10. “Thirty-Three” (Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness, 1995)
It says everything about the run of commercial indomitability that the Pumpkins were on in 1996 that the band was even able to get the gorgeously fragile fifth Mellon Collie single “Thirty Three” to the Top 40. Credit the video’s director (and Corgan’s then-paramour) Yelena Yemchuk for truly understanding how the frontman’s lyrics were best appreciated: As a montage of discrete images, meaning little but evoking much. Billy spins lyrics like “Supper’s waiting on the table” and “Steeple guide me to my heart and home” into weeping childhood memories over tenderly plinking piano, turning a fan-favorite B-side for most bands into yet another radio smash for the Pumpkins. For a moment there, it seemed like he really could make it last forrr-ehhhh-vahhhhh. — A.U.
9. “Starla” (“I Am One,” 1990)
“To disappear takes so much time,” Corgan whines two minutes into “Starla,” and the band spends the next nine minutes proving it. Despite being relegated to the flip-side of early single “I Am One,” “Starla” is the closest thing in the SP catalog to a “Free Bird” — or at the very least, a “Dreams Burn Down” — an epic beauty that gradually elevates from serene splendor to mind-shredding delirium, and stays in the red for longer than you can maybe even take. You can hear the guitars lifting themselves higher and higher with every heavens-reaching refrain, until they decide they’ve reached proper altitude and start streaming dazzling patterns around each other in the sky. It’s the Pumpkins’ greatest aerial show, and the best argument for B-sides being reserved for songs that are too brilliant for their accompanying LPs. — A.U.
8. “Today” (Siamese Dream, 1993)
How do you popularize a song about contemplating suicide? Well, the key there would be “pop,” an aesthetic Billy Corgan knowingly weaved through his depressive (“I wanted more than life could ever grant me”) yet shimmering Siamese Dream smash. Its unapologetic grandiosity, beginning with a sublimely catchy deedle-deedle-dee guitar theme and building to a shoegazing gloom-pop climax, is precisely the reason Corgan would insist upon recording “Today” by himself (only Jimmy Chamberlin got to play his drum kit — Corgan took care of everything else). Call that controlling or unnervingly perfectionist if you want, but it would be foolish to deny the results: alternative radio ubiquity in the ’90s — and, well, today. — R.B.
7. “Eye” (Lost Highway OST, 1997)
The beginning of Billy Corgan’s electronic-leaning future-rock phase, and the period’s crown jewel. Improbably, “Eye” began as a sort of audition beat for a possible collaboration with Shaquille O’Neal, inspired by the loops of Dr. Dre. As sad as it is that the world was deprived of hearing the fruits of that potential team-up, the song made much more sense coming to life as the hazy, ominous centerpiece of the Lost Highway soundtrack, arguably one-upping industrial kingpin Trent Reznor’s contribution to the same film. The black-lit sparkle of the synths over an austere drum machine is mesmerizing, and Billy’s multi-tracked crooning on the chorus (“Is it any wonder I can’t sleep / All I have is all you gave to me”) makes it one of the few Smashing Pumpkins songs that could accurately be described as “seductive.” But as impressive as the song’s millennium-reaching sonics are, the piano-and-vocals-only Soundworks Demo version on the Mellon Collie reissue demonstrates that the real reason “Eye” works is that no one was writing more unnervingly beautiful melodies in the mid-’90s than Corgan. — A.U.
6. “Siva” (Gish, 1991)
The lead single from Smashing Pumpkins’ debut LP may sound more direct than the bulk of their later output, but the band’s ambition was still plainly evident in the thunderous Gish standout “Siva.” Iha and Corgan engage in one of the greatest on-record duels in ’90s rock with their back-and-forth metal crunching and weeeeeeooohh-weeeeeee!! guitar screeching, while Chamberlin and Wretzky do an impressive job merely keeping pace. Even a mid-song break to (relative) quiet doesn’t provide much respite from the ruckus — again we’re submerged in a distortion tidal wave, at once filling your ears and gathering speed for yet another crash. — R.B.
5. “Zero” (Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness, 1995)
On the grand list of adjectives most frequently applied to the Smashing Pumpkins, you could probably find “economical” somewhere in the low 2,000s. That’s part of what makes “Zero” one of the stunning pillars of the SP songbook: It packs an intro, two verses, two choruses, three pre-choruses, a bridge breakdown, and two guitar solos into two minutes and 42 seconds — not even as long as it takes for the vocals to kick in on “Porcelina.” And it never bursts at the seams; likely because it’s all glued together by one of the greatest guitar riffs in alt-rock history, a crunching harmonic monster invigorating enough to encourage the most feeling-himself vocal (“Wanna go for a ride?”) of Billy Corgan’s career. The Pumpkins were most easily characterized in the ’90s by gloom and self-doubt, but the overwhelming impression of “Zero” is that of a bunch of cocky MFers who can pack an entire album’s worth of rawk into a sub-three-minute pop single, fortified by the knowledge that God is empty, just like them. — A.U.
4. “Drown” (Singles OST, 1992)
Aside from honorary patron saint Paul Westerberg, Smashing Pumpkins were the only act on the Singles soundtrack that wasn’t from Seattle. They come on like flower children amongst the flannel-rending, chest-beating longhairs on “Drown” — they play in drop-D, but only so it can contrast against major 9th and 11th octaves and Corgan’s soft-palate vocals. Jimmy Chamberlin’s drum patter is sourced from his jazz background rather than grunge. They use e-bows and phasers, not just fuzz pedals. But when those fuzz pedals do kick in, it’s just another way they distinguish themselves — the Pumpkins may have also grown up on classic-rock radio, but their heroes are Sabbath, Floyd, and Boston, not Neil Young. Grunge’s earnest, EveryHe-Man shtick held Billy Corgan’s interest not one bit.
On “Spaceboy,” a song dedicated to his brother, Billy Corgan sang, “Anyway you choose me, we won’t belong.” It’s pretty self-centered to compare your sense of persecution to a blood relative’s autism, but damn if he didn’t have reason to believe it was 100 percent true: Chicago figureheads like Steve Albini made it abundantly clear how unwelcome Smashing Pumpkins were in their own city and before long, Billy Corgan would antagonize Kim f**king Thayil of all people following what he deemed to be an insult about his looks. In between, alt-rock’s most self-conscious party-crashers used Seattle’s capital-M moment as a sneak attack predicting their subsequent radio takeover. — I.C.
3. “Cherub Rock” (Siamese Dream, 1993)
The song that declared — with a full-throated “Let me out!” — that the Smashing Pumpkins were leaving behind the basement-dwelling stoner rock of Gish to conquer arenas, headline festivals, and, uh, play strobe-lit gigs in the forest. Opening tracks don’t get much more iconic than “Cherub Rock” — certainly not opening tracks from ‘90s-rock juggernauts. (The short list ranks this one right behind Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and just ahead of My Bloody Valentine’s “Only Shallow” and Hole’s “Violet.”) This was the first taste the public got of the Pumpkins’ absolute pinnacle — when they doused themselves in overdubs and insisted on achieving mainstream acceptance by bridging the gap between Boston and MBV.
They did cross over and sell millions of CDs with 1993’s Siamese Dream, but first came this lead single, which announced itself with a literal drum roll, followed that with a series of rising-tide riffs, and then aimed a lyrical middle finger at the music industry and indie-rock elitists — and somehow managed to fit in an all-time great guitar solo for good measure. With instrumentation recorded by just Billy Corgan and drummer Jimmy Chamberlin, “Cherub Rock” is the work of what has come to be known as SP’s core duo, making it feel even more essential to the band’s mythos. To that end, legend has it that Corgan threatened to end the Smashing Pumpkins if Siamese wasn’t a commercial success; thankfully, the LP broke the Billboard top ten upon release. Seeing that “Cherub Rock” was the first promo track, and therefore responsible for building hype, it stands to reason that this is the one song responsible for the Pumpkins’ greater legacy. — K.M.
2. “Mayonaise” (Siamese Dream, 1993)
You can thank faulty wiring for all of the quirks and charms of the Smashing Pumpkins’ most overcast classic. It’s there in the chorus, amidst the delirious mess of stops and starts, an atonal shriek (sometimes described as a whistle) that happens every time Billy Corgan lifts his fingers from a cheap guitar. Distorted to hell, an unproperly grounded six-string is going to buck and mew at all attempts to corral it, but “Mayonaise” emulsifies these moments into jagged exclamation points while Corgan traces the charred resistors and otherwise overloaded circuits in his own head. So often, his lyrics run around his own personal missteps and honest mistakes, but “Mayonaise” is where he’s most self-aware — a grunge Sisyphus “doomed” to try and fail over and over again. He’s begging for us to “try to understand,” but that’s the beauty of it: That sort of blissed brokenness is universal. — C.J.
1. “1979” (Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness, 1995)
The best Smashing Pumpkins song isn’t particularly definitive — a novice who starts here won’t get the whole story, or really much of it at all. There’s no Almighty Riff, in fact, there’s barely any guitar — the niftiest part, that little flanged tag on the progression that earned Billy Corgan a songwriting credit on a Miguel album, is probably a synth. It’s the one song with Jimmy Chamberlin that could’ve been helmed by an average drummer with no real consequence. It speaks not of Billy Corgan’s capacity for gargantuan ego or fathomless self-loathing, nor his ability to feel persecuted in direct proportion to his popularity. There is no indication that Corgan was despised and ridiculed for not being punk rock or indie enough, two things he never once claimed to be. It doesn’t give insight to his fraught childhood nor his impact on Homer Simpson’s children: “Thanks to your gloomy music, they’ve stopped dreaming of a future I can’t possibly provide.” Matter of fact, “1979” and its indelible video makes teenhood seem like a pretty cool place to hang out for a while, a high school reunion that would actually be worth attending.
Which is to say that it’s the wish of every anguished Smashing Pumpkins song coming true. While Corgan often sounded just as tortured and conflicted as Kurt Cobain or Eddie Vedder or Trent Reznor or Courtney Love or Thom Yorke or Chris Cornell, behind that rage was a deep-seated, barely concealed desire to be loved, to fit in, to not be that rat in a cage, to not be all by himself as he’s always felt. Why else does “LET ME OUT” sound like his most passionately delivered lyric? But “1979” sounded like such a revelation because it was a brief respite from taking on the world, asking, “let me in” — it comes in skipping like a stone and at the end of each line, there’s an effect that sounds like “tell me,” an onomatopoeic nod saying, “Do go on, you are welcome here.”
If the Smashing Pumpkins’ music still resonates to a far greater degree than their more critically beloved and “influential” counterparts, it’s because they spoke to a realistic, tangible escapism that teenagers crave and a belief that the impossible is possible tonight, something adults feel is forever lost. Two songs later on Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness, Corgan yells, “Youth is wasted on the young,” but for a fleeting four minutes, he lets us know what it might be like to embrace youth in all of its splendor because it’s not going to last — to live with the urgency of now. — I.C.