by sarah hughes (@hollowcrown)
With a career spanning exactly 2 decades, numerous line-up changes, drama and a 6-year hiatus, Smashing Pumpkins were a key group during the birth of grunge in the 90s. This band has made a huge impact on music from the get-go with their caustic debut Gish (1991), right through their peaks and even their most recent release Monuments to an Elegy (2014) inspires peers and listeners alike. With a very special North American tour coming up later in the year, featuring 3/4ths of the original line up playing exclusively songs from the first 5 albums, there has never been a better time to really delve into the band’s discography and pick their best tracks to date.
Despite being on a critical decline from 2006 onwards, with an apparent shift to a darker, more obscure tone, Monuments to an Elegy surprised listeners with a return of the band’s signature sounds. Frontman and driving force William “Billy” Corgan once stated he liked the idea of creating his own alternative universe through sound – which is clearly a sentiment he has presented to all of SP’s material. The track Tiberius opens the record with a swirling, dreamlike hook and restored our faith in Smashing Pumpkins.
There’s a plethora of versions of this Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness (1996) B-side circulating the internet. The true beauty of this songs falls on its ability to fit any applied style – the structure and lyricism are so powerful that it can be all or nothing and hit equally as hard. For Corgan especially, this track is brutally confessional. For someone so reserved, it’s refreshing to feel him open up this much; it really connects the audience with the artist.
8. Bullet With Butterfly Wings
Being one of the band’s most mainstream hits, it would be easy to assume that this song is a watered down version of their raw sound. However, Bullet With Butterfly Wings is totally deserving of the praise it receives. This track showcases Jimmy Chamberlin’s pure talent on drums, more so than any other SP song. Coming from Mellon Collie’s first half “Dawn to Dusk”, it gives affirmation that the band had matured from their debut LP, Gish.
For all its cliched angst, Zero is an infectious track that serves as a fitting outlet for rage on all scales. The vocals are unfiltered and angry, and provide yet another surprising performance from Corgan, as this was perhaps his first expression of the darkness explored fully in later albums. Additionally, this is an example of ex-bassist D’arcy Wretzky’s talent. This song serves as an important experimentation for SP and dictated the direction of the band in the turn of the millennium.
6. Ava Adore
Arguably the turning point for SP, 1998’s Adore seen a shift from abrasive melodic to extremely gloomy tones. It’s hard to tell whether the band were pandering to the mainstream with this album, as goth was in vogue circa the late 90’s or if they were pushing their own boundaries – either way, it helped produce a moody LP that carried a lot of atmosphere with it. Although the Pumpkins have consistently intended to create an “alternative universe through sound”, Ava Adore is the best illustration of their writing characteristics.
Dawning from the sophomore LP, Siamese Dream, Soma is one of the band’s most delicate songs. There was a lot of experimentation on this record as they were investigating their own sound, and that is very clear in Soma. Interestingly, throughout recording, they played with techniques such as overdubbing, and this particular song was dubbed over 40 times to create atmospheric qualities in this gentle, yet intense, track. These qualities are what hold Soma in such high esteem, that and the confidence of the group to break away from their own mould.
Elevating the band from underground to popular culture, Today was a pinnacle of the grunge movement in the mid-1990s. It held its character as a Smashing Pumpkins number while becoming a staple of the movement. It’s hard to believe that this came from their second studio album as it demonstrates so well how to balance a song.
Technically, the execution of this track is the bands best; boasting relentless bass and guitar riffs, hollering vocals and impeccable drums. Though never released as a single, perhaps because of its metal influence throughout, it is unmistakably a complete summary of SP’ original sound. It’s satisfying that they held onto their rawness into the third LP, Mellon Collie, and that they actually carried that integrity in their entire discography; there is a carnal anger undertone throughout. Bodies is the point in their career where they appeased the mainstream fashions while protesting their right to remain rough and interesting.
Quiet only just beats Bodies to the second spot, simply because it was the pioneer for that carnal anger – consider it the mothership for the latter. There is a fresh, playful tone to this track that triggers nostalgia, even if this song wasn’t part of your life growing up. Objectivism is sometimes difficult to implement in alternative music, especially from bands as cathartic as Smashing Pumpkins, yet this track gives you what you need and asks for no relations in return.
1. Tonight, Tonight
Unsurprisingly, the lead single from Smashing Pumpkins most critically acclaimed LP, Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness lands at number one. Tonight, Tonight is an inexplicably emotive piece of music, that has classical influences and progressively builds in maturity throughout; and a track that was paramount in cementing SP’s place in rock history. On one hand, the band’s raw style is integral to their collective character, on the other, their angst is wholly suited to a theatrical production – and on Tonight, Tonight the audience is graced with the pleasure of both in one succinct song.
Additionally, the music video for this track was ahead of any other band within the scene and further proved Smashing Pumpkins as not only musicians but all round experience providers.