Together, they were one of pop punk’s most unrivaled songwriting teams, but Tom DeLonge and Mark Hoppus also wrote some of their best music separately, outside of blink-182. For this edition of ‘In Defense of the Genre,’ I run down the 15 best songs by blink-182 side projects.
Tom DeLonge and Mark Hoppus are one of those classic songwriting duos whose chemistry is undeniable, even when they wanna tear each other’s heads off. When they sing and write together, they bring out the best in each other and sometimes push each other in directions they otherwise never would’ve gone (especially on blink-182‘s untitled album, where their individual ideas were most noticeably different). They were able to further develop their songs with the addition of drum god Travis Barker and production wiz Jerry Finn, but even before those two were involved, you could hear Mark and Tom’s undeniable chemistry on the rawer, near-perfect Dude Ranch, recorded with original blink drummer Scott Raynor and producer Mark Trombino (who drummed in fellow San Diego band Drive Like Jehu and frequently produced for Tom DeLonge’s beloved Jimmy Eat World). Dude Ranch‘s production was more modest and the songs were more straightforward, but Mark and Tom’s melodies, harmonies, and vocal interplay were already on the level they’d be at on the band’s more mainstream records.
They’re at their best when they’re together, but like they were during blink-182’s mid/late 2000s hiatus, they’ve now been apart for going on five years. blink-182 have been touring and making music without Tom (who was replaced by Alkaline Trio’s Matt Skiba), and after years of UFO-related work, Tom finally made his return to music last year with the first Angels & Airwaves tour in seven years and their first new song in three years. At those shows, he played a solo acoustic medley with blink-182 and Box Car Racer songs. Last year, he posted video from the studio of a new song that he said “kind of sounds like Box Car Racer.” Travis Barker (amazingly) replied, “Never will sound like Box Car Racer without me [hugging face emoji].” Angels & Airwaves are scheduled to tour and play festivals again this year, as are blink-182. With both Tom and Mark separately active, and all this talk of Box Car Racer, and because last year Mark said he “[thinks] it’d be fun” to do a tour with all the side projects, the timing feels right to look at the best music that Tom and Mark wrote apart from each other.
The blink-182 side projects have been as much a part of blink-182 as blink-182 themselves, and oftentimes the teams that made them looked as much like blink-182 as blink-182 do today. Box Car Racer — which Tom did on the side during the height of blink-182’s fame — had Travis Barker on drums and Jerry Finn producing, and it even had one song with guest vocals by Mark Hoppus. It created tensions within blink-182, but if its darker, heavier, more serious sound wasn’t so successful, blink-182 may have never made their now-classic untitled album. After the band first split, Mark and Travis formed +44, and their sole album was also made with Jerry Finn. (So there’s one Tom/Travis/Jerry album, and one Mark/Travis/Jerry album.) The same year as the +44 album, Tom released the first album by Angels & Airwaves (which also included and still includes Box Car Racer guitarist David Kennedy), and if you fuse those albums together in your mind, you kind of end up with the mid 2000s blink-182 album that never was.
I’ve already written about blink-182’s discography at length, but if you only listen to the songs released as “blink-182,” you’ll miss out on some of the best music that Mark and Tom (and Travis) ever wrote. There’s a lot of it out there (especially by Angels & Airwaves), but for this list I’ve narrowed it all down to the 15 best songs by blink-182 side projects. In my humble opinion, every song on this list is as good as just about anything by blink-182, and they all sound like songs that could have been written for blink-182. On that note, no disrespect to The Transplants (Travis’ punk/rap supergroup fronted by Rancid’s Tim Armstrong) or Give the Drummer Some (Travis’ guest-filled rap album), it’s just that those songs don’t necessarily register as “blink-182 side project” songs when you listen to them.
Lastly, everything on this list either comes from the Box Car Racer album, the +44 album, or the first Angels & Airwaves album, all of which were released in or around blink-182’s most creatively and commercially successful era. That leaves off the more recent material, but in this writer’s opinion, the 15 best songs all came from those three albums. Your mileage may vary, and feel free to leave your own favorites in the comments.
Read on for the list…
15. Box Car Racer – “Cat Like Thief”
No Transplants on this list, but here’s the Box Car Racer/Transplants crossover episode that remains one of the most distinct songs to come out of the whole pop punk boom. Travis leads off the song with a more relaxed, mid-tempo beat than you’d usually expect from blink and BCR, and then Tom splits lead vocals with Tim Armstrong, with Tom on the hook (harmonizing with New Found Glory’s Jordan Pundik) and Tim delivering near-stream-of-consciousness verses with the same laid back, hip hop-inspired drawl he used on much of that first Transplants album (released five months later). It’s an anomaly that doesn’t really sound like anything else Tom or Tim ever released, but it’s not out of their comfort zones or out of place in their discographies either. It scans as “weird” if you’re expecting “All the Small Things” or “Ruby Soho,” but it reveals itself to be hauntingly beautiful.
14. Angels & Airwaves – “The War”
As mentioned above, Tom started writing the first Angels & Airwaves album while blink-182 were still a band, and I don’t know the exact order of when he wrote what, but if there’s any Angels & Airwaves song that sounds like it might’ve originally been intended for blink-182, it’s “The War.” Its heavy power chord riff isn’t too far removed from blink’s final pre-breakup single “Not Now,” and Tom’s soaring, shout-sung chorus sounds like something he could’ve written at any point between Take Off Your Pants and Jacket and the band’s breakup. It’s also the Angels & Airwaves song that sounds most like Box Car Racer, and like Box Car Racer, it saw Tom dipping his toes into political songwriting. The former was a very post-9/11 record, and as you might’ve guessed from the title, this one was a lament about the Iraq War. Powerful stuff from the guy who once sang about sitting in a tree with his pants down, and that riff still bangs.
13. +44 – “155”
Mark and Travis initially conceived +44 as a Postal Service-inspired electronic project, but they eventually took it back in the direction of the untitled blink album’s mature pop punk songs, and they embraced plenty of that album’s Cure influence too. On “155,” all three of those things came together. It’s fueled by a new wavey synth line and mopey post-punk verses that were obviously indebted to The Cure, and it all exploded into a tasteful pop punk chorus that was as catchy as anything Mark had written for blink. (Travis’ fast, fidgety drum patterns on this one sound inspired by electronic music too.) It’s almost like Mark’s answer to “Always,” and it remains one of his most underrated songs.
12. Angels & Airwaves – “It Hurts”
Tom DeLonge’s desire to be taken seriously as an artist sent him spiraling down the U2 rabbithole when he started Angels & Airwaves, whose first album is filled with Edge-like guitar effects. It could all get a little too bombastic, but underneath the proggy textures and song structures often lay songs as hooky and concise as the ones Tom wrote in blink-182’s prime. “It Hurts” takes a little longer to kick in than it needed to, but once it gets there, it sounds like it could’ve been a lost track from blink’s untitled album. Even when he’s trying to be The Edge, Tom’s got an unmistakable guitar style and these basically sound like cleaner, reverbier blink-182 riffs. And then there’s that chorus, where Tom’s voice is full of the same yearning melancholy he had on blink-182’s saddest songs, all while churning out some of the most inventive melodic work of his career.
11. Box Car Racer – “There Is”
Box Car Racer didn’t only introduce chunky post-hardcore riffs to Tom DeLonge’s sound; it was also the first time he really wrote ballads. blink-182 had a few slow songs at that point, but he never broke out the acoustic guitar like he did on “There Is,” and he had never gotten this sappy before. This is one of those write-the-words-in-your-diary teen anthems for that time in every teen’s life where they wonder if anyone else ever feels as lonely as they do, and it’s also one of those destined-to-be-played-at-open-mic acoustic songs like “Wonderwall” and “I Will Follow You Into the Dark.” Like both of those songs, it comes reallllllly close to cheesy, but when you deliver it with this much conviction, it works.
10. +44 – “When Your Heart Stops Beating”
Picking right up where blink-182’s Robert Smith collaboration and Only Ones cover left off, the title track of +44’s sole album was ’80s post-punk with a ’00s pop punk sneer, and thanks to Travis’ four-on-the-floor beat and Mark’s instant-classic hook, it quickly became +44’s signature song. It’s easy to see why it caught on, and it deserved all the love it got. If you want something as catchy as “The Rock Show” but a little more tragic, you can’t go wrong with this.
9. +44 – “Make You Smile”
+44 started out with a noted Postal Service influence, but they switched gears to become more of a straight-up rock band before recording their first and only album, which in part prompted co-vocalist Carol Heller to leave the band. But before that happened, Mark and Carol duetted on this clear Postal Service homage, and it found its way onto the album the following year. With their vocal interplay, the atmosphere, and the drum patterns, it’s some of the most obviously Postal Service-inspired music there ever was, but it’s cool and still totally out of the ordinary to hear Mark sing this kind of stuff, and it’s also cool to hear Travis Barker play Postal Service-style beats on an actual drum kit. And however obvious the song’s source material was, that doesn’t change how sugar-sweet this song is.
8. Box Car Racer – “Watch the World”
Tom DeLonge isn’t what anybody would call a virtuoso guitarist, but he had a style he could call his own, and you always know it when you hear it. Maybe more so than any other Box Car Racer song, the “Watch the World” riff sounded like a slowed-down, minor key blink-182 riff, and it marked one of the first times Tom figured out his unmistakable style worked for more than just pop punk. The song’s also up there as having one of Travis’ most immediately recognizable drum patterns. But what really makes it stand the test of time is that Tom had used his endless arsenal of pop-friendly choruses to write a song about the aftermath of 9/11 that’s both insightful and open-ended enough to sound relevant during any time of international crisis.
7. Angels & Airwaves – “The Adventure”
Angels & Airwaves is the only one of the three bands represented on this list that doesn’t include Travis Barker, but at least Tom got one of the other best drummers in pop punk, Atom Willard (previously of Rocket from the Crypt, currently of Against Me!), who blessed “The Adventure” with one of the most iconic drum parts Tom ever sang over. That beat alone earns Atom Willard a spot in the Pop Punk Drummer Hall of Fame, and Tom had just the right song for it. The memorable main guitar riff finds the middle ground between U2, The Cure, and classic blink-182, and this is one of those songs that even gets the haters singing along.
6. +44 – “No It Isn’t”
“This isn’t just goodbye, this is I can’t stand you,” begins the best blink-182 side project song that’s actually and blatantly about all the tension within blink-182. It was the first song Mark and Travis released since their split with Tom, and it pretty much laid out on the table everything they were thinking about their former bandmate. Obviously they were able to reconcile and reunite just over three years later (and though Tom’s out of the band again, they all seem to at least be on good terms now), but “No It Isn’t” remains one of the more powerful songs that Mark’s ever written. The bulk of it finds him in melancholic singer/songwriter mode — a side of him he really doesn’t show off enough — and by the final chorus, it explodes into classic Mark Hoppus pop punk. You can feel the aching sincerity in his words, and it’s got some of his most instant-classic melodic work too.
5. Box Car Racer – “Letters To God”
Moving right along from one of Mark’s most powerful ballads to one of Tom’s. Like an existential diary entry set to music, “Letters to God” starts out as a tender acoustic guitar and piano ballad — kind of a less sappy version of “There Is” — but then Tom pushes the song over the edge when he pulls a 180 and breaks out into stadium-sized post-hardcore riffage. It’s kinda got everything you want from Tom — his ballad side, his heavy side, and his addictive pop melodies — all rolled into one great song.
4. Box Car Racer – “Elevator”
A blink-182 song in all but name, “Elevator” is the last proper song on Tom and Travis’ Box Car Racer album and it features a guest verse by Mark. BCR may have caused tensions within blink-182, but at least it wasn’t too tense for Mark to join them in the studio for this song, ’cause it’s some of the best music these three ever made together. It’s a rare case of the blink-182 guys kinda just making easygoing mid-tempo alternative rock, and they’re just as good at this kinda thing as they are at snotty, mile-a-minute pop punk. (Not to mention the brief string arrangements at the end are a nice touch, and such a tease!) And as far as Box Car Racer’s influence on blink’s untitled album goes, I wonder how much the verse trading on this song influenced the similar and now-iconic verse trading of “I Miss You.”
3. Box Car Racer – “I Feel So”
Box Car Racer’s first single and still the first song most people think of when they think of Box Car Racer, “I Feel So” is kind of an easy song to clown Tom for. “I feel so mad! I feel so angry!” It’s the kind of song that people who hate “emo” might bring up when they call the genre “whiny,” and the kind of song you always have to kinda clench your face and fist when you sing, just to prove you’re being semi-ironic. But all that said, it still stands the test of time as one of Tom’s most enduring songs. Yeah, it’s a little whiny, but everybody’s a little whiny and when you need one of those songs to help you just let loose of all the negativity and self-doubt you’ve harnessed, this always does the trick.
2. +44 – “Lycanthrope”
Coming off blink-182’s darker, heavier untitled album, Mark often favored comparatively lighter sounds on the +44 album, but not on the ripping album opener “Lycanthrope” which would’ve felt right at home on untitled (it’s cut from a similar cloth as “Here’s Your Letter”). Mark’s always been great at throwing more of a straight-up, driving rock song towards the end of blink records (“Wendy Clear,” “Every Time I Look For You,” the aforementioned “Here’s Your Letter”), but this time he opened the record with it, and this one was even darker and angrier than he was usually known for getting. (This one may also be at least partially about Tom.) It’s a hell of an album opener that gets things going from 0 to 100 real quick, and it still rivals almost any of the best blink-182 songs.
1. Box Car Racer – “All Systems Go”
If any song kinda perfectly captures what Box Car Racer — and as a result, later blink-182 and Angels & Airwaves — was all about, it’s “All Systems Go.” Its pop punk-friendly chorus made it an easy entry point for fans of blink’s earlier material, but that mammoth guitar riff rivaled Tom’s heroes in Refused and Quicksand, and the personal-meets-political lyrics really captured the distrust in the government that has come to define Tom today as much as his music. It not only predicted the sound of blink’s untitled record; it continues to remain as strong and as essential as anything on it.
* Angels & Airwaves tour dates here
Read past and future editions of ‘In Defense of the Genre’ here.