Thank god St. Petersburg, FL, has forever been a shitty place for music. Otherwise, a young and very straggly Billy Corgan might not have returned home to Chicago to form The Smashing Pumpkins. Equal thanks goes to Metro Cabaret owner Joe Shanahan, whose insistence that the band find a drummer led to the discovery and recruitment of jazz percussionist Jimmy Chamberlin. Without him, it’s very likely Corgan would have spent years attempting to recreate Seventeen Seconds, Faith, or Pornography in lieu of the rock gems that framed most of the ’90s.
What separates the Pumpkins from most of their contemporaries, however, is their mired past. Controversy, chaos, conflict, and corruption strangled the band’s foundation for years: from the hellish recording sessions behind 1993’s Siamese Dream, to the bitter spats with an indie Rolodex of Pavement, Steve Albini, and Bob Mould, and eventually to the tragedies surrounding Chamberlin’s dark, druggy days amidst 1998’s Adore. It’s a difficult task being a Pumpkin, and heavy is the head who wears the crown, aka the Pumpkin King himself, Mr. Corgan.
Shuffles in the lineup, a vitriolic media, and a fractured fanbase haven’t been kind to Corgan over the years — and yet, he keeps waving the moniker. Although we’ll never get a true-blue reunion — sorry, D’arcy Wretzky — the current lineup of Billy, Jimmy, James Iha, and Jeff Schroeder comes pretty damn close. Shiny and Oh So Bright Vol. 1 wasn’t exactly what fans were expecting, but proves there’s a life to this team, at least enough to keep us around for now.
In celebration of their 11th studio album, CYR, we decided to put their catalogue to the test and rank every single studio album leading up to it. Sadly, that means no B-sides compilations like Pisces Iscariot, The Aeroplane Flies High, or Judas O, and certainly not their expansive selection of EPs as varied as Lull, American Gothic, or both Teargarden releases. Sorry. Maybe one day. For now, these 11 exhaustive dissections should prove revelatory enough to either get you nodding in approval or foaming at the mouth like a rat in a cage.
Next time, I promise we’ll be perfect.
11. Zeitgeist (2007)
Runtime: 52:22, 12 tracks (13 with the respective bonus track, depending on which store you bought it from)
Who’s Smashing Pumpkins Here? Jimmy Chamberlin, Billy Corgan, and (Ginger Reyes and Jeff Schroeder for touring)
The Everlasting Track (Longest Track): “United States”, 9:52
What’s In A Name? With only Corgan and Chamberlin behind the wheel, Zeitgeist officially marked the beginning of Corgan’s exhausting argument with the media, his skeptical fans, and his pugnacious critics about “Who is the Smashing Pumpkins?”, forever changing the face of the former Chicago banner with explanations that more or less said, “I’ve always been.”
Too Many Corgans in the Kitchen: He plays every guitar riff, he plays every bass line, he’s behind all the keyboards, he’s at the controls (which, admittedly, he does share with Chamberlin and producer Roy Thomas Baker), and every harmony belongs to him. If this album feels too insular, that’s because it is.
Who Wore It Best? There wasn’t a definitive choice, which was sort of the problem. Most of the B-sides trumped a healthy chunk of the album. While “Death from Above”, off the yellow version, sticks out as the worst Pumpkin track to date (right next to “Starz”), “Stellar”, “Ma Belle”, and “Zeitgeist” were all worthy songs in the catalogue and yet relegated as exclusives to chain stores. Pretty lousy. It basically became a jigsaw puzzle; how can you salvage the album?
How Can You Salvage This Album? Easy, though it would require a return to the master tracks, some re-recording alongside Nicole Fiorentino, and a star wipe of all the excessive Baker-fied production techniques. But, because that won’t ever happen, here’s what you do, instead:
01. “Zeitgeist”, 02. “Doomsday Clock”, 03. “7 Shades of Black”, 04. “United States”, 05. “Tarantula”, 06. “That’s the Way (My Love Is)”, 07. “Stellar”, 08. “Ma Belle”, 09. “Superchrist”, 10. “For God and Country” (acoustic)
What About “Bring the Light”? A wonderful B-side that never found a proper chorus.
Rotten Apples (Worst Song): A whole orchard’s worth. This album was plagued with excess, probably due to a lack of a curator like Flood or Butch Vig or anyone willing to talk down Corgan. As a result, we got his clone army in “Starz”, the vagaries of “Bleeding the Orchid”, the RHCP-leaning “Neverlost”, the confused and bored “[Come On] Let’s Go!”, and more “Pomp and Circumstance”. As aforementioned, B-side “Death from Above” is unlistenable and just all around bad.
Music Video Rankings: Dead last. The ridiculous green screen chaos of “Tarantula” and the uninspired spacey nonsense of “That’s the Way (My Love Is)” couldn’t come close to the band’s previous work. This was a chance to give some identity to this new lineup, something Corgan didn’t want to do until Oceania.
Farewell and Goodnight (Analysis): As Corgan stated, “We kept it pretty close to the chest, and we didn’t branch out too deep into art zone while we were writing the record.” This likely contributed to the album’s impromptu sensibilities, where it’s so steadfast on getting to the next idea that there’s little reflection. The end result is an album full of would-be hits and awe-inspiring misfires. Despite an attempt to revisit the past — fun fact: this was even recorded on the same 24-track tape recorder that captured Mellon Collie — little nostalgia was scuffed up. And any of the humanity exhibited towards the end of Machina was pasteurized by Baker’s rabid enthusiasm to ape Queen’s theatricality and pastiche. In short, the Corgan clones butchered this album, and the insular lineup sounded less and less like a band the deeper it got into the LP.
10. Monuments to an Elegy (2014)
Runtime: 32:35, 9 tracks
Who’s Smashing Pumpkins Here? Billy Corgan, Jeff Schroeder, and Tommy Lee (drums – recording)
The Everlasting Track: “Run2me”, 4:08
One and All (Or Nobody): These were weird, weird times for the Pumpkins, and in hindsight, the baby steps to what would become today’s 3/4ths reunion. In early 2014, Corgan had signed a record deal with record label BMG, who would release the last two albums on the now-defunct Teargarden by Kaleidyscope project. However, not too long after, it was reported that then-24-year-old drummer Mike Byrne and bassist Nicole Fiorentino were no longer part of the outfit, leaving the lineup to, gulp, Corgan and Schroeder. Well, that’s not true. Corgan did call up Mötley Crüe drummer Tommy Lee to record drums.
Wait, Mötley Crüe? Yep. While most Generation Xers would have burned down Chicago for a second time if anyone from Mötley Crüe were associated with the band in the ’90s, Lee actually adds some weight to the album’s nine tracks. He’s hardly as articulated as Chamberlin, but that’s kind of refreshing, especially after the Sabbath smashes and Zeppelin crawls he exhibited on Zeitgeist to hit-or-miss results. Lee proves he’s worthy by the first track, “Tiberius”, and essential by “Run2me”.
Schroeder’s No Slouch: With Chamberlin gone, Monuments proves to be a guitar record. Together, Corgan and Schroeder work in perfect harmony for 33 minutes. Their crowning jewel is the second single, “One and All”, as the two run side by side and bounce off one another during its melody-stacked chorus. Iha is still missed, but Schroeder really comes into his own here, which is why he remains a permanent fixture of the Pumpkins, even with Iha back in the mix.
Rotten Apples: Ever since he resurrected the moniker in 2007, Corgan’s been doing this thing where he just keeps repeating the song titles, and it’s plagued a number of songs. One is “Dorian”, which has all the atmospheric flavor of a post-Adore gem, but can’t quite find a lyrical groove outside of Corgan spinning around the song’s namesake until said name means absolutely nothing. It doesn’t help that every time he says “Dorian”, all this writer can think about is this guy…
Having said that, the weakest song on the album is closing track “Anti-Hero”, which finds Corgan kicking things up a notch with the type of cliche distortion that sounds stripped from the menu of Rock Band or Guitar Hero. Lyrically, he’s even worse off than “Dorian”, as he spouts out gibberish like “I’m so alive with a girl like you/ Trust little baby, can’t you please?” It’s a total letdown for an album that’s been a remarkably solid collection of journal writings.
Music Video Rankings: Sixth. “Being Beige”, “Drum + Fife”, and late release “Run2Me” saw the band return to the video medium for the first time since 2011’s video for “Owata”. All three are a considerable upgrade from anything that promoted Zeitgeist, particularly Jimmy Alhander and Robin Antiga’s cinematic video for “Drum + Fife”. The clip dropped at a time when music videos were starting to fade from the promotional cycle and yet recalls the days when they were the first to lead the charge.
Farewell and Goodnight: While not as sweeping as its predecessor, Oceania, Monuments to an Elegy is far more emotional and finds Corgan in a groove from beginning to end. At the time, it was a fresh, albeit bizarre, chapter for the Midwestern songwriter, who was truly in his own echo chamber, save for some minor assists by Schroeder and Lee. Even so, this album sounds far less incestuous than Zeitgeist, namely because Corgan is far more invested in writing these songs without any anxiety over the ensuing mythology of the band.
As he told Uncut shortly after its release, “I think people are hearing an emotional quality that reminds them of something in the past. By extension, they assume I’m trying to get back there. But the truth is the opposite — I stopped trying to avoid it. I went off to have this Hermann Hesse-style spiritual journey through different sounds and subcultures. And then I came home and allowed myself to make the music I might naturally make.” He’s not wrong; on Monuments, he’s in a clearing, creatively speaking, and the nine tracks speak to that kind of mental release.
09. CYR (2020)
Runtime: 72:00, 20 tracks
Who’s Smashing Pumpkins Here?: Billy Corgan, Jimmy Chamberlin, James Iha, and Jeff Schroeder
The Everlasting Gaze: “Black Forest, Black Hills”, 4:42
Billy Goes Goth: After reuniting 3/4ths of the original lineup for 2018’s exhaustively titled Shiny and Oh So Bright, Vol. 1: No Past. No Future. No Sun, Billy Corgan returned with the same album-to-album backing band composition for the first time in two decades. Instead of building on that record’s arena-minded legacy rock, Corgan eschewed a volume 2 in favor of stepping behind the boards and fully indulging his taste for goth and dark wave. In a Los Angeles Times interview around the time of release, Corgan name-drops inspirations from Siouxsie and the Banshees to Sisters of Mercy and notes that the record reflected the “spiritual war” that seemed to grip the world in 2020. If nothing else, this trip to the dark side produced just-add-eyeliner hits like “The Colour of Love” and “Cyr”, which seem destined for inclusion during halftime of your next Smiths vs. Cure night.
Doing the Double: Not counting the co-released Machina records, CYR represents The Smashing Pumpkins’ first double album since 1995’s Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness. Unlike that record, which used its extra-large runtime to deliver Corgan’s sweeping rejection of grunge-band pigeonholing, CYR opts instead for variations on the theme of “how spooky can we make Billy’s fantasy Mad Libs sound next to these analog synthesizers?” It might be an unfair comparison, but when you release your second double during the 25th anniversary of the one that went diamond, it’s one that’s been invited.
Paladins and Templars and Dauphins … Oh My!: When you pick up a record named after a possibly apocryphal 3rd-century child martyr, you probably know that you’re in for some… mystical lyrics. On CYR, however, Corgan goes full-on Dungeon Master: this is a record that anchors itself around phrases like “thorned idyll,” “heart’s knave,” “the ghosts we slay come ours to reap,” and at least two uses of the word “shalln’t.” That kind of poetic folderol might be forgivable if it were used to advance a coherent narrative or reveal real human emotion, but here, Corgan mostly treats it as empty goth window dressing. That’s an even bigger shame when it comes to tracks like “Adrennalynne”, “Tyger, Tyger”, and “Minerva”, whose otherwise compelling arrangements get bogged down with Corgan’s fantasy free associating. If only they’d been instrumentals.
Rotten Apples: Unlike some records on this list, there’s no obvious contender for worst track on CYR. Instead, the album suffers from a worst mode: whenever the tempo flags and the beat drops out, Corgan’s mid-tempo filler comes to dominate. The result are tracks like “Wrath”, “Dulcet in E”, and “Save Your Tears”, which aren’t even arch or weird enough to be interesting misfires. Also, let’s give special “honors” to “The Hidden Sun”, which manages to make a rock song about templars and dauphins into something boring.
Music Video Rankings: Five of CYR’s 10(!) pre-release singles serve as the soundtrack to In Ashes, a Corgan-penned animated series produced by Portland animation studio Deep Sky. The shorts tell the story of a futuristic dystopia in which a mass power outage sparks an adventure filled with drug overdoses, cybernetically enhanced ne’er-do-wells, and a motorcycle chase with members of an owl-worshipping death cult. Fortunately, they’re paired with some of the record’s highlights (the clubby “The Colour of Love”, demon-rich “Anno Satana”, hard-rock Halloween anthem “Wyttch”), which gives the story a little much-needed propulsion.
Farewell and Goodnight: As our review of CYR noted, the biggest surprise about the record is that Corgan’s turn as a fully realized electro-goth didn’t happen sooner. While the album represents an interesting and appropriate artistic shift for the Pumpkins, Corgan’s chronic lack of a disciplined editor saddles CYR with a bloated runtime and chapbook’s-worth of lyrical inanities that obscures its highlights in a smoke-machine haze. There’s a really good 9- or 10-song record here. If you find it, let me know.
08. Shiny and Oh So Bright, Vol. 1 (2018)
Runtime: 31:47, 8 tracks
Who’s Smashing Pumpkins Here? Billy Corgan, Jimmy Chamberlin, James Iha, and Jeff Schroeder
The Everlasting Track: “Alienation”, 5:01
Marchin’ On: It’s been a real Lynchian experience for Billy Corgan. In the four years since Monuments, we got some cats, we got apathetic trips to Disneyland, and we got weird interviews with Alex Jones. But we also got back Iha, who’s rejoined the Pumpkins as a full-time member, in addition to the return of Chamberlin. After adding some doom and gloom to arenas all summer, the 3/4ths reunion delivered a proper reunion album, exhaustively titled Shiny and Oh So Bright, Vol. 1 / LP: No Past. No Future. No Sun.. Much like Zeitgeist, there’s a big-name producer behind the boards in Rick Rubin, only unlike Roy Thomas Baker, Rubin has an ear that extends beyond multi-tracking vocals and gets the band back on steadier footing.
It’s Where I Belong: Strangely enough, everything that Corgan was trying to run away from is what might move him forward. Although his roots are in the Midwest, he’s long dreamed of being the big LA rock star, playing arenas and saving the world. (For Christ’s sake, he wrote an entire concept album about it.) Those days are long gone — that’s less his fault and more a sign of the times — but he’s never been closer to that fantasy. After all, they’re playing arenas. They’re doing late-night shows. They’re working with Rick Rubin. It’s a magical time for Corgan, who no longer sounds as if he’s singing in an echo chamber.
They’re Baaaaaaack: “Silvery Sometimes (Ghosts)” arrives early on the record, serving as a far more effective opening salvo than “Knights of Malta”, hearkening back to a time when this act was far more invested in coddling your heart than rocking your feet. It’s a strummer in the vein of “1979” or “Perfect” or “Try Try Try”, and Corgan hasn’t sounded this affective since “Home”, indulging in his teenage obsessions with The Cure. “We’re in the middle, we’re in the middle, ghosts,” he sings with gooey bruises. It’s gothic poetry that demands a white-out doodle on every millennial’s Five-Star notebook.
Rotten Apples: Sadly, the Pumpkins act like they still have another “Zero” in them. They don’t and probably never will, which is why the group’s strongest work over the last 18 years, both with or without the original team, is the soft and melancholy stuff. As such, “Solara” is a lifeless slice of rock that’s far more effective as an inoffensive deep cut than the resounding comeback single it wants to be. Yet, the ugliest case of this heavy nostalgia is “Marchin’ On”, a greasy, sleazy rollercoaster of a song that belongs more to Velvet Revolver than, say, the shoegaze-loving rockers that broke through with “Cherub Rock”.
Music Video Rankings: We’ll go with seven — at least, for now. Thus far, the band’s been leaning pretty damn hard on the reunion angle, which is why both videos for “Solara” and “Silvery Sometimes (Ghosts)” feature the band in pivotal roles for the first time in over a decade. To be fair, Iha was always the MVP of their very best videos, and his nonplussed demeanor is a beautiful sight to behold again, but the execution is still lacking. “Silvery Sometimes (Ghosts)” comes close, undoubtedly due to its Halloween accoutrements, but not even a spirited performance by Mark McGrath can sell it as anything more than nostalgia.
Farewell and Goodnight: Reuniting takes time. People change — artists especially — and it’d be foolish to assume that three friends, torn apart by bitterness and rage, would just somehow all of a sudden strike up the same ol’ magic. That was never going to happen, no matter how many bathrobes Rubin gave them in Malibu, but it’s certainly proven to be a start. After all, how else do you explain a song like “Silvery Sometimes (Ghosts)”? It might not be the same magic, but something magical is coursing through Shiny and Oh So Bright, Vol. 1., hinting at a future we can all embrace — especially Corgan.
07. Oceania (2012)
Runtime: 60:02, 13 tracks
Who’s Smashing Pumpkins Here? Billy Corgan, Jeff Schroeder, Mike Byrne, Nicole Fiorentino, and an unnamed studio keyboardist. Who indeed.
The Everlasting Gaze: “Oceania”, 9:05
One Diamond, Many Hearts: Although it’s still wild that Chamberlin was replaced by cherubic drummer Mike Byrne, Oceania happened to be a major collaborative effort, unlike the claustrophobic Zeitgeist. As Corgan told Consequence of Sound prior to the album’s release: “We worked at it together. Over the two years that we’ve been an intact lineup, they’ve shown an ability and a willingness and a temerity to lead, to take possession of the Pumpkins’ world, to stand up for things, to fight for things internally that are important and help rebuild my confidence and support me when other people are constantly telling me I’m an idiot and ‘go back to playing the old songs’ kind of thing.” The teamwork paid off.
Moment of Pure Elation: “The Celestials”, an acoustic number that updates the acoustic guitar and strings of “Disarm” for the indie set. A close second goes to “Pale Horse”, a near-country alternative ballad with an embalming atmosphere and Corgan at his most humbling moment. “Please come back, please come back…” Zing. Right to the heart.
Zwan: Part Deux? You’d think so on “The Chimera”, one of the poppiest tracks that Corgan’s written since, well, “Lyric” or “Honestly”. C’mon, who isn’t singing along to that chorus, though? “I’m never gonna lose you…” Of course, that sunlight only comes after going through some of the bleakest storms, especially on “Violet Rays”, when Corgan delivers a cold punch a minute and 27 seconds in: “I’ll kiss anyone tonight,” only to later add, “Am I the only one you’ll ever see?” Ouch.
Rotten Apples: Much of Oceania is too inoffensive to be bad, though one could argue that openers “Quasar” and “Panopticon” feel like Siamese Dream retreads in areas. That chorus to “My Love Is Winter” could have used tweaking, too.
Music Video Rankings: Despite being an actual full-fledged band for the first time in ages, the Pumpkins opted out of doing any music videos for this album, which is a major loss given the thematic nature of these songs. Both “The Celestials” and “Pale Horse” warrant some really emotional visuals, particularly the former, even if it were a performance video. Oh, well.
Farewell and Goodnight: Oceania is the album that needed to surface back in 2007. Indeed, Corgan’s ’90s bandmates are gone, and with them much of the rat-in-a-cage angst and gloom that characterized the band in the first place. But who cares. Oceania dips confidently into synthpop (“One Diamond, One Heart”), sunny balladry (“Pinwheels”), and midtempo pop-rock (“Inkless”) without too much nostalgia for what’s past. On each track, Corgan exerts a refreshing kind of authority, one that’s level-headed enough to go somewhere and with the people behind him. The songs actually feel like songs and not tracks digitally titled “Smashing Pumpkins anthem.” It was a turning point for Corgan and especially for the Pumpkins 2.0.
–Michael Roffman and Zach Schonfeld
06. Gish (1991)
Runtime: 45:45, 10 tracks (11 with bonus track “I’m Going Crazy”)
Who’s Smashing Pumpkins Here? Jimmy Chamberlin, Billy Corgan, James Iha, and D’arcy Wretzky
The Everlasting Gaze: “Rhinoceros”, 6:32
Grunge Record? No. There is very little “grunge” in the Pumpkins’ debut. Corgan’s unique musicianship kicks down the doors in “I Am One”, pulsating to Chamberlin’s unmatchable beats. This aggressive tone sets the mood for much of Gish, although Corgan wasn’t afraid to pretty things up (see: “Crush” or “Daydream”). There are more guitar solos featured on this record than there are on many grunge bands’ complete discographies. It’s just a rock record, with a smidgen of shoegaze.
Butch Vig Had a Great Fucking Year in 1991: Vig produced a handful of records in ’91, but two stand out like classic vinyl atop an eight-track. The spectacled man produced both Gish and Nirvana’s Nevermind. While he’s gone on to work with some other notable acts (Foo Fighters, Green Day, and Sonic Youth to name a few), he’ll forever be known as the man responsible for these two albums. That’s not an insult.
The Last 100 Seconds of “Snail” Is Why We Put Up with Corgan: There’s that repeated guitar line that manages to bat down swirling electric guitars, even Chamberlin’s trademark drums, and remains the last piece standing come track’s end. Slow and steady wins the race, after all.
Rotten Apples: Perhaps Corgan realized “I’m Going Crazy” wasn’t up to par with the other 10 tracks, thus he threw it on as a secret track. It doesn’t damage the record; if anything, it illuminates how great the rest of Gish is.
Music Video Rankings: Fifth. Just not a lot happening thematically or visually. “Siva” and “I Am One” are “let’s film the band playing the song with strobe lights and quick cuts” while “Rhinoceros” is the band sitting around for most of the video, although they all get major bonus points for reminding everyone that, yes, Billy Corgan once had a full head of hair. Long hair, at that.
Farewell and Goodnight: The band could do no wrong for most of the decade (on record, at least), and rarely has a band this inexperienced seem as assured as the Pumpkins do on Gish. It may not be the band’s best effort, but it’s an essential piece of the 1990’s puzzle. To dismiss it would be to toss aside the beginning of an era not just for Corgan and company, but for the alternative music movement that swept through the decade. I’m going to try to learn whatever the hell Billy’s playing at the end of “Bury Me”. See you in 20.
05. Machina/The Machines of God (2000)
Runtime: 73:23, 15 tracks
Who’s Smashing Pumpkins Here? Jimmy Chamberlin, Billy Corgan, James Iha, and D’arcy Wretzky (select tracks)
The Everlasting Gaze: “Glass and the Ghost Children”, 9:56
If All Goes Wrong: Pretty much everything did. Wretzky bailed on the band mid-recording, Virgin turned their backs on Corgan’s proposed double album, and the project itself evolved from being a theatrical concept to a condensed mess. The loose storyline follows Corgan’s alter ego, Zero, a rock star who renames himself Glass following an experience with God. It’s confusing (here’s a loose explanation), but it was just ambitious enough to stir up a cult of fans, which tipped off an online viral marketing that was quite revolutionary for its time. Followers were asked to source websites and clips, the likes of which included a scrapped animated series based on the album’s original concept. Now do you understand why Corgan frowns a lot?
So, Corgan wanted to create the Gorillaz? You gotta give the guy credit. While Damon Albarn was out supporting 1999’s 13, Corgan was busy drawing up theatrical characters for the band, even insisting on donning costumes and assuming these identities onstage. Sound familiar? It should. He just couldn’t get the plan off the ground. Still, an idea’s an idea.
Flood Watch: With Adore, the UK producer managed to direct the Chicago outfit into a new sound post-Mellon Collie: something glossy, a little nostalgic, but with a modern edge. By Machina, they sounded like a rock band should have sounded in the late ’90s. Strange times haunted the genre, from being manhandled by the likes of Korn and Limp Bizkit to surfing towards the stars via electronic behemoth Moby, who had just turned in his commercial gorilla, Play. Flood’s mixing — which resulted in translucent synths, spectral guitars, and milky vocals — expanded on this era and attempted to do rock right. Judging from the dismal sales (their second-lowest-selling effort to date), nobody cared. Did they not hear “Stand Inside Your Love”, “I of the Mourning”, or “Try, Try, Try”?
That Coda at the End of “I of the Mourning”… just crushes the heart every goddamn time. WHAT IS IT YOU WANT?
Rotten Apples: Maybe it’s the sequencing, but “With Every Light” has always tripped the album’s admittedly weak finale. Corgan spends most of his time trying to polish off hooks from stuffy rhythms cribbed from an unreleased new age-y Burt Bacharach record. The album’s initial surge of power is all but destroyed by the weepy stroll of “Blue Skies Bring Tears”.
Music Video Rankings: Two. W.I.Z.’s Salomé-inspired piece of art for “Stand Inside Your Love” captures the song’s lovestruck majesty to surreal heights second only to Mellon Collie’s videography while Jonas Åkerlund’s aggressive performance video for “The Everlasting Gaze” entertains the eyes and his druggy nightmare behind “Try Try Try” haunts the soul 13 years later.
Farewell and Goodnight: Misunderstood and maliciously maligned, Machina remains a cult favorite in small circles. It’s the last effort of the original lineup, and in some ways, it sounds like it. On “This Time”, Corgan foreshadows their inevitable future as he pines, “This time I need to know/ I really must be told/ If it’s over,” and the answer’s a resounding yes. While the nine-minute opus “Glass and the Ghost Children” hinted at what this lineup could have done, it’s short-lived, glossed over by five confused tracks that seem forgettable in the long run, especially when pitted alongside its follow-up, Machina II.
04. Machina II/The Friends & Enemies of Modern Music (2000)
Runtime: 46:51, 14 tracks (25 with the three bonus EPs of B-sides and alternate versions),
Who’s Smashing Pumpkins Here? Jimmy Chamberlin, Billy Corgan, James Iha, and D’arcy Wretzky (select tracks)
The Everlasting Track: “In My Body”, 6:50
Somewhere Before In Rainbows: I’d probably foam at the mouth if I was Corgan. When Radiohead offered up their pay-what-you-want model for 2007’s In Rainbows, or when Trent Reznor dropped NIN’s The Slip or Ghosts for free in the late aughts, everyone championed them as renegades. But Corgan was ahead of the curve some six to seven years beforehand. When Virgin continued to ignore Machina‘s second half, especially following the first half’s lukewarm reception, Corgan finished up some of the songs, pressed them to vinyl (only 25 copies!), and sent them out to fans and radio stations with the notion to “get it out there.” The album’s still available for free to this day — and in plenty of formats (ironically, go with the Virgin format).
Anyway To Get One of Those Vinyls? Nope. Years ago, someone tried selling their copy on eBay, which drummed up plenty of interest on all the Pumpkins forums. The price skyrocketed; that is, until Corgan himself pulled down the auction, insisting that these were never intended for sale. Don’t worry, it’ll get reissued sometime in the near future.
James Iha, Ladies and Gentlemen: Despite being a co-founder, Corgan’s “patsy” spent most of his time outside the spotlight (save for his comedic additions in the band’s videos), but before the curtain came down, he eked out a winner: “Go”. In a little under four minutes, Iha floats low — taking a page from Corgan, excising the snarl — throughout circular harmonies that ease the itch typically satiated by the likes of Sunny Day Real Estate. It’s pretty stuff.
Who’s Gonna Save My Soul? Corgan doesn’t let up on covers — see: his rendition of Pink Floyd’s “Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun” — and through distorted, pummeling roughage he turns James Brown into something evil for his take on “Soul Power”. It’s the sort of left-field nonsense one might expect from a high school band, which speaks volumes about Corgan’s sense of humor.
Let’s Pick The Singles: “Real Love”, “Let Me Give the World to You”, “Home”, and “Cash Car Star” all would have been solid and very likely choices. “Real Love” appeared on their 2001 greatest hits package, Rotten Apples, “Let Me Give the World to You” circulated on the radio, “Home” has all the melody and melancholy of a classic Pumpkins ballad, and “Cash Car Star” was even played on The Tonight Show.
Rotten Apples: Not many. Some might point to “Go”, but only because it’s Iha and, therefore, the odd man out. The only real victim here is “In My Body”, which could have benefited from some slight editing, namely a minute or two shaved off. Or “If There Is a God”, which gets a little too Bowie for the album’s sake.
Music Video Rankings: Nada. They never made ’em. Could you imagine something for “Real Love”?
Farewell and Goodnight: As usual, something misunderstood and alienated by the higher-ups turned out to be a diamond in the rough. Where Machina II succeeded was its sense of fulfillment and its aggression. Not since the darker corners of Mellon Collie had Corgan sounded so carnal. This is some of the darkest material the band’s ever conjured up, starting with the dystopian disco of “Glass’ Theme”, the doom nu-metal of “Dross”, the metallic power pop of “Blue Skies Bring Tears”, and the post-hardcore whimsy of “White Spider”. It’s so raw and human and animalistic and adventurous, something Corgan and Flood shied away from during the rock ‘n’ gloss of Adore and Machina. This was the Pumpkins everyone should have heard in 2000 and beyond.
03. Adore (1998)
Runtime: 73:25, 16 tracks
Who’s Smashing Pumpkins Here? Billy Corgan, James Iha, and D’arcy Wretzky
The Everlasting Track: “For Martha”, 8:18
The End Is the Beginning Is the End: The first band makeover took place before the recording of Adore, with the seemingly irreplaceable Jimmy Chamberlin shown the exit. After the death of touring keyboardist Jonathan Melvoin (both OD’d on the same night, but only Chamberlin survived), enough was enough. When Jimmy Chamberlin is no longer in your band, dynamics change to say the least. Plenty of electronica seeped into Adore, but this is no dance record (can you imagine?). This record is Corgan at his quietest, and you can include anything from Zwan or The Future Embrace for comparison, as well.
You Make Me … Real: The band’s best ballad is the album opener, “To Sheila”. Corgan’s vocals wade over acoustic guitar (“A summer storm graces all of me/ Highway warm sing silent poetry/ I could bring you the light/ And take you home into the night”), with a hint of percussion buried in the mix. You can strip away the psych/alternative rock that the band excelled in and you still have these skeletons of songs that work, but none as much as “To Sheila”.
The Fabulous Flemion Brothers and Friends! Brothers Dennis and Jimmy Flemion of The Frogs contribute vocals on two tracks: the aforementioned “To Sheila” in addition to nice Beach Boy vox on “Behold! The Night Mare”. The album also features not one, not two, but three drummers, including Soundgarden/Pearl Jam drummer Matt Cameron (best rock resume of the past three decades, anyone?), future touring drummer Matt Walker, and Joey Waronker, who filled in for another departed drummer that same year on R.E.M.’s Up.
Rotten Apples: Sh-sh-sh-sh-sh-shame. Sh-sh-sh-sh-sh-shame. Sh-sh-sh-sh-sh-shame. Sh-sh-sh-sh-sh-shame. Sh-sh-sh-sh-sh-shame. Sh-sh-sh-sh-sh-shame. Sh-sh-sh-sh-sh-shame. Sh-sh-sh-sh-sh-shame. Sh-sh-sh-sh-sh-shame. Sh-sh-sh-sh-sh-shame. Sh-sh-sh-sh-sh-shame. Sh-sh-sh-sh-sh-shame.
Music Video Rankings: Third. Although there are only two to speak of, they hit their mark. “Ava Adore” is a one-long-take introduction to Corey-Feldman-at-the-end-of-Friday-the-13th-The-Final-Chapter-era Billy Corgan. “Perfect” acts as a sequel of sorts to the “1979” video and is the last time the band worked with the team of Dayton-Faris. They would be fine (see: 2006’s Little Miss Sunshine).
Farewell and Goodnight: Adore was the band’s first outright commercial failure, which is why the album has come to represent what follows at the end of the rainbow, when the path to glory turns to rocky ground and meanders back into the creepy thick. Looking back, it’s easy to see how the Pumpkins stumbled into this murky pocket after enjoying the spotlight for so long, but at the time, it was all too humbling for an artist like Corgan. But true artists revel in the valleys and fear the peaks, and that’s exactly what Corgan did. To borrow a handful of words from Friday Night Lights’ Coach Taylor: “Every man at some point in his life is gonna lose a battle. He’s gonna fight and he’s gonna lose. But what makes him a man is that in the midst of that battle he does not lose himself.” Rather, the band’s mastermind found himself again, and the critics eventually came around.
–Justin Gerber and Michael Roffman
02. Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness (1995)
Runtime: 2:01:40, (gulp) 28 tracks
Who’s Smashing Pumpkins Here? Jimmy Chamberlin, Billy Corgan, James Iha, D’arcy Wretzky (with assistance from the Chicago Symphony Orchestra on “Tonight, Tonight”).
The Everlasting Gaze: “Porcelina of the Vast Oceans”, 9:21. (Though “Thru the Eyes of Ruby” and “X.Y.U.” both clock in past the seven-minute mark.)
Breakdown or Breakthrough? Corgan claims to have avoided the brutal tensions of recording Siamese Dream by using two recording rooms instead of one, allowing his bandmates to be productive while Corgan played masterminding genius. Indeed, Iha and Wretzsky took on much greater songwriting and recording roles this time around. But band tensions still stemmed from Chamberlin’s increasing drug use; he was fired on the subsequent tour after an overdose that claimed the life of a touring keyboardist.
From Singles to Singles: “Bullet with Butterfly Wings”, “1979”, “Zero”, “Tonight, Tonight”, “Muzzle”, and — less ubiquitously — “Thirty-Three”
Classic Rock Double Albums That Critics Will Never Stop Comparing It To: The White Album (duh), Sign o’ the Times, London Calling, Physical Graffiti. Corgan, though, envisioned it as “The Wall for Generation X.”
Peak Sadness? Too hard. But on the under-appreciated side of things: the vulnerable, blushing “Stumbleine”; the eerie “To Forgive”; the roaring “Love is suicide!” refrain on “Bodies”; and the oddly loose-minded electronica preview “We Only Come Out at Night”.
Songs Not Written or Sung by Corgan: The two CD-closers, “Take Me Down” and “Farewell and Goodnight” — the latter an obvious White Album tribute — are both acoustic numbers by Iha.
Secret Weapon: Co-producer Flood, who reportedly pushed the band to change up its recording practices and even try jamming. He’d stick around for awhile.
Rotten Apples: “Beautiful”, an ill-advised electro-pop number. (Though I quite like “We Only Come Out at Night” and “Lily (My One and Only)”, the similarly minded tracks that bookend it.)
Music Video Rankings: Numero uno, particularly on the strength of the suburban teen clip for “1979” and — especially — the surreal Georges Méliès’ homage within “Tonight, “Tonight”. Try deciding what’s better without getting a migraine.
Farewell and Goodnight: Billy’s Big Statement, humbling in its scope, breadth, and length. Depending on who you talk to, Mellon Collie is either the defining magnum opus of the Pumpkins’ career or an overblown, overlong, overambitious mess. I lean towards the former category, and if you came of age in the mid-to-late ‘90s, you probably do, too. But, that’s also underselling the album. After all, Mellon Collie doesn’t need rose-colored lens for appreciation. The album’s success still stems from all the stylistic risks the band assumed, especially in comparison to music other alternative bands were creating at the time (back when “alternative” was still an actual genre). Over the years, the world has changed multiple times over, but the Pumpkins’ long-celebrated double album hasn’t. So, why get nostalgic with golden-age thinking when the record never left us in the first place?
–Zach Schonfeld and Justin Gerber
01. Siamese Dream (1993)
Runtime: 62:17, 13 tracks
Who’s Smashing Pumpkins Here? Billy Corgan, Jimmy Chamberlin, James Iha, and D’arcy Wretzky
The Everlasting Gaze: “Silverfuck”, 8:43
I Want My MTV: I think it was when the “Today” video hit MTV that everyone started to take notice of The Smashing Pumpkins. And why not? It was made for the 120 Minutes/Alternative Nation crowd, with its guttural guitar entwined with Corgan’s airy lyrics and delivery. A fine song to say the least, but only a fraction of what Siamese Dream is. By the way, MTV used to be this great channel that played music videos and launched many independent and/or little-known bands from 1981 all the way through somewhere near the end of the 20th century. Now it’s garbage. Screw you, current MTV execs. Sleep well off of the money you make exploiting teenage mothers. Whoa! Sorry. Where was I?
Put It on a T-Shirt: The 3:02 mark in “Rocket”. The music falls away for a moment, as Corgan is left alone with the song’s main guitar line just before the rest of the band (instruments) reappear to finish it all off. “I shall be free!” becomes a mantra for Generation X, Y, Z, etc.
“Mayonaise”: Siamese Dream is over 20 years old. You can argue that some tracks don’t hold up as well as they may have in 1993, but you wouldn’t be able to include “Mayonaise” in your argument. Mid-tempo alternative, grunge, rock, whatever, at its zenith. Bathed in sludge guitars, blessed with a soft opening and softer close, the track seemed destined to close out the album, but Dream actually continues on for four more tracks (“Luna” does just fine as the album’s send-off)! However, “Mayonaise” is undoubtedly the beginning of its climax.
Rotten Apples: Sorry. Fresh all around.
Music Video Rankings: Fourth. It’s not as low as you think. The band just happened to have some of the best videos of the late ’90s/early ’00s on other records. There’s Iha in a dress and Corgan selling ice cream in “Today” (paint fight!) and the classic B&W of “Disarm”. They were one of the last bands to make great music videos on MTV… Hey, MTV! You guys suck now! Get it together! I haven’t forgotten!
Farewell and Goodnight: And we’re off! On Siamese Dream, the Pumpkins continued the eardrum assault of Gish but with a key addition. The use of strings on the still-haunting “Disarm” and closer “Luna” proved orchestrations could work within the genre without falling into the trappings of the maudlin (something “Daydream” narrowly avoided on Gish). In this way, Dream is a gateway record, but that’s where that label ends. For every radio-friendly single, there is an epic track like “Soma” or “Silverfuck” a few spins away. For every piece of rage, there are simple lines akin to “I’m in love with you” in “Luna”. How would they attempt to top it? Oh, right.