It’s like a cross between book club and a music appreciation class. Every Monday night in an engineering classroom at the University of Minnesota, a group of students meets to discuss a different album.
“Our era of music is shorter, so I liked the length of this album,” a young woman chimed from the back of the room. “It’s very bingeable.”
“This is someone I can respect beyond the music,” said club founder Riley Quinlan as electro-soul singer James Blake’s new “Assume Form” softly played in the background.
In a musical landscape driven by the latest Spotify hit singles, members of this so-called Hook Club commit themselves to digesting full-length albums. Since 2016, the group has discussed more than 75 albums — from current stars such as Childish Gambino, SZA and Travis Scott to classics by Bob Dylan, David Bowie and Nina Simone.
“Singles can be important because they provide bite-size pieces that fans can access and use as markers for exploration,” said club member Samuel Ball, a U junior. “But they shouldn’t be considered representative of the whole music landscape because it’s a lot wider and deeper than that.”
In nearly three years, the club has grown from a small group of friends and musicheads to nearly 200 members. About 40 people attended the Feb. 18 meeting to discuss Blake’s new album.
More members means more musical variety. The club kicked off in 2016 with Kanye West’s bestselling “The Life of Pablo.” Last year the members tackled 1998’s critically acclaimed “The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill,” released when many of them were infants. This week they planned to discuss 1959’s “Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs” by old-timey country singer Marty Robbins. They’re also known to pick albums by obscure acts such as the New Jersey hip-hop group Dälek.
“I think the group collectively has begun to warm up more to the idea of discussing music outside the cultural mainstream,” Ball said.
At the end of each 90-minute discussion, the club takes a vote to assess the weekly selection. Members once rated albums according to a numbered scale à la the Pitchfork music site, publishing the results on the group’s Facebook page. But everyone agreed the system was too limiting. “It felt unnatural to apply a numerical rating to something as fluid and subjective as music,” said sophomore Demitria Sabanty.
So the club switched to three simple ranking options this school year: thumbs-up, thumbs-sideways, thumbs-down. “Simply stating if you enjoyed an album feels more true to the actual experience of listening to music,” Sabanty said.
Each meeting ends with more voting: Short speeches are delivered, snippets of music played. The next week’s album is chosen democratically, with members registering their votes by closing their eyes and raising their hands (think elementary school). At a recent meeting, the club selected its first-ever Spanish album, Rosalía’s “El Mal Querer,” which won over albums by the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Kate Bush and Miike Snow.
‘Like a book club, but for albums’
As founder and president, Quinlan serves as a teacher of sorts. He doesn’t have a lesson plan, but keeps notes to help guide the discussion if necessary.
“I listen to the album at least three times,” he said as he set up for the Feb. 18 meeting. “But I think the best discussions are when the music pushes us to talk about things that are inherently not music-related.”
As Quinlan grew up in St. Paul, music played a central role in his most important friendships. He got into music during sixth grade with his friend Carl Knetsch, now the club’s vice president and a U senior. The pair took to exchanging e-mails about new videos and albums, bonding over favorites such as West’s 2007 video for “Stronger.”
When Quinlan landed at the U in fall 2015, he found that music provided a handy way to break the ice when meeting people. “Music to strangers is essentially just a mutual friend,” he said.
So he hatched the Hook Club later that school year. The idea was simple: “This is essentially a book club,” he said. “That’s our motto: It’s like a book club, but for albums.”
Like reading printed books, listening to full-length albums appeals to a growing set of young people craving deeper, more substantive cultural experiences. Inspired by the U’s original club, sister clubs have sprung up at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Southwestern Medical School in Dallas and Nashville’s Vanderbilt University.
“Whether I enjoy the album or not, it’s always beneficial to have conversations about what music makes us feel and why it makes us feel that way,” said Sabanty, who’s also an English major and aspiring poet.
In fact, she sees overlap between full-length albums and the poetry chapbooks she painstakingly authors. At Hook Club, albums are listened to in order, just as the artist intended. When Sabanty arranges her poetry, she does so meticulously, ordering with a mind for themes and imagery.
“If someone only read one of those poems, I’d be happy,” she said. “But they’d get a completely different experience if they read the whole chapbook.”
As for albums, she continued: “It’s totally fine to hear one song off an album and leave it at that. But why miss out on the immersive experience of enjoying the whole thing?”
Alex Smith is a University of Minnesota student on assignment for the Star Tribune.