This fall, the Smashing Pumpkins will tour arenas with Jane’s Addiction, and I will be there along with tens of thousands of other 44-year-olds.
For people of my vintage, there are few alt-rock records that loom larger over our adolescent memories than 1993’s Siamese Dream and 1995’s Mellon Collie And The Infinite Sadness. The Smashing Pumpkins made good music outside of those albums, but those two releases in particular made it possible for this band to plot an arena tour nearly 30 years after their artistic and commercial peaks.
The head Pumpkin, Billy Corgan, has had his ups and downs over the years. Even when he was selling millions of albums, he felt excluded from the rock star cool club. “I wish from Day 1, people would have looked at me and said, ‘You’re all right, come on, join the team,’ but it’s never been that way with me,” he said after the release of Siamese Dream. “I don’t know why. Maybe I’m a dick, maybe it shows. I don’t know.”
Decades later, when he made the questionable decision to go on Alex Jones, there was less ambiguity around the “maybe I’m a dick” question. But for those of us who love him, Billy’s dickishness is part of the equation, a delectable heel turn by a born troll. The fact that he’s also one of the greatest and most prolific rock songwriters of his generation is also part of the deal; at his best, few of his peers in the ’90s were as good at combining melody with gut-level riffage.
Today is truly the greatest day to count down the 50 greatest Smashing Pumpkins songs.
50. “Pastichio Medley” (1996)
Confession: I don’t think I’ve ever listened to all 23 minutes of this B-side from beginning to end. I’m not sure it’s actually meant to be heard, as opposed to witnessed. If you think of it as a performance art bit — which I think it absolutely is — it’s a resounding success. Because I’ve thought about the idea of this song for many hours of my life. I see you, Billy Corgan.
There was no question in my mind that this survey of the Pumpkins had to begin here, as “Pastichio Medley” explains who this band is more accurately than any of their many hits. Let’s be clear right away about what I mean by “band” — I’m really talking about Billy Corgan. No disrespect to James Iha, D’arcy, or especially Jimmy Chamberlin, the second most important Pumpkin. (I’m not about to run down all the hired guns who have passed through Casa de Smashing.) Corgan is the focal point, in the best and worst possible senses. A true Midwestern rock demigod, he has fascinated me to no end for most of my life. I’ve analyzed him endlessly in columns, books, and podcasts. Why? Because I recognize in him my own best and worst selves. I think all Smashing Pumpkins fans do, particularly the ones who grew up in down-market Middle American towns and never managed to fit in once they moved to the big city. Billy shows all of us how we can transcend that prison of perpetual insecurity, and also become consumed by it to the point of self-destruction. Like the man himself once sang, “The killer in me is the the killer in you.”
Back to “Pastichio Medley.” It’s the final track on the “Zero” CD single. This EP includes five other B-sides, several of which are also on this list. I originally bought it as a stand-alone release when it came out during the spring of my senior year of high school. But most people likely heard it as part of The Aeroplane Flies High, the five-disc box set that compiled all of the Pumpkins’ Mellon Collie era singles, which came out later that fall. There are 28 non-album tracks in all in this set, which equals the mammoth size of the Mellon Collie mothership. Even accounting for the smattering of covers of songs like The Cure’s “A Night Like This” and The Cars’ “You’re All I’ve Got Tonight” (also heard on the immortal Batman Forever soundtrack!), that’s an incredible amount of output from one band over the course of a few years. And it wasn’t just about quantity, either — if Billy had saved some of these songs rather than release them en masse, he could’ve extended the Pumpkins’ golden years of quality radio hits several more years.
And then there’s “Pastichio Medley,” which manages to pack about as many songs as Mellon Collie and The Aeroplane Flies High and The Aeroplane Flies High COMBINED into a single song. A spliced-together litany of more than 50 guitar riffs and jams recorded in the space between Siamese Dream and Mellon Collie, it unfolds like side two of Abbey Road if Paul McCartney had grown up listening to Bauhaus and Judas Priest. Even here, the quality control is shockingly high — I can’t tell exactly which clips are “Hell Bent for Hell” or “The Streets Are Hot Tonite” or “Me Rock You Snow” or “Make It Fungus,” but I know that most of the excerpts sound like potential barn burners.
Not that the point of “Pastichio Medley” is primarily musical. It is, first and foremost, a demonstration of extreme skill, an act of showboating, a flex. The point is that Billy Corgan had an ass-load of magnetic alt-rock hooks at his disposal in the mid-’90s, and he wanted the world — and the competition — to know it. “As long as I can remember, since I was a little kid, I wanted to be famous,” he once said. “It was the mythological means of escape. My myth was rock-god-dom. I saw that as a means to become one who has no pain.”
In the small space between the dissolution of Nirvana and the rise of rap-rock, he absolutely ruled the world. And rulers of the world are entitled to waste their riches in the form of a 23-minute medley of unused outtakes. Plenty more where this came from, was the message. “Pastichio Medley” is evidence of Billy Corgan’s genius, and it’s also an example of his arrogance. It’s self-indulgent and ridiculous, and also awe-inspiring and, well, incredibly rawk. And that is the territory in which the Smashing Pumpkins live and breathe.
49. “Daphne Descends” (1998)
Billy Corgan was such a genius that, years in advance, he could foresee his own artistic and commercial decline, sort of. “You can only be this high-powered mojo rock band for so long,” Corgan told Spin in 1996. “And then you just can’t look people in the eye. So toward that end, we’ve projected our own demise. We’re thinking, three years from now, are we going to want to do the same thing? No way. We couldn’t do it with conviction, so why bother?”
During the album cycle for Mellon Collie, Corgan repeated many times this same grandiose claim about the double album being his farewell to so-called “high-powered mojo rock.” In his mind, however, I don’t think he believed that this would lead to his own downfall. Billy had another flex in mind — he was going to push the Pumpkins past rock and toward electro-pop and symphonic folk, and put himself in the company of other masters of self-reinvention like Bowie and Lou Reed and U2.
As predicted, Smashing Pumpkins emerged three years after Mellon Collie with a much different record, 1998’s Adore. Artistically, it was a step down from the standard of the previous two records, though Adore is still better than its reputation. The ballads seriously drag, but the electro-pop numbers rip, as we’ll see as this list unfolds. “Daphne Descends” is the rare Adore track that mixes the ballad and electro-pop sides successfully.
48. “Cash Car Star” (2000)
Pumpkins-ologists will inevitably chart the beginning of the band’s decline slightly before Adore, with the firing of drummer Jimmy Chamberlin in 1996. The persistent narrative about Corgan playing most of the guitar and bass parts on the records ensured that Jimmy was the only other member not viewed as expendable, given the prominence of his energetic and bruisingly physical drum rolls, which matched the Wagnerian power of Billy’s guitar and vocals.
In the wake of Adore barely going platinum — after Mellon Collie moved 10 million units, making it one of the best-selling double albums of all time — Chamberlin was swiftly welcomed back into the fold. The Pumpkins then desperately tried to reboot as a high-powered mojo rock band on two sprawling albums, the second of which, Machina II/The Friends And Enemies Of Modern Music, was given away for free and included this punchy showcase for Jimmy Chamberlin playing extremely Jimmy Chamberlin drums.
47. “Stand Inside Your Love” (2000)
The other LP, of course, was the proper release Machina/The Machines Of God. Whereas the bulk of Adore uses the wistful “1979” as a starting point, “Stand Inside Your Love” evokes a Frankenstein monster of the Pumpkins’ guitar-dominated hits — the melodic crunch of “Today,” the soaring chorus of “Tonight, Tonight,” the romantic alienation of “Disarm.” It’s a good tune, but it mostly makes me think about how much the rock world changed from the peak of the Pumpkins to the dawn of the new century, when Limp Bizkit and then Linkin Park ruled rock radio and made alternative music a distant memory. In just five short years, the Pumpkins became classic rock, and “Stand Inside Your Love” (as nice as it is) had all of the contemporary relevance of a late-period Grand Funk Railroad single. It was that quick, in the same-sized gap between the two most recent Kendrick Lamar albums. The Pumpkins broke up for the first time just 10 months later.
46. “Panopticon” (2012)
Tune into the local rock radio station in your town — assuming there is one — and you’ll hear that the Smashing Pumpkins are still treated as a classic rock band. Those warhorses released between 1993 and ’95, along with the greatest hits of the Chili Peppers and Green Day, represent the most durable oldies to get regular spins between the modern-day sludge turned out by Twenty One Pilots and Five Finger Death Punch. This has the effect of keeping the Pumpkins’ music alive, but in a weird, cryogenically frozen state. They remain present, but not of the present.
For a committed megalomaniac like Billy Corgan, this state of affairs obviously rankles. In a way, he’s spent the past quarter-century trying to live up to the boasts he made on the Mellon Collie press cycle, the ones about fearlessly pushing his music (and the culture) forward. But even as he’s pushed his music — he’s supposedly, at the moment, hard at work on a new triple-album rock opera (!) — the culture hasn’t been moved to follow.
To what degree he’s made peace with this is hard to say. But it’s clear that the aughts were terrible for him. I saw his post-Pumpkins sorta-supergroup Zwan play a half-empty gym at a college outside of Green Bay, Wis. in 2003 and felt intense secondhand embarrassment. (Though I do remember Zwan’s only album, Many Star Of The Sea, being pretty good. Unfortunately, I lost the CD and it’s not available on streaming platforms.) Then, a few years after releasing the single most unlistenable Smashing Pumpkins album ever, Zeitgeist, he gave a bitter interview to Rolling Stone in 2010 in which he ripped his long-gone bandmates Chamberlin and Iha and complained about how poorly the industry had treated him.
“If I had gotten the accolades that I deserved, if I wasn’t treated like some sort of pariah by my own musical country, if I wasn’t sort of caught between pop land and alternative land, if I had a country, then maybe I would have a greater confidence in those systems supporting me, but they haven’t,” he lamented. “So at some point, I have to go in business for myself.”
After that, something incredible happened: Corgan made the best Smashing Pumpkins music of the 21st century. Culled from a suitably ambitious 44-song online project dubbed Teargarden By Kaleidyscope, 2012’s Oceania found him once again operating in songwriting factory mode, and his penchant for over-imbibing musically once again fueled his talent for writing pummeling pop-metal ear candy. With “Panopticon,” it was as if he snuck one of those riffs from the pile he threw away in “Pastichio Medley” and fashioned another should-be hit single.
45. “One Diamond, One Heart” (2012)
Another Oceania deep cut. This time it’s Billy nodding to the Adore era, only now he doesn’t have that “wearing a black cowboy hat on Charlie Rose“-level of bravado. “One Diamond, One Heart” is him operating in pure pop tunesmith mode, which is the least appreciated of all the Billy Corgan modes. In 2020, he did a joint Rolling Stone interview with Kevin Parker of Tame Impala, presumably because Parker wanted to fanboy about the guitar tones on Siamese Dream. (“Whenever I listen to Siamese Dream, it’s like a big hug,” Parker gushes at one point. On this point, we agree.) But Corgan would probably be Kevin Parker if he had been born about 20 years later. Crafting pretty synth-pop anthems that a billion people blast on their laptops is a skill perched firmly within his wheelhouse.
44. “The Boy” (1996)
In that 2010 Rolling Stone interview, Corgan says his band’s classic lineup was composed of “two drug addicts and one guy who hated me, and I hated him.” The “one guy who hated me, and I hated him” was Iha, the mostly silent rhythm guitarist who looks fantastic in a dress in the “Today” video. Iha’s response was characteristically charitable, if also cryptic: “In our band there were always four divergent opinions and perspectives. I choose to remember the good times.”
For the record, Corgan and Iha later made up, and Iha is now currently back to being the mostly silent rhythm guitarist in Smashing Pumpkins. His songwriting contributions over the years are minimal but not unimportant — his co-writes on two of Siamese Dream‘s dreamiest tracks, “Soma” and “Mayonnaise,” will get their shout-outs later on this list. For now, I want to highlight this “1979” B-side, a minor-key strummer that might have impressed Sonic Youth if Sonic Youth ever bothered to listen to Smashing Pumpkins.
43. “Siva” (1991)
So much of the early coverage of this band revolved around the high number of indie artists that despised them. In Chicago, they were resented in the late ’80s and early ’90s, in part, due to their close relationship with the important local club The Metro, who put the Pumpkins on so many high-profile bills that it became a source of contention among the likes of area scenesters like Steve Albini. “Smashing Pumpkins are REO Speedwagon,” he later sniffed. “Stylistically appropriate for the current college party scene, but ultimately insignificant.”
Now, the fact that I’m here now writing way too many words about the Pumpkins disproves Albini. (Then again, I once also wrote a couple thousand words about REO Speedwagon’s Hi Infidelity.) But all you have to do is look at a band photo circa their 1991 album Gish to see how unfashionable they were. It’s all paisley shirts and mullets and blank, pouty looks. They really do look like the “nature kids” that Stephen Malkmus describes in Pavement’s infamous diss song “Range Life.” (Or, as Husker Du’s Bob Mould once said of the Pumpkins, like “the grunge Monkees.”)
But maybe what really bothered these people is how metal the Pumpkins were early on. This song from Gish sounds like a bubblegum redux of Black Sabbath’s Vol. 4, which is exactly the zone that Corgan aimed for. “I was never into punk rock,” he told Rolling Stone around this time. “I liked Blondie, but all that other New York stuff like Talking Heads never rang true for me. I grew up on ’70s radio. Cheap Trick were the ultimate band. I think the Pumpkins just picked up from where that left off.”
42. “Crush” (1991)
If you love this band, their un-punk, “picking up from where Cheap Trick left off” quality is what’s so great about them. But on Gish, they also veered deep into vibe-y psych rock, doubling down on their dorky “stoned suburban kids” image. (As a former stoned suburban kid myself, I use “dorky” in this context with the utmost respect and affection.) Like on this song, where they sound like the Brian Jonestown Massacre re-enacting the non-concert scenes from The Song Remains The Same.
41. “Ugly” (1996)
I could go on about how Billy represents so much about the Midwestern inferiority complex, but I already wrote a book chapter about it. Nevertheless, he has struggled with his outsider status over the years in very public ways. The most infamous example has to come from Jonathan Gold’s iconic Soundgarden profile from Spin in 1994, which includes the following scene between Corgan and Soundgarden guitarist Kim Thayil backstage at Lollapolooza.
(I wish I could quote all of it, but for the sake of time, here’s a partial excerpt):
A minute later, Corgan, still probing, finally finds the key to Thayil’s heart: “I hate how in magazine pictures, they always stick me somewhere in the back.”
Thayil explodes: “What do you mean? You write all the songs, and you do all the interviews. You play the instruments on the album. You control the band to the extent that most people think of Smashing Pumpkins as the Billy Corgan Experience, and all you care about is some photography?”
“But I hate it,” Corgan says, “it means they don’t think I’m the cute one.”
Remember that Kim Thayil is a burly mountain man who was once in a band with Chris Cornell. A less sympathetic audience for not being “the cute one” in a band is impossible to find.
On the bright side, Corgan was always able to harness his insecurity over his looks in his songs, like this smoldering B-side to “1979.”
40. “Daydream” (1991)
What Gold doesn’t note in his Spin article — because it wasn’t as obvious in the mid-’90s as it is now — is that Corgan has long relished playing the heel, a role that seems both forced upon him by all his early skeptics and a product of his naturally combative personality. He said something that was bound to annoy Kim Thayil, and it worked. (Which does not discount the idea that Billy also genuinely resented not being considered cute by magazine photographers.) Corgan’s innate heel-ness didn’t become readily apparent until he started running his own wrestling league in the 2010s, which is sort of like Liam Gallagher deciding in middle age to open a cocaine factory. It was a comical and yet strangely logical progression for him.
Inside the Pumpkins, however, Billy is not the heel. Because he’s firmly installed as the band’s protagonist, the antagonist role in the ’90s fell to the blonde-haired and dead-eyed bass player, D’arcy. According to band lore, they met in 1987 outside of a Chicago club and immediately got into an argument. And that argument lasted for the next 30 years. In 2018, on the eve of a reunion tour, she leaked text messages that Billy had sent her, in which he hinted (probably correctly) that D’arcy (who was retired from music and living in rural Michigan) wouldn’t be able to do more than a brief cameo in which she sang this song from Gish.
This, among other offenses, annoyed her, and she was eventually 86’ed from the tour. Which is a shame, because I would’ve liked to hear “Daydream.”
39. “God” (1996)
Here’s something that seems like an example of Billy Corgan trolling us but (I think) is actually a sincere project: The mammoth “spiritual memoir” he’s presumably still writing, and was reported to be more than 1,000 pages long back in 2016. (Which means it’s probably 3,000 pages by now.) A treatise on Corgan’s concept of “mind-body-soul integration,” the book is supposedly about how “most of what I have experienced in my life isn’t real,” which sounds amazing. Though I suspect that Billy’s spiritual perspective is better summed up by this song: “God know I’m restless and weak and full of piss and vinegar.”
38. “Hello Kitty Kat” (1994)
A fine example of the Pumpkins building a wall of guitars and laying a sparkling guitar line on top of it, a trick that Corgan learned from listening to ’70s six-string technicians like Queen’s Brian May and Boston’s Tom Scholz, who paved the way for Billy to become an overdub fiend two decades later. Fun fact: I started listening to Boston seriously as a teenager because a snarky rock critic disparagingly compared Siamese Dream to “More Than A Feeling.” I took the putdown as a compliment, because it absolutely deserved to be taken that way.
37. “Frail And Bedazzled” (1994)
Given that I’ve already listed six B-sides out of the first 14 songs on this list — including the last three songs in a row — I must acknowledge two obvious truths: 1) I am biased in favor of B-sides; 2) The Smashing Pumpkins are the best B-sides band of the ’90s. This is hard for me to admit as a committed fan of Radiohead and Oasis, the two other strongest contenders. But as we’ve established, the Pumpkins have the numbers on their side. They also have Jimmy Chamberlin, who beats this song frail with bedazzling speed and dexterity.
36. “Tristessa” (1991)
The first Smashing Pumpkins single, which goes to show that Corgan had the formula down from the start of their career — the wall of sound cut with a sparkling guitar, Jimmy Chamberlin’s jazzy drum rolls, the poppy chorus, Billy’s insistent whine. Later re-recorded for Gish, the original single predates Nevermind, and sounds more like a rougher version of Queensryche than grunge. This, too, sounds like a putdown but is actually a compliment.
Twenty years after this song was released, Corgan claimed, “I can’t think of any people outside of Weird Al Yankovic who have both embraced and pissed on rock more than I have. Obviously there’s a level of reverence, but there’s also a level of intelligence to even know what to piss on. ‘Cause I’m not pissing on Rainbow. I’m not pissing on Deep Purple. But I’ll piss on fuckin’ Radiohead, because of all this pomposity. This value system that says Jonny Greenwood is more valuable than Ritchie Blackmore. Not in the world I grew up in, buddy. Not in the world I grew up in.” Radiohead wasn’t famous yet when this song dropped, but Billy was definitely already worshipping Ritchie Blackmore.
35. “Snail” (1991)
Because of what came after, Gish is typically regarded as a dry run for the heights of Siamese Dream and Mellon Collie. I don’t think it deserves to be overshadowed in that way — if the Pumpkins had dissolved after their debut, Gish would be looked at as an all-time classic one-off — but it is true that this song sounds like a rough draft for future tracks like “Mayonnaise” and especially “Muzzle,” both of which we’ll revisit later on.
Respect must also be paid to Butch Vig, who made this album before working on Nevermind, and then returned to the Pumpkins fold to make Siamese Dream. A product of the Midwest indie rock scene, Vig proved to be the ultimate wizard of magically transforming uncommercial rock bands stuck playing bars into arena-rock behemoths. In that respect, more than any other band, the Smashing Pumpkins were his ultimate canvas.
34. “XYU” (1995)
Our first Mellon Collie track! As you would expect, there will be many more from here on out. Looking ahead, I’ve chosen more songs from the blue “night” disc than the pink “day” disc, which I suppose reflects my preference for the ragers on Mellon Collie as opposed to the ballads. The blue disc is generally harder rocking, along with being proggier, less hits-oriented, and generally weirder. (In that way Mellon Collie echoes the similarly color-themed Use Your Illusion albums from four years prior.) As for this song, I guess it also means that I like songs where Corgan slips belligerently into a sing-song rendition of “Mary Had A Little Lamb” and changes the lyrics to show how “Mary’s got some deep shit.”
33. “Thirty-Three” (1995)
A song I considered for the list and left off was the cover of Fleetwood Mac’s “Landslide,” from Pisces Iscariot. I ultimately excluded it because it is a cover, even though it’s a great and (I would argue) important cover. In the early ’90s, Fleetwood Mac had not yet been rehabilitated as an eternally hip legacy act, so putting a Stevie Nicks ballad on your alt-rock record was another example of Billy embracing and pissing on rock history. But instead of “Landslide,” I went with the softest single from Mellon Collie, which has a slightly wasted, spacey, and wistful vibe that’s reminiscent of the Mac’s own double-album opus, Tusk. Though instead of evoking the coke-fueled exhaustion of Los Angeles in the late ’70s, Corgan captures the simple joy of settling down as a newly minted rock star in mid-’90s Chicago: “I’ll make the effort, love can last forever.” That the love didn’t last forever in this case only makes the song prettier and more Mac-like.
32. “Quiet” (1993)
Siamese Dream finally enters the picture. I’ll hold off on the inevitable Siamese Dream vs. Mellon Collie conversation for now and instead revel in the stoner-rock riff that anchors this album’s second track, which gets my vote for the most underrated song on Siamese Dream. I particularly love the part that kicks in around the two-minute mark where Jimmy does one of his atomic drum rolls and the music zooms into Billy’s wicked Eddie Van Halen-style guitar solo. Speaking of Eddie Van Halen …
31. “Pug” (1998)
“I recently interviewed Eddie Van Halen for Guitar World,” Corgan told Rolling Stone in 1996. “And I told him that I liked the fact that his music has never been elitist. Even though they were fucking cool and looked good and everybody wanted to be them, there was still that element of, hey, everybody can join the party.” He contrasted that attitude with Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth, who Corgan claimed “once said some horrible thing about having to play to the jock in Iowa”
“I always think about that quote,” he said, “because that jock in Iowa needs someone like Kim Gordon to say there’s a better world out there, that just because you’ve grown up with this mentality doesn’t mean you have to be this mentality.” The Smashing Pumpkins lost a lot of the jock audience they earned with Siamese Dream and Mellon Collie in the wake of Adore, though I wonder if things might have turned out differently if they had put out this evil goth stomper as a single. It’s the one song on Adore that could’ve been remixed for MTV to include a verse from Jonathan Davis spitting out animal noises over Billy’s spooky-guy croon.
30. “Ava Adore” (1998)
This was the actual first single from Adore, and in the video we see the band in full-on decadent Halloween mode, with Corgan reaching the peak of his undead Nosferatu phase. While the actual song is a muscular synth-rock banger that adds considerable oomph to the “1979” template, the iconography here was overblown and out-of-touch in the context of all the Adidas-wearing rap-rock mooks storming the MTV castle in the summer of 1998. By the time the Pumpkins released the second and final single from Adore that fall — on my 21st birthday, no less! — Billy had de-glammed considerably, adopting his black cowboy hat look in the video for “Perfect.” But in the long run, the vampiric frock of the “Ava Adore” clip has proven to be an enduring fit for Billy, who’s been wearing similar get-ups on stage for years.
29. “Bury Me”
The best bass line in the Pumpkins canon, and I doubt D’arcy played it. Which is a shame, because I’d like to give her credit for how hard this song grooves. But in reality, this is likely just Billy and Jimmy going into one of their musical mind-melds. On this song they’re like the White Stripes as produced by Roy Thomas Baker.
28. “Mouths Of Babes” (1996)
Yet another classic B-side from the “Zero” CD single, which in the annals of ’90s alt-rock history has only two rivals when it comes to CD singles: 1) Oasis’ “Cigarettes And Alcohol,” which includes the incredible B-sides “Listen Up,” “Fadeaway,” and the tripped-out cover of The Beatles’ “I Am The Walrus”; 2) Pearl Jam’s “Jeremy,” which has the radio remix of the title song that stomps the album cut, “Footsteps,” and, of course, “Yellow Ledbetter.” Pearl Jam might have the edge because “Yellow Ledbetter” is the best B-side by anybody from this era, but Smashing Pumpkins really piled on the neo-glam stompers on “Zero,” of which “Mouths Of Babes” is one of the very best.
27. “Geek U.S.A.” (1993)
All right, let’s begin the Siamese Dream vs. Mellon Collie debate. I vote Siamese Dream. It’s very close, because I love double albums, and Mellon Collie is one of the six or seven best double LPs ever. And Mellon Collie, as we’ve already established, has an exceptionally high batting average for a record with 28 songs. Mellon Collie is also the peak of the Pumpkins’ mountain in terms of their popularity, their productivity, and their prominence in music culture. You could even argue that no rock band since can touch them in those specific areas.
And yet … I must go with Siamese Dream. It’s their most perfect album, and one of the most perfect guitar rock albums of the decade. The guitar tones are ideal. The drum sound is ideal. It has their very best songs, as we’ll see. Ten of the first 11 tracks from that record — two of which we’ve already mentioned — are on this list. And people will be mad about the one from that opening 11 that I didn’t include. Siamese Dream is just that stacked.
Maybe the best way to judge each album is by the weaker numbers. “Geek U.S.A.” is in the lower half of Siamese Dream‘s power rankings — like I said, I put eight songs from that album ahead of it, and it still absolutely rips. The part at the end where it slows down to molten lava-tempo is a true “oh shit!” moment on Siamese Dream. But the album is so great that the “oh shit!” moments only get more intense from here.
26. “Jellybelly” (1996)
You know what comes close to opening as well as Siamese Dream? The pink disc of Mellon Collie. Pure fire on the first six songs, including this one, which holds its own in a field that also includes “Tonight, Tonight,” “Zero” and “Bullet With Butterfly Wings.” Another example of Billy Corgan tossing away potential hits in this era like he was hurling $100 bills at a strip club.
Please enjoy this awkward band interview from a recent episode of The Late Late Show With James Corden.
25. “Thru The Eyes Of Ruby” (1995)
I shared the clip above because 1) I’m genuinely curious if James Corden has ever listened to an entire Smashing Pumpkins song and 2) I think it illustrates an essential truth of this band, which is that the members are not friends. Chamberlin’s suggestion that he and Billy were ever cozy while bunking on the road comes across as forced talk-show patter, because that’s exactly what it is. Iha, meanwhile, looks like a guy who’s been forced to show up at a work function during off-the-clock hours.
Corgan has admitted that this dynamic troubled him during the Siamese Dream sessions, when he gave his bandmates a year and a half to prepare and they failed to step up. “I’m surrounded by these people who I care about very much yet they continue to keep failing me,” he said at the time. Nearly 25 years later, however, he seemed to have accepted it, telling The Ringer, “I think one of the great mistakes I made was asking my band to be my family when my family wasn’t my family. And that put a pressure on them that just wasn’t realistic.”
What matters is the musical chemistry that occurs when they plug in and blast away together in a room, which is one of the strengths of the relatively collaborative Mellon Collie. Even on a prog epic like this song, there’s a brutal efficiency to the Pumpkins that functions about as well as any dysfunctional small business.
24. “Bodies” (1995)
Billy is no punk fan, so it’s possible that he didn’t know that this song shares a title with the most venomous track from the Sex Pistols’ iconic 1977 debut, Never Mind The Bollocks, Here’s The Sex Pistols. The heaviest number from Mellon Collie‘s blue disc, “Bodies” also has a sentiment at its core worthy of Johnny Rotten: “Love is suicide.” Clearly, Billy had not yet embraced the “mind-body-soul integration” concept in the mid-’90s.
23. “Where Boys Fear To Tread” (1995)
This song comes before “Bodies” at the start of the blue disc on Mellon Collie, but it comes after on this list because of that stuttering guitar lick that stumbles around ominously for 30 seconds before coalescing into one of Corgan’s finest doom-metal riffs. It’s like the best bits of “Pastichio Medley” were melted down and poured like liquid iron across the chassis of this surly number. With Jimmy providing a subtle swing, “Where Boys Fear To Tread” also has a glam-rock bounce. If Tony Iommi had quit Black Sabbath to join Sweet, it would sound like this song.
The thing about listening to Mellon Collie so much as I wrote this list is that it reminded me how relatively few bands actually write riffs anymore. In the annals of great riff-makers, Corgan doesn’t really get his due. But at his peak, he really was a bottomless well of kinetic guitar parts that could leap out of songs and immediately grab your attention. (And — not to belabor this point — he threw away riffs willy-nilly on songs that were never going to reach a lot of ears, even though they potentially could have.)
“Zero” is yet another supersonic riff machine from Mellon Collie. Though the song’s greatest legacy is providing Corgan with his first iconic rock-star costume, the Zero shirt. He introduced the guise in the “Bullet With Butterfly Wings” video, which kicked off the massive Mellon Collie album cycle. In the mid-’90s, you would actually see people wearing their own black-and-white Zero shirts, as it was an era of fashionable nihilism. However, by the time of the “Zero” video, Billy paradoxically had shed the “Zero” shirt and headed into his Nosferatu phase. “Bullet” was also the final video of the “Billy has hair” years, so there seems to be a connection between wearing an on-the-nose shirt and actually resembling a full-on pale and bald-headed zero.
21. “Appels And Oranjes” (1998)
I’ve come to believe via anecdotal evidence that Siamese Dream and Mellon Collie have translated as well to younger generations as any music from the alt-rock era. I suspect this is due to how good and timeless those records sound, as well as Corgan’s underrated pop sense, which can put those songs over even for audiences who don’t normally listen to a lot of guitar music. An album that still hasn’t gotten a ton of shine, however, is Adore, which is uneven and padded with a lot of downbeat filler but at its best centers Corgan’s strengths as a tunesmith like no other Pumpkins album. This song resembles the countless attempts I’ve heard in recent years to emulate ’80s synth-pop acts like New Order and Depeche Mode, except it’s way better than nearly all of them.
20. “Perfect” (1998)
19. “Pennies” (1996)
One of my favorite Pumpkins B-sides, and also the least characteristic. It presents another facet of Billy the tunesmith, showing off his prolificacy with power pop. Clocking in at a brisk 2:29, it’s the antithesis of all that surrounds it on The Aeroplane Flies High, and it makes me wish he worked more in this vein. For all of the comparisons that Corgan himself has made between his band and Cheap Trick, this is the closest he’s come to making a song that would fit on In Color.
18. “Porcelina Of The Vast Oceans” (1995)
The best of Mellon Collie‘s prog epics, it’s also the most of Mellon Collie‘s prog epics, clocking in as the album’s longest song at 9:21. But the Pumpkins earn every second of that, turning on a dime between spacey interludes and explosive guitar symphonies with the dexterity of Fragile-era Yes. This track also spotlights how well the Pumpkins used quiet in this era — all of their long songs feature extended sections that appear to drift into the ether before suddenly snapping back into focus. An avowed Doors fan, Corgan clearly took notes between bong rips while listening to “The End.”
17. “Soma” (1995)
This song isn’t as long as “Porcelina Of The Vast Oceans” but it has a similar “we’re going on a long journey”-type vibe. In this case, the journey is into the dark heart of Billy Corgan’s romantic misery. “Wrapped my hurt in you / And took my shelter in that pain / The opiate of blame / Is your broken heart, heart, your heart.” Sixteen-year-old me heard “the opiate of blame” and definitely pumped his fist in solidarity, as I was also a person prone to devising torturous metaphors to explain my anguish over getting dumped. “I’ll betray my tears / To anyone caught in our ruse of fools.” Sing the blues, Billy.
16. “Mayonaise” (1993)
Is this the greatest song named after America’s whitest condiment? It’s a testament to Billy’s cockiness at this time that he could take this title and make something so emotional with it. While the lyrics are pretty opaque — “I’m rumored to the straight and narrow / While the harlots of my perils scream” (?) — the sound of “Mayonaise” evokes the comforting blandness of growing up in a thoroughly mediocre and nondescript Midwestern community. It’s a comforting blandness that I know quite well, and it’s layered with my own experience of listening to Siamese Dream so damn much when I was in the midst of my own “Mayonaise” years.
15. “Muzzle” (1995)
This song is linked with “Mayonaise” in my mind, as it literally expresses what the sound of “Mayonaise” only suggests. “My life has been extraordinary / Blessed and cursed and won / Time heals but I’m forever broken.”
14. “1979” (1995)
Nostalgia is a theme that runs through much of the Pumpkins’ work, particularly during their imperial phase. Even when Corgan is complaining about his childhood — “Time heals but I’m forever broken” — there’s a sense that he misses feeling young and lonely and depressed. That version of himself is the muse that’s inspired his best songs. (It’s probably not a coincidence that his well dried up considerably once he became rich and famous.) The miracle of hearing “1979” in 1995 is that I actually was the kind of high school kid that Billy sings about. I drove around aimlessly, I toilet-papered houses, I daydreamed a lot. He was pretty much describing my contemporary life but he somehow made me feel preemptive nostalgia for things that were currently happening to me, even though I was aware (as was Billy) that teenaged existence is mostly terrible. Now when I hear “1979,” I experience nostalgia for my younger nostalgia that deluded me in real time.
13. “Here Is No Why” (1995)
Because it’s surrounded by so many hits on the pink disc, I sometimes forget that this song wasn’t a hit. Because it should have been. As it is, it’s the most underrated Mellon Collie deep cut. The awkward title does it no favors — I’ve been staring at it for 27 years and I still have no clue what it means. But you don’t need reading comprehension when you have this many hooks and expertly ProTools’ed guitars. This is a song where the verses might be even catchier than the chorus. Lyrically, it’s a rare song that’s self-aware about Billy’s self-martyrdom. “The useless drag of another day / The endless drags of a death rock boy / Mascara sure and lipstick lost / Glitter burned by restless thoughts, of being forgotten.”
12. “Obscured” (1994)
I’ve skipped most of Billy’s acoustic numbers on this list, as I’m not especially interested in him working in that mode. Stripping away the noise to put a greater emphasis on his voice and words does not play to his strengths. He’s the death rock boy, not the mellow folk dude. But this song is an exception to the rule, probably because it’s not so much a singer-songwriter attempt as it is an homage to Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here. An ideal vehicle for the King Pumpkin to let his crazy diamond shine.
11. “Drown” (1992)
The first Smashing Pumpkins song I ever heard, and still one of the very best. Because it was positioned at the end of the Singles soundtrack, I incorrectly assumed that this was a new Seattle band that I had never heard of. In reality, “Drown” is an anomaly on that record, just as the Pumpkins were an anomaly in the burgeoning grunge scene. And that comes down to more than just simple geography. While even the superstar acts on that soundtrack — Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, Alice In Chains — pledged fealty to punk and indie rock, no matter their far-removed status from the underground, the Pumpkins were refreshingly frank and direct about their arena-rock ambitions. With “Drown,” they took a step beyond Gish and toward Siamese Dream. It’s the crucial in-between moment when you can hear them come into their own in real time.
10. “Rhinoceros” (1991)
After the Singles soundtrack I backtracked and bought Gish on cassette, and this immediately became my favorite song on the record. It’s the prototype for all of their subsequent slow-building ballads, in which a depressive crawl gives way to a ripping guitar solo at the midpoint, and then an even more ripping guitar solo at the end. That the Pumpkins executed more accomplished variations on this formula on future records hasn’t diluted my love of “Rhinoceros.” I recognize that “Soma” might technically be a better re-write, but I like this song a little bit more. I remain eternally loyal to my first loves.
9. “Silverfuck” (1993)
“This take, don’t give a fuck.” Oh Billy, you give so many fucks here. This is the quietest Pumpkins song during the quiet parts, and the loudest Pumpkins song during the loud parts. The human mind cannot fully comprehend that sort of sonic range. I blasted it in the car the other day as research for this column, and the part at 6:45 when the band comes crashing back in so overwhelmed my speakers that I briefly entered a psychedelic netherworld where I was chased to my death by Billy’s 5,000 overdubbed guitars and Jimmy’s militaristic thrashing. I hope to get back to that place as soon as possible.
8. “Bullet With Butterfly Wings” (1995)
The most quotable Smashing Pumpkins song. If Billy had known that headline writers would refer to him regularly as the rat in a cage in spite of all his rage, perhaps he would’ve reconsidered the lyric. “In spite all my rage I’m still just a genius auteur in a cage.”
7. “Starla” (1994)
Their all-time B-side. Also their greatest “we’re going on a journey” epic. It belongs in a continuum with songs like “Rhinoceros” and “Soma,” in that it’s a slow burner that builds to the requisite ripping guitar solo, which arrives at the 5:38 mark. The beauty of “Starla” is that the solo proceeds to rip for more than five glorious minutes, or about as long as those other songs are in total. The solo just keeps going and going, a maelstrom of wah-wah’s and distortion, as the band lumbers toward the cosmos. And every single one of those distorted wah-wah’s is absolutely earned. You want this song to be absurdly long. I was disappointed when I looked for live versions on YouTube and noticed that they were actually shorter than the 11-minute studio cut. Do not skimp on my distorted wah-wah’s, Billy!
6. “Rocket” (1993)
The fourth and final single from Siamese Dream, and part of the murderer’s row of stone killers that make up the first half of the record. (We’ll be discussing several of those tracks in a minute.) That they held on to “Rocket” for so long goes to show just how ridiculously loaded that album is. By the time it was being played non-stop on MTV, Kurt Cobain was dead and the inevitability of the Pumpkins’ rise to prominence was clear for all to see. In that context, “Rocket” was the sound of victory as Billy “rocketed” to success.
5. “Disarm” (1993)
This is song is a lot. “I usssssssed to beeeee a little boy.” I could easily make fun of it. But that would be a lie, because this baroque-folk pocket symphony of caterwauling self-pity has choked me up on at least one or 20 occasions. What can I say? Like Billy, “I usssssssed to beeeee a little boy.”
4. “Hummer” (1993)
It’s hard to believe that Billy Corgan — who can’t get out of bed without plotting a new double or triple album — ever had writer’s block. But he was wracked with so much self-doubt before Siamese Dream that it caused a temporary surfeit of inspiration. This song is about Corgan coming out of that: “When I woke up from that sleep / I was happier than I’d ever been.” It’s also among the dreamiest and most emotional tracks on Siamese Dream; it wasn’t a hit but it feels like it was a hit. It’s also unique in how it inverts the Pumpkins’ usual formula, going from loud to quiet instead of quiet to loud, landing on a lovely coda in which the lyrical soloing soothes rather than seethes.
3. “Today” (1993)
A defining “anthemic music/depressive lyrics” rock standard for an era with a ton of “anthemic music/depressive lyrics” rock standards. Also has what is likely Billy Corgan’s greatest guitar riff. Though when I revisit the song now on YouTube, I’m mostly spellbound by how foxy James Iha looks in a dress.
2. “Tonight, Tonight” (1995)
For all of his angsty cosplay, Billy Corgan is first and foremost a man who believes unconditionally in the power of rock music. But he typically expresses this via the exuberance of his guitar playing or the grandiosity of his musical ideas. This song is a rare example of Billy expressing literal joy over the power of music. It’s his version of “Thunder Road,” a rousing “take my hand and let’s leave this town forever” anthem that holds nothing back: the chorus is massive, the drums are massive, the strings are massive, the feelings are massive, the promise of redemption is massive. “We’ll crucify the insincere tonight / We’ll make things right, we’ll feel it all tonight / We’ll find a way to offer up the night / The indescribable moments of your life / The impossible is possible tonight.”
1. “Cherub Rock” (1993)
This song also expresses a kind of joy, but it comes from a different place — it’s the joy of “fuck you.” The joy of “fuck you” has served Billy Corgan well, and it’s also hurt him. In the ’90s, he became a rock star in spite of the haters, and also to spite the haters. And it worked because he was more talented than almost all of them. They denied him until they couldn’t, because he had just too many goddamn songs. And he kept writing more and more of them even after he had won. The hate and resentment fueled him until it burned him up, as it always does. But when it burned, it burned extremely bright.
And so it is right and appropriate that the greatest Smashing Pumpkins’ album opens with Billy’s loudest and most eloquent “fuck you,” supported by music with extreme “fuck you” energy. Jimmy’s opening drum roll signals the war that is about to unfold, and the next 26 seconds that kick up the song’s proper groove tears through the speakers as the most purely exciting music in the entire Pumpkins’ catalog. Then comes Billy’s kill shot: “Stay cool / and be somebody’s fool this year / because they know / who is righteous, what is bold / so I’m told.”
If social media had existed in 1993, “Cherub Rock” might have existed only as a subtweet. Instead. Billy wrote a diss song about the entire rock world that he was about to conquer. And after all these years, I can’t help but admire him for that. Because I am a Smashing Pumpkins fan, and I have the same Midwestern “fuck you” energy, and I’m forever looking for someone to “let me out.” But there is no escape. We are stuck with Billy the killer, and he’s stuck with us killers, too.