‘The Americans’ Music Supervisors Pick Their 10 Favorite Song Cues

From Fleetwood Mac to Roberta Flack, Pete Townshend to Peter Gabriel, P.J. Bloom and Amanda Krieg Thomas on the series' best musical moments.

David Bowie Last Five Years
Jimmy King/courtesy of HBO

The Americans” has earned much praise for its effective use of music to propel storylines. The show’s longtime music supervisors, P.J. Bloom, currently a senior VP at Warner Bros. Records, whose music supervision credits include “Glee” and “Jack Ryan,” and Amanda Krieg Thomas, who has worked on “9-1-1” and “The Assassination of Gianni Versace,” pick 10 defining uses of song in the FX drama series.

“Tusk” Fleetwood Mac (Ep. 101)
At the earliest possible moment in the series, “The Americans” defined its ambitious approach to music with this sequence. During the first episode’s teaser, eerily familiar percussive underscore begins as we meet Elizabeth and Phillip for the first time, both undercover and on a mission. A chase ensues as the underscore seamlessly evolves into Fleetwood Mac’s “Tusk” before you ever realize the music has changed. This sequence runs a healthy nine minutes long; foreshadowing what will become six seasons of incredibly compelling television with a unique approach to song and score.

“To Love Somebody” Roberta Flack (Ep. 110)
We wanted a song that played opposite the onscreen action: a bloody shootout between the police and Gregory Thomas, a civil rights activist Elizabeth recruited to work for the KGB. The sequence was incredibly tense and violent so we went for a beautiful love ballad in order to evoke a very atypical emotional response to the visual. At that time, it was one of the more talked-about soundtrack moments in the series and a narrative technique that was still fairly fresh in scripted television.

“It Must Be Done” Pete Townshend & Nathan Barr (Ep. 210) 
At this point, “The Americans” was truly catching on as a series and its soundtrack was also resonating. So we thought it’d be a great idea to create a music “event” for our fans. The original plan was to find a guest composer to write an episode with Nathan Barr. Incredibly, we were able to connect with Pete Townshend, who was a fan of Nate’s work on “True Blood, and he agreed to participate. Pete and Nate exchanged ideas for a a couple of weeks, then one day Nate calls to say, “You’re not going to believe this, but Pete actually wrote lyrics to one of our score sketches and sang them.” And just like that, we had a brand new, original Pete Townshend song in the episode — the only original song Pete has ever written for scripted television.

“Twilight Zone” Golden Earring (Ep. 213) 
This was one of those series moments where it took an especially long time to crack the soundtrack code. We literally worked with dozens of songs before coming up with “Twilight Zone.” But once we did, it felt like it was written for the episode if not the entire season. It worked amazingly well as a foreshadowing lyrical device. And the guitar melody is reminiscent of John Barry’s James Bond theme so its pace added the perfect amount of propulsion to the sequence without pushing too hard. And it didn’t hurt that the “Twilight Zone” music video tells the story of a secret agent on the run from enemy spies.

“Tainted Love” Soft Cell (Ep. 402)
One of our favorite narrative techniques is using well-known songs in unexpected ways. In this case, “Tainted Love” was a song that a cool, teenage girl might listen to on her Walkman, and it could also soundtrack a cold-blooded murder. We explored the straightforward, dark, intense approach that aligned with the onscreen violence, but the fun, familiarity of “Tainted Love” created such a dynamic contrast, the result was undeniably compelling. Plus, lyrically it speaks to the all the complicated relationships in Philip’s life — his family, his country — and at this point in the series he was questioning all of it.

“Under Pressure” Queen & David Bowie (Ep. 405)
Early in season four, we talked about using an obscure David Bowie song for a spot in the show. Then, while still in post-production on that episode, Bowie passed away. At that point, we all felt very strongly that we had to create a celebratory Bowie moment and it needed to be a really big one. When the idea of “Under Pressure” came up for this intense sequence of turmoil among several of the characters, we knew that was it!

“Major Tom (Coming Home)” Peter Schilling (Ep. 409)
The goal was to unite two (seemingly) very different scenes: Elizabeth setting up her friend’s husband, and Philip giving Paige a driving lesson — serious spycraft and one of the most common trials of parenthood. Even though they’re wildly different scenarios, both are important, tense and stressful. With that in mind, we strove to find a song that had the right energy to make it all connect. It couldn’t be too dark because of the driving lesson or too light because of the set up. “Major Tom (Coming Home)” towed that line. This season was also about Philip and Elizabeth being pushed to breaking points, so lyrically the song speaks to the idea of teetering on the edge of uncertainty.

“America The Beautiful” Nathan Barr & Chamber Choir of the Guessin Musical College (Ep. 501)
Joe Weisberg and Joel Fields have always been meticulous when it comes to making sure “The Americans” is an immersive experience. For the opening episode of season five, “The J’s” wanted a Russian version of “America The Beautiful” to play against competing images of bountiful grain in America and hunger and strife in Russia. But they wanted the song sung in Russian, recorded in Russia and performed by real Russians. So we did exactly that… We worked with the most famous recording facility in Moscow, Mosfilm Studios, and hired a 30-member Russian male choir. What you hear in the episode was custom-made for the series and authentically Soviet.

“Lay Your Hands On Me” Peter Gabriel (Ep. 506)
We needed a song with enough dynamic real estate to cover all the emotional beats in this long sequence in which Oleg burns the tape and Paige meets Gabriel for the first time. By this point, we had used two other Peter Gabriel songs in the series and it’s hard not to keep returning to his catalog because his music is so harmonious with the tone of the show. In this case, we wanted to do our own Americans remix of “Lay Your Hands On Me” in order to accentuate the percussion and create a dramatic build at the right point, but we didn’t have the raw material in the original song to craft that. So we asked Mr. Gabriel if would allow us to use the individual tracks from the original recording to reimagine his song — and he agreed.  He pulled the master tapes from his own archive and personally sent us the parts we needed.  We are continually indebted to Peter Gabriel for his support of the series.

“Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” Elton John (Ep. 513)
One of the many things we love about “The Americans” and this team is how deliberate we are with music. There is an emphasis on crafting truly impactful, layered moments versus jamming a ton of songs down our audience’s throat. This was especially important for the season five finale. It’s a moment of significant evolution for all the main characters. Philip watches his good friend get enveloped in a new relationship, leaving him behind; Elizabeth contemplates the possibility of saying goodbye to their life in America; And Paige is finally able to overcome past trauma and move on with her life. These characters are not just letting go, they’re nostalgic about what they’re letting go. “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” speaks eloquently to each character’s narrative.  But because the song is so classically iconic and Elton’s voice is so instantly recognizable, that notion of nostalgia is effectively heightened.

Follow Amanda Krieg Thomas on Twitter at @amandak_thomas and PJ Bloom at @PtotheJizzle.