The leanest and meanest country record of 2020, Tami Neilson’s CHICKABOOM! is the dynamic singer-songwriter’s fourth straight career-best album. Over a breakneck set of country and rockabilly tunes, Neilson explores what it means to be a working mother in a world that still struggles to make spaces for women to make their own choices. Neilson, to her credit, makes no apologies for her devotion to family or for her genre-blurring, retro aesthetic. She recalls her history as a performer in her family band on “Ten Tonne Truck,” nodding to the lie that hard work and talent alone are the path to commercial success, and she counts down the days until her tour ends and she’s reunited with her family on the raucous “Hey, Bus Driver.” Paying homage to The Dixie Cups’ “Iko Iko,” “Queenie, Queenie” outlines the conflicting expectations faced by working moms and, for good measure, gets in a perfectly-executed dig at country radio for its entrenched sexism. Later, Neilson shouts out her musical hero, “Sister Mavis” Staples on a gospel rave-up that also pays tribute to icons like Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Mahalia Jackson. The album’s centerpiece, “You Were Mine,” places Neilson firmly in the company of just such legendary, powerhouse performers. Inspired by the death of her father, Neilson considers the gravity of a relationship that has come to a definitive end. She channels her grief into a blues performance for the ages: There are few, if any, vocalists on the planet who could match what she does here. Beyond that particular standout, CHICKABOOM! as a whole finds Tami Neilson consistently plumbing new depths in her songwriting and playing up the tension between her decidedly old-school style and her of-the-moment feminist bona fides.
Published as part of Top 25 Albums of 2020 — 25-11.