The best music to listen to if you're on a train traveling from Portland to Seattle is Portishead. The tracks hug the coast right around Tacoma, and the gray waterscape seems custom-made for Portishead's languid, depressive songs. The mossy trees and bleary sky turn beautiful to this soundtrack.
On the train from New York to Philadelphia—a route that wends through cast-off factories, barren fields, and the barbed-wire-encased Rahway State Prison—you'll want old Rust Belt rock from the Stooges, Patti Smith, or the Replacements. These dead-end-kid songs imbue the grim scenery outside your window with tough majesty.
It's amazing how a song can affect the way you perceive your surroundings. Listening to the right music when you're traveling can evoke all the comforts of home, even if you're staying in a spartan hostel. Sometimes a specific record can be as life-saving as insulin to a diabetic. On a recent vacation in Zihuatanejo, a Mexican harbor town of about 85,000 people, I was overcome with an inexorable desire to hear Radiohead. I secretly celebrated global capitalism when I found OK Computer in a dusty record store amid a seemingly random variety of CDs, cassettes, and posters (Poison, DJ Quik, and Frisia, who proved to be a buxom woman clad in Technicolor running gear ࠬa Sporty Spice). I also felt guilty: There was salsa blaring from every radio and a mariachi band on every corner, and all I wanted to listen to was British art rock.
WHICH LEADS ME TO the touristic phenomenon of musical immersion—getting so caught up in your new surroundings that you pay way too much attention to what is otherwise unremarkable music. In Zihuatanejo, I became fascinated by a band called El Gran Silencio after I saw one of its videos in an ice-cream shop. Half hip-hop and half norte�I> music, El Gran Silencio differs radically from the music you'd hear at an American ice-cream shop, but that doesn't mean it's any better than your average pop band. To my tourist ears, however, El Gran Silencio sounded amazing (though with my woeful Spanish, I had only the vaguest notion of what it was singing about). I bought its record. Two weeks later, I was so accustomed to hearing Mexican pop music that El Gran Silencio lost its novelty.
If you live in a foreign country, your relationship with music becomes even more complicated. I met a woman from Montreal who'd been living in Zihuatanejo for a year or so. We bonded over our mutual love of Massive Attack and Thievery Corporation, but the distinction between tourist and resident became glaringly clear when I mentioned the salsa music I could hear from my hotel room. Her eyes narrowed with distaste. "Oh, salsa music—isn't it wonderful," she said in sarcastic, French-accented English. "You must get some tapes of it before you leave."
I imagine New Orleans residents have similar reactions to brass bands. It's one thing to be on vacation and hear hornplay at 3am (there's always a party going on—how charming!), but to hear it day in and day out is a different story (there's always a party going on, dammit!).
Back in Seattle, El Gran Silencio's record, like most souvenirs, seems oddly out of place. But some days, when the rain pours down and the sky is the color of a gutter, I put that disc on my stereo, and I'm instantly transported to a sunny Mexican beachtown. Not bad for 1,700 pesos.