311's 10 Best Songs: Critic's Picks

Brian Bowen Smith
311

The Nebraska-bred band released its 12th studio album, 'Mosaic,' on June 23.

311 is one of the biggest cult bands in America, whether you love or hate them.

They have their own holiday (March 11, natch), their own vape pen (the Grassroots Uplifter, natch) and their own Caribbean cruise (the 311 Caribbean Cruise, natch) -- and for almost a decade they exercised a consistent-if-mild power over rock radio. (Few other rap-rock bands could be described as “consistent” in any way over the quickly changing landscape of trends.)

And like most multi-platinum bands, even poorly reviewed ones, they have a bunch of good songs that translate to more than just diehard-friendly if you look hard enough. Though you don’t have to look terribly hard because many of these did end up on the radio.

Here are the Omaha, Nebraska, quintet’s finest moments.

10. “Prisoner” (from Transistor, 1997)

The slack-key guitar effect permeating some of the dubbier experiments on 1997’s troubled Transistor has its corny, souvenir-shop charms best heard on the album’s second single. Both Nick Hexum and S.A. Martinez manage to drift pleasantly over the easy-skanking melody of “Prisoner” and its sorta-powerful chorus with soulful abandon even if “Twilight Zone, Twilight Zone, I’m floating in the dark alone” won’t even make sense to the stoned. That goes double for the video, which proves once and for all these two should never, ever dance.

9. “I’ll Be Here Awhile” (from From Chaos, 2001)

311 are fun-loving marijuana-mainliners, but their music, while often lightweight, is usually burdened with complicated structures that typically feel too leaden to really make them the breeze they want to be. From Chaos’ closer, though, is blessedly light, just a straight-up ska tune. It plays like the great weight of another overworked 311 album is lifted from its shoulders so those who trudged through it can finally party. And they really have kept their promise to be here awhile, “ain’t going nowhere.”

8. “Amber” (from From Chaos, 2001)

The group’s biggest hit, like “I’ll Be Here Awhile” from the same album, hones in on their least complicated plusses. This overwhelmingly positive and hippie-mystical were long overdue for a sweet love song hooked to a pretentious lyric, and their studies of reggae grooves vastly outpace their hip-hop knowledge. It’s like Coldplay’s “Yellow” for hacky-sack bros.

7. “Life’s Not a Race” (from Soundsystem, 1999)

In case you’re noticing a pattern, this rap-rock band’s best songs aren’t usually rap-rock at all, and they tend to shine brightest when they’re trying something else entirely. Case in point: This easy-grooving War or Santana homage from 1999’s Soundsystem is a refreshing bone to throw their jam-band audience, even with some ripping guitar solos, and the dark guitar counterpoint that pierces the chorus from below is legitimately disturbing.

6. “Purpose” (from 311, 1995)

311’s self-titled breakthrough album is their hookiest and least convoluted, so even the deep cuts are poppy enough to ensure listenability, which can hardly be said for say, Stereolithic. The well-harmonized melody of “Purpose” is actually downright lovely, one of Nick Hexum’s best, and each of the verses climaxes with an intergalactic guitar lead that ranks among their best (and simplest!) riffs. It’s enough to make you believe in their purpose, baby. 

5. “Creatures (For a While)” (from Evolver, 2003)

Rapper S.A. Martinez is sometimes the weak link in 311, but he harmonizes well with Nick Hexum so they do it on virtually every song, and the locked-in 2003 single “Creatures” is the rare aggro moment for this band where all clocks are in sync and the riffs and chorus legitimately bangs. It’s also a reminder that for quasi-rap-metal, they really don’t sound like any other band. They’d be so good if they were capable of firing on all cylinders like this all the time.

4. “Running” (from Transistor, 1997)

Transistor is simultaneously 311’s most tantalizing prospect and their most disappointing slog. At 21 tracks, these wildly eclectic purveyors of mildly metallic funk were finally permitted to run wild with their expansive record collections, which must be loaded with Lee "Scratch" Perry and King Tubby because they’re easily the most dub-obsessed hard rock band since Bad Brains (whose “Leaving Babylon” they’d go on to cover in 1999). If that sounds like a juxtaposition that won’t work very well, you’re not wrong, but perhaps due to law of averages, Transistor contains a handful of the band’s absolute best songs ever nonetheless, and should you peruse all 21 tracks 20 years later, the perfectly enjoyable and sticky “Running” is the hidden gem among the pile of ideas and riffs that never truly made it to the finish line. It’s even got a jazzy-Aerosmith guitar solo in the middle that doesn’t sound out of place.

3. “All Mixed Up” (from 311, 1995)

Following the catchy breakthrough hit “Down,” it was “All Mixed Up” that truly gave 311 a charting pop song to be proud of. There’s about five different choruses in the thing, which isn’t that different from other 311 songs, except all of these fit seamlessly and do continue to top one another, with Hexum and Martinez piling onto the song’s signature scratch-funk riff delicately while toasting around it dexterously, like a good boxer, without overpowering the groove. In fact, few 311 songs sustain a groove like this. It was huge, too. A more than respectable nominee for their all-time contribution to history.

2. “Don’t Stay Home” (from 311, 1995)

It’s hard to say whether “Don’t Stay Home” or “All Mixed Up” is the better tune, and “Don’t Stay Home” for sure has a clumsier, lumpier groove with the chugging distortion of guitars that never let up. But it’s rare enough that it gets the edge for something we can’t take for granted: one honest-to-god legible melody, which is even quite pretty, that never lapses. It’s completely continuous throughout the song without resorting to one of the random switch-ups that make so many other 311 jams such a bummer after a tasty lick or pleasurable harmony grabs you momentarily. “Don’t Stay Home” sounds like nothing else in their catalog and you can even hum it or interpret it for piano. It’s even got a double-time bridge that fits like a glove.

1. “Beautiful Disaster” (from Transistor, 1997)

Despite the maddening attempts to sift through 311’s catalog seeking the most straightforward and streamlined exceptions to their almost prog-like insistence on multi-part structures and odd shifts from one part to another, not to mention ill-fitting raps, they are ultimately a complicated band. We’re not obligated to celebrate them as such, but it shouldn’t surprise anyone that the best 311 song would showcase their idiosyncrasies to the best of their ability. “Beautiful Disaster” has it all, and for once that’s a good thing: nasty riffs, dueling twin-guitar solos in the Santana mold, ominous ska verses and a chorus that’s as bubble-gummy as it is crunchy with overdriven amps. Best of all, there isn’t a rap in sight. Plus, “Beautiful Disaster” as a title is a good, honest summation of the 311 aesthetic.