Some people are minimalists, or can block out less-than-pleasing physical environs. But my surroundings are important to me, and I’ve discovered over the years that I am much happier and more productive in places that feel good. For me, that means beauty, a sense of history, some water and trees and flowers nearby, and not feeling too isolated. And at least one good, comfy coffeehouse.

I’ve been stuck in places where I hated my surroundings before, and turned to music as one way to improve matters. I can always count on my favorites, too, to help me feel better. But there are a few performers and albums that help redefine less-appealing environs into something deal-able.

1. Simon & Garfunkel

Thirty dollars doesn’t pay your rent on Bleeker St. anymore, and hasn’t for a long time. But putting on a Simon & Garfunkel album makes crummy surroundings feel more like a romantic, hippyish place where one would go to “get your head together,”  and end up playing pastoral madrigals at 2am after too many cups of coffee.

2. Leonard Cohen

Even more than Art and Paulie, Leonard makes you not only forget an ugly apartment or charmless neighborhood, but makes you feel oblivious to all that, because he is. So the neighbors are noisy and the place smells? What does that matter to a Buddhist monk and one of the greatest poets of our lifetime? Earthly issues matter not when your mind is full of images of loaded dice, Tiananmen Square, and yes, I’ll say it, famous blue raincoats and birds on wires.

3. Janelle Monáe

She redefines, on her terms. She reinvents. She creates. She innovates. She transcends. She represents. Even if you can’t apply Monáeness to your environment, you can just turn the volume up and fuckin’ dance!

4. Queen

Queen may actually be superheroes. How else to explain that otherworldly power of those guitar licks, those vocals, those drums? Put on any Queen track, and suddenly you access that superpower yourself as the masters take you out of your limited being, soaring above it all, just like they do with their music.

5. Joss Stone

The voice alone could do it, but combine it with the grit, the heat, the raw elements of her musical arrangements, and you have perfection. Kick off your shoes, close your eyes, and let her demolish you to shreds.

6. Chris Isaak

It’s a shame if you only know him as “the guy that sang that old song, ‘Wicked Games’,” because he is so much more, and far more diverse, than that one admittedly-amazing song suggests. He’s campy and over-the-top and earnest and stripped down and sincere and playful and mournful and in every way authentic. There are a dozen different worlds to explore in his albums if you want to go places.

7. Mahler (especially Symphony No. 2)

It’s okay. Uncle Gustav understands. If he didn’t, he wouldn’t’ve written this to help the rest of us mere mortals put things into perspective.

8. Madonna

You know her. And over the last (holy shit) 30+ years, even if you aren’t a fan, you’ve heard her at some point. She used to live in crapholes, too. And she escaped by going to the clubs and dancing up a storm, by repurposing thrift-store clothes, by hanging out with DJs and forming bands and just being Madonna, even before we knew she was Madonna. You can put on her first album and pretend to hang out at NYC discos. You can put on “Vogue” and think about cultural appropriation, or just do your best moves. You can put on Ray of Light and feel all powerful and spiritual and intense. You can put on the latest stuff and get all reflective about things. It doesn’t matter, because there is a Madonna for everyone.   

9. The soundtrack to Amélie

It’s both anachronistic and contemporary, exotic and familiar. You can let it take you to someplace different (because if you are actually living in Montmartre, you are decidedly NOT living someplace lacking in charm and aesthetics!). Or you can find the threads that keep you where you are but help you redefine it with the same hope and joy as the music.

10. The Beatles

Too obvious? Don’t care. Whether you absorb yourself in a single album and debate which one actually is the best one, or go the Greatest Hits route and think about how much influence one band had, or try to find deep tracks, or sing loud harmonies, or get all wistful with their more lyrical introspective songs, you can forget everything else when you have the Fab Four blasting.

Got any recommendations or suggestions of your own? Lay ’em on me!

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