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Mary J. Blige, Justin Timberlake Expected to Lead Grammy Nominations

With her album "The Breakthrough," Mary J. Blige might be the breakout leader when Grammy nominations are announced.

Blige could find herself nominated for album of the year and a slew of other awards at Thursday's nominations ceremony. "The Breakthrough," which was released last December, was not only critically acclaimed, but one of the best-selling albums of the year and marked a major comeback for the R&B veteran, who made her debut in 1992 with the album "What's the 411?"

And its already garnered her plenty of trophies: the 35-year-old singer collected nine trophies at Monday's Billboard Awards, and got two American Music Awards last month.

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"This is probably the best year of her career," said Chuck Arnold, music critic for People magazine. "She's been around a long time but hasn't really gotten the love in the major categories. This could be her year to break through."

Blige is expected to help announce the nominations at the Henry Fonda Theater in Hollywood, along with Justin Timberlake, KT Tunstall, James Blunt and Amy Lee of the rock group Evanescence.

Although appearing at the announcement ceremony isn't a guarantee of a nomination, it's pretty close. And it's very likely Timberlake will be a frequent name mentioned Thursday.

His second solo CD, "FutureSex/LoveSounds," is a multiplatinum success and has generated two smash hits, including "SexyBack."

"He's a favorite of both the public and the industry," said Arnold, who predicted the 25-year-old will garner an album of the year nod and other big nominations.

"American Idol" winner Carrie Underwood, who was named female vocalist of the year at last month's Country Music Awards, is also likely to catch Grammy's eye.

The Recording Academy is "still reluctant to show too much love to `American Idol' people," Arnold said, "but I would say she has a real good chance."

Underwood's album, "Some Hearts," was one of the top sellers of 2006, with 3.7 million copies sold.

Hip-hop duo Gnarls Barkley can also expect to feel Grammy love. The collaboration between singer Cee-Lo Green and DJ Danger Mouse yielded one of the summer's biggest hit songs, "Crazy."

"I definitely think they'll get record of the year," Arnold said. "`Crazy' is just one of those songs that succeeded on every level, as a big commercial hit and a critical one."

Other artists likely to garner Grammy notice are John Mayer, who released his introspective album "Continuum" in September, Blunt, the singer-songwriter behind the ubiquitous hit, "You're Beautiful," and British crooner Corinne Bailey Rae, whose eponymous debut was critically acclaimed. She is also expected to be on hand for the announcement ceremony.

Another British artist of interest is Tunstall, who had a hit with the song "Black Horse and the Cherry Tree." Arnold said she "has a really good shot" at a best new artist nod.

"It was a good year for music," he said. "There are certainly enough good choices. Hopefully (the academy) will look beyond the big sellers and get some of the artists who had really good years artistically."

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