The Smashing Pumpkins' 20 Best Post-Reunion Songs Ranked
Their early era has already been dissected to death, but their most recent era has been even more productive
Published Aug 02, 2023The Smashing Pumpkins' first decade-plus has been discussed and dissected to exhaustion. Nobody needs to be reminded how great "Cherub Rock" is, what a seminal work of psychedelia Gish is, or how bold a move it was to build up and dismantle the entire alternative rock institution of the mid-'90s with Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness. Most listeners have even come around to the ahead-of-its-time strength of Adore and the value of the sprawling, confrontational art rock of the Machina/Machina II era. (Remember when the Pumpkins put out a free album online years before Radiohead or Nine Inch Nails thought to harness the power of the internet to release music on their own terms?)
Instead, we've opted to shine a light on a less fawned over era of the alt-rock titans: their post-reunion output.
With the success of the Pumpkins' recent touring and podcasting efforts around the bombastic rock opera ATUM, it's high time we started reflecting on the second leg of the band's journey with the same divisive zeal afforded their first act. After all, they've been releasing music even longer now, in all the various permutations their membership has gone through, than they did when they ruled the '90s up until their breakup at the end of the year 2000.
With another leg of the World Is a Vampire Tour in motion now and yet another new album in the works, it doesn't look like they'll be slowing down or making this song-culling process any easier any time soon.
20. "The Colour of Love"
Despite having reformed as much of the band's original lineup as was logistically possible in 2018, adding guitarist James Iha back to the stable core of Billy Corgan and guitarist Jeff Schroeder (drum god Jimmy Chamberlin had already rejoined the fold), the urge to explore new, more contemporary sonic ground triumphed over nostalgia in shaping the sound of CYR. Early single "The Colour of Love" still feels like the Pumpkins, but there's a distinct focus on synth layering and programming in the production, strongly enabling Corgan's interest in gothic pop aesthetics. It might not have the guitar-driven psychedelic haze many fans are still caught up in, but the songwriting and arranging hooks are undeniable, and it's the first true taste of what a force Sierra Swan and Katie Cole are as unofficial band members, with gorgeous, gymnastic harmony vocals providing sublime support to Corgan's melodies and unforgettable riffs.
Referencing the dark electro pop of "Eye"-era Pumpkins, "Telegenix" is among the Pumpkins' best efforts towards sonic modernization. A slinky, sinister keyboard hook sits atop a chunky and crunchy trip-hop beat, with ethereal layers of synth textures creating an immersive bed for Corgan to contemplatively croon over, with excellent support from Sierra Swan's pitch-perfect backing vocals. The juicy tremolo bass drop and drum programming around the halfway mark would sound at home in any number of contemporary pop or smokey electro R&B productions, but still feel distinctly Pumpkins-esque. Understated guitar leads in the climatic outro add just enough dynamic flair without overtaking the noir haze of the piece while supporting the lyrical narrative arc of rallying against self-destructive tendencies.
Shiny and Oh So Bright Vol. 1 / LP: No Past. No Future. No Sun. (2018)
Built around a simple, heavy chugging guitar phrase, "Solara" works wonderfully as a showcase for the return of the powerful dynamic interplay between Jimmy Chamberlin's fastidiously articulate drumming and Billy Corgan's unique gift for melodic phrasing. The vocal hook anchoring the verses — "High and dry, nothing but a body in my mind" — is among Corgan's most memorable recent rock stingers, and the band wisely let his voice lead the way and give Chamberlin all the space he needs to punctuate the melody with a thunderous ballet of meticulously composed fills and stabs that nimbly dance around the singer's entrancing cadence.
An early highlight (and missed single opportunity) on the Smashing Pumpkins' gargantuan 33-song rock opera, "Hooligan" successfully combines a lot of Corgan and company's musical interests. A bouncy keyboard phrase sits snugly against muscular staccato guitar chords, which tightly synchronize with Chamberlin's pummelling yet restrained beat. There's a lot of sonic ear candy subtly at play in the production, giving supportive space for a fluid vocal melody to steer the track. Schroeder and Iha add tasteful guitar harmonies to the mix in a song so catchy that it almost feels like it's over too fast, making it eminently relistenable.
16. "The Hidden Sun"
"The Hidden Sun" is a track many of the guitar-obsessed dude-bro Pumpkins fans would be inclined to overlook due to its laid back strummy synth pop stomp. But anyone that appreciates the full depth of the band's work, or just loves a great song, will end up with this glowing earworm taking up permanent residence in their mind. Corgan's gift of melody is on full display, pulling the song through a series of interesting chord changes and hooks on the way to a cathartic, uplifting chorus that stands as one of the most purely positive pieces of writing in the Pumpkins's catalogue. And, as is the case with much of CYR, the harmony vocals are downright angelic.
15. "Space Age"
Echoing its name with every production and arrangement choice, "Space Age" is a straight up future-classic Pumpkins ballad. Celestial keys, twinkling guitar lines and cosmic washes of synth drift under a beautiful, emotional vocal performance that highlights the great strides Corgan has made as a singer over the years, as well as his collaborative spirit, with Sierra Swan's prominent contributions making her almost a co-vocalist on this song. Also, as much attention as Jimmy Chamberlin can command as a drumming virtuoso, his ability to place just the right drum fill in just the right spot is a testament to a level of considered taste that trumps even his most outrageous percussive workouts.
Teargarden by Kaleidyscope Vol. II: The Solstice Bare (2010)
Had it come out in another time, a less experimental release phase, or been traditionally serviced with a music video and radio campaign, "Freak" could have been an alt-rock hit. With an unforgettable fuzz bass progression, lean, squealing guitar hooks and a sing-along anthemic melody for the ideologically dispossessed, it screams Pumpkins radio rock classic. Contrasting its scathing lyrical candour, the song revels in upbeat major key bombast, positioning itself as a rallying cry of positive resistance rather than a dour indictment against systems of exploitation and control.
13. "Save Your Tears"
Defiant aesthetic choices define a lot of what the Pumpkins set out to achieve on CYR. I'm sure it occurred to Corgan that electing to play the main keyboard riff on a fuzzy guitar would have made "Save Your Tears" an instant classic in the minds of fans of a particular type of sonic dressing the band is famous for. But it's still an instant classic if you listen to the song based on its own merits as a great piece of rock songwriting with '80s new wave production techniques. The gritty, driving bassline propels the song forward alongside dry, pounding drums and fantastic keyboard riffs. As is the case with much of the band's recent work, the vocals remain the star of the show, even with killer instrumental licks aplenty bristling throughout the track.
The second the band kicked into this song during live shows months before it had been released in studio form, it was clear that "Empires" was going to be a single and a perpetual fan favourite. Beefy, metallic guitar riffs reign supreme, bolstered by slamming drums and a degree of vocal aggression more akin to earlier Pumpkins rock anthems than much of their recent output. Scratching that heavy itch for fans and proving that they're still more than capable of writing focused bangers when the mood strikes, the Pumpkins mine serious alt-metal gold with this lean slab of brilliance.
Any skepticism listeners may have had regarding Corgan's choice to hire 19-year-old Mike Byrne as Jimmy Chamberlin's replacement after an open call was easily put to rest with the young drummer's wowing performances on 2012's Oceania. "Panopticon" is an absolute beast of a track in every respect, pushing hard into the band's bombastic, psychedelic rock strengths; the creative ferocity of Byrne's playing stands out, even amidst the pyrotechnic guitar work, gliding bass lines and soaring vocals. Everything you could want in a classic Smashing Pumpkins rock track is present in spades, and with a vibe all of its own, too. Byrne doesn't sound like Chamberlin, but his influence, and his synergy with Corgan's demanding prog rock tendencies, is readily apparent.
Oceania, both the album and the title track, deserve a firm place in the Smashing Pumpkins' all-time great works. There are many songs from that record that could be on this list, but the titular epic really captures that special spark of ambition that sets the Pumpkins apart. It's rare to find a piece of music that so seamlessly fits in so many aspects of what makes a band exceptional. Clocking in at over nine minutes, "Oceania" moves from dramatic gothic keys to a languid verse, through a Beatles-esque Mellotron breakdown, driving alt-rock choruses and Batman-evoking toy piano, to a beautifully stripped-down folk bridge before building back up into an extensive prog rock journey that ranks among the band's best long-form jams without losing focus on the melodic, song-driven plot.
Zeitgeist (silver edition) (2007)
Technically a B-side that was only released on special editions of Zeitgeist, "Stellar" once again proves just how much musical magic pours out of Corgan and his collaborators. This "extra" song is possessed by a level of compositional prowess and innate emotional resonance most bands would kill to come near. Propulsive and shoegaze-y at the same time, "Stellar" feels like an evolution of the side of the band a lot of fans beg for more of: a more sophisticated take on Gish-isms; a more polished exploration of the dreamy psych-rock highlights of Pisces Iscariot. That indelible, soul-soothing Pumpkins charm is wonderfully captured here in the interplay between expressive guitars, spacey synths, soulful vocals and utterly unique drumcraft, all in service of the song's distinct vision.
If All Goes Wrong (2008)
We're getting deep into the obscure cuts of wonderful Pumpkins madness here. Never recorded in the studio, the closest we've got to a definitive version of "Gossamer" is on the utterly essential live concert documentary from 2008, If All Goes Wrong. If you're in it for the singles, this song is not for you. At over 33 minutes, and played differently every time it was performed, this labyrinthine prog-gasm is the sound of a band challenging themselves at the most fundamental and creative of levels. That it never feels like aimless noodling despite multiple guitar solos, a jaw-dropping drum break, extensive instrumental freakouts and so, so many parts is a testament to the compositional and improvisational prowess and taste that the Smashing Pumpkins, as led by Billy Corgan and Jimmy Chamberlin, are capable of.
7. "My Love Is Winter"
Sometimes a great song is just a great song, and that is definitely the case with "My Love Is Winter." This is melodic rock, Pumpkins-style, firing on all cylinders. The melody is fantastic, the faux strings and keyboards beautifully arranged and layered, Corgan's bass playing has never sounded better, and the song structure is sublime, building up then pulling back dynamically before reaching a series of spine-tingling climaxes. How this was never an official single is one of those bizarre mysteries of a band not always certain of how to present its best music to the public.
American Gothic (2008)
Directly following the comeback of Zeitgeist, there was a collection of songs that could have comprised another seminal Pumpkins album. Four of these gems were corralled into the acoustic guitar-centric American Gothic EP. "Sunkissed" is perhaps the most emotionally arresting of these, with a hypnotic, harmonically rich rhythm guitar motif under another all-time great Corgan melody and a patient song structure evocative of Pink Floyd at their catchiest and most beautiful. Carefully composed, soul-stirring lead guitar weaves through the piece and Chamberlin brings to bear his rare talent for textural, understated drum hooks, placing gentle sizzle ride crashes around the piece with sublime restraint to bolster the warm, comforting production, conceivably intended to act as the sonic equivalent of the tender caress of rejuvenating joy a sunny day can bring you after feeling trapped by darkness.
5. "That's the Way (My Love Is)"
Massively under-appreciated upon its release, much of Zeitgeist feels like classic Pumpkins now. The second single from the album, "That's the Way (My Love Is)," could be slotted into many eras of the band and feel perfectly in place, such is its timeless appeal. No other band does tender heaviness with such aplomb, finding a way to craft a mid-tempo driving rock song that achieves all of the emotional resonance of a heartfelt ballad. The guitars are trademark walls of perfectly balanced distortion, with lead breaks that escalate the dynamics to exacting effect, as the drums create relentless momentum without ever crossing into being busy for the sake of it. For a mainstream rock single in the mid-2000s, the song makes clever, subtle chord shifts that weren't exactly en vogue with the music climate of that time, helping to create the track's sense of timeless fluidity, even if such sophistication didn't help it comfortably fit into radio rotation. But then, the music of the Smashing Pumpkins has never been about fitting in; it's about exploring authentic expressions of emotions for those that don't feel like they fit in.
4. "With Sympathy"
Shiny and Oh So Bright Vol. 1 / LP: No Past. No Future. No Sun. (2018)
Anyone who slept on "With Sympathy" missed out on a special treat in the Pumpkins' oeuvre. It's another instance of temporally defiant songsmithery, existing outside the march of popular taste, content to live on its own merits as a beautiful, emotional piece of music. Devoid of showy fills or frills, it's a great example of a maturity that has long existed in the band's writing and production but doesn't often receive commensurate attention outside of deep listeners. "With Sympathy" demonstrates restraint from all participants, letting powerful sentiment, tasteful arranging and an impassioned vocal performance carry this relatively simple but immeasurably impactful song.
3. "Bring the Light"
A polar opposite to the songs on this list that directly surround it, "Bring the Light" is the Pumpkins at their bombastic best. Pushing the quiet-loud formula of grunge to its max, delicate verses and a brief bridge are surrounded by blazing progressive pop-punk maximalism. Scorched-earth guitars shred the speakers and Jimmy Chamberlin commits inhuman feats of mind-boggling drum work, continually punctuating the track and topping himself with god-tier fills. The whole experience is pure revelatory, fist-pumping rock 'n' roll catharsis. And, in delightfully contrarian Pumpkins fashion, this blast of manic, sing-along adrenaline wraps up with the softest and sweetest of blissful comedowns. Consider the light brought.
As vital and impressive a component as drums usually are to the Smashing Pumpkins, some of their best work just doesn't call for percussion at all. Such is the case with "Wildflower," the closing track on 2012's Oceania and arguably among the most emotionally powerful compositions in Billy Corgan's entire songbook. Music can be possessed of such undefinable, stirring magic that it's impossible to describe why a collection of notes, chords, words and sounds can have the impact it does. For the majority of its runtime, "Wildflower" is a steady buildup of beautifully layered synthetic orchestration and a deeply soulful vocal performance that reflects on how we waste our time on the way to learning to embrace love. Then the climax hits. All of the song's ascending, self-critical romantic tension is released in a soaring guitar solo that hits unique emotional frequencies in a way that I've never been able to hear without being brought to tears.
1. "Silvery Sometimes (Ghosts)"
Shiny and Oh So Bright Vol. 1 / LP: No Past. No Future. No Sun. (2018)
Other than the position of popular tastes, there's no reason why "Silvery Sometimes (Ghosts)" shouldn't be as big a hit as songs like "1979" and "Perfect." This is Pumpkins pop perfection. An instantly unforgettable chord sequence provides a flawless foundation for Corgan to build one of his greatest melodies, populated at every turn with indelible hooks and heart-tugging tenderness rendered into anthemic alt-pop. The production and arrangement are spot on, with catchy guitar phrases and supportive synth string stabs just spicy enough to wow without overstepping the song's lean efficiency. Similarly, the drums do exactly what's required to support the song's vitality — no more, no less. With material this exceptionally realized in the band's recent output, it's hopefully only a matter of time before all eras of the Smashing Pumpkins are given the respect the band continually proves they deserve.