To kick off the 2011 Taste of Country Awards -- the first of what will become an annual fan-voted digital set of awards -- we present the Best New Artist nominees, one of 10 categories that will be announced throughout the week. The five acts selected for the Best New Artist category are all just months removed from sitting at home with nothing but a dream. It's one thing to sign a recording contract in Nashville, but quite another to record a hit song. Brantley Gilbert, Lauren Alaina, Pistol Annies, Scotty McCreery and Thompson Square represent the future of country music after a year that included hit songs, critically acclaimed albums and -- in some cases -- reality television shows.

Brantley Gilbert: Gilbert built up a fan base the old-fashioned way: relentless touring and treating his fans like family. The Georgia born country singer has quickly become known as a "must see" act, and his first single after signing with Valory Music Group shot straight to No. 1. There is plenty more to be excited about on his 'Halfway to Heaven' album (which was technically re-released in 2011 but still puts him in this category, as it was his first to receive mainstream attention).

Lauren Alaina: The 'American Idol' finalist at times seems overwhelmed by the whirlwind that has become her life, but she continues to handle difficult situations with courage and grace. The 12 songs on her debut album, 'Wildflower,' reveal a well-rounded studio artist.

Pistol Annies: A single performance at the 'ACM Girls Night Out: Superstar Women of Country' special in April 2011 echoed across the nation for this new act. Pistol Annies -- featuring best friends Miranda Lambert, Angaleena Presley and Ashley Monroe -- represent a new direction for 21st century country music, and fans and critics were clamoring to praise them before an official single was released. Their debut album, 'Hell on Heels,' justified all of the hype.

Scotty McCreery: The 18-year-old from Garner, N.C. continues to show up on the biggest stages, including Game 1 of the 2011 World Series and the CMA Awards in November 2011. His album 'Clear as Day' has gone gold for over 500K copies sold, and he'll soon have his second Top 20 single. It's been a promising start to the 'American Idol' winner's career.

Thompson Square: The married duo have the biggest hit of any of the five nominees for the New Artist of the Year category. 'Are You Gonna Kiss Me or Not' reached No. 1 and has sold over a million digital singles. Their follow-up, 'I Got You,' is already a Top 10 hit, and a successful tour with Jason Aldean makes them a very serious contender for the award.

Vote for the 2011 Taste of Country Awards' Best New Artist here, or on the 2011 Taste of Country Awards full categories page. Voting ends on Jan. 1, 2012 at 11:59PM ET. Winners will be announced on Jan. 3, 2012.