A lot of times, people come up to me, and they go 'Master! The gods have given unto me a vision: They say 'go listen to folk metal!' Where should I begin my quest.'
Okay, neither that or anything remotely like it has happened to me before. But it's a nice excuse to churn out an otherwise futile list of my favourite folk metal albums (Which shall be masquerading here as 'essential' folk metal albums. Ie, buy 'em you gits.) No, I jest, as my top five would probably include at least one Korpiklaani album: this is just five albums that anyone who claims to dig folk metal should own unless they want to look very stupid.
1: Skyclad - Prince of the Poverty Line
Skyclad, Skyclad, Skyclad! Could they be the best band in history*? Yes. Could this be their best album? Probably. I have trouble with this question. With such a large, disparate and consistently awesome discography, it's often a matter of mood. Prince of the Poverty Line is, however, most definitely an essential Skyclad album. Their early stuff has influenced a lot of people: and this is maybe the best of that period, a perfect blend of their influences as of that time. Classic tracks fade into each other in almost unbeatable runs as the band rails off their tightest conceptual release by far: The Answer Machine? doesn't even come off as a concept album, whereas the theme of urban decay and poverty (inspired by the bands often squalid living conditions) that permeates Prince... is all too obvious.
2: Bathory - Blood on Ice
It is an absolutely inescapable fact that 95% of Viking Metal albums ever made have been trying to either be this, or the equally brilliant Hammerheart. Given when work started on Blood on Ice, it was fantastically ahead of it's time, and, whilst you could easily debate the generic accuracy of calling this folk metal, it still stands as one of the genres primary influences, as well as an epic work in its own right.
3: Waylander - Reawakening Pride Once Lost
The beautiful, spacey intro, 'Sunrise', then the manic upbeat folk-metal assault of 'Born to the Fight' is one of my favourite starts to any album ever. I literally don't know what happened to Waylander after this spectacular debut: The Light The Dark And The Endless Knot was decidedly lackluster. Let's all pray to whatever we all pray to that it was just a blip, as this album is packed with awesome folk metal, from the uplifting 'Awakening' to the mournful 'A Hero's Lament' and the sheer energetic assault of 'King of the Fairi'. The pacing is particularly brilliant.
4: Finntroll - Jaktens Tid
Picking a favourite Finntroll release is like picking a favourite sexual position. They're all good, but you've gotta have a favourite, dammit. Now, personally my favourite Finntroll release is the quirky, dark ambient/experimental folk EP 'Visor Om Slutet', but that wouldn't fit into the list so good. Choosing one of Finntroll's three studio albums to replace it was a hard graft, but Jaktens Tid won out, if for nothing else for what happens 1:20 in to 'Slaget Vid Blodsalv'. Either nod and smile, or buy it, you uncultured bastard.
5: Agalloch - Pale Folklore
Are Agalloch really folk metal? I normally end up manufacturing some spurious genre descriptor for them, and their unique music that blends influences as widespread from the metal genre as Pink Floyd, Swans and Sol Invictus. However, their natural themes and excessive love of very neo-folk acoustic guitar place them in the genre in my book, and thank goodness for that, because there's not many genres who'd be ashamed of these guys.
Some bloody close runners up:
Cruachan - Folk-Lore (Too similiar to Skyclad and Waylander, somehow)
Korpiklaani - Spirit of the Forest (Too silly)
Wyrd - Huldrafolk (Awesome, but not quite awesome enough)
Wuthering Heights - Far From the Madding Crowd (Not folk metal enough)
*I speak of the Martin Walkyier-fronted Skyclad. I like to pretend the band no longer exists.