The OctoBrites are a little expensive to start out, and we don’t really have them in stock at this point. But the Shifty VU shield definitely works for what you want to do.
How about this: you don’t actually need to use the Shifty VU shield with ShiftBrites or OctoBrites. You could build a circuit with a TLC5940 + the relevant library, or if you don’t want LED dimming you could make single-color LED columns with 74HC595 shift registers. The cost would be very low, the drawback is more wiring and design work is needed.
The Shifty VU shield just lets you make audio reactive projects, you can connect whatever other LED solution you think works best. OctoBrites or ShiftBrites are not required to use this shield.