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Grammy countdown: The best new artist front-runners (Part 1) [UPDATED]

November 24, 2009 |  6:03 pm


Always one of the more controversial categories, best new artist remains, perhaps, the most difficult Grammy field to get just right. The vaguely defined category is open to interpretation.

Reads the Grammy rules: "A new artist is defined as any performing artist who releases, during the eligibility year, the recording that first establishes the public identity of that artist as a performer." The "recording" in question doesn't have to be a full album, either. Witness alterna-rockers MGMT, which are on the ballot for the upcoming Grammy Awards, but released their "Oracular Spectacular" during last year's eligibility period.

It's also the field, perhaps, most easy to criticize. For the 2009 awards, the Jonas Brothers managed to nab a best new artist nod, but the young Disney rockers had scored high-charting albums in prior eligibility periods. On the flip side, however, it's one of the few Grammy categories where there are bound to be genuine surprises. R&B newcomer Jazmine Sullivan was an artist who rode some late-year success straight to a nomination for the 2009 awards. 

Looking at the ballots for the 2010 Grammys, nominations for which will be announced next Wednesday, here's a look at the front-runners for best new artist. Pop & Hiss encourages comments, and please note this is only Part 1 of the best new artist run-down. Come back later this holiday week for Part 2.

Zac Brown Band. This is almost certainly a lock. It'd be rare for this category to be announced without one Nashville rep, and the Zac Brown Band is up (although Luke Bryan is a potential spoiler). Most important, the act is recognizable to those outside the country-sphere, as "The Foundation" has sold close to 1.2 million copies since its release last November, according to Nielsen SoundScan. It also doesn't hurt that the groups' good-time, tailgate-worthy country pop goes down easy.

Diane Birch. Grammy voters love the vintage soul (see Joss Stone, Duffy, Adele, Amy Winehouse), and Birch is the 2009 edition. Granted, she hasn't hit the sales level of Grammy soul girls of recent yore, but the talent is there, and she has industry-approved support (gospel-soul legend Betty Wright was an executive producer on her album). Her "Bible Belt" pays homage to the songs of the South, albeit with a citified bent, and doesn't shy from tough, religious-leaning topics.

Laura Izibor. Some of what was written for Birch could also apply to Izibor, whose songs are often laced with a smokey, vintage piano. Her single "Shine" is embellished with a full-on soul orchestration, and also carries a bit of slinky hip-hop bent, giving Izibor more of a modern sheen. Her "Let the Truth Be Told" had a top-30 debut, and she has a major label backing in Atlantic. And it needs to be stated again: Grammy voters love to reward soul newcomers. 

MGMT. The East Coast band lucked out. While its album, as noted above, dates to early 2008, it was more of a buzzy, underground act when last year's nominations were announced. Not anymore, and here MGMT is on this year's best new artist ballot. The breakout success of "Kids" has turned MGMT into a band that can be championed by Grammy voters. There's a slight, adventurous bent to the group, and it brings a bit of a cool factor to the industry party.

Wale. Hip-hop isn't usually well-represented in the best new artist field, as one has to go back to Kanye West in 2005. That won't necessarily hurt Wale, as West is clearly a major influence on the underground-turned-major label rapper. His Interscope debut was released too late to be considered in any of the album fields, but it had plenty of buzz and a solid first week, selling nearly 30,000 copies. There's jazzy, Roots-like takes on his album, and it also has a guest shot from Lady Gaga. Grammy faves Chrisette Michele and Jazmine Sullivan also appear. It may be a surprise pick, but it's in the discussion.

-- Todd Martens


Grammy countdown: How the awards can stay relevant

Diane Birch, a rebellious spirit with a soulful bent

Wale watch: The D.C. rapper on the blog age, Twitter and his debut album 'Attention Deficit'

Live: Zac Brown at the Mint

Guess who's getting Grammy nominations?

Grammys 2010: An early look at album of the year contenders (Part 1)

Grammys 2010: An early look at album of the year (Part 2)

Photo: Diane Birch. Credit: Getty Images

UPDATED: An earlier version of this post incorrectly stated the record label for Laura Izibor. She is signed to Atlantic, and not Jive.