Hailing from Chicago, Smashing Pumpkins rose to alternative rock stardom in the mid-90s. However, unlike some of their counterparts such as Green Day, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, or Pearl Jam, Smashing Pumpkins showed an amazing versatility and range of influences unknown to their kin who seemed primarily inspired by punk and indie rock. An example of this would be their allusions (like how the title of their first album is named after a silent film star). Consequently, lead singer and primary songwriter Billy Corgain displayed skill at the hardcore, the soft, the acoustic, the electric, the orchestral, and the absurd. One of the most “produced” of the 90s alternative bands – despite their city of origin, one would never mistake them for a blues outfit – Smashing Pumpkins found a niche with the American audience at a time when MTV still played music videos and took them as a serious art.
The band consisted mainly of Corgain on guitar and vocals, Jimmy Chamberlain on drums (except for the late 90s, when he left due to drug problems), D’Arcy on bass (until 1999, replaced by Melissa Auf der Maur), and James Iha on lead guitar. Due to personal differences and lineup problems, the band finally quit in 2000, but after five years away, Corgain announced that he wanted his band back and as of this writing, he and Chamberlain have signed a new deal and are working on some new songs. With that in mind, what better time to present the 10 best Smashing Pumpkins songs:
1. Rhinoceros: From their first record, Gish, the song Rhinoceros was the band’s first airplay success; indeed the song rose as high as number 27 on the modern rock charts. As this was way back in 1991, it is quite an achievement considering grunge and alternative rock were still in their relative infancy. The song itself might not be to everyone’s taste, but it marked the band’s entry into the music.
2. Cherub Rock: If Rhinoceros and Gish established the band as respectable names in rock, their second album Siamese Dream established them as a force to be reckoned with. The album rose to number 10 on the Billboard 200, and consistently finds its way onto “Best Record” lists in a variety of sources. Cherub Rock is the opening song and what an opening song it is. The intro with the guitar riff being doubled by the drums before breaking into the main riff of the song is like an engine getting started. The energy of the song remains high and the guitar solo by James Iha is amazing to say the least. All the noise and energy is coupled with the refrain: let me out! / Let me out! / Let me out! / Let me out!. Giving an impression that not only goes perfectly with the rest of the album (like, say, Rocket), but also stays with the listener hours after the song is done.
3. Today: Track three from Siamese Dream, Today has one of the coolest and most copied guitar intros of the 90s, a simple and beautiful solo that flows perfectly with the lyrical message of the song, sung by Corgain’s softer voice: Today is the greatest / day I’ve ever known. The tone turns dark at the bridge, but it only serves to advance the song by keeping it out of the syrupy range. It is, after all, Smashing Pumpkins. The song’s success was marvelous, shooting up to number 4 on the modern rock charts.
4. Disarm: An even greater success came with Disarm, track number six on Siamese Dream. Its stylish black-and-white music video gained an incredible amount of airtime on the then music-oriented MTV, and it climbed to number 5 on the Billboard mainstream list. Once more, the band advanced in the eyes of the mainstream, as the song is acoustic (or might as well be), a departure from the initial impression one gets from the band. Their are classical string harmonies and tubular bells, hardly the stuff of traditional Metallica fare. The lyrical content is morose to say the least, and it makes for a work of odd beauty.
5. Mayonnaisse: Though it was never released as a single (Rocket was the fourth single from Siamese Dream), Mayonnaisse is considered by many a Smashing Pumpkins fan to be their best work. The key rationale is the level of emotion the song displays, all the more interesting in that Billy Corgain admitted later that it was all crap. Either way, in my opinion, it sounds genuine, and deserves a place on the list.
6. Bullet with Butterfly Wings: From their sprawling and immensely successful (it was, for a time, the number 1 album in America) double LP Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness, Bullet with Butterfly Wings shows Billy Corgain at his angriest and most vicious. D’Arcy’s bass in this song is worthy of note – as are Chamberlain’s drum fills and Iha’s guitar – but it’s Corgain’s handling of the chorus, especially the part where the instrumentals almost cut off and the does a crescendo to a scream. Everybody, now: Despite all my rage, I am still just a rat in a cage. Bullet with Butterfly Wings won the Best Hard Rock Performance award at the 1997 Grammy Awards.
7. 1979: Sure, many die-hard fans don’t like this song and think it’s overrated, but I’m not one of them. I have a more diverse range of musical tastes, and good pop music happens to be one of them, sue me. 1979 would be a pop rock masterpiece if it came from Fleetwood Mac or Justin Timberlake (and with slight production changes, it could work for them or any other pop star). In essence, Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness was Smashing Pumpkins’ White Album: it showed the world they were wildly diverse and it was at the height of their game. The electronic effects on this album are outstanding and reinforce that the band’s influences were much broader than their other alternative rock counterparts (like the Stone Temple Pilots, for example), something that led to much of their success with the popular audiences. The song was also nominated for two Grammies.
8. Tonight, Tonight: With it’s changing tempo and eclectic melding of dramatic strings and guitar, bass, and drums more fitting for a blues outfit, it’s hard to imagine how Tonight, Tonight had such success, rising to number 36 of the Billboard charts and moving up to 7th in the U.K. Much of the reason comes from the remarkable music video, a homage to silent film and the Edwardian era which won six awards at the 1996 Video Music Awards. Regardless, it remains an inspiring song; who can not smile as Corgain sings the closing lines to a flourish by a 30-piece string section?
9. Eye: Call me silly, but Eye – from the Lost Highway soundtrack – is one of the band’s best songs. In something of a departure from much of their earlier work, the song has a really odd psychological element, almost a greater depth and refinement. This comes as something of a surprise because the main dream beat and the verse are so darned simple. The electronics on Eye are more sophisticated than what would come on their fourth album Adore. In fact, I firmly believe this song could be done by Radiohead and fit right in with their catalog. The refrain in the coda of Eye is outstanding in an awkward sort of way.
10. Stand Inside Your Love: From their 2000 album MACHINA, Stand Inside Your Love in many ways sounds like a cover of a 1970s song, again showing the range and versatility of the band. It also signaled a variety of changes for the band. For one, Jimmy Chamberlain was back after his departure before Adore; for two, D’Arcy was out, and in her place entered Melissa Auf der Maur. Thus, Stand Inside Your Love reestablished the band with a pop-sounding song capable of mainstream attention while integrating their latest lineup changes. However, within a year, the band would be no more.
Additional notes: From what I’ve given here, it would seem the band’s skill and popularity fell off a cliff after Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness. That’s not entirely true, as Adore debuted at no. 2 on the Billboard charts before falling to nothingness eight weeks later due to poor reception. However, Adore is not a bad album by any means and features several great songs (as do their later MACHINA albums). In fact, the band remained popular and gained incredible airplay even after they disbanded.
I’d also like to say that I regret not finding a spot on the list for the following songs: Drown, Landslide (cover of the Stevie Nicks song), Silverf*ck, Here Is No Why, Zero, Thirty-Three, Muzzle, Perfect, Ava Adore, The Everlasting Gaze.