"Postpunk" is a pretty wobbly term and the liner notes to this 3-CD compilation don’t quite nail it down. Taking the positive progress approach to musical history, we’re told how punk nearly obliterated "the tyranny of musical technique" and created "a nearly classless underground" in which postpunk could flourish. Which doesn’t explain why most of the groups here have technique to spare — unless by "technique" you mean guitar solos — or acknowledge the fact that few people are as aesthetically class-conscious as someone who thinks they’ve latched onto a minority taste.

More to the point, postpunk — sometimes referred to by that equally unhelpful term "new wave" — was a manifestation of what any musical form does when it reaches the end of its progressive thread, which is to revisit and rework its developmental highlights. Postpunk was rock’s neo-romanticism, a return to traditional values after the dead end of pomp rock, art rock et al.

Punk was a ferocious skewering of rock pretension, just revolutionary enough to make a whole generation of musicians too self-conscious to insert a Bach chorale into a pimply, 10-minute miniopera and influential enough to reassert the viability of brevity and energy.

So that’s the common thread here — rediscovered terseness — and it ain’t much to hang 48 varied cuts on. Do Throbbing Gristle fans really want to hear Simple Minds? Are Mission of Burma devotees ready to make common cause with admirers of Thomas Dolby? Well, maybe, now that enough time has passed and Iggy Pop’s "New Values" and Heaven 17’s "(We Don’t Need This) Fascist Groove Thing" can be seen as having been cut from the same zeitgeist cloth. Or maybe the other subtext here — the beginning of the serious Balkanizing of the "rock" audience — has taken hold to the extent that only collectors (who tend to be omnivorous) and rock critics (who are paid to maintain their unnaturally catholic listening habits) will feel compelled to hear this all the way through, at least once.

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