As the lead vocalist and guitarist for the band The Smashing Pumpkins, Billy Corgan is one of the most prominent figures in the rock music scene of the late 20th and early 21st century. He is also a personality who is constantly experimenting and incorporating different styles of music into his compositions, thereby making the records vibrant and adaptive to the times. It’s a style that has made him one of the more relatable personas (as far as his songs go, at least) in the music industry.
Born in Chicago, Corgan’s childhood comprised of a completely broken family – not just in terms of the divorce his parents underwent, but because of the fact that both practically deserted their sons – Corgan and his younger brother. From a young age, Corgan had to learn to fend for himself, take care of his brother and make choices on how he wanted to pursue his career in the future. An intelligent pupil, Corgan graduated as an honour student from high school and was offered scholarships from multiple places to carry on with his higher studies. But he chose to go forth with music and later founded The Smashing Pumpkins along with the band’s guitarist James Iha in 1988.
Corgan was a self-taught musician. While he did cite his father as one of his inspirations, much of his knowledge came from what he could gather himself. It meant Corgan was open to all kinds of music and learned how to play the guitar across many genres. Corgan listened to a lot of hard rock, alternative rock, heavy metal music, and so on and owed much of his earlier professional inspirations to artists such as Jimi Hendrix, Queen, Black Sabbath, The Cure, etc. These influences helped shape Corgan’s own music style, whereafter he continued to evolve as a musician in his own right.
Over the span of his musical journey, Corgan released a number of records. Across 11 studio albums with The Smashing Pumpkins, Corgan’s songwriting soared. Corgan’s voice, with a whole personality of its own, was another asset that drew the audience’s attention towards their songs. Following the release of two of their albums in 2000, The Smashing Pumpkins went on a hiatus which lasted for almost six years, after which, the band resumed their work as a team.
During this hiatus, Corgan formed a band called Zwan, with whom he released just one album, Mary Star of the Sea. The singles ‘Honestly’ and ‘Lyric’ represented the album and got positive reviews as well. He also worked his solo career following this, including TheFutureEmbrace, before going back to performing with the Smashing Pumpkins.
While it is a difficult task to pick merely ten out of the plethora of compositions he has produced in the span of his career, here are some of the highlights covering more or less the entirety of his musical journey from his involvement with The Smashing Pumpkins to Zwan to his solo career and back to The Smashing Pumpkins again.
10 best Billy Corgan songs.
10. ‘Stand Inside Your Love’
Starting off the list is the song ‘Stand Inside Your Love’, released as a single from the Smashing Pumpkins’ fifth album Machina/The Machines of God (2000). Written by Billy Corgan himself, it was a song that had his relationship with his girlfriend Yelena Yemchuk as its background. This was a song that Corgan described as the only “true” love song he’d ever written.
Musically, the song was initially thought to be reminiscent of the new wave style as the band had done with their earlier hit song ‘1979’, but Corgan described it as “the classic Pumpkins sound”. Of course, Corgan’s voice in the song was absolutely mesmerising, along with the staggering instrumental accompaniments.
‘Siva’ by the Smashing Pumpkins ticked many boxes in terms of being the firsts for several things for the band. For starters, it came from the band’s debut album Gish, released in 1991. The song was also the first single off the album. Incidentally, it was also the first music video that they filmed as a band.
‘Shiva’ was one of the titles that Corgan had in his mind for quite a long time. He wanted to name the band ‘Shiva’ instead of Smashing Pumpkins, too. However, he was unaware of the religious implications the name ‘Shiva’ had which led him to remove the ‘h’ and finally settle upon ‘Siva’.
The song musically embraced the Pumpkins’ original influences of classic rock. However, it did have an almost silent classical interlude within it to serve as a contrasting feature to the rest of the song.
One of the band’s greatest works was probably their third album Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness. ‘Thirty-Three’ was released as the fifth and final single from the album in 1996.
Corgan was yet again the lyricist for the song and described it as “a simple song in a country tuning”.
True to his words, the song featured a wound-down sound of the acoustic guitar and piano along with the drums. Corgan’s vocals in the song, too, was laden with emotions and a sound with an almost syrupy texture.
7. ‘Silvery Sometimes (Ghosts)’
This song was rather recent in terms of the chronology of the Smashing Pumpkins, but nevertheless a significant moment in their legend.
Released in 2018, ‘Silvery Sometimes (Ghost)’ was a single from the band’s tenth album Shiny and Oh So Bright, Vol.1/ LP: No Past. No Future. No Sun. Considered a follow up to their single ‘Solara’, this song featured three-fourth of the band’s original lineup.
For the song ‘Silvery Sometimes (Ghost)’, Corgan took up multiple roles. He was the songwriter, the lead vocalist and an accompanying guitarist and bassist also. The song’s melodic presentation was remindful of the group’s original deliveries and earliest works.
6. ‘Tonight, Tonight’
Now here’s a song that was among the greatest hits by the band. Another one off their third album Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness, ‘Tonight, Tonight’ was released in 1995.
It was a song that was not only critically acclaimed but also commercially successful.
The song, written by Corgan, was quite personal in terms of the imagery it produced. It related lyrics that were on the lines of black humour – making a terrible event look seemingly funny.
‘Tonight Tonight’ reflected Corgan’s own journey of escaping an abusive childhood and coming out victorious despite all the obstacles in his way. Corgan’s soaring vocals, along with the 30-piece string section, gave the song a whole new dimension and made it one of the band’s finest compositions.
Digressing a little from Corgan’s works with The Smashing Pumpkins, ‘Honestly’ was a song that Corgan worked on with the band Zwan when the Pumpkins were on hiatus.
‘Honestly’ was the first single off of Zwan’s only album Mary Star of the Sea, which was released in 2002.
Written by Corgan, this song was a rendition of a heavy rock sound. Musically, it was considered to have elements of Corgan’s earlier compositions – the chord progressions as in ‘Today’ and the chorus of ‘Cherub Rock’. The song touched the hearts of many people and carried Zwan’s legacy forward even though the band’s time was short-lived.
4. ‘Bullet with Butterfly Wings’
“I have a tape of us from 1993 endlessly playing the ‘world is a vampire part over and over’, Corgan had said regarding a memorable refrain from the song ‘Bullet with Butterfly Wings’.
The song was one of the most distinctive moments on the Pumpkins’ album Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness (1995).
‘Bullet with Butterfly Wings’ with the unrestrained but focused rock instrumentals, along with Corgan’s raging vocals that dip, if only for a moment, into a muted composure before picking up again for the final verse, was a testament to not only the heavy metal influence on the band but also to Corgan’s own abilities as a vocalist and a musician.
3. ‘To Love Somebody’
Originally released as a single by the Bee Gees from their debut album Bee Gees 1stin 1967, this song was covered by Billy Corgan for his solo album TheFutureEmbrace in 2005.
Albeit a cover, Corgan’s version makes it to the list of his top ten songs because of the wonderful rendition of the song he produced.
For the album, Corgan took a different approach. He employed a multitracking style that was quite different from the Boston-style multitracking used in the Pumpkins’ album. For the cover of ‘To Love Somebody’, Corgan was accompanied by The Cure’s guitarist and frontman Robert Smith and an electronic drum track played by Jimmy Chamberlain. This cover easily became one of the most popular versions of the original song owing to Corgan’s vocals and the incredible personnel behind the song’s instrumentals.
‘Spaceboy’ was a song that Corgan wrote for his half-brother Jesse whom he was quite close to and who suffered from a rare medical condition as well as neurological disorders, which made him vulnerable to taunts and teasing by the people around him.
Corgan acted as the guardian for his younger brother and was always there by his side. It seems fitting that one of his most poignant songs would reflect that.
‘Spaceboy’ released in 1993 on the Smashing Pumpkins’ album Siamese Dream was a tribute from Corgan to his brother Jesse. With Corgan’s piercing vocals and the rumbling music to go with it, Spaceboy held a special place in the hearts of its audience as much as it did for Corgan and his brother.
‘Today’ on the Smashing Pumpkins’ 1993 album Siamese Dream was one of the most percipient songs of their entire career. Directly reflective of Corgan’s own battles with depression, anxiety and suicidal thought, ‘Today’ talked about the troubles he suffered.
However, Corgan’s brilliant abilities as a songwriter quietly glossed over the subject, barely leaving any traces for the unobservant eye to notice.
The serious subject matter of the lyrics was contrasted by the gentle instrumentals, Corgan’s own voice cruising between letting go completely in the booming choruses and floating in the reverie of the alternate verses. “Suddenly, I had a song that was starting out quiet and then got very loud”, Corgan recalled, “The day after I wrote ‘Today’, my manager heard it and said, ‘It’s a hit’, and I guess in a way, it was”.