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The 20 greatest Smashing Pumpkins songs – ranked

From Gish to Mellon Collie And The Infinite Sadness and beyond, we rank the Chicagoan alt. legends’ greatest tracks…

A flurry of recent activity – most notably 2020’s excellent 11th album Cyr – has confirmed that The Smashing Pumpkins are anything but a spent force, over three decades on from their emergence in the Chicago alt. underground. When it comes to ranking their greatest tracks, however, it’s impossible not to be immediately drawn to that extended period in the 1990s where they bridged the grunge, goth and industrial rock phenomena (adding countless esoteric flourishes all their own) to an establish a reputation as one of the biggest and best bands on the planet.

Frontman Billy Corgan has always been the tormented genius force at the heart of everything, plumbing his past traumas and an outsider mindset to endlessly fascinating effect, but the original axis of bassist D’arcy Wretzky, guitarist James Iha and drummer Jimmy Chamberlin deserve credit as one of the most iconic alt.rock line-ups of their generation, effortlessly able to channel the often-understated electricity of their music. Their involvement in so many of the tracks here is particularly telling, while James and Jimmy’s recent return to the fold feels inextricably linked to the past few years’ upturn in form.

With such variety and shape-shifting influence stretched out over a catalogue that’s now close to 400 songs deep, everyone will have a Top 20 to suit their own tastes. The cross-section we’ve chosen is a hell of a showcase, though. If we’ve omitted your favourite, let us hear about it. We’ll be there, smiling politely.

20. To Sheila (Adore, 1998)

Three years after the outrageous success of third album Mellon Collie And The Infinite Sadness – a record Billy Corgan once likened to Pink Floyd’s The Wall for Generation X – Smashing Pumpkins were faced with the almost insurmountable task of moving on. With Jimmy Chamberlin having (temporarily) left the fold, they decided to shift their palette from the rich sepia tones of that previous record for Adore’s monochrome gothic synth-pop. Album opener To Sheila eased us in, however, with four-and-a-half minutes of soft strummed, down-tuned guitar and Billy’s increasingly contemplative lyrical delivery: Strong as I feel / It meant the world to hold a bruising faith / You make me real / But now it’s just a matter of grace…’ Understated excellence. The epically heartwrought For Martha – dedicated to Billy’s mother, who had passed in 1996 – deserves a shout here, too.

19. Stand Inside Your Love (Machina/The Machines Of God, 2000)

With Adore’s critical and commercial underperformance, album five marked another reinvention. This time, Billy envisioned a complex concept album that played on the band’s exaggerated public personas, with the narrative of a rock star (named Zero – more on that below) hearing the voice of God, renaming himself Glass and calling his band The Machines Of God. Lead international single Stand Inside Your Love, however, was the sound of pure Smashing Pumpkins: a surging alt. love song that saw Billy confessing, I’m telling you how much I need and bleed for / Your every move and waking sound…’ He would subsequently acknowledge that it is the only true” love song he’d ever written and a sort-of tribute to then-girlfriend Yelena Yemchuk. Director W.I.Z.’s visionary music video is a striking tribute to the 1891 play Salomé by Irish writer Oscar Wilde.

18. Jellybelly (Mellon Collie And The Infinite Sadness, 1995)

The first of many Mellon Collie And The Infinite Sadness tracks on our list is almost the heaviest and most acerbic of that legendary double-album release. Nowhere, we’re nowhere, we’re nowhere to see,’ seethes Billy as the turbocharged riffs simply refuse to let up. Living makes me sick / So sick I wish I’d die / Down in the belly of the beast / I can’t lie.’ Beyond the rage and self-loathing, though, there is a redemptive streak. That abstract title Jellybelly remains one of the hardest to interpret in the Smashing Pumpkins canon, but the song’s last lines (‘And forever, forever, you’re forever to be / Forever, forever, you’re forever to me…’) suggests it’s either a term of resentment or one of contrarian endearment. 

17. Starla (I Am One B-side, 1992)

Exposed to previously unknown elements of the record industry at that early stage of their career, Smashing Pumpkins realised that they needed an unreleased B‑side to go with Gish’s second single I Am One, so fans who’d already bought the album would go and pick up the single release too. At that point, Starla was a half-written concept they would complete over an all-night session, finishing just as the sun came up. In the years since, it has become a firm fan-favourite. At just over 11 minutes, it’s Billy’s first true epic and a cathartic masterclass that grows from its meditative opening act to a sprawling instrumental outro, built from wave after wave of audacious solos.

16. Siva (Gish, 1991)

Billy had labelled dozens of tapes with the name Siva before he’d ever actually written the song. Fascinated by the opposing tantric masculine/feminine concepts of Shiva and Shakti, there was originally a H’ in there, but it was dropped to avoid association with the Hindu deity of the same name. The finished article would become the lead single from debut album Gish, and a key recording in their seminal BBC session with John Peel the same year. A grungier, far more to-the-point offering than much of their later work, it is characterised by Billy and James Iha’s duelling guitars and some never-more-urgent lyricism: All this pain smothers me / Like a bomb that you can’t see / Tell me, tell me what you’re after / I just want to get there faster…’

15. Tarantula (Zeitgeist, 2007)

The Pumpkins’ decision to break up on December 2, 2000, had left many fans heartbroken, but their 2006 reunion’ with only Billy and Jimmy from the classic era quartet left much to be desired. Regardless, the first single from subsequent 2007 album Zeitgeist stands up impressively some 14 years down the line. Tarantula was titled in honour of German rock legends Scorpions – with whom Billy had recently collaborated on The Cross – but its psychedelia-tinged garage rock feels peculiarly Smashing Pumpkins, with lyrics that allude to the restlessness of the band’s return: Can’t stand the blazing sun? / Can’t stand the morning rain? / Ah, get out, I’ll take your place again… / I don’t wanna be alone, at all…’

14. Muzzle (Mellon Collie And The Infinite Sadness, 1995)

The 12th track on Dawn Til Dusk – the first disc of Mellon Collie And The Infinite Sadness – offers a fascinating window into the soul of Billy Corgan, explaining his motivations as a songwriter and bandleader to never slump to the ordinariness of the everyday. Driven by Jimmy’s breakaway percussion and some spectacularly squalling six-strings, broad strokes of tender romance and indomitable bravado bleed in as the song progresses, with each element combining into the heady cocktail of what made this band so singularly great.

13. Thirty-Three (Mellon Collie And The Infinite Sadness, 1995)

Speaking of their singular appeal, could any other rock band in the mid-’90s have taken a ballad as fragile and tentative as Thirty-Three and made it a U.S. Top 40 single? Stylistically, there are echoes of 1993’s incredible Disarm as Billy declares, Tomorrow’s just an excuse away / So I pull my collar up and face the cold, on my own’, but the dreamy, contemplative nature of the third track from Twilight To Starlight (the second disc of Mellon Collie) was emblematic of Smashing Pumpkins’ one-of-a-kind appeal. Billy’s aforementioned girlfriend Yelena Yemchuk’s outstanding music video played a significant part, too, offering a flickering montage of intimate moments that rang heartbreakingly true with the frontman’s piano-led composition.

12. Geek U.S.A. (Siamese Dream, 1993)

The five-minute centrepiece to 1993’s Siamese Dream has often been lauded as the supreme showcase of Jimmy Chamberlin’s boundless percussive skills, with even legendary producer Butch Vig calling it one of the most amazing drum performances [he] had ever heard”. The dynamism with which the song transitions from hammering beats to airy jazz fills ensures that reputation is well-deserved, but we shouldn’t overlook the layers of manic guitar and dextrous lyricism structured on top, including a tearaway solo for the ages. North Carolina prog-metallers Between The Buried And Me’s bold cover on 2006’s The Anatomy Of is a ringing confirmation of Geek U.S.A.’s far-reaching influence across heavy music.

11. Thru The Eyes Of Ruby (Mellon Collie And The Infinite Sadness, 1995)

Perhaps the greatest use of Mellon Collie’s expansive double-album structure was the contrast between part one’s celebratory epic Porcelina Of The Vast Oceans and its far moodier counterpart on part two, Thru The Eyes Of Ruby. Where the former unfurls with the rising light and building hope of the break of day, the latter feels like a soundtrack to the lengthening shadows and swelling doubts of dusk. There is a subtle, dark romance at the song’s shape-shifting heart, daring us to be seduced by all that melancholy and melodrama between its deceptively airy bookends.

10. Rhinoceros (Gish, 1991)

Gish might’ve been characterised by its relative directness, with much of the loud/quiet, soft/heavy dynamic of years to follow still in its formative stage, but Rhinoceros marked a significant watershed. A psychedelic showcase that builds slowly from the easy riffage and almost-feminine vocals of its early stages, through a dizzying, repetitive midsection to the oversized, charging riff of its outro. The track retains an element of unfamiliarity for fans weaned on Pumpkins’ mega-selling later albums, but also feels like the sound of a band growing into their skin.

9. Today (Siamese Dream, 1993)

Smashing Pumpkins’ breakthrough hit is one of those songs where the more you read into it, the more you get from it. From the famously tweedly intro and grandiose gloom-pop crescendos, to its vocal hook – Today is the greatest day I’ve ever known’ – there is a ferocious listenability that has ensured Today’s place as a rock radio fixture for the best part of 30 years. Scratching the surface, however, its lament that, I wanted more than life could ever grant me’ and imagery of, Pink ribbon scars that never forget’ plumb a troubled mindset. Given that depth of personal relevance, Billy assumed absolute control and recorded everything except the drums himself.

8. Ava Adore (Adore, 1998)

As heavy music threatened to move on and leave Smashing Pumpkins behind, the debt to the scene’s new heroes like Trent Reznor was clear to see on Adore’s sort-of title-track. Where certain bands traded in lurid excess, however, Billy would manage to unlock some subtler tones in the darkness. The vocalist creeps bald-headed, like a modern Nosferatu through a music video that would do Nine Inch Nails proud, but there was a complexity to the Madonna-whore complex being dissected here, and a fragile optimism in the climactic guitar solo that could’ve hardly come from anyone else. One of the definitive rock songs of the 1990s.

7. 1979 (Mellon Collie And The Infinite Sadness, 1995)

Although the story goes that 1979’s title was selected simply because it fit Billy’s pre-existing rhyme-scheme, it can hardly be a coincidence that it also marked the year of birth for so many of the then-16-year-olds who would help propel Mellon Collie to its staggering success. A wistful coming-of-age tale about leaving childish things behind and embracing the challenges of adulthood, lyrics like, Double cross the vacant and the bored / They’re not sure just what we have in the store’ and, Justine never knew the rules / Hung down with the freaks and the ghouls’ ache with the bittersweet longing for times gone by and old memories distilled to glittering gold. The seminal music video, directed by husband-and-wife duo Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, pulsates with an authenticity most teen movies would kill for.

6. Tonight, Tonight (Mellon Collie And The Infinite Sadness, 1995)

Built up against its beauteous string arrangement (recorded with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra) and Jimmy’s looping drums, the fourth single from Mellon Collie is a powerful plea to believe in oneself. Although Billy has always been reluctant to get into the specific details behind the lyrics, the message of refusing to give into cynicism, and allusions to escaping a dark past could be read as a letter from the frontman to himself to move onwards and upwards instead of being defined by life’s lowest moments. Believe in me as I believe in you…’ Quite.

5. Disarm (Siamese Dream, 1993)

The third single from Siamese Dream felt like another quantum leap for The Smashing Pumpkins, both in terms of its rich, classical construction – violin, cello, tubular bells and timpani drums all deployed – and in its brutally autobiographical content. I used to be a little boy / So old in my shoes,’ Billy reflects on his troubled childhood, with lyrics like, Cut that little child’ and, The killer in me is the killer in you’ feeling so dark and provocative at the time that the BBC banned the song from Top Of The Pops, while anti-abortion and suicide awareness activists were also up in arms. It endures as a richly melancholic masterclass, though live performances, like the tortured, full electric version at 1994’s MTV Awards, have proven its impact is only increased when cranked to full volume.

4. Mayonaise (Siamese Dream, 1993)

Sometimes, it’s all about the little things. Billy Corgan has repeatedly explained that the ninth track on Siamese Dream was the product of a host of unlikely random inspirations. That intentionally misspelled title? It came from the frontman having a rummage around in his fridge. The weird, whistling feedback? A random occurrence when Billy took his fingers off a cheap guitar he’d been fooling around with. And the litany of strange lyrical choices such as, Fool enough to almost be it / Cool enough to not quite see it’? Just a series of weird one-liners” that came together in his head. Held together by one of their most intoxicating melodies, though, the finished article of Mayonaise is one of Pumpkins’ absolute best.

3. Bullet With Butterfly Wings (Mellon Collie And The Infinite Sadness, 1995)

A year on from the death of Kurt Cobain, it felt like the loud/quiet template that had defined early-’90s alt.rock was played out, somewhat. The Smashing Pumpkins’ biggest hit nonetheless saw them soup up the formula with a sense of sneering danger and wry miserabilism. The quasi-religious lyrical motifs and Jimmy’s pulsating beat were a huge part of that, but it was that bombastic mega-chorus (‘Despite all my rage, I’m still just a rat in a cage!’) that ensured Bullet With Butterfly Wings would still sound as explosive in the live arena and on club dancefloors a quarter-century after it was released.

2. Cherub Rock (Siamese Dream, 1993)

One of the greatest album openers of all time, Cherub Rock arrived with its avalanche of nervy riffs and free-flowing fuzz to announce that The Smashing Pumpkins were leaving the suffocating underground behind with their sights set on the more open air of arena-rock superstardom. The main lyrical body served as a righteous, timely Fuck you!’ to all the phonies, hipsters and music industry hangers-on who’d begun to gravitate towards rock’s hottest young band, but it somehow feels even more relevant all these years down the line. 

1. Zero (Mellon Collie And The Infinite Sadness, 1995)

Wanna go for a ride?’ Yes please. There are longer and more grandiose tracks in The Smashing Pumpkins’ back-catalogue, but none have greater immediacy or vicious economy than this Mellon Collie single. 162 seconds of concentrated venom, Zero packs in their most cutting riff, two pyrotechnically contrasting guitar solos and a bridge breakdown for the ages (‘Emptiness is loneliness / And loneliness is cleanliness / And cleanliness is godliness / And God is empty just like me’), all while pouring on layer after layer of intoxicating, asphyxiating menace. The overarching lyrical theme addresses heaven’s deaf ears to prayers for escape, but this was unquestionably alt.rock from on high.

Posted on March 11th 2021, 3:00p.m.
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