In Canon Fodder, we revisit, re-evaluate and rank the discographies of music's most reviled artists, to answer a simple question: How bad are they really?
Before there was the Beyhive, there was the Bro Hive.
Hard to believe, but we've been living with 311 for three decades now. When the band first emerged from the cornfields of Nebraska, busting rhymes over chunky-funky guitar riffs, no one would've put money on them surviving the '90s. Somehow, they haven't just maintained, but thrived. Today, 311 isn't just a band but a lifestyle, selling branded vape pens and hosting Caribbean cruises for a devoted audience as fervent in their fandom as Phish heads and Dave Matthews acolytes. They even have their own holiday, observed, naturally, on March 11.
Music snobs long ago dismissed 311 as a silly frat phenomenon. But any artist with that much staying power shouldn't be shrugged off so easily. So, in honor of 311 Day, we decided to dive into their discography, to figure out what's worth revisiting and what you should feel justified in avoiding.
1. Transistor (1997)
Critics and new fans alike initially hated Transistor for its noodly ambition and failure to keep the party going after "Down" lit up the radio, but this sprawling, 64-minute epic has revealed itself over time to be 311's OK Computer. Aside from lead single "Beautiful Disaster," which adequately satisfied the thirst of alt-rock radio programmers, the rest of the record is basically one stellar deep cut after the next. All of 311's muscles are flexed across Transistor's 21 tracks, from the tenacious punk-funk energy of "What Was I Thinking" and "Electricity" to the ambling psych reggae of "Inner Light Spectrum" and "Running." Even the haters can't deny that "Stealing Happy Hours" is a sleeper hit, now regarded as one of the band's best, thanks to heavy rotation toward the end of 311's marathon live sets.
Key track: "Use of Time," the album's contemplative centerpiece, which pivots between the band's signature reggae-lite sound and an impressive facsimile of Dark Side-era Pink Floyd. PETE COTTELL.
2. 311 (1995)
Arriving in the direct aftermath of grunge, when the alt-rock airwaves were fiending for some posi-vibes to help wean itself off all the heroin dirges, the '90s' other Blue Album is where Omaha's chillest bros achieved their idealized form. Where Transistor challenged even longtime fans, the self-titled album is peak 311, capturing the band at its chillest ("All Mixed Up"), broest ("Hive"), cringiest ("Guns [Are for Pussies]") and catchiest ("Don't Stay Home"). Admit it: You've still got this in the secret CD wallet you keep in your car, and rap along to "Jackolantern's Weather" when you think no one is looking.
Key track: "Down," the band's first big single, which sounds like "Smells Like Teen Spirit" as played by a sentient bottle of Surge soda. MATTHEW P. SINGER.
3. Grassroots (1994)
In the early '90s, the notion of a borderless music world, where rap, rock, funk and reggae could coexist in the form of five Nebraskan cornhuskers, was basically the utopian dream of Alternative Nation, and 311 pulled it off with panache on its second album. Grassroots isn't the band's best effort songwriting-wise, but it's the one that actually sounds the best today—a vision of what could've been, had they not gone so hard after the Rasta-snowboarder demographic.
Key track: "Homebrew," 311's first no-lie, honest-to-Jah, really pretty good song. (MPS)
4. Soundsystem (1999)
Heralded as a "return to form" on the strength of single "Come Original," Soundsystem effectively splits the difference between the raw energy of 311 and the cosmic explorations of Transistor. While time has shown this middle-of-the-road approach was eventually 311's downfall, choice nugs like "Flowing," "Sever" and "Mindspin" are proof that their wave of goodwill was still cresting amid the pre-millennium boom of boy bands and nu metal.
Key track: "Eons," a spacey, midtempo riff-rocker about PMA and forgiveness. (PC)
5. From Chaos (2001)
Just about everyone had a duped copy of From Chaos stuck to the floor of their first car in 2001, and for good reason. This album truly had something for everyone, first and foremost the legion of fans who heard bangers like "Sick Tight" and "Full Ride" and knew 311 was here to stay.
Key track: "Amber," which quickly became the official summer of 2001 soundtrack for white girls drinking Malibu in the back of their Pontiac Sunfires and signaled the beginning of the group's rapid descent into the dregs of radio-friendly mom reggae. (PC)
6. Music (1993)
311 knew what it was about early on—dank buds, tasty grooves, slap-bass solos and busting flows like no one's listening—but it hadn't yet figured out how to make those elements congeal into actual songs. As its generic title suggests, the band's debut makes no grand statement beyond, "Whoa, music, am I right?" but the enthusiasm alone was enough to justify the next record.
Key track: "Visit," the prototype for the blend of instrumental crunch and melodic lightness that would elevate their later hits. (MPS)
7. Stereolithic (2014)
At this point, there's no such thing as a casual 311 fan—either you're astounded it still exists or you're putting together your flip-cup team for the cruise—so it's understandable that the band wouldn't bother coming up with new ideas anymore. But becoming a self-sustaining enterprise has also alleviated the pressure of reaching an audience outside the one it already has. While Stereolithic contains nothing the band hasn't already done many, many times before, it's executed with a crowd-pleasing verve it hasn't managed in ages.
Key track: "Friday Afternoon," the best Sugar Ray song Mastodon never wrote. (MPS)
8. Evolver (2003)
Whatever you think about 311, over its first decade of existence, you couldn't say the band ever seemed bored with itself. Ironically, Evolver was the first indication that the group was beginning to feel bogged down and bummed out by its own formula. Other than the initial energy rush of "Creatures (For a While)," the riffs are flat and uninspired, and the mood is oddly deflated throughout. You might not think you want any 311 album, but you really don't want a sad 311 album.
Key track: "Seems Uncertain," if only to hear what 311's take on psych folk sounds like. (MPS)
9. Universal Pulse (2011)
With only eight tracks, 311's first record for Dave Matthews' imprint ATO Records feels more like a stopgap rushed to market to justify staying on the road for another year. Half the tracks feel like they were written during a wake-and-bake session right in the studio, which adds to a slapdash feel that bolsters the record's energy in a surprising way. The album art would make a great unisex sarong to wear at What the Festival, too.
Key track: "Weightless," a serotonin-powered anthem that rides one of the most memorably buoyant licks guitarist Tim Mahoney has written to date. The chorus is absolutely terrible, but I would have no qualms bouncing along to this in a pogo pit with a $15 cup of Leinenkugel in hand. Ah, youth. (PC)
10. Don't Tread on Me (2005)
Having seen returns diminish, creatively and commercially, on Evolver, the band upped the reggae quotient for its eighth album and grasped at another "Amber," with middling results. On the plus side, this is probably the exact moment when 311 realized that pivoting into a career as a literal cruise-ship band wouldn't be the worst idea.
Key track: "Waiting," a rancid glop of island sunshine so half-baked it'll give you a new appreciation for 311's shants-rap days. (MPS)
11. Uplifter (2009)
In a bizarre twist of classic rock meta-reality, 311 spends the majority of Uplifter singing about what it's like to be in the band 311. The results are abysmal, with the majority of the record landing between flaccid attempts at "Amber" remakes and latter-day Third Eye Blind drivel. "Golden Sunlight" could sound cool if former tourmates Incubus added some phaser and turntables to the mix, but even that's a stretch.
Key track: "Never Ending Summer," which finds our heroes reminiscing on the fast-and-loose life of touring and the lessons they've learned after almost 30 years of it. Let that sink in for a minute. (PC)