They're still there, you know.

22'000 to 30'000 nuclear weapons, kept in shape, new ones spreading every now and then. After not killing ourselves in the Cold War, we've settled into complacency concluding that the Russian Roulette is safe to play, instead of removing the bullets or stopping pulling the trigger. When a critical bug obeys Finagle's law to the fullest, or the next idiot goes for a Scorched Earth policy, the means will be there.

The effects and actions involved were explored in great detail up to and during the 1980s, so you can count on your government to tell you how to die without too much fuss. What couldn't be, and hasn't been, is the music it should be set to. There are plenty of peace-minded songs, but most focus on issues that would just have become irrelevant, run after cash or simply don't work with mushroom clouds.

You can and should make modifications as befits your own tastes. A nuclear war is an important historical occasion and you'll only get full use out of this once. If you're in luck and have advance warning on a far-away limited exchange, you might want to consider some local flavor by downloading music from the affected regions and picking their tracks as they are eradicated. At the time of this writing, the best way is to do searches on "ethnic" and derivatives on a huge Direct Connect hub. If you live in a major population center in Western Europe or even India, pick a track.

The playlist
It's the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine) - R.E.M1
Runtime 4:05
As hodgepodge once put it, this song is sensory overload: it piles vaguely cataclysmic images on top of each other at breakneck speed. This effect not only illustrates but feeds on the early states of shock and disbelief. The brutality of it all is kept somewhat unreal, but imminent.
It's the end of the world as we know it.
It's the end of the world as we know it.
It's the end of the world as we know it and I feel fine.

Tentative - System of a Down2
Runtime 3:36
S.O.A.D. takes these matters very seriously, what with the Armenian Genocide. With their anti-war tracks they very definitely have something to say and are saying it. Tentative is anger, rebellion, abject disgust. Among its screams are slower, sadder bits that segue into the next track.
Where you're going to the bottom
Do you hear us we are rotting?
We're going down in a spiral to the ground
No one, no one's gonna save us now
Where do you expect us to go when the bombs fall?

Time Is Running Out - Muse3
Runtime 4:08
This one is somewhat contested. It will set off a few teen angst bullshit meters and may nominally be about the gaping void of despair that is love, but works marvellously (and intentionally) with apocalypticity. The song's genuinely eerie tone has themes of hopeless defiance.
I won't let you bury it
I won't let you smother it
I won't let you murder it
Our time is running out
Our time is running out
How did it come to this?

We'll Meet Again - Ross Parker and Hughie Charles4
Runtime 3:00

This 1939 classic of foolishness is indelibly linked to its use in Dr. Strangelove and has become a symbol of nuclear holocaust. Using it during one is evocative of half a dozen things at once. It mocks those who released this blight, it longs for better days, it's even a fool's hope. And let's face it: all banality aside, there are some things that you have to do.
So will you please say hello
To the folks that I know
Tell them I won't be long

Attack - System of a Down5*
Runtime 3:06
Faster, louder and more desperate than Tentative, Attack climaxes anger and damnation of ourselves. The remaining playlist turns increasingly to the larger element of tragedy.
That if we fall
We all fall
And we fall alone

In the Year 2525 (Exordium & Terminus) - Zager and Evans6
Runtime 3:14
The embodiment of "one-hit wonder" has lately been getting mixed reviews. I admit to taking a liking to it after being blown away by an AMV 7 8. The song doesn't discuss nuclear war directly, but the theme of destruction through technology is the same. It gives a moment for very important introspection: where do we, as a species, go from here?
In the year 9595
I'm kinda wonderin' if man is gonna be alive
He's taken everything this old Earth can give
And he ain't put back nothin', whoa-oh

Dies Irae - Mozart9
It says something that returning to reality takes an apocalyptic track. Mozart's masterwork brings some variety into the playlist.

Unless we all get used to nuclear terrorism in the meantime, the first blasts will be assumed to cause massive escalation. Unless the information networks have collapsed, and at least some of them will have, you could start finding out that the damage has been localized and Global Thermonuclear War averted. If this happens, feel free to turn your player off and have the mental breakdown of your choice. Maybe you can volunteer for the Red Cross.

The Sun Is Burning - Simon and Garfunkel, performed by Luke Kelly10
Runtime 3:35
In direct contrast to S.O.A.D., this song is slow, quiet, fatalistic and incredibly painful. It's resignation: it happened. Say what you want, do what you want, it happened. Rage is necessary but ultimately pointless.
Now the sun is sinking low
Children playin' know it's time to go
High above a spot appears
A little blossom blooms and then draws near
And the sun is sinking low

Now the sun has come to Earth

Canon in D Major - Johann Pachelbel11
Runtime varies; mine 6:26
The last moments have been among the most draining ones of your life. This slow, subtle and almost indescribably beautiful work of baroque classical music is a moment of respite - not to mention a horrible contrast, but that's unavoidable at this point. If your tastes run to the contrary, consider Ladies and Gentlemen we are floating in Space by Spiritualized.12 At this point, you should have some idea about the imminence of your death. If you're down to minutes, well, there's nothing wrong with enjoying some good music and remembering the good times. If not, you're still alive and, as such, doing well.

The Terminator Theme - Terminator 213
Runtime 1:59
...and that's enough of that. Invert the delay between songs: have this track ram the last one. Turn up the the volume. Your grip on what is now more than likely to be the new reality is one of the things you can least afford to lose. Sink into the violent, lamenting and relentless beat in preparation for the world that will be much the same.

Turn off the player. Your self-fulfillment in the face of disaster has been done succesfully, and those batteries will be needed.

While these songs did not end up on the playlist for various reasons, they are relevant and often intriguing.

B.Y.O.B. - System of a Down14
Another strong song, though this one concentrates on criticism of the society that has failed when the playlist starts and has too much added fluff. The mile-a-minute repetition "Why don't presidents fight the war? Why do they always send the poor?" is practically sonic rage but doesn't salvage the whole.

Boom! - System of a Down15
They just don't let up, as well as they shouldn't. Boom! is a rabid anti-war song that unfortunately concentrates on Operation Blind Fury and other contemporary issues, which will be insignificant the minute the real thing starts. Michael Moore's demonstration movie for the song is extremely serious business, but also irrelevant here.

Christmas At Ground Zero - Weird Al16
The freakmeister's demented carol sings about nuclear holocaust with downright maniacal cheerfulness. The video does one better by mixing footage of old civil defense and Christmas clips with nuclear explosions. While this is an achievement of sick humor, it's not something you want to hear on the end day.

We Will All Go Together When We Go - Tom Lehrer17
Blows Weird Al out of the water. If you really think that your sense of humor can take this, go right ahead.

Two Suns In The Sunset - Pink Floyd
This has been strongly recommended, and if I could find it anywhere I might agree.

2 Minutes To Midnight - Iron Maiden18
The big men of heavy metal know their music, but to this particular layman their lyrics are just the rated-M-for-money kind of pretentious drivel that is more abundant than hydrogen.

Gay Bar - Electric Six19
No. Just... no.

Maybe - The Ink Spots20
A foolishly optimistic mid-20th century song, and as such the slightly more restrained twin of We'll Meet Again. Maybe is known for its use in Fallout and can easily be swapped in for those who are more familiar with the game than Dr. Strangelove.

The Custodian writes: Party at Ground Zero by Fishbone! Woo! :-)21
BookReader writes: A playlist for nuclear war: 99 red balloons might be a good addition.22
Junkill writes: On 'Beyond the Mind's Eye' Thomas Dolby has a beautiful piece called 'Armageddon' wherein he counterpoints Latin poetry (custom written for the piece by some latin professor or something) with very funk-inspired sort of electronica. It is by far my favourite song for dancing on the edge of destruction!23*

Second opinion
It turns out that Stylus Magazine did its own feature in 2004, Top Ten Songs of the Nuclear Apocalypse by Peter Parrish. His playlist is subtler and more detached than mine, and In my opinion not as well suited for actual nuclear war, but picking Edwin Starr was a stroke of brilliance.

Sources and thanksNow that we're on the subject
  • The War Game, an infamous 1965 BBC "documentary" in the vein of War of the Worlds about nuclear war. Deemed too horrible and not shown for 20 years.
  • Threads, a 1984 BBC docudrama, moreso.