The early 90’s are known mostly for the grunge explosion and the rise of “alternative” rock, a drastic departure from the synthesizer pop beats of the last decade. While Seattle
acted as the hotbed for the grunge movement and raw, head banging, hard rock returned to mainstream American music, a little known four piece group from Chicago began building what would become one of the most powerful careers of the period. The Smashing Pumpkins and its arrogant, baby faced front man Billy Corgan emerged on the scene with the release of their first LP Gish in 1991. While juggernaut albums like Nirvana’s Nevermind and Pearl Jam’s Ten overshadowed the Pumpkins’ impressive debut effort, the band solidified a loyal fan base with incredible live shows and more than flirted with huge success.
1993’s follow up Siamese Dream exploded onto the national scene with several top 10 singles and the Pumpkins took off running. Though the band often struggled with fighting, drugs, and Corgan’s antics, their position was solidified and with subsequent albums Pisces Iscariot (B-Sides compilation) and Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness (double CD). The Smashing Pumpkins have sold over 40 million albums worldwide and were one of the biggest rock bands playing during the late 90’s. Though critics often blast the group for Corgan’s overbearing habits and mainstream aims, their talent and incredible song writing cannot be denied. Corgan, who wrote nearly every song the band recorded, has to be one of the pinnacle songwriters of our times and the group isn’t even finished yet. They are said to be recording in the studio again after a 6 year hiatus.
Below is a list of 10 of the Pumpkins greatest songs, a paltry list given their extensive output. They are a showcase of Corgan’s dynamic and wide ranging talents and the band’s musical power. They are listed in chronological order.
1. Bury Me – Gish 1991 – This hard rocking tune is a prime example of the Pumpkins’ early efforts. The driving drum parts, played by perhaps the most talented rock drummer ever, Jimmy Chamberlain, accompanied by impressive guitar riffs give the song an undeniable force. The fast paced verses broken up by frequent stops and screeching guitar melody lines are a trademark of the Pumpkins’ sound. Corgan’s guitar solo at the song’s peak is nothing short of incredible and the more mellow, building outro is proof of the range of the band’s talent.
2. Snail – Gish 1991 – A more mellow tune, Snail showcases the melodic guitar parts Corgan is known for. His soft, dreamy lyrics slowly lead up to the hard hitting chorus. The ability to stream between soft melodies and sick rock sections were the band’s strength, something they perfected more than any other band at the time. And Chamberlain’s drum fills are mind boggling.
3. Cherub Rock – Siamese Dream 1993 – The first song on this monumental album is upbeat, its growth from a simple drum roll into a heavy and catchy groove a brilliant piece of songwriting. The bridge where Corgan screams “Yeah Ã¢Â?Â¦ Let me out!” is a small hint at the escapism Corgan’s lyrics often deal with.
4. Hummer – Siamese Dream 1993 – This dynamic song begins with a sitar loop quickly joined by a funky drum line, then bass, then the high flying guitars soar in on top. The tight production on this song and the album as a whole stemmed from legendary producer Butch Vig and Corgan’s relentless studio ethic where he eventually recorded all parts except drums by himself. The soft plucky outro again is just sheer brilliance.
5. Rocket – Siamese Dream 1993 – Another song from this album (which could serve as a top 12 by itself) that sways from melodic riff to melodic riff. The depth of production is evident, many guitar parts layered over each other, giving the music a fuller sound and depth that much of the grunge movement lacked. The song peaks with a complete stop, a beautiful riff breaks out soon joined by the full band, followed by a slow retard and a grand ascending finale. Awesome stuff.
6. Starla – Pisces Iscariot 1994 – This B Sides compilation is itself one of the Pumpkins most impressive albums and goes to show that Corgan’s sheer output of great music is staggering. This slow building epic song takes its time in growing from a simple guitar ascension into a wall of heavy distortion. The quiet acoustic bridge in the middle contains some of Corgan’s greatest lyrics. “Serve yourself, cause no one else can do for you like you and no one else feels like me. In my eyes I burn alive, fly like a bird, no more worries just you and I, high in the sky.”
7. Here is No Why – Mellon Collie 1996 – This anthem tribute to Corgan’s glam rock youth is impressively constructed with its unique riff line. The soaring guitar solo is one of his best and his screaming choruses are what caught the attention of so many teenage rock fans.
8. Lily – Mellon Collie 1996 – Perhaps Corgan’s most beautiful song, he shows off on piano, writing a drastic departure from the band’s hard rocking reputation. In writing more than 30 songs for this album alone, Corgan had to explore new territory, leading him in staggering directions like this. Strangely, the song deals with a bit of voyeuristic yearning but it stands as one of the most unique Pumpkins tunes.
9. We Only Come Out At Night – Mellon Collie 1996 – Another bizarre beginning to this song as Corgan explored deeper and deeper into his abilities. But at its core, this song has a gorgeous piano accompaniment and more beautiful lyrics. “And once again, you’ll pretend to know me well, we’re friends. And once again, I’ll pretend to know the way. Through the empty space, through the secret places of the heart.”
10. Tear – Adore 1998 – Though Adore was ravaged by critics after the band kicked out Chamberlain and went in more electronic directions, it is no less of a great collection. This song tells the story of a close friend lost in a car accident. The haunting arrangement adds to the agony of the song and the album as a whole.
It is close to impossible to only pick 10 Pumpkins songs to present as their best. The band has plenty of naysayers and haters, but the Smashing Pumpkins still stand as one of the most talented, progressive, and successful bands of the 90’s. Corgan stands as perhaps the most prolific individual rock songwriter since Dylan. I know, but look back and you’ll see.
Other songs that could replace any others on this list: Tristessa, I Am One, Crush, Quiet, Geek USA, Silverfuck, Sweet Sweet, Frail and Bedazzled, Glynis, Drown, Tonight Tonight, Jellybelly, An Ode to No One, Galapagos, In the Arms of Sleep, on and on and on and on …