written by big brother. (All three Little Sister recordings can be heard as MP3s at their site, slyslilsis.com. They're great.)

The third, "Life & Death in G & A," was a minor Sly composition recorded by Joe Hicks and has been out of print for almost 35 years. And the last was "I'm Just Like You," credited to 6ix, which reappeared in 2004 on a British rare-funk compilation, Funk Drops 3. 6ix, it turns out, is obviously Stone by himself, from the period when he was recording 1971's There's a Riot Goin' On: wah-wah guitar, a primitive drum machine tapping and hissing, a bass line that he later reworked for "If You Want Me to Stay," and Sly half- swallowing his own voice the way he did on Riot tracks like "Poet." The lyrics, at least as far as they're possible to make out, seem to be Stone expressing guarded sympathy with his confused audience. It's a trivial song—self-consciously trivial—but it's a Sly Stone song, from the period of his deepest, best music. There aren't going to be more like it.

There is never, ever going to be a new Elliott Smith album; he died in October 2003, and a version of the album he was working on at the time, From a Basement on the Hill, came out in 2004. Lately, though, the leftovers from his prolific songwriting and recording career have been trickling out. In October, a 22-song collection known informally as "Basement II" (which actually included some older material as well as Basement-era songs) abruptly appeared online; in December, a few more late-period songs leaked, notably a gorgeous, sad one called "Everything's Okay." (All of this stuff, and more, is available as MP3s at elliottsmithbsides.com.)

Does "Basement II" rank with Smith's best work? For the most part, not really, although it includes a couple of very, very good songs. But it has roughly the sound and style of his best work. If it had been released in this form by a living artist, it'd have been a comedown after Basement, a vault-clearing exercise, "for fans only." As it is, it's simply for fans— a priceless suggestion of the records Smith might have made. In another sense, it's not an entirely fair representation of Smith: The older songs, at least, are the ones he decided not to release. Which won't stop anyone from wanting to hear them, or from hearing them: Once a song hits the MP3 circuit, there's no such thing as "unavailable," or even "out of print."

There may or may not ever be a new Neutral Milk Hotel album—the deciding factors being that their songwriter and leader Jeff Mangum doesn't feel like making music for public consumption any more (which is absolutely his right), and that he might again someday. In November, though, Shannon Palmer—an artist who once lived in a house frequented by Mangum and his bandmates—dug up an old cassette with a bunch of Mangum's early songs on it, and sent a handful of MP3s to various audio blogs. They're a joy to hear: They're crude, informal home recordings, including some unfinished fragments, but they reveal a side of Mangum's work that's looser and more casual than NMH's two official albums.

The appearance of the "new" NMH songs led to some mildly contentious discussions on bulletin boards. A fascinating thread on Mountain Goats songwriter John Darnielle's site, lastplanetojakarta.com, eventually comes to address the questions of the difference between public and private recordings, whether a song that's been copied for someone else is effectively a genie out of the bottle, and whether an artist who doesn't want his or her work tapes and juvenilia ever to get out to the public is obligated to destroy them. Palmer has now announced that she's going to try to get Mangum's blessing before she releases any more songs from the "Monroe House Tape" to the public; there'd been no further word as of this writing.

Reportedly, one of the things that drove Mangum out of the public eye in the first place was the unhealthy devotion of some of his fans. Listening to the Monroe House songs is the same sort of guilty pleasure as reading unreprinted J.D. Salinger stories—the desperate desire for more is one of the reasons there isn't more. But one measure of how much an artist's music means to listeners is how fervently we long for just a little bit more once their voice has gone silent: one more encore, one more lost gem, one more first taste of that sweet stuff.

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