Brendon Urie recently announced that the musical project known as Panic! at the Disco was coming to an end. Some outlets have been reporting it as a band breakup but that seems odd considering the “band” has been a solo project since the release of the fifth album in 2016. Not sure how exactly Urie is expected to have broken up with himself. Either way, this feels very much like the end of an era. As such I thought I would do a sort of retrospective, complete with a ranking of the seven albums from worst to best. Though really there is no such thing as a bad Panic! Album.
Let’s set the stage first with some background on my personal history with the group. I was actually avidly anti-Panic! when their first album came out. I’m definitely going to date myself here. I was a senior in high school. Back in the days where you discovered a band either through the “modern hits” filled soundtrack of the latest teen flick, or the local radio stations. In my case it was what was then known as STAR 98.7 and KROQ 106.7. The former played “alternative” songs while the latter played more rock heavy material. Spotify wasn’t yet a thing and MP3 players were just getting to be trendy.
You might also have heard of a band through a friend sharing their latest musical discovery via burned CDs (I know, I know, way to really date myself). Then, there was the way I learned about Panic! This was when a band became suddenly ubiquitous, with their merch taking over the walls of Hot Topic (by the way, is Hot Topic still a thing?) and you couldn’t escape their logos and faces. All the kids in your class would be wearing their shirts and fake leather wristbands, and talking about how amazingly intellectual this new band with the crazy name that had punctuation really was.
So, when I first heard about Panic! I thought they were incredibly pretentious with their exclamation point and song titles that were full on sentences. I hated them for the sheer attitude that exuded from their music. I mean, I wasn’t wrong. They were really pretentious. But I eventually came to appreciate the often times brilliant creativity buried in what was passed off as mindless pop rock music. I came to identify key moments from my personal life with their music as it became the soundtrack of so many of my memories. I have had the joy of being a fan of their music for fifteen years (I officially converted with the release of the second album), and have had the privilege of seeing them perform live over a dozen times. With that little history out of the way, let’s take a look at the albums of this band I have loved for the past almost two decades.
Coming in at number seven is Pray for the Wicked (2018), the sixth studio album and second to come from the “band” in its solo enterprise days. Let me repeat, there is no such thing as a bad Panic! album in my mind. There are things about Pray for the Wicked that I absolutely adore, and in fact it features my all time favorite Panic! song. Perhaps the reason I feel less enamored of this record is because it is the only one that feels like it was made for the Spotify age. It is a collection of singles rather than a cohesive album. I am a firm believer that music tells the best stories when crafted to take the listener on a journey through complex musical experiences expressed through a strategic series of songs. Pray for the Wicked lacks a strong through line in terms of musical themes and tone, which is why its place is at the bottom of the list.
Best Song: When I first heard “Dying in LA” I ended up sobbing by the end of it. It came to me when I was considering moving from the Los Angeles area after living there my entire life. I love LA but there are many things about it that I find soul crushing, and I really struggled with my decision. The song perfectly captures the conflicting emotions of optimism and despondency that LA seems to evoke in so many people. It is beautiful and sad yet strangely hopeful. It felt like Urie was singing about my own experiences and I was overwhelmed. I’m sure it didn’t affect many others the way it did me but “Dying in LA” still feels like the most emotionally mature Panic! song, and it is a rare gem in an otherwise dare I say mediocre album.
At number six we have the fourth studio album, Too Weird to Live, Too Rare to Die! (2013) complete with its own exclamation point. From this point forward I feel that each album has its own musical identity fusing it together, with that telltale Panic! vibe running along the foundation. Too Weird definitely leans more into the electronic side of the Panic! sound, sometimes a little too heavily for my taste but the collection of songs sound like they belong together, and feel like they have a story to tell. “This Is Gospel” is a strong opener and a perfect beginning link for the future albums that use its theme in their singles. With lines like “This is Gospel for the fallen ones/Locked away in permanent slumber/Assembling their philosophies/From pieces of broken memories” it is one of the stronger songs lyrically on the album. Then there is “Miss Jackson” which just has such a killer hook and pulsing guitar rift that you can’t help but want to jump up and dance. I had the chance to hear “Vegas Lights” live on the strip while the casino lights were flashing and there isn’t really another experience like it. The energy that song brings is insane. The rest of the songs run a little calm but still feel like they hold their own with the hits.
Best Song: “Girls / Girls / Boys” has become an anthem of sorts and a tradition was born for the live shows that plays on the old concert ritual of holding a lighter up during particularly emotional songs. Multi-colored paper hearts are passed out by a fan group before the show so that during the performance the audience can hold up their own rainbow backlit with their phone flashlights. The song itself starts off almost at a whisper before building to the chorus where Urie finally belts out the title lyrics, as though he’s no longer able to contain the secret affairs of the girl who is the subject of the piece. It also doesn’t hurt that the music video for the song features a shirtless Urie singing seductively to the camera.
At number five is Vices & Virtues (2011), the third album and first to come out after the departure of founding members Ryan Ross and John Walker. This might lean a little too steampunk for some listeners but the sound of the album is one of the strongest and it begins the evolution of the band from youthful snarkiness to mature musical themes. Once again the album kicks off with a strong opener, “The Ballad of Mona Lisa” showcasing Urie’s signature voice right off to assure fans that despite the loss of two band members it is still the same Panic! Well, perhaps a slightly more polished Panic!. Other strong entries include “Let’s Kill Tonight,” “Hurricane,” and “Trade Mistakes.” Though really each track is a contender for best on the album. They all feel like their own individual piece of a bigger puzzle that fits together to form the very solid Vices & Virtues.
Best Song: “Ready to Go (Get Me Out of My Mind)” combines the best of the two essential elements that form a Panic! song, the upbeat musical beats and snappy lyrics. The call and response in the chorus adds to the driving bass and pulsating guitar making it near impossible to not jump up and down while shout-singing the line “I’m ready to go/(Get me out of my mind)/(Get me out of my mind)/I’m ready to go/(Oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh).”
Number four on the list is Pretty. Odd. (2008), the second studio album. This time around the pretentiousness goes up a level because while the title of the album features double punctuation the official band name has dropped its punctuation (the exclamation point does return and stays with the release of the third album). The confusing sentence structure of the title and name aside, this album is brilliant both in terms of its music and what it proved for the band’s staying power. This of course is ironic considering it eventually led to the first “breakup” of the group, and I am writing about it in a post celebrating the legacy of a soon to be disbanded entity. What it proved right off was that a band could reinvent themselves musically and still be considered a success. Tonally this album is miles away from the first, clearly influenced by The Beatles and the sound of 60’s and 70’s psychedelic rock. Despite mixing musical genres in the span of a couple songs the album feels cohesive in its incohesiveness. Standout tracks include the initial single “Nine in the Afternoon,” “Northern Downpour,” “Pas de Cheval,” and my personal favorite from the album, “Folkin’ Around.”
Best Song: One of the most beautifully written songs by the band, “When the Day Met the Night” tells the sweet story of the moon and sun falling in love with each other, “in the middle of summer.” At nearly five minutes in length it is the longest of any Panic! song and features full orchestration.
The original Panic! album, A Fever You Can’t Sweat Out (2005) comes in at number three. I’ll admit I struggled with where to place this album on the list. As I mentioned before, when it first came out I resisted it but like the catchy thing it is it eventually worked its way into my heart. I still think some of it crosses the line between clever and irritating. The “Introduction” and “Intermission” tracks fall into the first category, providing an easing into and midpoint break of the chaotic trip the listener embarks on. The long titles of tracks two, three, seven, and twelve fall into that second category. At the end of the day this is the album that started it all and eighteen years later it is still easy to see why it became the monster hit it did. It would deserve a high ranking for that alone but it is also a creatively clever album that embraces energetic chaos and sonic diversity.
Best Song: “I Write Sins Not Tragedies.” Nothing else needs to be said.
My number two choice may be a bit controversial to some fans, and is perhaps only a little influenced by recency bias. Still, I maintain that the last album, Viva Las Vengeance (2022), will go down in history as one of the best Panic! albums of all time. It is a love letter to classic rock with musical references to bands from the 70s and 80s that created the sound Urie is fixated on, littered throughout the album. “Star Spangled Banger” riffs on the classic Thin Lizzy motif of “talking as singing” in its bridges. “Middle of a Breakup” sounds like The Cars jumped in the recording studio with Urie and he even name drops T. Rex in the chorus. He then name drops ELO in “Sugar Soaker” while evoking Meatloaf vibes. And of course there is “Sad Clown,” which could have been titled “I Love Queen and Here is a Song to Prove It.” There are also writing credits on multiple tracks for the artists that inspired them, including “God Killed Rock and Roll” which essentially steals directly from the Kiss song of a similar name. This album should serve as a starting point of educational material for those not familiar with the bands I just mentioned. Aside from the number one album this is the strongest in terms of musical themes, and in my opinion doesn’t feature a single weak track. Though I am sad the band is done, this is a hell of an album to end on.
Best Song: All of them. Listen to the entire album as it was meant to be heard from start to finish.
Then there was one. Death of a Bachelor (2016) is the fifth studio album and the first to be released as part of the solo enterprise. It is the second most successful in terms of sales and it’s easy to see why. I’ll come right out and say it, this is a perfect rock album. It starts off banging with “Victorious” and doesn’t slow down until it finally allows the listener to take a breath of air with the closing track, “Impossible Year.” Its singles included “Hallelujah,” which feels like a religious experience when you hear it live. Don’t believe me? Just listen to “All My Friends We’re Glorious: Death of a Bachelor Live” album. There is also the title track which is Urie’s very capable ode to Frank Sinatra. We could also talk about the incredible music videos that were created for the album, perhaps most impressive of which is the one for “Emperor’s New Clothes,” featuring Urie in full makeup as a demon king. Or there’s the octopus alien thing from “Don’t Threaten Me with a Good Time.” Everything about this album is perfect.
Best Song: As with the previous entry this album is best experienced as a whole, though I will highlight “LA Devotee,” as it features my favorite subject material and is just full of dark moody vibes.