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New Artist kudo: Grammy’s wild card

Young talent pool reveals surprising depth

That the Grammy Awards’ new artist designation often stands as the most unpredictable major honor of the night should come as no surprise — any award that makes peers of the Beatles and the Starland Vocal Band, Bob Dylan and A Taste of Honey, or Sade and Milli Vanilli would have to.

In addition to the category’s crapshoot nature, the Recording Academy’s ever-shifting bylaws often make for some unusual choices, and new rules in response to last year’s Lady Gaga snub could make them even stranger.

Despite charting a top-10 hit in summer ’09 and nabbing two Grammy nominations last year, hip-hop heartthrob Drake is still considered a frontrunner for a new artist nod, while R&B experimentalist Janelle Monae is also eligible, despite a nomination last winter.

Sales-wise, Justin Bieber was 2010’s obvious rookie of the year, and the teen-pop phenom will almost certainly find himself in the nominees circle. As for his competitors, the field is wide open. Debutante popsters Ke$ha, Jason Derulo and Bruno Mars raided the charts this year, while more adult-leaning acts like Mumford & Sons and Florence and the Machine seem straight up Grammy’s alley.

But lest voters dig through the vaults for now well-established artists or look to the top of the current week’s charts for inspiration, there is a host of genuinely new artists ripe for recognition.

Rubber-faced rapstress Nicki Minaj may have started her career in the dense cattle-call of Lil Wayne’s Young Money posse, but she wasted little time settling into an eccentric, inimitable style, and her work with Kanye West and Jay-Z should make her an unignorable fixture. Also, similarly genre-straddling Atlanta MC B.o.B. has proved equally popular with underground mixtape fetishists and pop audiences alike. Featuring collaborations from Rivers Cuomo and Hayley Williams, his debut LP entered the charts at No. 1.

The xx, on the other hand, never made enormous charts headway on these shores. However, the moody young Londoners have built up heavy momentum since making their debut, recently winning Britain’s coveted Mercury Prize and inspiring a pair of covers from unlikely fan Shakira.

Best Coast is another act that voters would be wise not to gloss over on first pass. Despite the lo-fi textures of her music and lyrics exclusively concerned with pining for boys and getting high with her cat, frontwoman Bethany Cosentino exhibits a thoughtful approach to multi-part harmonies, a classical knack for a pop hook, and plenty of room to grow.

(Fellow rock upstarts like Florida’s Surfer Blood and supergroups Broken Bells and Them Crooked Vultures also merit closer looks.)

But the aforementioned Monae deserves special attention, even if her debut record, “ArchAndroid,” failed to find sales commensurate with her respect among both critics and fellow artists.

While this category has honored such one-album-wonders as Christopher Cross, Arrested Development and Amy Winehouse in the past, Monae is fashioning a unique place for herself among cookie-cutter R&B divas, and seems ready to bunker down for a long career.

Grammy voters could do well to stay ahead of the curve.

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