As Greg Kot of Guitar World once quipped, “the [Smashing] Pumpkins remain an island unto themselves.” That was in 2001, when the band had spent a decade carving out an impressive art-rock niche, and long after a shortsighted music press had once smacked them with unenviable and laughably off-base label of “the next Nirvana.” But even to this day, the two bands are often clumped together as vanguards of the scathing, grungy brand of alternative rock that defined the early ’90s. And yet, there’s little doubt that the group is much more than some also-ran grunge outfit chasing Kurt Cobain’s shadow. Indeed, with 11 studio albums and dozens of EPs, compilations, and soundtrack contributions, Billy Corgan and company have proved to be expert evocateurs, stitching together their melodic pastiche from a diverse litany of musical, literary, and visual sources. Armed with a mosaic sound that includes hat-tips to glam rock, art nouveau, psychedelia, goth, vaudeville, new wave, and Victorian romanticism, the Pumpkins have transcended any one moment or movement, instead reveling in the entire tessellation of 20th-century art.
Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this article was published on July 21, 2013.
15. “Knights of Malta”
The sweeping opening track of 2018’s Shiny and Oh So Bright, Vol. 1/LP: No Past. No Future. No Sun bears the hallmarks of vintage Pumpkins: Bill Corgan’s melodic whine, Jimmy Chamberlin’s formidable drumming, and the intricate layers of guitar courtesy of Corgan, original guitarist James Iha, and Iha’s one-time replacement Jeff Schroeder. Everything about the song feels grand and triumphal—right down to the lyrics, in which Corgan sings, “I’m gonna fly forever/We’re gonna ride the rainbow,” as if he’s approaching the gates of rock ‘n’ roll Valhalla.
14. “Set the Ray to Jerry”
As complex as the band’s arrangements and conceits often are, the Pumpkins frequently hit paydirt when relying on Corgan’s ear for crafting simple melodies. “Set the Ray to Jerry” is that principle in practice, as a two-note guitar riff and constantly rumbling snares come together with Corgan’s plain, passionate declaratives (“I want you” and “I need you”) to form a lucid, seductive nighttime jam.
13. “For Martha”
Corgan’s mother inspired plenty of animus throughout the Pumpkins’ catalogue, but none quite as conflicted and harrowing as the kind that fills the song sharing her name. Inspired by her passing, “For Martha” is an eight-minute dirge of gothic piano that bursts into a wave of crying, razor-edged guitars at its halfway point. At the height of it all, Corgan finally delivers his raw, teary-eyed eulogy: “Long horses we are born/Creatures more than torn/Mourning our way home.”
The riffs on “Tristessa” are some of the most efficient the Pumpkins have ever crafted. With four simple notes, Corgan and fellow guitarist James Iha lay down a bouncing, whiplash guitar hook that’s strong enough to carry the song through its shattering conclusion, proving along the way that the band had two other weapons in their arsenal besides panache: power and rhythm.
Serving as a kind of thematic unifier for David Lynch’s Lost Highway soundtrack, “Eye” was Pumpkins fans’ first taste of the band’s post-alternative offerings, where the remnants of their baroque, neo-Victorian rock tastes met Corgan’s new obsession with Pro Tools. While that formula would meet with mixed success on the subsequent Adore, “Eye” remains a sublime slice of electro-goth, pairing Corgan’s understated performance with a litany of chilling instrumentation—not to mention the wonderful angularity of that crisp drumline.
In which the Pumpkins conclusively prove that great art comes from great pain. Purportedly on the verge of suicide, a desperate, perhaps somewhat deranged Corgan penned “Today,” a facetious, goodbye-cruel-world lullaby that, when draped in the band’s trademark cloak of mellow fuzz, becomes a triumphant middle finger to the crippling effects of depression.
There are many points on their 1991 debut, Gish, where the Pumpkins seem caught between their early metal influences (Black Sabbath, Judas Priest) and the art-rock band they ultimately aspired to be, but “Snail” isn’t one of them. The track is perhaps the most obvious foreshadowing of the ambitious plans Corgan had for his group: sweeping, unapologetically romantic, and cinematically paced, its verse, bridge, and chorus structured in such a way so that the ultimate catharsis—in this case, a climbing sub-melody full of unbridled optimism—comes bursting through quite dramatically in its final minute.
8. “To Forgive”
Snuck between the lumbering “Bullet with Butterfly Wings” and the even more monstrous “Fuck You (An Ode to No One)” on Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness, “To Forgive” is a brief but solemn respite from Corgan’s encroaching demons. The use of slow, shuddering guitars and broken organs, a jangly collection of instruments that gradually breaks down as the song unfolds, mirrors Corgan’s own digression, an adult’s battle against embittered childhood memories.
7. “Tonight, Tonight”
Mellon Collie’s de facto opener captures the entire spectrum of the double album’s symphonic bravado. And yet it’s the quiet moments that make “Tonight, Tonight” such a great song, particularly the sad acoustic arpeggios of the verse where Corgan laments the untruths of time, like an aging man spying his face in the mirror and attempting in vain to find some meaning in his wrinkles.
6. “Frail and Bedazzled”
Like their muses, the Pixies, the Pumpkins are virtuosos when it comes to dynamics, delivering both loud and soft parts in an elegant tandem for maximum dramatic effect. The high-tempo B-side “Frail and Bedazzled” displays the full range of their precision: Corgan sings high, and then low, then by himself with the music cut out, until all the guitars come crashing back in for the coup de grace, a screaming, high-energy conclusion made all the more powerful by the calm that came before.
5. “Cherub Rock”
Corgan has certainly harbored his fair share of resentment toward the music press, but “Cherub Rock” elevated that antagonism into a beautifully seething art form. Bolstered by a thick, chunky wall of distortion and an eminently hummable main hook, the Siamese Dream opener collects all of Corgan’s ire—toward his critics, toward rival bands, toward enemies both real and imagined—and blasts it upward and outward with the rocket-powered force of the band’s liquid-smooth guitar prowess.
“Stumbleine” is a demure, rural lullaby, its childlike narrative of horse stables and sea voyages punctuated only by Corgan’s voice and a willowy steel acoustic. It’s through that quiet simplicity that the track brings Mellon Collie’s latent, turn-of-the-century storybook tableaux to the surface, better capturing the album’s esoteric, fairytale mythology than any of the blustery epics beside it.
“Disarm” landed at #54 on our list of the Best Singles of the 1990s, with Ed Gonzalez recognizing the song’s bleak lyricism as “the unmistakable cry of an abuse victim.” But Corgan’s naked pain ultimately allowed his bandmates to surpass the sweaty-haired psychedelia of their Sub Pop origins. Beyond its tightly wound ensemble of strings and bells and its flair for the orchestral, “Disarm” is the moment the Pumpkins stopped being simply a group of disaffected alterna-rockers and became something far more poignant, artful, and consequential.
Just as its title suggests the inevitable cusp of a new decade, “1979” exists at the crossroads of two Pumpkins eras, the literal embodiment of the band’s passage from arena-spanning glam rock into a more insular world of processors, drumpads, and synthetic instrumentation. For these four minutes, at least, Corgan and company marry the old and the new perfectly, resulting in their first, and best, attempt at injecting bouncy new wave into their churning, guitar-laced sound.
A longtime fan favorite that’s often brushed aside for more bombastic examples in discussions of the band’s greatest feats. But in drawing together all the many shards of the band’s sound, “Mayonaise,” from Siamese Dream, accomplishes something that has so far eluded every other Pumpkins track: Holding up a mirror grand enough to reflect all the pieces of the group’s tortured, sensitive, and wonderfully fractured soul. The image it reflects is both polished and visceral, loud and soft, angst-ridden and sublime. In short, all the qualities that make the band’s work significant.