I’m not a very nostalgic person when it comes to art and entertainment. I can’t bring myself to keep engaging with the things I liked as a kid. It seems like things just don’t hold up. The one exception to this is the foundational pop punk band Panic! at the Disco, which dominated my middle and early high school years, and if you’re reading this, I’d bet you can say the same.
Brendon Urie– the frontman and sole remaining member of the band– announced the official retirement of the band in January of 2023, marking the end of a nearly two decade run. I would be shocked if Urie didn’t return to music in some other capacity, but for now, Panic! has been laid to rest.
I find myself returning to their discography about annually, feeling compelled to add them back into my rotation. Right now is one of those times, while they’re fresh in my mind and in our memories. And, one year later, I want to take stock of their output.
7. Pray for the Wicked (2018)
The worst one by far, the only truly bad album Urie made, and an unfortunate stain on their record. I need you to understand that this is a very, very distant seventh on the ranking. When this was being written, Urie was coming off of a run as Charlie Price in Kinky Boots on Broadway. His voice was battle-tested, and he decided to store this in a pure pop album, abandoning all rock and alternative roots. It was commercially successful, the single “High Hopes” became a massive hit,, but it’s just so grating, with a tenor so sharp it punishes the eardrum. There are some okay songs on here, I like the twisted trumpets on “Hey Look Ma, I Made It,” and “King of the Clouds” has a nice rhythm to it. Lyrically, it’s nothing special, but perfectly acceptable for a mainstream pop album. Unfortunately, the whole thing is just so bombastic and glitzy, and its fatal flaw is Urie’s constant belting. There is no tact or restraint, he is at the top of his range the entire time. Not good at all.
6. Too Weird to Live, Too Rare to Die! (2013)
The polar opposite of the previous ranking, in the sense that it’s also a pure pop album, but good. This was Urie’s first album as a solo act, as every member of the band had left before this. It’s probably the darkest moment in his discography, both contextually and sonically. The whole thing is techno-inspired, with very simplistic and rigid instrumentals. There are a few deep cuts on here that are personal favorites of mine, particularly “Vegas Lights” and “The End of All Things,” but what holds it back for me is the lyricism. See, this was the peak of the tumblr era, where Urie was finding his personality as a cultural figure, and he really leaned into the corny showmanship. This manifested in him saying things because they sounded cool. “This is gospel for the fallen ones, locked away in permanent slumber, assembling their philosophies from pieces of broken memories,” is a lyric that doesn’t really mean anything, but it sounds smart and deep, so he gets away with it. Now, granted, this was a trend at the time, their label mate Fall Out Boy was often guilty of this.
5. Pretty. Odd. (2009)
The act’s constant genre-hopping began with their sophomore effort, the last album made by a fully intact four-member band. Pretty. Odd. was when Urie’s partnership with Ryan Ross– the John Lennon of the group– was at its strongest, Ross is credited with much of the lyrics and is featured as a co-lead vocalist on many of the tracks. And, just as an aside, Ross leaving the band is one of the great what-ifs in musical history. Panic! would remain popular, Urie did fine, but it was never the same after this, and I lose sleep thinking of what they still could’ve done together. Anyway, this album is a seamless marriage of 60’s hippy rock and classic folk, driven mostly by acoustic guitar and piano. It’s bigger than the sum of its parts, lots of anthemic ballads, and an equal amount of shorter interludes that hide some darkness. “From a Mountain in the Middle of the Cabins” is a very chipper track about a drug dealer that features one of my favorite lines ever; “spark your heels up against the picket fence I built, all your wishes they will sink like stones, slowly down a lonely well.” This album also has the “saying stuff that sounds cool” problem, but it’s not a big deal here because it’s a lot more poetic and tongue in cheek, they were clearly aping a style a little insincerely.
4. Death of a Bachelor (2016)
Written at the height of his popularity and the prime of his life, the title is in reference to his marriage to Sarah Urie (née Orzechowski) who– fun fact – met as mutual friends of Hayley Williams from Paramore. With a new audience of teens and tweens discovering him through social media (myself included), Urie zoomed out and provided something that he was always capable of, you get the sense that he was hiding it in his back pocket. This album reads as a Broadway musical, a sentimental depiction of debauchery, nostalgia, and growing up. Unfortunately, there is one real stinker on the track list, “Don’t Threaten me with a Good Time” is overproduced and tries way too hard to be funny, but you know what? I liked it when I was 14, so it’s fine. And the rest of the album is so good it makes up for it tenfold. It’s not very deep, but it’s very high, if that makes any sense, like a giant, gilded skyscraper. “Crazy = Genius” is a big band arrangement that’s a spiritual successor to a song off of their debut album. “LA Devotee” is probably my favorite song in their discography, Urie often relies on the very top and very bottom of his vocal range, but this song lies in his perfect middle. Death of a Bachelor capped off an impeccable five album run, and if we’re being honest, this is when Panic! should have ended. Nothing wrong with resting on your laurels and going out on top.
3. Vices and Virtues (2011)
An underrated transitory period, where the pop and rock sensibilities were perfectly balanced. They hopped genres again, switching to a more classical, vaudevillian sound. At this point, the band was a duo of Urie and drummer Spencer Smith, and it’s his influence that ties the whole thing together. A lot of the songs feel rhythmically complex, even the ones where the drums aren’t that essential feel percussive and punchy. I think this is where the songwriting was at its sharpest, there’s a maturity and a simplicity to it. The lyrics often deal with straightforward romance and more generic (in a good way) themes as opposed to the out-there concepts they were accustomed to. “Sarah Smiles” is a very strong love song devoted to his eventual wife, with an oddly profound anger to it; “Sarah smiles like Sarah doesn’t care, she lives in her world so unaware, does she know that my destiny lies in her?” That didn’t mean it wasn’t an eccentric project, “Let’s Kill Tonight” and “Nearly Witches” can best be described as “Halloween songs.” And “The Calendar” just stops two thirds of the way through and becomes a smooth jazz snippet, for some reason (actually, so does “Hurricane.” Weird.)
2. Viva Las Vengeance (2022)
I think this will be the only controversial pick on this list. Viva Las Vengeance was not well received when it first dropped, particularly among fans, and I truly did despise it on first listen. However, after giving it some time, it’s grown on me tremendously. It’s difficult to get through a song like “Don’t Let the Light Go Out,” about his partner being hospitalized in a car crash, that features the line “you’re the only one who knows how to operate my heavy machinery.” That is an eye rolling, “turn it off” lyric that gets dropped very early in the track list. But if you squint, I think you can see an artist testing the limits of what he can get away with– he’s earned the right to sing that line, and there’s nothing we can do to stop him. And, you know, it is pretty clever. And I think that speaks to the character of the whole thing. This is a pure alternative rock album, divorced from all the weird subgenres, with little in the way of bells and whistles. It’s deeply nostalgic, very honest, and so, so mean. Urie is a total dick on this album, with a sharp disdain for the musical culture he was molded by. This is most potent on the song “Local God,” where he recounts the band’s origin story: “we signed a record deal at seventeen, hated by every local band. They say we never paid our dues, but what does that mean when money never changes hands?” Brutal. It pops up again on the song “Something About Maggie” – which might be my favorite album– where he urges a girl to break up with her abusive boyfriend, who’s an aspiring artist: “Gilly thinks that he’s a DJ, makes me want to slit my wrists, breaking mirrors on the subway, no one dances to his hits…Maggie, you gotta hit your boyfriend back (people say, people say, run away, run away.)” He covers a lot of interesting emotional territory here, with a riff on the Pagliacci myth on “Sad Clown,” a love letter to the youth on “Say it Louder,” and a eulogy for the genre on “God Killed Rock and Roll.” I don’t know if his disposition is endearing or justified, but it makes for a deceptively sad album.
1. A Fever You Can’t Sweat Out (2005)
I kind of don’t believe that a group of teenagers made this, that doesn’t sound possible to me. Something was in the water at Vegas high schools, because this is a Frankenstein abomination of an album, as indicated by its cover. It’s vaudeville-emo-dance-pop-punk. The instrumentals are dark, dense, and blood-pumping. With odd structures and eccentric tones, there are a lot of songs on here that just shouldn’t sound good, but they do. “Nails for Breakfast, Tack for Snacks” is the main culprit of this, which features my favorite hook ever; “the hospice is a relaxing weekend getaway where you’re a cut above all the rest, sick and sad patients on first name basis with all the top physicians.” They were preoccupied with medical misfortune, the very next track (“Camisado”) also deals with it. The whole thing is very visceral, with sweat and blood everywhere. In fact, sensory and bodily afflictions take center stage lyrically, with a chemical focus, there’s mention of formaldehyde and nitroglycerine and testosterone. Honestly, I think its best quality is just how smart it is. This came through as an unchecked pretentiousness, there’s an intermission track that describes the album as “a picturesque score of passing fancies” – come on. The song titles were long, and often referential, and the band had an affinity for the work of Chuck Palahniuk (most famous for writing Fight Club), “The Only Difference Between Martyrdom and Suicide is Press Coverage” is a quote from his novel Survivor. “Time to Dance,” which was my favorite song of all time for several years, is a lyrical retelling of a scene from a different Palahniuk novel, Invisible Monsters. And you can’t really write an article about this topic without mentioning “I Write Sins Not Tragedies,” a ubiquitous hit that I don’t love as much as other people do, but I think encapsulates the sense of elitism they were operating under– “it’s much better to face these kinds of things with a sense of poise and rationality.” If I’ve done my job, then I don’t have to explain why that’s meaningful. A truly genre-defining album, there’s nothing else quite like it.