TAIPEI, May 27 (AP) -- Taiwan's Golden Melody Awards contest -- seen as an Asian version of the U.S. Grammys -- looks set this year for a clash between homegrown talent and singers from Southeast Asia, and some new-generation performers poised to break in from outside the mainstream.
The host island's two top performers, Jay Chou and A-mei, head the nominees' list. But both face strong challengers in the awards show on Saturday in southern Taiwan's Kaohsiung city.
In this year's 16th annual contest, 88 soloists or groups are competing in 33 categories, from "best Taiwanese dialect vocal" to "album of the year." It features three Chinese dialects and seven aboriginal languages from Taiwan.
Taiwanese pop diva A-mei has competition from Southeast Asia, with Singaporean singer Stefanie Sun's album "Stefanie" earning her four nominations against A-mei's two.
A-mei, a longtime Asian music superstar from one of Taiwan's aboriginal tribes, has spent most of 2005 out of the limelight and studying in the U.S.
"Her long absence from the entertainment scene could damage her chances," said Taiwanese music critic Jason Tu.
Malaysia's Fish Leong, with her album "Swallowtail Butterfly," has two nominations.
Chou, a longtime Taiwanese favorite, has six nominations for his album "Seven Mile Fragrance," -- a Chinese name for the jasmine orange, a local fruit. It features his trademark blend of R&B ballads and up-tempo tunes.
Chou's "Yeh Hui-mei" -- named after his mother -- won best album in 2004. Two years earlier, he thrilled the Golden Melody audience by walking away with awards for best album, songwriter and producer.
The subdued 26-year-old is still a majority favorite, but is up against some other well-established singers.
One of them _ Wang Lee Hom, last year's winner in the producer category for the album "Unbelievable" -- is hoping to finally win best male vocalist category. He's on his seventh nomination.
The Taiwanese singer's album "Sun and Moon in my Heart" -- inspired by a trip China's far west -- is also competing in three other categories.
Stanley Huang, a Taiwanese singer who first gained fame in the hip-hop boy band the L.A. Boyz before striking out on his own with metal-tinged rap songs.
Huang's latest album, "Shades of my Mind," a collection of raucous party songs, is up for five awards.
In stark contrast to that impressive liveliness is the romantic pop sound of Terry Lin and his live album "Terry's One and Only," which supports his bid for best male artist of the year.
Most of the nominees are household names with Asia's pop fans, but this year's competition also features some dark horses -- including Taiwan's enigmatic Sheng Xiang/Water 3.
This band's music describes the travails of farmers and workers using traditional instruments and singing in Hakka, a dialect spoken by an ethnic Chinese minority scatted throughout mainland China as well as Taiwan, Hong Kong, China and other parts of Asia.
Though its potential for commercial appeal might seem limited, Shen Xiang/Water 3 has topped even Chou in the number of nominations -- seven -- for its latest album, "Getting Darker."
Another outsider working his way toward the top is Taiwanese aboriginal singer Biung, who temporarily abandoned his Bunun mother tongue to record the album "Walking with the Wind" in widely spoken Mandarin Chinese. The language change may have led to his five nominations this year.
Writing in Taiwan's China Times newspaper, music critic Huang Hsiu-huei said Biung and other newcomers could well make a surprise impact at this year's competition.
The new singers "sound a warning to mainstream performers," she wrote.