1. Men At Work, "It's A Mistake" (1983)
How many times did a flock of geese or a stray bear almost bring about World War III? And could the next time be one too many? That's the attitude Men At Work take on a single that blows the paranoia of the hit "Who Can It Be Now?" up to a global scale. Something very bad—however accidental—has happened, leading singer Colin Hay to "jump down the shelters to get away." Good luck with that. And assuming he did make it, he might have to live in a world like that of…
2. Tom Petty And The Heartbreakers, "You Got Lucky" (1982)
There isn't much nuclear paranoia in the song itself, but the video imagines a Mad Max-like world where Petty and his Heartbreakers drive around the wasteland in a cool pod car and live off the scraps of a doomed civilization. Fortunately, there's an old boombox lying around, plus just enough instruments to make some music. Maybe the end of the world won't be so bad.
3. Ultravox, "Dancing With Tears In My Eyes" (1984)
Well, maybe it won't be that bad for the survivors. But what about the rest of us? The icy new-wave band most famous for "Vienna" had an unexpectedly moving minor hit with this ground's-eye view of what life might be like on Earth's last day. To a deep synth beat, singer Midge Ure hears the news that "it's over, it's over" and rushes home to his lover. They get drunk, "love to the sound of our favorite song," and wait for it all to go kablooey. This was an apocalypse you could dance to, even, presumably, through tears. Pundits have argued that the Cold War was better than our current political mess, if only because a contest between superpowers kept everybody else in check. Maybe. But it could also make you feel like this could happen at any second. The video took the song literally, and even though it's obviously shot on a cheap BBC backlot, it remains pretty creepy, if only for the moment when it becomes clear that Ure and his model friend have made love in the living room with their son hanging out nearby.
4. Sting, "Russians" (1986)
With songs like "When The World Is Running Down (You Make The Best Of What's Still Around)" and "Too Much Information," The Police's songs always had a touch of Armageddon. As he was wont to do after going solo, Sting turned subtext into supertext with this sledgehammer plea for peace between the superpowers. With its chorus of, "What might save us, me and you / is if the Russians love their children too," this song had the odd effect of criticizing the policy of mutually assured destruction while explaining how it worked. Still, anyone who gets a ticking clock symbolizing the looming end of the world on the Top 40 charts deserves a little credit, right?
5. Fishbone, "Party At Ground Zero" (1985)
Fishbone never took "Party At Ground Zero" anywhere near the charts, but this darkly funny skanking-in-the-shelter track from its debut EP is just as honest as "Russians," though less earnest. The music was, in its own way, already post-apocalyptic, a mutant fusion of hard rock, ska, and whatever else was lying around. Like a lot of mutants, it died off without reproducing, but not without making an impression. Fishbone gets extra points for the video, which throws in everything from Hiroshima headlines to weird masks to stop-motion films of sprouting mushrooms.
6. Europe, "The Final Countdown"
Of course, music of the looming apocalypse could also be butt-dumb, as the Swedish hair-metal band Europe proved with "The Final Countdown," a fantasy of "heading for Venus" as Earth explodes to the tune of anthemic synths and shredding guitars. What kind of countdown is this? Everybody sing along with Joey Tempest: "It's the fine-ahl count-down…" (Bah-da-baba… Bah-da-ba-dada…)
7. XTC, "This World Over" (1984)
"Ah well, that's this world over," Andy Partridge sighs before imagining what the future inhabitants of the rubble that used to be London will think of the civilization that blew itself up. Not much, presumably, but at least it'd be a chance to start over.
8. Talking Heads, "(Nothing But) Flowers" (1988)
On this track from their swan song album, Talking Heads ran with that hopefulness, imagining a world where 7-Elevens and Dairy Queens have been overrun with flora. Sounds nice enough, but David Byrne remains unconvinced, singing, "If this is paradise, I wish I had a lawnmower." Maybe he's too square to fit in with the new paradise at the other end of civilization. Or maybe he just recognizes that whatever brought them to this place won't really take them back to Eden. And how did this come to pass? "As things fell apart, nobody paid much attention."