The Songs and Soundtrack of HBO’s The Last of Us

Even though music in the world of HBO's The Last of Us peaked in 2003, the soundtrack still continues to entertain.

Marlene (Merle Dandridge) holds baby Ellie in an abandoned farmhouse in HBO's The Last of Us
Photo: Liane Hentscher/HBO

This article contains spoilers through the most recent episode of The Last of Us.

Fans of The Last of Us know that music is a key part of the video games’ story. The Last of Us Part II shows us how Joel and Ellie use music as a way to connect with and understand each other and even allows the player to strum along via the controller when both characters play guitar. At the beginning of the game, Joel sings Pearl Jam’s “Future Days” to Ellie, and it becomes a song that she uses to remember him later on. Ellie also sings A-ha’s “Take on Me” to her friend and love interest Dina when the two are in Seattle together – a touching moment amidst all the violence in the game.

From the beginning, HBO’s The Last of Us showed us that it was going to continue using music as an important thread in its story. The first few trailers for the show feature songs and music from the games in the background, and the series itself has gone even further by incorporating different songs into the fabric of each episode.

The soundtrack for The Last of Us spans decades and genres while keeping the heart of this game element intact. Here are the memorable songs featured thus far and their importance in the series.

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Episode 1 – When You’re Lost in the Darkness

“Never Let Me Down Again” – Depeche Mode

Depeche Mode’s “Never Let Me Down Again” plays at the very end of the first episode after Ellie (Bella Ramsey), Joel (Pedro Pascal), and Tess (Anna Torv) have left the Quarantine Zone to meet up with the Fireflies set to take Ellie west. The radio that is used to connect with Joel and Tess’ friends Bill (Nick Offerman) and Frank (Murray Bartlett) kicks on playing this song long after they’re gone. At the time, we think it means that Bill and Frank are in danger as per the code they’ve established where ‘60s music means that they have nothing new to trade, ‘70s music means that they have new stock in, and ‘80s music equals trouble. We learn in episode 3 however, that the song played not because Bill and Frank were in true danger, but because their deaths triggered a system failsafe. If they weren’t around to update the system after a certain amount of time, an ‘80s playlist would automatically broadcast. 

Other Notable Songs: 

  • “Tomorrow” – Avril Lavigne
  • “White Flag” – Dido
  • “Chonophobia” – New Oblivion
  • “I Can’t Believe You’re Back” – Jad Mhanna, Roy Abdallah, Carole Aoun

Episode 2 – Infected

“Hampa” – Ari Lasso

While there’s really only one lyrical song in episode 2, and it’s hard to notice unless you’re looking for it, the inclusion of Ari Lasso’s “Hampa” still shows how much thought goes behind the music of the series. This song plays softly in the background of the restaurant where mycologist Ibu Ratna (Christine Hakim) is enjoying her last normal meal before the Indonesian government informs her of the Cordyceps outbreak and asks her how to contain it. Translated, the lyrics are about lost love and feeling empty without the person you care about – sentiments that echo throughout the series as Joel tries to fill the emptiness he feels from losing his daughter Sarah (Nico Parker) at the onset of the outbreak in episode 1 and losing Tess later on in episode 2.

Episode 3 – Long, Long Time

“Long, Long Time” – Linda Ronstadt

When the title of the episode is also a song title, you know you’re likely in for an emotional ride. That’s even more so the case when that song is “Long Long Time” by Linda Ronstadt. In this episode, we get to see the relationship of Bill and Frank develop over decades, and this song is one of the first things they bond over. Frank finds a Linda Ronstadt music book in Bill’s piano, and after slightly butchering the song in an earnest attempt to play, Bill takes over and shows us, and Frank, a much softer side to this lone-wolf survivalist. We hear the song again when Ellie discovers a Linda Ronstadt tape in Bill’s truck as she and Joel set off on their journey west. It’s the first time that we get to see the two bond over music and a reminder of the beautiful love story we just watched.

Other Notable Songs:

  • “I’m Coming Home to Stay” – Fleetwood Mac
  • “White Room” – Cream
  • “Chains of Love” – Erasure
  • “On the Nature of Daylight” – Max Richter

Episode 4 – Please Hold My Hand

“Alone and Forsaken” – Hank Williams

Ellie, bless her born-in-the-post-apocalypse heart, thinks that Hank Williams was part of Joel’s era. In reality, the legendary guitarist was at his height in the ’40s and ’50s and can be considered one of the pioneers of American popular music. Though he’s from well before their time, Williams’ posthumously released “Alone and Forsaken” makes for a wonderful sonic backdrop as Joel and Ellie drive through a broken down American landscape.

“True Faith” – Lotte Kestner (New Order cover)

Lotte Kestner’s haunting acoustic cover of New Order’s 1987 synth-y hit “True Faith” plays over the end credits of “Please Hold My Hand.” Not only is this an appropriately moody sendoff for the episode but it also serves as an Easter egg for die hard The Last of Us game fans. Ellie played Kestner’s version of the song for a Last of Us Part II trailer. Unfortunately, Naughty Dog forgot to properly credit Kestner when using the version and it became a whole thing. By including Kestner’s actual version at the end of this episode it would appear as if the whole fiasco has been settled.

Episode 5 – Endure and Survive

“Fuel to Fire” – Agnes Obel

The Last of Us episode 5 faces quite the conundrum on how to present its end credits. Is there even a song in all the human canon that’s sad enough to complement the gut wrenchingly tragic events of the episode’s last act? Fortunately for TLOU’s music team, Danish singer-songwriter Agnes Obel wrote the perfectly mournful tune.

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Episode 6 – Kin

“Never Let Me Down Again” – Jessica Mazin (Depeche Mode cover)

Calling back to the end of the first episode, a haunting cover of Depeche Mode’s “Never Let Me Down Again” plays as Ellie begs Joel to regain consciousness after a life-threatening injury leaves them stranded in the snow. But it’s not just the callback to the start of their adventure together that makes the inclusion of this song so emotionally satisfying  – this cover was done by Jessica Mazin, the 18 year-old daughter of The Last of Us co-creator Craig Mazin. In HBO’s The Last of Us podcast, Mazin says that he wanted the cover to convey the emotions of “a daughter mourning the loss of her father,” so what better choice to sing this version of the song than his own daughter. It feels like we should be used to the emotional needle-drops of the series by now, but this cover proves that the team behind the music of the show still has some tear-jerking surprises up their sleeve.

Episode 7 – Left Behind

“All or None” – Pearl Jam

As Ellie stands at the door, deciding what to do about Joel and whether or not she should leave him behind, “All or None” by Pearl Jam begins to play and transitions into a flashback of Ellie listening to the song on her Walkman at FEDRA school. But this isn’t the first time that a Pearl Jam song has been used to connect Ellie and Joel. As mentioned earlier, “Future Days” is an important song in The Last of Us Part II that connects the two characters throughout the game. Unfortunately, “Future Days” was released in 2013, so it likely won’t be featured in the series since this world ended in 2003 and there’s no logical way for either Joel or Ellie to know that song. But as this episode proves, there are still plenty of Pearl Jam songs to drive their emotional connection.

“Take on Me” – A-ha

The upbeat and catchy melody of A-ha’s “Take on Me” can be heard as Ellie prepares to be wowed by the four wonders of the mall that Riley (Storm Reid) has promised to show her. This song not only captures the delight that Ellie feels as she becomes enamored by the moving escalator, but it also has important ties to the video games, specifically The Last of Us Part II. As mentioned previously, Ellie plays this song for her friend Dina in the game as a way to express her feelings for her when they happen to stop in an abandoned music store, so it’s fitting that this song also plays as Ellie spends what will become her last night with her best friend and first crush Riley.

Other Notable Songs:

  • “Just Like Heaven” – Rockabye Baby! (The Cure cover)
  • “I Got You Babe” – Etta James

Episode 8 – When We Are In Need

This episode doesn’t feature any songs outside of Gustavo Santolalla’s hauntingly beautiful score, but that doesn’t make “When We Are in Need” any less devastating. His score is able to carry the emotional beats perfectly, making the lack of lyrical music virtually unnoticeable.

Episode 9 – Look for the Light

“The Sun Always Shines on T.V.” – A-ha

If you missed this song when you first watched the season 1 finale, don’t worry, I did too. If you listen closely when Marlene (Merle Dandridge) arrives at the farmhouse to meet Anna (original Ellie actor Ashley Johnson), you can hear her singing faintly to baby Ellie before she sees Marlene. The Last of Us co-creator Neil Druckmann confirmed via Twitter that the song Anna sings is “The Sun Always Shines on T.V.,” making this the second A-ha song to be featured in the series. While it doesn’t seem like Ellie remembers this moment (she was only hours old after all), she does have an A-ha cassette tape on her nightstand in episode 7. Whether it was actually Anna’s and a secret gift from Marlene or something that Ellie just found and held onto because she likes the music, this scene gives the mother and daughter another way to connect with each other, even after Anna’s death. Ellie doesn’t just have the knife to remember her mother by, she also has the music of A-ha.