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Grammy countdown: A look at the best new artist crop

December 1, 2008 |  5:16 pm
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The Grammy field for best new artist is always one of the most confounding categories. Grammy rules stipulate that an artist need not be "new," only that the release has "established the public identity" of the artist. Last year, for instance, Taylor Swift was the only artist who was actually on her first album.

And this year, the Grammy forums on The Envelope are abuzz that artists such as the Jonas Brothers, Kings of Leon and M.I.A. should be considered. The JoBros would be a bad fit -- their presence has been felt before this year, and a nom would boldly highlight the lack of adventurous music-seekers among Recording Academy voters. M.I.A. and Kings of Leon would be nice, but a few years too late, so the forum posters are most likely onto something there.

The odds on favorite, however, remains U.K. soul singer Duffy, whose vintage soul would fall in line with last year's winner, Amy Winehouse, but give voters a safer, perhaps more stable, artist to champion. Back in July, Pop & Hiss (then known as Extended Play) handicapped this year's new artist crop. Not too much has changed in the new artist field since then -- while the post was written in July, the Grammy eligibility period ends Oct. 1 -- and this blog will revisit some of those picks, and add some others.

But first, here are Pop & Hiss' best bets for best new artist:

Katy Perry
Duffy
Estelle
Leona Lewis
MGMT

And taken one by one:

Perry: The pop-rock newcomer had one of the year's most ubiquitous hits. Her "I Kissed a Girl" has a shot, as previously noted, to score a record-of-the-year nomination. But the single isn't a lock there, as some voters may be turned off by its novelty appeal. Instead, awarding Perry with a best new artist nod is the more clear-cut way to go.

Lewis: A lock. Leona Lewis is the complete distillation of everything Grammy voters look for. She has a pretty voice and can hit the right notes on cue. And her songs have a hint of R&B and a bit of hip-hop. What's more, blockbuster "Bleeding Love" is timelessly inoffensive -- the kind of grandly generic song that appeals to millions and sounds nice on television.

MGMT: A bit more alternative than last year's rock rep, Paramore, but MGMT seems to still be carrying a bounty of industry buzz. The band's fuzzed-up guitar sound was a staple in television and film this year, and the distorted hit "Time to Pretend" allows voters to pat themselves on the back for thinking they just nominated a left-of-center act.

Estelle: Pop & Hiss has written a lot about Estelle over the last week and a half. Some think she could be this year's Grammy darling. But Lily Allen was also a critic's favorite from the across the pond, and she didn't fare well at last year's awards. But Pop & Hiss definitely has her penciled in for a new artist nod. As noted before, Estelle's more inventive than 2006 best new artist nominee Chris Brown, and just as elegant as 2005 best new artist winner John Legend.

Duffy: Can retro soul singer Duffy follow Winehouse's six nominations last year? That might be asking too much, but one of her nods will most definitely come in the new artist field. But Duffy's vintage soul should be Grammy gold, if voters don't shy away from lauding a British soul star two years running. On her debut, "Rockferry," Duffy is a bit more traditional than Winehouse, but there's a warming lushness to her retro songs, as her cool, low-key vocal approach is framed with buoyant and amiable arrangements.

And now the alternates:

But the new artist field is usually one full of surprises. Last year, when R&B singer Ledisi got the nod, she was so unknown to most of those in the room that Dave Grohl stumbled as he read her name. Pop & Hiss would love to see Grammy voters start to embrace some independent artists, and the new artist field is the place to do it, as it's a category that's very name is about discovery.

To that end, Vampire Weekend has an outside shot. With a bit of a worldly influence, Vampire Weekend's pleasantly breezy melodies would sit well with older Recording Academy voters. A better choice, however, would be She & Him. It boasts some star power (Zooey Deschanel!), and bests Duffy at the retro game. As noted earlier (Pop & Hiss is kinda plagiarizing itself here), there's a warmly inviting simplicity to She & Him, and the act jubilantly dives into a '50s-influenced sound, evidenced by Disneyana in songs like "Why Do You Let Me Stay Here?"

Other acts in the discussion may include the Ting Tings, who winningly mixed scrappy guitars and bouncy dance grooves, or Santogold, barring the aforementioned potential nod to M.I.A. While the reference to a globe-trotting artist such as M.I.A. isn't completely dead-on, it hints at Santogold's ambitions, who mixed reggae, rock 'n' roll and hip-hop sounds into one of the year's most enticing singles, "LES Artistes."

And there are more! Country usually gets represented in the best new artist field (see Swift last year, Carrie Underwood the year before and Sugarland before that), so Pop & Hiss is betting on newcomers Lady Antebellum as the best bet from Nashville. The country-rockers took the new artist prize at the recent CMA Awards, although the act's routine performance probably didn't win them many fans.

Additionally, if Estelle doesn't get in, pencil in Jazmine Sullivan, who got a big Grammy write-up from the blog earlier as well. Her album is fresher on voter's minds, but that shouldn't be a sole factor in considering her. Sullivan, like Estelle, is versatile, but might be viewed as having a bit more pop appeal. It might be hard for both of them to get in, but Sullivan might also knock out MGMT. She's a worthy contender, if only for the powerful call-and-response anthem that is "One Night Stand."

Other acts that could surprise: Singer-songwriter Sara Bareilles, who could be this year's Feist (riding a TV ad to a nom), rock act OneRepublic, whose ballad "Apologize" has surely become a prom-theme staple that also might be rewarded for owning radio, and jammy rock-rap act Flobots are also in the mix. 

Anyone else?

And coming Tuesday: A look at the Grammy Museum will be posted in the afternoon, and a preview of album of the year will be up late in the day.

--Todd Martens

Photos, from left: Estelle, www.estellemusic.com; Vampire Weekend, XL; Katy Perry, Bob Chamberlin / Los Angeles Times

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