Throughout 2020, I will be writing about my favorite albums of the past decade (2010-2019). This is an extension of an initial five-part series.
This, thus far, has been an exercise in determining my own tastes and preferences within country music … and beyond, of course. In general, I believe any critical review is simply the author’s way of communicating why they do or don’t like something; not a recommendation from a high and mighty source, per se. I guess what I’m saying is, there have been – and will continue to be – entries in this series that I love, but wouldn’t necessarily recommend for everyone.
This, however, is the entry that feels safest to post. I mean, it’s Tami freakin’ Neilson – how can it not be good, right? The only struggle was picking which album to represent.
In that case, 2018’s Sassafrass! is a strong candidate, as is 2016’s Don’t Be Afraid. But I, like many country music fans, remember that first time feeling of hearing her voice on 2014’s Dynamite!. It wasn’t her debut album, mind you, but rather a breakout moment for her in the United States. In New Zealand, she was already a pretty huge deal.
I’ll be honest, though – this is one of those entries that doesn’t offer much in the way of actual discussion, and I wouldn’t be surprised if this ends up being the shortest feature. Like all of Neilson’s albums, there’s room for fun, excellent vocal performances and swagger, and it all clocks in at barely half an hour. Granted, the ‘50s throwback aesthetic over the years has prompted the inevitable Pasty Cline comparisons, where the biggest criticism mustered toward Neilson is a lack of originality … yet I’d challenge that assertion. For one, her records are always more ragged in their presentation than anything else from that era.
Plus, Neilson’s always brought more to her performances than just pure power. Right away from her a capella opening on “Walk (Back To Your Arms),” there’s a confident swagger that’s either chill-inducing or just plain fun on songs like “Woo Hoo.” Of the latter category, “Honey Girl” is the only real slouch in the bunch, and that’s mostly because it follows the incredible “Running To You,” where the array of strings adds a tremendous amount of darker beauty to the track’s atmosphere.
For as fun as this album is at points, though, it’s moments like that which anchor this project for me (part of why this year’s Chickaboom!, which emphasized flash over substance, wasn’t quite a favorite of mine, if I’m being honest). I mean, my Lord, songs like “Cry Over You,” “You Lie” and “Whiskey & Kisses” just sound heartbreaking and lonely, and thanks to some solid basslines, there’s a darker emotional heft to the presentation, too.
Granted, Dynamite! is also Neilson’s only album to not have an anchoring sentiment running throughout. Don’t Be Afraid is marked by the death of her father; Sassafrass! is a strong feminist anthem in the form of a concept album; and Chickaboom! features a strong reliance on family, given that she grew up in the Neilson Family Band that toured regularly and opened for many artists, including Johnny Cash. I guess beyond the first time feeling that comes with reminiscing on this album, I find Dynamite! to be Neilson’s most balanced project to date.