By Piya Sinha-Roy
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Adele may be a safe bet to clean up at Sunday's Grammy Awards, but if music fans think that means a night of few surprises, they should ask Justin Bieber.
The Canadian teen idol left the Grammys empty-handed last year after losing the best new artist award to jazz bassist and singer Esperanza Spalding -- the first jazz artist to clinch the coveted prize.
Sunday's new artist race is just as diverse and could again have jaws dropping, but it won't be the only spectacle at the music industry's biggest awards show that will draw the attention of millions of fans watching on TV.
Singer Adele is giving her first major performance since throat surgery. Katy Perry will appear at a key event for the first time since her breakup with estranged husband Russell Brand, and then there's R&B singers -- and former lovers -- Chris Brown and Rihanna who will both turn out.
Still, among the races, the new artist category presents among the most intriguing of the night's nominee matchups. Rappers Nicki Minaj and J. Cole, country music group The Band Perry, indie rock band Bon Iver and electronica dance music producer Skrillex are competing for the title in a category that is often the hardest to predict.
Minaj, 29, is the most commercially successful act of the five after her No.1 debut album "Pink Friday", and in a sign of her popularity, she appeared on the biggest TV stage in the world at last week's Super Bowl halftime show with Madonna.
But surprise nominations for Bon Iver and disc jockey Skrillex -- the first electronica dance act to get a nod in the newcomer category -- have pundits torn.
"Last year, the Grammy voters pulled a fast one," said Bill Werde, editorial director of Billboard music magazine.
"Everyone expected Justin Bieber's name to be called and they announced Esperanza Spalding's name. So how jaw-droppingly great will it be if Skrillex walked on the stage to accept the best new artist award rather than Nicki Minaj, who I think a lot of people would say is the front runner," Werde said.
Skrillex, 24, has an impressive five Grammy nods in total this year, including two for his dance album "Scary Monsters and Nice Sprites".
Bon Iver, fronted by Justin Vernon, boasts four nominations, including two in the top categories of record and song of the year for "Holocene".
And don't count out The Band Perry -- the three siblings whose single "If I Die Young" was a cross-over hit on both country and pop radio last year and helped to win the trio eight awards from various country music groups.
"Everyone thinks Nicki Minaj has a good chance of winning or J. Cole or The Band Perry, but rap doesn't always do very well at the Grammys," said Lyndsey Parker, managing editor of Yahoo! Music.
Minaj also has three other shots at taking home a Grammy on Sunday, including for best rap performance for her "Moment 4 Life" song with Drake
A NIGHT OF FIRSTS
Grammy show performances can make or break an artist, and several big names are making comebacks of sorts on Sunday.
Adele, 23, up for six awards, will be singing live in public in her first major performance since undergoing throat surgery in November 2011.
Katy Perry, who used clips of her wedding for her work at the 2011 Grammys, goes into Sunday's show with two nods for her hit single "Firework". But she is likely to make more headlines for her first big public outing since her British comedian husband Russell Brand filed for divorce in December.
"I think Katy's ready to come out and show everyone she's not a victim and she's running the show," said Bonnie McKee, songwriter of Perry's hits "California Gurls," "Teenage Dream" and "Last Friday Night (T.G.I.F)."
"Of course she has to acknowledge (the divorce) but she does it with a wink and a smile. The show must go on," added McKee.
Iconic 1960s band The Beach Boys will use the Grammy spotlight for their first performance in more than 20 years ahead of a new album and tour later this year.
And rocker Bruce Springsteen will take the stage with his E Street band for the first time without saxophonist Clarence "Big Man" Clemons, who died of a stroke last June.
The biggest comeback may be for rapper Chris Brown, whose career was almost derailed three years ago on the night before the Grammys, after he was arrested for beating up his then-girlfriend, Rihanna.
Brown has spent the past few years since that 2009 incident working to rehabilitate himself in the eyes of fans and both he, with three Grammy nods, and Rihanna, who has four, will be performing on Sunday night, although on separate stages.
"He definitely hurt his career during that Grammy weekend. There's always talk about his redemption...but I don't think he's atoned enough," said Parker.
Rihanna, nominated for the coveted album of the year honor for "Loud", will sing with Coldplay on the main stage, while Brown will join Foo Fighters, David Guetta, Deadmau5 and Lil Wayne in a dance music special on a stage outside the Staples Center venue in Los Angeles.
"The Grammys know what would get interest...I would hate for (Brown and Rihanna) to be a focus of the Grammys over other artists but it's going to get a lot of attention," said Parker.
(Editing by Jill Serjeant)