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2020 Songs To Discover: A Year In Music In San Diego

The Casbah stage sits empty on April 28, 2020. The venue closed its doors due...

Credit: Tim Mays

Above: The Casbah stage sits empty on April 28, 2020. The venue closed its doors due to the coronavirus pandemic and stay at home orders.

Each month we've highlighted new music from local artists, acts coming to town (RIP) and the picks of staff and locals in the scene. For the December installation, I'm going to take a look back on KPBS' music coverage this year, featuring playlists, album reviews, interviews, podcasts and our reporting on the ways the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted the local music scene.

Think of this as our "year-end list" for a strange year in the music scene.

You can listen to the full playlist on Spotify here, or click through on each story to discover the tracks month-by-month, or find embedded links to other music platforms like Bandcamp.

January

3 Songs To Discover Right Now

The firstborn, wobbly-kneed version of our monthly local and live music feature showcased three new tracks from locals, plus how we might see the bands live, and it launched a monthly series that I hoped would do some small part in keeping San Diego dialed in to local music throughout the year, even when live music venues were closing. The first selections featured new tracks by Warsaw (now known as Tulpa Luna), Golden Howl and The Havnauts.

Photo by Matthew Kelly

San Diego band Tulpa Luna (formerly known as Warsaw) is pictured in an undated photograph.

February

5 Songs To Discover In February

In February, I recommended tracks and shows from The New Pornographers, Brooklyn’s A Deer A Horse, Austin’s Hikes and local trumpet phenom Steph Richards. Plus, I asked Port of Entry podcast host Alan Lilienthal for a recommendation: 18Scales.

March

7 Songs To Discover In March

Our Songs To Discover feature for March was mostly shows that were canceled due to onset of the coronavirus pandemic. March will always be known as the month that everything changed. But we can still enjoy the new music. Featuring Algiers, Porches, Louis XIV, Los Shadows, Lauren Ruth Ward, Topographies and a staff pick from KPBS reporter Max Rivlin-Nadler: Vanessa Zamora.

Art In The Time Of COVID-19

As we began to get a sense of how the pandemic would affect the arts, here's an early look at how local arts groups were coping, including some ways for us to still get a music fix. This was one of the first stories I filed from home.

Baby Bushka Has A Lot Of Strength Left

Opening a story in late March 2020 with the line "You have to see it live" seems like a cruel joke now. But it was impossible to write about Baby Bushka's new album and the cancelation of their album release tours without acknowledging how important and essential their live performances are. With the loss of band member Nina Leilani Deering just a few months later, the early stages of the pandemic packed a lot of difficult news for Baby Bushka — but this album stands strong.

Photo credit: Erica Joan

Baby Bushka is pictured in an undated photo.

April

5 Songs To Discover In April: The 'What We'll Miss' Version

Remember when we thought April would be the only month of live music we might miss? And with plenty of shows still scheduled, we could still take a look at what San Diego's live music landscape would have looked like that month. And for a few months after that, venues and bands kept rescheduling tours — out of optimism that we'd be seeing live music again soon. These monthly playlists quickly became ways to seek out new music, regardless of live shows, and April gave us new tracks from Tennis, Yeek, Heartbones, Nmandi and local indie jazz group Kilikili.

Industry Interrupted: Music In San Diego In A Pandemic

I spoke with the Casbah's Tim Mays, studio producer and engineer Ben Moore, musician and organizer Mónica Mendoza, and musician and gig performer Nathan Hubbard about the impact of the pandemic on their livelihoods and work.

Photo by Julia Dixon Evans

The band Le Ra performs at The Casbah in this July 2019 photo.

May

5-Plus Songs To Discover In San Diego In May

May brought us new releases from Le Butcherettes, The Midnight Pine, Le Saboteur and Maura Rosa, plus an actual upcoming (livestream) show from The Donkeys and a staff pick from KPBS videojournalist Nic McVicker: Jens Lekman.

Only Here Podcast: Following The Footsteps Of Latin Music's Trip To The Top

One episode of our border podcast this summer explored the story of how Latin music became as popular as American pop music, all through the eyes of Isabela Raygoza — a music journalist from Tijuana and San Diego.

June

Influential: Alfred Howard's Playlist

In June, we asked local musician Alfred Howard to create a playlist of his influences, and used that as our monthly playlist. Howard had just embarked on his year-long songwriting challenge and I wanted to get to know the influences behind Howard's own skills and writing. Plus, he narrates the playlist for us. It's a great way to discover new (and old) music and get to know one of the San Diego music scene's most influential and talented people.

Photo credit: Kristy Walker

Musician Alfred Howard is pictured in an undated photo.

Only Here Podcast: Moved By Music From Both Sides Of The Border

Another episode of our border podcast delved into the musical influences of border residents. For Paola Villaseñor, better known as the influential border artist Panca, music has been a lifelong companion whenever she’s drawing or painting. Host Alan Lilienthal talks to Panca about how music from both sides of the border has shaped her life and her work.

Photo credit: Courtesy of Natasha Kozaily

Nina Leilani Deering in an undated photo.

Remembering Musician Nina Leilani Deering

In an installment of the KPBS/arts newsletter, I wrote about vocalist and musician Nina Leilani Deering shortly after her death in early June.

It was a tragic loss for San Diego's music scene, as Deering collaborated with so many other musicians and was involved with many projects, including cofounding Voices of Our City Choir and Baby Bushka.

Here's an excerpt:

"It’s very hard to talk about Nina in a straight ahead way because she just wasn’t straight ahead. She was very layered and complex," said Natasha Kozaily, founding member of San Diego's Kate Bush super group, Baby Bushka.

Nina Leilani Deering, who performed with Baby Bushka, countless bands and choirs, and cofounded the Voices of Our City Choir, died in a tragic car accident last week at the age of 34. She touched many lives, and San Diego's music scene will never be the same without her presence, a fascinating and infectious combination of immeasurable lightness and darkness.

"She was this angel or something that was put on the wrong planet. Her eyes were always on something else ... and she saw deep," said Kozaily. "She lived in music."

You can listen to Deering's stunning vocals on "This Woman's Work," here, which was on the Baby Bushka album just released this April.

Eerily (but also very on-par for Deering), her last ever performance in October was when she staged and performed her own memorial service. Space 4 Art's Justin Morrison has put together a beautiful film of this performance, and fans, friends and collaborators will all join together for a memorial watch party to soak in Nina's out-of-this-world musicianship, presence and legacy.

July

6 Songs To Discover In San Diego In July

In July we profiled new tracks from Jake Najor and the Moment of Truth, Jean Jules Julian, Rafter, Gaby Moreno and Mexican Institute of Sound, and an original collab by Alfred Howard, Mara Kaye and Tim McNalley.

Can Livestreamed, Full-Production Shows Save Empty Music Venues?

Also in July, we took a closer look at what promised to fill the void of live music a little better than living room livestreams (or worse, Zoom concerts). The Casbah has consistently produced Twitch streams with bands on stage in an empty venue, as has Belly Up and more.

Photo by Julia Dixon Evans

A still from Scary Pierre's livestreamed performance from the Casbah on July 25, 2020.

A Community-Funded Future For Kava Lounge

In a splash of very welcome good news, electronic music hub Kava Lounge avoided a closure after fans chipped in.

Summer Music Series

This year's installment of our KPBS Summer Music Series — like most everything else in 2020 — looked a little different. We couldn't bring acts into the studio, but we did produce new videos and interviews with eight different performers and groups throughout the summer. Here's the full series, featuring Whitney Shay, Israel Maldonado, Greyboy Allstars, Jesus Gonzalez, Thee Sacred Souls, Alfred Howard, Voices of Our City Choir and Indian K. Plus, check out a Spotify playlist of our Summer Music Series artists here.

August

6 Songs To Discover In San Diego In August

In August we featured new work by locals EST, Chauncey Maynor, Carrie Feller, Hllndr, Butterflies (a project by Kenseth Thibideau and Pea Hicks), plus an enchanting track by Berlin-based Lyra Pramuk.

Blindspot Collective Sings ‘Human Anthems’ Amid Pandemic Grief

This summer, one local theater company launched a project penning new songs based on interviews and stories of loved ones lost to COVID-19. You can get to know some of the musicians behind Blindspot Collective's "Human Anthems" program here.

Contemporary Sculpture Becomes Original Jazz At SDMA

San Diego-based trumpet phenom Steph Richards composed an original piece based on a single piece of minimalist contemporary art — Dewain Valentine’s 1978 "Circle, Blue-Violet." The music — and Richards' process — is mesmerizing.

Photo credit: Courtesy photo

San Diego-based trumpet player and UC San Diego music faculty Steph Richards is pictured in an undated photo.

September

5 Songs To Discover In San Diego In September

In September we turned to Belladon, Puerto, AC Braxton and Soft Kill for our new music picks. This month we reached out to San Diego Opera's Edward Willensky to suggest something on his radar, and with the disaster in Beirut fresh on our minds, he uncovered a shoegaze track by the Beirut-based Postcards.

October

5 Songs To Discover In San Diego In October

We stayed quite local in October, with new tracks from Dani Bell, Ingonoir, Strange Ages, Tijuana's Vanessa Zamora and (erstwhile San Diegans) Cults.

'Bad Wolves'

A brand new collaboration and video from Jason Mraz, Rebecca Jade, Veronica May And Miki Vale explored the year of discourse on racism and police brutality.

Photo credit: EB of Course Visual

A still of the music video for 'Bad Wolves," which released Oct. 13, 2020. The collaboration features local musicians, dancers and producers and sends a strong message about systemic racism and toxicity in power.

November

5 Songs To Discover In San Diego In November

For November's 5 Songs To Discover feature (and the final edition of the year), I asked some notable San Diego musicians to indulge and imagine a dream billing, someone they'd like to bring to town and share a stage with — and I had one requirement, that the band have new music out this year. The results were delightfully all over the map. And it's also more like 10 songs to discover, because I recommend a track from each of the local acts too.

Port of Entry Podcast: Tracing Latin Music Roots Back To Africa

In a new episode of KPBS' newly rebranded border podcast, "Port of Entry," Jorge Gonzalez, director of the Afro-Mexican Department at the World Beat Center in San Diego, combines his love of music and history by taking listeners on a mini trip through the evolution of Latin music, helping trace some of its roots and influences back to West Africa.

Photo by Ferron Salniker

Jorge Gonzalez deejays at the Mexico in the Bottle annual mezcal and food festival in Logan Heights in this photo taken in March 2020.

On ‘The Short Years,’ Ed Kornhauser’s Jazz Is Of The Moment

I reviewed San Diego jazz pianist Ed Kornhauser's debut quartet album, "The Short Years," and interviewed Kornhauser about the work. It's a fantastic and approachable collection of jazz.

For more playlists, follow KPBS on Spotify here.

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Julia Dixon Evans
Arts Calendar Editor and Producer

opening quote marksclosing quote marksI write the weekly KPBS Arts newsletter and edit and produce the KPBS Arts calendar. I am interested in getting San Diegans engaged with the diversity of art and culture made by the creative people who live here.

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