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Postpunk continued the rebellion in style and substance against mainstream rock conventions begun earlier by the 1970s punk movement. Its break from the new wave was precipitated by the latter's affinity with progressive rock developments and the pop mainstream in general. In contrast, postpunk was defiantly inconsequential and advanced the romantic ideals of free expression and institutional autonomy. (It continued to parallel the new wave, however, in pioneering the visual potentialities of music as well as undercutting male belligerence as a be-all.)

In actuality, postpunk was not one particular musical style, but rather a main branch of the rock ancestral tree which was further split into many smaller branches. The postpunk family included the following subgenres (and key artists):

Techno-pop: Depeche Mode, Eurythmics, A Flock of Seagulls, Human League, New Order, Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark, Young Marble Giants.

New romantics: ABC, Adam Ant/Adam and the Ants, Culture Club, Duran Duran, Frankie Goes to Hollywood, Billy Idol, the Pet Shop Boys.

Ska/bluebeat revival: the English Beat, Madness, Selector, the Specials.

Hardcore punk: Bad Religion, Black Flag, the Butthole Surfers, the Germs, Husker Du, the Meat Puppets, the Minutemen.

Neo-psychedelia: Echo and the Bunnymen, the Psychedelic Furs, the Teardrop Explodes.

Neo-rockabilly: Stray Cats. Spin-off genre—Shockabilly: The Cramps.

Goth rock: The Cure, Gene Loves Jezebel, Siouxie and the Banshees, the Smiths.

Punk-disco: Massive Attack, Soul II Soul.

No wave: Pussy Galore, Sun City Girls, Thinking Fellers Union Local 242, John Zorn.

Indie rock: Big Black, Camper Van Beethoven, the Chills, the Mekons, My Bloody Valentine, the Pixies, R.E.M., Sebadoh.