Through the course of my musical wandering and searching for other sounds, certain definitive albums always bring me back to guitar-based rock and roll. There are five albums in my head that over the years, captured my attention immediately upon the first listen, and held it for an extended period of time. This often occurred when I was focused on another genre of music at the time, as if I needed a reminder that guitars, bass and drums are where it all starts for me. The first of these transformative albums was “Appetite for Destruction” by Guns N’ Roses, and the next hit me in 1993, when I definitely needed a wakeup call, with “Siamese Dream” by The Smashing Pumpkins. This was their second studio release, emerging from the shadows of grunge and alternative rock, and this masterpiece by Billy Corgan and his band lives on as one of my favorite all-time albums to this day. It is rated as #341 on Rolling Stone’s Top 500 Greatest Albums of All Time.
There are six tracks on this record that have always stood out to me above the rest, and I will address those primarily in this blog. Before I go any further, I have to give credit to my friend Mike, and this would be the Mike I have known the longest, for pushing me to explore this album once upon a time. He was spot on with this pick, and I owe him big-time for sharing his love of The Smashing Pumpkins.
The album opens with his favorite, and one of mine too, “Cherub Rock”. Jimmy Chamberlin’s snare drum announces the beginning, and before you know it, we are hit with the full-on guitar assault of Corgan and James Iha and their signature distorted sound that is so perfectly filthy. The riff on this song is so good, and Corgan’s unusual vocals add the ideal amount of delicate imbalance to this fairly standard rant against the record company industry.
“Today” is another phenomenal chord combination that explodes off of a subtle opening riff, and is one of many tracks on this song that focuses on Corgan’s intense depression and thoughts of suicide during this album. I’m very happy he was able to escape the demons that captured so many of his peers of the time, and this song is an intense emotional testimony to that delicate and precarious state.
“Hummer” was one of the deeper cuts on the album I originally claimed as a favorite, returning the favor to Mike as I pushed him many times on this track. It has an unusual, Middle-Eastern rotating turn that melts into more guitar distortion and eventually a really beautiful melody. “Life’s a bummer… when you’re a hummer”.
“Rocket” was the 4th and last single from the record, and has a similar feel to “Hummer”. With a hypnotic centerpiece riff, Corgan digs further into his isolated state and desire for escape, as the droning grind of this melodic rock track carries on.
“Disarm” is distinct in its acoustic base, a stark contrast to the rest of the album. With a string and bell-based backing, this is a dark exploration of Corgan’s childhood and the isolation that helped fuel his powerful approach to making music. It is certainly a departure from the guitar-drone of the album, and in the middle of the record, it is perfectly placed to add that contrast. It is a song that may have naturally fit later on some of their subsequent albums, but added that needed shift of pace a great album often contains.
Another non-single I absolutely love from this record is “Mayonaise”. The soft and gentle guitar opening, even more so than on “Today”, creates the perfect framework for the band to come crushing in at the one-minute mark. I love the guitar playing on this song, perhaps more than any track on the record, and it is one of the few songs to co-feature James Iha as a songwriter.
There isn’t a song on the album I don’t enjoy, even as I highlighted my six favorites. The band went way over their schedule and budget to make this record, and it dragged the band and particularly Corgan to the edge of exhaustion and breakdown, as we have seen before, but for all of the pain and turmoil, they emerged with one of the best albums of the 1990s and one of the most significant records of my own personal history as a music fan.