This feature was originally published in 2014.
Two decades ago, The Smashing Pumpkins sat on the iron throne of the alternative nation. While their roost was short lived, the music they released during that time left an indelible mark on the mainstream consciousness. Frontman Billy Corgan became an enigma while his Chicago troupe would receive praise for their broad dynamic vision.
Corgan’s six-string wizardry coupled with the percussive talents of Jimmy Chamberlin produced complex masterpieces: from complicated punk rock to delicate alternative, progressive goth metal to everything in-between. And that voice. Such a nasal rasp would go on to guide a legion of outcasts.
It wasn’t all appels and oranjes, though. The ’90s music scene was plagued by incessant self-righteousness, and the Pumpkins suffered from the get-go — especially towards the media. Bitter fights, drug abuse, and creative control would ultimately lead to their initial downfall, though their music was never compromised. This week’s reissue of 1998’s troubled gem, Adore, proves as much.
In light of the release, we’ve compiled a career-spanning ‘Best of’ list to help re-acquaint you to Corgan & co. Don’t worry: It’s not too comprehensive and far less time consuming than watching a free-form synth re-interpretation of Siddhartha. If anything, it’ll get you amped for the band’s followup to 2012’s rather-excellent Oceania.
If 1991’s Gish is the promising child and 1995’s Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness is the ambitious wunderkind, then Siamese Dream remains the idiot savant in the middle with all the answers. But really, it does. At a little over an hour, the album’s 13 tracks perfectly frame exactly who and what The Smashing Pumpkins were and what they would come to be: a glamorous rock ‘n’ roll band with a horrific case of claustrophobia. It’s the band’s purest form of identification, and probably their sharpest snapshot to date (if ever).
In under a minute, “Cherub Rock” solidified Corgan and Chamberlin as the strongest guitarist and drummer, respectively, amongst their peers, while also wrapping duct tape around the mouths of any rockists looking to snub alternative. From there, it’s 12 exercises in rock ‘n’ roll, from pop rock (“Today”, “Mayonaise”), to ballads (“Disarm”, “Spaceboy”), to shoegaze (“Quiet”, “Hummer”), to speed metal (“Silverfuck”, “Geek U.S.A.”), and even psychedelia (“Soma”, “Rocket”). Never once does a track feel out of place, an attribute perhaps best aligned to Alan Moulder’s 36 days of mixing.
But what also makes Siamese Dream their best work is how tortured it sounds. Based on the stories, it’s unreal that producer Butch Vig didn’t burn down Triclops Studios in Marietta, GA. “D’arcy [Wretzky] would lock herself in the bathroom, James [Iha] wouldn’t say anything, or Billy would lock himself in the control room,” he later explained to Rolling Stone. Though, such reclusive and tumultuous affairs, the likes of which had a physically crushing effect on Chamberlin, produced an album that breathes and screams and punches over two decades later. –Michael Roffman
Surprised? Probably not. Charts aside, there’s a reason “1979” remains the Pumpkins’ most popular track and it’s all in the weight of the song. The Grammy-nominated single off 1995’s Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness stocks so much musically and thematically that it hits your mind, soul, and heart.
Produced by Flood, Alan Moulder, and Corgan, the four-and-a-half-minute song is lyrically the most evocative in the Pumpkins catalogue, chock full of lines that slice right into the pensive nerve (“forgotten and absolved/ to the earth below”) and radiate in the memory banks forever (“faster than we thought we’d go/ beneath the sound of hope”).
It’s also quite timeless, penned for the lapse between one’s adolescence and adulthood, as the lyrics glaze over restlessness and hopeful uncertainty. Those themes come alive with the use of light electronic textures and subtle harmonies, qualities that separated the uptempo ballad from anything else of its time.
“1979” captured the wavelike nature of youthful optimism being swallowed by the passage of time. From start to finish, Corgan frames the brevity of those years, while also noting youth’s indifference. It’s a universal feeling through and through, and something they’ve few artists have ever captured since.
Best Music Video
Smashing Pumpkins videos (heck, even the Pumpkins themselves) often felt like a tightrope act between spectacle and sentimentality (as evidenced, respectively, by the Nosferatu scene-shifting of “Ava Adore” and the deliriously nostalgic “1979”). No video rode the middle ground between those two more successfully, though, than that for “Tonight, Tonight”. Full of wonderful practical effects, intricately designed sets, and expressive performances, the video captures the timeless nature of the lyrics, as well as Corgan’s insistence that “the impossible is possible tonight.”
An homage to the silent film A Trip to the Moon (Georges Méliès’ 1902 masterpiece, often considered the first science fiction film), the video stars comedy power couple Tom Kenny and Jill Talley (of Mr. Show and Spongebob Squarepants fame) journeying to the moon on a zeppelin, encountering aliens, and taking in a performance by an octopus and some mermaids. The reverence for the source material is palpable, and Corgan’s theatrical arm waves in that pale suit and top hat provide a warm counterpoint to his leather-clad intensity elsewhere. In the end, the visual of Billy, Jimmy, James, and D’Arcy floating amongst the stars in the fluttering moonlight is the way I’d like to remember the Smashing Pumpkins — costumed and melodramatic, sure, but also romantic, grand, and thrilling. –Adam Kivel
Best Album Cover
Minimal, elegant, and succinct: Adore‘s album artwork fully illustrates the Pumpkin’s emotional nihilism during this era. At the time, Corgan, Wretzky, and Iha were working though the growing pains of being a global phenomenon following the multi-platinum success of Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness, while Chamberlin exited stage left after he and touring keyboardist Jonathan Melvoin overdosed on heroin together (the latter succumbing to the drug). To add more trauma, Corgan was coming out of a divorce and his mother had just died of cancer. He would later describe Adore as “a band falling apart.”
As such, Adore‘s cover art doubles as an invitation for the haunted and tragic. The terrifying vixen, seemingly torn out of a Robert Weine film, beckons with her everlasting gaze — those eyes! When paired with, say, the industrial dissonance of “Ava Adore”, the electronic speculation of “Appels + Oranjes”, or the midnight balladry of “For Martha”, it all makes even more sense. It’s a remote world far different than anything the Pumpkins ever offered before, and in hindsight, that’s exactly what the album actually offered. That The Smashing Pumpkins name is nowhere to be found just screams of their attitude and state of affairs. It’s brilliant. –Michael Roffman
10 Best Non-Greatest Hits
Though the big, booming songs made the biggest waves on the general public, the soft, poetic “Stumbleine” shows another important side of Billy Corgan and Smashing Pumpkins. He spoke for all the “misspent youth faking up a rampage,” whether in the moments of raging and fighting or crying and making idle threats. He also knows all those lost kids (all of us lost kids) need someone in those stumbling moments. –Adam Kivel
1998’s Adore saw the beginning of a decline in commercial success for the Smashing Pumpkins. However, that decline was not necessarily present in the music. The album’s dark pulse is perfectly encapsulated in “Tear”. Minor strings caress the landing of lyrics like “To watch you numb/ I saw you there.” It’s a powerful song with powerful implications. –Kevin McMahon
08. “I Of The Mourning”
“Radio, play my favorite song.” In a rather meta, quasi-Bowie twist, Corgan takes this early track off Machina/The Machines of God and wrenches in enough pop to play with the song’s lyrical themes of stardom. It’s a coaster that swells with each passing verse, closing with a mountain of angst as Chamberlin speeds up his military march to hair-raising tempos. Highly underrated. –Michael Roffman
Melodic arpeggiated intro, strong emphasis on dynamics, cryptic yet intimate lyrics — “Galapagos” has it all. It’s a passionate tale of a personal change affecting a relationship, neatly tucked into the mammoth of Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness. This is a minor addendum that gets lost in the haystack that is one colossal album. –Kevin McMahon
06. “To Sheila”
Corgan gambled pretty hard by opening Adore with “To Sheila”. The song’s hush-hush storytelling warrants an uncanny intimacy that’s so quiet and engulfing that it takes a song like “Ava Adore” to snap everyone out of it. When Corgan whispers, “You make me real,” he likely had no idea how many valentines, paper notes, or status updates would cite him. So romantic. –Michael Roffman
There’s something of country in the chord twangs of the final single from Mellon Collie, but also something downright dreamy. The title suggests that this could be a Christian tune (the crucifixion occurring in Jesus’s 33rd year, reportedly), but it could and often does work as a simple love song just as easily (“And you can make it last, forever you”). Either way, those piano chords unlock an eyes-closed, softly-swaying place from which “the graceful swans of never” fly. –Adam Kivel
Rumor has it that “Muzzle” very well could’ve been a sixth single from Mellon Collie — and the massive hook and passion certainly would’ve justified that choice. “I fear that I am ordinary,” Corgan begins, the song begun by this knowledge that his love and the resulting life of bliss can’t last. But by the time he reaches the list of things he knows, the lessons he’s learned in his love, he’s glad at least that that time was there, even if it couldn’t last. That Icarus-like feeling is captured in the soaring guitars and vocals perfectly, a bittersweet highlight. –Adam Kivel
03. “I Am One”
How is this not on the band’s greatest hits? It was their debut single, for Christ’s sake. Oh well. Admittedly, “I Am One” has always felt like an early Jane’s Addiction greaser, but it’s Corgan’s wily vocals that keep this out of Los Angeles. Well, that and those double guitars, and the way they boogey next to Chamberlin’s popcorn fills. Thank god nobody let Corgan rant on tape. –Michael Roffman
02. “Geek U.S.A.”
From the opening snare roll, Jimmy Chamberlain puts on a thunderous clinic on the excellent “Geek U.S.A.”, combining his hard rock chops with his jazz training for an absolutely beastly performance. Corgan’s solo, too, rips through like a blast of ball lightning, tearing through the hard-edged sections to reach a sweetly psychedelic oasis in the middle. –Adam Kivel
“Mayonnaise” is probably the track that rides as close to being on the greatest hits album without actually being on it. For most, it likely would make the cut. It has the chordal power of songs like “Cherub Rock” and “Tonight, Tonight” and distorted tones that rattle off like an anthem. It rests in the sweet spot of arena rock, but without that yucky forced feeling. –Kevin McMahon
10 Best Live Songs
The distance between the bullish riffs and open air proclamations of “XYU” felt pretty wide on the record, but they’re downright eerie in the live setting. Plus, as the song ramps up, Corgan gets to shred both his guitar and his vocal cords. In the Melissa Auf der Maur era, her bass enters into a stoner metal two-step to offer the frontman some extra time to bleakly philosophize and self-deprecate in the ultimate turn of the century way. –Adam Kivel
The Smashing Pumpkins delivered one of the dearest covers of the ’90s by revisiting Stevie Nicks’ transcendent song. The performance is so powerful that the rendition was released on their B-side compilation Pisces Iscariot, eventually reaching No. 30 on the US Airplay charts. Let’s not forget those acoustic riffs that Corgan rips into, either. –Kevin McMahon
08. “To Sheila”
Intimacy and Corgan know no bounds. However, Corgan’s struggles in replicating the soft croon from studio albums in a live setting are apparent in many Pumpkins performances. “To Sheila”, however, offers enough instrumental hush that Corgan nails its exhibition. –Kevin McMahon
For awhile, Corgan opted to perform this one solely on acoustic guitar. Bad move. Similar to Foo Fighters’ “Everlong”, this track will forever be tied to its percussion, and without those electronic beats, the song’s incapacitated. When you do get the original rendition, however, it’s one of those experiences people deem “religious.” Even if the guy behind you has no clue what he’s actually singing. –Michael Roffman
06. “Stand Inside Your Love”
Keyword: lush. What separates Machina from the rest of the Pumpkins repertoire is how slick and produced the album it sounds, which admittedly, turned off some folks. On stage, Corgan finds an agreeable medium that gives the material a rather nostalgic edge. “Stand Inside Your Love” benefits from reveling in the layers, but also indulging on the scruff. And if you’re next to a loved one, that chorus will destroy you. –Michael Roffman
05. “I Am One”
Gish era Smashing Pumpkins saw the kind of thumping baselines and punk rock riffs that could see them in compared to the Red Hot Chilli Peppers of the same period (albeit loosely). “I Am One” live shoots straight into the post-punk wheelhouse, and we have the mosh pits to prove it. –Kevin McMahon
In the early days, every single strum of “Siva” looked furious, and the transitions between muscular bursts and playful psychedelic territory dripped fluidly. This one’s the ultimate example of Corgan’s volcanic power, simmering in a dormant smirk before erupting in a wild animal howl. –Adam Kivel
03. “Bullet With Butterfly Wings”
This song was built for the stage. Fluid swells and releases are all tied to the iconic phrase, “Despite all my rage, I am still just a rat in a cage.” When Corgan lets the metal trickle out, the crowds respond accordingly. That coda at the end just burns the wah pedal to a crisp, too. –Kevin McMahon
Performances of the sing-along special “Disarm” ranged from subdued and slow-burning to stomping and angry, but each iteration gets its dazzle courtesy of Iha’s limber guitar solo. Though he looks barely awake on the verses in this performance UK TV show The Word, he provides a crackling counterpoint to Corgan’s raw chorus. –Adam Kivel
This slice off Cameron Crowe’s Singles is surprisingly oft-forgotten amongst Pumpkins fans — even despite an inclusion on their Rotten Apples collection. That only makes its live appearance a rare gem. The soft and loud interplay between Corgan and Chamberlin is charming, but what turns this from an agreeable B-side to a must-see performance is the way Corgan goes full Hendrix, relying less on scales and more on reverb and feedback. It’s a beauty, alright. –Michael Roffman