Engineering broadband light absorbers is crucial to many applications, including energy-harvesting devices and optical interconnects. The performances of an ideal absorber are that of a black body, a dark material that absorbs radiation at all angles and polarizations. Despite advances in micrometre-thick films, the absorbers available to date are still far from an ideal black body. Here, we describe a disordered nanostructured material that shows an almost ideal black-body absorption of 98-99% between 400 and 1,400 nm that is insensitive to the angle and polarization of the incident light. The material comprises nanoparticles composed of a nanorod with a nanosphere of 30 nm diameter attached. When diluted into liquids, a small concentration of nanoparticles absorbs on average 26% more than carbon nanotubes, the darkest material available to date. By pumping a dye optical amplifier with nanosecond pulses of 100 mW power, we harness the structural darkness of the material and create a new type of light source, which generates monochromatic emission (5 nm wide) without the need for any resonance. This is achieved through the dynamics of light condensation in which all absorbed electromagnetic energy spontaneously generates single-colour energy pulses. © 2016 Macmillan Publishers Limited. All rights reserved.