A post 20 years in the making, 14 years too late.
Honorable Mentions: By Starlight, Snail, Slow Dawn, Cash Car Star, Plume, Frail And Bedazzled, Obscured, Saturn9, We Only Come Out At Night, Silverf***, Jesus Loves His Babies, Crush, Real Love, Home, Speed Kills, Try, Try, Try, Mellon Collie And The Infinite Sadness, Stumbleine, Medellia of the Gray Skies, God, Dross, This Time
52) Beautiful – Makes the list solely for the nah-nah sing-along section beginning around 2:00 on the studio version. I’m pretty sure Beck’s copied it for at least half of his late career singles. The rest is bouncy, electronic fare. Not really my cup of tea, but that catchy psychedelic turn packs a hell of a hook.
51) Ugly – Pure ’80s goth-pop. I don’t know how Corgan beat Depeche Mode and Robert Smith to this one. Synthesizer? Check. Bleak lyrics? Check. Sinister delivery and sparse arrangement? Check and check. About 100 times better than the similarly sounding “Eye” that was released just months later on the “Lost Highway” soundtrack.
50) Behold! The Night Mare – The quintessential cut from “Adore”: pretentious but quiet, absurd and haunting all the same. One of the few electric guitar cameos at 2:51. Or maybe it’s a synthesizer. Sublime either way.
49) Transformer – Just shows the quality of the Pumpkins’ catalogue that a cut like this can’t crack a 28-song double album or the 16-song follow-up (not that it would fit on “Adore” anyway). You can find “Transformer” in the incomparable B-sides collection “The Aeroplane Flies High” box, along with all the other fantastic “Mellon Collie” leftovers. Great driving bass line, typically awesome drum work and a flawless chorus… except for the “happy as a turtle” lyric. What the hell does that mean?
48) Vanity – This list’s lone representative from the digital-only “Machina II” release tells us two things: Corgan 1) still had his musical wherewithal intact when the band broke up 2) had absolutely lost the rest of his freaking mind. The problem with the “Machina” era isn’t that the band started sucking, they just could no longer sort the wheat from the sh*t. How “Vanity” and “Slow Dawn” and “Real Love” and “Dross,” etc. didn’t make the original album is one of the great mysteries in life (to me, anyway), especially when you’re releasing crap like “Heavy Metal Machine.” Here’s a hypothetical “Machina” tracklist for kicks… In no particular order: “This Time,” “Stand Inside Your Love,” “I Of The Mourning,” “Slow Dawn,” “Real Love,” “Dross,” “Let Me Give The World To You,” “Innosense,” “Cash Car Star,” “Satur9,” “Home,” “Age of Innocence,” “Wound,” “Try, Try, Try,” “Home,” and “Speed Kills (But Beauty Lives Forever).” That looks like a fourth classic album to me. Morons.
47) The End Is The Beginning Is The End – Corgan’s purgatory. Still wanted to make loud rock ‘n roll, but didn’t have the drummer to pull it off. Chamberlin could have made this song a classic. Negative points for its association with the disastrous “Batman and Robin” film.
46) Ava Adore – The lead single off “Adore” and the one that gets closest to realizing Corgan’s electronica ambitions. Cool song, and even better video filled with gothic robes, heavy makeup and filmed in one continuous shot. This track could have been on “The Downward Spiral” if not for the gorgeous chorus melody. Too bad the follow-up single (“Perfect”) sucked.
45) To Forgive – “MCIS’s” first breather. Sounds like it’s about being dumped by your parents, but maybe I’m making that up. Sad either way. The buildup around 2:40 could make you a little misty if you’re a sucker for emotional chord progressions.
44) I Of The Mourning – Even a blind squirrel finds a nut every once in a while. The “Machina” sound is laughably overproduced no thanks to British bigwig Flood (U2, Depeche Mode, Nine Inch Nails, Nick Cave, etc.), but Corgan and Co. absolutely kill the guitars on this one. In a good way. The lyrics run the gamut from corny to you-can’t-be-serious, but that wall of fuzz just keeps building and building. A lone instance of the late-period excess paying off. The part at 2:40 gives me goosebumps, and the battering ram drumming reminds you just how much they’d missed Chamberlin in his drug-addled absence.
43) Set The Ray To Jerry – Another “Mellon Collie” b-side that I’m sure was a legit candidate to make the album proper. Some people think that this is one of their very best. I’ll go so far as to say that the D’Arcy/Jimmy battery has never been more impressive. The quietly propulsive bass line only pales in comparison to the restrained punch of the percussion. Some of the vocal grinds on my nerves, but no other complaints.
42) Thirty-Three – The last “MCIS” single paved the way for the softer, more introspective tunes on “Adore,” which is a little ironic given it was the first song Corgan wrote after the “Siamese Dream” tour. It’s also notable for Chamberlin’s absence both on the song (it’s a drum machine) and the video. Months earlier, he’d been kicked out of the band after overdosing on heroin with touring keyboardist Jonathan Melvoin, who died. Still, impossibly beautiful melody that would have been the next album’s best… It was the beginning of the end in hindsight, which makes the “And you can make it last forever” line sad and nostalgic for people who care about this kind of stuff.
41) X.Y.U. – A song this punishing has to make the list out of novelty alone. Straddles the thin line between appropriately acerbic and plain ugly. Up there with “Tales of Scorched Earth,” “Glass’ Theme,” “Aeroplane,” and “F*** You” for pure metal appeal, and the fluency of the time shifts is almost startling. What other ’90s bands had the chops to pull this off? Soundgarden, maybe? Metallica?
40) For Martha – Really the only song of its kind in the Pumpkins catalogue – an understated piano epic that goes from being a really good song to something just short of ethereal at around 4:20. Makes you wonder what “Adore” would have been like with those signature Pumpkins guitars. Should have canned the pointless coda and made this the album’s bookend. (Bonus points for Soundgarden association – Matt Cameron plays drums).
39) Once Upon A Time – An absolute gem on an album that could have been a classic if it was chopped down by 20 minutes. Sad and beautiful and melancholy. This song has a “Martha” in it, so I assume it was written about Corgan’s mother… Probably the only SP song my mom would like.
38) Zero – Spawned a classic riff and the classic t-shirt… Billy’s big, bald head was getting to him at this point as evidenced by lines like, “Emptiness is loneliness/and loneliness is cleanliness/and cleanliness is godliness/and God is empty just like me.” Okay. Somehow that stupid a cappella break didn’t seem so stupid in fourth grade.
37) Galapogos – A hybrid of “To Forgive” and that oceanic, space vibe of “Porcelina.” Shows more than anything the extent of Chamberlin’s talent – he was heavier and more muscular than any of his peers, but had deft touch as well. Here those subtle cymbal splashes? That’s world class restraint. If there’s a lesson for the kids, it’s this: if you want to be a famous drummer, better hone your jazz chops… If you’re lazy, just cut to the 3-minute mark and let it go from there. That epic buildup is quintessential Pumpkins. “To make the turn back now…”
36) Rocket – Another soaring rocker on “Siamese Dream.” I almost never listen to this song, but when I do, I think that I should more often. It’s not as good as the four songs that precede it or the three songs that come after. That it sustains the momentum is a testament to its greatness, I guess. And the last 20 seconds of feedback is a glorious mess.
35) In The Arms Of Sleep – How freaking beautiful is this track? If Billy sang this way from the beginning, he wouldn’t have had to constantly fend off the “nasally” criticisms. The supposed concept behind “MCIS” was that the first disc was supposed to be “Daytime” and the second “Night.” This is one of the only songs where I totally buy into it. Definitely has a starry, late night feel to it. Play it under the moon for your girlfriend, or in the car as background music. Great stuff, especially that “And I always need her more than she can ever need me” line… Admit it, you just teared up a little.
34) Marquis In Spades – A crunching rocker that should have replaced “Tales of Scorched Earth” as the 3-minute metal track between “1979” and “Ruby” on the second half of “Mellon Collie.” The pummeling riff is more impressive than the melody, but that final solo at 2:25 pushes this song to another level. A succinct classic that exists in the SP universe only as a castoff demo. Most bands would make a career out of this song.
33) Bullet With Butterfly Wings – A song played frequently at the Miami Arena during the year of the rat. Appeals to nostalgia more than anything, but I bet it means something special to Scott Mellanby. Spectacular video and the first cameo for the classic Zero t-shirt that would, in short time, be a fixture in the pop culture lexicon. Sinister and loud, just how I like my Pumpkins.
32) Wound – A dreamy pop nugget buried underneath a bunch of garbage on the second half of “Machina.” Higher on this list than it has any right to be – Corgan’s voice is grating in the verses… But, damn, those two vocal hooks are ace. The “if you wait/I will wait” melody is great. The “last night I turned around…” is nothing short of perfect. Would have fit snuggly on side five or six of “MCIS,” and there’s something sad and ironic in the line “So take it all/I doubt if we will know it’s gone” considering Billy’s penchant for defiant self-sabotage.
31) Where Boys Fear To Tread – Good lord, can you say “groove”? So you’re 15 years-old, you go out and buy “Mellon Collie,” you’ve just listened to the best 60 minutes of music you’ve ever heard in your life, and you pop in disc 2 expecting a letdown, or at the very least, a bunch of soft acoustic music… Wrong.
30) Love – Gets bumped even higher up the list if it’s really about former Corgan/Cobain flame Courtney Love. Kind of reminds me of her – scuzzed up, druggy, corrosive, beautiful in a dirty way. Shouldn’t function – in this case, just a bunch of heavy synths and feedback – but it charges forward almost despite itself. A truly great song, and different than anything else in the Pumpkins’ catalogue. It’s a precursor to the next album’s “Ava Adore,” and if this was the electronic direction Corgan was talking about, I would’ve been totally down.
29) Disarm – The BBC banned this song because of the line “cut this little child.” The BBC sucks. String arrangements, on the other hand, most definitely do not suck. Not here, anyway. If you’re having a bad day, jump straight to 2:30. Catharsis.
28) Tristessa – The second record the band ever released right after “I Am One” sold out it’s limited edition pressing in like 10 minutes. Somehow, Seattle indie juggernaut Sub Pop got a hold of this one, which is kind of funny if you think about it. Yeah, you like us? You think we’re great? You want to sign us? SEE YAH, SUCKERS! The Pumpkins bolted for Virgin subsidiary Caroline right afterward, before re-upping for millions with the parent label… “Tristessa” has that familiar “Gish” tone i.e. faintly psychedelic and heavy as hell. A great rocker that gives the album’s second side a much needed kick in the ass.
27) To Sheila – Written right after Corgan declared rock was dead. For 4 ½ minutes, you think maybe he was on to something. Stunningly pretty. A song for overcast autumn days and 3 a.m. wanderlust.
26) Luna – Shoutout to high school friend, Sara. I used to badger her in Yearbook about all the new music I’d just “discovered.” I’m sure I was insufferable. She loved this song… It’s pretty much “Mayonaise,” except softer and prettier. Minus points for dearth of guitar squall. But great way to close an incredible album (“Siamese Dream”). Think of it as a sleepy, late-night beer chaser.
25) Bodies – So there’s this meaty, metronomic dual-guitar riffing at about 1:15 in “Gish’s” “Bury Me.” “Bodies” is four minutes of that, except Corgan, Moulder and Flood had concocted some freakish algorithm that turned those two guitars into dozens. You can hear it. Layers and layers and layers of heavy. The production never got any better.
24) Hello Kitty Kat – Ridiculous title. Ridiculously awesome everything else. This one’s a barnstorming rocker with big melody buried deep in the mix (where Billy’s voice should be; the “New Pumpkins'” songs put his nasal whine right in your earhole. Vanity, man). The guitars have that signature “SD” crush and the drum track is just as ferocious – the fills at 1:27 and 1:36 are some of Jimmy’s finest. It’s got all the pieces to be a classic Pumpkins track, and probably would have been if not for the B-side status… The coda is a clusterf*** of awesomeness.
23) Mayonaise – Everybody loves this one. I should probably like it more than I do – when I made the original list, this didn’t even make the cut… which is probably blasphemous in some Gen-X circles. At the end of each chorus verse, Corgan takes his hand off the guitar neck for a split second and just lets the feedback ring. That stuff takes a certain kind of genius… Okay, fine. I love it.
22) Siva – Singular to the Pumpkins’ canon in its gothic darkness. They’d dabble in the same bleakness later on, but by then it was sterilized with electronics and crappy production. “Siva,” on the other hand, has an ’80s garage feel to it – like a re-imagination of The Cure with balls, and teeth to match all that sappy sadness… Perfects the soft-loud dynamic that they’re known for and, really, takes the two spectrums to their logical extremes. You have to turn your speakers up just to hear the interlude from 2:50 to 3:30… and then brace yourself for the ensuing heavy metal onslaught.
21) Tonight, Tonight – A stone-cold classic forever banished to modern-rock radio hell. The guilt-by-association is a shame because this is the only Pumpkins cut that ever one-upped the orchestral arrangement on “Disarm” (Chicago Symphony Orchestra, anyone?). You know the rest because you’ve heard it a billion times. Great video. My Dad’s favorite. Cemented the Corgan legacy. Etcetera. Etcetera.
20) Today – Apparently written during a particularly gloomy day in Atlanta, “Today” funneled all of Corgan’s suicidal thoughts into a tune that Blender says, “achieved a remarkable status as one of the defining songs of its generation, perfectly mirroring the fractured alienation of American youth in the 1990s.” Whatever. “Today” transformed the band from indie buzzword to honest-to-goodness superstars. You’ve probably heard it 100 times. It’s also big in Japan.
19) Muzzle – “I fear that I am ordinary just like everyone.” Seriously, what teenager can’t relate to that? This song was somewhat of a battle cry for all the kids that were just a bit too late for the grunge scene and wanted something to be pissed off about. Most of the lyrics are a little cheesy in hindsight, but I think there’s a lot of truth in words like, “I knew the emptiness of youth.” If I ever make it big, “Muzzle” will be my victory cigar.
18) Jellybelly – Oh, HELL YEAH! Pure audio adrenaline shot with a 1,000 volts of electricity and pumped through the jackhammer drumming of The Great Jimmy Chamberlin. Enough metaphors for you? Because I have more. This song is just over the top. Great melody. Great squealing guitar – about 100 of them. Great everything. Corgan said during a 1999 radio interview that he wanted to release this as the lead “MCIS” single, but was talked out of it by producers Alan Moulder and Flood. Bastards.
17) Cherub Rock – The opening salvo to one of the five best albums of the ’90s. It has to be great, right? Right. The opening drumroll is almost as famous as the searing solo at 3:09, and the lyrics are a biting putdown to the indie scene that had discarded them for “selling out.” This album and the next went on to sell 13 million copies in the U.S. alone… Hey, but Stephen Malkmus still has his street cred.
16) Bury Me – Blew me away the first time I heard it, mainly because it’s not frequently mentioned among the great Pumpkins songs. If you’re keeping track, this follows “Gish’s” opening trinity of “I Am One,” “Siva” and “Rhino” and, as such, fills the cleanup hole for arguably the finest quartet of tracks the band’s ever strung together (“MCIS” and “Siamese Dream” both have multiple contending sequences). I still have no idea what James (?) is singing between verses around the 1:30 mark, but it’s insanely catchy, and I, like my mother, have no problems making up lyrics. The doubled-up riffing at 1:15 on the studio version creates this perfectly thick tone and the scratchy wah-wah before the solo is flat brilliant. Corgan’s tyrannical practice regimen obviously payed dividends early on because these guys were tight as hell.
15) Quiet – The aural equivalent of high-wire acrobats. Rumor was Corgan and producer Butch Vig layered dozens upon dozens of guitars to build “Siamese Dream’s” “wall of sound.” One listen to the brutal ascending riff and the freakout soloing suggests that this is indeed the case. The quintessential pre-“Mellon Collie” rocker.
14) I Am One – Like with Nirvana drummer Dave Grohl, Jimmy Chamberlin’s first appearance on an album proper turns out to be something of a game-changer. The three rounds of soloing showcase the Corgan/Iha interplay at its finest and D’Arcy’s chugging low-end (probably Corgan’s, actually) gives the hazed psychedelia some muscular girth… But, damn, that hard, simple drum intro makes everything that follows. No doubt about it.
13) Porcelina of the Vast Oceans – Impossibly soft (so much so that you can’t hear the first 35 seconds of the studio version), impossibly heavy (the 2:12 mark blows many a speaker), impossibly pretentious, and, yes, impossibly awesome. Pretty much mid-’90s Smashing Pumpkins in a nutshell. And how many 9-minute songs justify their running times?
12) Here Is No Why – Would’ve killed at radio had Virgin execs had the guts to confront Corgan about it. That opening riff is lush and fluid, but this is without question an air drums song despite what the towering solo (which sounds like it was ripped from “Plume,” by the way) would have you believe. I also love the uplifting vibe, a major bonus when you’re sandwiched between “Zero” and “Bullet With Butterfly Wings.” No flaws here. Just a huge, crunching rock song with an even bigger melody.
11) Starla – Here’s the ideal tracklisting for “Siamese Dream”: “Cherub Rock,” “Quiet,” “Hello Kitty Kat,” “Today,” “Hummer,” “Rocket,” “Obscured,” “Disarm,” “Soma,” “Geek USA,” “Mayonaise,” “Luna,” “Starla”… That looks like the greatest rock ‘n roll album ever to me. This song’s over 10 minutes long. The bongo interlude is dreamy, and the surging final 5 minutes make me shiver. The template for Zwan’s excellent “Jesus I/Mary Star of the Sea” and probably all the soaring “MCIS”-era epics as well.
10) Hummer – My high school buddy Gus said that he’d die a happy man if he ever heard this song on the radio. Ditto. I would have been fine if Corgan chopped it at 4:30, but that spacey coda is pretty gorgeous. Also, now is a good time to point out that Corgan, Vig and Chamberlin made this album (“Siamese Dream”) by themselves because James and D’Arcy couldn’t stand each other’s company after a brutal breakup. Billy was depressed. Jimmy would disappear for days at a time on smack binges… And this is the product. Amazing.
9) Stand Inside Your Love – Everything a rock ‘n roll song should be – melodic, melodic, heavy, driving, melodic. Looking back, it’s almost hard to believe that this got bumped as the lead “Machina” single for “The Everlasting Gaze”. Think about it. You have a shrinking fan base turned off by all the anti-rock music on “Adore.” You’ve decided you’re going to bite the bullet and give the people what they want – RAWK! – and, bonus, you just reinstated the greatest drummer of all time. You have a perfect song in the can – a song that reminds people of your glorious yesterdays… And instead you release “The Freaking Everlasting Gaze.” So much for reclaiming the throne… “SIYL” is the last truly classic Pumpkins artifact and the one that proves that Corgan still had plenty in the tank when the band broke up in 2000. He’d chucked quality control out the window, shot the production to hell and lost control of his ego. But the tunes. Damn, the tunes. The surge of guitars around 3:30 gives me chills every time.
8) F*** You (An Ode to No One) – “Destroy the mind/ destroy the body/ but you cannot destroy the heart.” Pseudo-philosophical bullshit? Yeah, probably. But backed by a swirling maelstrom of dual-guitared riffing and those firing-squad drums turns these lines into something just short of apocalyptic… There’s a live version of this (linked) from the band’s last show at the Metro on 2/12/2000 that is so fast and so heavy that it’s a testament to James and (D’Arcy stand-in) Melissa Auf der Mar that they could simply keep up. A small part of me thinks the Pumpkins were always meant to be a heavy metal band. Here’s the proof.
7) The Aeroplane Flies High (Turns Left, Looks Right) – How Billy had the willpower to leave this monstrosity off of “MCIS” I’ll never know. Clocking in at just over 8 1/2 minutes, it’s the last great Pumpkins epic and maybe the best of all. It’s for sure the heaviest. The chord progression is simple and sinister. The crushing tone and corrosive soloing impressively match the drumming. It’s just really, really heavy… Heavy.
6) Soma – My favorite Pumpkins song in 10th grade and still my favorite solo. Something about these 7 minutes appeal to the pissed off teenager in me. “So let the sadness come again”? “I’ll betray myself to anyone”? Geeze. Somebody grab the eyeliner and black hair dye… I’m not going to spoil the surprise for those who haven’t heard it, but let’s just say I owe the majority of my premature hearing loss to this song. Remember Marty McFly’s Van Halen mishap in the opening scene of “Back to the Future”? No comment.
5) Drown – Originally appeared on the untouchable “Singles” soundtrack. It’s both the album closer and the only song from a non-Seattle band. I think there’s something to be said for that – this shaggy group of hippies from Chicago upstages the vaunted likes of Pearl Jam and Alice In Chains… “Drown” is most impressive in it’s 8-minute incarnation: a wave that builds and crashes and builds again on a surge of epic Chamberlin drumming. The final crest leaves you awash in four minutes of distortion and lurching bass lines. Nirvana can’t touch this.
4) Rhinoceros – The absolute apex of their early-’90s psychedelic phase. “Rhino” is basically two songs in one: first the three-minute, Velvets-inspired pop song with the classic “She knows” refrain, and then – liftoff – the screaming fretboard workout egged on by more classic drum fills. Did they ever top this? Maybe. We’re kind of splitting hairs at this point.
3) Geek USA – From the intro to the “Mashed Potatoes” bootleg version: “ARE YOU READY TO FU**IN’ ROCK?!” Well yes. Yes I am… I’d call this song perfect, but “perfect” would be a major slight. The drum ‘n guitar onslaught after the dreamy psych interlude is the stuff rock gods are made of. File the coda under “Incendiary Post-Sabbath Dirge.” I dare you not to play air guitar on this song. Got long hair? Even better.
2) 1979 – The band’s only top 20 hit. Trying to describe it further would be demeaning. It’s an immaculate pop song… You’ve heard it before, but if you haven’t, brace yourself for the section beginning at 2:28. Flooring.
… And your No. 1 song is …
(*Michael Buffer announcement*)
1) Thru The Eyes of Ruby – Show me a better rock song. Not a better Pumpkins rock song. Just a better rock song, period. A part of me thinks this is the best track of the last 20 years. The other part of me is wrong. It’s hard to say whether the freight train drumming tops the crashing walls of fuzzed guitar or vice versa, but I can tell you with absolute certainty that everything from 2 minutes on belongs in some lionized rock ‘n roll canon with “Dazed and Confused” and “Sunshine of Your Love” and “Voodoo Chile” and all the other genre staples. Here’s my favorite part: “The night has come to hold us young/the night has come to hold us young…” THWACK, THWACK. A cascading barrage of riffing – rising and falling, falling and rising – plays perfect foil to transcendent soloing and Jimmy’s legend-making performance. And to think, it’s all bookended by these two gorgeously frail acoustic melodies. Best played loud.