In the life-is-cruel sweepstakes, the current winners have to be the Ramones. For what seemed like forever, the band championed rock's most primitive urges and pleasures, and it got them precisely nowhere: By the time they broke up in the mid-'90s, the Ramones were household names in only a select few households. But in the time since Joey's death from cancer in 2001 and Dee Dee's fatal overdose last year, the Ramones and their matching leather jackets appear to be looming larger than ever. Everyone from U2 to Pete Yorn contributes a cover tune to the tribute album We're a Happy Family. More important, a new breed of cretin-wannabe bands -- and their fans, who were born around the time the Ramones began to corrode, in the late '80s -- are discovering the group for the first time. You'd think Gen-Y'ers wouldn't have the time for decades-old music that, by contemporary standards, sounds crudely recorded. But apparently they do: To followers of blink-182, NOFX, and their ilk, the Ramones' mosh-friendly melodies and deranged-nursery-school lyrics could have been written last week, not last century.
As everyone knows, collections of covers are almost always one-listen affairs that are more fun for musicians to make than for us to hear. ''We're a Happy Family,'' a sweet and well-intentioned salute to the Ramones and their profound impact, pogos slightly above those expectations. The Pretenders' shimmery take on ''Something to Believe In'' is suitably elegiac and sheds further light on the angst in its lyrics. The Red Hot Chili Peppers slow down and sleaze up ''Havana Affair,'' just as you think they would. Thanks to Metallica, the teen-hooker tune ''53rd and 3rd'' sounds more brutal and ominous than ever. Even Eddie Vedder loosens up; he sings ''I Believe in Miracles'' as if that ridiculous Mohawk he recently sported implied more than a rock midlife crisis.
Ultimately, of course, ''We're a Happy Family'' is no substitute for an actual Ramones album (the best of which -- 1976's ''Ramones,'' 1977's ''Leave Home'' and ''Rocket to Russia'' -- have recently been upgraded and reissued). Note-for-note covers like the Offspring's ''I Wanna Be Sedated'' and Yorn's ''I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend'' are simply unnecessary; Rob Zombie's mauling of ''Blitzkrieg Bop'' is simply horrible. Sometimes it feels as if the musicians are participating as much to up their cred as to revel in the music: On a remake of ''Beat on the Brat,'' U2 try to act like the punky club band they never were. But in some ways, music is beside the point; the album is a belated gold watch to the Ramones for their years spent suffering as derappreciated talents. Joey never was a gold-watch type, but he's surely enjoying his overdue gabba-gabba heyday, wherever he is.