Omission paves way for posse of tyros

The clear frontrunner for new artist for the 52nd annual Grammy Awards won’t be in the race.

Lady Gaga, who has captured the pop culture zeitgeist like no other act since Madonna, has scored multiple No. 1 singles and sold more than 1.53 million copies of her Cherry Tree/Interscope debut, “The Fame,” according to Nielsen SoundScan. However because her No. 1 hit “Just Dance” received a nomination for dance recording for the 51st annual Grammys, she is not eligible for new artist, according to Grammy regulations.

Two other possible contenders are also not eligible: Kid Cudi, a Kanye West protege whose ‘Day ‘n’ Nite” took up residence on the Hot 100, did not release an album within the eligibility period (contenders must have an album out, not just singles); and French art rockers Phoenix, who finally broke through this year on their fourth album, one too many to be eligible in the new artist category.

So who’s likely to snare the award come January 31? Unlike the last two years when British acts snared the best new artist award, January’s winner will be homegrown. (Trivia note: In 2008, Amy Winehouse was the first Brit to win the award since 1986 when Sade claimed the honor; Adele was named best new artist earlier this year).

Here’s Variety‘s look at some newcomers who have generated the most buzz so far.

ZAC BROWN BAND
This Georgia-based group comfortably straddles the line between jam band and country act, just as easily thrilling fans at Bonnaroo as on the Grand Ole Opry stage. Easy-going melodies, like “Chicken Fried” and “Toes,” blend Dave Matthews, Jimmy Buffett and Kenny Chesney, and have found favor with a broad swatch from college kids to baby boomers as sales of its platinum-plus debut “Foundation” attests.

KERI HILSON
This singer songwriter has been bubbling under, writing songs for Britney Spears and Ludacris and singing on Timbaland’s “The Way I Are” for awhile. However, 2009 shaped up as her year, as her single, “Knock You Down” — from her R&B chart topping debut album, “In a Perfect World” — emerged as both a pop and R&B smash. She writes her own material, which the Grammy voters like.

KEVIN RUDOLF
Rudolf has experienced a breakthrough year both as an artist and as a songwriter. As a performer, he scored a major pop hit with “Let It Rock,” which has been certified triple platinum. He also co-wrote and produced Cobra Starship’s “Good Girls Go Bad,” and has tracks on the upcoming Leona Lewis and Lifehouse CDs.

OWL CITY
Timing is everything and Owl City, aka singer/songwriter Adam Young, may have peaked a little too late to make it into the final five since his twee, Postal Service-like “Fireflies” was still on the rise when initial voting closed in early October. That said, chart-watching Grammy voters will have undoubtedly noticed that the sweet song hit No. 1 on the Hot 100 at the end of October and, in a rarity these days, has brought the Universal Republic album up the charts with it.

MGMT
Although last year was the more logical year for them to get a nod, this Brooklyn-based intelligent rock duo continued its breakthrough with the insinuating “Kids” from “Oracular Spectacular” and has been steadily building a fan base that includes many other artists such as Radiohead and Paul McCartney, both of whom tapped MGMT to open for them in concert.

DIANE BIRCH
Raised in South Africa as the daughter of a preacher, singer-songwriter Birch hasn’t sold impressive amounts of her debut album, “Bible Belt,” yet, but her lilting vocals, smart pop melodies and winning lyrics have drawn comparisons to Laura Nyro.

IN THE MIX
Other possible contenders include rockers Cage the Elephant, cocky rapping popsters 3Oh!3, AC darlings and licensing faves Carolina Liar, “American Idol” winner David Cook, R&B newcomer Kristinia DeBarge, indie poster girl Ingrid Michaelson, rapper Asher Roth and alt rockers Silversun Pickups.

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