Blink-182 has had a number of high-profile hiatuses and semi-breakups, and in the wake of those moments, Tom DeLonge has started a couple of side projects. One such band was Angels & Airwaves, a space, pop, and prog-ish rock act that yearns for U2 grandiosity and existential complexity. Now that DeLonge is no longer with blink-182 (again), Angels & Airwaves serves as his primary musical outlet, as it has at various points since its formation in 2005. The band, which has seen DeLonge as its only consistent member (besides David Kennedy, who was out of the loop for a few years then came back), just released LIFEFORMS, their sixth album in the 15 years since their 2006 debut. In revisiting the discography of Angels & Airwaves to prepare for this piece, I had that unfortunate experience of realizing that I don’t quite like their work as much as I did when I was in middle and high school. However, I think there are songs by Angels & Airwaves, and broader things to like about them, that make the band still worth listening to. I did not include in this ranking the EPs STOMPING THE PHANTOM BRAKE PEDAL (2012), …OF NIGHTMARES (2015), or CHASING SHADOWS (2016), although each were listened to to get a fuller understanding of Angels & Airwaves’ output.
#6 — I-EMPIRE (2007)
Favorite track: “Everything’s Magic”
I-EMPIRE was Angels & Airwaves’ second album, and it falls squarely into the concept of the “sophomore slump.” While not strongly different in its approach than its predecessor WE DON’T NEED TO WHISPER, I-EMPIRE perhaps grates more often than it inspires simply because of the lack of strong, catchy choruses. “Everything’s Magic” is an exception to this rule, but it’s clear that I-EMPIRE is the worst manifestation of the U2-inspired, broad, humorless, and cheesy sound that has, to some extent, defined every Angels & Airwaves record. The effect that U2 has had on bringing modern rock and pop acts and musicians into arena aspiration has really ruined the cred and work of too many people. Now, I wouldn’t say I-EMPIRE is in the worst echelon of that inclination, but there’s definitely a sense that it was kind of a “clout-chasing” (as in, radio-play-chasing) effort, although there’s a point to be made that DeLonge was stretching out of blink-182 production and songwriting styles. It’s not like the band wasn’t still churning out hits shortly before the formation of Angels & Airwaves.
#5 — THE DREAM WALKER (2014)
Favorite track: “Paralyzed”
Although Angels & Airwaves’ multimedia focus was evident with the preceding LOVE duology, THE DREAM WALKER was a gung-ho effort to connect to the “Poet Anderson” story that was manifested in the animated short film POET ANDERSON: THE DREAM WALKER (2014). I don’t know much else, though, because I often don’t really dive too deep into the narrative concepts behind albums like this, “this” being an album I don’t really like too much. I’d like for the music to speak for itself. THE DREAM WALKER was an effort to make the Angels & Airwaves sound a little “harder,” and in paring down collaborators to just multi-instrumentalist Ilan Rubin, DeLonge did distinguish the record from the four that preceded it. THE DREAM WALKER is a little bit more guitar and drum oriented, to its benefit, although it still resides in a synthy space. “Paralyzed” weaves through a decent groove, while still hitting those soaring qualities you can expect of Angels & Airwaves, but most of the album settles into a bit of a malaise, as you can also expect of Angels & Airwaves.
#4 — LOVE (2010)
Favorite track: “Hallucinations”
Angels & Airwaves’ two LOVE albums were tied into a film of the same name (2011), a science fiction story that carried the heady and extraterrestrial concepts that the band has always tried to work with. Again, a lot of the lyrical and thematic content of Angels & Airwaves are lost on me. But if I listen to the music, and this is still the case on LOVE, I get that they’re going for a wraparound sound that, sure, brings you out into orbit. LOVE is marginally more successful in this respect than I-EMPIRE or THE DREAM WALKER, but a lot of its tracks, in addition to those on the preceding two albums, feel same-y. “Hallucinations” has a great, catchy chorus, though, and you know what, I should maybe clarify: I don’t think the work of Angels & Airwaves is outright and offensively bad or corporate in the way that other U2 disciples are. I just think DeLonge (and I think this can be attributed to DeLonge primarily) gets wrapped up in some ambitious ideas that can fall flat, or at least don’t make the full, weighty impact that is intended. All this being said…LOVE is fine.
#3 — LIFEFORMS (2021)
Favorite track: “Losing My Mind”
LIFEFORMS comes after the biggest gap between Angels & Airwaves albums, releasing as it did just under seven years after THE DREAM WALKER. I have to assume it was because DeLonge was busy chasing UFOs and getting the United States government to disclose previously confidential documents that still don’t really say anything. Look, I’m pretty skeptical of all that alien conspiracy theory shit. Since some of those ideas have wormed their way into Angels & Airwaves stuff (admittedly, long before LIFEFORMS), I feel I’m also justifiably skeptical of the other heady, emotional, and faux-inspirational themes they employ. But again, if I just listen to the music, I have to admit that LIFEFORMS is a pleasantly surprising leveraging of the patented A&A ethereal looseness to enrich stronger, hookier beats and guitar riffs, as is best exemplified by “Losing My Mind.” But the same could be said for more than one or two tracks on LIFEFORMS, which could not really be said for the records preceding it on this list. Like THE DREAM WALKER, LIFEFORMS seems to be going for a stronger drive, and I’m definitely in favor of that.
#2 — WE DON’T NEED TO WHISPER (2006)
Favorite track: “Good Day”
WE DON’T NEED TO WHISPER was Angels & Airwaves’ first album and their best-selling to this day. My favorite track on the record, “Good Day,” is among their best-known songs. And the whole thing was an interesting departure from DeLonge’s contributions to pop punk through blink-182. The big spacey songwriting and production approach was relatively novel, and it resulted in some songs that are not only catchy but also pleasing to just…reside within. “Good Day” is the best example, as it has a chorus worth belting out and little interludes and moments that are just groovy and loose. WE DON’T NEED TO WHISPER nearly has the largest number of standout tracks for an Angels & Airwaves record, and seemed to be created with a fresh new purpose which quickly devolved into a kind of stagnation.
#1 — LOVE: PART TWO (2011)
Favorite track: “Anxiety”
Although it was paired with, followed quickly after, and was presumably written and recorded in near synchronicity with LOVE, LOVE: PART TWO is far superior. Angels & Airwaves’ best album doesn’t reinvent the various concepts and traits I’ve described throughout this piece, and indeed, it falls prey to a lot of the same problems, one of which, as I’ve not mentioned, is that certain songs just drag on. C’mon guys, this kind of broad, spacey sound doesn’t need to be brought into four-to-five-minute-plus songs to sound “epic.” But in spite of this consistent quality, LOVE: PART TWO is able to surmount whatever preconceived notions I had of A&A annoyance with, yes, a solid “big” production style and strong pop hooks. The chorus of “Anxiety” makes it my favorite track on the record, but in a unique situation for this piece, it was difficult to pick it, not because much of LOVE: PART TWO wasn’t very good, but because I actually liked a few tracks quite a bit. Even in moving past the attention to standout tracks or billing the strength of the album on just one or two songs, I can recognize and appreciate LOVE: PART TWO for its collective, album-length experience, something that I haven’t necessarily been able to do for the other Angels & Airwaves releases. This is the best of the band’s records not because it fully evades the things I once really liked but now roll my eyes at. It’s because, with its strong hooks, LOVE: PART TWO is still able to tap into some of the good ol’ angst and need for something emotionally and sonically “big.”