Panic! at the Disco's 10 Greatest Songs: Critic's Picks
When I saw Panic! play the Theater at Madison Square Garden in 2014, I couldn’t get over how young everyone was. And how loud. I was a kid going to shows ten years prior, seeing Panic! and their scene brethren when the mall emo business was booming, and I’d grown accustomed to present-day crowds where it looked like the band hadn’t picked up a new fan since Fall Out Boy went on hiatus, or when Maria maybe counted them in.
And there’s nothing wrong with being a 20-something! But it’s sort of a bummer when fans who have to get up for work the next day come out to sing along to your three most popular songs and stand still for the rest of the night. “OMG high school, such a throwback!” Panic! at the Disco avoided this in the best way possible.
Three years later, I saw them play Madison Square Garden -- the arena, not the theater -- and sell it out. It was wild, it was silly, and it was very extra. It’s great to have teen fans; they’re louder, they’re feistier, they’re actually going through the adolescent mania as a 17-year old Urie when he famously overestimated how not-boring weddings actually are. Frontman Brendon Urie -- now the band’s only original member and full-time main attraction -- devoted only about ten minutes of the evening to songs off A Fever You Can’t Sweat Out, their 2005 debut album once seen as a career albatross.
I thought back to interviewing Urie in 2013, when he was getting ready to release Too Weird To Live, Too Rare To Die! -- the album that really launched Panic! 2.0 -- and how he wanted his shows to match the energy of a DJ at a club night, powering through a mega-mix of familiar hooks and choruses. On last year’s tour, he essentially did that with Fever, stringing together condensed versions of all but its biggest hit, while letting the deep cuts from his recent Billboard 200-topping album hog the spotlight. A seismic record that would be a golden excuse for another band’s 10-year anniversary nostalgia tour is just a tiny blip on a modern day Panic! set.
They’ll look to keep the momentum going with a new album this summer, and its raucous lead single sounds like it could wind up on a list like ours below once it’s had some time to settle in. Witness the trend-bucking revitalization of one of the 21st century’s most popular rock bands told through our picks for their ten greatest songs. Turns out, those recent cuts hold up so well, they've bumped that "biggest hit" from the list entirely.
10. “Mad As Rabbits” [Pretty. Odd., 2008]
For their sophomore album, Panic at the Disco ditched more than the exclamation point. The eyeliner was swapped for faded floral prints, the scene-approved Fall Out Boy choruses and pop-punk accents for time-tested late-60s Beatles psychedelia. Pretty.Odd. wasn’t as commercially successful as its mighty predecessor, but those who made it all the way to track 15 were treated to this whimsical nugget of Sgt. Pepper's grandeur: a cartoonish cautionary tale about the “poor son of a humble chimney sweep” driven mad as the hatter in Alice In Wonderland. It’s also a rare moment in the band’s catalog that features Urie sharing lead vocal duties with guitarist-songwriter Ryan Ross.
9. “Death of a Bachelor” [Death of a Bachelor, 2016]
Finally, some Panic! you can take home to (great?) grandma. Plenty of millennial rockers have tried to be the Beatles, but a freshly-married, 30-year old Urie tapping into his Sinatra side unlocked a new level of showmanship. “[If] Sinatra taught DJs to write rock n’ roll” is how he described Death of a Bachelor, and on its title track, Panic! strips away most of its maniacal modern day production clatter and -- lo and behold -- Urie can flat-out croon. Someone get this man to the Copa Room at the Sands.
8. “Miss Jackson” Feat. LOLO [Too Weird To Live, To Rare To Die!, 2013]
Panic!'s fourth album -- the start of that 2.0 phase -- marked a major turning point. It was the last LP to feature drummer Spencer Smith, whose departure left Urie the last original member, and eventually, the band's driving creative force. Inspired by hip-hop textures and cadences, "Miss Jackson" trumpets a brash call-and-response barrage that doesn't seem to care a very iconic rap song with virtually the same name already topped the Hot 100. For the record though, the lyrics of its seismic chorus were actually a nod to a Janet Jackson single in trying to seduce his love interest with a desperate, carnal howl of, "Are you nasty?"
7. “The Ballad of Mona Lisa” [Vices & Virtues, 2011]
V&V was another transitional album for Panic!. Ross and bassist Jon Walker had recently said goodbye, and with more creative control ceded to Urie, the band bounced back towards the glitzy debauchery of its debut. The opening track and and lead single endures as its strongest statement: there are shades of Fever's Vaudevillian second side in the xylophone intro and those little string inflections in the verses, and once we get to the hard-charging power pop chorus, Urie's mighty, "whoa, Mona Lisa" announces the exclamation point has returned in dramatic fashion.
6. “L.A. Devotee” [Death of a Bachelor, 2016]
Vegas birthed Panic!, but the version we know today is very much an L.A. thing. Urie had lived there for the better part of a decade when he penned this unabashed ode to the City of Angels. It goes down smoother than any of Death of a Bachelor’s more up-tempo tracks, the multi-faceted hooks streamlined enough for the listener to keep up with Urie’s voice through the twists and turns of “Mulholland Drive” and “swimming pools under desert skies.”
5. “Time To Dance” [A Fever You Can’t Sweat Out, 2005]
Three ways to tell you’re dealing with an actual OG Panic! diehard: They know what the most popular Fever lyric to have in your AIM profile was, they have strong opinions about this song’s demo, they are Pete Wentz.
So much of the early Panic! hysteria centers around “Time to Dance,” as stumbling upon its early version was what prompted the Fall Out Boy bassist to rush out to Vegas and make them the first band signed to his label. It’s also a damn good song. Suddenly, awkward 15-year old scenesters realized it was actually okay to let down and dance to sound of those synth bubbles percolating through Smith’s peppy, lockstep drumming and Ross’ driving chords.
4. “The Only Difference Between Martyrdom and Suicide Is the Press Coverage” [A Fever You Can’t Sweat Out, 2005]
For the first half of their first album, Panic! at the Disco was a pop-punk band. They outgrew that ambition by the time they wrote Fever's scenery-chewing second side, but not before gifting a few bits of histrionic flair for the genre's canon. The Chuck Palahniuk-quoting opening salvo remains one of the catchiest things Panic! ever produced, densely syncopated acoustics bursting into a fiendish, amped-up chorus that sounds like Patrick Stump's kid brother having his way with "Somebody Told Me." Urie sounds like an adderall'd carnival barker caught up on teenage hormones, and by the end of the final chorus, were fittingly left with nothing but some ba-ba-buh-da's.
3. “Hallelujah” [Death of a Bachelor, 2016]
“Ain’t It Fun” was fresh off becoming Paramore’s first top 10 hit, so why not take its choir-backed bridge and turn it into a whole song? That spiritual sentiment was strong with Fueled By Ramen in the mid-2010s, and the band that had recently released a single literally titled “This Is Gospel” was more than ready. Perhaps playing off his Mormon upbringing (perhaps playing off it a lot) Urie introduced fans to the Death of a Bachelor sound with a persona that’s part jazz age bandleader, part preacher for mall-punk sinners.
2. “Nine In the Afternoon” [Pretty. Odd., 2008]
Around the time Across the Universe set Beatles nostalgia to a fever pitch, Panic! arrived with its first new song in three years, one that was openly indebted to the Fab Four’s psychedelic years. It would have been easy to fade into the nostalgia overload, but “Nine In the Afternoon” cut through the clutter then, and still sounds like an absolute delight. Maybe it’s because it’s a love letter to a whole decade’s worth of cheery chamber pop: Sashaying into your earbuds like “Mr. Blue Sky,” keeping them glued to every melodic nook and cranny with Pet Sounds brass backing a chorus straight out of the Zombies’ Odessey and Oracle.
It peaked at No. 51, good for Panic!’s third-highest Hot 100-charting single, after “Hallelujah” and “I Write Sins Not Tragedies.” How many other rock bands’ three biggest hits sound so different?
1. “This Is Gospel” [Too Weird To Live, To Rare To Die!, 2013]
And finally, we’re back to the worship theme. Our pick for Panic!’s greatest song was written as Urie’s ode to Smith, whose battle with alcohol and pill addiction forced him to leave the band in 2013. “If you love me let me go!” he wails, welcoming a chorus as triumphant as the subject is sobering. The intro’s heartbeat rhythm explodes into a blaring arena-pop chorus, each layer of big beat percussion and soaring backing vocals upping the cinematic stakes. That's Panic!'s magic -- being able to communicate life-altering emotion without losing that veneer of charisma and showmanship.
Check out the full playlist here: